Digital Polyphony

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Not That Bad:

 

Man of Steel

 

The Movie:

An alien guy with a lot of powers realizes he can do some good when his planet and its people are threatened by other alien guys with a lot of powers. Destruction ensues as does a whole lot of people online going crazy over said destruction. Superman (Henry Cavill), a character that’s been reinterpreted numerous times (as all good myths are) is sent to Earth to, apparently, kick ass and take names. That name is General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his goons who threaten to turn Earth into the next Krypton. Also there’s something about Superman’s blood which nobody cares about.

On Earth, Superman is raised by his parents (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) but soon discovers his true history and, guided by his father Jor-El (Russel Crowe) becomes the hero to fall in love with Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and kick the shit out of his fellow Kryptonians.


Man of Steel was met with a lukewarm reception in most cases, but also a serious backlash in…well in just about every aspect of it. Despite that, it was a massive success at making nearly 700 Million at the box office (which certainly helps recoups that 225 Million budget). It was nominated for quite a few small awards, but didn’t receive anything in terms of Oscar buzz. It kind of came and went in that regard, though the vitriol on the internet since its release has certainly not slowed down and Man of Steel becomes the go-to example for "recent comic book adaptations done wrong." Sure, it's not Batman and Robin, but our standard has been raised greatly since then. So let's cut through some of the hyperbole and break it down a bit...


The Common Complaints:

What are the common things people bring up when they sit around and talk about the movie? From my experience, these are:

 

What is totally up with Pa Kent?

Ok, there’s two issues here that constantly come up. Why is Pa Kent such an utter douchebag and why is his death, now, as subtle as a sledgehammer? If there’s one thing I can agree with on the common complaints it is these two things.

They go hand-in-hand. Pa Kent, played pretty well by Kevin Costner who really has little to work with here, wants to protect is alien-Jesus-son. He knows he has powers and consistently tells him that its best to not show any of those abilities or help people until they are ready.

Well, spoiler there, Pa, when someone is about to die…they’re probably going to be damn ready. I’m not interested in bringing up a comparison to the comics or the original movie, it’s that Pa Kent just doesn’t make sense and ends up conflicting his son’s morality as a result of his complete selfishness. He brings up that people are afraid of what they don’t understand, I’d argue that Pa Kent’s lack of understanding of his son, raised to be a good person and would therefore do good things, is far more selfish.

 

This single act and gesture hinders Jonathan Kent's character, Clark's character and their relationship. I'm not talking about comic book accuracy, I'm simply talking about storytelling that doesn't make any sense. It makes it feel incomplete and totally unsatisfying on top of it all.

 

And what sucks is that there are sincere, beautiful moments that Costner’s Pa Kent gives us. The moment when they’re in the barn and Clark brings up the notion of being his son? Hell, it’s hard not to get a little choked up at that. Costner delivers that “You are my son” line beautifully.

Well screw that, I guess, because here comes a twister and it’s aiming for Pa Kent. In the amount of time that Pa Kent holds a beat, raises his hand to tell Clark to leave him to die, Clark could have not left him to die.

There’s something totally wrong with how the death of Pa Kent is handled. From the conceit, to the thematic “You can’t save everyone" idea stripped of Superman with how it was handled. The entire point of Pa Kent dying in the comics and the original film is to show Clark that some things are out of his control whether it be heart attack, car crash or when it’s better done on a CW TV Series. In the case of Man of Steel, it was all still in his control. He made a choice, and it didn’t work. It just doesn’t work because it fell back on Jonathan and that’s his final memory of him. It became a character point of Jonathan, not of Clark.

There’s a lot of leeway in stuff from me, and I am always fine with new interpretations. Hell, Ma and Pa Kent have been re-imagined numerous times in the comics whether it be age, overbearing qualities, influence, living or dead. Plenty of ways to do it. But the entire point of one or both dying is to instill the point that Clark can’t do it all. He has to have limits. Man of Steel tries to play that limit card but it only comes across as Pa Kent being a complete asshole.


Superman’s Kind of a One-Dimensional Douche

Spoiler…Superman’s always been kind of a one-dimensional douche. Well, in recent versions of him in the comics at least. The era of Jolly-Gee-Wiz “Ain’t he something?” Superman is long over and you have to change it up a bit. In Man of Steel, though, I actually found they did a good job of balancing a man trying to find himself with the “Truth, Justice and American Way” Superman that people know and love. Yes, there are clashes, there are contradictions to him in the film, but I gotta say when he comes home just to check on his mom…well that’s kinda sweet.

Many people seem to really not like the whole “hobo/wandering” Superman we get early in the film. Truth is, I actually really dug it. It’s a conflicted man (probably conflicted because of asshole Pa) who has all this power and no idea what to do with it. Now the conflicting thematic element and whole “two father’ point it tries to make falls completely flat, but I can totally buy a guy wandering aimlessly for years with no direction in life…because that’s what most people do in general. Clark, as far as we know, didn’t go to college. He turned introverted and moody. He was uncertain of what he could do…but it makes that moment when he realized what he can and wants to do all that more powerful. Yeah, he’s a bit of a jerk, but at least it’s an “earned” element of his character.

I remember in Superman II when Clark comes back to that bar at the end and messes with that guy because he insulted him earlier. See…that wasn’t earned. Superman is already Superman by that point. Pettiness isn’t part of who he is. Here, I can totally understand him being petty, being moody, being kind of a douche. I actually liked it.


This Apocalypse Sponsored by Ihop and Sears

People really don’t like seeing obvious product placement in movies for some reason, even though movies do it all the fucking time. I feel like those bringing it up with Man of Steel are just trying to pile the shit higher rather than really explain why it’s such a problem. The fact there’s product placement distracting isn’t the problem here, it’s the fact that you already don’t like the movie and are finding anything and everything that jumps out to pile it on.

So I’ll keep this simple: I don’t care. Real-life stuff is all over the place and seeing a Sears or an Ihop doesn’t matter. Hell, Superman II’s battle with the Kryptonians had an obvious Coca Cola and Marlboro shot. Who cares? Those things exist.

What’s far more distracting is when there are shots of places and things that don’t exist. Instead of a Sears you have a Wears or instead of an Ihop you have an Ehop or some weird off-brand shit like that. Now THAT is distracting.

Man of Steel isn’t the first nor will it be the last movie to have product placement. It doesn’t matter and doesn’t hurt the movie. Remember all the hubbub over Skyfall having James Bond drink Heineken, then when it came out nobody cared? The reason? Skyfall was good and piling up BS didn’t matter. Man of Steel on the other hand…

…wait…don’t want to show my hand just yet. Moving on…



Superman Destroyed Metropolis

Well, yes and no. The common complain here is that Supes takes on Zod in the most populated city in the world and totally trashes it. What people seem to not separate, though, is intention on part of Superman. Superman’s options are pretty limited. He arrives back at Metropolis to see a good chunk of it destroyed and there is a dude that wants to fight. Right there. Now.

So this young and inexperience Superman has to fight him because he still doesn't know enough to say "let's go to the moon." So he does it right in the middle of the city. Now at this point Supes isn’t quite yet Supes - he’s still figuring things out and just realized a few hours ago that he has to be the savior of an entire planet. So, in his defense, he has a lot going on and has a lot to learn.

But even an inexperienced, young and clueless Superman would see that this Zod fella doesn’t give a shit about the people and will go nuts to fight Superman. He would fly with Superman to the moon to fight him if he had to because at that point it's not about changing Earth to Krypton with the World Engine, it's entirely a resentment towards Kal-El. So the question is, do we give Superman the benefit of the doubt as he really isn’t quite Superman yet? Or do we call him on the fact that, assuming (note ASSUMING) Zod would follow him, that he didn’t take the fight elsewhere?

See, in this case, there’s a lot of that assuming, and I really don’t have an answer yet this is one thing that people really get hung up on because there's not a lot of clarity here. What we could note is facts: Zod wants to destroy. Superman wants to stop him. They fight. Everything else we kind of just fill in the blanks. In that regards, I’m giving this whole complaint a push.  The fact they fight in the city, a city where most destruction has already happened at this point, doesn’t bother me. Now, if in the sequel we have Superman not caring that he destroyed the city (ahem…you know…like a romantic kiss in the midst of destruction) then I would have a problem.

Maybe that’s what sets the whole thing wrong for people - we feel as though Superman doesn’t care. One line, even a “No! The people!” line would work to help soften the blow of Superman being involved in some city destruction. I think that would be something I would have liked myself as well. The issue isn't fighting in Metropolis, Superman's fought a lot of dudes in Metropolis (including the original Zod and company in Superman II) it's Superman's attitude toward the whole thing. One thing nobody seemed to like, though...


Superman Killed that Dude

Yeah, he did. Now Superman has killed before, Reeves’ Superman killed Zod and his companions as well (actually Lois punched one into a pit), weird how people forget that, so is snapping Zod’s neck in a fight a problem?

Yes and no. No, it’s not a problem because Superman has killed and having him kill, even out of desperation, is pretty ok in my book. Hell, he hasn’t said anything in this movie, once, about not killing a person so in relative terms to this movie, he can go ahead and do that, then regret it later and make a rule to never kill again.

Boy I hope he does. It would add more weight to that scene in hindsight as well. It’s great for continuity, Zach. Make it happen.

But yes, it is a problem in how it was handled in this movie, which is the running theme to this whole breakdown of Man of Steel as I've come to notice. It’s as direct of a “I’m a killer” as you can make Superman ever be, and that feels…weird. I’m not asking for poetry here, but it’s so damn blunt that it makes you feel a little uneasy. It’s not necessarily wrong, I don’t think, but just weird. In Superman 2, we just see the Kryptonians fall into a pit and die off-screen. In the comics, he killed Zod and company with Kryptonite as an execution but gave a speech and a sense that he didn’t want to do it. In this one…well he snaps a friggin neck. I mean, sheesh. It’s kind of overkill. If Superman was going to kill Zod in Man of Steel, maybe a little grace and delicacy should have been rendered in presenting it.

Now one thing I did like was his reaction afterwards. Cavill did a great job just showing a Superman who was forced to do something that he didn’t want to do - who maybe realized he was now the last of his kind and who lost everything by becoming something he didn’t want to be. I love that. The sense of anguish and pain, especially when Lois (somehow knowing where he was in this massive city) comes running in to comfort was a great way to salvage the scene. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have worked. Just because it worked doesn’t mean it was ok to do in that manner, though.


 

My Complaints:

It's one thing to just be snarky and hate on the movie, but let's dig a little deeper and take notice of some of the more egregious faults.

 

Priorities

Ok, ask yourself this…what does Superman stand for in Man of Steel? There’s an arc to his character in the movie, a realization that he can do good, but Man of Steel has him constantly contradicting himself and it’s uncertain of what he values and what he doesn’t. Does he value Pa Kent at all? It’s kind of unclear. Does he take concern that a city is destroyed? That’s mishandled as he kisses Lois amidst the destruction and seemingly dismissive of the destruction and likely death around him (when, previously, the death of people during a hallucination haunts him…that hallucination kind of came true). When he kills Zod, exactly why is he upset? Is the fact he has to kill why or maybe a realization that his race was really screwed up and he killed the last one?

We have to assume a lot when it comes to the internal workings of Superman himself here. We never really get a clear picture and it is these types of things that kind of add up and completely mess up the character.

You know what, I don’t need to go into this. A better writer already did as it’s his #1 issue with the film and I would say it’s mine as well. There’s a good Superman in there somewhere - one we clearly “get” and can understand. But it never comes out.



Tone

Man of Steel is a slog. Oh, it looks gorgeous, it has some of the best action you can ask for and some gorgeous cinematography. It even has a great soundtrack. Yet, its tone if that of a constantly-hit dull note on an otherwise well-tuned piano in a glorious orchestra. It just hits it wrong every other measure or so as it tries to have an emotional resonance and never does. Why?

Well, I would argue it’s the fact there’s no balance to it. It’s super-serious all the time, making for something that feels lifeless as it bashes you over the head with its own self-importance. It has nothing to really put its melodrama up against to help guide it and move it along. There are movies that can get away with that, they’re usually serious dramas about the human condition or something really important like that.

Here we have a story about an alien trying to find himself and learning important lessons along the way as he tries to save the people around him. Even in moments that should be a breather, it still comes across as serious. Even when a character says “Oh yeah, Superman that’s what we’re calling him” falls flat as there’s no cheer or even a wink to the camera. Or, at the very end, when Lois says “Welcome to the planet” ends up a line just feels so lifeless in the delivery because the movie has spent two hours being lifeless. Hell, I’m so desperate for a pulse in this movie that a wink to the camera would have done wonders and I loathe winks to cameras in movies like this.

To have, at least, a sense of letting off the melodramatic pedal for a bit and have a little humor, a little self-awareness, even a little understanding that, at the end of the day, we got a guy flying around in tights busting stuff up, would not only alleviate the barrage of seriousness that it constantly thrusts at you, it would just make you feel a little better that you actually sat through the whole thing. As a result we have something that is just tiresome as you sit back and say "oh...it's over. Ok then".


Lois Lane serves no purpose to This Story

Other than to tokenly (not a word) have Lois Lane in a Superman film, she really serves no purpose whatsoever. Amy Adams as Lois is fine, but the character doesn’t add anything other than one small plot point of her on a spaceship and actually doing something (that, still, is kind of inconsequential in the grand scheme of everything else going on). She’s there to look pretty and that’s it. It’s not Adam’s fault, it’s the writing. Plus they completely mishandle the relationship with her and Superman by having them have a kiss in the middle of a destruction of a city. You know the filmmakers were like “Oh, man, that’s going to look so cool” without thinking “You know, a lot of people just died and there’s destruction around them…probably not a good time for a peck."

I like the fact they put aside the whole “doesn’t know who Clark Kent really is” crap that’s hurt the Lois Lane character since her creation, but she still adds nothing to this story. They took that from her to strengthen her and show she’s good at her job yet once she figures that out, what else is there for her to do. It’s like she’s in a different movie and only here because its obligated, not because she herself is interesting or doing anything. The writers could have done much more, but instead we have someone with a lot of screen time but ultimately does as much as a Perry White. Speaking of…


The Rest of the Characters

Shannon, Cavill and Crowe are fine. That’s your central story right there. I might throw Diane Lane in there as well, and maybe Costner even though his character is completely mishandled, but everyone else, form the military figures to the people at the Daily Planet to that random fisherman in India…there’s nothing going on with them. There’s nothing interesting about them. They’re forgettable and even the actors, who are otherwise fine, seem kind of clueless on what to do with them. These are characters that are meant to be the opposite of Zod and his crew. We’re to empathize with them. Get to know them so when shit starts happening, we actually care.

But no. They have as much depth as a Zod crony or Kal-El’s mother (don't get me started on that). I’ve debated the reason why on this, and it all goes back to the film trying to cram a whole lot into the movie rather than streamline it and, maybe, play the long game and introduce other characters in sequels. The studio probably wanted all these people in here, but they don’t do anything. I mean…choose one. Go with the military folks in Lennix, Meloni and Schiff and leave the Metropolis folks for later.

They fit more into the role of the film’s theme of duality to begin with. Then comes the sequel and Lois Lane is covering the destruction of the city, and then hunts down who Superman is and has a moral quandary on whether or not she should reveal it. This guy Luther is all over the news now, speaking out against this alien, and she starts to realize that maybe he’s right. Luther is smart, though. He knows that Lois, like him and this Batman guy in Gotham, are tracking down who Superman is and what his plans are. Lois, with an inside scoop, figures it out before them and doesn’t know if she can trust this god-like person or not. Sure, he insists he’s here for good, but she just saw her city destroyed. Now she’s at a crossroads - tell the world and write a piece about the evils of handing our justice system over to an alien or…

Wow, I just accidentally made Lois Lane more interesting in the fake sequel than she is in this movie. I better stop, but you get my point. This movie didn’t need most of the people that are in it. IT wants to do everything and anything and it suffers as a result.


The Awesome Stuff

It's not all bad, you know...here's some things that people should consider or even re-consider.

 

I Believe I Can Fly

By this I mean this: no other movie represents superpowers as well as Man of Steel does. Not as of this writing, anyways. Visually showcasing strength, speed, agility, lazer-eyes…Man of Steel knocks that out of the park. It all feels weighty. It all feels tangible. And…you know, GIFS serve better than words, and there are plenty of great gifs of this movie’s action and fight scenes.

 

 

 

The Art Design

Space dildos aside…

 
 
...seriously...space dildos....


I love the artistic direction of the movie. The costumes. The way Metropolis and Smallville look. The alienness of Krypton itself. It all is familiar yet all feels new - just a slight twist across the board to make it unique and distinct while still being completely recognizable (something I worry about in upcoming DC movies). I particularly like the whole way everything Krytonian looks, which has never really been set in stone and gave the filmmakers a lot of wiggle room to make something unique and distinct.

Again, this goes into the fantastic visuals that has become synomonisou with a Snyder picture. It all feels weighty and tangible and unique which I think you really needed with Man of Steel. At the same time, it’s not too much of a departure. They struck a great balance visually.


Great Casting…But…

It’s a crime to have such a great cast here, yet have almost nothing for a good portion of them to do. Still, I have to give props in that there are memorable faces and characters here. Sure, they may not have a lot of depth, but the actors do really well with the little that is
given to them. Fishburne, for example, has but two or three main scenes with nothing to do, but he’s still a memorable presence in them. If I was going to cast a stern military guy, I’d certainly look to Harry Lennix. Richard Schiff is solid. Costner and Lane perfect fits for Pa and Ma Kent. I feel Ante Traue steals the show in a lot of ways as well.

Sure, there’s not a lot to most of these characters, but the actors put in their places work overall. Then you throw in the solid trio of Cavill, Crowe and Shannon, the only characters that really do anything or go anywhere (and Cavill is up for debate), and it’s pretty damn good as a whole. At least they got one absolutely right, though, and that's this fella right here...

 

Zod. Is. Awesome.

Ok, the one major, awesome thing I love about Man of Steel: I fucking love Michael Shannon in this movie. He seems to be the only one that kind of feels in place for a comic book movie. He plays it big. He chews the scenery. He was told to play a villain and boy did he as he is the one character that truly exhibits serious emotion in the entire film. He's not a "fun" character, that's because the whole movie doesn't know what "fun" is, but he certainly plays it up and is incredibly enjoyable.

Goyer and Nolan's script had fun with this character. You can tell as he's about the only one that truly leaps off the page and into our social consciousness. Even better is that Zod feels like a three-dimensional villain, probably the only well-rounded character in the entire movie. Here's a guy who represents the old way of doing things. He was built to be a certain thing, and now he no longer can. Clark, though, is the key to him getting his purpose back. It's a clear motivation, again something the rest of the film doesn't quite do well with its characters, which is why Zod is solid and incredibly memorable in the thing.

 

When he says "Release the World Engine" he says it with conviction. It's a silly line, but you absolutely buy it thanks to Shannon.

 

Zod is what a comic book movie villain needs to be. Big. A serious threat. The opposite of what the hero represents - here a subdued, sometimes flat Superman not knowing his direction in life and Zod, emotional and angry, with a clear vision of what he wants and how to do it. If there's any excuse for the blandness of Superman in this movie, I suppose that might be it.

A great comic book movie can still get by with a dull villain (Iron Man comes to mind) but a great villain can't salvage an entire movie if it's not working in the other areas. As great as Zod and Shannon's performance is, it also feels wasted - as though a better movie deserved it.

The Structure (To an Extent)

Man of Steel does something interesting and takes risks when it comes to its presentation. Now whether or not you or I like those story elements is besides the point, I can't say I love it all certainly, but it manages to tell an introspective origin story that covers a hell of a lot of ground while not feeling like an origin story. The bits and pieces of Clark’s past interspersed throughout, even when the messages are mixed (notably with the above-mentioned Pa Kent problem), keep the flow of the whole thing interesting and moving along.

To have a more non-linear approach to your very high-budget summer blockbuster tentpole took guts. We can bemoan the plot details all we want, but there’s no denying that Man of Steel took a lot of risks from a fundamental storytelling standpoint that is more than “this happened…then this happened…now he’s Superman and this other stuff is going to happen.”

Now don’t go mistaking this for the story always making sense. Sometimes linear, basic stories are great, but they’re also overdone when it comes to this genre. Man of Steel’s willingness to take a chance is something I kind of admire but at the same time it also brings it down, so I suppose it’s kind of a push because we’re slogging through two acts of blandness until we get to that awesome third act. Speaking of…


Dat Third Act Doe

The single one thing that is totally awesome with Man of Steel, other than Zod obviously, is how it handles its action, as mentioned, and the fact that the third act is literally nothing but really long action scenes back to back. It kind of sucks that it’s back-ended with it all, but all the Superman movies kind of do that so I’m willing to give it some leeway. The third act is everything but the kitchen sink thrown into the movie. It has variety and, best of all, its all done incredibly well. I mean, that action just looks fantastic. From the Smallville fight, probably my favorite, which really gives you a great sense of the strength and speed of these aliens, to the fighting a giant mechanical beast in an ocean, to a one-on-one brawl of Superman versus one of his arch Nemsis.

It’s kind of set up like the Dr. Wily stages in a Mega Man game: you have to fight all the regular people and some mini-bosses then take on the big baddie at the end and it feels so wonderfully satisfying as it builds and builds to it. More importantly is that, seeing as how the story can’t quite get the tone and sense of weight to it all right, the action here “feels” right. That’s certainly Zach Snyder’s strength - when the script isn’t working, at least make the action memorable. It’s too bad the rest of the movie doesn’t have more action, I suppose, but in terms of presenting Superman action on the big screen and doing a lot with it, Man of Steel totally nails it.



So…Is It Really That Bad?

I'm not here to defend a movie or play devil's advocate, I just like to write out thoughts and see where we end up. So...in the case of Man of Steel, is it really that bad?

Yeah. It kind of is. It has some awesome things in it, but overall, it's a dull, often lifeless movie that is great to look at and be entertained in its third act by...but boy is getting there a chore.

The great casting doesn’t matter if you don’t have great characters to do something with. Outside of Crowe and Shannon, everyone else is a bit bland. That’s not the actors’ fault, though, but a problem with the script. We simply don’t see the clear picture of any of the main players, the romance never feels right, the father-son relationships never feel right, dialogue is stilted and sometimes way too expository, some characters (like Perry White) serve absolutely no purpose to the story and have nothing to do at all…

…but on top of that, you have the weird tone of it all. The super-serious nature of a big-budget action movie that turns it from entertainment to a dulling experience where the entire point becomes “Let’s sit through the first forgettable and dull 2/3rds and get to that final awesome action stuff…

That’s no way to make a movie. You can’t slog through a good chunk and then try to make-good with the third act. You need a complete package. Superman deserves a complete package. There’s some interesting ideas that the movie is trying to put out there, I think trying to dive into the character is a great, sound idea, but it falls flat, and there’s some things it absolutely gets right (action mainly) but dammit, it just doesn’t put it all together.

 

There’s some great, technical achievements happening too. I mean, this is one good looking movie. It has a distinct style to it, certainly the art direction as mentioned, and the action is well staged and effects top-notch. It also tries to do a ton and manages to fit it all in without it being too overflowing with stuff. It takes its time, which is good, but unfortunately what it does with that time isn’t so good.

I suppose Man of Steel is less an outright awful movie as its been made up to be as much as it is an extremely disappointing one, which is why it kind of deserves its bad reputation. You can see the elements at work here. There’s a lot of small bits and pieces that might have been amazing if in a better film with better characters. The plot is fine. The story itself is fine. The way it tells it is fine. It’s just the things it chooses to do with characters and the tone don’t work with it all, and we end up with a movie that is less “Superman!” and more “What Might Have Been…”


 

 

  

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