I’ve been blogging for years. I’m not sure if you’d call what I’ve done or have been doing successful or not, when it comes to blogging and other areas of my life, but what I keep coming back to is the fact that old stories still have something to tell us. I have no problem, on a fundamental level, with something getting a reboot or a re-imagining, as long as the core of the story remains intact and the talented people telling the story are either plying close to that core or going in an entirely new direction with it.
It’s why I can’t bring myself to full-on hate or even mildly dislike the new Star Trek films. The settings and characters I and many others grew up with are being taken in a new direction. The storytelling stumbles here and there, and I’m not quite convinced that that Abrams and his crew can, in fact, give us something entirely new out of these old and familiar trappings, but I am cautiously optimistic. In fact, if I were to put Into Darkness and Man of Steel side by side, I’d say that Abrams and company are doing more right by the Starfleet folks than the current bunch at the helm of the DC film universe are doing in terms of breathing new life into their given amphitheater. At least Into Darkness didn’t rehash any of its narrative within the film and infused its characters with humanity and charm within the writing, rather than relying on the actors to do that stuff.
The problem, as I see it, is that it is far too easy to stick to the old story points and simply apply modern thinking to them, rather than take a tale’s themes or characters or message in a new direction. What really bothers me about the practice is how lazy it seems. If you want to use an old tale or property to tell a story, go for it; all that I would ask is that you do something new with it. Another example would be the difference between Immortals and the Clash of the Titans retread: while Immortals had a little trouble staying on-point with its storytelling, its visual imagination and portrayal of ancient Greece felt unique and striking, while the new Titans felt drab and lackluster on pretty much all fronts. I mean, sure, it was still fun to see Sam Worthington fight giant scorpions, and Liam Neeson was born to play gods, but the thrust of the story felt weak because there was nothing new about it.
As scarce as new ideas tend to be, it’s no wonder that older stories often come up for a rehash now and again. As I’ve said, I’m all about old stories getting told in new ways. The emphasis here is on ‘new’ – a good storyteller should try to do something that hasn’t been done before, or mix things together that haven’t been mixed. Any idiot with a keyboard can bash out a story about a superhero or vampires or old myths – the question is, what makes your story about a superhero or vampires or old myths stand out? What will make people want to read it? Why, at the end of the day, do you have to write it?
I kidnapped my father to see Man of Steel in celebration of both Father’s Day and his birthday, which fall on the same date this year. I will admit I went into the movie theater carrying some fears. It was my hope that Zack Snyder’s visual panache, Hans Zimmer’s music, and the performances of these actors could put those fears into the Phantom Zone and I could truly fall in love with Superman on the big screen. It’s difficult to put yourself in front of a big summer blockbuster and eject all preconcieved notions from your had, but I did my best when the lights went down and this film began.
Krypton was a world destroyed by its own hubris. Having exhausted its resources and bent its population to a strict genetic template, it was on the cusp of disaster when its most brilliant scientist, Jor-El, chooses to have a natural born child with his wife, Lara Lor-Van. At the same time, General Zod and his officers stage a violent coup. When Zod comes for the Codex, a Kryptonian device containing the aforementioned template, Jor-El fights him off while Lara launches the rocket containing their son, Kal. Kal-El lands safely on Earth while the last act of his doomed homeland is to banish Zod and his followers to the Phantom Zone. Thirty years later, Kal (known as Clark Kent thanks to his adoptive parents) is on the cusp of unlocking the secrets of his past, while a mysterious spacecraft makes contact with Earth.
That’s about as concise as I can make the synopsis of the plot of Man of Steel. It’s a little convoluted and some things are explained at great length, but then again, this is David S Goyer and Christopher Nolan we’re talking about. Now, I like these guys. They gave us three very good Batman movies in the Dark Knight trilogy. But something DC Comics writers discovered years ago is you can’t write a Superman story the way you write a Batman story. Batman is all about a lonely man waging a neverending and possibly self-destructive war on crime with his wits and funds. Superman is about a truly alien immigrant making a place for himself amongst puny creatures that, for all of their flaws and failings, he really admires and finds himself fond of. He’s supportive of us, as a whole. He wants to challenge us to aspire to greater things. He’s whimsical about us.
And damn if he ain’t a fine-lookin’ specimen.
My big hangup with Man of Steel, the thing that keeps me from outright loving it as a whole, is that there’s no whimsy. There’s no levity. There’s barely even any humor at all. Much like the Dark Knight trilogy, the film is solidly grounded, quite cerebral, and intent on explaining everything to us in detail. I very nearly shouted “SHOW, DON’T TELL!” at the screen at least once. As much as I admire the time spent with the Kryptonian world-building (more on that in a bit), so much of it was laid out in plain English rather than relying on visual storytelling that it fails to engage on any emotional level whatsoever. A story like this needs pathos to overcome its more fantastical elements, not an in-depth schematic on how those elements work. Time spent outlining the particulars of those schematics is time that could have been spent making characters people instead of ciphers.
Thankfully, one of the things Man of Steel has is an extremely talented and very well directed cast. Zack Snyder, on top of his legendary visual chops, has a habit of getting good performances out of his actors even when the material involves superhumans rearranging atoms or half-naked warriors spouting fatalistic platitudes. And Henry Cavill, our new Kal-El, has an easy and natural charm about him, an aspect that’s clearly evident whenever the script lightens up enough to let him crack a smile (which isn’t often enough). Amy Adams is a clever and pro-active Lois Lane, but again, the script undercuts her and requires her to put forth more effort to connect both with her co-star and with us. I loved Russel Crowe’s Jor-El for a variety of reasons, even if the script seemed to be pushing some messianic overtones extremely hard. And while Zod may be bound by his genetic template to be a conqueror, Micheal Shannon not only makes this role his own but gives us depth and nuance to what would otherwise be an extremely one-dimensional villain.
Zod could have been cartoonish; instead he has pathos, drive, and surprising humanity.
The more I think about it, the more the problems I have with Man of Steel seem to be squarely in the writing department. Zack Snyder has yet to direct a film that does not jump off the screen at you, even without the ridiculous 3D markup. While Sucker Punch is still on my to-watch list, his work with 300 and Watchmen remains firmly in my mind. This is a man who grasps iconic imagery, well-paced action with clear camera work, proper scene construction, even facial tics and body language to make an actor state something without saying a word. He brought his “A” game to Man of Steel, and a good thing too, as he hammers great moments, from the most destructive of fist-fights to the most touching of family scenes, out of a script that must have been terrible to read through multiple times in perparation for performance.
And here’s a review that’s becoming overly long and verbose in response! I’d hate to give the impression that I did not enjoy Man of Steel, because I did. The scope of the movie is grand and bombastic, worthy of the big screen. The action sequences are spectacular to behold (if a bit long towards the end). The world-building done for Krypton in the first 15 minutes is concise and fascinating, well worth the price of admission (even if it gets a re-tread 45 minutes later). Hans Zimmer’s score is absolutely gorgeous, the overall look and feel of the film is amazing, and everything I said about Snyder’s direction and the work of these actors makes me want to love Man of Steel without reservation.
I can’t. But I want to.
Stuff I Liked: They did one of my favorite in-flight/in-space camera moves: wide shot, zoom in, track the object while focusing. It worked in Battlestar Galactica and Firefly, and it works here. The action is clean and sharp; no shakey cam or overt trickery here. CGI looks great. The palate feels fresh and real and grounded even if it’s a bit washed-out in places; I liked the feeling of weight everything had. Stuff I Didn’t Like: The script feels drab, dour, and almost clinical in places. The action gets a bit long towards the end. They easily could have used either the opening sequence on Krypton or the history lesson Jor-El gives his son; they didn’t necessarily need both. They spent a lot of time explaining things in detail when they could have been fleshing out characters, or letting Superman rescue a cat from a tree or something. Come on, Chris, come on, David, lighten up, would ya?? Stuff I Loved: This cast, you guys. This. Cast. They are not just enjoying this opportunity to be these characters, they are working like crazy to give life to lifeless lines. Even the bit players amongst the military felt pretty fleshed out, and had actual presence alongside superhumans – great work by Christopher Meloni in particular. Zack Snyder’s direction brings out the best in the actors as well as driving home all of the action folks found lacking in Superman Returns; even the film’s most drawn out passages are quite watchable thanks to his touch. I’m still humming the score. I want a sequel, because I think this universe and these characters have so much potential to break out of the shackles of this dreary origin story. And I love the fact that I believe I will like it more if I see it again.
Bottom Line:Man of Steel is a great summer blockbuster and a decent Superman movie. Do not go in expecting the levity or whimsy of Richard Donner’s Superman films, or even the relfective humanity of Superman Returns, and you should be fine. Ignore what you can of the over-wrought, over-complicated script, and focus on the characters, the action, and the potential this has to become something even greater than it is. That, after all, is what Superman – and the human experience – is all about.
Slight modification for this post, but it’s still appropriate. I’m still on vacation, so enjoy this post from a couple years ago.
Think of a favorite story of yours, or a beloved character. Chances are there are things about that story or character you take for granted. Here are some examples: Superman fights for truth, justice and the American way. Aragorn is proud of his heritage and wishes to reclaim his throne. Buffy learns of her destiny as a Slayer while she’s a cheerleader in high school. Tyr’s hand is devoured by a dire wolf named Fenrir.
Change one thing about any of those stories, and everything changes.
Warren Ellis changed one thing about Superman. If his spaceship had crashed on Earth twelve hours earlier, it would have landed in Sibera, not Kansas. Hence, Red Son, one of the most audacious and comprehensive Elseworlds stories I’ve ever read. No aspect of the DC Universe is unaffected by this one matter of timing, from Kal-El’s relationship with Diana of the Amazons to Hal Jordan’s origin as a Green Lantern. Superman becomes a heroic symbol of Communist Russian under Stalin, all because of the Earth’s rotation.
Aragorn changed in Peter Jackson’s films. Instead of reforging Narsil the red-hot second he reaches Rivendell in his eighty-sixth year, Aragorn shrinks from his destiny. He fears the weakness of men, unconvinced that the blood of Numenor makes him any different from the weak and corrupt people he’s met and will meet. While some die-hard fans of Tolkien’s works threw back their heads and howled at this change (among others), I found this made his character deeper, more realistic and much more interesting and appealing. How many of us are that confident in our own abilities, our own destinies? How many of us entertain doubts about our futures and our capacity to meet the challenges awaiting us? Aragorn, despite his long lifespan and epic destiny, seems much more like us, and thus we are drawn deeper into his story and that of the Fellowship.
Imagine if Buffy found out she was a Slayer at a younger age. Let’s say she’s six years old, her daddy’s attacked by a vampire at an amusement park and she stakes it with a popsicle stick. Just pure instinct: she jumps onto the monster and drives the wood home through sheer panic. How would her story change? How shallow would she really be with blood on her hands at such a young age? Or go the other direction. Buffy’s in her twenties, married to some pretty jerk who has no time for her, so she fills her days shopping and gossiping. It could be like any episode of Sex & the City until the vampires get involved. How reluctant would she be to respond to the call? What if her husband tried to turn things around given her drastic change in lifestyle, only to discover she’s had an affair with Angel? Think about it.
I mentioned Tyr because of The Drifter’s Hand, obviously. It was more a change of genre than a change of events, but it was still an interesting exercise. I plan other changes, as well, for most of the works I have on various burners. The downside is, more rewriting is required. But if the end result works better, it will be worth it.
The new trailer for the upcoming Man Of Steel film is available. If you haven’t seen it already, I recommend taking a look. If you’re a DC fan, you’re probably pretty psyched. Personally, I find myself wondering when Superman became so dour and sullen. The endeavor looks to be steeped in darkness and carrying a current of realism that, unsurprisingly, seems to be cast by the shadow of the bat.
I’m not sure how much my readership these days is familiar with comic books, but most readers would agree that Superman and Batman are very different heroes. Batman comes from a place of pain and weakness, motivated by a very tangible need for justice and vengeance more than anything else. With no superpowers or magical artifacts to aid him, Batman pursues his enemies with only his wits, his martial prowess, and the unlimited funds of a wealthy international corporation. Every night is a struggle, and many situations he survives are near-misses that nearly take his life.
Superman, on the other hand, is an alien from another world. Yes, his world was doomed, but here on Earth he has god-like powers, and discovers new ones on a regular basis. Impervious to physical harm, faster than man’s fastest technology, strong beyond mortal reckoning… the list goes on. He’s the sort of hero that lends himself less to a gritty, down-on-the-streets sort of story and more to the kind of yarn where he punches ten-story-tall steam-powered robots in the face so they stop hosing down Main Street with disintegration rays.
Part of the reason Superman seems appealing to people is because of his outlook. For all of his powers and knowledge, he comes from a place of genuine concern for his adopted planet and its people, wanting to fit in more than he wants to rule or even protect as a pet owner protects their beloved animals. He tries his best to relate to people, allowing himself to be goofy or clumsy if it will both get their attention and cover up what he really is, and even when he’s showing his true self, he speaks to the innocent with a sort of ‘aw, shucks’ charm that, when presented right, does make him a bit more endearing.
Both Christopher Reeve and Brandon Routh were in productions that got this. Back in the Donner days, Superman had a winning smile and did his utmost to be humble in light of everything people saw him doing, and Clark Kent often came off as oafish or shy, despite the opposite clearly being the case if you looked hard enough (Lois Lane did). And in Superman Returns, both identities of the character remain consistent. Clark is still apparently timid, while Superman still has those pearly whites and still wants to remind you that, statistically, flying is the safest way to travel. For all of its problems, Superman Returns not only gave us a fantastic Lois Lane, but also ‘got’ what made Superman a somewhat more interesting character.
Man of Steel, on the other hand, feels like it’s going in another direction, one I’m not entirely sold on.
From Pa Kent apparently being a less than upstanding guy to Clark sporting what is colloquially known as a “beard of sorrow,” Man of Steel is looking to be a super-serious take on Superman. It’s plying more towards a realistic look at the superhero and his world. I can’t comment on the quality of the work nor on the writing of it, but when it comes to this theme and premise, the big question I have is: Why? Why do away with the whimsy and charm? Why, indeed, is it so serious?
Over the last few years this trend has emerged, in which some familiar stories and characters get a “dark and gritty” reboot. Thankfully, they’re not as dipped in darkness and gothic architecture as they were in the 90s, but I find myself wondering why this keeps happening. Taking an old story in a new direction is something I’d definitely advocate, but does it always have to be in this serious a direction? There’s a reason the Flash Gordon TV series from a few years back failed, other than the writing problems: you lose a lot of the magic when you take out some of the more fantastical elements of a story. I haven’t seen more than a couple episodes of Once Upon A Time, but what I did see looked to be trying a balance between real-world storytelling and a fresh take on a world shared by all sorts of fairy tales. It’s one of those things I’ve been recommended to watch, and I admit I’m curious.
I can understand why some people don’t like camp, why going completely headlong into the otherworldly and fantastical turns some people off, but to me, this is too far in the other direction. It can and should be possible to balance a realistic grounding of well-rounded characters with greater flights of fancy and a bit of the pure escapism we seem to have lost in the last decade or two. Sometimes we want to see our heroes be upbeat folks who face their challenges without fear and maybe buckle a swash or two. They don’t always have to be sad sack sentinels of What Is Right And Wrong with a heavy moral decision to make. In other words, not every superhero movie has to be The Dark Knight.
In fact, I’m pretty sure Batman would give Superman a Kryptonite kick in the balls for stepping on his turf.
Laundry nights at the Sheppard’s1 have become a good place to get caught up on movies, especially in the superhero genre. Being brought up as a nerd, I do have at least a passing familiarity with many a costumed crimefighter, and recently our friends reintroduced us to the cinematic renditions of one of the most famous. I don’t want to actually talk about the Man of Steel himself, though, as he can be a tad ridiculous at times.
I still can’t get over the absurdity of his three Kryptonian mates having vocal conversations on the surface of the moon. Even if they don’t have to breathe, how will their words reach each other’s ears if there is no air to carry the sound waves? Ahh, but I digress.
We only watched the first two Christopher Reeve & Richard Donner films, as the second two are abominations of cinema. I did, however, enjoy seeing the Donner cut of Superman II, especially the scene where Lois Lane gets Clark Kent to reveal his secret identity by pulling a gun on him. It can be easy to forget, especially on the parts of the writers of said funny books & big-budget movies, that when she isn’t getting rescued by Superman or pining after the cut physique poured into those tights, Lois Lane is an intrepid reporter.
You don’t see it as much as you might think, as apparently Superman battling giant robots, space monsters and a bald maniacal businessman is more interesting. But a great example of bringing this aspect of the story and this character to the forefront is Superman Returns.
While the film is a bit more somber and character-driven than its early 80s predecessors2, and most of its plot is lifted directly from the first movie, one thing that stood out at me is how we see Lois Lane. We see her as not just the token damsel in distress. We see Lois do some actual reporting. We watch her fight for what she feels is right, be it with her boss or the man who left her behind without a word. We get to know her as a mother. And while she does get into peril from which Superman must save her, she puts herself in peril to save him.
I know there are going to be people who disagree with me, but I think this Lois Lane, the one brought to us by Kate Bosworth, may be the best one put on screen. I’m not sure exactly how much Lois is supposed to be a sex symbol in comparison to, say, Catwoman, but the decision to keep Kate’s looks and fashion somewhat understated was a good one. Her moments of strength, vulnerability, doubt and resolve come across as more uncontrived and genuine because we’re not distracted by her looks.
This speaks to a strong script as well as good acting and mature costume & makeup decisions. Now, a lot of the good lines from Superman Returns were recycled from the first film along with most of the plot, but the emotional talks between Lois and her preternatural paramour felt new and real. Superman is a good person who’s made bad decisions. When confronted with the fallout from those decisions, he owns up to his mistake and seeks ways to make things right. Lois does not immediately forgive him and fall into his arms. She’s conflicted, a thousand emotions competing for her focus and running all over her face. I know there’s a lot of Superman Returns that rips off Donner’s work, but there’s a scene or two where we catch a glimpse of some really interesting things that could have (and perhaps should have) happened with these characters.
In a world where DC’s rebooted most of its female characters to be vehicles for cleavage and consequence-free sex, I’ll take Kate Bosworth’s Lois Lane over a thousand Catwomen3.
1 Not to be confused with the Shepard’s place. How cool would it be to do my laundry on the Normandy? 2 Actually, the original Superman is as old as I am. How about that! 3 Of course I make an exception for Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman. She’s pretty much perfect.