Friday, June 14, 2013

Man of Steel (2013)

I saw Man of Steel last Friday night.  I haven't digested it adequately but I'm happy just to say the following and leave it at that.  There are no overt spoilers below, but I vaguely imply some secret story content.  Fair warning. 

The movie is a testament Hollywood's refinement of the art of making bloated or muddled stories into cinematic experiences so spectacular that they dull your senses and leave you not wanting to think too hard about what you've just been through.  It could just be my starry-eyed infatuation with the character, but I wanted to invest in what was happening.  And I almost did.  There really are some exhilarating and emotionally resonant moments.  The movie is hardly garbage, and that's what ultimately made the experience so frustrating.

However, a catastrophic characterization blunder in the climactic scene and the film's gross weight in every sense ruined what was an otherwise promising reboot.  No one takes these kinds of movies, and this character in particular, more seriously (in every good and bad sense) than I do.  But Man of Steel really makes me doubt whether we haven't finally run the superhero genre into the ground.

The movie buckles under its own excesses: it's too brooding; it's too long; it's (inevitably, these days) too encumbered by CGI; and it makes too many concessions to the dismal century we live in.

Now of course you can "re-imagine" iconic characters like Superman in all sorts of ways, for all sorts of reasons.  Batman, for instance, should keep pace with the world.  The character is made for reinvention.  This is partly because the character is of this world.  He is mortal.  Moreover, he's a tragic character, conceived in senseless violence and essentially belonging to its insane trajectory, destined to ride it right into the grave, even as the symbol he embodies transcends the fate to which the man behind it must be subject.  That's why Christopher Nolan's vision fits so well, why he was the right choice to helm Batman's latest cinematic incarnation, and why he was right to kill the character off at the end (shameful, incredible, perfunctory pandering and ass-covering during the final moments of The Dark Knight Rises notwithstanding).

But Superman's strength consists in being fundamentally different.  As the archetypal "strange visitor from another planet," he is not of this world.  We permit him the moral absolutes that the world as we actually find it won't permit of us.  We can do this because there should be a place for indulging our impossible ideals.  Their impossibility is less poisonous and confounding when it can be given free reign in an escapist fantasy.  An icon that dirties his hands to the extent that Nolan/Snyder's Man of Steel does cannot be the symbol of hope the film sets him up to be.  His uniqueness is lost, which is bad enough, but so is his therapeutic value to people exhausted by moral and spiritual compromise. 

Introduced in 1938, Superman is a creature of the American Century.  To me, anyway, he belongs alongside Norman Rockwell and New Deal civic idealism.  And if "alongside" is too close for comfort, he ought to stay in the neighborhood.

Of course, these are quaint artifacts of a naivety we've supposedly outgrown.  And we can't recapture that time and its way of expressing its guiding ideals.  It's gone and we shouldn't nurture the silly hope of recovering the lost innocence of a pristine, golden age.  That kind of romanticism is unhealthy if anything is.  So I don't mean to suggest that the character of Superman should be reverently preserved.  The plain fact is that changes in how our shared icons are expressed inevitably reflect changes in our own collective self-understanding.  So it's never a question of whether to alter an icon, only a question of how far and why.

But we need untimely heroes in our popular mythology, if only as a counterpoint to the prevailing cynicism and weary resignation of an age of rabid state surveillance, shrill, talking-point politics, class polarization, austerity, child soldiering, drone warfare, and a host of other demoralizing horrors brought home by the daily headlines.  We may have to settle for Weber's iron cage, in the end, but we should not be so eager to allow Nolan's grim, ashen ambiance to colonize every corner of our imagination along the way.  We should resist it, but we need help.  And far from helping to cultivate hope in this enterprise, Man of Steel all but ignores the moral stakes of responding to "terror" and apocalyptic violence in kind.

This is irresponsible.  Of all our modern mythological figures, Superman is perhaps best suited to mobilize a defiant idealism in the face of the world as we find it.  This is so given his star-spangled, insouciant and optimistic origins.  The film abandons these qualities at super-speed, and that's where it misses the mark by the widest margin with the worst consequences for us.

Nolan's Dark Knight films helpfully suggest that our highest and most uncompromising ideals, say those of "truth and justice," may not be able to withstand a careful, realistic accounting.  Maybe The Dark Knight is right to suggest that our world isn't ready for "the hero we deserve," that "the truth isn't good enough--sometimes people deserve more."  Or maybe The Dark Knight Rises is right to suggest instead that the truth should be allowed to "have its day," however ugly and destructive it turns out to be.

The Dark Knight films take these difficult possibilities seriously by showing how much is at stake in the questions they raise.  Batman and Jim Gordon pay a high price for the gut-wrenching decisions they make, and the cost is personal.  They agonize over them long after the deeds are done.  This is because, like real actions undertaken by real people, they have lasting and unpredictable consequences.  Man of Steel ends with a gut-wrenching decision followed by a vacant smile, some cheap laughs and a shrug. 

This review gets a lot of things right.  The movie was indeed joyless.  But this one really nails it, right down to calling out Snyder's utter failure to learn anything from Alan Moore, and hence from the best of the storytelling medium he's cashed in on, not just once (with Watchmen) but, now, twice, with his handling of Superman.

What a disappointment, partly because the film really does get a lot right.  The casting, for instance, was exceptional overall.  But even here there's a fatal flaw: Amy Adams was really uninspiring as Lois Lane, a character with as much potential for dignity, style, humor and brass as any you'll find in our pop culture pantheon.  And her onscreen chemistry with Cavill's Kal-El/Clark Kent rivals this for non-starterdom, which is saying a lot.

There's been a lot of enthusiastic talk about how much Henry Cavill looks the part of Superman.  There's no denying that, and he does fine as the troubled loner and reluctant savior that a lot of modern comics make the character out to be.  It's cool when he punches shit over and over.  And to me it ends up being about as thoughtful and inspiring as that sounds.

I recall Christopher Reeve's remark that, from his point of view, Superman is a pacifist, and I can't help wondering how many tickets you could sell to modern audiences with that approach to the violence and destruction to which the character is inevitably forced.  I don't know what John Q. Public deserves these days, particularly given how happy he seems to be to settle for movies like this.  But at the risk of overusing the reference, I wonder whether Nolan/Snyder's Man of Steel is the Superman we really need, or just the one we think we do.