John Cleese on Creativity
THE SECURITY GENT KNOCKED FOUR TIMES
James Gandolfini - cut to black.
He gave the performance of a generation. Revolutionized a medium. Time to cue up some Journey.
The Conversation: Man Of Steel
The Dissolve isn’t up and running yet, but that doesn’t mean we’re not talking about movies. After viewing The Man Of Steel we reached out to Glen Weldon, a regular contributor to NPR’s Monkey See blog, one of the panelists of the terrific Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, and the author of this year’s Superman: The Unauthorized Biography, a smart history of the character from his conception to the current day. [Note: There are a couple of major spoilers toward the end of this piece. They’re marked for those who want to avoid them.]
Keith: Hey Glen, thanks for talking Man Of Steel with me a bit. I’ve been chatting about it with other members of the Dissolve staff but I wanted to dig into it with someone who knows a thing or two about Superman. Since you literally wrote the book on Superman—Superman: The Unauthorized Biography, now available at fine bookstores and via Amazon—I can’t think of anyone better. I’ve written a review that we’ll publish when the site launches, but I’ll try to sum up my feelings succinctly: Apart from a few elements, Man Of Steel is a cold movie seemingly designed only to allow for a series of massively scaled, endless fight scenes. It’s technically impressive with some beautiful imagery, a few amazing effects, a strong villain in the form of Michael Shannon’s Zod, and the bits of warmth that creep through—Amy Adams’ Lois Lane, Kevin Costner’s moving performance as Jonathan Kent—work quite well. But mostly the film uses just enough familiar iconography and story elements to remain recognizable as a Superman story without really getting beneath their surface. It’s a superficial, steroidal take on the character. One theme you explore in your book is the way each new era reshapes Superman to suit its needs. I’m not sure I like what Man Of Steel suggests about what we want from Superman, or from big summer movies, for that matter.
But, hey, for all I know, you loved it. What’s your take on the film; and having just explored 75 years of Superman’s history, what do you think of what it did with the big guy?
Glen: I never cheered, is the thing.
This is a Superman movie, and I kept waiting for the moment I’d thrill to, that would send me into my backyard with a towel around my neck. I waited and waited for this movie—this logistically impressive, well-acted, grimly gorgeous movie—to take a second to be, you know, fun.
“Steroidal” is a word in the first sentence of my NPR review. I think that has to do with how much Snyder doubles down on the science-fiction elements of Superman, instead of the romantic/lyrical/Earth-based stuff that Donner and Singer (and every other film/TV version of Superman to date) prefer. This isn’t a superhero film, weirdly enough—this is an alien-invasion film, which is why I found myself wincing at property damage (a la Transformers, Battleship, etc) instead of feeling inspired.
It gets lots of things right—there were plenty of moments when Snyder and Goyer showed me they had a good handle on the core of the character. Unfortunately, everything the film got right was featured heavily in the trailers, including:
1. Jor-El’s “You can save [them]. You can save all of them.” Boom. Yep, that right there is the character’s motivation, summed up with admirable economy and urgency. (It was the one place where I thought Goyer’s screenplay worked—where his maddening reliance on blunt, thudding exposition, on having characters say exactly what’s on their damn minds like contestants on Millionaire actually added to a scene instead of leaching from it. Same thing happened with his Dark Knight trilogy. Can’t blockbusters have subtext, for Christ’s sake?)
2. “On my world, it means hope.” - Corny, yes, but corniness in the pursuit of an ideal is no vice. This is SUPERMAN. We need to see hope, optimism, compassion, and we need to see it played in earnest, not with an eye-roll.
3. Kid with the towel, putting his hands on his hips. The Superman shot. That’s iconography that, over the course of 75 years, even non-nerds have internalized.
4. The scenes of Superman in flight, matched with Zimmer’s crazily percussive score. Not the soaring, albeit schmoopy, John Williams strings—an urgent war drum.
5. Cavill is great. Looks great, brings an element of wry self-awareness that keeps the characterization from seeming bland/vanilla. Also, he looks great. I was worried there was gonna be a hell of a lot more “brooding loner” than we got, because Superman doesn’t brood. We got a guy who does that. Have I mentioned Cavill looks great? Because Cavill looks great.
But let’s talk about the final act superhero brawl, which is huge, epic, spectacular—and also punishingly repetitive. Let’s talk about how Snyder’s camera doesn’t follow the action, but lingers lovingly over shots of skyscrapers crumbling in a way that feels cynical, lazy, exploitative, and sour.
And let’s talk—if you want, though it’s spoilery as hell—about the final twist (snerk), which will have plenty of fans frothing at the mouth.
Keith: This is why I avoid trailers. Really, I try to avoid creating expectations about any movie, but that’s nearly impossible most of the time and absolutely impossible for a Superman movie. I really wanted Man Of Steel to be a Superman movie on par with Nolan’s Batman movies. Which is to say I wanted a Superman movie as true to a strong take on the character as Nolan’s Batman movies, not one that tried to impose the high seriousness of those films on a character that might have benefitted from a lighter touch. (I mean, I think the Dark Knight movies have more light moments in them. At least they have Michael Caine’s Alfred.)
Man Of Steel packed its most inspiring moments into the trailer and then delivered a different sort of movie. (You’re right in noting it’s more alien-invasion film than superhero movie.) I wasn’t nuts about Russell Crowe as Jor-El (especially when he just kept hanging around long after he should have disappeared), but you’re right that the motivation he supplies for his son works for the character. And you’re right about Cavill, who looks inspiring—in more ways than one—and sounds right for the part, when the film lets him speak, and not just grunt. Here’s hoping he gets more to do in the sequel.
In fact, there’s a lot of grunting in this movie, much of it in that final scene, which just goes on forever. Did the scale of the destruction bother you? It never felt consequential to me. We get one scene of Perry White and photojournalist Jenny in peril, but my mind kept drifting to the hundreds (thousands?) of people who must have been killed. That said, I felt some of the action scenes’ best moments came from Snyder’s choice to use a handheld camera. It’s not an original idea. He’s borrowing from Cloverfield and Chronicle, but using it on a much more massive scale.
As for the final twist [big spoilers ahead, folks], I’m guessing you’re either referring to Superman killing Zod or Clark joining The Daily Planet—a newspaper that’s bringing on staff and keeping its photographers around, apparently. The former I resisted. Superman would just find another way. It’s what he does, right? The latter made me kind of look forward to a sequel with an established status quo. Because I didn’t hate this movie. It just never let me love it.
What about you, Glen? Are you ready for another go-around in spite of your reservations about this one? And what do you think the closest comic-book equivalent of this film is? To me it felt like someone trying to do an Authority-inspired widescreen rethink of Superman without Warren Ellis’ cynical wit while dropping in some iconic Alex Ross-by-way-of-Terrence Malick images to break up the action.
Glen: You know, this is pretty much the film I was anticipating, given its provenance. Goyer writes lumpen, “Here I shall declaim the movie’s theme” dialogue, Snyder makes great-looking trailers and films that lack emotional heft, and Nolan is all heft all the time. Say this much: Man Of Steel fits squarely into the chilly, tonally monochromatic world of the Nolan’s Batman films. (I know you liked them, but there wasn’t a moment during those films when I didn’t want to stand up and shout, “Lighten UP, Francis!”)
Between the three of them, they made a noisy, cluttered science-fiction movie with dim, intermittent flashes of heart. (You’re right about Costner —his final seconds in the film could have easily made for a laugh-out-loud moment, but he’s got the chops to nail it.) And speaking of flashes—if they ever do make a Justice League film, that is gonna be one dour JLA satellite. Yeesh. Lotta glum faces staring around the table from their insignia chairs. Gonna make Injustice: Gods Among Us look like LEGO Batman. Is how dour.
As I mentioned, the scale of the final-act destruction, and the imagery of people trapped under concrete and rebar, and indeed the film’s weird fetishisizing of urban property damage, felt too cheap, too lazy, and— as you mention, and as my ferociously brilliant colleague Linda Holmes has recently written about—too unignorably about mass casualties to spark anything but sick dread. He’s only the latest filmmaker to confuse razing a city with raising the stakes.
Shaky cam didn’t bother me much. Barely noticed it. It’s just The Way We Live (and Shoot Movies) Now.
All that said, yeah, I’d see another Cavill-in-a-cape movie. (If I haven’t mentioned it, Cavill looks great.) I think you could easily rest a sequel on those medicine-ball shoulders of his. Which look great, by the way.
As to your question about the comics, I didn’t get Authority (because Authority is essentially a piss-take, and that’s not this film’s tone) but there are elements of Mark Waid/Lemil Yu’s Birthright and the Geoff Johns/Gary Frank Secret Origin throughout. Mainly, though, this film owes a massive conceptual debt to John Byrne’s ‘80s run, beginning with the ’86 Man Of Steel relaunch. Especially the Krypton vs. Earth dynamic, which formed the subtext of Superman: The Movie, and which Byrne picked up on and made explicit text in many of his Superman stories.
SPOILER REDUX: As for the death, well. Lookit: There’s the character of Superman, and there’s the idea of Superman.
Superman the Character is the guy from the comics. He’s seen it all in his 75 years, had a lot of hopelessly Byzantine adventures, got rebooted and retconned within an inch of his life, and comes weighted with all that backstory. He’s the Superman nerds like me know well.
Superman the Idea is different. He’s the version of the character that floats around us in the cultural ether. He’s what your great-aunt thinks of when she imagines Superman. He’s simpler, bolder, more pure than the Superman the character, because he doesn’t come with decades of internecine history. He’s just … an idea.
Superman the Idea would never, ever kill. He would find a way. He would sacrifice himself to prevent the loss of a single life. That’s what he represents.
Superman the Character, however, has killed before. Kiiiind of a lot. Hell, he killed Zod before (a pocket-universe version of him anyway, in 1988—it was actually the last storyline Byrne worked on before leaving the book; afterward Superman’s new writers sent him off into space for 13 months on a journey of redemption which hey you’re nodding off WAKE UP WAKE UP). Back in the ’30s, of course, he’d help many a murderous enemy agent meet many a grisly fate without remorse.
The killing of Zod in the film will outrage others a lot more than it does me. I’m kind of resigned to it. The theme of my book is that Superman changes as the culture around him changes, and that every generation gets the Superman they deserve. There are those who said Superman Returns, with its melancholy tone, was a Superman for the post 9/11 age. I never bought that, as Singer’s film was, at heart, a doomed romance.
Man Of Steel, on the other hand, traffics in images of all-too-familiar violence, albeit at a vast emotional distance. It features our hero killing an evil mastermind while, around him, thousands of innocents become collateral damage.
Snyder’s film, in other words, is a drone strike. And as such, it meets us where we are today. More’s the pity.
Keith: One thing your book makes clear is how much the portrayal of Superman in one medium influences the character in others, particularly comics. And then the comics influence how the character gets portrayed in movies and so on. So, this Superman is likely to be with us in one form or another for a while. Sequels seem likely but, beyond that, there’s going to be a generation of kids for whom this film defines Superman just as our generation immediately thinks of Christopher Reeve (we’re about the same age, right?) and the one before ours thinks of George Reeves. What does Man Of Steel mean for the future of Superman?
Glen: Yep, the thing that writing the book really underscored is that it’s the movies (and to a lesser extent, the TV shows and, before that, the radio show) that shape the idea of Superman that exists in the cultural consciousness.
So Cavill (who, we should really mention, looks great in the role) will come to be how millions of people—not just kids—envision Superman. The nature of the engagement these non-comics readers have to characters like this isn’t deep, but it is astonishingly wide. Global, in point of fact.
So: What will their Superman be like, specificallly? Well, he’ll be different than mine. Oh, he’ll have the same motivation (1. Puts the needs of others over those of himself, 2. Never gives up), because that’s the character’s essence. But he’ll smile a lot less. Because Man Of Steel tweaks the 75-year-old formula in a way that likely seems subtle, but really, really isn’t: My Superman has a duty; theirs struggles with a burden.
It’s different, and the difference matters hugely, I think. Not least because their Superman will find himself trapped in a chilly, gunmetal-gray, Nolanesque existence for years—an existence that will not suffer bold, colorful, gleefully goofy conceits like Krypto, the Super Dog Who Is Awesome.
Basically? He’s gonna be a lot less fun.
—Keith Phipps and Glen Weldon
here’s a kid totally losing his mind when Robert Downey Jr. walked into his screening of IRON MAN 3.
this very excited fan was there because he had volunteered to help clean up areas that were destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. read the full story here.
I just created my family arms for HBO’s Game of Thrones. Join the Realm and create yours now: www.jointherealm.com
I shouldn’t have access to photoshop. HBO’s symbols just weren’t cutting it for me.