Monday, June 17, 2013

The Cinema File #201: “Man Of Steel” Review

Fuck it, man. Seriously, this doesn't have to be so difficult.

About a month ago when I reviewed the latest DC animated film Superman: Unbound, no doubt rushed into production to tie in with today's subject, I noted that even in light of what I thought was a lackluster effort, the longstanding brilliance of Bruce Timm and company at adapting classic comic book characters and stories from the DC universe is simply undeniable. It is both perplexing and saddening that the live-action arm of Warner Brothers, or at least the live action film side of things, seems to always land so far in the other direction in terms of quality. Man Of Steel, their latest attempt to bring Superman back to the big screen, is admittedly much more entertaining than the last two big budget DC superhero movies, as if it was that hard to be better than Green Lantern and The Dark Knight Rises. But still...just, no.

Man Of Steel is the story of Superman learning to accept his role as Earth's protector and saving the world from General Zod as flashbacks to his childhood fill in the story everyone on the planet already knows. Sound familiar? In the wake of the Wrath of Khan retread that was Star Trek Into Darkness, and now this clear attempt to re-do a shitty seventies sequel even shittier, I must ask where the Hell I was when they decided to blur the lines this much between reboot and remake. And if there was ever a story that didn't need to be remade. Did we really need to go back to Zod? How about Brainiac, or Parasite, or Metallo, or Doomsday, or Bizarro, or the Eradicator, or Darkseid, or any of the hundreds of other classic villains who have never appeared in a Superman film? Hell, even Toy Man or Mr. Mxyzptlk would have been better than this.

Recently The Amazing Spiderman got a lot of flack for being a reboot so soon after the previous film series, and for re-telling an origin story that didn't need to be re-told. While I understand the criticism, I thought it was largely justified in that film given the obvious attempt to establish a new mythology for the trilogy, the tattered ruins the character was left in after Spiderman 3, and in how ultimately short the origin segment was compared to all the new stuff. Superman's origin is arguably much more widely known, and much simpler, so much so that I think really spending any time on it at this point is frankly a waste of time. Everyone knows this stuff, it's basically information given to all of us at birth as some sort of pop culture genetic memory. We don't need half a movie of flashbacks to establish the backstory of one of the most famous fictional characters in American history, especially when the other half is just rehashing the last movie most people think is the only decent one.

I don't, by the way. For the record, I hate all the prior Superman films, even the precious first two, and I have to admit that just on a popcorn level, Man Of Steel is easily the best live action Superman movie ever made simply by default, since every one that came before it is completely fucking unwatchable. That isn't an opinion, that's just a fact that people blinded by nostalgia really have to deal with so we can move on from these constant tributes to horrible bullshit from 30 years ago. Yes, Man Of Steel is not as inane and up its own ass as Bryan Singer's Superman Returns, as if anything ever could be, but that doesn't make it good. But then, I think I'm getting ahead of myself. I should probably get into some specifics here. Oh, and I will be spoiling the fuck out of this movie after this point, because much like the end of G.I. Joe: Retaliation, its so stupid that I can't not talk about it. You have been warned.

I think once you get to the point in your Superman movie where Russell Crowe is riding a motherfucking dragon, maybe that's a sign that you've gone off the rails a little bit. This scene not only happens in the movie, it happens in the first ten fucking minutes, and sets the tone perfectly for whats to come. This movie is certainly every bit the Zack Snyder visual spectacle you would expect, for better and for worse, and while the frenetic pacing to the action sequences is perhaps the film's one saving grace, at least in terms of temporarily distracting me from the accumulating awfulness, even this is ultimately misguided. The CGI is surprisingly cartoonish, switching back and forth from obviously real to obviously fake, as if they keep splicing in footage of the cut scenes from the inevitable videogame tie in, and most of the action beats are unnecessarily long, sapping any energy they might have had at the outset. And that's even before you get to the obvious Sears product placement. 

Henry Cavil simply does not work as Superman. I'm unaware of any of his previous work, but I just do not see what anyone in this production saw in him. He's about as good (for lack of a better term) as Brandon Routh, or perhaps slightly better if only because he lacks the obvious physical similarities to Christopher Reeves that pissed me off on general principle the last time. Its often been said that the key to making Superman credible in a live action context is in making you believe that a man can fly. Fuck that, Starman could fly, and he was still a complete pussy. To me, I think the issue is more about making me believe a man can be indestructible. I know I'm biased because I think he can play anything, but if they do Superman again, I think we need to finally get over the stupid racial prejudice thing and just bring in The Rock to put on the cape. So many people want to emphasize the vulnerability of this character that they forget about the whole invulnerability thing, and once again we get a wimpy Superman who makes me want to root for the bad guy.

And I would say that even in light of my earlier tirade about bringing back the character, ironically enough Zod is probably, no easily, the best part of the film. Michael Shannon is perfectly cast even if the role is ultimately ill-conceived, lending a sense of honor and dignity to the character that Terrance Stamp always eschewed in favor of a sort of textbook maniacal evil. Zod has never really had this sort of depth before, and while again I would have much rather preferred a different villain altogether, in the absence of that, I was glad to at least have this one honestly good performance to cling to. By the end, even though we know him to be a murderous, eugenics obsessed mad man, you can understand instantly where he's coming from and he never comes across as evil for the sake of being evil like so many chintzy one-dimensional bad guys. This only makes it all the more aggravating when they decide to use the character to make Superman betray one of his most cardinal rules. Again, spoilers abound, so if you don't want to know how the movie ends, stop reading now.

After Zod commits to destroying the planet out of spite, Superman decides that the only way to stop him is to kill him by brutally breaking his neck. This is of course reminiscent of a John Byrne story that if I remember correctly was of dubious continuity even before the New 52 reboot, precisely because it is exactly the last thing Superman would ever do. Forgetting the question of whether he had a choice, I will only make my point by referring to perhaps my favorite Superman story, Alan Moore's Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow, also not exactly canonical, but which nonetheless establishes that Superman understands that the responsibility of wielding such amazing powers is so great that should he ever cross this line, he literally doesn't have the right to be Superman anymore, and he willingly gives up his powers permanently. Though not quite as much of a betrayal, I was reminded of the final scene in The Dark Knight Rises where the man who never quits retires to a French villa, and frankly, whenever something reminds me of The Dark Knight Rises, I can't forgive it.

And so many of the plot points of this movie are just as stupid as the last Nolan effort, if not more so. The whole point of the villian's plot hinges on the Kryptonian plan to terraform Earth, changing its environment to be like their home world. This would be fine and an interesting motive for an alien invader, if not for the fact that they establish that the Kryptonian environment renders them weak, while Earth's natural environment makes them Gods. I know, because you've read the comics you know the Yellow Sun is a major factor, and this is mentioned, but for some reason even when they are on Earth, as long as they stay in the ship, they aren't super powered, because it has their atmosphere, implying that the effect Earth has on Kryptonians is not just the Sun, and would dissipate if their plan succeeds. Why not just take over the Earth with your super powers like Superman could easily do on his own in like five minutes if he was evil? Zod has an army of potentially super powered soldiers loyal only to him, but keeps all but two of them on the ship and never thinks to just use these new found powers to his advantage outside of punching Supes really hard.

But then that's nothing compared to the Clark and Lois love story. You're probably wondering why in a movie about Superman just starting out there would even be a love story between Clark and Lois, because stupid you, you remember that in the comics it took them years to fall in love. Not here. No, The whole Clark and Lois relationship is needlessly truncated so that Lois finds out Clark is Superman literally before he does. Clark doesn't even join the Daily Planet and assume the secret identity we know him so well for until the last five minutes, but by then Lois already knows he's Superman, and they are in love. Because it's so rushed, none of the moments between the two of them have any emotional resonance, and because they basically told the whole story between them, there's nothing to build to in the sequel I assume they would want to do that I hope to Rao never comes. The whole movie is like this, with some elements drawn out pointlessly long (i.e. Everything set on Krypton), and others sped through to the point where they might as well not have included them at all.

I could spend all day talking about all the painfully stupid shit in this movie, but instead I'll just settle on one last thing. Pa Kent dies, as he should, or rather, the fact that he dies is in continuity, but not so much the way he dies. Maybe I'm remembering it wrong (I'm not), but I was pretty sure Pa Kent died of a heart attack, and not in a tornado. You might not know why there would be any substantive difference between these two things, until you think about it for a second. The heart attack presents for Clark, the man who can beat anything, an enemy he cannot fight. As his father dies, all he can do is let it happen. Its a powerful lesson about the limits of even his seemingly God-like powers, and a moment of humility as well as tragedy that informs everything he does after that point. The way they change this in the movie in order to shamelessly fail at milking another moment for emotional punch they cannot hope to achieve has the added side effect of rendering this event in Clark's life completely meaningless.

In the movie, he and his dad get caught in a storm, and instead of just having Clark use his powers to save the other people also on the road, Pa Kent sends him away and runs off to save the family dog. Its meant as a poignant moment as a father holds his son back with a wave of his hand and then disappears into the wind, but in context it is completely fucking ridiculous. He dies to protect Clark's secret from onlookers, completely forgetting that A.) Clark has super speed that conceals him from being seen while performing superhuman feats, and B.) half the town has already pretty much seen him do this stuff anyway, so much so that I can't imagine the entire town of Smallville in the present day hasn't put together the Clark/Superman connection before Lois Lane does (even though neither is fucking supposed to!). Oh, and did I mention he died saving a fucking dog? Fuck this movie with Titano's giant gorilla dick.

I was originally intending to save this review for my 200th, but upon reflection, I felt it didn't deserve the honor, so I put a Syfy Channel Original movie in that spot, and gave this #201. Yeah, that's the contempt I have for this piece of shit. Man Of Steel is just terrible from top to bottom, and the only reason I place it above Green Lantern and The Dark Knight Rises is because of my own personal bias, having invested more emotionally in those characters, thus making the betrayal of those shitty movies hurt more than this one. That's not to say that I don't have a place in my heart for Superman, and however relatively small that might be, this movie still managed to find it and kick it in the balls. I've heard a lot more praise for this movie from the die hards than I was expecting, and I can only assume that comic book fans are either far too easy nowadays than they used to be or should be (explaining their reaction to The Avengers), or they are just so desperate for a Justice League movie that they need to believe this one doesn't suck just long enough to get it off the ground. I'm sorry to burst that bubble, but the way these last few movies have gone, its just not worth it.  

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