Saturday, February 1, 2014

Movies of 2013, Superhero, pt2, Superman

Man of Steel, or "Holy shit?  Did Superman just...?"
Overall: 6/10
Why don't they just put a halo over his head?  The Christ imagery is thick as any movie I have seen in years.
            I have written about this movie before and what I was really stunned by is how it compares to "Thor the Dark World" which came out later that same year and I will discuss tomorrow (because this review ran really long).  "Man of Steel" is just fine.  It is probably the most expensive film I have ever seen that I have reacted this 'meh' to, though I liked it a lot more when I initially saw it because I thought (and still do think) that it has the single best action sequence of the year involving the devastation of Smallville.  There are numerous issues, most of which have been hit on a lot by different people but I have at least one that I haven't seen anybody else write/talk about which I will get into too.

Problem 1: Lois Lane and everyone at the Daily Planet is completely useless.
            These guys should not have been in the movie at all.  While Amy Adams is a great actress, and Laurence Fishburne is a great guy to play Perry White, my point is that they have no point.  Literally everything they do could have been done by someone else to greater effect, or left out of this movie entirely and put into the sequel.
            For instance, Lois shows up at an archeological dig in the frozen north for a 20,000 year old alien craft, Clark is there because he thinks (and is right) that it is connected to his mysterious origins on a world unknown.  Lois goes out at night and finds Clark digging his way through the ice to the ship, she is attacked by the ship's security, Clark rescues her and then takes the ship and leaves her behind.  The real issue here: why did that have to be Lois?
            There is another character named Dr. Hamilton, played by an Emmy Winner, Richard Schiff who would have filled this story role much better.  A scientist that follows the mysterious alien to an ancient ship.  Follow that up later in the movie when General Zod takes Superman prisoner, and inexplicably takes Lois too.  Why?  She has no value, instead have Hamilton ask to be taken along, that he wants to see this alien society with alien technology and be an ambassador from Earth.  Zod would allow such an envoy because he wants Hamilton to relay what is coming to Earth authorities when he does attack (cause Zod is a dick).  Instead you have Lois along for adventures that she contributes nothing to, relaying information she can't understand between characters who could just talk to each other..
            By beefing up Hamilton's role it would also complete the themes of Father figures offering Superman choices in the movie, Jor-El the scientist telling him to be a messiah, Jonathan Kent the human telling him to live his own life, and then Dr. Hamilton the human scientist offering a compromise of being both a man, Clark, and a hero, Superman.
More time with these guys would have been better than the completely useless time spent at the Planet.
            The scenes in which Lois investigates and finds Superman in Smallville could have been the opener to the next movie, having a crafty reporter recap the events of the first movie while seeking out the hero and then offering to help him become a part of the world rather than some mysterious savior would do a lot to help the hypothetical second film shift into gear.

Problem 2: Metropolis was totally pointless.
            Zod is supposed to be a tactical genius with a technological advantage over those he is at war with (Earth) so why is he situating his key piece of technology (the key to his whole plan) in a major metropolitan area in which it could be exposed to attack by the most powerful military on the planet?  Why not park the things at the north and south poles?  It would take hours for American or Russian military weapons to be brought to bear against him, by which time the gravity weapon would have such a huge wake that no plane could fly in it, and no missile could be modified to target it (missile targeting depends on gravity working a consistent and certain way).
            Heck have it in Smallville, the idea of Superman's Earth life being literally smashed to nothing by the gravity of finding who he is would be a really good METAPHOR with a lot of emotional resonance and have just as many tactical issues as attacking Metropolis.  And the destruction of Smallville in this movie would prompt Clark to move to the big city in the second movie.

Problem 3: Lara Lor-Van of Krypton is completely useless.
            Aside from giving birth to Clark the role of Superman's Mom in the story is... Couldn't tell you.  To look stoic while her home planet explodes with her on it.  Compare this with Freya's role in "Thor the Dark World" (SPOILERS for Thor 2; go watch Thor 2, it is a lot of fun and has a lot working for it).

Well, I was a well developed character.
            To skip spoilers continue to my next problem.  In "Thor the Dark World" Frigga, Thor's Mom takes it upon herself to protect Jane Foster, Thor's girlfriend who is the designated MacGuffin carrier.  Freya fights against and nearly kills the main villain of the film and is only undone by the biggest physical threat seen in the movies aside from the Hulk.  Frigga is crafty, smart, has good (albeit limited) character interaction with the main characters, she has traits and a role in the story to die heroically trying to protect the universe from ruin and darkness.  Freya is cool.  Lara is not.
            How would you fix Lara?  Make her a warrior.  On Krypton people are not born, they are created and grown for purposes.  You could be designed to be a scientist, laborer, leader, soldier, or whatever.  Superman's Dad, Jor-El is a scientist, and somehow he manages to kick several soldiers' asses at a time and go on daring adventures... Let's not have him do that.  Let's have Lara do that.  Have her be a member of the warrior class, same as General Zod, and another symbol of duality in Superman, he is the child of two forbidden lovers, one a scientist, the other a warrior, it would also so Krypton to be more divergent from Earth toward gender roles, that being a man or woman does not mean one thing or the other, a concept only hinted at with the villain Faora.
            This could also add an element to Zod disliking Jor-El, that Lara was a good soldier till she met Jor-El and then left Zod's army.  It might also explain why Lara does not appear as a hologram later in the movie, that she (not Jor-El) was busy fighting Zod and buying time for Jor-El to get baby Superman on his rocket ship, so Jor-El did not get a chance to scan her into the program, currently it just looks like Jor-El left her out for no reason.  Lara is the most underused character in the movie.

Problem 4: Krypton's gloomy look.
            Krypton is the most well known planet in popular fiction aside from Planet X, which is actually just a generic catch all term for a hypothetical 10th planet in our solar system.  Having existed for 70 years Krypton has been drawn hundreds of times by a multitude of artists who have seen it as a world of crystal, a world of brightly colored tights, or in this case a world of very cold metal.
Seriously, when everything about the culture screams evil, you feel less bad that they are all dead.
            This is really the least of my problems with the movie.  My personal favorite look for Krypton is from the Animated Series in the 90's, or the goofy but shameless look in the "All Star Superman" comic from which some of Jor-El's dialogue is directly lifted.
            This is not the only movie out there going for Alien = Dark, and so it does not set itself apart from the pack.  "Star Trek" in 2009 turned heads by having everything incredibly white and shiny (hard to keep clean, looks like Apple took over) but it was eye catching and you felt like it was a bright shiny future worth saving.  In fact that is another good comparison, in "Star Trek" the main bad guy comes from a doomed plant in a dark ship that has a squid or spider like design and uses a gravity weapon to destroy of world full of people; "Man of Steel" has a villain from a doomed planet in a dark ship that has a spider or squid like appearance and he uses a gravity weapon to try and commit planetary genocide... Hell, the climax of each movie involves hitting the big unstoppable ship with a tiny ship causing the big ship to be sucked out of reality by a black hole... Fuck, that is some lazy hack writing when you get down to it.
Okay, Zod has far fewer tentacles/legs on his ship.
And come on, this space beam is orange... Not Blue!  Come on, totally not the same.
            Maybe having the main bad guys, General Zod and company show up dressed like they are going to fight "Flash Gordon" might have seemed silly, but isn't that kind of interesting?  Invasion of the goofy aliens sounds cool to me in an age of cynical and grim dark.

Problem 5: The double beat.
            The first 20 minutes of this movie is Krypton getting obliterated and having a civil war at the same time.  It is a weird alien planet with elements borrowed from "Avatar" mixed with "Alien", that is fine (even if it did not appeal to me it is a fine way for there to be an authorial stamp of those making the movie, "our Krypton is different").
            At the midpoint of the movie Clark discovers a spaceship that has a hologram Jor-El tell him about Krypton's obliteration and civil war... This is called a double beat, explaining something to the audience something they saw or have already had explained to them.  The effects and art direction of the scene are beautiful, using no color but clever moving relief sculpture to illustrate the war... Hell, this could have been the only thing we see of the destruction of Krypton, cutting out the whole opening, which is ultimately filler.  The fact is, pick one or the other, having both does only one thing: it kills the movie's momentum.
            To fix this scene you have to have Jor-El say, "I must explain to you about the end of Krypton and why you are here on Earth."  Then cut to something else.  The ship warming up to fly away, Zod's ship appearing at the edge of our solar system, Dr. Hamilton analyzing something.  But you do not explain to the audience a second time something they already know.  It is a waste of time.

Problem 6: Most of the fights.
            The fight in Smallville is the highlight of the movie and steals the thunder from all other encounters.  It is fast, destructive, showcases Superman's strength and speed, and displays the threat Zod's forces present to the Earth.  Zod's forces are fast, strong, and have training as soldiers, allowing them to use martial arts and group tactics to effect; but contrast, Superman is faster, stronger, can fly, has super senses and heat vision, but is limited by lack of training (who needs to learn wrist locks or effective punching when you can bend metal by flexing your toes)?  The Smallville throw down is amazing and showcases better than any other movie superheroic action with modern special effects.
This was the turning point of the movie, When a pilot gets vaporized into bloody mist by a Kryptonian soldier.
            The fight immediately after word is between Superman and robot tentacles in the middle of the Indian Ocean.  Here is the thing, they probably did this to shake up how and what Superman was fighting, much like how "Iron Man 3" has him fighting in a small town bar, catching people as they fall out of a plane, or an oil rig.  Visual variety is important in keeping the audience engaged, and is a big part of why the Smallville fight is so cool: Gas Station, Main Street, Department Store, Diner, Train Station, Bank, Corn Field, Farm (also allows for criminal amounts of product placement, even though Sears and IHOP do exist, so it is product placement that doesn't feel all that out of place).
            Smallville has so much to look at, so much to throw, to hit, to break, and things to be broken over, it offers a lot of destruction in an area that looks lived in and people can see themselves living in.  The middle of the ocean has no visual variety, and the tentacles just swirl around and try to ensnare.  The Tentacles are boring.
            Honestly the Smallville fight should have been the end of the movie.  Metropolis, while offering untold carnage is visually boring, dozens of buildings are falling over (cool, yes) but they all might as well be identical, none of them has visual personality or a sense of reality, they are just really big grey, and seemingly empty buildings.  Compare this to "The Avengers" which has Captain America killing aliens in an attempt to stop a massacre of civilians in a random lobby, and how (in spite of being filmed in Cleveland) the movie showcases real buildings that have a variety of visuals to them.  Hell, the part where the Hulk races through a populated office building knocking through cubicles and around people, jumping through a window and tackling a space dragon to keep it from slamming into the building and killing everyone is great, it shows signs of life and stakes.
            The final end of the movie (the most controversial thing about it) only works because Superman and Zod's fight terminates in a structure that has people in it that are in peril because of Zod, the gravity of the situation is shown on the micro level instead of just a giant smoking crater.  Where as the Smallville fight has people everywhere, feet away from soldiers getting obliterated by Faora, an awesome foe who is not named Ursa for some reason.

            And I don't know why so many action sequences seem so empty, Zack Snyder was smart to show the home front in "300", Nolan showed in the "The Dark Knight" that there were people everywhere for Batman to rescue, and David Goyer had Blade rescuing people in "Blade" several times.  All of the creative team have managed to capture the human element in their past movies, so why is it hit or miss here?

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