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June 25, 2013

Man of Steel: Kneel Before Clods (Finale)

You know what?  I actually have something positive to say about this movie.  But first…

Spoilers!  But also, positive thinking.  But also spoilers.

All right, let’s get the third brachiosaurus out of the room.  (Wait a minute.  Who has the zoning clearance to shove three dinosaurs into a single space?  Seems a bit hard to get approval for, if you ask me.)

8) Dragon, dragon -- rock the…oh, whatever.
Well, if ever there was a way to indoctrinate people into the world of anime and the particulars therein, this is it.  The fights in this movie are lifted almost directly from any number of Shonen Jump properties, though as others have noted Dragonball Z is a chief influence.  They even use some of the infamous moves -- barring the Kamehameha and Big Bang Attack, obviously.  There’s a moment where one character snags another character in a midair Giant Swing, which is something seen both in the DBZ games and the series proper on several occasions.  Craters are formed with each crash, Kryptonians are knocked through one structure after another, and there’s juuuuuuuuust enough screaming to make the connection, but not enough to make things ridiculous.  All that’s missing is a half dozen episodes where Superman has to charge up his Spirit Bomb.

Joking aside, the fights and the action are probably the best parts of the movie.  I wish they were done with less-dreary visuals, but you could say that about the movie as a whole.  For what it’s worth, though, it’s obvious that a lot of effort and energy went into making these scenes (well beyond just rendering them), and praise has to be given.  Granted the fights can be more than a little excessive, and sometimes I got the sense that they were only showing off all that stuff just to show off (there’s a scene when one of Zod’s buddies flings a car into a building because…because Warner Bros. demanded a pissing away of a few million dollars), but once the action starts in earnest you probably won’t be left wanting.

It’s just a shame that I clocked out long before the action even started.

I would say that I’m being unfair to the movie, but…really, am I?  Ignoring the bits of action peppered throughout the movie in the first half -- which can and regularly do get in the way of developing the story -- the expectation is that, in exchange for a slow and calm first half, we’ll be rewarded with overwhelming bombast and spectacle in the second half.  I can accept that, since it’s a format that worked fairly well in The Avengers.  But whereas that movie gave the audience plenty to latch onto -- colorful characters with no shortage of humor, along with a plot moving quickly towards a climactic battle -- Man of Steel stumbles thanks to the sins it commits long before the start of the second quarter of the movie, let alone its half.

I don’t know the exact point when I stopped caring about the movie or the characters in it.  It might have been around the point where the ghost of Jor-El uses his haxor skillz to render Lois virtually obsolete.  Maybe when Zod’s worldwide broadcast chants “You are not alone,” as if we hadn’t had that theme hammered in enough yet.  Maybe as early as Jonathan “I Am Also Jesus in This Movie” Kent sacrifices himself to appease the tornado gods.  Maybe earlier.  But whatever the case, there was just too much going on -- relatively speaking -- for me to accept it, even if there were promises of a big whompin’ action scene waiting in the wings.

So I gave up.  I knew I wasn’t going to get anything else like the flying scene in the rest of the movie.  So I just thought to myself, almost word for word, “You know what?  Forget it.  I don’t care anymore.  Just go have your big punch-up with Zod so we can end this.”  And they did.  And even that wasn’t enough to save the movie for me.  Remember, I’m the guy who felt like he had to suffer through the opening twenty minutes of Final Fantasy 13-2, in spite of it starting with a big whompin’ action scene.  But the problems of both are eerily similar, placement in the product aside.  I can (try to) forgive the colorless environment, but if the characters are colorless, then that’s a strike against it.  There’s context for both, to some extent, but certain points that I want/need to see don’t get the proper emphasis; the world around them ends up becoming an arena, and nothing more.  Thankfully we know what Supes, Zod, and the other Kryptonians are capable of in Man of Steel (though I’m still confused as to how Zod managed to acclimate himself to Earth’s environment and gain powers equal to Superman so quickly), but outside of the world generally being at stake, there’s a lack of consequences.  Two demigods go at it for a while until one of them arbitrarily decides it’s time to lose, taking no damage until suddenly it’s a one-hit kill.  Even in DBZ the fighters would get seriously roughed up -- or if not that, then at least tired and sweaty. 

An action scene without proper connection to/development of the story is just a waste of time.  To the movie’s credit, it DOES manage to set up something thanks to the presence of Zod and his plight; the Kryptonian general loses all his people -- barring Supes -- and even if he is the villain you can’t help but feel a twinge of sympathy for him.  But how messed-up is it that I can connect with a raging tyrant more than I can a big blue Boy Scout?  How messed-up is it when I walk away with a firmer understanding of the villain instead of THE hero? 

It’s sad, but from my perspective it’s true.  And even if (IF) the action scenes do look spectacular, without that magic touch I’d get the same effect from looking at a stick figure fight on YouTube.  Then again, maybe that’s a good thing.  If I had cared about the movie up to that point, maybe I would have raised more objections about how their big punch-up leads to the biggest massacre ever seen in an urban setting.  Maybe I would have cared more about some of the movie’s needless 9/11 imagery.  Maybe I would have cared more about Superman killing Zod…well, if they’d bothered to ever set up that conflict of morality to begin with.

But I stopped caring.  And there’s not a punch-up big enough to change that.      

9) Hans Zimmer, calm the hell down. 
Okay, some of you movie/music experts are going to have to help me out on this one.  See, outside of the Dark Knight Trilogy, I don’t really know much about Zimmer’s music or style.  I mean, at a glance it looks like he’s done work for The Lion King, and thanks to him Iron Chef just got that much more epic, but…beyond that?  I don’t know.  Oh wait, he did Inception, too.  I kind of like “Time.”  That’s a good song.

In any case, I’m wondering if -- like Snyder, Nolan, and Goyer -- when it comes to Man of Steel maybe Zimmer was having an off-day.  Or…maybe an off-season.  Make no mistake, there are a couple of good songs in there (the main theme comes to mind), but there were times when I just wanted the music to take it down a few dozen notches.  To be fair, it might have just been the theater I was in -- the “RaveXtreme”, whatever that entails -- but good God, this soundtrack.  There were a number of times when it just felt like overblown noise.  Lots of DA-DUNN-DUNN DA-DUNN-DUNN and BWAAAAAAAAAAAAANG that very nearly -- and in some cases completely -- ruins the scene. 

Notable examples?  When Zod and his crew are first getting shipped off to the Phantom Zone, there is no need for such bombastic notes to be playing.  None.  I can understand a bit of a forte dynamic, but was anybody really asking for or expecting fortissississimo?  I certainly wasn’t.  But even beyond that, there are worse instances; when Supes and Lois are taken aboard Zod’s ship, there’s some quiet, but still plenty-tense music playing.  It establishes that things have gone wrong, and our heroes are about to face their roughest challenge yet.  And then, BWAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAANG DA-DUM-DUM DA-DA-DUNNNNNNNNNNNN!  There wasn’t even anything particularly action-heavy going on; just a ship moving slowly away from the planet. 

It’s not very often when music gets in the way of me enjoying a product.  But when it does happen, I tend to take notice.  On the other hand, a good song can elevate a product to an even higher level -- or if nothing else, make for a really catchy tune.  Such as…

Which feeds into my next point.

10) Think of the children!
I don’t know about you, but I can’t listen to the John Williams Superman theme without a goofy smile sliding across my face.  It just makes me feel so damn good.  It makes me feel like I can fly, too -- even though it’s probably not a good idea to try, but I appreciate the sentiment. 

That’s not to say that the new, Man of Steel-approved theme is awful (because I think I’ve done enough hating on this movie already).  In spite of all I’ve said, I think that that theme is still kind of good, even if it does get a little too off-the-rails at points.  But you just can’t beat that heart-lifting emotion of the Williams track.  You just can’t.  And before you call me a nostalgia-tard, bear in mind that this is coming from someone who only has a vague memory of some, but not all, of the old movies -- with the theme song being notably absent from my viewing experience.  This is coming from someone who’s listened to the two themes, almost back-to-back, on several occasions. 

I would assume, however, that there are those who would uphold the Williams theme and shoot down the Zimmer theme -- if not out of a sense of childhood-bred loyalty, then by way of saying “this song IS Superman” or something like that.  Fair enough.  But it’s gotten me thinking; if the new generation is primed to succeed the old, and their exposure to media is what will help them define what it means to be a superhero, then what’s going to be the end result?

Man of Steel is significantly darker than what a lot of people -- myself included -- are used to seeing in Superman.  But there are some people who are seeing Superman for…well, if not the first time, then certainly one of the first.  What then?  What’s their take away from the movie, the character, the ideals and themes therein, as a result of this one movie?  What are kids going to be saying and thinking about Superman on the playground a year on?  Five years on?  Ten years on?

(Side note: why is it that young Clark Kent pretends to wear a Superman cape when, in-universe, there won't be a Superman to inspire him for a good twenty years, at least?  See, this is why there's nothing wrong with sequential storytelling.)

True, this isn’t going to be the only Superman-related media to come out in the next ten years.  Ignoring the fact that Man of Steel 2 is already coming down the pipeline, there’s probably a dozen or so animated, direct-to-DVD releases starring Superman as I type this.  So one interpretation is not going to be the only interpretation…provided, of course, that there’s more exposure than just this one movie.  But what if it isn’t?  What if Man of Steel becomes the gold standard for “what Superman is” without question or conflict?  What if those animated movies take the interpretation offered by Man of Steel and play a game of Monkey See, Monkey Do?  How is that going to affect people?  How is that going to affect children?

I’ve always believed that on some level, it’s not the lessons we learn from our parents or teachers or friends that makes us who we are.  I’ve always believed that in a lot of ways, we learn the most from the stories we take in.  Take the Power Rangers, for example.  Season after season, its teams have been comprised of a bunch of do-gooders taking up the good fight against aliens/robots/mutants, imparting life lessons along the way.  (There are notable exemptions to the exact number of do-gooders per team, but even the biggest troublemakers come off as good guys in the end.  To say nothing of Lightspeed Rescue, where EVERYONE was a rescue worker by default.)  Violence is, and always will be, a big part of that franchise, but it’s not the sole reason for its existence...and no, I’m not talking about merchandising, either.  It may try to sell you toys, but in its own way it’s also selling ideas.  Do the right thing.  Become a hero in your own way.  Improve yourself through discipline, perseverance, and effort.  The seasons and casts may change, but the ideas inlaid rarely do.

And that’s all ignoring the nature of the adventure itself.  This is just a theory from a barely-indoctrinated observer, but if you ask me, part of the reason for One Piece’s enduring popularity is because it renders everything in a (supposedly) childish veneer.  Once again, it’s that pervasive element -- the spirit -- that shapes and defines a story, and influences us with every particular of its construction.  One Piece wouldn’t work without a leading man like Luffy, and likewise the rest of the story wouldn’t work without a cast that sounds like something out of a fever dream.  And even then, it’s that unpredictable, colorful world that resonates with and plays off the cast; Luffy is a character that wants to explore, and the world is one that DEMANDS exploration.  The effect?  A spirit of adventure that isn’t to be underestimated or sold short.  It’s a way of teaching us about the wonders of the world -- their world, and ours -- without directly teaching us.  (It’s worth noting, though, that One Piece isn’t the only one doing this; Avatar: The Last Airbender works on a similar axis, introducing us to plenty of unique places and peoples with great gusto.)

I think this is -- once more -- a problem I have with gritty stories…or maybe “fear” is more appropriate.  Too many dark and gritty stories would lead you to believe that the world is a shitty place.  And that’s just not true.  Maybe it’s true once in a while.  Maybe it’s true every so often.  Maybe it’s true in certain places across the glove.  But stripping a fictional world -- its places, its people, and its particulars -- of its colors and absurdities does no one any favors. It runs the risk of trying to force parallels between a genuinely-fictional world -- their world of grit -- and our real one.  “You can’t trust anyone, everyone’s out to get you, society’s flawed and doomed, morality’s dead, and the world is small,” a gritty story might argue. 

And I disagree with that mindset.  I might say, “Okay, sure, sometimes that might be true, but there are plenty of other instances where that’s not the case.  You can trust your family.  People shouldn’t have any reason to target you unless you go out of your way to harm them.  Society’s not perfect, but it has things like volunteers, rescue workers, soldiers, and teachers.  Morality won’t die as long as we have proper nurturing, education, order, and common sense.  And there are still plenty of discoveries to be made about our world -- and beyond -- even to this day.”  And we’d probably go back and forth on the points for ages.  But even if my view is a little too rosy, it’s still one that has its merits.  Sometimes we need that optimism.  Sometimes we need that cheer.  Sometimes we need that hope.

And I didn’t get that from Man of Steel -- not in full, at least.  There are glimmers and slivers of it, yes, but if its intent was to create a movie brimming with hope, they botched it.  You can’t have a movie dish out such life lessons when its champions of good are presented as godlier as Superman, and where everyone outside of one or two individuals in the entire world is bland or nonexistent.  You can’t have a movie preach at you for half its run time about what it means to be Superman, then have the second half show Superman act more destructively than the Hulk after his favorite team loses the pennant.  You can’t have a movie this dark, dreary, and dedicated to appealing to perceived modern sensibilities, and then expect to give children the same perception of Superman as their parents -- as the much-too-fortunate children of the past. 

I wouldn’t be surprised if some children -- children who, for whatever reason, are allowed to watch a movie featuring wanton destruction, scene after scene of Super-pontificating, and unspoken (and spoken) misery of half its main cast -- walked out of that movie with a worse impression of Superman than before.  I wouldn’t be surprised.  But what do I know?  Maybe those few action scenes (or that one long one) is enough.  Maybe all that matters is seeing those punch-ups and the glee that follows.  Maybe I’m in no position to start playing moral guardian.  Maybe the times are changing -- and I’m the one who’s going to get left behind, especially in the wake of this upcoming generation.

But you know what?  When all’s said and done, and all my fears, worries, and grievances are accounted for, there’s one more thing I have to say.         

11) I’m glad this movie exists.

As a matter of fact, I am serious, Mr. Jameson.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I’m glad The Dark Knight Rises is out and done so we can all shut the hell up about Batman for a while.  And now that Man of Steel is out, we can start talking about other (DC) superheroes.  Granted Green Lantern already made waves for all the wrong reasons, but given the reception that Man of Steel has garnered -- and the hard-bodied defense offered by guardsmen slinking out of the woodworks -- I’d say that those that love this movie REALLY love this movie.  Those that hate it…REALLY hate it.

This is going to be a pretty divisive topic for a while, I’m guessing.  But as I’m in the “NAY” camp instead of the “AYE” brigade -- and this being the internet, there is no in between -- there’s one complaint that’s been almost universally constant amongst my comrades: the movie is too dark, and too gritty, and too serious for a Superman movie.  Serious being relative here; it's that overlaid-gravitas that makes some of the sillier moments stick out all the more.  (Like Supes hovering a foot above ground as if preparing for some epic planking.)  

And that, I think is going to be a major lesson from Man of Steel, even if it does turn out to be financially successful (and it probably will, long before it’s out of theaters).  This is going to be the moral that, hopefully, others will start to learn.  Not just moviemakers; not just purveyors of content across whatever medium they dabble in.  No, I think -- or at least hope -- that this is going to be something that audiences learn from this movie.  Or if not learn and take to heart, then at least they’ll have the seeds of doubt planted.  As the Eternal Optimist, I have to believe that they’ll have a certain idea in mind for next time.

So, what’s the lesson here?  Darker does not equal better.  (Or as a corollary, gritty does not equal good.)

There are times when making something darker -- and I mean thematically darker, not just aesthetically darker, tonally darker, and especially not arbitrarily darker -- can improve the story.  (Ever heard of Digimon Tamers?  That's how you do it right.)  But there are times when certain elements and certain styles just aren’t 100% compatible with one another.  Making Superman darker is something that probably can and has been done before, but you have to be very careful.  You have to know what you’re doing, and what you want to do.  Sapping the color out of the character and the world at large isn’t the way to do it.  You have to respect the audience’s intelligence and maturity, and demand that they engage on a deeper level than just reaching for smiles from OTT punch-ups. 

For some people, Man of Steel succeeded.  But for others, it didn’t.  It missed the mark, and by a pretty wide margin.  When you have posts asking things like “Has Superman Lost His Soul?” making the rounds on the internet, you know something’s gone wrong.  And for the record, no, I don’t think Superman has lost his soul; the movie just weighs him down with filters and melancholia. Things that, by and large, didn’t need to be there.  With that in mind, I feel like I personally have to put Man of Steel somewhere around HERE on my SmartChart™:

How others feel is hard to gauge for now.  The same goes for how the movie will be remembered a year on -- whether it’ll have a favorable reception, or end up being reviled and/or forgotten once the sequel starts kicking around.  Whatever the case, enough people have raised a complaint about this movie to -- hopefully -- reach the ears of others.  With any luck, those in power have taken those words to heart, and in lieu of the successes and lessons of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, maybe we’ll have something that shows the world the power of positive thinking once and for all.  Or with any luck, maybe those who think that darkness and grit equal quality will start to think twice.  Maybe now we can have discussions on tone and aesthetics and creative vision -- real conversations, instead of mudslinging across the web.  Maybe now we can start to realize that certain models are broken, and wonder what we can do about it.  Maybe now we have a chance to appreciate efforts and paths old and new.  Maybe we’ll all walk away from this movie -- and the issues therein -- a little wiser and more flexible than before.  Who knows what’ll happen?

I’ll tell you what, though.  I hope that something changes, somehow, somewhere, someway.  Because when all’s said and done, I like heroes.  I want to believe in heroes. 

And I get the feeling that I’m not the only one who feels the same way.    

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