Jun 15, 2013

Man of Steel Pros and Cons (with Spoilers)

We saw Man of Steel today and walked out of it with mixed reactions. I came out of it.... confused, actually, not knowing what to think of it. And that was odd, because I went into it absolutely convinced that it was either knocking Superman 2 off of my favorite movies list or that the Three Comic Book Movies I Promise I Won't Mention would go to Four. I really didn't think there was going to be a middle ground. And yet, there I was, my reaction to the movie falling right flat in the middle. And the weird thing was, it wasn't even a case where I was in the middle throughout the movie — I constantly vacillated between loving what I was watching and hating it, almost scene for scene. And that's never happened, I think, to me. Movies have gotten better after a bad start, movies have fizzled after a good one, but I've never gone back and forth so much. So instead of posting a review of it, because I wouldn't be anywhere close to impartial with it, I figured I'd do a list of pros and cons to specify what I did and didn't like about it.

Spoilers follow.

Pro: Henry Cavill is really good. Look, everyone knows that Christopher Reeve is the gold standard for playing Superman, and I certainly won't argue that Cavill was better than Reeve. Reeve had a certain kind of presence and an earnestness that was perfect for Superman, and it was lightning in a bottle, and they have continually tried to recapture it, with different actors and with mixed success. But Cavill has the same level of presence, the same level of charisma, even if they're not of the same vein. He looks like Superman, and he plays him with earnestness as well. It's not the same kind of earnestness as Reeve, but that's the thing; it couldn't be. If he'd tried to emulate Christopher Reeve, he would have failed. He needed to give the character his own spin. And he did. Much like Andrew Garfield in Amazing Spider-Man, I think the choice of actor in this case was just spot-on, even if, much like Andrew Garfield, there were some storytelling choices that may have limited the perception of the quality of the casting. When he had enough to work with, he pulled it off well, and when he was given something bad to work with, like the single most indefensible thing a superhero has ever done in these movies (not what you think it is. We'll get to that later.), he made the best of it. I wouldn't call him transcendent. Reeve was transcendent. I'm not even sure I'd call him great. But Cavill was really good.

Con: And much like Amazing Spider-Man, this movie has a serviceable but subpar villain. I have no idea who Michael Shannon is, but holy cow, did he overplay the role. To his credit, the effort was there, but the only thing missing from him trying too hard was spittle coming out of his mouth every time he talked. We must have giggled at least three times in our seats by how he was overplaying it. Balance is really important when you're playing an over-the-top character — Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston found it in Thor and Loki, for example —and Michael Shannon did not hit that balance. Not only that, but it was hard for me to take him seriously as a threat to Superman when Jor-El had beaten him up so soundly in the first five minutes of the movie. I really wanted to see the movie with fresh eyes, but all I could think of whenever Michael Shannon spoke was Terrence Stamp as Zod in Superman 2, wearing a bedsheet and with his little hair, and yet still commanding the room and being regal. Henry Cavill made me forget about Christopher Reeve (except for those angles when he looked exactly like Christopher Reeve), but Michael Shannon kept making me wish Terrence Stamp was still Zod. Not a good thing.

Pro: Amy Adams made a decent Lois Lane, and I'd probably rank her soundly third on the list of live action Lois Lanes since color came to TV (That list goes like this: [1] Teri Hatcher, who headlined an otherwise lame TV show and did the best she could with it — I find I always give extra points to people who do good jobs in otherwise not-so-good products; [2] Erica Durance, who singlehandedly extended my Smallville watching by providing a spark off the bench, although even she couldn't extend it past her debut season; [3] Amy Adams; [4] Margot Kidder, who probably would have ranked higher if the words "Can you read my mind?" never passed through her mouth; and [5] Kate Bosworth, who, no, just no. By the way, the queen of Lois Lanes is still Dana Delaney, who voiced her in the Superman animated series.). Amy Adams played a really competent Lois Lane, and it didn't hurt that the new backstory they gave this Superman played right into Lois Lane's strengths (being a really really really good reporter) and eliminating her biggest weakness in the eyes of the casual fan (not being able to figure out who the hell Superman is).

Con: Unfortunately, Amy Adams and Henry Cavill have zero chemistry. Zero. None. I keep reading about how the romance in Thor between Natalie Portman and Chris Hemsworth was forced, and just being confused at that because I thought it was really charming. Watching Man of Steel and that scene where Lois and Clark stand alone together waiting for Zod to arrive, all I could think was, it's awkward. There's nothing there. It's almost as if the filmmakers decided that the Lois and Clark connection would establish itself since everyone knows what's going to happen anyway, but the only thing I could think of was "Now that's a forced romance." Which I don't think should ever cross my mind when I'm talking about the First Couple of Superhero Comics.

Pro: Russell Crowe played Jor-El pretty well. Because come on, he's Russell Crowe. Unfortunately...

Con: This is a completely personal tic ... but I would really be fine if I never see Jor-El again. What is up with continuing to want Jor-El to be a major part of Superman's adult life? He does so much in the way of guidance that I really feel that it dilutes Superman's effectiveness as a hero. Or as an adult. Whatever. And while we're at it, can we also quit with the Jor-El sledgehammer about Superman going on to inspire people? Wouldn't it be better if Superman just did good things and inspired people as a result? Why does he have to actively seek to inspire people? Doesn't that just annoy people? Shouldn't he inspire just by existing? And even if he does actively seek to inspire people, why does Jor-El have to be the guy to set that goal for him? So yeah, these filmmakers love Jor-El, and so do I. But I love Superman more, and I think Jor-El as a guide for him as an adult dilutes him. I thought that in the first Superman movie and I thought that in Smallville (that's about when it lost me, actually, come to think of it), and I think that now. If I never see Jor-El again in a live action movie, I'll be completely and totally fine with it.

Pro: There's this one scene where Lois is on Zod's ship, and she uploads Jor-El's consciousness into the ship, so Russell Crowe shows up behind her and tells her how to escape from the ship as well as how to beat the Kryptonians, so he guides her around the ship. However, since he's a disembodied consciousness, he's just appearing wherever she turns, because he can be in multiple places at once. So she keeps turning, and he's there each time, opening doors with a wave of his hand and pointing the way with his arm. I'm sure it was meant to be suspenseful and dramatic, but we just found it hilarious, the visual of Russell Crowe showing up out of nowhere, standing with perfect posture and his hands clasped together, then guiding Amy Adams with his arm on where to go like he's an usher at some formal event. Man, I'd say it was worth watching just for that scene alone. It was hilarious.

Con: Kevin Costner is a really, really bad actor. Was he always bad or was it just this? I don't remember him being very bad in Waterworld, but that's not really saying anything, is it? It kind of irks me that Jor-El is always spotlighted and there's such little emphasis on Pa Kent, when Pa Kent is the more important character to actually defining who Superman would become. And this was just strange to me in general, partly because Kevin Costner's such a bad actor that you could tell he was trying to act (you could really, really tell. I feel bad for saying he's a bad actor. It's one of the reasons I actually like Ben Affleck. Sure, he's a bad actor, but he tries so hard.). The defining Pa Kent scene in the movie is where he dies — after arguing with Clark about how he should stay hidden from the public, they see a twister coming. People get out of their cars and evacuate, but the Kents realize they've left their dog in their car. So Clark goes back to get the dog, and Pa Kent tells him to mind the people, he'll get the dog himself. Which is really really stupid, because why wouldn't you let your invulnerable and much faster son go and get the dog? As it turns out, Pa Kent manages to save the dog but gets trapped in the car for a bit, and then gets out of the car and limps around, which is terrible because Kevin Costner can't even fake a limp right, and then Clark motions to save him, then Pa Kent waves his hand to motion "No," and puts this really dramatic look on his face as he knows he's about to die, and then the twister hits him and instead of flying away with it, he just kind of disintegrates. It's the most indefensible part of the movie to me — no son who loved his father would have not saved him then and there; forget the whole "big picture." He sacrificed the big picture throughout his entire life up to that point to save classmates and Pete Ross who was bullying him, to the point that there's no way everyone in Smallville doesn't know who he is already, but he won't save his dad? Come on. That's indefensible. The big controversial thing in the movie at least has an in-story defense. This one? No. There is no defense for this. Clark Kent should have saved the dog, first and foremost. But even letting that go, he absolutely should have saved his dad. I can't let that go.

Pro: Kevin Costner not being able to convincingly fake a limp, then putting on his most dramatic face ever!  and motioning "No, don't save me, Clark, really," to Clark and then disintegrating in the middle of a twister ranks highly on the Unintentional Comedy Scale. Between that and Russell Crowe being a doorman, I don't know what I find funnier. I guess that's an overall plus for the movie: everything I thought was bad, I found really funny. It would be one thing if they were just bad.

Con: I didn't really need to see Lara giving birth to Kal-El, much less have it be the first scene of the entire movie. I guess I give it points for trying something new, but... yeah.

Pro: Laurence Fishburne made a really fun Perry White!

Con: In the middle of the big fight scene, they felt the need to shoehorn in this subplot where Jenny Olsen in her first real scene of the movie gets trapped under some rubble, so Perry can save her. Was this really necessary? Was it in Laurence Fishburne's contract that he had to do something? I don't know. What I do know is that it was a momentum killer. These climactic fight scenes need momentum, knowing when to keep going and when to take a break. And why should we care about a character we hadn't seen throughout the movie all of a sudden? Everyone else was in trouble.

Pro: These are the best fight scenes in any Superman movie ever. Granted, that's not saying much because you could still see where the strings are on those Reeve movies and Superman Returns had all of..... no...... fight scenes. But it was impressive. "Spectacle" would be the right word. I've read that the action scenes were dragged out and overblown, but I think I was a bit more forgiving of it because, well, Superman really really needs to kick some ass, if only to remind the general audience that, yes he can. And they did a good job of making him look like the underdog as well as showcasing his powers and skills.

Con: Unfortunately, those same scenes don't really hold up to much scrutiny. He routinely took the fight (not the villains — him) into crowded areas, never really giving any indication that he cares much for the safety of the people around him, despite being willing to sacrifice himself earlier for the human race in general. People are, generally, dismissive of fight scenes, but I really think they shouldn't be overlooked. They can be — and should be — really important, because they can and should shed light on the characters and advance the plot. There's so much characterization in the fights in Avengers. I love Pirates of the Caribbean, and one of the reasons is that even the fight scenes aren't wasted; they tell you things about the characters (I bet maybe only one out of every six of you will have noticed that Johnny Depp loses every swordfight in those movies — he's the worst one out of all of them at physical skills, and he makes up for it by cheating, or being cunning.). In Man of Steel, I didn't feel that. The action scenes were great to see, but if I had gone to the bathroom in the middle of them, I wouldn't have really missed anything. And maybe Avengers spoiled me on that. But that's a shame.

Pro: I was afraid this movie would just be drab and grumpy, like two of my Three Movies I Won't Mention, but I admit to smiling really widely the first time he tries to fly (and ends up jumping an eighth of a mile), and then flying again. Okay, so it's not exactly the big sense of wonder I felt when Thor threw Mjolnir for the first time, but it was nice to see Superman enjoying himself.

Con: For a guy that supposedly stood for hope, he certainly wore the most depressing colors possible. Hard to really complain about that, because you knew it was going to happen, but... yeah. It's supposed to be hopeful, but man, did the entire color palette of the movie just look depressing.

Pro: Okay, we've gotten to that point where I talk about the big controversial moment in the movie, and that's when Superman kills Zod. For the sake of argument, here's what my defense for it would be in three parts:
  1. It's not as if this is some big new thing. There's precedent for it in the comics. He's done it before.
  2. If Superman is going to kill anybody, it has to be Zod. How else can you hold him?
  3. Superhero movies have really bypassed the comics' "Heroes don't kill" rule. Iron Man killed terrorists in Iron Man. Captain America killed people in his own movie and threw people off the helicarrier in Avengers. And of course, Nolan's Batman, who people love for some reason, willingly abandoned Ra's Al Ghul to his death in Batman Begins, actively choosing not to save him even though he could have.
So if they were definitely going to go in that direction with Superman, at least it was presented in such a way that he had to do it, with Zod threatening to kill a family right then and there. It would have been indefensible (as indefensible as letting your dad die to protect your secret) if Zod had gotten to that family. And Superman did express remorse over it.

Con: But I didn't buy it. Maybe I would have, if Superman didn't just spend the entire last thirty minutes of the movie continually taking these fights into crowded areas. Maybe I would have, if he didn't leave the fights in Metropolis for so long that by the end of it Metropolis is just a giant crater. All of a sudden now, Superman is begging Zod not to kill this random family that they just happen upon? (For the record, I also don't really buy the idea that Superman would willingly throw Krypton under the bus just to save Earth, although, again, there's precedent for it.) I'm even willing to let that whole "He should have taken Zod to a deserted area and beaten him up there" thing go, because maybe he decided in that moment that Zod was too dangerous to be left alive — but you can't convince me that it needed to happen that way, that Nolan and Snyder didn't consciously make the decision to have Superman cross that line. You can't convince me they couldn't have written it differently — have Zod fight Kal right before the Phantom Zone portal's about to close; leave a piece of Kryptonian technology behind that will neutralize powers; whatever. I don't want to go all fanboy and say "Superman should always find a way because Superman doesn't kill!" because I believe there's room for different interpretations of Superman, and like I said above, it's not like Superman has never killed before. But having Superman kill once in his 75 year span is one thing; it highlights the exception to the rule. Having him kill in the first movie of his new franchise sets a tone. You just can't convince me that it was necessary.  And yet, I think it could have been salvaged if we had more time to see him showing regret and remorse about it. But as it stood, he snapped Zod's neck, yelled, cried, and then Lois hugged him, and then we cut to the next scene where it's sometime later, and he tells the army general that they'll never find where he lives, and he says that he lives in Kansas (so way to go, Superman, giving them a much much smaller area to look through), and then the female soldier says he's hot and a good time is had by all. A little more time of him reflecting over the neck-snapping — whether it's talking to Lois, Ma Kent, or even that random pastor in the middle of the movie (what was that?) would have helped a lot. But maybe they were short on time and had to cut that out, because God knows we needed to see Perry White get a crowbar and lift some rubble off of Jenny Olsen.

Final Verdict: Reading this now, it seems like I objectively didn't like the movie. And yet, I can't escape the fact that I was entertained by it. Sporadically entertained, yes, but still, entertained. Maybe I'd've been less forgiving if I didn't find the bad parts (hello, Superman's dads!) so funny, or if I didn't go into the movie with the absolute lowest of expectations. But man, I'm looking at Rotten Tomatoes right now and Man of Steel has a 57% rating. The Three Movies I Promise Not to Mention have ratings of 63%, 64%, and 87%, and I just shake my head, 'cause Man of Steel isn't that bad. They nailed some of the casting, and I'd be happy to see Henry Cavill in another Superman movie. I just don't think I'd see this one again.  I don't agree with a lot of what they did, but I can also at the same time see why they did it. It doesn't bump anything from my list of favorites but I'm not calling for Snyder's and Nolan's heads either. In the end, that might be the worst possible reaction for it — being so middle of the road that its details are guaranteed to leave my mind within six months. But is it worth the time and money? Sure, I'd say so. Even if it's just to see Kevin Costner struggle with the idea of "limping" and Russell Crowe playing a doorman.


Paul C said...

Wow, I totally felt the opposite about Cavill and Adams' chemistry. I felt the scene in the interrogation room and the kiss they share after the villains get sucked back into the Phantom Zone particularly stood out as good examples.

But yeah, I can't deny Pa Kent's limp was rubbish. :)

Paul C said...

Wow, I've just read this again after writing up my own thoughts on the film and we pretty much got different things from every part of that film. (For example I think Perry White lifting some rubble off of Jenny Olsen was essential to the fight scene. And limp aside I think Costner and his death worked.)

I think we're doomed to be at war over anything with the title 'Man of Steel'. :)

Damian said...

"or even that random pastor in the middle of the movie (what was that?)"

That was the most anoying part of the movie for me...

So He Just Knew Jor -El, and then Zod reveal himself, and Who is the one person Clark Kent ask for advice?? a Randon Pastor??

ilter said...

Yes, the random pastor should've been kept out in the cutting floor. That time could be spent on different things like "Superman does not kill, except this time" bit.
But regardless, MoS is my favorite action film now to date.

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