Saturday, June 15, 2013

Man of Steel (2013)

Preliminarily, my take on Henry Cavill as Superman is ambivalent. He's not awful. His Superman wears a perrenial frown of slight annoyance, as when you spill catsup on your shirt. You aren't happy, but your world's not ending either. The problem is, in many cases, Superman's world is ending. So, when he cocks his head and presses his lips together, disapproving but relatively nonchalant, should we expect more from him or are his understated reactions a sign of confidence that only superior beings possess? Is it bad acting or just Cavill cool? Hard to say.

I knew this was an origin story, but I didn't realize it would really be a movie long battle between Superman and the people from his own planet, with humans just along for the ride. Interesting take, but as with Iron Man (and his iron buddies), too much super strength weakens the heart of the story. What is most compelling about a hero is his invulnerability compared to mortal fragility. When there is no comparison and he's surrounded by villains who are just as invincible and impenetrable as he is, then where's the awe? You smash someone into a building, the building crumbles but they are unscathed. In order to care, during endless action scenes, I have to feel a sense of risk and wonder and it's just not there.

The movie begins with Krypton in jeopardy. Kal-El has just been born and his parents are under siege. They sit on a council and General Zod is overthrowing it, for reasons that are unclear. They're explained later in the movie. While I can understand staged denouement and it's fitting that the audience learns some things later on when Kal-El learns them for the first time, I think we need to understand the conflict in the earlier scenes more. Krypton was imploding but (not having read the comic books) I did not know why. I knew that Jor-El and Zod were opponents, but didn't know what their opposing views were and how their battle would change Krypton's doomed fate either way. I think the script could have preserved some suspense concerning Superman's true mission in life, but still revealed more about the competing interests of Jor-El and Zod in the beginning.

I know I was reading it wrong, since Zod actually seemed to be sweet on a girl of his own, the evil Faora-Ul, but I sensed a vibe between Zod and Lara Lor-Van, Superman's mother. He was trying to stop her from launching valuable material out of Krypton and I was struck by the familiar tone with which he called her name. The movie made clear that Zod and Jor-El had once been friends and Zod actually wanted Jor-El on his side. Zod was evil now, but hadn't always been. Jor-El said he chose to honor the values of the man Zod had been, rather than concede to the monster he'd become. So, it's conceivable that they'd all been pals once. Yet, I sensed a rivalrous mood between Zod and Jor-El that was not present between Zod and Lara. When he tells her to abort the launch, her hand does pause on the clutch. It is purely for dramatic effect or because Zod has gotten to her just a bit?

Later, Zod kills Jor-El in rage, but does not try to harm Lara, who has been acting in tandem with Jor-El all along, at all. Then too, when Jor-El and Lara needly boast to Zod that they have a son who was conceived and born naturally Lara takes pride in telling Zod, "His name is Ka-El, Son of El." I felt she was taunting him, reminding him that she created a child with El, not Zod. But I guess that was all my imagination and no romantic triangle actually existed between the 3.

Anyway, it turns out that they'd stop conceiving kids on Krypton. They were all synthetically created in pods, to fulfill specific roles in the society. True intelligent design. Jor-El and Lara had bucked the system. They had helped make the world Krypton had become, but didn't like it. They feared a world where everyone's life was planned from birth to death. Where everyone followed a designated path. They wanted a child of their own, born naturally, who's future was uncharted and limitless. Who was free to become whatever he envisioned. Krypton was environmentally unsound and was dying. They sent out ships with manned outposts to various other planets, looking for a new home, a world that would be compatible with the life they'd built on Krypton. They catapulted their newborn son into that unknown world hoping that if he grew up with the inhabitants there, he could be one with them and evolve into a bridge between those natives and whatever Kryptonite refugees survived Krypton's death. Ka-El would be part of both worlds. That was the plan. Lara was sorry to see her son go, knowing she would not live to witness the man he would become and worried about the reception he would receive on the other planet. Jor-El assures her that the boy will be fine. He will be considered a God. Well, fine, but how does he know this? He is not intentionally sending Superman to Earth, as far as I can tell. How does he know what kind of life forms will inhabit whatever place the boy ends up end?

Anyway, since Lara and Jor-El kept their son a secret for so long, once they send him off to another planet with such high hopes, I don't know why they then boast about him to Zod. Giving him an excuse to hunt the kid down and kill him. Of course, if Zod didn't have that goal, we'd have no movie, so . . . yak your heads off Lara and Jor-El.

So, Zod plans to get Ka-El, but first things first. There is a kodex that Jor-El has taken and its imperative that Zod find it. The audience doesn't know what the kodex is initially, but we find out it is the genetic code for all of Krypton. It's what they used to make their synthetic babies. With that gone, Krypton cannot reproduce. They have no future (although couldn't the survivors replicate through sexual intercourse, old school, the way Lara and Jor-El did?). Zod is furious that Jor-El has fired the kodex out of Krypton, but I wonder why the other council members aren't mad too. Don't they care that Jor-El has unilaterally made a decision that will erase all of their futures. From what I can see, Jor-El isn't even their leader. He's just a high-ranking officer. He seems to have had a lot of nerve, but they aren't too fussed about it. They capture Zod and punish him and his crew for their revolt, imprisoning him in a phantom zone that is not part of Krypton. But since they know Krypton is dying, aren't they knowingly sparing Zod's life by sending him to a place that won't go down in flames. Also, why don't any of them try to escape the planet. Lara and Jor-El sent Superman away. Why didn't they all go somewhere? Jor-El (his conscience lives on like a ghost who can interact with the living) later explains that he chose not to go, because he and Lara participated in Krypton's downfall and had to suffer the consequences, but duh. Did all Krypton citizens feel that way? All of them chose to go down with the ship, instead of fleeing to another planet and starting a new and better life, having learned from Krypton's mistakes? It doesn't make sense.

I don't know if this will come up later in sequels, but I saw someone swim in and steal one of the synthetic baby pods. What did they do with it? Are we going to see some synthetic person from Krypton in one of the future films? Anyway, soon after Zod and his gang are deported to the phantom zone, Krypton goes down in flames and Lara doesn't even bother to take cover. She knows that there is no place to hide, as she is consumed in the apocalyptic fire.

Back on earth we see a young Superman. He has just saved men on a tanker. He is bearded with curly hair and floating under the boat with his arms splayed out, he is very much like Christ on the crucifix. This parallel, Ka-El sacrificing himself to save a world of people who know not what they do, is a recurring theme in the film and, at one point, Superman enters a church and talks to a priest with a large mural of Jesus as his backdrop. Like Jesus, Superman is not earthly, but the son of a great entity sent for a specific purpose.

Superman's youth is not followed chronologically, but unfolds in flashbacks. His ship landed in a farmer's back yard in Kansas. Jonathan (or Joseph) and Martha Kent raise the boy as their own and hide his space ship in their barn. When he is about 7, the child is still grappling with the enormity of his powers. He is in class when he suddenly can't control his x-ray vision and sensitivity to sound and touch. He runs out of the room and locks himself in a small janitor's closet. Using his x-ray vision to laser into the doorknob, making it too hot for the teacher to open. She calls his mother, who gently talks him out. "The world is too big," he tells her. Then make it smaller. Imagine yourself elsewhere. You're in the water floating. Swim over to me. The child calms down. Quiets his fears and is able to "swim" over to the door and turn the handle, to let his mother in. He remembers this incident as he lays in the ocean, after rescuing the tanker. It gives him the boost he needs to swim up and away. Having exposed his superhuman strength in order to save lives, he cannot stay. He has to move on, find a new identity and different low-paying job. Blend in, but never fit in.

This has been a pattern throughout his life. He was always taunted and bullied by the other kids and couldn't retaliate because he'd hurt them or, worse, in his father's eyes, he'd expose himself. Once kids were attacking him on a school bus. The driver loses control and drives it in the water. Superman lifts the bus and dives down deep to save a boy, his chief attacker. Later, the boy is grateful, but his mother demands to know Clark's secret. She wants to exalt him, but Jonathan Kent realizes that not everyone will. Some will want to destroy him for his power, because they're threatened by anything that's different, that they can't understand. He admonishes Clark for raising the school bus. He's warned him against this before. "What was I supposed to do?" The boy wants to know. Should he have just let the other kid die. Maybe, says Jonathan. Clark's true purpose in life may be bigger than that one life is, bigger than the Kents are. He may have to forfeit some to save them all. Now, that's actually scary logic Dad Kent is espousing. There are inherent dangers in the "greater good" approach. He doesn't want the world to find out what Superman is now, because they'd capture him and keep him from going forward to achieve his ultimate purpose. But there's an arrogance in ignoring the urgent, but every day needs of the people around you, because you feel you have a higher purpose. That is just saying the ends justify the means. That's what every madman says, from Hitler to Zod.

Clark follows his father's instructions reluctantly to the older Kent's end. They are in the car arguing and Clark throws out that "you're not my real dad. You're just some farmer that found me in a barn. I don't have to do what you say," line that all teens use eventually, when a tornado starts (it is Kansas after all). They get out of the car and run to safety in a tunnel, but then they discover they left their dog behind. Superman wants to go back for it, but Jonathan says he'll go. He needs Clark to get his mother in the tunnel. Well, Clark does. What I don't understand is why Clark has to stay there. He and Jonathan realize, I guess, that Martha won't stay put voluntarily. She'll try to run out to Jonathan, but can't Clark ask his neighbors to restrain her while he runs to help Dad and the dog? I mean, even if he didn't possess super strength, even a human boy is stronger and quicker than an old man. Once he got Martha to the tunnel, he still had plenty of time to run back (at a normal human's pace) and help, rather than just standing there idle. But stand there he does. He watches Jonathan getting hit by debris and then a car flies through the air and is about to crush him. Superman is about to race out to get him, but Jonathan puts up a yielding hand, commanding him to stay in the tunnel. Do not expose yourself, he silently orders his son. Superman obeys and watches his father die, when he could have prevented it. He screams. Um, so do I, because I could have saved Jonathan in all the time that passed. You didn't have to be Superman. You just had to be a bit smarter than he and his dad were.

I hope that little incident, which still haunts him, cured Superman of that whole "save yourself for the greater good" attitude, but I'm not sure. Anyway, one of the most fantastic moments in the movie comes when we see Jonathan Kent's gravestone and it reads 1951-1997? Are you trying to tell me that old man was only 46 years old. I guess raising an omnipotent alien prematurely ages a guy. The real Kevin Costner is actually just 58, but he looked about 10 years older in the movie and, unlike Diane Lane, I don't think his appearance was due to make up.

Anyway, despite the contrary conclusions I've drawn, the movie would have us think that Clark is quite intelligent. He spent his free time reading Plato as a boy, a stark contrast to the mouthbreathers all around him. We see him working in a bar, when one of the patrons starts harassing a waitress. Even though there are army officers in attendance, they just gawk in interest and don't do anything when the woman is manhandled. Clark (or Joe, as he is calling himself) steps in and tells the guy to knock it off. I'm not sure why the man ever would have resisted, since Joe is taller, younger and bigger than he is. Even without being Superman, you'd think his bulk would be a deterrent against bullies, but it never is. Even as a child, after the townspeople realized he had freaky strength, the local boys still teased and threw things at him, practically inviting him to kill them. In my experience, kids will beat up on those who are weaker, but that's it. If you're more powerful than they are (either physically or just socially), they back down pretty quick. In this movie, they don't. The guy in the bar punches Superman and he is literally a man of steel. His skin is hard and unyielding. Still the guy persists in his attack. Superman is about to hit back, but the waitress says, "It's not worth it, Joe." So, he gets his coat and leaves, goes on to another town and a new identity. When the brute in the bar goes outside, he finds that his truck has been hoisted up into the air and mangled. So, Superman got back at him, but non-violently. That's great, but what about the waitress in the bar? She was still being felt up against her will. Superman didn't need to use all of his strength to avenge her, but couldn't he have roughed up the assailant a bit, just to make sure his unwanted touching didn't escalate into something more in Superman's absence?

We soon find Superman working at a military compound, tasked with investigating an underwater anomaly. They've found some kind of modern equipment that was encased in ice that is 18,000 years old. They don't know what it is yet. Lois Lane shows up as a reporter. The military didn't want her there, but she went to Court and got an order forcing them to admit her, so she can report on the find. She spies Superman walking alone through her camera zoom and decides to follow him. When Superman crashed to earth as a child, the Kents found a small metal object with him. It was tubular and seemed to be topped with the letter "S." Jonathan Kent took it to be tested at a lab and was told that is comprised of a material that doesn't even show up on the Periodic table. In other words, it's not of this world. Superman is at the base to try to learn more about the mystery of his unearthly origins. I'm surprised he can gain access to the ice ship. You'd think it would be heavily guarded, but he just waltzes on up. He puts his little tubular "S" thing into the "ignition" of the mysterious craft and it opens. Suddenly Jor-El is running around talking to his son. He uploaded his conscience onto the space craft hard drive and can communicate with Ka-El from beyond the grave. I don't really understand how you back up a human mind, but it happened on Doctor Who (with River Song) too and so I guess it's a common sci fi thing. Jor-El shares their history with Ka-El and gives him the motivation needed to protect the people on his adopted planet. He gives him a uniform modeled after his own Krypton garb, complete with a symbol that looks like and "S" on the chest. It stands for "hope."

Lois Lane is following Superman and the space craft perceives her as an intruder and attacks. Superman finds her when she is bleeding and catherizes her wound with his x-ray vision. Then he disappears. Lois realizes he is an alien and writes a story about him. Her editor rejects it, but she is determined to find Superman and leaks her story on the internet, so she can get leads. Why, I don't know. He saved her life. Why can't she just leave him in peace? Ka-El (dubbed "Superman" by Lois later, when she sees the "S" on his costume) dons the suit his father gave him and learns how to harness his powers. He also cuts his hair and beard. I don't know if that's a fashion tip he got from Jor-El as well, but I think not, since Jor-El was sporting facial hair himself.

On her part, Lois begins receiving tips about a man with superhuman powers, tracks them down and is led to Clark Kent's home. She finds him at his father's grave. He tells her the story about how his father died and why it is important to keep his powers and origin a secret, because who knows how the world will react if they are exposed? Lois has a change of heart and doesn't want to reveal Superman's identity to the world any longer.

But then Zod has found the planet (led there when Superman used his key to open the old spaceship, that sent off signals that Zod's ship intercepted) and through tv and cell phones he tells the people of earth that they are not alone. He will kill them all, unless they release Ka-El to him. Based on her story that leaked on the internet, the military detains Lois Lane, hoping she can lead them to Ka-El. She doesn't talk, but Superman shows up voluntarily and surrenders. He even lets them cuff him, if that will make them feel more secure. Again, its reminiscent of Jesus surrendering himself to Pontius Pilate's men. Jesus could have saved himself, but chose not to.

To keep Zod from destroying everyone, Superman gives himself up. For reasons unknown, Zod says he wants Lois Lane too. I'm still not sure how she furthers Zod's purposes. You might think that Zod can control Superman by threatening her, but he doesn't threaten her and how would Zod know that she and Superman have a bond, already? Whatever. The military was fine with releasing Ka-El to Zod, but not one of their own. It seems like they were prepared to engage in a battle that would find them far outmatched to save her. This impresses me, since the military commanders did not like Lois and seem misogynistic. One might have expected them to let Zod take her to save everyone else, but they don't. It is Lois who voluntarily agrees to go and she and Superman are both on board Zod's ship. Turns out, Zod was released from his prison in the Phantom zone when Krypton was destroyed. Zod went around to all of Krypton's outposts around the universe and although all the Kryptonites were dead, he was able to salvage equipment from the abandoned Krypton ships and he and his crew built up their own powerful devices. They can't reproduce though, because Jor-El has stolen the genetic code, the kodex, and they need to find it if the Krypton race is to survive.

The Krypton atmosphere on Zod's ship weakens Superman. His body evolved on earth and he is no longer able to adapt to krypton air. Unconscious he hears Zod talking. Zod wants to claim Earth for himself and other Kryptonites, including Ka-El. He doesn't want to hurt him. But what will become of humans, if the Kryptonites take over. Zod doesn't want to share the planet. They will die. Superman can't let that happen. Jor-El meant for Ka-El to be a bridge between mortal and Kryptonite. He thought they could co-exist, but Zod won't let that happen. Krypton had its chance and he is not going to let Zod take over Earth and destroy everyone else's. He regains his strength and escapes from Zod's ship, but Zod just follows him and, such is their strength, that they engage in a fight that kills thousands of human and razes city skyscrapers with each blow they deal to one another.

Meanwhile, on her side of Zod's spaceship, Lois uses Superman's key to turn on the Jor-El holograph thingy. Jor-El tells her how to defeat Zod and return him to the Phantom zone prison. Lois tells the military that if they crash the space ship that brought Superman to Earth as a baby into Zod's ship, the force will create a black hole and suck Zod back into it. Seems logical, I guess. So, while Zod and Superman go mano a mano down below, the military is trying to crash into Zod's ship, manned by his merciless sidekick Faora. "Death is its own reward," she taunts her victim, but the military is able to turn the tables and throw that line back at her, when they create the black hole and eradicate her. We saw Lois Lane's pals from the Daily Planet about to die. We don't really know about them and don't care. Her boss, Perry White, was trying to rescue Jenny, an employee, stuck under debris and he orders another employee to help him. I'm not sure why White is so hung up on Jenny and when the world is imploding, hierarchy disappears. Just because you're the newspaper boss, doesn't mean you can command someone else to give up their life for your precious Jenny. So, I didn't even care about their fate, but when the Phantom Zone opens up again, they are all saved, nevertheless.

Since Zod was down on the ground at the time, he doesn't go back into the Phantom Zone with the rest of his crew. He is still on earth, battling Superman in a museum. Now, you'd think that Superman already had enough incentive to kill him given all of the carnage Zod had caused thus far. I mean, what's the alternative. It's not like you can lock Zod up in San Quentin. Zod could knock that entire structure down even if he just tripped into it accidentally. So, of course, I'm waiting for Superman to kill Zod, but Superman still needed a reason. Zod is using his x-ray vision to bore laser heat at a family and is about to incinerate them all. Superman needs to make Zod's eyes stop their murderous tracking and manages that by breaking Zod's neck, killing him. He's wracked with guilt over that. Ugh.

Superman and Lois kiss. I don't think Cavill and Adam's chemistry is good or bad, either way. Lois is enamored and says that she's heard it all goes down after the first kiss. Superman says something lame like, "that's only true with humans" which is kind of cocky and a compliment to his own kissing prowess rather than to Lois, but ok. They were going for a great punch line there, but Christopher Reeve & Margot Kidder banter it is not!

Crisis averted, Superman is going on with his life and finds that the military is tracking him. He confronts a commander and says that he knows they want to know where he hangs his cape, but they have to quit following him and using drones for surveillance (given the NSA scandal in the news, this is very realistic conduct on the government's part). The officer tells Superman that he's very powerful and how can they be sure he won't use that strength against them? You know, I get that people are basically awful, but why is it that from Superman's boyhood until now, everyone he tries to help immediately turns on him suspiciously? It happens in most super hero movies and I guess it happens in life as well. But it defies logic. When someone has just been a savior, at least let them do something untrustworthy first, before you immediately become leery. Is it more a product of resentment than mistrust? Are you jealous of what they can do, because you can't do it and want to bring them down to your level by imputing an evil motive where there's no evidence of one? If that's what human nature is, then I'm not sure Superman should have fought so hard to protect it.

Back at work at the Daily Planet, a new reporter shows up. His name is Clark Kent and Lois Lane looks mighty glad to meet him.

I didn't think this movie was the masterpiece that some make it out to be. Indeed, I even found more pathos in the last Spiderman film. Still, at a two hour and twenty minute run time, this Superman never left me restless. Perhaps he didn't soar, but he didn't bore.

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