Monday, June 17, 2013

MAN OF STEEL: A Hero for the ADHD Crowd...

MAN OF STEEL was an expertly crafted movie - just like a Lego recreation of the Death Star. It is a heck of an accomplishment on a lot of levels but remains a plastic facsimile of a fictional object. 

Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed 2/3rds of the movie and the problem with that is that MAN OF STEEL is incomplete. With a 2 hour-20 minute run time - which went by fairly quickly until the disastrous (no pun) 3rd act when the movie ceased being an actual movie and turned into a crazed video game opening sequence that lost all sense of story, plot and logic - you'd figure the producers would have learned how to properly balance the pacing.

Now, I know not everyone went to film school, and I realize not everyone cares about things like story, plot and logic. Most folks have no idea about how and WHY movies are structured. However, I will share that the basic set-up of a screenplay is generally - not always - but generally based on a THREE ACT STRUCTURE. 

In ACT ONE we meet the heroes, their friends, family, etc. A problem is introduced to their world and they must decide whether to face it or not. By the end of the first act, we have the problem, why the hero must stop or fix it, and their goal is set. 

In ACT TWO things get complicated. The hero loses, and loses a lot, then the world changes so much that things cannot ever go back to the way it was. All seems lost until the hero barely escapes death. 

In ACT THREE we have the climax. The hero usually makes a character choice that defines them and they GROW and CHANGE as a result and usually win because of that choice. I am going to give you a few clear examples of this in some Hollywood blockbusters. 

In act three of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK - Indy has a rocket launcher aimed at the Ark of the Covenant. Belloq tells him he could destroy it, but the Ark itself is bigger than them, bigger than the Nazis and WWII, bigger than history itself. To destroy the Ark would mean destroying the key to understanding the universe and God. Indy struggles with the choice of destroying it and saving himself and Marion, or turning himself in so that he too could learn the mysteries of the Ark. Indy relents and is taken into custody again. GREAT character moment. 

In act three of RETURN OF THE JEDI - Luke has his father beaten. Vader is down and Luke could slice him to pieces and looks ready to until he hears the cackling voice of Palpatine instructing him to "take your father's place at my side." Luke looks at his father's severed hand and then looks to his own artificial hand and realizes that he cannot ever make his father's choice. Luke turns defiantly, and tosses away his lightsaber. Even though he faces certain death, Luke says, "I am a Jedi, like my father before me." GREAT character moment. 

In act three of THE MATRIX - Neo goes to rescue Morpheus and eventually comes face to face with Agent Smith. After a brief skirmish, Neo has the opportunity to escape, but he turns to face Smith for an ultimate battle, he chooses to believe that he is THE ONE and is willing to risk everything based on that faith. It results in a moment of self-sacrifice that changes him forever and he becomes THE ONE because of that choice. GREAT character moment. 

I mention this stuff because MAN OF STEEL had no such character moment. In fact, it had no third act. Sure, the basic structure of "we have to stop this or else all is doomed (tm)" to motivate the action sequences, but there was no growth, change or faith displayed by Superman at any point during the final battle. 

MAN OF STEEL had a lot of story elements pulled from a few classic Superman comics storylines. The most prominent were the John Byrne post-Crisis reboot MAN OF STEEL (1986), Mark Waid's SUPERMAN: BIRTHRIGHT and Loeb & Sale's SUPERMAN: FOR ALL SEASONS. Henry Cavill mentioned that he based his performance of Superman on the comics versions instead of previous on-screen depictions and I have to say he did a marvelous job. So did Russel Crowe. So did Kevin Costner. So did Diane Lane. So did Michael Shannon. In fact, the entire cast was solid from top to bottom. 

The FX were extraordinary. Finally, an on-screen Superman battle that LOOKS like what a Superman battle should look like. Again, it was expertly-crafted to be a summer blockbuster but it was missing one key ingredient: a sense of self. 

I didn't mind the "darkness" because there have been plenty of "dark" Superman stories over the years. I also am not one of those guys trapped in the Richard Donner box and can't deal with other versions of Superman (if anything, I am trapped by the Warner Bros. Animation version seen in SUPERMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES). My problem is that the movie felt schizophrenic. It tried to be an earnest depiction of mid-western life, and then other times it tried to be an action movie spectacle, and then other times it attempted to shoehorn in a romantic element that felt incredibly out of place considering we've spent little or no time getting to know the characters outside of Superman. 

For a longer film, it sure spent a lot of time rushing around, touching on the CLIFF NOTES version of the SUPERMAN mythos instead of establishing its own brand. I don't feel like the audience got enough time with the characters to establish an emotional connection. We see Clark, then suddenly he's on fire and tossing pieces of an exploding oil platform into the ocean. Then we see Clark and he's hitchhiking. Then we see Clark and he's walking around the Arctic and then we see Clark and he's wearing the costume already. 

I would have preferred a slow-build to the Superman reveal but the creative team must have felt that the ADHD summer movie crowd couldn't wait to see him in the costume and forced it into the story. How much cooler would the movie have been if one of the story goals was getting to the costume instead having it suddenly appear and then the next thing you know, he's Superman and he's flying? No sense of adventure, no sense of suspense and most important, no sense of DRAMA. 

I know there's a generation of DRAGONBALL Z-VIDEO GAME-ACTION MOVIE-SHORT ATTENTION SPAN-NON READING-CINEMA ILLITERATE fans out there that don't want anything from a summer movie other than explosions. And if that's what you want, MAN OF STEEL is your CITIZEN KANE. I can understand why you would love this movie. It is crafted like the cutscene of a late generation video game or a simple-minded martial arts battle from a bargain-basement anime title. 

This is what is known as character development.

Beyond that spectacle, what was really going on here? You have a hero with no motivation to become a hero, just a vague sense of "wandering." In SUPERMAN I (1978) the death of Jonathan Kent was treated like the earth-shattering event it was supposed to be. That heartbreak caused young Clark to leave and go north to figure out who he was and that's when he used the green crystal to form the Fortress of Solitude. In MAN OF STEEL, the narrative is broken up and told in a way that removes the emotional impact of Jonathan's death. It comes in late and telegraphs itself poorly. 

Superman kills three people at once.

Then we have Zod's death. They say Superman doesn't kill although he has killed in the past, specifically in SUPERMAN #22 (October 1988). I didn't have a problem with him snapping Zod's neck (although I don't know why he just didn't fly with Zod in his arms) but he decides to do that AFTER presumably millions of people have already been killed during the battle in Metropolis. Suddenly, those THREE people who were in danger of being burned alive by Zod were worthy of saving. Hey man, what about the other million or so who were killed when you guys were knocking buildings over?

Alas, my point is that while the movie didn't have a real identity, it was enjoyable until the final battle started. There was no character moment for Superman. In fact, if he HAD NOT killed Zod AFTER Zod killed those three people, THAT WOULD HAVE BEEN EPIC. It would have been shocking, emotionally engaging, full of drama and would have presented Superman with the ultimate character choice. Think about all the movies you've seen and the movies that you've remembered. They all had fantastic character choices in the third act. 

All the special FX, explosions, cool flight/fight scenes and pseudo-reverence can't take the place of real characterizations based on real emotional reactions. There's two things that make great drama in my opinion: 1) Real emotions. 2) Consequences. If those things are absent, then the entire story falls apart. Again, think of the movies and TV shows you've loved over the years (particularly stuff from 1972 - 1999). What did those movies and shows and books and comics have that keep those stories fresh and compelling? 

Real emotions. Consequences. 


Real emotions. Consequences. 

Clearly I'm not a fan of phrase "mindless entertainment." The very notion of what that means is deeply problematic because it suggests that you need to turn off your brain (the thing that separates us from monkeys and other animals) in order to achieve satisfaction. That is a dangerous and borderline pathetic concept that is being passed off as genuine entertainment. Of course, we know that Hollywood blockbusters are really being made for the international crowd who might be "turned off" by American "cultural elements" which the producers assume means complexity. They want people all over the world to watch the movie without being confused by things like logic, emotional honesty and character development. 

Now, if you loved MAN OF STEEL I pass no judgement on you. I'm just a guy with an opinion. I do feel that we need to demand more from summer entertainment. I hate walking out of the movie theater feeling like nothing happened. Is it too much to ask for emotional content in an action movie? I sure remember DIE HARD and even DEATH WISH having a bit of emotional weight in the narrative. That's what makes those movies stand out. 

In the end, MAN OF STEEL is a serviceable distraction on a summer afternoon. Too bad the trailers made the movie seem like an epic journey through the life of a godlike being who clings to his humanity. It would have been awesome to have seen THAT movie. In the meantime, stick to the comics I mentioned earlier. That's where you'll find the real Superman.

Maybe I'm just getting old.