Man of Steel - Nic's Impressions

Well Internet, I've seen Man of Steel. And, well, much like I was after seeing Star Trek Into Darkness, I'm conflicted.

Warning, SPOILERS follow...

In fact, for us here at the Inner Dorkdom the scene after the movie was very similar to the one after Into Darkness. We were having our post-movie credits-are-rolling conversation about the movie. Some in our group really liked it. Others were not impressed. When it came for me to give my input, there I was again, in the middle, only able to say, "I'm conflicted." I couldn't give a simple, "loved it," or, "hated it." In some ways and on some levels I really enjoyed it. And in others I was disappointed. And, again, just like immediately after Into Darkness, I couldn't initially sort my feelings out and put them into words. On the drive home with Josh (who loved it) and Liz (who hated it) I started trying to, particularly what disappointed me about the film. But it didn't go well. Again, too many emotions and responses all intertwined.

I think the reason this happened with Man of Steel is the same reason it happened with Into Darkness. In both cases we have a reboot of a franchise (sorry J.J. Star Trek, but for most intents and purposes that's what you are) that I have a familiarity with, an affinity for, and thus, expectations regarding.

So to sort out my feelings, I'll begin by doing what I did while pondering Into Darkness.

If I evaluate it just as a summer action movie:
No doubt it's a well made action movie. There are plenty of action-packed scenes (especially in the latter half of the film), heroics and villainy of a very high order, and lots of stuff that goes boom (grain silos, Sears stores, IHOPs, 7-11s, dozens of Metropolis skyscrapers). Indeed, the action scenes themselves are full of impressive imagery and intense kinetic action. My problems with it on the purely action movie level are the same that I have with any film that really goes in for the distinctively modern trends in action movies (shaky cam, muted colors, action sequences that go on a bit longer than I'd like, a Hans Zimmer styled score--in this case composed by the man himself).

If I evaluate it as science-fiction:
And I should. Superman is an alien. Superman stories, though the extent to which they emphasize this varies, are science-fiction stories.

And as a science-fiction film, I think it really works. It's not as deep as some sci-fi, no doubt. But, for my money, it works much better on the sci-fi level than Into Darkness does. In Man of Steel the science-fiction elements are more than just the backdrop used to give flavor to a story that with minimal tweaks could be set in realistic modern day. (Which is, as you guessed, how I felt about Into Darkness, although perhaps I'm being too hard on it.) The science-fiction elements are integral to the story and plot here. But, it should be noted, they don't completely overshadow it.

If I evaluate it as Superman:
Again, having been a fan of Superman for years, this is where I bring certain personal baggage with me. That is, expectations, or at least preferences, based on my previous experience with the franchise (which is not in-depth on the comic book side, although I did read Superman comics as a kid).

With my Into Darkness impressions I tried to filter out the Nic-specific baggage and evaluate it just in terms of it being Star Trek. I think that approach made sense because Star Trek, a franchise less than 50 years old, has only had (and, I admit, technically still only has) one continuity. Different shows and films have their own unique flavors. But nonetheless I think one can look at Star Trek as one cohesive thing.

But it doesn't make as much sense for me to do that here, because Superman is a much more varied franchise. There have been many continuities over its 75 year history. Superman stories have been told in a number of different media, with no one medium being thought of as the one true official one. And the stories themselves have varied greatly in terms of content, tone, themes, and so on. So its more difficult to nail down certain elements, whether they be of story or style, and say, "Regardless of one's personal preferences, this is what Superman is." I do think some exist. But they are far fewer than the one-continuity of Star Trek.

So all I can do is evaluate it as Superman with my personal tastes in view. And what is the result?

First, and I think foremost, it makes my problems with the modern edgy action-movie stylistic sensibility more acute. Because it's Superman. Yes, he's the Man of Steel. But he's also the Man of Tomorrow. The boyscout. The kindly flying super-powered space alien from an old-fashioned small town in Kansas. Also, even amongst superheroes he is distinctive and one-of-a-kind. And I personally want a Superman film to tonally reflect those values and ideas. I certainly don't want it to drink so heavily from the modern "gritty realistic" style. Now, even though I think of most of them fondly, I'm not asking for a straight up emulation of the Christopher Reeves films, or even Superman Returns (which, in my mind, was a Christopher Reeves film without Christopher Reeves). I understand filmmakers today are highly unlikely to go that far. General audiences' tastes have changed a bit over the decades. But I would like a Superman film that at least, when compared with other films of its day, leans noticeably in that direction. I want a Superman movie to standout from its peers as a bit "classic," when it comes to its presentation. Man of Steel doesn't do this. In fact, quite the opposite. The film takes up the gritty style more so than most Marvel films, and ends up being, in my eyes anyway, tonally closer to The Dark Knight Trilogy.

Truthfully, of all the recent movies I've seen, I feel like Captain America: The First Avenger did the best job of capturing the vibe I'm wanting in a Superman film.

Don't get me wrong. When evaluating this as a Superman movie, it's not all bad. Not at all. For example, I thought the cast did a wonderful job. Although I still miss Brandon Routh, I was pleasantly surprised with how well I felt Henry Cavill works as Superman. He could play the serious, almost brooding side, and also the warm optimistic side (on the very rare occasions he was given opportunity to do so). Amy Adams as Lois Lane is great (though early on I feared Lois' spunkiness was going to come across more like witchiness, but fortunately that didn't pan out). Of course Ma and Pa Kent and Jor-El were wonderful. I know there's been some controversy over Michael Shannon's performance as Zod, but I personally liked what he did with the role. Laurence Fishburne was great as Perry White (indeed, his scenes helped make the whole affair feel more like a Superman movie, though I'm not sure why). And the other bit players performed admirably as well.

As for the story, which is no question the heart of any film (except for 'artsy' films, and by the way that's a technical term I learned when studying film criticism in college), no doubt there are changes made here, including a couple of significant ones. I'm personally not of the "They changed something thus its ruined forever" mindset, at least when a film is creating or working within its own continuity. Change by itself is neither good nor bad in my book. You have to look at the changes themselves, evaluate them on their own merits. For sake of time I'll only point out the one change that had the largest impact on my enjoyment of the story, and by extension, the film itself. That is, they decided to play up his alien nature to the point where, it seems even growing up in Smallville, he was an outsider. A loner. And them, upon graduation, a drifter.

Let me say that I do think the filmmakers executed that idea well. But, that choice had a profound impact on the film. And in a way that worked against my enjoyment.

On the ride home with Josh (who loved the film) and Liz (who hated it), I started trying to explain my feelings. I talked about warmth. Josh was amazed I didn't see that in the film. Liz and I talked about the film lacking a sense of fun, and again we had trouble communicating.

I've been thinking about it, and I think I've figured out how to articulate it.

Some folks say difference between 2006's Superman Returns and Man of Steel was action. The former had too little, while the latter, at least for some, had too much.

I think it's deeper than that. It seems to me that Superman Returns emphasized Superman's compassion, his relationships, his personal warmth, his emotional side. In Man of Steel, because he's a loner for much of his life, this side of him doesn't have a chance to be explored, let alone emphasized. Rather Man of Steel emphasizes his resolute moral character. Here is a 'man' who has deep convictions. He has great power, but he also has great restraint. He is not one to seek vengeance, even on those who often treat him poorly (that one guy's big rig notwithstanding). Indeed, he shows himself, at a young age even, to be willing to protect even those people. And, perhaps most important of all, he is highly selfless, willing to live the life of a drifter because of the combination of two things: 1) he cannot stand by and not use his powers to help others, and 2) his earthly father instilled in him the importance of not revealing himself to the world too soon.

Both elements, his compassionate personal relationship side and his moral resolve and strength of character, are important parts of Superman. Both are needed. If he's compassionate but not resolute he might use his powers in dangerous/harmful/vindictive ways due to those he personally loves (this is what the Jedi during the time of the prequels feared could happen if they allowed themselves to form attachments). If he's resolute but not compassionate, he comes across as distant, his desire to protect humanity becoming merely a philosophical decision.

Superman in Man of Steel is not devoid of this personal connection and compassion (just as Superman in Superman Returns isn't devoid of strong moral resolve). He clearly loves his adopted parents. And at the end of the film as he begins his new life as Superman and Clark Kent, reporter for the Daily Planet, it starts to come through again. But, again, because the story is structured as it is, throughout the film we don't see much of this side of him. He just doesn't have many relationships. He cares about 'humanity,' but we don't get many chances to see that abstract idea made personal and, well, human.

And that is why I, and I suspect others, feel like the film, and Superman himself, was lacking a sense of warmth. (It's like, I know this Superman would care about me if I were falling out of the sky or something. But I don't know that he'd want to be my friend.)

Incidentally, the scenes that did help bring some warmth to the film were somewhat stifled by the pointless shaky-cam and other facets of postmodern action cinematography (I'm looking at you, scene with Pa Kent after the school bus incident).

His being a loner also probably accounts at least somewhat for what I call the lack of 'fun' in the film. The type of thing I refer to when I talk about a sense of "fun" typically comes from personal interactions. Or, at least, it's expressed typically through personal interactions. Characters commenting to others (usually associates or friends) about what's happening ("You and I remember Budapest very differently," "Well, I hope this experience hasn't put any of you off flying. Statistically speaking, it's still the safest way to travel," "Another happy landing"), or interacting in other ways (Steve Rogers giving Nick Fury ten dollars, acknowledging his losing their bet). But, again because the filmmakers chose to tell the story they did, Kal-El/Clark/Superman doesn't interact with many other people in the film. Here's who I remember: His parents, computer ghost Jor-El, girl and jerk at diner, Lois Lane, a priest, Zod's lady sub-commander, Zod, couple of military guys. That's it. Thus, even if he wanted to give us some fun (and this Superman, being a bit broody until he truly finds his place in the world, probably wouldn't), there are few people around for him to play off of.

(Incidentally, I'd read a review that said Superman and Lois' relationship in the film isn't the big iconic romantic thing we might expect, but we can see how it could bloom into that. Having seen the film, I think by in large that's an accurate description. And I'm ok with that. But, I was thus a bit surprised at the kiss. I didn't expect it, since they hadn't really had time or opportunity to fall in love or develop anything more than an initial attraction and respect for each other. I personally would have been OK without the kiss. Let that come in the next film.)

I don't know about cinematography, editing, and music, but as for my other disappointments, I think there's a small amount of hope for the future, if the last five minutes of the film are any indication. First you have Superman's response to Lois's line about first kisses (a wry humor "fun" moment). Then there's the scene with the general and the destroyed drone. I read someone say it comes off as a poor attempt at Tony Stark / Nick Fury banter. I disagree. Does the scene channel a bit of that Marvel movie fun? Yes. But Superman isn't being anything like Tony. He's still clearly Superman, making valid and mature points. He even acknowledges his rural Kansas upbringing. And the military personnel are definitely a bit less, theatrical, than Fury. So to me the scene feels very natural...and fun. Then there's the final two scenes, where Clark explains to his mother what his job will be (guess he doesn't have to go to college for that?), and we see him arrive for his first day at the Planet. Maybe it was partially seeing the standards of Superman mythology finally start to fall into place, maybe it was the resolution of the broodiness of earlier, but whatever the reason, I couldn't help but have a pretty big smile as I watched those two scenes. (Then the music continued to be Zimmer's score, and the smile lessened slightly).

OK, I guess I may as well say a little something directly about the score. I'll save more in-depth observations for a dedicated article. For now I'll just say that I for a Superman score, I personally want something else. Something more traditionally orchestral (but not necessarily exclusively so). Something with a bit more melodic and rhythmic complexity. Something with a touch of classic heroicism and patriotism, maybe even with at least one trumpet or woodwind instrument somewhere in the score.

In a publicity interview, Zimmer said that Nolan's Batman is inward and brooding, and the Dark Knight films were serioius psychological explorations. But Superman represents hope, and even traditional Midwest Americana. As I read that, it made me think that perhaps his Man of Steel score would be different from his Dark Knight scores. Perhaps his themes would do a more adequate job of embodying the specific characters, and not just conveying the basic psychological journey of the character.

But I have to agree with others on this, I don't think that's what happened. On the contrary, the music to this film feels very similar to his Batman scores. To me the music Zimmer wrote for Man of Steel doesn't reflect Superman's inspiring hope in others. It doesn't embody his heroicism. (That's what John Williams' themes did.) Rather, when it isn't being just ostinato triplet pattern driven action, it seems to be more of a reflection of Superman's inner psychological journey. When I hear Zimmer's 'main theme' it conjures in my mind the image of a person who had been kneeling because of something oppressive finally standing up. But the nature of that person, and that oppressive force, isn't specified. It could be any number of people, dealing with any number of oppressive circumstances. It doesn't convey the particular image of a man in a cape with super powers flying through the skies saving the world. It doesn't contribute to the film as a whole being the kind of rousing, awe-inspiring experience I, and others, wanted it to be. And that's the kind of score I personally wanted. Even if it had only displayed those qualities right at the end, that would have been welcomed.

Well, Internet, there's the broad strokes on my feelings about Man of Steel. In some ways I enjoyed it. In some ways I didn't. In the end, I wish it had been a bit less dark and brooding.

I have some other thoughts about specific plot points, stylistic choices, etc., that hopefully, along with a more detailed discussion of the score, I'll share with you soon. But until then, I remain,

 - Nic

Posted on June 18, 2013 .