Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Superman we Deserve?

So, I saw that new Superman movie.

Let me begin by saying that I've always had an interest in Superman. I grew up watching the old Fleischer cartoons, the movies, the television shows; I even read a few comic books. What makes a superhero iconic is that he takes some few aspects of our culture—tensions, aspirations, conflicts—and embodies them in a dramatic way. So here we have Clark Kent, an immigrant adoptee growing up in Smallville—flyover territory—just trying to fit in and be a decent American, attempting to make it in the Big City. As a person of mixed ancestry who came of immigrant families, who's done what he could to fit into small towns with varying success, who's lived in the Cultural Center of the Universe (Austin) without particularly caring for it, that appeals to me. I think it does to a lot of people.

Man of Steel certainly touches on this. I particularly like how the boy-Clark's extreme hypersensitivity isolates him from the other children at school. The treatment—the way his foster-mother teaches him to focus his senses—seems owing to the experiences of people with autism disorders. Having such a disorder myself, I found the depiction quite powerful, and potentially useful in explaining how we perceive things. It gave me another way to identify with Superman.

So you see, I'm already well-disposed toward Superman for many reasons. I generally can't stand superhero stuff, but Batman and Superman I like. Which is what makes it so unfortunate that my reaction to this movie is a resounding "meh."

It's heavy on CGI action and light on character and plot, which is disappointing, considering that it was written by Nolan and Goyer. We go straight from the spectacular opening on Krypton (I mean, it's supposed to be spectacular, but to me it just looks like a big cartoon in which they could make pretty much anything happen) and the planet's destruction to a grown-up Clark Kent saving people from a burning oil rig. His boyhood is handled in flashbacks. Which is OK, except that that's where the only interesting drama is. Kevin Costner, channeling Field of Dreams, is wonderful to watch. Russell Crowe, not so much.

You see, the thing I like about Batman Begins is that it shows Bruce Wayne finding his own path, building his persona. It's a messy, halting process. We all know where it's going to end, but there's something absorbing about the storytelling. We see him building his knowledge and skills, forming his philosophy, exploring his future lair, gathering his arsenal. There's something elemental about a hero creating his own weapons, as Siegfried reforges his father's sword.

But in Man of Steel, bam, Clark overhears army guys talking about a buried alien aircraft (in a bar, of all places), then, bam, he goes and finds it, then, bam, he sticks Jor-El's flash drive in the computer (luckily it hadn't been destroyed or lost when his clothes burned off in that rig explosion), and receives a virtual visit from his father's "downloaded" (!) consciousness, and gets his Superman suit and his commission to go help people and bring hope and all that. (How exactly was that suit just hanging in the closet? The ship had been there for thousands of years.) This is right at the beginning: Superman's persona and mission are handed to him by Daddy. And then here comes General Zod from the Phantom Zone.

The thing about these big CGI epics is that, visually speaking, pretty much anything can happen, which tends to make them loud and dull. Take Superman battling this world engine or whatever it's called. These big metal snake things come out at him, and he fights them, and it goes back and forth, and then he gets down into the blue laser beam somehow, and flies up it, and destroys the thing. Meanwhile things are getting smashed up pretty good in Metropolis. Now, is there any reason internal to the story why he couldn't have destroyed the engine ten minutes earlier? No, because it's all just ad hoc, designed for visual titillation and nothing more. The action falls flat because we're not given enough information. But there's really not any more information to give, something that becomes increasingly apparent as you watch. It's like kids playing with action figures, making it up as they go along.

Much is made of the salutary effects of Earth air, which is said to be thinner and more nourishing than Krypton air. As to how thin it is, I have no opinion, but, sure, I guess I've always found it nourishing. It's a nice combination of carbon dioxide, oxygen, nitrogen, and so on. This, together with our young sun's radiation, is what gives Superman his superpowers (including, er, eye-beams and flying). Even if we leave aside the question of why the far-advanced Kryptonians haven't discovered this themselves and used it to their benefit, it's hard not to notice that it isn't handled consistently. But I'm not going to waste my brain cells trying to explain all the contradictions.  Maybe I'm just missing something. Maybe not. It doesn't really matter, and it clearly didn't matter to the writers.

People keep saying that this is an angsty Superman, but I don't see that. Actually, the movie is full of warm, easy platitudes about faith and trust and life and so on, but their impact isn't earned by the script. Nothing is earned by the script. It's emotionally unsatisfying. And don't even get me started on the cardboard Lois Lane. And the product placement. I mean, there was one part where it looked like a Nikon commercial.

Well, I seem to be getting my curmudgeon on, so I'd better stop there. Tonight I think I'll watch The Dark Knight again.

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