Monday, June 17, 2013

Man of Steel

I went and saw Man of Steel today. I was expecting it to be meh -- a good whiling-away of the time, but not much more. I was stunned to find that it was a genuinely good movie. It has weaknesses, mostly to do with pacing and an unexplained plot point or two, but this post by Ashok explains quite well why they aren't fatal. I'm pretty much completely in agreement with Ashok, actually. What makes this movie work is that it does very well with a fundamental principle most superhero movies (and comics) struggle with:

Superheroes cannot be heroic for us, but only with us.

This movie makes that point over and over again, in literally dozens of ways. And that is what a superhero movie requires to be more than just a super-action movie.

It is especially what a Superman movie requires, because Superman has a unique place even among superheroes. Chuck Sonnenburg mentioned fairly recently that Superman is effectively The Superhero, the very quintessence of it: he has every superpower, or something equivalent to it, and he has every superpower in such an overwhelming way that he can stand against any superhero on his or her own ground. He is the Superhero of superheroes. And thus to get him right, it is absolutely essential to understand the point: Superman cannot replace our own heroism. His whole point is to bring it out in us, by showing us what heroism is in its pure form, and making it clear that we are all called to be heroic when the occasion arises. It's why he needs to be Super Boy Scout. It's also why being Clark Kent is more essential to his character than being Kal-El: Batman in most of his iterations could cease to be Bruce Wayne without much change, Wonder Woman as Diana Prince is simply undercover, but Superman needs to be Clark Kent. It's the only way he can be The Superhero, and that is what it is to be Superman. Failure to grasp these principles, which was wholly a moral failing, is why Superman Returns was so awful, despite some nice points. This movie actually gets Superman, better than any big-screen version ever has, and because of it, it could make more mistakes than it does and still be a good movie.

I liked what we got of Krypton -- some of it was a bit over-the-top, but over the top is what Kryptonians should be -- and I especially liked that even when the movie was occasionally paying homage to classic Superman moments -- such as the famous fight in Superman II -- it does so in its own way, rather than just copying, and thus shows an actual understanding of what homage film is. (One can contrast this with the recent Star Trek movie, which repeatedly shows an inability to understand that paying homage to a classic film requires not copying it but building on it to create something new and good in its own right.) The fight scenes shouldn't be as hard to follow as they sometimes are, but, despite there being a very large amount of action, action for the most part takes second seat to character-building. The casting is quite good. And Henry Cavill steps into the role of Superman beautifully; part of it is a better script (by David S. Goyer, who is not usually this good, but here gets most things at least right enough), but Cavill is a better Superman than Christopher Reeves. Reeves' quiet reserve made him very endearing and likeable, which is why fans have long forgiven Superman and Superman II a legion of sins, but Cavill's resolute sympathy -- it comes out most perfectly when he faces Zod for the last time -- does much the same without making him seem like a Reeves clone. Again, it is partly because of the better script, but Cavill steps into that better script and doesn't let the audience down. Moments that could have broken down into cheesiness with bad acting are actually believable. And, holy moly, how is that I never realized how perfect Amy Adams is for Lois Lane? She herself says that she would never have played it right before she became a mother (Adams, that is, not Lane), and perhaps that's exactly right: there's a genuine humanity to her without any loss of the Torchy Blane side, empathy with strength. She's heroic in her own right, but her heroism is not just thrown in -- Hollywood's major sin when it comes to "heroic" women is throwing in a heroism that makes no sense for their character or the plot -- it makes sense. It's her own heroism.

There are some weird plot points that are never explained and seem to be there only for plot convenience, but (astoundingly, given a number of recent movies) the plot conveniences here actually manage to be genuinely convenient to the plot, furthering it in a genuinely worthwhile way, so they can easily be overlooked if you're just settling in to watch and have fun rather than poke holes. But in any case, while the plot is better than any Superman movie so far, the primary point of a Superman movie is not the plot but Superman, and this movie actually gets him right. As I said above, on that foundation alone, this movie could make a lot more mistakes and still be a good movie.

When I was coming out of the theater I overheard a woman talking to some friends, to whom I'll give the last word. I quote: "Damn! I don't even like Superman and I thought that was a great movie! I am an X-Man person, but I don't care what the critics say, that was a great movie."

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