Saturday, June 15, 2013

What happens when the unstoppable force meets the immovable object?

So, Man of Steel.

Spoilers follow.

Let me start by saying that I mostly liked Man of Steel. It was flashy and action-packed, and I can't think of a single bad performance in it. The actors were all on their respective games, and Henry Cavill was a very different Superman from what I was expecting in a very good way. He's so genial, so calm, except in those situations where it wasn't appropriate.

And I really appreciated that the weird tics I associate with Snyder's direction--everyone/thing looking like vinyl, the quick switches between slow- and fast-motion that ruined the fight sequences in Watchmen, etc.--were either gone or so minute as to escape my notice. Even the fastest-paced action sequences were easy to follow, and given how fast those sequences were, that's impressive.

Faora was amazing, finally giving us a glimpse at what a martial artist with Superman's powers could really do on the screen.

Lois Lane was astounding. Coming out of it, I think Amy Adams may be our best live-action Lois yet, and even gives Dana Delaney a run for the money.

I'm going to see the movie again, and now that I have a better idea of what to expect, I think I'll probably have a different, more nuanced opinion about the whole thing. But sitting here now, not quite a day later, the details that are sticking are the ones that I had the biggest problem with.

First is the problem of scope. When we were seeing Metropolis get destroyed by the Worldengine, the thought occurred to me that this was a pretty great Man of Steel 2. We'd spent so little time with Metropolis--and Superman had never even really visited--that it was hard to feel any emotional connection to the city. The scenes with Perry and Jenny are meant to be touching, but I'm not sure I caught Jenny's name at any point before they happened. If we'd had more of a chance to get to know these characters, it might have had more gravitas. Moreover, I'm not sure what Man of Steel 2 could do to build on this. We had a world-destruction-level threat; where do you go from there?

Second, as my good friend Jon noted, this movie is the epitome of "one death is a tragedy, one thousand deaths is a statistic." There's so little thought to the people being killed as the Worldengine flattens Metropolis, or as Kryptonians smash through buildings, that it undermines the big ending dilemma. We rarely see Superman trying to save people, trying to mitigate damage or draw fights away from populated areas or even tell people to get back. It makes Superman seem careless or reckless, and makes Zod's realization that he cares for the humans ring hollow.

Third, the swearing. It's a minor thing, but even with all the death and destruction, I think a Superman movie should be watchable by kids. There was only one place where it really added to anything (Lois's dick-measuring line), and otherwise seemed shoehorned-in to make things edgy.

Speaking of shoehorning things in, holy cow the Jesus imagery. I mean, yes, it was all over Superman Returns and I gave it a pass. But Superman Returns tried to make it mean something. Superman gets stabbed in the side, falls in a crucifix pose, and so forth, but it's in service of artsy framing and metaphor. Here, it just felt like it was slathered on to add the patina of depth or allegory without actually bothering to think about what the allegory might actually mean. It's not like Superman's about to make a sacrifice or anything when he flies out of the spaceship with his arms outstretched, it's just there because it looks cool and if you make something look like it has Christian overtones, people might think it's deeper than it is.

Speaking of the Christian imagery, how about that priest who comes out of nowhere and never shows up again? I appreciate that Clark is having a dark night of the soul and wants guidance before making his decision, but maybe some kind of connection to other things would be nice? Couldn't he have been one of the kids on the bus all those years ago? Wouldn't that have tied in quite nicely with the "act of god/miracle" stuff that Pete Ross's mom talked about? Wouldn't it have been more parsimonious if Pete Ross had been the priest? We might have lost the scene in the IHOP, but I don't know that that would have been such a terrible change.

And, of course, we have tons of Jor-El. Considering that Lara's the one who launched the craft and really showed some strength and sacrifice at the end of Krypton's life, it kind of throws her under the bus to have Jor-El so active in later acts. I do appreciate that he's more useful and frankly less obtrusive than Brando's version, but a lot of what he does could have been done by Kelex, without diluting the sense of loss at his death.

I didn't particularly care for Pa Kent's death, but mostly because it seemed like a de-escalation to have him save the kid, then die going back to save the dog. It's a minor point, but the only points I have left are minor points. Except the one.

The first bit of shaky-cam stuff, during that early farm flashback, was excessive, to the point where I had to look away a couple of times. I can hardly imagine seeing this in IMAX. Either it got better over the course of the movie or I got used to it, or maybe a little of both.

There were a couple of lines that I could have done without. "You're a monster, Zod, and I'm going to stop you," is a little on the nose. "Evolution always wins" doesn't even make sense, and makes the later development so much worse.

And that brings us to the end, I guess. General Zod puts Superman into a moral dilemma, pitting his code against killing against his desire to save and protect humans. As I mentioned, this would ring a little more true if we'd seen more effort on his part in the last act or two to protect and save people who weren't named characters or that one soldier. But anyway, this is one of the best tactics to write a compelling Superman story: pit aspects of his character against each other. Stop the villain or save the civilians?

The problem is that Snyder & Co. don't get the second part of that tactic, the follow-through: when presented with those dilemmas, the best Superman stories realize that Superman's real power is to find a third way. When presented with the choice between compromising one value or another, Superman's greatest superpower is being able to find another way. Goyer and Nolan clearly read All-Star Superman; there's that speech from Jor-El that's pulled word-for-word from the book, and the bits with the Phantom Zone villains having difficulty controlling their senses is similar to what happens to Lex Luthor at the end. So it's a shame that their answer to the Sphinx's question would have apparently been "the unstoppable force forces harder."

This is, as I've said before, why I hate General Zod. Using Phantom Zone villains--especially Zod, but most of them, really--paints the writers into a corner, because the only options for resolution are killing them, depowering them, re-imprisoning them, or some combination of the three. Superman II chose options A and B (and in the Donner cut, C too); the cartoon episode "Blasts from the Past" chose option C; All-Star Superman #9 chose options B and C; the pocket universe story shortly after the Crisis chose options A and B.

And Man of Steel followed suit, unable to find another option, just like every other Superman creative team in the last seventy-five years. Zod's army reimprisoned, Zod himself killed in defense of others. It's not the first time that's happened, as I noted: Superman executed Zod in the pocket universe; he punched Zod into an apparently bottomless pit of mist in Superman II, and in both those cases, Zod was both powerless and apparently not a threat. So killing him in Man of Steel was at the very least more justified. And at least it didn't pass without so much as a mention the way it did in Superman II; I doubt that Man of Steel 2 will have Superman undergoing a mental breakdown the way he did after killing the pocket universe criminals, but at least it clearly wasn't an easy decision for him, and it anguished him to do it.

But it shouldn't have happened. More than just about any other superhero, Superman shouldn't kill, and more than in most other circumstances, Superman shouldn't have killed Zod here. Killing Zod in this movie validates Faora's position: lacking morality gave the Phantom Zoners an advantage, and in order to stop them, Superman had to compromise that moral code. Superman's philosophy, the doctrine of hope--hope, for instance, that even someone like Zod could be rehabilitated--lost to Zod's doctrine that the ends justify the means, and that one must take any action necessary to preserve their homeworld, up to and including lethal force.

There could have been a number of ways around this. I thought Zod's whole "I was created to defend Krypton" bit was going to end in suicide--he had lost hope. We could have seen that some part of it was the Kryptonian mind-scanning technology But perhaps the simplest way that would also have refuted the "evolutionary advantage" bit would have been this: let Lois keep the sidearm. Coming down the stairs, she could take the shot, maybe make a quick quip about humans being not-so-helpless, and save Superman, returning the favor from earlier. It wouldn't be a perfect ending; a perfect ending would have had Superman win through ingenuity and skill, or through inspiring others to greatness, not brute neck-twisting strength.

As I said, overall I liked it, but that last big flaw was a big flaw. I suspect I'll like it more the next time I see it, since I won't be surprised by the twist.


Improbable Joe said...

I guess for me, the point of Superman is that he's actually SUPER, not just me plus being able to hit people harder. The "third way" you talk about is what makes Superman really SUPER, rather than just another action hero. If they want to play up the Jesus angle, then they need to make him better than us, not just us with a greater capacity to hurt other people.

Cicada 5 said...

Superman actually saves two soldiers during the Smallville battle. Neither gets a name. The second time he does it he gets blindsided by a Kryptonia.

Tom Foss said...

Thanks dude, I'll go back and tell my self from four years ago walking out of this disappointing movie that he's off by one on the number of soldiers that Superman saves.