Friday, June 21, 2013

"Man of Steel" Reaches For Heaven, Misses Earth

In a time of anti-superheroes whose flaws are only outweighed by their exceptional abilities, Zack Snyder and crew want to bring us a little old-fashioned hope.  Their efforts, titled "Man of Steel", follow the tradition of this generation of superhero films with beautiful, unexpected re-imaginings.  Sadly, the young superman's journey to Earth lands him on a planet so bereft of humanity that it leaves us wondering why anyone bothers going to so much trouble to save it.

Ignoring Kansas and the young wunderkind, the film begins with a woman, Lara (Ayulet Zurer) giving birth in a dismal unearthly room, helped only by her husband, Jor-El (Russell Crowe).  Soon the planet Krypton is exploding into near all-out war, as Jor-El pleads with the Jedi Council (or something like it; they wear crazy hats, several of which fall off during the scene) to let him send an escape-pods worth of people from Krypton before its core collapses, killing everyone.

His efforts are thwarted by the extremist General Zod who barges in, kills some people, and declares martial law.  Played shoutily by Michael Shannon, Zod suffers from never being given a single believable line of dialogue.  It's a hard knock life on Krypton.

Using his wits, Russell-Crowe-ness, and a big flying creature from Geonosis, Jor-El infiltrates the underwater chambers of Krypton's most important secrets, steals a vital artifact, and escapes back home in time for him and his wife to send their infant child off in an alien wicker basket to the remote planet called Earth.  "He will be a freak," his mother protests, desperately clinging to her last moments with him, "They will kill him." "How?" Jor-El asks, "He will be a god to them."

The opening sequence is gorgeous and full of pathos--not only that, but it's a reflection on Deity.  Superman has become the essential modernization of the Christ story, and in terms of actors, no one's pulled it off like Henry Cavill, and being with Jor-El and Lara as they send him off allows Christians to imagine the pain that Christ's Father and Mother must have experienced.  The Christ story is admittedly otherworldly, but seeing it this way connects even the distant family of heaven to our world emotionally, morally, and spiritually.

I spend so much time painting this picture because the rest is so full of disappointments.  With a disconnected sense of near-abandon, the film shows a montage of formative events: A beefy sailor incredibly saves a number of men from an exploding Oil Rig and disappears into the ocean.  A young boy is mocked unnecessarily by a boy on the bus, and when a tire pops and it falls off a bridge into the river, the boy is the one to push it out and save the child who bullied him.  The boy's father (played with simple, understand sincerity by Kevin Costner) counsels the boy to not let his fate be known by the people of Earth, lest in their fear of him they reject him.  Even these moments have their fascinations, but they find no root.

The people of Earth in 'Man of Steel' are not only innocuous.  They are downright boring.  Of the three moments of "bad people time" in the film, one is a drunk who grabs a waitresses' butt and two are foul-mouthed children who do not even touch their victims.  Sure, butt-grabbing is pretty bad, but the heroes of the film swear twice as much as the bullies, and are considered good.  Goodness for the film mostly implies a) being a part of the U.S. Military, b) being trapped under something, or c) being good-looking.  Superman's empathy comes across as taking care of pets.

As such, our Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) never seems to really relate to them.  Props to Mr. Cavill for making it clear how much he's feeling underneath--even with the weaknesses of the writing, this Man of Steel has a churning heart.  With his silent demeanor and Christlike turning the other cheek, he is noble and self-sacrificing.  Still, when he walks out of a conversation with a priest before it's even finished, there's a sense of enormous disconnect--there is nothing humans can give to him.  Sadly, Jor-El's beautiful message that "they will stand beside you in the sun" and "with them, you will accomplish wonders" fall flat.

The rest of the film clunks along with the same drama we've always seen.  They're gonna blow up the Earth, superhero does it by himself, but the humans help a little.  The worry that the humans won't accept him is a non-issue--no one ever seems to care.  Sadly, by the end of the movie, neither did I.

It could have worked out differently.  If it was written differently, what would the Earth they sent him to be like?  And how could someone like Superman really help the people of Earth?

Earth, as I know it, is full of people trying to do things right, people who deserve to be given the benefit of the doubt.  But it is also full of awful things.  Violence haunts the streets and even more terrible ones happen in private.  Within everyone there are struggles--choices to be angry, choices to hide from other people, choices to destroy other people in ways that can't be undone.  Guilt, fear, and purposelessness run rampant.

As far as I know, being good is not about being from Kansas.  It's not about protecting the way of life we have.  It implies wanting to improve it.  That's what Jor-El foresaw, and Christ too.

'Man of Steel' makes some great efforts, but it ends up having a lot less to say than its source material demands.  Even the best special effects, the craziest fights, and a spot-on cast cannot make up for a badly-written movie.  Somewhere, though, in a better-fleshed-out world, this Superman might just make a difference.