Sunday, June 16, 2013

Brittle Steel

A couple of years ago, DC Comics went through a big shake-up of their line of superhero comics. As happens when you have a universe shared among dozens of titles, their internal continuity had become so convoluted that they decided to hit "reset" on the whole thing. This happens from time to time in comics. DC, for their part, did it in the 1980s, too, and now they've done it twice in the movies, as well. Following the success of Christopher Nolan's Batman films (and the relative failure of Superman Returns back in 2006), we have a new Superman with a new origin story. Nolan is involved again, acting as producer and writer. The director is Zack Snyder, whose previous forays into geek territory have been successful and divisive in equal measure. The new Superman is Henry Cavill. The film studiously avoids using the name "Superman" for most of its running time, or even in its title. It's called Man of Steel (2013).

Note: as usual, here there be spoilers.

The story is largely the same as it has always been: Jor-El, chief scientist of the planet Krypton knows that Krypton is doomed. Together with his wife, Lara, they contrive to send their newborn son into the void in a space ship, to land on Earth, where he will have abilities far beyond mortal men. Into his son's DNA, he entrusts the Genesis Codex, the blueprint for all life on Krypton. Jor-El is at odds with General Zod, who also realizes the danger Krypton is in and attempts a military coup in order to set things right. Zod is hidebound and conservative. He believes that Krypton's doom comes in part because Krypton's ruling elite have strayed from Kryptonian principles. He views Jor-El as a heretic both for bringing a child into the world via natural childbirth and for his theft of the Genesis Codex, but his coup fails and he and his followers are banished to the Phantom Zone. Kal-El, the son of Jor and Lara El, is found on Earth by Jonathan and Martha Kent, who raise him as their own. They're good parents, and Kal, who they name Clark, is a difficult child to manage. His senses, now super-heightened, run riot and he has trouble drowning out the world sometimes. Later, Clark finds himself using his amazing abilities to help others. He saves the school bus he's riding in when he's a tween. He saves the crew of an oil rig when he's an adult. On a smaller scale, he intervenes against the harassment of a waitress he works with as he drifts northward. Eventually, he winds up working on the site of a startling discovery. There's a ship buried in the ice of northern Canada. In this ship, he discovers his heritage. Of course, he has a more earthbound heritage, provided by the Kents. His father, Jonathan, believes that he has a purpose, and that he should hide his abilities until that purpose is made manifest to him. That time comes eventually. During the destruction of Krypton, the Phantom Zone ruptures freeing Zod and his followers. For thirty three years, they search for Kal-El and the Genesis Codex. In their wandering among ancient and abandoned Kryptonian outposts, they come across a world engine, one of the vast devices used by Old Krypton to remake worlds in their own image. Eventually their search leads them to Earth, where the demand the natives turn over the Kryptonian who is hiding in their midst. Meanwhile, reporter Lois Lane of the Daily Planet, has traced the mysterious man who saves her life in the arctic all the way back to Smallville, Kansas. That Lois knows who this man is puts her in the middle of things when Zod demands that humanity turn him over. Clark, for his part, doesn't trust Zod, having been told of Zod's treachery by the command key left to him by his father, but rather than endanger humanity more, he surrenders. On Zod's ship, Zod attempts to recruit him in order to resurrect Krypton on Earth. The process will wipe out humanity, of course, but that's evolution for you. Clark, in his horror, vows to stop Zod, but it's Lois Lane who learns how to do it...

There's a lot to like about Man of Steel. The opening act on Krypton is state of the art filmmaking, though I would be lying if I said the design aesthetic that has imagined Krypton weren't over-familiar. This is a Krypton that might have been designed by H. R. Giger, and its residual influence on the rest of the movie turns this into a kind of goth Superman film. By expanding our view of Krypton at the outset, we get a feeling for the culture and politics and ecology of Krypton, which is fun, however unnecessary. I mean, the old Fleischer studios cartoons made do with: "In the endless reaches of the universe, there once existed a planet known as Krypton, a planet that burned like a green star in the distant heavens. There, civilization was far advanced, and had drawn forth a race of supermen, whose mental and physical powers were developed to the absolute peak of human perfection. But, there came a day when giant quakes threatened to destroy Krypton forever. One of the planet's leading scientists, sensing the approach of doom, placed his infant son in a small rocketship and sent it hurtling in the direction of the Earth just as Krypton exploded." In truth, that's all you really need of Krypton if your story is about Superman. It occupies less than a minute of screen time at the beginning of any given Superman cartoon by the Fleischers.

Of course, Man of Steel isn't just about Superman. It's also about Zod and Jor-El, and given the centrality of both of them to the narrative this film has chosen, outlining the world Krypton is more necessary. The opening act turns Jor-El into an action hero, a role for which I would have thought him ill-suited, given his office as the chief scientist of Krypton. The movie furthers this incongruity by exploring the idea that Kryptonians are bred for their roles, kind of like insects. Zod is bred to be a warrior, Jor-El, a scientist. There's an unspoken hint in this narrative tendril that in infusing Kal-El with the Genesis Codex, Kal is potentially the best of every kind of Kryptonian. Zod doesn't see this. The movie never mentions it. But it's there in the subtext. Russell Crowe plays Jor-El, and he gets more screentime in the role than I would have imagined. Not only does he get a couple of big action sequences--we're thrown into Krypton as a world at war, after all--but he shows up later in the film as a kind of deus ex machina. Literally, as it so happens.

Zod is an interesting case study. The most popular version of the character is Terence Stamp's interpretation in the first two Superman movies with Christopher Reeve. Stamp's version of the character is a villain out of a melodrama, given ornate pronouncements but no real motivations beyond his megalomania. He's a villain for the sake of villainy, arrogant, even bored by the ease of his depredations once powered by the Earth's yellow sun. Man of Steel's Zod is different. His Zod has been bred to his role by Kryptonian eugenics. His villainy is predicated on doing what he thinks is right: protecting all of Krypton, even from itself. The act of protecting Krypton is his motivation for creating a new Krypton on the bones of a humanity he views indifferently, as if human beings are ants. At the end of the film, after his plans have come to naught, his motivation remains comprehensible. Superman has stolen from him his purpose in life, so he vows to return the favor. Michael Shannon has made a cottage industry of twitchy, complex villains and he's a terrfic Zod, given how the character is conceived. He's a real person rather than a plot device. A lot of that comes from the actor.

I like Lois Lane in this movie to a point. The idea that Lois is a hyper-adventurous, super-competent reporter is central to her character, and that's right. She's not put in the position of staging ridiculous stunts to discover the identity of Superman (although her search for Superman's true identity is an important plot thread in this movie). This starts from the premise that Lois is smart enough to run Clark Kent to ground. Lois knows who Clark is from the get go, and as heretical as this might be to the Superman canon, it's utterly logical. I also like the idea that it's Lois, not Clark, to whom the means of defeating Zod is entrusted. This sets Lois and Clark on an equal footing. Amy Adams is probably the cinema's smartest Lois Lane, and you can see a barely concealed glee in the way she plays her. She may not look like the classic Lois, but she has the steel in her spine. As a practical matter, though, this is not a film about Lois or about women or about the romance between Lois and Clark, and I miss that. The romance of Lois and Clark is part of the essential sweetness of the Superman character and I miss that sweetness. In its place is a measure of contemporary superhero angst and an ill-fitting darkness.

That darkness also manifests itself in the lessons Jonathan Kent teaches his son. You get a lot of the platitudes that Pa Kent has always dealt in, and Kevin Costner is good at delivering them. He plays Kent a bit like an older version of Ray Kinsella, which is tonally right. The screenplay hurts him, though. After Clark saves a bus full of his schoolmates, Jonathan tells Clark that he shouldn't have done that, that he should have remained hidden, possibly even at the expense of their lives, because he's destined for something bigger. This pissed me off. Contrast this with his death scene, in which he needlessly sacrifices his own life to save the family dog from a tornado, but then prevents Clark from saving him. This is a scene of such outsized bombast and faux sentiment that it's hard to swallow. When I compare this in my mind to Jonathan Kent's death in Donner's Superman, it seems positively obscene. In that scene, Clark learns the absolute limits of his powers. In the current film, Clark learns only that his own exceptionalism comes at the expense of the lives of mere humans. The Donner film is almost a Terence Malick film during this passage, almost cinema as poetry. The scene in this film is a bludgeon.

Battle scene from Miracleman 15 compared to Man of SteelThis is a more violent Superman film than any previous iteration of the character. This is a state of the art special effects film that imposes eye-drugging fantasies of destruction on the audience full-bore without giving it any meaning. The destruction of Metropolis during Zod's attempted terraforming and subsequent battle with Superman leaves skyscrapers leveled. The film shows those skyscrapers as inhabited, so I wonder at the death toll this engenders. The fights between Zod or his second in command, Faora-Ul, seem more inspired by Alan Moore and John Totleben's Miracleman than by any existing Superman project. . There even seems to be an oblique reference to that comic's assertion that there's never been a palace of gods that wasn't built on human skulls. More than one reference, now that I think about it. Given that director Zack Snyder previously directed Moore's Watchmen, he surely knows this material. While it makes for blockbuster cinema of a sort that the older Superman films only groped around--the destruction of Metropolis in Superman II is not nearly so baroque--it seems tonally, I dunno, wrong for the character. As does Superman's final means of defeating General Zod: he kills him.

This last part of the film made me angry. I've been annoyed at Hollywood action films whose only solution to villainy is the death of the villain for a long time now. It seems so emotionally hollow, so imaginatively bankrupt. But for Superman to resort to killing a villain? Man, that's not even the same character I grew up reading. I mentioned that this film misses the sweetness of the romance between Lois and Clark. It also misses the inherent sweetness of the character of Clark Kent, and when he kills Zod at the end of this movie, he becomes just another lumbering thug of an action hero who can't think his way to defeating the bad guy. Force is the only recourse. Whatever enjoyment I was deriving from the film--and I was deriving a great deal of it up to that point--drained out of me like someone had severed an artery in my neck and bled all the joy from me. How do I react to a film I was enjoying when it trips into a narrative blind alley that I revile? It's difficult. I don't know.


Antonio Mendoza said...

The killer-Superman ending was a disappointment on an otherwise fine movie (although Papa Kent gratuitous sacrifice was equally bad). I always mocked the Nolan Batman films because his dark antihero refrained from killing the Joker; now I know why they didn't do it. It's just not cool.

Mykal said...

Vulnavia: In life, bad people have a tremendous advantage over good people - a weapon never available to the decent. Bad souls enjoy hurting or killing people, either emotionally or physically. Good people cannot and feel tremendously diminished if they do. The glory of the modern era Superman is, or was, that he triumphed always despite having only the arsenal of the good. He was always better than his adversaries - so much so that he could never kill them no matter their crime, no matter how bad they were. So sorry to hear that is no longer the case. I wonder when Superman will start showing a scruffy two-day stubble like the new-age thug, Batman?

PS: weren't those Fleisher cartoons something special?

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Those Fleischer Superman cartoons were indeed something special. The 1990s animated series knew what it was doing when it went back to those for inspiration (and melded them with Jack Kirby).

Jim Shelley said...

Excellent review. I was less put off by the ending of Zod than most other people (granted - I knew the ending before hand, so that helped) but I understand why you (and many other people) found it disconcerting. I also cocked an eyebrow at the unending scenes of buildings falling.

As you mentioned, I think this movie owes a lot of its soul to Moore's Miracleman. I have to wonder if you couldn't have called your review British Steel but I guess going for the pun was the point. ;)

Dr. AC said...

Though you seem to be more of a fan of the film than I was, and while I completely agree with your assessment of the long standing tradition of needing to kill every villain by the end credits, I at least felt that they gave it a bit more weight than you give it credit for. After all, we've just seen these two warriors whip the tar out of each other for what felt like hours, neither ever ceding the upper hand. In the subway station, it becomes all too clear that Zod will never, ever stop. Death seems the only answer in this case. And yet, and yet, Cavil emits a tortured cry of agony over the deed. Even in a film where I felt absolute nothing for any of the characters, I understood the emotional cost of literally ending his own race. Again, it didn't make me like the film any more, but that moment seemed logical and emotionally resonant.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Doc.

My problem with the line of argument that excuses the end of this movie with the caveat that Zod will never ever stop and what have you is that this has been consciously manipulated by a screenwriter such that there's no way out (or that there's no way out that he can imagine). I also think that the way it unfolds in the film is disingenuous, given that Superman has ignored the destruction and death of thousands of people in Metropolis during his fight with Zod (and, indeed however many people in Smallville earlier in the film), but suddenly he becomes concerned to the point of killing when Zod threatens a picture postcard family? I have some issues with this. This Superman only seems interested in helping people when the plot demands it rather than as a way of life. The battle of Metropolis in Superman II provides an interesting counter point. When one of the Kryptonians picks up a bus to throw it at Superman, Superman's first concern is for the people in that bus. I don't get that same sense of concern and goodness from this film.

I don't really think that the makers of this film understand Superman. But then, DC Comics doesn't understand him anymore, either.