Monday, June 24, 2013

Man of Lead

Bet that knee's starting to hurt.

So DC and Warner Bros. have finally gotten around to re-rebooting live-action Superman with Man of Steel, and it's taken me about a week to figure out how to sum up my thoughts on this movie because I didn't hate it, I was entertained most of the time, and yet I didn't like it either. Ultimately, the guys crystallized it for me with a part of their discussion of the movie.

They were talking about how one of the scenes felt like it was just trailer fodder, and to me, the whole film feels like it was made just so they could then cut really awesome trailers from it. Everything looks great.  The cast fits and acts well.  The score is excellent.  ...if you cut it into a 2 minute trailer of the highlights.  The fantastic bits are perfect out of context, but in context they are unearned, disconnected, and undermined by the rest of the movie.

I lay that problem at the feet of the "grounded in reality" trend Nolan started with Batman Begins and no doubt brought to this movie. That approach is fundamentally incompatible with Superman.  You cannot make Superman "grounded in reality" because his entire existence is the very opposite of reality, combining the fantasy of having unlimited power with the impossibility of absolute moral goodness. Superman is fantasy incarnate.

I've often complained about the Dark Knight franchise's focus on having the "real world" Batman because in the real world, the news reports billionaire Bruce Wayne was found dead in an alley shot three times in the back, and for some reason was wearing a rubber batsuit.  So the movie constantly has to break its own rules to keep the story from grinding to an immediate halt as the inconvenient questions from the real world pile up.

Now, you can kinda get away with it with Batman because the dark, brooding atmosphere that comes from the real world fits with a character who uses fear as a weapon and hangs out on the edge of what's plausible.  You cannot get away with it with Superman because a real world Superman is going to be more terrifying than even Batman.  Either he will be a huge hazard to everyone around him or he will be a tyrant. Maybe both.  (Absolute power corrupting absolutely, and all.)

Man of Steel goes with the hazardous Superman.  By the end of this movie's interminably long action sequence that is the film's climax (seriously it's so long it actually becomes boring), he is directly responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands to maybe even millions of people depending on the population density of Metropolis.  Would a world that saw the first "mission" of Superman result in that much death and destruction accept him as their savior and "give the people something to strive towards" as Jor-El puts it? No, he'd give the people freaking nightmares.  "Mommy, I'm afraid Superman will throw a car into our house!"

Superman has to have the callous disregard for the lives around him we see in the movie because it would be impossible in the real world to save them all or to avoid collateral damage.  He'd go insane if he allowed himself to care about people as much as the Superman we know and love does, which kind of undermines that whole "absolute moral goodness" thing that is a hallmark of the character.

It's also why their Jonathan Kent cannot be the folksy moral center for Superman in this movie, as any parent in the real world would be terrified their adopted super alien son was going to wind up in a government lab being experimented on for the rest of his life.  Or they'd try to exploit him for their own ends, but thankfully the movie isn't stupid enough to go that far.

Thus, their story is totally at odds with itself, with a Superman who wouldn't and couldn't be Superman.

Even some of the film's technical problems can be traced back to "grounded in reality."  For example, they do the whole Krypton thing and then they jump to adult Clark and use flashbacks to tell the part in between.  That was a neat approach, but it's totally botched by the fact that the flashbacks are completely random and out of order, because we're supposed to be seeing Clark's memories, and in the real world, those do not happen in a convenient, story building order.  They are triggered by random stuff, and so that's how it is in the movie.

The introduction of shakey and out of focus cam during simple dialog exchanges only makes sense if you're trying to make people feel like they're watching found footage from someone's smart phone, rather than shoot a movie.

The climax has to go on forever because in the real world a normal human can take multiple bullets to the chest and keep moving, so nigh-invulnerable super powered aliens that are constantly recharging from the sun are going to take a while to beat each other into submission.

In the end, you end up with all the technology and money and talent to create a superb film, but those things cannot substitute for a good story or great characters.  They can only elevate a bad story or stupid characters for a few scant moments, which means all you're really left with is one really awesome movie trailer spread out inside a pretty awful movie.

(P.S.  It probably goes unspoken, but I'd probably avoid taking the kids to this version of Superman if you want to see it, especially given something near the end I can't explain without spoilers.)

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