Skip to content

Mike From Nowhere Vs. MAN OF STEEL (2013)

For a long time, I struggled with John Byrne’s take on Krypton back in the late 1980’s. There were elements in it that I thought were silly and at times downright ruinous. I felt, in a lot of ways, that it neglected what I considered to be crucial elements of Superman – the nature of his identity, for example, which I’ve argued about before, or how it chose to handle Luthor by making him the Kingpin. And of course, John Byrne cannot write a woman to save his soul.

I’m also used to Superman in media disappointing us. Superman, to his fans, is an intensely personal character and one misplaced word can break the spell. He’s also fundamentally a character about hope, altruism, seeing the best in others and not taking the easy way out, which are not popular qualities in modern action cinema or media. (Far more people cheered on Jack Bauer torturing people than we’d like to admit.) Attempts to make him “relevant” can be interpreted as code for “make him Batman with a different colored cape.”

So I’ll understand if the minor flaws and one big flaw in Man of Steel break the movie for you, because that big flaw’s a biggie. But I’m legitimately amazed to say that despite those flaws, I thought it was really good – in fact, mostly great.

We all know the story. Doomed planet, desperate scientists, last hope, and kindly couple. Enough new wrinkles are introduced, however, that the story never feels like a retread. After a brisk opening on Krypton that sets the pace for the rest of this film – it moves fast – the movie immediately cuts to Clark Kent as an adult, struggling with his desire to belong to society via helping people and his fear of losing his anonymity and being rejected by the same. It’s a relatable fear to have, and one of the tricks the movie pulls is not changing very much at all about Superman while incorporating universal themes and fears that everyone has. No one on Earth is an alien, but everyone at times feels alienated.

The one who’s truly been reimagined by Zack Snyder is Zack Snyder himself. Gone is Snyder’s love of ramping and slo-motion and style as its own substance. He sticks to a hand-held camera and any pauses in the action are incorporated into the action itself – the villains pausing to savior the fear in their enemy’s eyes, for example. This won’t alleviate fears that Snyder has no substance, since many of the techniques he makes use of her have been used in other films (circular pans around Superman, for example, or the handheld-style zoom-refocus that Battlestar Galactica incorporated into its bag of tricks.) But this is Snyder’s best film to date.

It helps that Snyder’s typical weakness – his tendency to coax less than stellar acting out of his cast – is shored up by a truly stellar cast. From Cavill on down, there’s not a weak link in the bunch, though there sure are some weak lines (that credit goes to David Goyer, screenwriter for the Dark Knight Trilogy, whose overwrought dialogue is not so much worse in this film as having worn out its welcome.) There are a few scenes that hit the themes of the movie square on the head, but the themes are, to me, relevant and powerful enough that I can forgive them.

The movie is essentially about trust and acceptance. Clark accepting who he is. Clark trusting that the world will accept who he is.  Clark trusting Lois to guard the secrets he entrusts her with, and Lois in turn trusting Clark with her life. Jor-El and Lara trusting that the ship will make it to Earth despite the long-forgotten and imperfect science of space travel being all that they can rely on (in one of the movie’s finer touches, Krypton’s xenophobia and short-sightedness is what dooms it, as their society stagnates, draws inwards, and gives up the stars.) Zod’s inability to accept that his world is gone drives the plot.

The problems in this movie come down to a few plot issues, which I’ll delve into below – along with story details that I felt far outweigh what the movie gets wrong. If you wish to skip spoilers, please skip over the section bookended by super-pope.jpg.

Image

At times, the plot moves at such an accelerated clip that moments go underexplained even when the explanation is present – for example, we find out that the reason Lois is brought onto Zod’s ship is because she was interrogated just as surely as Clark is, but it’s a dashed off line of dialogue that is easily skipped. Likewise, the keys that drive Krypton’s technology have uncertain properties – the key that powers Kal-El’s ship seems to wind up in two different places, implying that it can be duplicated, but if it’s stated as such then I must have missed that.

More problematic, and the single biggest problem in the movie, is the climax, where – after a truly terrific fight with Superman against a skyscraper-sized starship that attacks with nanobot tentacles – the Kryptonian criminals are sent back to the Phantom Zone. But Zod remains, and throws down with Superman in a devastated Metropolis. Zod’s mastery of his powers is growing by the minute, and it’s implied that the anguish of his hypersenses is driving him insane. At the climax, Zod tries to turn his heat vision onto a family of four, and Superman stops him by breaking his neck.

Yep.

Yes, I realize that Superman killed the Phantom Zone criminals in Superman 2, and that at the time they were defenseless, having lost their powers. Yes, I’m aware that the same problem undercuts the theme of The Dark Knight, where not fifteen minutes after upholding his One Rule, Batman breaks it by killing Harvey Dent. Yes, I know that this is how the aforementioned John Byrne era of Superman ended, and yes, I know that superheroes are more kill-happy in the movies than in the comics. And yes, this is the best version of this mistake, as Superman doesn’t toss off a quippy bon mot – he breaks down in tears over what he’s been forced to do.

It’s still something that Superman shouldn’t do. (Not doesn’t do – the aforementioned times, Superman’s killed plenty – but shouldn’t. There is a difference.) Superman shouldn’t take the low road. He shouldn’t go for the easy way out. What makes Superman Superman is that he will move Heaven and Earth to find a better way. His greatest victories are when he wins via cleverness and inspiration – qualities that win the day in his first fight with Zod, and in the two-pronged assault on the World Builder that exemplifies the trust that Superman has in us and that we in turn place in him.

Both of these are absent in this last battle. Superman wins with brute force. It is an amazingly thematically tone deaf moment and I totally understand it if fans of Superman reject the movie over it, much as it took me a long time to come around on what John Byrne did with Superman. It’s entirely possible that Goyer and Snyder are going somewhere with this and will have Superman’s commitment to nonlethal force tested in the second movie, with the arc being similar to (and hopefully handled better than) The Dark Knight.  But I can’t judge a movie that isn’t out yet.

So why do I still think Man of Steel is mostly great? Because while it gets this wrong, it gets so much else right.

For example, in the fight in Smallville, where Superman is outnumbered two to one, and then the military shows up to open fire on all of them, the battle begins with Superman distrusted by the military that not too long ago he surrendered to. Despite this, when Faora destroys a helicopter that moments ago was shooting at him (and a town full of civilians) Superman catches the man who falls out of it and checks to ensure he’s all right. Later, after the Kryptonians have departed and Superman emerges from the rubble, he faces a wall of rifles. The man Superman saved lowers his rifle, and they all follow his example, as Superman’s actions have won their trust. It mirrors a flashback moment where, after saving a bully at school from drowning, the bully winds up Clark’s best friend. Superman’s best victories are when he turns enemies into allies, even if only briefly.

Another standout is Lois Lane, who Christopher Bird argues is the best female character in comics. There is no interpretation of Lois in any movie that even comes close to this one. She is Superman’s partner. She knows who he is before he even does. She’s in on his secret from the beginning and is willing to risk jail rather than expose it. She keeps all her clothes on (it’s Clark who gets objectified, running around shirtless in the movie’s first big rescue and being called a hottie by one of the female soldiers.) Alyssa Rosenberg argues that by this virtue alone, Man of Steel is possibly the most aggressively feminist superhero movie of this generation, and I have a hard time disagreeing. Amy Adams pounds a stake through the heart of Silver Age Lois and her blatantly sexist characterization, then buries it in the ground with garlic stuffed in its cheeks. Good riddance.

There’s also the virtue of Laurence Fishburne as a note-perfect Perry White – a role that’s traditionally been white – and having a “Jenny” rather than a Jimmy at the Daily Planet. This summer has seen a lot of whitewashing, from Star Trek Into Darkness to The Lone Ranger trying to convince us that Johnny Depp counts as a Native American. Man of Steel goes the other direction – a far more welcome one.

Then, of course, there’s the action. I’m actually not sure if it is the best superheroic action put on film – at the least, it lacks the protectorship of The Avengers, where the team takes pains to rescue people even if they’re slaughtering bug robots by the dozen – but a close second is not bad at all. They’re directed with amazing technical skill and are full of lots of clever touches, like Superman slicing a steel beam in half with his heat vision just before it connects. While it’s nowhere near as funny as The Avengers, there are some great moments of physical comedy and sight gags, like Clark’s revenge on a sexist, violent trucker that assaults him, or his first failed attempt at flight.

Finally, all of it’s anchored by Cavill as Superman himself, who is the model of earnestness that Superman must embody, while delivering a new spin on it. If the Donner films were about Superman-as-Christ, this is Superman as a Christian – searching for meaning, pondering difficult ethical quandaries, suffering from the occasional shortsighted comment or action that he immediately regrets. Young Clark is even seen reading Plato at one point, one of many subtle character touches, because of course Clark Kent would ponder ethics from an early age. Cavill paints a portrait of a Superman for whom being Superman is not a state he occupies but one he continually strives towards with superhuman might. It’s an interpretation that allows Superman to grow into being Superman.

Postscript: the last two lines of the movie are perfect.

Image

So overall, Man of Steel is really good, with one flaw that may be forgivable or unforgivable as the case may be. I would rank it on par with Dark Knight Rises but below The Dark Knight and above Batman Begins, using the most directly comparable recent superhero movies. I do want to see it again and I think it has a lot to offer the Superman mythos, especially in its treatment of Lois Lane. If there’s any lesson Superman has for me, it’s to see the best in something. When I look at this movie through those eyes, I find a lot to like.

REAL TALK: Doctor Who Edition

The worst Steven Moffat episode is better than the best Russell T. Davies episode.

Wherein I Tweet About Current Events.

image

Twitter’s a hard drug. So is FanFiction.net.

Mike Versus MASS EFFECT 3: CITADEL – One Last Bow

If the original ending was the climax and the Extended Cut was the epilogue, then Citadel, the new Mass Effect 3 DLC, is the curtain call.

Spoilers ahead after the (extended) cut. Read more…

Why I Still Love Kingdom Come

So this happened.

Believe it or not, the preview doesn’t even begin to cover how rough it gets in this comic. Not only does Jimmy Olsen buy the farm, but Lois Lane is beaten to death by her husband while she is pregnant thanks to mind control agents cut with Kryptonite. Yes, it’s all a Dark Alternate Timeline and blurp blarp blah. If there ever was a definition of a “women in refrigerators” moment in comics, this would be it.

It’s not even an original “fridge moment,” since the exact same scenario is the catalyst for Kingdom Come, the 1996 DC “Elseworlds” series that posits a future where Superman’s spirit is broken, he retires from the world, and in turn, the world worsens as his generation of superheroes loses their way and the next generation turns out to be mindlessly nihilistic and violent. This got me thinking: why do I still love Kingdom Come, even though it’s arguably as objectionable? Read more…

Mike From Nowhere, Twitter Superhero.

Oh, so when he said "the 24 inch pythons" he meant oooooohhhhhhh.

Merry Christmas, Chris Sims’ mom. You can have the day off, because I took your son to school.

(Love ya Chris)

Things That Are All True: Gun Control Edition

1) Obama’s gun control proposals are pretty good. I like ’em.

2) But I’m a squishy Canadian from a country with a low shooting rate and seven million firearms, so what the hey do I know

3) And anyways, said proposals don’t have a hope in Hell of passing.

4) … with this Congress. Read more…