TheTNF Reviews “Man of Steel” or “So much promise squandered for a lot of throwing people through buildings.” (SPOILERS!)
I’ll disclose that Superman is not exactly in the upper-echelons of my fandom preferences. I find the mythos to be rather interesting, but the tales of his heroic life on Earth often feel dated and unimaginative. After the trailers I was optimistic that perhaps an updated, engaging version of the story of Kal-El was possible, even probable. It’s been a very long time since anyone has managed to pretty much anything good with the Superman franchise. The latest attempt brings together writer David Goyer (whose credits include the latest Batman trilogy and the Blade films) and director Zach Snyder (300, Watchmen, Suckerpunch), with a little help from Chris Nolan. With these guys at the helm, I was definitely expecting a grittier, darker take on Superman mythos. What we got was a bleak, grim film full of gratuitous CGI fight sequences that drag on for what feels like hours that ultimately fails its canon, the characters and the audience. Even more frustrating is the suburb casting and the fleeting moments where the nuance from Goyer and Nolan show through, and hammer home just how good this film could have been.
From a nerd point of view, the movie often feels like one long “oh, SO close moment.” At a few points throughout the film, it’s almost painfully close to exactly what I wanted, but then screws it all up. The opening of the film is chief among these. We’re treated to a lengthy introduction showing how and why Jor-El and Lana are so adamant about sending their only son to Earth, as Krypton faces destruction. I was very impressed with the overall look of Krypton itself; the production designs did a fantastic job of portraying a world both futuristic and entirely alien. The story managed to get some good traction as you watch Jor-El and his wife Lana scramble to save their son from the destruction of their planet. But then it all starts to fall apart, the questions start, and so many good things are squandered for an action moment. Why is Jor-El, supposedly a man of peace and a respected scientist, able to match guns with the elite of the Krypton military? What exactly is the point of Zod’s coup, when the planet is doomed in just weeks? And why send Zod to the Phantom Zone and spare him from the destruction of the planet?
We then jump forward and see the now-named Clark Kent doing the anonymous good-guy thing, wandering from city to city saving people and slipping out before anyone can say “who was that guy?” These random acts of heroism are interspersed with flashbacks to Clark’s formative years on Earth with his adoptive parents, leading to his eventual discovery of his origin via an ancient bit of Krypton technology, along with the chance to save the life of Lois Lane. I think this part of the film is where all the possibility really shines through. It does a surprisingly good job of establishing an emotional core to the film, and a reason for Kal to feel an attachment to the people of Earth. Kevin Costner and Diane Lane are picture-perfect as Jonathan and Martha Kent, and their acting is superb. Unfortunately, the writers (I believe) altered the critical life lessons that Jon shares with young Clark, going from the canonical “Always Do Good Things” to “It’s Ok to Let People Die If You Can Keep Your Secret.” While I can see how this later sets up the gamble of Clark trusting the people of Earth, I think it detracts for one of the Superman series’ most core thoughts..the idea that doing the right thing is paramount. As well, Jon Kent’s death is changed from a heart-attack (something Clark is powerless to stop) to a tragic death by tornado that Kal chooses to allow (at his father’s insistence) in order to avoid revealing his abilities. But overall, this portion of the movie works better than almost any other, and it left me hopeful for the prospects of the rest of the film.
Sadly, soon my hope were dashed. Not long after the intrepid Lois Lane manages to discover the identity of her mystery savior, Zod arrives at Earth with his demand for custody of Kal-El. Again, the set-up here is very good, and Michael Shannon is believable and disturbing as the single-minded military despot. However, what ensues following this is an hour of trite action footage filmed at camera angles that move at a migraine inducing space. Kal fights the Zod and his soldiers all over the damn place, always with the same city-wrecking results. And the fight sequences pointless drag out far longer than is necessary, to the point where they actually become so boring that I lost any interest in who might win…I just wanted to be able to look at the screen without getting motion sickness. (And I saw the film in 2D…I can’t even imagine how 3D audiences felt!) Almost all storytelling is lost, and Clark’s lines (and Henry Cavill’s acting) go right down the tubes, with Zod and Lois right behind him. What makes the whole thing especially depressing is the beautiful cruelty of Zod’s plan (to terraform the Earth into a Krypon-like replica and save his race at the expense every human life), and how perfect it fits the mindset of his character, both in the film and in the canon. It also sets up what could have been a perfect tipping point moment for Kal-El…how to manage to save both his own people and the people of Earth. Sadly, the writing takes a nosedive here and Superman essentially commits the complete genocide of his own people (for reasons that aren’t entirely clear). For me, this was where the tone of the film reached its nadir. There was nothing in the way of even a little dark humor, let alone any real comic relief, up to this point and the sheer grimness of the entire affair settled on me. More excessively long action sequences follow this, and we reach another point where there was SO much squandered potential. Zod has been defeated, but he is able to engage his heat vision long enough to endanger a nearby family, forcing Clark to kill him to save them. Had Clark not committed genocide not a few hours prior, this moment could have been far more impactful, even more so if the canon lessons of Papa Kent been left in place. So instead of a Superman torn apart by having to take a life so brutally, it becomes just one more death in an already bloody, depressing (and bloody depressing) movie. The denouement again shines with a sense of possibility for the film as we see Clark taking his new job at the Daily Planet and slyly flirting with Lois, along with an incredibly moving flashback sequence of young Clark Kent with a red towel for a cape as his parents look on and hope aloud for his future. This short moment is by the best in the film, and it leaves me wondering how Man of Steel could have turned out if the same care used in this small sequences had been used throughout the film.
Despite the numerous failings of the film, there are a few other positive pieces worth mentioning. The film does manage to use a few wonderfully subtle moments to remind us of the details from the earlier incarnations of the franchise. A very short but purposeful shot of the water tower over Clark’s hometown reads “Smallville” without any other mention of the town’s name. Weather maps and images from the military radar are clearly labeled “Metropolis” without much other mention of the name of city that plays host to much of the story. The name “Superman” is said only twice in the entirety of movie, giving subtle homage to the eponym of the franchise without being cheesy and cliche. Unfortunately, they do little to save this disappointing entry in the Superman legacy.
From a feminist point of view, there’s a lot to like about Man of Steel, particularly early on. Lana, wife of Jor-El and mother of Kal, bravely faces the possibility to death to save her son, stands defiantly to see justice served to the man to killed her husband, and fearlessly awaits the end of her planet. Sadly, she’s marred slightly in the strange need to have her fight with Jor-El to send Kal to Earth…after all, no one is going to survive the destruction of Krypton. I love Amy Adams’ portrayal of the fearless Lois Lane (even if I object to her hair color) as she berates her way past military commanders in search the story she’s seeking. Almost as good is the moments she’s her boss at the Daily Planet to print a story she thinks is important, even if it risks her career, and then finding a way to get it printed after she loses the argument. Unfortunately, after Zod’s arrival on Earth, she seems to be reduced to doing very little other than staring at the sky while her hair blows artfully in the wind. Martha Kent provides a strong anchor point for Kal, especially after the death of Jonathon. She handles the destruction of her house in a manner befitting her unflappable resilience in the face of all she’s encountered over the years. Diane Lane’s performance is one of the biggest highpoints of the entire film. Finally, one of Zod’s most trusted and able soldiers is a woman (who isn’t named in the film, but is identified as Faora in the credits), and she’s pretty much a bad-ass. All in all, against the backdrop of superhero films, I can’t complain too much about the depiction of women in this movie. A little more plot-critical action for Lois would have been nice, but it’s overall much better than I expected.
I could absolutely write another 1000 words on the horrific abuses of all things physics in this film, but I think I’ll just sum it up briefly: physics do not appear to apply to anyone or anything in this film in any consistent or reasonable way. (If Superman is able to fly mostly because he’s jumping REALLY hard, how can he change direction or HOVER?!!?!) Beyond that, I’ll leave those gripes to the physics bloggers.
I don’t think that Man of Steel has killed the Superman franchise…after all, the film pulled in almost $150 million. I just really hope that if they decide to build a sequel, they put someone else at the helm. Zach Snyder should stick to films about naked Greeks killing lots of people in very stylish ways.
TheTNF Review of “Star Trek: Into Darkness”, or “I love explosions and textual references, but this is a sausage fest!” (Spoilers!)
So remember how I said in the “About” page that I was going to be talking about nerd stuff in this blog? Well, I’m sure all of you were just DYING to know what TheTNF thought about the new Star Trek movie! Ok, probably not, but too damn bad. Let’s do this!
We’ll get things going with the nerd point of view. Firstly, I’ll admit that I absolutely walked out of the theater going saying “OMG, that was awesome!” But, I do that for a LOT of movies before my brain has had a chance to completely digest everything I took in. Taking the movie as simply a work of science-fiction/action, I still really enjoyed the film. It’s visually stunning, well-acted, and the sound editing is excellent. The action sequences happen regularly enough to give the film energy, but not so often as to make it feel rushed. There’s good character development, some touching moments, and enough comic relief to keep it from getting depressing. So, from a strictly film-geek point of view, I call the film a total win.
However, if I take it a step further and let the Trek-geek in me have a go at it, things change. I’ll start with the good. I remain very impressed with the casting decisions for all the major characters. I think they all fit the roles perfectly, and Benedict Cumberbach manages to perform admirably as Kahn Noonien Singh despite the glaring whitewashing. Less well done is the intertextuality the film attempts to establish with Wrath of Khan. There are a few points where this is pulled off brilliantly; the fantastically inverted self-sacrifice scene with Kirk and Spock being chief among them. Unfortunately, to me, this only ends up highlighting what “could have been”. Many of the other references feel forced or just plain unnecessary (see: Leonard Nimoy’s cameo). This leads well into my second point, which is the film tried to cover too much. There’s a lot of canon here to deal with- all of WoK, plus the episode “Space Seed” from TOS. Attempting to pull in most of this material (adapted to the new timeline) leads to “cramped” feeling to the film at times, while important plot points are hurried over. Kirk’s coming back to life, much of Khan’s back story, the introduction of the Klingons, and building of the Vengeance are all areas that could have been played out in a far more detailed fashion if the writers had tried to do a little bit less with their limited screen time. It’s the detail that gives Star Trek it’s flavor, and it was so well executed in the first of the reboot films that it pains me to see it lost in the entertaining-but-flawed sequel. The result is a film that just doesn’t “feel” like a Star Trek film. So from a hardcore Trek fan point of view, the film is watchable, entertaining, but ultimately a little frustrating.
Finally, let’s give this thing a look from a feminist standpoint. In two words, it stinks. While the first reboot film wasn’t exactly brimming with female characters and included its fair share of blatant fan-service (hello, Naked Green Alien Girl), at least the one female lead maintained a strong imagine without a ton of giving in to pervasive stereotypes, and more than two women had speaking roles. We just aren’t so lucky in the second film. I’ll admit that Uhura has a few really bad-ass moments, particularly her stone-faced resolve as she deftly negotiates with the Klingons in their native language. Beyond those fleeting moments, she’s either relegated to the background, or far more insultingly used in an obnoxiously sexist joke about women’s behavior. I’m referring, of course, to her attempting to have a relationship discussion with Spock while on critical away mission. This entire exchange pained me to watch as they slowly eroded Uhura’s credibility as a professional, level-headed Starfleet officer. The writers gutted an fantastic, strong female lead character for the sake of a joke that fell flat and did nothing for the story line. But at least Nyota got a chance to BE a character, instead of a piece of alluring scenery. Because really, that’s all Dr Carol Marcus managed in this film. In the original canon, Dr Marcus is not overly developed as a character, but she’s named as the creator of the plot-critical Genesis Device (and mothers a child with Kirk). In Into Darkness, she’s an annoying stowaway who does little but provide an awkward moment of fan service in her underwear, and serve poorly as a bargaining chip. I actually cringe in my seat as they flashed her nearly naked body on screen. It was a contemptuous way to treat the only other female character is a sea of men, and the film suffered for it. While The Original Series wasn’t always at the forefront of feminist portrayals of female characters, the Star Trek franchise as a whole has been of relatively high quality in its depiction and inclusion of women. The writers of Star Trek: Into Darkness would have been wise to have kept that tradition. From a feminist point of view, the film is a dismal failure.
A last completely nerdy quibble about canon: the ending of the film appeared to contain a glaring Trek-science mistake. Star Trek canon has mentioned on a few occasions that one of the reasons that a star ship is built in, and must remain in, space is that once in atmosphere, the forces of gravity and friction would rip the ship to shreds. Essentially, they don’t have the structural stability to hold up in atmo. Now, I fully recognize that the Vengeance was very much CRASHING to earth as Khan aimed her for Starfleet HQ, but she stilled stayed largely intact through re-entry, descent, and the crash-landing. My interpretation of the canon gave me the impression that a starship in atmo would quickly break up, killing absolutely everyone on board. I fully accept the suspension of disbelief that comes from watching Star Trek, but it would be nice if they’d at least stay consistent with the rules that THEY created! But again…that’s just a geeky quibble because I’m a jerk about details, and feel free to correct me on this one!
As a final note, I have genuine hope that many of the issues in Star Trek: Into Darkness are a symptom of taking on more than could really be handled in a single film, rather than actual disregard for female characters. I’ll be anxiously awaiting the next film the franchise, and crossing my fingers from improvement.
PS: I plan on doing many more of these film reviews, taking them on from nerd, trans (when applicable), and feminist points of view. So help me name this segment! Comment below with your ideas!