Monday, November 25, 2013

Man of Steel (Warner Bros., Legendary, Peters Entertainment, Syncopy, DC Comics, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I ran the 2013 Superman reboot Man of Steel — which turned out to be one of the most disappointing movies either of us had seen in quite some time! This was an enormous summer hit — erasing the black mark on the Superman character from the failure of the 2006 Superman Returns (with someone named Brandon Routh as Superman and Marlon Brando, via unused footage shot for the Superman II sequel in the late 1970’s, as his natural father Jor-El) — and also got surprisingly good critical reviews, praising it as one superhero movie even intellectuals could love. Not this intellectual, though; reflecting the sensibility of Christopher Nolan, who directed the last three Batman movies and came up with the original story for this one (though David S. Goyer collaborated with him on the story and wrote the script solo, and according to it apparently drew heavily on plotlines done by Mark Wald for the Superman comics), Man of Steel emerged as a ponderous bore, heavy on the barely motivated action scenes superhero movie fans demand and full of glorious visual sequences — the director is Zack Snyder of 300 and Watchmen (Watchmen is the only previous film of his I’ve seen, and like Man of Steel it’s visually spectacular and makes virtually no sense) fame. But the story is not only dull, it’s so focused on the wrong things — particularly the lead super-villain, Krypton survivor General Zod (Michael Shannon), who probably gets more screen time than any other character — that Superman a.k.a. Clark Kent a.k.a. Kal-El (his original Kryptonian name — pronounced here as in Cal Worthington or the abbreviation of California; I’d always assumed it was pronounced “Kahl-El” but that’s not what you hear on this soundtrack) sometimes seems like an extra in his own vehicle. The film is already about half an hour through its 142-minute running time before Superman’s home planet, Krypton, self-destructs (there’s a very mild bit of pro-environment social commentary when Jor-El, played this time by Russell Crowe, explains that Krypton’s impending demise is due to the government’s hubris in tapping the planet’s inner core for energy) and baby Kal-El is loaded into that spaceship, along with a knickknack that looks like a sculpture of a chimpanzee’s skull but supposedly is the “Codex,” which — though we only learn this towards the end of the movie — contains the genetic code for all Kryptonians.

We learn quite a bit about life on Krypton pre-apocalypse; the planet is run by a Governing Council with which, as in previous versions of the legend, Jor-El is pleading to allow him to build spaceships and evacuate the Kryptonian population before the place blows up. His plans are complicated by General Zod, who stages a coup d’état and shoots the head of the Council, announcing that the rest of them will be put on trial (it reminded me of the marvelous scene in Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream — an audacious sci-fi novel predicated on the assumption that after the failure of the Beer Hall Putsch Adolf Hitler emigrated to the U.S., got a job as an illustrator for a sci-fi pulp and then, once he learned enough English, started writing for them — in which Hitler’s stand-in, Feric Jaggar, similarly takes over by arresting the Council members and having them shot). Exactly what Zod wants, or what he hopes to accomplish by taking over a planet that’s going to blow up in weeks anyway, isn’t clear, but what is clear is that Krypton is a weird mix of high-tech and primitivism. Apparently on Krypton the dinosaurs (or their equivalent) never died out and are used as beasts of burden — there’s one aerial dinosaur that looks like a giant scaled-up dragonfly with which Jor-El flies around the planet — and also for some reason Kryptonians abandoned normal sexual reproduction and instead started making their babies factory-style à la Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. What makes Kal-El special is not only that he’s about to be launched in a rocket ship and sent to earth to be Superman (and Goyer’s script is filled with a lot of palaver from both his natural and his adoptive father about how he’s a person of destiny who’s going to change the world) but that he’s the first Kryptonian in centuries who got conceived the old-fashioned way by his dad “blanking” his mom. (Mom is called Lara Lor-Van — at last, she gets a last name! — and is played, quite hauntingly, by someone named Ayelet Zurer, which frankly seems more like the name of a medical device than a person.)

During the running time of Man of Steel — an appellation I can’t remember hearing at any time during the film itself — we learn quite a lot of cool things about Krypton, reflecting the far greater interest of Messrs. Nolan, Goyer, Snyder and Wald in Kryptonian life and culture than in the comparatively petty (at least to them!) life of Earth. We learn that they’ve blurred the distinction between living beings and mechanical devices big-time — their machines seem to come with giant tendrils with which they can manipulate objects, and the faces of Jor-El’s two robot familiars serve as TV screens even though they move with greater alacrity and flexibility than what we think of as robots in more conventional science fiction. Indeed, the Kryptonians themselves move with such great agility and take such extensive flying leaps through their own atmosphere one wonders why they need to come to Earth to be super! We also learn that the Governing Council manages to reverse Zod’s coup and send him and his staff, including his second-in-command Faora-Ul (Antje Traue, who turns in one of the best performances in the film), to the Phantom Zone. This was an element that got added to the Superman mythos in the 1960’s; it was an isolated realm in another space-time continuum to which the Kryptonian judicial system sentenced their meanest, nastiest, most vicious and most evil criminals — with the ironic result that they all survived after Krypton itself self-destructed. I’d longed for a Superman story in which the villains were escapees from the Phantom Zone because the big problem in plotting Superman has always been that he’s so powerful and so invulnerable that it’s hard to come up with any real menace towards him — which is why Superman’s creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, had to come up with Kryptonite (fragments of the once-radioactive core of Krypton that entered space and landed on earth as meteorites) just so Superman would be vulnerable to something and plotting him wouldn’t become quite so boring.

The exterior of Krypton looks like a cross between Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars and J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, with bits of The Matrix and Avatar thrown in for good measure — yes, this is one of those many movies made today that seems to take its inspiration more from other movies than from life — and it seems to take us forever before we get off the alien planet and baby Kal-El finally lands on earth in his spaceship and is taken in by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane). There are a few quirky bits in which the young Clark Kent (Cooper Timberline at age nine, Dylan Sprayberry at age 13 and British actor Henry Cavill as an adult) allows himself to be bullied and gets chewed out by daddy Jonathan for rescuing a school bus that had run into a river and saving all the kids inside from drowning, since Jonathan had put Clark under a solemn injunction never to use his super-powers until he was “ready” (whenever that was going to be) and to keep them a secret. The intent seems to have been to put our young super-kid in the same bind as the X-Men were in — stay in the closet or come out — but the writing simply isn’t as insightful and just about all the interesting story possibilities the writers thought of got abandoned almost as soon as they got established. Aside from Lois Lane, shown here as a Pulitzer Prize-winning star reporter who manages to crash a secret U.S. military installation in the Canadian Arctic by filing suit with the Canadian government to break the U.S. military’s ban on her presence there (a plot inaccuracy because the U.S. doesn’t build a base anywhere in the world without an agreement from the host government that their courts can’t order the base opened to civilians), the human characters in this are quite dull. Lois stumbles on a spaceship buried under ice that turns out to have been from — you guessed it — Krypton, 20,000 years earlier when Krypton was still sending out colonizing parties to look for hospitable worlds in which they could plant outposts and imperialistically extend the reach of their civilization, before they became decadent (in more than one sense of the world), turned inward and abandoned their explorations.

Daily Planet editor Perry White (Laurence Fishburne — I suppose it’s an advance in anti-racism that Clark Kent’s and Lois Lane’s boss is Black this go-round, though perhaps they wanted Fishburne simply because as a veteran of the Matrices he’s used to this sort of story) spikes the story Lois writes about this, but then General Zod makes his spectacular appearance on Earth by jamming the world’s TV broadcasts and announcing, “You Are Not Alone.” He’s supposedly doing this in every Earth language but the ones we hear and see on his video are English, Chinese, Portuguese, Esperanto and — a nod to the Star Trek universe — Klingon. (I’m surprised Charles missed the Esperanto.) Zod is there to use the information on the codex to repopulate the Kryptonian race and have it take over earth even if it means the genocidal elimination of the human race — and I couldn’t help but recall not only that Superman was the creation of a couple of Jewish kids from Cleveland, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, but the years between 1932, when they first conceived the character (briefly as a super-villain before making him a superhero), and 1938, when the first Superman story was published in Action Comics #1, were also the years in which Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, solidified his control, suppressed all political opposition and got ready to start World War II and the Holocaust for the same stated reasons as General Zod in the movie: to eliminate so-called “inferior populations” to make room for the Master Race. Alas, Michael Shannon as General Zod turns in a mannered, mostly overacted performance that fails to make the most of potentially the most interesting character in the story — when he’s supposed to be sounding a note of twisted idealism in his determination to revive the Kryptonian race no matter what the consequences to anyone or anything else (including the life of Our Hero — it turns out Jor-El encoded the entire codex into his son’s DNA and Zod is determined to extract it even if it means killing Kal-El a.k.a. Clark Kent a.k.a. Superman) he just sounds petulant, and Zod’s plan to revive Krypton on earth is foiled half an hour before the movie is over and the rest is his temper tantrum, in which he determines to destroy as much of earth as he can in the limited running time remaining in scenes of falling buildings and people fleeing in panic that remind one of the actual footage of the 9/11 attacks (which in turn reminded a lot of people, including me, of the mass destruction of New York buildings in the movie Independence Day).

And what of the new Superman, Henry Cavill? He’s certainly a departure from the physical “type” we’re used to in the role; in the comic books he was depicted as larger than the average Earthling and a buff, butch, muscular type, and the casting tradition of live-action Supermans — Kirk Alyn, George Reeves, Christopher Reeve — pretty much followed that until we got into the later TV derivations like Lois and Clark and Smallville (I didn’t catch those when they were new but I’ve seen a few rerun episodes of Smallville recently and been quite impressed by their irreverent but still respectful “take” on the Superman legend). Cavill is of medium height and wiry rather than muscular, though several “trivia” commentators on have described the ordeals he went through to bulk up enough to be believable in the Superpart. “Henry Cavill refused to take steroids to muscle up for the role,” said one poster (good for him!). “He also refused any digital touch-ups or enhancement to his body in his shirtless scenes. He said it would have been dishonest of him to use trickery while playing Superman and he wanted to push his body to the limits to develop his physique into one that was worthy of the character.” Alas, the limits of the Nolan/Goyer story and script didn’t test his acting chops anywhere nearly as much as the character’s appearance tested his will power and ability to diet and exercise! Cavill doesn’t get much to say, he has little to do with the human characters (there’s nothing in this movie that humanizes Superman the way the marvelous flying-date sequence between Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder in the 1978 Superman: The Movie did), and he’s let down by the effects people as well: despite the vast advances in special effects in the last 35 years he’s simply not as convincing when he flies as Reeve was. (Maybe Cavill should have taken flying lessons; Reeve said his experience piloting aircraft helped him make the right motions in front of the effects screen to make it look like he could fly without one.) I can’t really say if Cavill has it in him to be a great Superman or not; the writers were obviously trying to complicate the character so he didn’t emerge as the goody two-shoes he was in the comics, but they didn’t do a good job of it and so Cavill had too little to work with in making the Man of Steel a truly multidimensional character. Frankly, I’d rather see him in some of his other credits; he did appear in one film I quite enjoyed, Woody Allen’s Whatever Works (2009) — the movie I thought should have been Allen’s comeback vehicle the way Midnight in Paris was two years and two movies later — but according to my review at the time I didn’t find him particularly impressive: “John Gallagher, Jr. disappears way too quickly and the actor whose character takes over his story function, Henry Cavill, is hardly as interesting either as a body or a personality.”

He’s thoroughly out-acted by Amy Adams as Lois Lane, who for sheer spunkiness and drive is a welcome return to the super-reporters played in 1930’s films by actresses like Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell — roles Siegel and Shuster probably had in mind when they created her — and a script that treats her with respect instead of making her a ninny who’s always getting in stupid scrapes Superman has to get her out of. It was also welcome to see my man Christopher Meloni in the movie, his first project since he left the cast of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit 2 ½ years ago. The initial reports were he was going to play Jonathan Kent, but Kevin Costner got that part (when his widow shows Lois his tombstone I joked, “He died right after he built that baseball diamond in the back f- — oops, wrong movie”) and Meloni got cast as Col. Nathan Hardy, who seems to turn up whenever the U.S. military is investigating something mysterious that turns out to be Kryptonian. That actually gave him more screen time than Costner got, but it also meant that he spent the whole movie in fur coats (his opening scene is a confrontation with Lois at the site of the Kryptonian spaceship being excavated in the Canadian Arctic), flight suits, military uniforms and other things even less revealing than the Armani suits he wore in his SVU role. Still, he exudes his usual power, authority, drive and no-holds-barred sexiness — and makes me wish someone had cast him as Superman (20 years ago he would have been absolutely right for it!). Man of Steel is a frustrating movie because it’s one you want to like, but the plot is so ponderous even the action scenes look dull, and it’s also one of those damnable plots (like the story of Snyder’s Watchmen) in which anything can happen and therefore you can’t surprise an audience by violating their expectations because you haven’t created any in the first place.