Man of Steel (***1/2)

Catching up on “summer movie” reviews. Seems strange to feel like I’m playing catch-up here, since summer doesn’t actually start until Friday…

Anyhow, I’m digging out the old movie rating system:

5 *s = “WOW!”
4 *s = “Good.”
3 *s = “Stupid fun, decent, or at least not bad enough to get 2 *s.”
2 *s = “Bad, but not awful; or awful, but enjoyable either despite or because of that.”
1 * = “The best part was the end, because then it was over.”
no *s = “*Deep, pain-filled sigh*…I will never get that [insert running time here] of my life back.”

 

First up is the most recent one I’ve seen: Man of Steel. My prediction was: good action, mediocre plot, bad gender. So, how did it do?

Well, the action was good, sometimes. I think the story held together better than I expected. I liked the themes they chose to focus on (hope, use of power vs. restraint, and self-determination), though I don’t think they did them as well as they could have. And, the gender stuff was  less aggressively bad than I’d thought it would be. So, I have quibbles, but I think it was entertaining. It’s definitely worth watching, if you’re into the idea of a Superman movie (or a movie with Henry Cavill in it). It’s especially worth it if you, like the gentleman I recently overheard at a coffee shop, “just want to see a big, loud movie, where Zod and Superman break some shit, and Superman eventually saves the day, and Lois Lane is a hottie.”

But, therein lie the quibbles. (And, herein lie the spoilers.)The plot holds up better than I’d expected, but it’s still shaky. Honestly, it’s good enough, for what it is, but mostly because I have low expectations of blockbuster movie plots. Even having chosen to favor action over plot, Snyder & Co. could have done a better job with the action. The fights and flights just felt like empty overkill, after a while. Given the weighing of smash over substance, Man of Steel would have benefited from a shorter running time, which could easily have been accomplished by tightening up/shortening the battle scenes. It could even have shifted focus, just a bit, and been a better film — the 2nd climactic battle (vs. Zod) would have packed a better emotional punch (yeah, I know), if not for the action and FX-fatigue that had already set in.

But you know I want to talk about gender, right?

“Less aggressively bad” is not “good.” After seeing the film, I said to my brother something to the effect of: “It would have been *really* cool if Lois had been more of a character, in her own right.” My brother suggested that I was being unfair. There were really two main characters, he said — Clark and Zod — so this just wasn’t the movie for Lois to be more substantial in. Maybe, I said. But isn’t that the problem? Why are we still telling not just this story, but a vast majority of our stories, as if there’s only room for one or two actual characters, and with the presumption that those characters will be male? And, let’s pretend, just for the moment,  that it’s unproblematic to consider all other characters in this movie secondary to Clark and Zod. Does that answer the criticism of how those secondary characters are presented? Clark is the protagonist; Zod is the antagonist. I don’t have any particular problem with that. But they’re not the only two characters in the movie, and it matters what those other character are like.

Let’s start with the bad guys. There are several practically nameless minions. Again, this isn’t really a problem for me. But then there’s Faora and Zod. Zod is a badass, and he gets at least a little bit of an attempt at some substance beyond that — he has motives, at least, and a background. He tells us what he wants, and why. Zod has purpose(s). Faora is a badass, which is nice. But there’s no substance to her badassery. We can infer that she is driven by similar purpose(s) to Zod, but we have to infer it, because she barely speaks for herself, and we’re barely (if at all) encouraged to wonder what she would say. Which seems strange, given the amount of screen time/focus Faora gets. Was there really no chance to give her a little bit of…something? Faora follows orders. She follows them in beast mode, but that’s the limit of her. It’s almost as if she’s only there for the titillation of seeing an attractive woman beat Kal-El’s ass! But, I mean — that would be ridiculous…

Perhaps it’s too much to think that a supporting villain of any gender can have a bit of depth (You already know I think that’s false, right?), so let’s see what’s up with the rest of the characters.

If Jonathan Kent is not a main character, he is still surely central. Jonathan wants to protect Clark. We hear his thoughts on Clark’s purpose, we see him interacting with Clark at pivotal points, we see him attempt to influence Clark’s choices, and we see the results of his success at doing so. Jor-El and Lara both love their son, and want to give him a chance at life. Jor-El also wants to thwart Zod’s coup/eugenics agenda, and wants to give Krypton one last chance by saving it, in some form, from its own folly. This is where the, “Clark and Zod are the main characters” defense starts to lose it, for me. I would actually argue that Clark’s two fathers carry a substantial amount of narrative weight, making it difficult to maintain that Clark and Zod are main characters in a way that precludes others from being fleshed out or focused on. But, note that it is definitely Clark’s two fathers, who carry that weight — not his two sets of parents, despite the fact that his two mothers are also in the film. His fathers advance the story, while his mothers, much like Faora, seem more like footnotes, even in their most active moments. 

Martha Kent loves her son, but I’d suggest that whatever resonance that has has more to do with Diane Lane’s acting skill and the things we’re willing to project into the film, than with the script itself, and the things the film actually projects to us. Narratively speaking, her real purpose seems to be her effectiveness as a target for Zod’s violence, which galvanizes Clark into action. If this sounds familiar…let’s just say that she didn’t end up in the refrigerator, but it was a near miss. And, whether we agree that she could have been portrayed differently (less passively, for example) or not, I want to suggest that she could have been portrayed more fully, and without much change to the film. It would have been nice, and better storytelling, to know as much about Martha and Clark’s relationship as we know about Jonathan and Clark’s relationship. That could have been accomplished with slight changes to scenes that are already present in the movie, and by giving a different weight to what we did see between them.

Similarly, Kal-El’s birth parents are an important piece of the story. Or, more accurately, his birth father is. Jor-El (or his computer-ghost) is central to the unfolding of events — perhaps more so than Zod, to be honest, and at least equal to Jonathan Kent. Lara, on the other hand… Even with Lara being the one to pull the trigger on launching Kal-El Earthward, Goyer et al. couldn’t give her more depth than crying, pushing the button, and resigning herself to death. Think of it this way: would it have killed them to have a computer-ghost Lara play some small role? And am I the only one who thinks it’s weird that Clark/Kal-El’s two dead fathers seem more fully realized than his dead mother AND his living one? And don’t give me that, “Well, the source material, blah, blah, blah” — there’s already enough divergence/reshaping happening to other parts of the source material to make that an invalid excuse.

And then there’s Lois. *sigh*

Let me start by saying that her characterization is not so bad — she’s fairly competent, and she’s brave, albeit a bit dumb. No, really — you really mean to tell me that the weird little flying thing next to big weird spaceship-looking thing didn’t seem at all like a threat to her? It seemed fine to just walk up to it and take pictures, with no thought to what it might do? There’s intrepid, and then there’s stupid.

But, I digress.

Her characterization is mostly not bad — she’s mostly not (solely) passive or mooning or bumbling, all things that various incarnations of the character have been. But how much credit do we really want to give Goyer, Snyder, and Nolan for just not being as aggressively denigrating to women as they could have been?

Funnily enough, though, the biggest issue I actually had with Lois Lane was the way the filmmakers shoehorned in her “romance” with Superman. I say funnily enough because I am very much a product of Superman: The Movie and Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, and I like a good romance, so I’m predisposed to be open to that relationship. Here’s the thing: movies are notoriously bad at “love,” but what we get in this movie seems so clumsy and unearned that it’s barely even creditable by *Hollywood* standards, and that’s really saying something. Now, don’t get me wrong — the man is gorgeous, and has saved her life. I do not blame anyone for wanting to get up close and personal with that. But the kiss really didn’t ring true for me, as much as I might have enjoyed watching it. (I did. See: gorgeous.) I almost wonder if there were scenes that built up to it in a more organic way, giving a stronger sense of either romance or lust. There could have been — I think what we saw showed some  potential between Cavill and Adams, in the chemistry department. Maybe the connective tissue that would have held that kiss in place got cut out? To make room for more destruction of property? What I mean is, when did they make any kind of connection past “thanks for saving my life” and “no problem — thanks for not selling me out”? And, if that’s where things stand, is the next logical step from there really kissing? And, if she’s not an important enough character to do any real storytelling around her — if “this just wasn’t the movie for that” — then why force that particular issue? Seen from another angle, isn’t it enough that she helps him save the world? Well done on that score, by the way. Kal-El needed all the help he could get, because Team Phantom Zone was CRUSHING IT. But, having plausibly (sort of) made Lois a real asset in the world-saving, do we really need her to be a love interest so badly that it should be shoved in, whether the story has really led us there, or not? I think that doing so was a mistake, and betrays a lack of imagination about both male and female characters. 

It would have been much more in line with the story choices the filmmakers had actually made to highlight that Lois and Clark had developed a mutual admiration and respect, and that we’d seen the beginning of a beautiful friendship. That friendship could have been headed in any number of directions, one of which is kissing, and the final scene could have been a great opportunity to hint at at least a couple of those directions, leaving us primed for the sequel that will probably get made. Or, there could have been a scene, even a flashback, that showed us a bit of what we didn’t see (after he saves her life that first time), and that scene could have give some context for the kiss. Or the post-kiss dialogue could have done something besides remind me of the end of Speed.

It’s fair to say that this is not, in fact, Lois Lane’s movie. That one would obviously be called “INTREPID.” It’s also not a movie about Clark’s relationship with Lois. The “When Kal-El Met Lois” aspect seems, in fact, to be a bit of an afterthought, which is why the highlighting of the kiss seemed so out of place. But it’s not really the story of Clark and Zod, either: it’s an origin store for The Man of Steel. That tale — the movement from Clark Kent to Superman — is told in terms of how Clark is influenced by a set of characters: Zod, Jor-El, and Jonathan Kent. This is what drives the plot. In addition to this, in a way that seems to be expected, but isn’t really integral to the story, Clark has 2 mothers who love him, and a reporter who…does some cool stuff, and is pretty. While this may not have been the movie for Lois (or Martha or Faora) to be the main character of, that doesn’t excuse the fact that they are — almost without exception — less compellingly fleshed out and more evidently (and thoroughgoingly) instrumental than their male counterparts.

So why, in 2013, is this still the default, or even an option? Why are we still telling stories this way?

BONUS QUESTIONS
Why is his suit red and blue, when everyone else’s is black? Did I miss that explanation?
Why does his suit have a cape?
Why is young Clark running around in a cape? He doesn’t seem to be playing vampire, and Superman hasn’t happened yet, because he hasn’t grown up to be him yet… So confusing.

2 thoughts on “Man of Steel (***1/2)”

  1. I don’t know if I can agree with this entirely. In my opinion, this is the strongest iteration of Lois Lane that’s every been in a Superman movie. They showed her determination and ingenuity paying off in being the only person to be able to figure out who Superman was. Then she shows integrity a lesser person wouldn’t by keeping the information to herself, so he can help people without sacrificing his personal life.

    The ending of the movie set up Lois being the anchor and driving force behind Clark’s venturing the world to have Superman save the day. She was key to the plot points that helped destroy the Kryptonian ship.

    I felt the romance was a bit forced, but the underlying trust that lead to it was well done.

    She was a supporting character to service an overall plot about Superman being introduced to the world at large. Her gender, in my opinion, has nothing to do with the movie. At no point did she play some stereotypical damsel in distress. I don’t think anything sexist or dated was put into the making of her portrayal.

    This movie had more depth than I was personally expecting. I think some of the action could have been cut back to give Costner, Adams, and Fishburne more time.

    As far Faora, I think the fact that they didn’t delve too far into the character was a strength than a weakness. Sometimes a character being one-dimensional makes for a better character in that they’re easily understood, and there’s little chance they will be swayed or moved on their ambitions. She wasn’t looking to discuss anything with what she considered to be ants. She followed orders dutifully. That’s her character, and it had nothing to do with her gender, in my opinion. That’s just who she was. I don’t think that #3 guy even got in a word or showed his face. They’re henchmen. That’s their role.

    For its action focus, I think the characters were all believable, and I don’t think any genders could be taken out of the movie. I don’t know.

Thoughts?

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