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Superman is back, and he’s doing… okay-ish?

[Pre-review note: I’m going to make it sound like people shouldn’t see this film.  I want people to see this film, like all films.  I want to hear/read what different people say about it, and see if there’s anything I missed, anything that needs to be expanded upon, and anything that can be agreed upon.  Besides, I’m just one guy with an opinion, right?]

This is definitely a curious film, curious in that it does certain things right and certain things poorly.  There are things I liked a lot in the film, and there are things that I found problematic and rather disturbing, and, being a Superman film, left me wondering why they did those things (and also left them unanswered).  There will be some spoiler discussion below, but I’ll also make sure to point out the big spoiler moment when I get to it.

So what does this film do right?  Let’s start with the origin, which was a very good decision to do, since the character hasn’t been updated for the big screen in years (Superman Returns connected itself to the Donner/Reeves universe), and, just as important, the push by Warner Bros to do a connected universe of films, ala Marvel and the Avengers.  It established the destruction of Krypton, Kal-el as the natural born savior of the Kryptonian race, and General Zod as the bad guy.  There were a couple cool elements established as well and in pre-release: Kryptonians, as a matter of population control, began artificially creating children for specific roles (military, scientist, etc), and, NO KRYPTON CRYSTALS.  Getting rid of that got rid of Superman’s Achilles heel, especially when the only people he fights in this film are superpowered beings like himself.

The visuals in this film were amazing.  Synder has always been a great visual director, between 300 and Watchmen (haven’t seen Legends of the Guardians or Sucker Punch, but both, again, looked really good), and he continues that here.  This is probably the best looking film to come out this year so far.  Actually, if you want a taste of what the film looks like, here’s the last trailer for the film, sponsered by Nokia:

The score was unbelievably awesome.  Hans Zimmer went all out, and it clicked with everything that was happening in the film.  It is just huge and sweeping and I want to own it.  It’s that good (actually, the Nokia trailer has a great bit of the soundtrack attached to it).

Of the performances, Russell Crowe as Jor-el was good.  Michael Shannon as General Zod was amazing (he just steals everything he’s in, doesn’t he?).  He has this simmering boil sitting just beneath the surface that’s ready to explode without warning.  Amy Adams was good with what she had as Lois Lane (note: she’s completely wasted in the second half of the film), and Henry Cavill, as the new Clark Kent/Kal-el/Superman was good, showing a decent amount of charisma and actually showing a strong bit of emotion with the character (something that Brandon Routh’s lacked).  Though there were problems that I doubt he could have rectified.

Which is what makes this film curious: what went wrong?  Let’s start with the big guy himself.  Superman’s arc is… rather flat.  It exhibits all the traits of the “rising to the call” hero trope, but there’s no drama or conflict to it.  He doesn’t refuse the call at all: instead, he realizes that it’s what he was born to do and just does it[1].  It’s honestly a weird thing to do, and because of the lack of conflict, it makes the character surprisingly flat.  To be honest, Superman has always been a kind of flat character, since he’s rather over powered at times and can take on anything while having a straight moral compass (always do good, don’t hurt anyone, etc).  It just doesn’t resonate like it should[2].

The film itself coasts along a lot.  This feels very Nolan-esque in a way, where we’re constantly given information while everything is continually happening, but without an internal conflict from Superman, there’s nothing that really propels the film forward.  It just does: Superman finds a ship with a suit, Zod shows up, fighty fight fight.  The end.

Speaking of fighty fight fight, the last hour was extremely boring at times.  Zod shows up, and then the action starts, first in Smallville, and then in Metropolis.  The best part of it was probably the split action sequence, when Superman was taking on the World Engine while humanity was trying to destroy Zod’s ship in Metropolis.  It is a well executed sequence.  Everything else though?  I can’t speak for anyone else, but I got rather bored with people punching each other repeatedly, throwing each other into buildings, into cars, into trains, throwing trains on people, etc.  The movie was long (150 minutes about?), and it felt long.

And then there was the violence and destruction, which bordered on, and probably surpassed gratuitous[3].  I can understand the World Engine bit, especially with it destroying downtown Metropolis (thought it was still over the top).  What I don’t get was everything else: how casual it was for the super people to get thrown around into buildings and cars without repercussion (though, who would stop them?), including Superman?  Even in his last fight with Zod?  He’s actively participating in destroying Metropolis, even the parts that weren’t destroyed!

*MASSIVE SPOILERS COMING*

What bothered me the most though was the end to the Zod fight and its lack of resolution.  Superman killed Zod.  He had to.  Understood.  And then he screams his frustration.  Again, understood.  And then… that’s it?  Next time we see him, he’s chastising the general for spying on him (and destroys a drone like it’s no big deal)?  He’s talking to his mom about finding a job?  Shouldn’t he take a moment to resolve never to kill again unless necessary?  Shouldn’t humanity realize that they have a huge problem on their hands with a guy whole could blow up a building with a sneeze? The last ten minutes fails on so many levels simply because it doesn’t resolve anything surrounding both Superman killing Zod and humanity’s reaction to so much death and destruction.  It’s honestly confounding.

Furthermore, is this the Superman that they want to do for the 21st century? A super being that doesn’t deal with the repercussions of having tens of thousands of people killed? Of having people hide, then having a superpeople fight in your hometown instead of forcing the fight into the surrounding farmland? It’s the weirdest thing to see, having Superman’s morality clicked off while he’s fighting people and allowing everything to be destroyed around him. If there were something else done, like Zod and his super friends tossing random civilians up in the sky and having Superman go and catch them (exposing a key weakness and using it against him), then there wouldn’t be this discussion. The only time he cares, apparently, is when Lois Lane falls from the sky (twice), and when Zod’s about to vaporize a family at a train station. It’s hardly enough.

*MASSIVE SPOILERS ENDING*

This whole thing is confounding.  Again, there were good things.  There were not so good things.  I wanted this film to be great, and with the promo material they had, they sold it as great.  In the end though, it’s okay-ish to good-ish, and not the great film I think Warner Bros wanted or believed they had.  There is a sequel coming, so we’ll see if there’s any improvement coming down the line (and hopefully explore some of the problems discussed in the preceeding spoiler section).  As it stands, it’s an okay-ish film with some good parts and some rather problematic parts.

[1] Having said that, it’s better than Green Lantern, where Hal just spends most of the movie moping and whining before actually saying that he should go and save the day.  Ugh, why did this film have to ruin Ryan Reynolds for me?

[2] Maybe the conflict was “you can’t save everyone” from his father?  I dunno.  It’s honestly really weird how this call to action was set up, and I doubt I can explain it properly without breaking my brain.  If someone can explain to me what the call to action was, I’ll be thankful to them.

[3] I’m curious if Snyder went “well, I didn’t have enough death and destruction in Watchmen, so let’s multiply that by a lot!” because it definitely feels like he did.

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I remember seeing this movie way back when it came out, three years ago this month, in the gloriously huge IMAX screen in King of Prussia.  I was stoked to be seeing it, and the $15 bucks was worth it.  I remembered leaving the film going “This movie was awesome!”

Three years.  Some of that awesome has indeed worn off.

It’s not to say that some of the movie is still in fact awesome.  The action sequences that begin roughly 40-50 minutes into the film are quite fun indeed, filled with overwhelming amounts of CGI bloodiness and Spartan kickassing their way through a Persian army thousands of times its size.  And the kick in the bloody hole in the ground, and every time Leonidas kicks the Persian messenger into the pit I scream “PUNT!”

This is an adolescent’s wet dream come to life in film.

Oh, but if I were an adolescent again, I would ignore everything that made this movie not awesome.

Well, before I get into that, I’m sure everyone knows the graphic novel that inspired the movie.  Written and drawn by Frank Miller (who had Sin City brought to the big screen by Robert Rodriguez, and who directed (quite badly) Will Eisner’s The Spirit), the story is a fictional retelling (fictional because I’m sure not everyone looked the way they did on the Persian side of things) of the Battle of Thermopylae, in which 300 Spartans (plus a few thousand more Greeks who sadly didn’t get to fight at all) held off a Persian army numbered anywhere between 70,000 and a million (history can’t make up its mind on the exact number) for two full days before being defeated on the third day.  This inspired the Greeks to take on the Persians and helped win the resulting war.

That aside, the graphic novel captures the feel, in often exaggerated form, of that battle.  There are a few events that lead up to it, the battle itself, the betrayal of Ephialtes, and the last stand of the Spartans.  It was nicely drawn by Miller in a panoramic, wide-screen style that worked quite well for telling the story.  It read quickly too (around ninety pages can be read in roughly twenty-five miuntes).  It was short, sweet, and awesome, with very little in the way of waste (except, for maybe, that illogical hole in the ground).

The movie, faced with the problem of having a movie being far too short, added a subplot involving Queen Gorgo trying to influence the Spartan Senate into sending reinforcements for her husband (and had half the movie filmed in slow motion, but who’s keeping track of that?).  It really doesn’t work at all.  For starters, Leonidas started the war by punting the messenger into that giant hole of his (at least, in this depiction of events).  He climbs a mountain with no road or path to where various ugly looking and corrupt people interpret the Oracle’s message as “Don’t go to war or you’ll offend the gods” (done in English in the graphic novel, of course).  This scene itself, by and large, doesn’t work: how the hell does that evil Senate dude with his evil Persian friend (an especially fat one at that) make it to the top of the pathless mountain?  A secret elevator?  Stereotypical magic carpet (he is Persian after all)?

Speaking of evil Senate dude, he’s right.  He’s completely right in not sending troops to help Leonidas, since, you know, the king provoked a war without the Senate’s backing (see how democracy works kids?).  But, since he’s evil Senate dude, he’s corrupt.  He couldn’t care less about Leonidas, or Sparta for that matter.  He likes his Xerxes-faced gold pieces thank you very much.  This, of course, prevents us from seeing that he in fact is right.  But, oh well, he’s evil Senate dude, who cares?  He’s a bastard!

That really does take away from the movie, because by and large it still is quite impressive at times, mainly in the battle sequences.  Well, the first “single” shot sequence is mind boggling awful, but the second one (with the “I’M WITH YOU!  FOR SPARTA!  TILL THE DEATH!” guy and the Captain’s son) is much better.  And the decision to fight one on one with the Immortals once they collapse the Persian wall doesn’t make sense (especially when they form the phalanx at the end of the scene: couldn’t they have done that to begin with?  Would have saved you a lot more Spartans that way Leonidas (and it would have saved you from that slash in your eye too)).  And the gold encrusted rhino, and those gunpowder mystics… well, they were kinda cool, if they actually worked (um…).

Okay… maybe it’s not as awesome as it really once was.  But, hey, it looks pretty cool (really, it does), and the fight scenes, even if they don’t work in the narrative scheme of things, were still filmed pretty well.  Zak Snyder knows how to shoot a movie.  The decision to replicate the graphic novels visuals was a bold and worthwhile decision (shooting on the green screens before painting in the backgrounds).  Everyone looked to be having fun with the film too, before and after they were slaughtered in new and various ways.

But, well, is the film still any good?  Maybe if I were fifteen again, and had less of a mature brain (well, I was twenty-four, with a somewhat mature but still trying-to-figure-things-out brain).  Now, at twenty-seven, I’ve become overly analytical.  The above is the result of that.

But, hey, that’s what I’m supposed to be doing with these DVDs right?  I own them for a reason, especially ones that, in retrospect, aren’t as good as they first appeared.

That said, I won’t have any problems watching 300 again in the future (after I get through this project).  Maybe then I’ll shut off my brain and excuse the fact that there’s a giant frakking hole in the middle of Sparta.