1. Pop Culture Happy Hour
I was delighted to sit in on this week’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, a Very Special Episode we -- okay, I -- have decided to call "The Cavil Over Henry Cavill." The A-topic this week was the arrival of Man of Steel, the muscled-up, darkened-down reboot of Superman film franchise that is, we all agree, short on humor. Also short on height. Zing!
Any regular listener to the show will know that Glen Weldon, my pal-for-life and 25 percent of the show’s regular lineup (along with host Linda Holmes and Stephen Thompson and Trey Graham), just spent the better part of two years researching and writing the marvelous Superman: The Unauthorized Biography. I recently ran a freezing cold 12-mile death race wearing a Superman T-shirt, so our credentials are roughly equivalent.
But they didn’t exactly need a second longtime Supes fan. I snuck in by making fun of Henry Cavill’s average-ish height. He is, for the record, exactly as tall as I am if you believe IMDB, an authority on which actor heights seem to be self-reported.
“I think he makes you feel short,” Linda tells me during the show.
Ouch. But I am not alone. My film-critic crush Dana Stevens said on the Slate Culture Gabfest this week -- an episode featuring the Gabfest debut of one Glen (Superman:The Unauthorized Biography) Weldon -- that she kept picturing Cavill “standing on a milk crate. Amy Adams seems strapping compared to him.”
And yet he does make me feel short. Cavill’s performance in the movie is the one element we all agreed worked splendidly. Otherwise we differed in our assessments, although it’s clear I liked it more than Linda, who liked slightly more than half of it, and more than Steven, who hated it.... which means he still may have appreciated it more than G-Weld, who in various podcast appearances this week has called the film “small” and “evil” and likened it to a Transformers film. I understand why he said that, but that’s still way harsh, guy.
I have different tastes from the PCHH gang, particularly where summer blockbusters are concerned. They’re more The Avengers, I’m more The Dark Knight. I like my blockbusters intense and a little bruising. I was at an impressionable age when I saw Terminator 2: Judgment Day in the theater on opening night in 1991. My popcorn and candy were untouched at the end of the the 135-minute film because it was so suspenseful I couldn’t eat. That’s what I want from a blockbuster, at least sometimes. I like to feel a little beat up when it’s over.
...which is not to say that’s what I want from a Superman movie. It isn't. And come to think of it, it’s pretty weird that Terminator 2 is a lot more aware of the sanctity of human life than Man of Steel is.
Our discussion of Man of Steel skewed, probably unavoidably, towards lamenting the movie's deeply problematic final act, which obliterates much of Metropolis without addressing the catastrophic body count that would necessarily result. Many other blockbusters, both pre-9/11 and post, have done this, but it’s especially unfortunate in a movie about Superman, the purest and wishiest of our wish-fulfillment heroes. And that’s before we get to what Glen called “the final twist,” which actually works as a literal description of one of the movie’s most controversial surprises.
Remember when Superman and General Zod duked it out over Metropolis in Superman II? And Supes hurled Zod into a Coca-Cola billboard for some delicious, refreshing comeuppance? Superman’s refusal to accept civilian casualties was a major story point. It was a vulnerability -- his defining vulnerability -- that Zod quickly discovered and tried to exploit.
Everything I was going to say here Kyle Buchanan already covered in his fine Vulture post, which Steven quoted on the podcast, so I’ll hop off that track.
David S. Goyer, who collaborated with Chris Nolan on Man of Steel’s screenplay as well as on the Nolan-directed Batman trilogy, has defended the movie’s ending on the grounds that Superman is new to his job in this movie and still defining his code. He’s as much of a bumbler as James Bond was in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, wherein we see 007 (violently) fail again and again and again. I get it. I just don’t think it works when we're talking about a potential weapon of mass destruction in a cape and boots.
I like a lot of Goyer's other tweaks to the mythology, though.
3. A Gathering Causality
One thing that happens a lot when professional screenwriters are tasked with making sense of superhero origins dreampt up by enterprising teenagers decades in the past is that elements of the story that were once random are no longer allowed to be. The dramatic structure of screenplays, or at least would-be blockbuster screenplays, demands a clear causality. Maybe it’s because so much of life is random and unknowable that we will not tolerate an element of chance in our stories -- at least not in stories that are intended as crowd-pleasers with broad appeal.
Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman retconned its hero’s origin so that it wasn’t some random mugger who gunned down Bruce Wayne’s parents when he was a little boy. In this telling, it was the guy who years later would fall into a vat of acid and turn into The Joker.
Even as a tyke sitting in the theater in 1989, I hated this. It seemed arbitrary and sort of insulting, because I already understood that stuff just happens sometimes.
When Nolan and Goyer rebooted the franchise with Batman Begins 16 years later, they restored the mugger but introduced an even broader causality: In their version, the financial depression that enveloped Gotham in crime and despair, was, we eventually learn, engineered by the League of Shadows -- the selfsame militant vigilante organization that trained Bruce Wayne in the Way of the Ninja or whatever. Economics cannot simply be allowed to be economics!
SPOILER WARNING: GO
With the Batman Begins team of Goyer and Nolan writing the script, Man of Steel reflects this kind of causal drift in several ways, mostly to the good. Krypton is more fully realized than Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman, which suggested strongly that the place was sort of totalitarian but didn’t really get into it.
I really liked Man of Steel’s Krypton-set first act (especially that shamelessly H.R. Giger-esque production design). Here, Kal-El is the Last Son of Krypton (though obviously he isn’t) not just because he’s a refugee, but because he’s the product of the planet’s first natural birth in decades (or centuries? I can’t remember), oh and also he has the DNA of the entire Kryptonian race in his cells... or something. That’s a lot of new wrinkles to add to the tapestry. I’ve only seen the film once, but this seems to be important mainly because it’s the reason Zod can’t simply leave Kal-El alone. Perhaps they’ll be explored in future installments. If Nolan remains involved, I expect they will. The Dark Knight Rises was a very satisfying payoff, in my view, of pretty much everything Batman Begins set up.
Another way Man of Steel deepens the causal link is in making Clark partially culpable for Jonathan Kent’s death. In Donner’s Superman, Pa Kent dies suddenly from a heart attack. A lot of people prefer that version, because it’s the kind of tragedy Clark’s superpowers couldn’t have prevented. I mean, with his X-ray and heat vision, he could probably perform life-extending heart surgery -- in Man of Steel, he cauterizes a would in Lois’s belly with his heat vision, and that’s how they meet cute. But you get the idea. In Goyer's world, clogged arteries cannot simply be allowed to be clogged arteries.
Kevin Costner’s performance as Pa Kent is one of my favorite things in the movie, and his death scene is one of the film’s most powerful. I loved it even as I was calling bullshit on it. I just don’t believe that Clark stands there and watches his loving dad die, even though Dad tells him to do just that. I understand the purpose of this scene. After this point in the story -- smartly told out-of-sequence, which goes a long way towards keeping us from getting bored -- Clark will become sort of promiscuous in his superheroic deeds, even though each rescue compels him to leave town and assume a new identity.
Sort of like the Superman film franchise did after 2006.
4. Superman Returns Shall Not Return
Bryan Singer had agreed at one point to make a sequel to Superman Returns, his gentle, mournful 2006 sequel to at least the first couple of Donner-era Superman films. This was a sweet-natured, nostalgic Superman film with a body count of (I think) zero. I watched it again two days after I saw Man of Steel, and I agree with Tim Grierson’s passionate defense of it. Criticwire’s Matt Singer wrote a smart piece about how the film is curiously now seen as a misfire, even though it made money and got stronger reviews than Man of Steel has. (Bryan) Singer has said in the years since that given the chance to make another Superman movie, he’d aim for a “balls to the wall action picture,” which I guess is what Man of Steel is...
... although as in every prior iteration of Superman, the action is less interesting to me than the human-scale stuff. Specifically, the Kents' anguish over how to protect their extraordinary orphan boy from the world. For all the charges of bombast and tone deafness that’s been lobbed at Man of Steel, I think its scenes between the child Clark at various ages and his human parents, played by Costner and the equally solid Diane Lane, are better than anything in the Smallville section of Donner’s movie. They're surprising in their sensitivity. Nothing in Man or Steel director Zack Snyder’s prior filmography suggests he’s capable of the kind of deft touch Singer brought to Superman Returns (or to those first two, very good X-Men pictures, or to The Usual Suspects).
That’s part of why I liked Man of Steel as much as I did; I’d feared the entire movie would be as chaotic as its final 30 minutes or so. Also, my expectations had been so flattened by the early reviews that I was happily surprised by what I actually got.
Brandon Routh, the actor Singer cast as Superman, has hardly been heard from since (though his small role in Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World was a lot of fun). I like the way the contrast in physicality between him and Cavill seems to, er, embody the nature of the movies around them. Routh is a strapping, strong-looking guy -- bigger than Cavill, if you can possibly conceive of such a thing. But he doesn't look like he lives in a gym. He looks like Christopher Reeve, and he’s clearly doing Reeve’s version of Clark Kent and Superman. Also like Reeve, he keeps his shirt on. Cavill, by conrast, is jacked. Which is the Zack Snyder way.