Sunday, June 30, 2013

Man of Steel: My (Assorted) Thoughts

Numerous people have insisted to me that Superman is a hopelessly "lame" character. ("A sucky-ass character", one of my fellow grad students once insisted.) I always counter that they very well might feel differently if they were to be acquainted with the mythology surrounding  Kal/Clark/Supes that's persisted in the comics .

In the medium of animation, both Batman's and Superman's mythologies have been done justice -- and for that, we will always hold Paul Dini and Co. in our highest esteem.. But daytime animated TV series don't have the clout of box office record-breaking live-action Hollywood summer blockbusters. So, thanks to director Christopher Nolan, the general, non-comics-reading-(but-incessantly-video game-playing, at least in terms of the current younger generations) public has embraced what, IMHO, is a deftly-executed distillation and amplification of the concerned mythology.

... but, until now, alas, of Superman, the same cannot be said. The first two movies with Christopher Reeves in the title role, Superman (1978, dir. Richard Donner) and its sequel, Superman II ( 1980, dir. Richard Lester, who infamously replaced Donner partway through production) have their merits, but they are dated in terms of technical limitations and pop culture sensibilities. Dir. Bryan Singer's Superman Returns overtly tried to replicate the performances and the tone of the Donner film ...and when I saw it on opening day, the crowd regarded it as a joke.

(Adventure Comics #283, April 1961 -- first appearance of General Zod, Man of Steel's villain.)

Having accomplished the veritable magnum opus that is his Dark Knight trilogy, all indications are thatt Christopher Nolan has set about determined to do for Superman what he did for Batman ... and in my assessment, having the movie last Friday afternoon, he's damn well done it. Here, Nolan is not in the director's but the producer's chair, and credited as a co-writer on the screenplay -- indicating that he wasn't a hands-off studio producer, but creatively, his voice is a major one in the realized film.

From the larger-than-life presentation of Krypton in the opening scenes to the coda to the more introspective relating of Clark being conflicted with his dual identity and the mystery of the world on which he was born and his biological parents, the understanding of the characters and the mythology is acute. And the big-stage scope that the film's creators were aiming for and pretty much achieved; in terms of pathos and stakes (they're VERY high), the conceit of the film exudes "ancient, immortal gods". Or, in other words, the overused term "epic" actually applies here.

This movie's versions of Thomas and Martha Kent, as well as Perry White, are virtually the Superman equivalent of Nolan's Alfred and James Gordon: the nature of the characters, their inherent strong morals, and the importance of their relationships with the protagonist as a mentor, lifelong and cherished confidant, and/or parental figure are understood and taken very seriously. One brief but crucial interaction between Clark and Thomas Kent actually had me in tears ... not just a lump in my throat and/or my eyes watering up, but tears actually streaking down my face.

As I knew that a retelling of Superman's origin story was in store, I was worried that the movie would be tedious. But it managed to -- by using a non-linear narrative, with lots of flashbacks and "flash-forwards" -- make it fresh and suspenseful, taking our expectations into account. Once things were well underway, though, it became apparent that a VERY standard part of the Superman premise was absent ... and almost as soon as I realized this, I correctly predicted how the movie would end. *bows*  :D

Also surprising was the "standard" Superman characters -- both friends and enemies -- that weren't present. At this point, I think it's well-known that the story's villain is General Zod. There's no trace of Braniac or Bizarro ... not even Lex Luthor! (...that, besides one visual reference that I was proud and excited to spot). In fact, this perfectly parallels Batman Begins: instead of just jumping right to the Joker/right to Lex Luthor, a villain not well-known to the general public, the focus is on a villain that traditionally in the comics has been an exceptional threat to the hero in question and whose genocidal tendencies are all the more insidious because of the respective villain's uncanny intelligence.

Thus, my hunch is that Nolan plans in the sequel -- if there is one, which seems more likely than not -- to have Luthor take and dominate the stage, just as the Joker did in The Dark Knight.

One negative criticism: though I realize that audiences would be disappointed if the movie was short on rock-'em-sock'em action scenes, they really could've been trimmed a bit -- and not been so repetitive. (How many times do we really need to see Superman, in flight, crash into Zod, throwing them both halfway across the state? Do that many buildings really need to fall?)  The bombastic, flashy, almost goofy fight scenes can probably be attributed to director Zach Snyder more so than Nolan, given Snyder's filmography.

Actually, in the prolonged action scenes, another parallel to Batman Begins is apparent. In the first half of both movies, the title character's "Hero's Journey" (thanks, Christopher Vogler) and the thrust of the mythology is built up ... only to have the "payoff" be a sort-of generic "saves the city/world"-type ending. In retrospect, in Batman Begins' case,Nolan was "taking it easy" and not getting ambitious before really taking things up a whole bunch of notches in the succeeding two films. My hunch is that he's doing the same thing here, intending this to be the first in a trilogy, the arc of which he already has planned. Basically, he's sticking to a formula that has more than proven to work for him. Can't wait for the (likely) sequels!

-- Ryan


  1. Interesting...Zod is actually pretty well-known, largely due to his appearance in "Superman 2". It's also one of the reasons why fans have complained about Hollywood's painfull lack of innovation regarding development of a Superman film. "Zod again?" "The Origin again?", usually from people who aren't used to reading comics much. :) I had expected Nolan would use the same links in his characterization of the characters as well.

    I find that the film is underperforming at the box office - the news is that it has earned 250 million domestically and only 500 million worldwide and barely made the top 5 this past weekend, when it should have held in the top 3 if it's really a hit. And there is the fact that it seems a lot more attention has been devoted to Henry Cavil's physique than the film itself. But DC desperately wants a "Justice League" movie.

  2. Joseph: Right -- there's a subset of Superman/DC fans (and psuedo-comic fan-but-really just lazy pop culture junkies, heh) who comprise what, for lack of a better term, I'll call a cult following of Superman II ... and thus, by default, of Zod. My criteria for designating Zod as less-known is that I'm pretty sure my dad knew exactly who Lex Luthor was (as he did the Joker), but not Zod ... even though I think he probably at some point he saw Superman II. (He would quickly forget the character and the movie, and certainly not go and track down all of the characters' comic appearances ... unlike me.) ;) :)

    I guess the reports of the movie's box office under-performance reinforce, sadly, the general public's embracing of Batman and rejection of Superman.

    Now, there's a certain irony in that in the comics, Avengers came into being by taking a cue from Justice League of America ... and now, in Hollywood, the reverse is underway.

    A horrible, cheesy, done-all-wrong live-action JLA movie is virtually one of the LAST things I want to come into existence ... while a fully-realized one would be a couple hours of escapism bliss.

    I haven't seen Avengers, but my impression is that there was a long-term plan, having done each superhero's "own" movie first, keeping the actors and aesthetics consistent and the continuity explicit ... basically realizing the film equivalent of the intertwined nature of the relevant Marvel titles as they were in the first few years of the Silver Age. And if my understanding is on-target, this has been done against all odds, given how notorious Hollywood is for fucking up "franchises".

    If there's a JLA movie and it doesn't pull off the equivalent of the above, it will damage the brand's "rep".

    Basically, it comes down to: DC/Warner, keep Christopher Nolan VERY involved!

    -- Ryan

  3. I saw the "Avengers" movie and thought it was a soup - just a gathering of actors and special effects with some quirky speeches/dialogue tying it together. It's odd how recent superhero movies are following a storytelling structure where everything builds up to a single action sequence toward the end, like a ... "nerdgasm" (I hate that word, but it seems to explain what's going on here) - some of my favorite action movies (The Indiana Jones films, the Tim Burton Batman films and the 1st 2 Nolan Batman movies and last year's "Amazing Spider-Man") had a structure where there is a begining, a middle and an end; everything makes sense, all the characters roles are understood and there's not a lot of wasted words. At one point, there wer plans to cobble together a Justic League movie, but the only reaon it was killed was because the studio wasn't pleased with the casting - and that was the ONLY reason.

  4. Joseph, I actually find it really interesting that you consider Burton's Batman movies to have "had a structure where there is a beginning, middle, and end; everything makes sense, all the character roles are understood". I've slogged my way through Burton's Batman and Batman Returns multiple times, and I'm not very confident that I could give a plot synopses of either if my life depended on it. My lasting imoression of either is a big jumble. As far as characterization, I consider Batman to not have been a character but a physically active visual icon ... and Bruce Wayne came off as completely blank in both thought and emotion. At best, we can infer that he's a bored rich guy indulging in an overblown hobby, but if that's so, neither film asserts it, remaining completely indifferent to and ambiguous about who Bruce is and what makes him tick.

  5. (cont.) I do concur with you on the Indiana Jones movies though. (Alas, I never actually saw them until I was an adult. If I'd seen them in my childhood, I may well consider them as sacrosanct as I do the Back to the Future movies.) ;)

  6. Our discussion of the prospective Justice League movie has been essentially rendered moot by the news that Snyder's Man of Steel sequel is planned to double as a World's Finest movie (though not in name, per all indications).

    From what I've garnered, there's no intention for there to be any continuity with Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy. And don't get me wrong, the movie could be great anyway...

    ...BUT...I still haven't seen Avengers, but I did see all three Iron Man movies within days of their release. (Not because I'm a big fan, but just for fun.) And I was impressed with Iron Man III making itself explicit that it took place after the Avengers movie; the shared continuity and canon came off as seamless.

    I was hoping that Hollywood would come through on realizing the DC equivalent of the organized, crystal-clear interlockedness of (some of) the Marvel movies. But it's looking like that's not gonna happen with this generation of DC movies, alas.

    -- Ryan

  7. The Burton films are more about impressions; they follow the "rules" of the older Bond movies in that they're not meant to be realistic - they're pure fantasy. The only secret agents that try to live like Bond are usually corrupt and get caught; those people who dress up in cosplay and try to fight crime like Batman are often given a rude awakening. Nolan's films are grounded in reality, maybe TOO much so, since all of his villains (with the exception of Catwoman and Two-Face) became terrorists in their methodology.

    Michael Keaton's Bruce Wayne never seemed bored; he came off unnerved and at a loss for words about how to explain himself - there's a sense that he MIGHT prefer to be left alone and would act noncommittal when keeping up appearances among Gotham's high society and in the boardroom, but never bored..he seems to be biding his time for the moment when everyone learns that he dresss up like a bat every night - "They're gonna' think I'm weird! How CAN I explain it and keep the same status quo?" He can't figure that out. And that's how you can explain Alfred doing things like letting Vicki Vale into the Batcave - he's trying to trigger some decisive action from Bruce/Batman, but ultimately, we learn that Vicki bailed out...because Bruce dressing up as a bat IS kind of weird and silly - that's Tim Burton's real message..his Batman/Bruce Wayne is acutely self-aware.

    Christian Bale's Batman seems multi-layered on the surface, but he's a not as hip where it counts; he thinks he's actually instilling fear among the criminal element; Keaton just seemed to get a kick out of succeeding in his expensive endeavors. Bale is dead serious, so he comes off even more ridiculous when he refuses to kill the Joker; when he's outwitted by Bane and Catwoman; when he makes his escape from that prison well ( which could have been integrated with the final action sequence better, but wasn't) and his ultimate survival from an explosion that would still have deadly consequences for anyone in a real city in real life. He rationalized why he thought dressing up as a bat is a good idea, something Burton avoided...because, realistically, dressing up as a bat to take down criminals in a blind alley is just silly.

    With Val Kilmer in Batman Forever and George Clooney in Batman and Robin, the films were now following the rules of one-dimensional comic book stories: everything and everyone is a prop. I see a lot more of the points of your arguement in these two movies than the Burton-Keaton flicks. you said...this is all moot now with the casting of post-"Argo" Ben Affleck - what are your thoughts about him being cast?