“Man of Steel”: a Farewell to Role Modeling

Henry Cavill, Superman, Man of SteelIn Part One of this two-part non-epic, I covered what I liked best about Man of Steel, the new Superman treatment from director Zack Snyder, producer Christopher Nolan, and screenwriter David S. Goyer. As I mentioned there, despite the team’s successes on numerous fronts, I thought the film had room for improvement.

Those examples require a courtesy spoiler alert because a few of my complaints happen toward the film’s back end and involve major plot points. If you plan to see it pristine and unspoiled for yourself, abandon the reading trail here, and I look forward to seeing you next time.

Onward, then, to what I liked least:

* Revenge of the Omnidroid. During the half-hour’s worth of climax after climax after climax, one of Superman’s boss battles is against a giant machine with flailing, clasping, metallic tentacles bearing a striking resemblance to the Omnidroid from The Incredibles. It’s a fantastic movie to resemble, but the resemblance disengaged me and sent my mind wandering into thoughts of how cool a Justice League/Incredibles animated crossover could be. If only Dwayne McDuffie were alive, I’d like to think he and Brad Bird might’ve formed the writing team to end all writing teams. This has next to nothing to do with Man of Steel except to point out that robot tentacles have been done and I’m weary of them.

* Did the same architect design every building in Metropolis? One of the several dozen flaws that still haunt me from Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla — made in 1998, when CGI set-piece technology was still in its preschool years — was the preponderance of larger-than-life chase scenes winding their ways through a winding cityscape whose properties were each apparently built from the same Home Depot prefab-skyscraper kit. Same goes here, as the Kryptonian dogfights accelerate to Mach 75 through several blocks’ worth of lookalike superstructures. Perhaps lending Metropolis the same sort of architectural variety as Chicago, Dallas, or Indianapolis would’ve doubled the budget for those scenes, but watching omega-level beings streaking through Lego City dulled my enthusiasm a bit.

* The 9/11 resonance: is twelve years still too soon? As Zod’s crew turned Metropolis into a sandbox of Emmerichian proportions, the cameras attempt to capture the civilian viewpoint with tight, street-level shots of skyscrapers slowly crumbling, dust covering everything, and familiar faces running in terror (though Our Heroes at least have the common sense to run sideways from a collapse — bonus points awarded there), deep down I still had a slight twinge of “ugh”. Under normal circumstances such discussions usually don’t bother me (if anything, I’m muted to a fault), but the level of detail invested in those You-Are-There destruction shots was convincing to the point of discomfort.

* Massive civilian casualties, probably? Somewhere? Meanwhile, the slideshow of faraway shots saw innumerable buildings buckling and shattering, millions of tons of debris showering the streets and presumably entombing anyone inside, below, or within several hundred feet. And yet, as the carnage rolls onward, the background props begin to disappear, and by the end the surroundings are a ghost town. As heartwarming as it might’ve been to discover that all several million residents were evacuated to a minimum safe distance, we saw no hint or remote possibility of that. If the epilogue is a reliable indicator, that day Metropolis lost dozens of buildings and exactly zero lives. Obviously the PG-13 rating precluded too much cringe-worthy horrors (thankfully, at that), but the number of summer action blockbuster flicks portraying DEFCON 1 life-or-death stakes as a cartoon without consequences doesn’t impress me as much as it did my younger self. (See also: the quick disaster cleanup of Star Trek Into Darkness and the alien invaders from The Avengers whose laser-fire barrage didn’t wound a single Earthling.)

* The Wilhelm scream. While Lois hangs on for dear life at the rear of a fighter plane with the strength of five men, another soldier is blown out the hatch to the accompaniment of that classic, overused soundbite that makes me snicker and jolts me out of a movie every time I catch it. It happened in The Hobbit, and it happened again here. Nice attempt at drowning it out, sound guys, but you failed. PLEASE STOP USING IT.

* Jonathan Kent, man of inaction. I tried to understand this scene. I understood Clark’s conflicted motivation, his emotional paralysis, his attempt to extend one last bit of trust to the only real father he ever knew. But while Clark and the population of Smallville hide under the same underpass, Jonathan runs back to the car, frees the dog that Clark locked inside so it wouldn’t run away (a non-brilliant move in itself)…but when his mission is accomplished, instead of at least trying to return to the underpass, he just stands there like a dummy to await his Uncle Ben moment. While Pa Kent has died multiple deaths throughout the four hundred different origin retellings and timelines seen in comics over the past seventy-five years, rarely has his passing seemed so forced. It would’ve made my day if only some ruder audience member had stood and yelled, “RUN, YOU FOOL!”

* Man of Steel has been made possible by a grant from the following corporations… I’m not the kind of viewer that normally nitpicks product placement, but Lois Lane’s lingering looks at her brand new Nikon D3S (now in stores!), Superman’s showdown at Sears, and the Battle of Pete Ross’ IHOP were such annoying tics that I’m tempted to start nitpicking them. I have no current plans to do so (especially since I already follow another blogger who covers this territory, so it would look really tacky on my part), but the temptation keeps rising.

* Shaky-cam makes my wife ill. Seriously, Hollywood, she dislikes most of your current output as it is. It’s one thing when movies disinterest or offend her, but when her infrequent trips to the theater result in physical side effects…frankly, you’re ruining half my quality-time ideas.

* Journalism requires zero qualifications, or maybe just fraudulent ones. Final scene: our man Clark Kent — former tugboat crewman, waiter, and hobo — uses his nonexistent resumé to finagle a job as a Daily Planet reporter, because the comics insist journalism is his destiny, and apparently it’s just that easy. Should we assume all the qualified reporters died in the Zod holocaust? Or did the Planet pull a Chicago Sun-Times stunt, fire all its staff writers, and replace them with freelance amateurs who’ll work for name recognition only and zero dollars per article?

* That one scene everyone’s talking about online. Everyone. If any other character, real or fictional, had been written into that same bleak kill-or-be-killed corner with Zod, 99% of the complaints about what should or shouldn’t be done in that moment wouldn’t exist. Problem is — and this goes to the heart of most arguments about the movie in general — the question of “What does Superman mean to you?” has fostered a lot of different responses out there in Internetland.

For Superman’s first several decades of existence, he — like many other super-heroes — were optimistic role models whose encounters with complicated moral quandaries were few and far between. More often than not, they were solved by a contrivance that made the quandary moot in the first place. (“Should the Green Lama aid a black man against racist small-town accusations of murder? Oh, wait, — the black man is actually an evil alien in disguise. Never mind!”) When the target audience skewed younger, the conflicts were simpler. Entire generations grew up in that framework and had no problem with it — learned from it, thrived on it, became better people for it in some ways.

Somewhere along the way came a generation or two that refused to let go of their role models once they were done with them. They decided their favorite characters had to “grow up” and change with them. Fictional universes that were once a storytelling heritage passed on from one set of readers to the next suddenly became beholden to pleasing the same set of readers for twenty-plus years straight. Understandably, those readers grew tired of straightforward tales of good-vs.-evil and insisted on stories aimed more at them and the changing circumstances of their lives.

Superman fans who haven’t picked up a comic book since the 1980s may be dismayed to learn that DC Comics’ party line more or less declared a while back — even before the 2011 New 52 universe-wide reboot — that the days of Christopher Reeve, smiling good guys, heroes who set examples, and stories suitable for general audiences are, far as they’re concerned, effectively over. (Really, a version of Lois Lane that confused “tough-minded” with “foul-mouthed” should’ve been your first clue.)

That’s why I wasn’t shocked at Kal-El’s final moment with Zod. In today’s context, I could see it coming well in advance. I could see the broad strokes that led up to it and walled off most other, cleaner, more admirable solutions. If the Battle of Metropolis had been a War with a capital ‘W’ and Superman were an ordinary soldier, no one would blink twice at the Finishing Move. I’m not saying I approve of the scene — merely that the filmmakers were so dead set in reaching this moment, stacked the deck so overwhelmingly in this direction, that any last-minute reprieve would’ve felt like an arbitrary concession to negative focus-group testing.

I went into Man of Steel assuming it would be a Christopher Nolan science fiction production that would raise questions, challenge assumptions, and see its characters move in directions I’d rather not see myself moving. On those terms, I thought it competently met its intended goals in the same spirit of “Keep Calm and Don’t Think” that this summer’s previous offerings likewise begged from us. It’s still Better than III, IV, and Returns combined. It’s just not concerned with the Superman that I once followed for a couple of decades. In movies and the New 52 alike, this is the kind of super-hero tale DC insists you should want.

Too bad your kids will have to go find their own heroes to follow. I’d apologize on behalf of my generation if I thought it would help.

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