Man of Steel

July 9, 2013 by  
Filed under Movies

“The world’s too big, Mom.”

“Make it small.”

Superman has been probably the most recognizable super hero ever created. Back in the 50’s, he made his way from comic book form into a TV legend. In the late 70’s, we finally saw Superman on the silver screen (I’m not counting “Mole Men”). Richard Donner did a spectacular job transcending the super hero into a gorgeous blue and red symbol of justice. He was kind, sensitive, and well…super. He was indestructable. Maybe we needed a hero like that during the waning days of the Cold War, I don’t know. But we embraced Superman.

Then, things got a little…weird. While “Superman II” was a fantastic sequel (either version you see), “Superman III” saw the decline in the franchise. And do we need to go into “Superman IV: Quest For Peace”? This marked the end of the Christopher Reeve era of Superman. We were given another taste in 2006 with the elephantine “Superman Returns”, a complete waste of time and money. And what we unfortunately didn’t realize was that between the mess of IV and “Returns”, we had 2 very good TV shows still making Superman a great story (“The Adventures of Lois & Clark” and “Smallville”).

I had always wanted to see “Smallville” be made into a feature film rather than see the franchise rebooted from the start again. But then Christopher Nolan stepped in, and things seemed to be heading in the right direction.

I wish, though, that it had headed to the right director. Zack Snyder, a notoriously whimsical visual director who seems to constantly be bereft of any thematical or narrative arc, takes the helm here and like he did with “Watchmen”, he makes an ambitious but completely lost movie. At least he didn’t permeate the film with stop-and-slow motion camerawork, though. And, he was given half a good script to work with.

Things get started a bit slowly, however. Not only is this an origin story for Superman, it’s also loaded with backstory for Krypton itself. The first fifteen minutes feel like it belongs more in a sci-fi action yarn than a superhero film. But we are given a handful of characters, Jor-El (well played by Russell Crowe), his wife Laura (Ayelet Zurer), and General Zod (Michael Shannon). Jor-El and Zod saw eye to eye on only one thing: that Krypton was dying. How they want to go about preserving the race beyond the planet’s demise is another matter. Zod is militaristic, so he stages a coup against the Council. Jor-El thinks this is not the way to go about things, and tries to send the first biological born child on Krypton to another planet to start a new race there. This infuriates Zod because he wants something called a ‘codex’ that is sent along with Kal-El, Jor-El’s son. Jor-El is murdered, and Zod and his gang are imprisoned. Krypton eventually falls apart.

But before that happens, Kal-El lands on earth, and we are immediately thrown into the future about 30 years to see an already grown Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) who seems to already be intent on saving people with super powers. He saves people on a rig that’s on fire, and also saves the life of Lois Lane (Amy Adams) while searching on a ship that came from Krypton that could tell him about his past. Lane was part of a research team that was excavating things in ice, and found the ship as well.

Clark has had a troubled past, we learn through flashbacks. As a kid, his father (extremely well played by Kevin Costner) believes these powers he has will be seen as a threat to human kind and tells him not to use them. Clark saves a bunch of kids on a bus and this disappoints his father. “What was I supposed to do, just let them die?” he asks. “Maybe,” his father trails off in response.

This father/son angle is the strongest part of the film. I wish it would have stayed on this path. There is a lot of guilt that Clark takes with him into adulthood, which also explains why he’s so intent on helping people. But this isn’t explored all that much because…

…Krypton is destroyed and the jailed rogues led by Zod are freed, and go searching for Kal-El. They find him, send a message to the world that “You Are Not Alone”, and then send a message to America that they need to give up the alien or be destroyed. Clark, who by now has been identified in print because of a leak by Lois Lane to a blogger, turns himself in.

After that, the film just becomes a joyless exercise in action and extremely noisy explosions. Now, in the middle of all this is a very quiet, patient story of a man who is told he has this great gift and can save mankind. Superman has always been a very Christlike story. He is both god and man. He has the power to save, heal, and he can make the world a better place. His struggle with his identity, and his struggle with his father’s acceptance and self-acceptance is a very good story. But it doesn’t pay off because Superman has to stop Zod.

And the biggest problem I have with this is that there is no dramatic tension between Zod and Superman. Zod is Jor-El’s nemesis, not Superman’s. Sure, Zod killed Superman’s father; but Superman never knew his father. He never even knew where he came from until he was an adult. Zod is simply a cosmic villain, and Shannon plays him at such a heightened, cartoonishly overzealous level that he’s never really anything more than a raving madman. His henchmen do a lot of dirty work, causing another “miniboss sndrome” (the film takes a detour to show us 10-15 minute long sequences of the hero vanquishing lesser villains just to fill space); and, to my surprise, Superman does some dirty work himself. He nearly demolishes half the city of New York while taking Zod with him.

This isn’t the Superman we love! Superman would never destroy anything; and if he did, he would do that thing where he spins around the world a bunch of times to fix what he had broken.

While Henry Cavill turns in a very good performance as Superman, Amy Adams seems very miscast and out of place as Lois; and the two share no chemistry. The only chemistry that really blossoms is between the young Clark and his father. There the movie is very good. It just doesn’t last long enough or follow through for me to completely buy the whole package. The special effects and fights are grandiose, but they grow very tired very quickly because we know how it’s going to end and I’m kind of tired of seeing New York City get demolished in the movies.

This movie was too big. When they made it smaller, it was effective and sound. Instead of going so big, they should’ve kept it smaller. Then it would have been, like young Clark, focused.

My rating: :?

Watchmen

March 8, 2009 by  
Filed under Featured Content, Movies

This film has been in the works for over two decades. As early as 1988 there was a draft penned by Sam Hamm (who co-wrote the first “Batman” film in 1989) for a film adaptation of “Watchmen”. For years it was passed around studios, laid around on people’s desks, rewritten by different people, and different directors taking passes on it. The one filmmaker that passed on it that struck me the most was Terry Gilliam, who said, “I’ll make it if I can make it 10 hours long”. Funny line, but I think he meant it.

After seeing this film, I know exactly what he means. He was kidding in a serious way. And here’s the long and short of it: “Watchmen” is unfilmable. Now, does that mean this was a bad film? Does it mean it wasn’t as “stunning” as some critics have called it? Not visually adaptable? Well, no. That’s not what I mean. Visually, the movie is extraordinary. The costumes are spot on; Dr. Manhattan is a true vision. The fight scenes are well choreographed.

But a movie isn’t just a bunch of visual shots. I would love to convince Zack Snyder of this, because he seems to think it’s more important to make a music video than a movie. And it made me wonder…so did they pick the wrong director? What went wrong?

Well, let me take a step back. When you think about what Terry Gilliam said–”You’d need 10 hours to tell this story”–he’s right. But wrong. You can’t do that. People would literally get bored. Why? Because they’re watching this, not reading it. A book, even a graphic one, can be enjoyed on a completely different level than a film. A film must have a spine, a theme, a plot, a point. “Watchmen” the book wanders through many plots, many themes, many points. “Watchmen” the film simply meanders and becomes muddled halfway through, because in trying to find itself, it gets lost in so many ideas that the book is allowed to breathe life into.

And that is what I mean by it being unfilmable. I think this was probably the best representation of the book there can possibly be, and yet I feel somewhat unfulfilled saying that the movie was, at best, a disappointment. Was it that I expected too much? No. I don’t even care that they changed parts of the ending to make it easier to understand. That’s natural. That happens with adaptations. And maybe not only Terry Gilliam was right, but the author himself, Alan Moore, said it perfectly: this was meant to be a comic book. Not a movie.

So, as an adaptation, this movie is actually as successful as it could be. But it’s still a failure as a film. Have I confused you yet? Well, try watching the movie without having already reading the book and see how far you get before you start wondering what you’re watching at all. And unless you’re David Lynch, movies aren’t supposed to be that confusing.

We have characters set up from the get go, with the murder of a famed superhero known previously as “The Minute Men” and now “The Watchmen”. He’s known as The Comedian, and his character is probably the heart of the film’s (and a lot of the book’s) theme. The Comedian is sadistic, sarcastic, cynical, hateful, and cold hearted. He, though, is a conundrum. His name is light hearted, and fun. It’s playful. He is a facade. He’s a joke. Behind the mask of a hero, he’s a villain. The film plays with this a lot, and sometimes beats you over the head with that, too.

Then you have Rorschach, who sees through it, and not only sees through The Comedian, but all of humanity. “The whores and the politicians will look up and shout, ‘Save us!’ And I’ll whisper, ‘No’.” He embodies humanity’s paranoia, while The Comedian embodies humanity’s hypocrisy and self loathing. Night Owl represents humanity’s simplicity and a root of normalcy (and blandness); while Dr. Manhattan takes on a whole other perspective: humanity’s struggle with itself and needing a deity to feel second to. Yet Dr. Manhattan questions everything in life as well, and also prefers solitude. But he judges, as well, even if he doesn’t want to.

And so you have all of this at play, and this is where the film gets into trouble. The book takes many paths, and that’s great for a book; but a film doesn’t get that luxury. You have to choose a plot and stick to it. There’s the murder plot of The Comedian; there’s the Doomsday Clock plot; and then there’s the subplots of the old “Minute Men” and the parallels of what was old and what’s new, and older generations fading and newer generations throwing away the past. The film, instead of trying to tie down a plot line, goes in every single direction the book does. And that’s admirable–but it’s a failure. It was set up as a failure. There was no way that approach was ever going to work.

It’s a shame because there are some wonderful moments in the film. The opening credit sequence with Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” was spectacular. Every scene with Dr. Manhattan was a treat for the mind. Rorschach’s journal entries are thoughtful and well narrated. But while the film tries to throw too much on one plate, it ultimately shatters, leaving audiences baffled more than enlightened.

I think it’s obvious I don’t give this a passing grade–but for some reason, I’m also not going to say I don’t recommend seeing it. I do recommend reading the book first and foremost. If you’re confused by the film, reading the book I think will make you appreciate what you saw more. There are some great things that Snyder does. But while he has wonderful source material to work with, he can only do so much with a 163 minute time limit. I won’t let him off completely, though; there were some things he could have done differently. And there is a sex scene that didn’t need to be in there at all.
So yes, this could have been done at 10 hours. But it would have been just as much a failure because this was never about strength of plot, but about ideas and themes and characters. “Watchmen” will never work as a film, because it’s not meant to. But this was probably the best representation you could get.

Maybe it just should have been left in production hell. But, it’s not a total waste of time. And the soundtrack’s pretty good, too.

My rating: :???: