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Monday, December 23, 2013

A Superman Hater Watches "Man of Steel"


Do I need to tell you my problems with Superman? No, I don't. So I never planned to watch Man of Steel. Another origin story? Zack Snyder's testosterone stink on it? Same damn villain? Same bland hero? Critical reception from poor to mixed? No thank you. I don't need more Superman in my life than I have to.

But then Nostalgia Critic released his video for it, so I figured, "Damn, guess I need to see this if I want to appreciate the NC review." I encountered the same issue with "Avatar: The Last Airbender", and it turned out well. So I regretfully put it on the Netflix queue, fully anticipating "Superman Returns" again -- a totally unnecessary movie that brings nothing new to the franchise.

It's... it's actually pretty good. I liked it.

It's not without some flaws -- and there are some big ones -- but the good things overshadow them. A summer tentpole usually defies analyzing, but I think it's important that I explain how I, already prejudiced against the movie, got turned around.


PRO: Telling the Story a Different Way

I'm not sure if this is a good or bad aspect, but at least it's different. Different is something Superman desperately needs. I am so tired of origin stories because A) everyone already knows them and B) are so boring. And this being the third retelling? Did not have high hopes.

Instead this shows him finding his role in life. Learning his place in the world with his abilities. How far can a person with such power go before he goes over the line? Especially when he's been charged with being humanity's guardian. And it's told non-linear -- small flashbacks display his father's life lessons and coping with his abilities as a child. It goes more into the philosophy of being a god among men.

Speaking of religious overtones, that's another thing I was not expecting. And I do not like applying the Jesus metaphor to Superman -- I think that diminishes both and makes no sense since he's closer to Hercules. (Also, weren't Superman's creators Jewish?) Clark actually goes to a priest for confession/advice, which surprised me. International movies like this don't usually go for that. But then I thought, "yeah, that makes sense". Clark was raised by a farming couple in Kansas. Of course, he would have religion in his life. Of course he would question his presence in the light of God.


CON: Misogyny

This movie is all men, all the time. Manly men. Hairy chests. Big muscles. Fathers and sons. Papa Kent even says "You have to decide what kind of man you want to grow up to be." The title "Man of Steel" wasn't used just because it's an old catchphrase.

That's par for the course for Zack Snyder, but I still groaned at the end where the woman says "I just think he's kinda hot". Seriously? She worked her way up military ranks to belong to one of the most important departments in the armed forces, working under the guy in charge of dealing with aliens. And she turns into a giggling school girl?

How about Lois?  Here, she's about as vapid and bland as Superman. All her best scenes are at the beginning, and while her weaknesses are fewer, she didn't get much stronger.  She doesn't bring anything vibrant or different. Essentially, she's unnecessary. There is no reason for Lois Lane to be on board Zod's ship.  She's not a hostage. In fact, the whole reason Zod's plan goes under is because they took her on board. Here's your sign.


PRO: Good Action

Superman's punches sound real. He uses his heat vision when needed. The battles actually look like Superman battles, not just flying around a green screen or lifting heavy objects. They look like what would actually happen if two super-powered beings got in a fight -- lots of collateral damage.


It made me have that feeling of wish fulfillment. He feels powerful. I found myself rooting for Superman, which is when I knew I had lost.  Even though Superman is invulnerable (which is a flaw I've often ranted about), it does feel like he's getting hit. The damage isn't to him, but to the town, the Earth.

And the superpowers don't just come out of thin air. No traveling backwards in time. No mind control. No kryptonite. He doesn't even have ice breath.

Granted, overcoming the gravity well of the World Engine through sheer will, just like in Superman Returns where he can lift a huge island that's covered in kryptonite because he has to. What's the point of being vulnerable to something if it doesn't work? There's this idea floating around that "Superman is as strong as we need him to be". If that's the expected behavior, where is the tension?



CON: Independence Day with Superman

While I was watching, I was thinking: this movie is about aliens, not Superman. There's first contact, spaceship interiors, alien tech, the feeling of nothing ever being the same, "YOU ARE NOT ALONE", a big army presence, buildings exploding. This is more about the absence of Krypton than presence of Superman. Superman should be about his relationship with Earth, not other Kryptonians.

Well, it is true he does fight a lot of aliens (Darkseid, Doomsday, Braniac), but it's in the name of fitting in on Earth. Otherwise, he wouldn't need to be Clark Kent.  And besides, I think it's more interesting when he tries to save humanity from itself rather than an invading militant alien force.


PRO: Superman is not so perfect

One of the problems I've always, always, always had with Superman is the lack of character flaws. He never does anything wrong. Nothing can touch him. He's still pretty perfect in this, but he is shown to be suffering. He questions his place in the world, his parentage, his loyalties, whether or not to act as a sacrifice.

Also, Krypton is not the utopia previous incarnations have made it out to be. You see Zod stage the military coup at the moment of vulnerability. He follows his duty to serve Krypton and only Krypton. This gives him a purpose, makes him sympathetic, better than evil for the sake of being evil. (Also, I thought it was interesting how they went from crystal-based technology to liquid metal balls)


CON: Too Many Plot Holes

This movie is meant to be watched, not analyzed. While it doesn't fill gaps with convenient super powers, it does leave a lot on the cutting room floor. How did Zod and all get out of the Phantom Zone? Why did all the other planets die when Krypton exploded? How much can the Russell Crowe hologram do? Is it like an AI or something? What was the deal with that scoutship that was 18,000 years old? No one ever talked about what happened to it/why it went missing? And Krypton's used the same technology for 18,000 years so his USB stick can still work? If Krypton has space travel, why didn't everyone go to a different planet?

Why does Zod take Lois Lane? They can't need her for anything. What is Zod doing when he goes back in the ship, and they have that big Smallville fight between Ursa Farora and Big Guy Who Might Be A Robot? Is he fixing something? Preparing something? Why does Superman start wearing the costume just because he finds it in the ship? They could be pajamas for all he knows.  What significance do they have? Russell Crowe just opens the closet and there they are. Why don't the people just run away from the heat vision?


PRO: Fixing a Few Cliches

Speaking of that polarizing issue, I didn't mind it much.  I know a lot of people were upset. They cried "Superman doesn't kill! He's a hero! He's the inspiration for humanity, what we're supposed to aspire to be!" But how often have you yelled at a screen or comic and said "Just kill him! He's going to escape anyway!" 

Superman does what he does with regret. Zod's the last tie to his Kryptonian heritage. Yes, they never mention it again, but at least the potential is there.  I wish they had done it a little closer to like Doctor Who's "The End of Time" with the Master, or Trigun -- where the killing had some consequences to the character development. These are the kinds of burdens heroes have to bear.

Personally, I've always found Batman more inspiring anyway. Bruce Wayne could have taken the easy road, could have walked away with his millions/billions and lived an easy life. But he chose to train. Chose to become a protector. Superman was born with powers. He didn't earn anything. His conflict is more about how to balance his powers -- being a god versus being a human. And his corruptibility.

I said Lois Lane was vapid and bland before, but at least she's an improvement.  I've never seen a portrayal of her that I've liked -- from Margot Kidder to Teri Hatcher to the cartoon. She's either a cold bitch, a clingy idiot, a stubborn scoop-obsessed journalist (meant to play foil to Clark's bumbling) or Superman's gooey-eyed love interest. Sometimes all of those.

Here, she's still a damsel in distress, but she does take action. She has agency.  She knows Clark's secret, but has the moral insight to respect his wishes and not do anything with it. She changes from being manipulative to learning how to step back. Also, she recognizes Clark right away with those glasses.



CON: Still Nothing New

It's a better told story, but it's still the same story. Superman does not appear until fifty minutes in. He doesn't do anything Superman-y until thirty minutes after that. He's fighting Zod again. He's not stopping natural disasters, fighting crime, helping build things. Granted, all the Superman stories I remember, he's being rather silly. Like fighting comic strip characters come to life or trying to stop someone revealing his secret identity.

But why this plot again when there are so many other Superman stories the world is aching for? I hunger for a movie version of "The Death and Rebirth", arguably the most popular (if only because it's polarizing) Superman stories. And there's Darkseid, Mr. Mxyptlk, Bizarro, or any villain from the superhero team-ups. I'd even have Lex Luthor IF you can make him a more formidable opponent. He's supposed to represent everything humanity could fall to, if Superman wasn't there. Give him a robot suit.


OVERALL

It keeps you entertained. Clearly the best Superman movie made. It's a blockbuster -- heavy on special effects, light on fridge logic. But I feel richer/entertained for seeing it.

It makes me feel more confident about the next one -- "Superman + Batman". It's clear that Hollywood has been upping stakes in superhero movies from "hero vs. villain" to "hero vs. a few villains" and now to "Total Team-Up", thanks to the success of The Avengers. DC is going to Justice League. Spider-Man is going to "The Sinister Six", and Avengers has its own saga.

Before I saw Man of Steel, I was ready to dismiss "S&B", given the bad buzz around Snyder and Nolan's interpretation.  This would ruin not just one but two franchises (three, with Wonder Woman). But now that I've seen it, I've got hope.


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