Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Weekday Review: Man of Steel

The Grand General of Meh.
There's a character in Koei's Dynasty Warriors series called Lu Meng.  His most interesting attribute is always how completely and utterly average he is.  He's a decent fighter; he does decent damage, has decent defenses, and a decent moveset.  His appearance is always aesthetically pleasing, if unremarkable, and his voice acting and writing is always serviceable without being particularly noteworthy.  He is, essentially, the embodiment of "eh, not bad."

(As a note, the actual Lu Meng--the historical, or rather, "historical" version--is actually one of the more interesting and admirable characters in the Three Kingdoms saga.  It's just his video game incarnation that's decidedly slightly-above-average.)

My unofficial brother and I have long used "Lu Meng" as an adjective to describe things that weren't particularly good, but weren't really bad, either.  I've seen a few other attempts to describe that particular brand of mediocrity elsewhere; Young Justice coined the term "whelmed," and there's always the old standby of "well, you know, it was okay, I guess."

Man of Steel was, for me, decidedly Lu Meng.

That isn't to say that it was bad, not by any means.  There's a lot to like here, and some of the complaints about the movie being too grim or too "Nolan-y" are unfounded.  The movie certainly has a serious tone, and there isn't a lot of humor to be found, but it never seemed like a depressing slog of tragedy and violence.  Superman may not crack jokes, but he does act like Superman: he isn't resentful, he doesn't bear those less powerful than him any real ill will, and he goes out of his way to save the lives of those around him... even when they were just shooting at him.

Perhaps the movie's greatest strength is Henry Cavill, who plays the eponymous Man of Steel.  Cavill really has nailed the inherent goodness and nobility that make up Superman's core, the things that make him the moral center of superheroism.  He gets to show a decent range of emotions, all while maintaining an air of calm, confident resolve that what he's doing is the right thing.

The film also has some amazing action scenes.  Just having action scenes in a Superman movie is amazing enough--looking at you, Superman Returns--but the fights here really sell the power of the characters and the unchecked devastation they can cause.  There's plenty of bits that wouldn't look out of place in an anime, and that is by no means meant as a disparaging comment.  The fight Supes has with Evil Kryptonian Lady and Evil Really Tall Guy is a particular standout, with some great choreography and bone-crunching impact.

If only the film had a better plot to go with it.

Man, JLU was awesome.
General Zod is an incredibly boring villain.  He's never been in a very good story, and yet writers keep trying to shoehorn him into comics and TV shows and films.  I get it; he's a physical match for Superman, and he represents the dark side of Kal-El's native society, a mirror held up to the shiny, idyllic society based on science and tranquility we see elsewhere.  The thing is, there's already a villain who does that better: Braniac.  Goofy name aside, Braniac (in most modern incarnations) is a rogue Kryptonian AI bent on destroying all life in the universe so as to preserve all knowledge in statis.  He's a character whose power can scale to any level required; he can be anything from a lone agent to a vast, nigh-omnipotent collective of killer robots.  He's versatile, he's intimidating, and hey, if you're going to introduce Lex Luthor at some point, you've already got a really great story to crib from.

But Zod?  Meh.  He has one really quotable line from Superman 2, and suddenly he's one of Supes' top-tier villains.  But he's never been particularly interesting in any way except that he's Fascist Superman, and y'know what?  There's already a Captain Nazi--one of Captain Marvel's old bad guys--and that ridiculous bastard is far more entertaining a punching bag.

That's not to denigrate Michael Shannon's performance, mind you.  He does an admirable job portraying the character, giving him a ton of gravitas, authority, and intensity.  He's an interesting and complex individual with a worldview based in the knowledge that he was, literally, created for a single purpose.  But at the end of the day, he is, alas, still Zod.

And man, does Zod have a stupid freaking plan.

But that's skipping ahead awhile.  The movie starts on Krypton, a few days or weeks before it goes kaboom.  In an interesting twist on the classic mythology, the death of Krypton is actually a man-made catastrophe that Jor-El warned against; rather than playing the doomsday prophet, he's instead come to terms with his race's imminent destruction and has been working on a plan to preserve at least some portion of it.  While he's meeting with the Council of Silly Hats, however, General Zod stages a coup, and we get some really cool action scenes, some brokenhearted bromance between Jor and Zod, and finally a battle to the death that proves that Russel Crowe really needs to start wearing some kind of piercing-resistant armor around his heart, because dudes just keep shanking him there.

For the ladies.  (And guys, if you like.)
Fast-forward thirty three years, and we're on Earth, where Henry Cavill does some stuff while not wearing a shirt--and I've got to admit, if I had that dude's upper body, I'd never not not wear a shirt--and then apparently gets hired on at some sort of Arctic expedition to uncover a big, strange something that's been buried in ice for around 18,000 years.  This is also where we meet Lois Lane, who I've got to admit, is actually kind of awesome in this.  Within (real-time) minutes of seeing Superman in action, she's done her homework, tracked him back to Smallville, and learned his secret identity.  For once, Lois really does seem like the kind of investigative reporter who might have won a Pulitzer.

That said, some of her line deliveries do seem a bit... I dunno.  Forced?  Like she wasn't quite right for the part.  I mean, I love Amy Adams--if you've seen Enchanted and didn't fall a little bit in love with her, you may not have a soul--but she never quite came across as the earthy, world-weary veteran journalist that the script seemed to want her to be.

Anyway, the mysterious iceberg thing turns out to contain an ancient Kryptonian scout ship.  See, apparently the Kryptonians once ruled a vast, galaxy-spanning empire.  During this period, they apparently never discovered that yellow suns and Nitrogen-rich atmospheres gave them superpowers, even though they clearly landed on Earth.  And then they decided that, eh, having a huge space empire is kind of lame, so they stopped doing that and destroyed their planet instead.  And there apparently aren't scattered descendants of Kryptonian colonists pretty much everywhere, because they all died somehow, because apparently none of the colonies they founded were the least bit self-sufficient...

Agh.  Right.  So.  Clark, using the Magical Kryptonian USB Spike... on a ship at least twenty millenia old... because Krypton's technology never advanced enough during that time to make hardware compatibility an issue... ahem.  Clark summons the Virtual Ghost of Jor-El, because apparently Kryptonians could upload their entire consciousness into their Magical USB Spikes, which makes me wonder why they didn't just upload a bunch of important people and launch a time capsule with instructions on how to activate their holograms... dammit.  Sorry.  Okay.  Clark, after saving Lois from a killer security robot, launches the ship and pilots it to Antarctica, and Jor-El explains who Clark is, and who Zod is, and gives him his costume, and neglects to explain the reasons why he sent Clark to Earth in the first place, even though knowing them might have helped him deal with Zod later on, and... dammit.

"Hi, I'm here for the Marcus Fenix audition."
Yeah, so this is where the movie starts to fall apart.  Pretty much everything having to do with Krypton is stupid.  Zod's ultimate plan, as it turns out, is to reclaim the Codex, a list of which pre-grown baby is supposed to do what that Jor-El stole before the planet blew up.  He desperately needs this, even though he has a bunch of the pre-grown baby pods on his ship.  Is the Codex required to activate the pods?  Is he just really concerned about, say, telling a kid who was supposed to be a stock broker to study masonry instead?  Eh, whatever.  He needs it, he knows Jor-El stole it, and he suspects Clark has it on his Magical Kryptonian USB Spike.

So, Zod arrives on Earth and delivers--through an admittedly really cool scene--his demands: humanity will turn over Superman, who at this point is really just an urban myth, or he'll start killing folks.  Clark surrenders and he and Lois are taken to Zod's ship, where his resident Nazi mad scientist guy straps Clark down and takes a sample of his blood.  Eventually, the Virtual Ghost of Jor-El breaks Clark out, and he goes back to Earth and throws a guy into a train, and it is awesome.

A bunch of fighting happens.  Metropolis is basically destroyed.  Tens of thousands die horribly as buildings collapse and errant missiles land in crowded city streets.  The movie pays no attention to this, and it's one of my big problems with the film.  There is a lot of collateral damage during the fight scenes, and while we never really see any of the horrible death and dismemberment on screen (because PG-13), it doesn't take much imagination.  Especially given the extreme resemblance between some of the shots and on-ground footage from the 9/11 attacks.

By the end, Zod has discovered that the Codex isn't on the Magical Kryptonian USB Spike, but encoded into Superman's very DNA.  He decides to kill Clark to obtain it.  But, uh... if it's in his DNA, wouldn't it be in that big vial of blood Mad Scientist Guy extracted?  I mean, I'm no biologist, but I've been led to understand that every single cell in your body contains DNA for the whole shebang.  But, okay, whatever.  There's more fighting, everyone but Zod gets sucked into the Phantom Zone (including Professor Hammond; I guess CADMUS won't figure prominently into the sequel, huh).

You might have heard fans of Superman's other incarnations complaining very loudly about a particular event at the end of the climactic final battle.  Superman has Zod in a sleeper hold.  Zod is using his laser vision, inching it slowly towards a family of innocent bystanders who don't have the sense to, y'know, duck.  (Though Zod doesn't have the sense to move his eyes without turning his head, so whatever.)  Superman, desperate to save these innocents, does the only thing he can think of in the moment: he snaps Zod's neck, killing him.

The problem that fans have with this scene is that Superman Does Not Kill.  Even moreso than Batman, Superman is known as a guy who will always, always find a nonlethal solution.  The few times he actually takes a life, it's always shown to be the beginning of a downward spiral that typically ends with him ruling the planet as a fascist dictator.  However, in this case?  I'm kind of okay with it.  Not because I feel Superman should kill--ever--but because this is, I feel, a setup for a deep and insightful examination of why Superman does not--and typically does not feel the need to--use lethal force.  He clearly seemed devastated by having to kill Zod, even if the movie didn't spend much time focusing on it; it's not hard to imagine that, from here on out, this version of Superman is going to everything within his nigh-infinite power to find creative alternatives to ending his enemies' lives.  Because, as many detractors of the scene have pointed out, he's Superman.  A character for whom there is always a third option, if he can just find it.  That's part of the power fantasy; if you look hard enough, you can always find a way to resolve things on your own terms.

"Son, if I'm ever about to throw my life away for
a stupid and pointless reason, I want you to
promise not to save me."
Really, if people were going to complain about a scene, I have a much better one: Pa Kent's mindbogglingly stupid, senseless death.  Throughout the film, a series of flashbacks show Clark's youth and upbringing.  During Lois' investigations, we learn that Pa is dead.  Towards the end of the film, we find out how: he got tornado'd to death because he was a paranoid idiot who told Clark not to save him because there were people watching, and because Clark, for some ungodly reason, actually listened to him.

I'm sorry, but no.  I know not everyone has a good relationship with their father, but assuming that yours wasn't a complete rat bastard, would you let him run off into a tornado by himself?  (I mean, if you were an adult yourself.  If you're a kid, sure, but Clark was clearly at least 17-18 here.)  Hell no.  Especially not if you were an invincible alien who could move at the speed of sound.  Let him be pissed at you afterwards for potentially blowing your cover; he's your Dad, for Chrissake.  And besides, I'm pretty sure they were near Smallville, and by this point in the film it's clear that damn near everyone in the town knows Clark has superpowers.

Just... mind-blowingly stupid.  I get the idea that the movie was going for--that Clark trusted his dad, yadda yadda--but that's bullshit.  No one who loved their father would just stand there and let him die if they could do something to save him, especially if they were freaking Superman.

It's by far the worst part of this movie, but there are a few other really, really dumb moments.  For instance, why is Zod terraforming the planet?  It's stated that the combination of Sol's radiation and the Earth's nutrient-rich atmosphere gave Clark superpowers.  Aside from a little trouble breathing as an infant, and some discomfort while coming into his powers as a child, there weren't any negative consequences of growing up here.  Zod's stated goal is to protect and rebuild the Kryptonian race, and if he does it on Earth as it currently is, he's not just giving the next generation a new home... he's giving them the ability to shoot freaking laser beams out of their eyes.

Zod, the greatest military mind of Krypton.
Seriously, you want to terraform this place?  You should be incorporating our sunlight and atmosphere into your armored suits, you nincompoop.  Then you can pretty much go anywhere in the galaxy and conquer any damn planet you please, and you don't have to get into a deathmatch with the guy who's been soaking this energy up for three decades.

Well, wait, that apparently doesn't matter, because the Kryptonians become just as powerful as Superman the moment they arrive on Earth. Which... just... dammit, movie!  If you're going to actually take the time to introduce a quasi-sorta-scientific-sounding explanation for Superman's powers, stick with it!  And on the same note, why does being exposed to Kryptonian atmosphere immediately drain Supes' powers?  Was Jor-El just full of crap?

Plot holes.  Big, stupid, obvious plot holes that, as much as I want to, I can't ignore.  The action is still fantastic, and Henry Cavill really does do a great job as the Big Blue Boy Scout, but man, the story is all kinds of weak.  In the end, I'm left pretty unsatisfied with the whole thing.  It's not terrible by any means, and its strengths may well outweigh its weaknesses, but it's not something I'll be watching again any time soon.

That said?  I am totally on board for the sequel.  There are a lot of good directions the series can go from here--assuming, of course, that it's going to become a series--and I'm eager to see which path they choose.

I really hope it's Brainiluthor.

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