A Late Review of the Latest Superman Movie

            This is the last review you will read of “The Man of Steel”, I would guess. It has been out for several weeks, but I saw it during the July 4th week. And yes this contains spoilers. If you haven’t seen this movie yet and are still concerned about reviewers ruining the movie for you … then go see the damn thing before reading any more reviews.
            I was off work; the wife was not. So I spent the day shopping and thought an afternoon in a theater would be nice.
            But what to watch? “Giant Whoredog Corporate Blockbuster CGI Slagheap 3” (to quote artist Stephen Bissette on the latest batch of pornographically violent films)? There was not much else to select at the nearby multi-temple.
            I decided on the new Superman movie, called “The Man of Steel”. I’ve read many reviews raving for it and ranting against it. Most of the people whose opinions I trust did not like it.
            I expected to hate the movie. I even brought a pen and paper to write down my thoughts while watching; not having my lovely wife next to me to act as Crow to my Tom Servo.
            I liked it very much. I didn’t love it.  I wasn’t gaga and oohed and aahed at the prospect of this igniting a multi-movie franchise. But it wasn’t as bad as I expected.
            Comparisons to previous Supermovies is not fair, but it IS expected nowadays. I liked MoS (as it shall be hereinafter called in this little treatise) as much as I hoped to have liked “Superman Returns” from 2006 – the last big-screen treatment of the character. I was so hoping that movie would do well and be a wonderful experience. “Returns” had its moments – some wonderful moments – but it ended up being a forgettable movie. What was considered a “sequel” to the first two Christopher Reeve-Superman movies ended up being a rehash of the first Reeves movie.
            Before seeing MoS, I considered it a rehash of the second Reeves movie. Zod and his gang of Kryptonian thugs are bent on conquering the earth. MoS was a little more than that, but that is the plot in a nutshell.
            In the meantime we get a retelling of Krypton’s last days, Zod’s relationship with Jor-El, Kal-El’s life as a youngster on earth and his first few experiences as Superman.
            Reviews of MoS said the flick was dark and brooding, Batman-ifying the Big Red “S”. I bristled at the thought. I still bristle at the thought of Batman being turned into Brooding Sociopath Man. I didn’t want to see Superman turn into a dick.
            One of the first lines in the film has Jor-El speaking to Zod, who was leading a Kryptonian coup d’etat. “I will honor the man you were, not the monster you have become.” I wrote that down. What a perfect line to describe the dark Superdick I will spend the next two hours with…
            But I was happily surprised. Is the film dark? Yes. Is Superman himself dark? No. Here is Superman the way he should be, and the way he has always been portrayed on film so far – our honest and noble protector.
            When Zod threatened the earth with destruction if Superman (at that time a mysterious super-powered benefactor) did not reveal himself, Superman did so.
            When he protected the soldiers who were firing at not only him but Zod’s militant thugs, Colonel Hardy (played by Christopher Maloni with the same unlikeableness with which he infused Detective (un)Stabler in Law & Order: SUV (sic) said “this man is not our enemy”. Superman was grateful.
            (Incidentally, Maloni’s best moment was the look on his face when he realized he was getting in a knife-fight with a Kryptonian but still did not back down. His sacrifice to destroy the terraforming machine was canny. Well done, but expected. I was saddened that the sacrifice also had to include the woefully underutilized Richard Schiff. I would have loved to see him as a regular in the franchise.)
            In between all the explosions and CGI destruction were Superman’s relationships with both sets of parents. His birth-mother Lara was given more lines and emotions than in any previous movie or even the comics. She came this close to refusing to allow Kal-El to go to earth. It was very moving, especially to this new parent. I can barely imagine what she must have gone through.
            Superman got to speak to a simulacrum of his birth father Jor-El, rather than a pre-recorded Marlon Brando made up to look like Charlie Rich. Superman got to actually speak with his birth father.
            For the past two decades Jor-El was portrayed as cold, emotionless and on the cusp of evil – all of Krypton was. This Jor-El, played by Russell Crowe, was noble – a hero that a son could emulate.
            And although this Krypton was portrayed as a dystopia, it was still sad to see its inevitable end. It’s message of conservation seemed forced; although the skyline view of Krypton’s moon in pieces was, well, kinda cool.
            In the Bronze Age of comics (and before) – Superman’s adoptive parents, the Kents, were dead by the time he became Superman. It was a sober moment and reflected in Superman’s persona. “Despite all my powers, I couldn’t save them.” Superman will do his best to protect us, but there are times when he cannot. It is a basic tenant of his personality.
            Since 1985, when the Modern Age began, comic lore has ordained that his mother has survived. In MoS, Martha Kent has also survived to see his son become Superman. I have mentioned in previous blogs this is not necessarily a bad thing, but his moral compass is now external, not internal. Why would you need a Fortress of Solitude when you can go to Mom’s house for a slice of sympathy and apple pie after defeating Throgg the Omnipotent?
            His relationship with Jonathan Kent was more complex here – Kentwas played quite well by Kevin Costner. Rather than encourage Kal-El (or ClarkKent) to use his powers nobly for the benefit of mankind, Kenttells his son to be wary – people will be afraid of him. This is more a reflection of today’s society, I think. During the Reeve’s movies and before, Jonathan Kent and Jor-El would be in agreement: you have tremendous powers, you must prepare yourself to use those powers to benefit mankind. This Jonathan Kent would have preferred Clark wear a mask and hide his tracks. I was pleased to see him proven wrong. “This man is not our enemy.”
            Jonathan Kent’s death was the second most controversial part of MoS. My impression from other reviews fed into the “dark” Superman – callously allowing his father to die to prove a point. It wasn’t that way – Jonathan Kent prevented his son from saving him. Kent knew his son was not ready to reveal himself. It was a powerful scene and well done – it showed Superman doing what a superhero is supposed to do. He obeyed his father.
            This led to a period of wandering – I was led to believe this; I don’t know if that is the case or not. Wouldn’t that make a wonderful TV series? Sort of like the 1970s “Incredible Hulk” – a lone stranger wanders into town, resolves a crisis and wanders off again. A “Smallville” on the road…
            I expect he came home frequently. His mother’s reaction to seeing him is hardly that of a mother who has not seen her son in 15 years. She was almost casual about him walking down their driveway. “Why didn’t you tell me, you could have picked up a gallon of milk on your way…”
            There were a few undeniable religious symbolisms and comparisons. Superman-Moses parallels are something of a joke nowadays, but MoS” went a bit further.
            Superman was 33 years old during the film. Like Jesus, he spent 30+ years in the world as one of us before revealing himself. When Zod makes his threat to destroy the world unless the son of Jor-El surrenders, Clark takes solace and advice from a minister in a church. Presumably this was the church he went to in Smallville. As he talks to the minister, his headshot is framed with Jesus to his right facing away from him slightly above and praying with his face and arms pointing upwards. It makes a stair-step: right to left going up – Superman, Jesus, God. If you’re going to do a shot like that – that is the way to do it. Any other way would be awkward or raise eyebrows and create a controversy Warner Brothers did not need. What if Jesus was “below” Superman? What if he was above but praying in the direction over Superman’s head – making a strange triangle (Superman directly below God and Jesus off to the side?).
            My friend Clyde, whose blog about recent superhero movies can be read here, http://playmst3kforme.blogspot.com/, told me WB sent MoS study guides to churches. It would be interesting to see them. I googled the subject and found a few …
            The most controversial part of the movie came at the end in the final confrontation with Zod. Superman had to break the general’s neck to stop his killing civilians with his heat vision. Superman begged Zod to stop (I don’t recall if he used the magic words “please”) and screamed in frustration when the deed was done. It was overlong – to show us how much Superman agonized over the decision. I didn’t mind that – if the scene was done quickly one could argue Supes’ callousness in killing. The argument came anyway, but at least the callousness wasn’t obvious. Batdick, Punisher or Lobo would have snapped his neck an hour ago…
            “Superman doesn’t kill,” critics of the scene wrote. True. Very true. As with the death of Jonathan Kent, I was expecting Superman to be indifferent or even gleeful as shown by the brooding sociopathic “heroes” mentioned above and other so-called “heroes” DC, Marvel and independent comics have been vomiting up since the 1990s.
            Superman could have thrown Zod into the Phantom Zone or tricked Zod into entering the Zone or destroying himself or his powers (remember how that was resolved in Reeve’s Superman II?), but that is not the way for the fans of “Giant Slagbag Bucket of CGI Ticks 6” (another Bisette-ism) who the producers of MOS need to attract to make money.
            A few minutes showing Superman’s regret would have resolved this. The trouble is, the filmmakers couldn’t linger on such regret. They would need to balance Superman’s facing his decision with his wallowing in pathos. “Oh woe is me.” Rend, rend…
            Perhaps a short scene with General Swanwick … “Have you ever had to kill?”
            “Yes, many times…”
            “How do you think about that?”
            “I don’t think about the people I had to kill, I think about the people I protected.”
            Or something like that.
            Or a brief flashback with his father. Jonathan Kent would have been old enough to serve during Viet Nam (Costner was born in 1955, just a bit too young, but his character could have been five years older…). Perhaps his war experience is what infused his fear of humanity.
            So that is my view of the film. I liked MOS as much as I was hoping to like “Superman Returns”. I was as disappointed in “Superman Returns” as I was expecting to be disappointed in MoS. Will it be as iconic as the Reeve’s movies? No, but that is hardly fair to compare it to those films. Well, the first two at any rate.
            Now, what about a sequel?
            I hope to god they stop with Reeve’s “Superman II”. If “…Returns” was a remake of Reeve’s I and MoS was a rehash of II … well, let’s stop there. Let’s get some new ideas, shall we?
            “Luthor in the sequel! Luthor in the sequel!” So scream the corporate-boot-licking-uberwonks from their parents’ basements.
            No. Luthor is as overused as the Joker.
            The trouble is, who else is there? Braniac? All during the CGI destruction shown in MoS I imagined how these effects could have also been used to show Braniac trying to shrink and “steal” Metropolis. The Lovecraftian-mechanical tentacles would have fit Braniac’s machinations too. A pity. The last thing a franchise needs is such repetition for its second film.
            Clyde came up with a wonderful idea. Bizarro. And in between slugfests we could see ClarkKent interact with his coworkers. We’ll get to know and understand the cast. Perhaps empathize with them.
            What am I saying …
            Some final thoughts:
            1) I like the idea of Lois Lane knowing Clark is Superman from the beginning. She could even help protect his identity. I got tired of the constant toying around with this even as a kid reading the comics. She’s an investigative reporter. She should know. I always felt that way about Commissioner Gordan and Batman.
            “How did you find out I was Bruce Wayne?”
“I’m a detective, too. A good one.”
            “Obviously…” 
            “Are you going to use your Bat-Amnesia Spray on me?”
            “I’m not that Batman; I’m the Batman that will break every finger until you swear not to tell anyone.”
            “I’ve known for years and haven’t told anyone yet … OW! You dick! OW! Stop it! Ow! Shouldn’t you be killing off another Robin? Ow!”
            2) Perry White is now a black man?  “What’s his middle name – ‘Ain’t’?”
            Well, why not? Lawrence Fishburne did a wonderful job and fits the role well. As with most comics, especially those created in the Golden and Silver Age, the lack of non-caucasian characters is embarrassing… Comparisons with Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury are unavoidable. Tokenism?  Maybe, but as with Fury, it didn’t seem to be a case of “Quick, Africanize someone! Anyone!” Perry White is black. Okay, let’s move on…
            3) Near the end we saw a flashback of a young Clark Kentplaying along the laundry-line posing in a cape.  Um, who was he supposed to be emulating?
            In this Superman-less world without superheroes, who was there to pretend to be? I imagine a “Watchmen”-like world where comic books were horror, war, teen and funny animal books only.
            Where else would he turn for imaginary heroes?
            Comic strips? The Phantom? He didn’t wear a cape.
            Pulps? Doc Savage? Ditto. Crime-fighters who wore capes were of the Shadow and the Spider mold – and they were hardly Good Guys. I doubt young Clarkstood there, puffed out his chest and said “The seed of crime bears bitter fruit…”
            I avoided getting into arguments about this issue on Facebook with children born after the Modern Age in 1985. DC declared that Superman had only been around ten years while the other heroes of WWII (and before) existed before. The Golden Age Wonder Woman and Black Canary were the mothers of the “current” heroines.
            “He could have been pretending to be members of the Justice Society of Americaor All-Star Squadron.” They forget their history – if not for Superman, there would have been no JSA or, um, ASS.
            Besides, if there WERE superheroes in this MoS continuity; then why was Superman’s existence such a surprise?  “Who saved the children in the school bus?” “It was probably Hourman passing by.”  “Who was the mysterious stranger at the oil rig?” “Neptune Perkins, I guess.” “Oh, okay, case closed.”
            Now that Superman “exists” in this MoS world, it will be interesting to see how his presence affects this world. Which of Superman’s fathers will be proved right? It will make the upcoming sequels interesting.  In between scenes of CGI Pop Slough (thank you again Mr. Bissette …)
Original material copyright 2013 Michael G Curry

 

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2 thoughts on “A Late Review of the Latest Superman Movie

  1. We saw MoS for a second time this weekend…Virginia had been sick when Brit and I went the first time, and she wanted to see it on the big screen. I have to say, as much as the first viewing did not hit on all cylinders with me, the second time was much, much better. In trying to take in all elements at once in the initial screening, this time I could focus more on individual elements like Cavill's portrayal of a Good Man in a Bad Situation, the Lois-Kal-El dynamic, and the Christian themes you mention. Not that I ignored all of these the first time, but my scope-o-meter was set Big Screen more than Individual Layer. One thing that still leaves me cold and that can make such a huge difference in any film for me was the score. I'm glad we didn't have Reeve-era touch-points through this new vision of the legend, including the music. But a new and exciting instrumental of some kind, something bold and heroic, would have helped. I am -not- a musically inclined person, but I know what I like and what cinematically works for me, and most of what's in MoS while beautiful, didn't add an audio banquet to this visual feast.

    I read over the weekend in another blogger's post (and since I read several this weekend, I apologize for not remembering just where I read it) an echo of our talk Friday about Mos as a launch point for more DC franchise films, and in particular the prospects for a Justice League movie. This fan took a venue I had not considered but was intrigued by. With the strong Superman character as portrayed by Cavill in MoS, why not build on the foundations with a MoS sequel and then simply do a JL movie with Superman the guiding force for finding and bringing together/being instrumental in forming the team in the face of a new, globe or star-spanning threat. He argued, perhaps rightly, that minimal intro time would be needed for each character (and no individual movies for each unless in the aftermath of JL: The Motion Picture) because thanks to Smallville and the DC animated & other Tv projects, audiences are already more familiar with the DC characters than the Marvel heroes. If handled well and written carefully, this could work. And while some fans would grumble at no Bale version of Batman, some existing ground work of previous films could be well used. Ryan Reynolds doesn't want to play Green Lantern again? S'okay, movie audiences now know that GL is one of many Lanterns in the overall Corps. John Stewart could be used instead, reflecting the Justice League Unlimited member dynamic.

  2. Pingback: Some thoughts on Avengers: Age of Ultron | Currytakeaways

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