Saturday, June 15, 2013

"Where I come from, it stands for 'hope.'"

Superman could be speaking more for his livelihood as a pop culture icon than he realizes.

Let's be honest with ourselves for a moment. I am a huge Superman fan, and even I can admit: the movie franchise has spawned more bad movies than good (argue with me all you want, Superman II and III are not good Superman movies, and Superman Returns, while having an incomparable performance from Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor, is almost unbearable because of everything else). Man of Steel had a very difficult task of rebooting a franchise that people had no faith could be revived. Indeed, many people still firmly believe that Superman himself is a faulted character. For all the flack Aquaman gets as a mostly useless hero, or two failed attempts at adapting The Incredible Hulk, or the abomination the Green Lantern movie was, or the abomination the third Raimi Spider-Man was, or the abominations the X-Men movies have been, it is the world's first superhero that catches all the shit for being a terrible character.

I've already defended Superman previously, so I don't want to dwell on it too much, but the idea that Superman is flat or boring or on the other extreme, too powerful, is an unfortunate confession by that viewer that they miss the point of the character entirely. The very essence of the character, the unlimited potential of his power, and the moralistic obligation to do good, is something more poignant and more pivotal to the character of Superman than it is to any other hero, even if the aforementioned Spider-Man is responsible for wording that dichotomy much more eloquently: With great power comes great responsibility.
And what do they matter, the adapted abilities of a spider, the imagination and will of a space ring, the combined genetic enhancements of the Homo sapiens superior, when compared to the limitlessness of a god?
But what the franchise as a whole has always had to do, striven to do, is make us care about the character of Superman, because he is a sympathetic character, because his struggle is all of ours.

Man of Steel, I think, sets out to do just that, and succeeds in every way possible.
Here's why:

General Zod
Every hero is only as good as his villain.
I think what makes Superman a more difficult character to write for is the limits of his rogues gallery. Lex Luthor is his intellectual equal, while Darkseid is his complement in strength. But what evil can compare to Superman? Reading the comics, you can't find too many memorable Superman villains. For a character of his enormity, his villains must be that much bigger to pose a credible threat.
In the second movie, the simultaneous threat and curiosity that was Zod suddenly made Superman more relatable: a man out of his element means something that is both familiar and dangerous. Terence Stamp also made the villain pretty memorable.
To bring him back as the initial threat, as Superman's first real test, with his powers yet unrealized, is extremely gratifying, and to bring even more nuance and subtlety to the character is a testament to the screenplay.
Michael Shannon's Zod is a man driven by a singular task: to revive his once-great people. His third act monologue to our hero is more of a summation than a revelation of what we already understand about the character: his motivations and intentions were good. He was an "ends justify the means" guy, he was genetically coded to sustain the existence of his people. It's one of those villains that makes you sympathize, as much as you try to resist. And this is the best kind of villain.

Interesting resemblance here...
What was wonderful about the old movies was the casting of really legitimate actors in what could have been otherwise laughable roles. Names like Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Ned Beatty, Glenn Ford, Jackie Cooper, Terence Stamp, gave more legitimacy and gravitas to roles that suffer in the hands of lesser actors. (I'm looking at you, Kate Bosworth.)
Jor-El, real father to Kal-El, was an unexpected surprise for this film. He plays a much more significant role than you would expect but the payoff is worth it. And Russell Crowe, Academy Award-Winning Russell Crowe, a man whom I gave a lot of crap for in Les Miserables, makes Jor-El this amazingly compelling character. He serves as a true foil to Zod throughout, also driven by a singular purpose, but instilling his natural instinct to do good within his son, as well as emphasizing the importance of choice, echoing back to what I mentioned earlier: that Superman's alignment is a choice, and that is what makes it so important. 

Jonathan and Martha Kent
The Kents are as vital to the Superman mythos as Uncle Ben is to Spider-Man and the Waynes are to Batman.
But the Kents are ultimately not Superman's reason for doing what he does, and that is what makes his mission so much more important. By reducing the personal importance of the characters, it enhances the importance of the hero. It is all bigger than them, and they are aware of that. Despite that, Kevin Costner and Diane Lane bring some much needed heart and soul to Cavill's Superman, while they are never his sole motivation. They in fact, inspire him to be bigger and more important than themselves, and even himself.
Costner's "Pa Kent" echoes Jor-El, the importance of being who you are when you are most needed, and understanding the weight of choice, particularly in the idea that if the world is not strong enough to accept you, are you strong enough to accept you? He only holds back Clark in order to build him up for later, for when he is going to be most important.
Lane's "Ma Kent" exists to continue that legacy of Jor-El and her husband. She is both mother and enabler, and Lane rounds out the cast extremely well.

Lois Lane
Something I was surprised about, was the movie's tone. It's darker, more serious, more subtle. It's not Nolan's Batman trilogy, nor should it be. It's only semblance is attempting to bring a more realistic context for Superman to exist within. What makes the tone more curious is the choice of Amy Adams to play Lois Lane. I thought we were in store for some lighter fair, considering Adams is most known for Disney's live-action/animated hybrid Enchanted, than anything else. Adams legitimately surprised me, making Lane a fun character to watch and a serious character to mess with. There was a great balance of Lane's driven feminine side, with her more romantic side. It's hard to pull off, and I didn't think Adams would, but she did.

What I most enjoyed about this movie is that with the exception of the flashbacks, and even those add some amazing depth to the character, and we see hints of what he will become in them, Henry Cavill spends most of the time as "Superman." We don't get the bumbling, awkward Clark Kent, tripping over himself, and hiding from the world. We get the hero attempting to understand himself, realize his potential, and do what he does best: kick alien ass.
As an origin story, the movie works. And it doesn't have the frustrating condescension of pretty much every other beginning to the franchise, even Batman Begins fails to escape the excruciating pre-hero's path of self-discovery.
Man of Steel finds an effective way of doing this, all the while giving us the moments we would want from a Superman film: he rescues people, he holds back his powers only to unleash them later (two really good flashback scenes accomplish this: one more comic having to do with a confrontation in a small-town bar, the other one of the many childhood flashbacks, where Clark is again bullied by a schoolmate, only to leave behind an indication of his power). The latter elicited audible reaction from the audience I was sitting with, and was one of my favorite moments of the film. It only worked because of the build this character received.
Henry Cavill makes for an impressive Superman. He is a great actor, a believable muscle, has some great comic moments, and handles the Superman/Lane romance well. Overall, like I said, I buy him as Superman, something Brandon Routh never quite owned up to, despite his physical resemblance to the incomparable Christopher Reeve.
Speaking of Reeve, I'm convinced that they somehow digitally superimposed his face over Cavill's, or mixed it somehow, in one of the final sequences of the movie. There was just this moment, and it gave me goosebumps, where Superman is gearing up to something, surrounded in white light, and I swear to God, I could see Reeve's face for a few moments in the sequence. I can't verify this, but there was a definite jolt in my seat.

If I could've Live Tweeted during the movie (I would've, but I thought I would surely be seeing it in a mostly empty house, considering I saw it at midnight, but alas, the house was full) here are my thoughts throughout:
  • Despite Krypton's advanced science, technology, and intelligence, and that ridiculously complex sonogram machine, childbirth looks to be just as painful as ever. 
  • As cool as the sequence is, any time someone falls at a great pace, and is suddenly plucked out of the air, whether by a giant eagle or whatever, I can't help thinking that it must still hurt like hell to land on whatever rescued you.
  • Michael Shannon bears an uncanny resemblance to Quentin Tarantino.
  • Tarantino, stop trying to fight Russell Crowe! He's outboxing you! He was Cinderella Man!
  • I can't tell if Lara has an accent or a mouth full of cotton.
  • How DOES Superman shave? OR grow a beard!? OR HAVE 5 O'CLOCK SHADOW!?
  • When the whales woke up Clark, I really thought we were going to have an Aquaman cameo.
  • Oil rig rescue scene reminiscent of X-Men power plant evacuation scene.
  • Isolated truck stop bar fight scene reminiscent of X-Men Wolverine gets in a bar fight scene.
  • School bus scene looks like it was filmed where Twilight was filmed, using the same filter.
  • Cut from Clark underwater to Jonathan Kent reminds me that Costner was in Waterworld, and how angry I still am at him.
  • Do you think those people who were mad about Rue being black in Hunger Games (even though she was supposed to be) were mad about Perry White being black? I was just mad that Laurence Fishburne is not in, shall we say, "Morpheus shape."
  • Scene where two Zod heavies walk up to confront Superman on ghost town main street is reminiscent of Thor fights iron giant Lord Zed on ghost town main street scene.
  • Ah, Lexcorps cameo. Perfect.
Anyway, I got a huge kick out of the movie, and felt wholly justified in seeing it, a) at midnight b) by myself c) for 15 dollars and d) in a movie theater despite how scary it is to be in a movie theater anymore. I think comic book fans will enjoy it as a faithful and realistic adaptation of the character, fans of the original series will appreciate its more serious Donner qualities, skeptics will appreciate the movie's context, tone, and acting, and fans of the summer blockbuster will get the epic fight sequences that I argue surpass anything from the Avengers and its universe of solo films.

The comic book movie is enjoying a splendid renaissance right now, with a successful, dark, brooding Batman trilogy, an Avengers adaptation that could have proved too much to juggle and balance in heavier hands but exceeded expectation and included a worthwhile interpretation of the Incredible Hulk character, a more interesting Spider-Man reboot, and the promise of a better X-Men and a long-awaited Justice League team-up. The people behind the scenes care about the source material and are interested in making comics relevant to a movie-going audience, while the actors portraying these iconic roles are surprising and impressing us, truly embodying what we hoped they would be, or giving us what we didn't know we wanted.
Just remember, not so long ago, we were expected to buy these guys based on their roles as, clockwise from top left: Humphrey from Stardust, Matt Flamhaf from 13 Going on 30, Charlie Chaplin, Van Helsing, Human Torch, and Patrick Verona from 10 Things I Hate About You.
I don't know how long the renaissance will last, and like a housing bubble the whole thing could burst and Hollywood will distance itself from comic book action movies once more. Or, like the ill-fated Krypton of this new Superman, the resources will be drained, and there will be nothing left to adapt and Hollywood will move on. Either way, enjoy it while we have it, Nerds.
While a comic book death is rarely permanent, the death of the comic book movie is inevitable.