Wicked Weekends: Man of Steel

All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely

All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely

My favorite version of Superman’s origin story comes from Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman. It’s four sentences, eight words, with accompanying visuals: Doomed planet. Desperate scientists. Last hope. Kindly couple. That’s it. And we’re off.

I’ve gone on record as saying that I don’t see the point in origin stories, at least not where the legends of our time are concerned. We don’t start every new series of Sherlock Holmes movies by recounting how Holmes and Watson came to live and work together at 221B Baker Street. We don’t completely reboot James Bond with each new actor who steps into that venerable role. As much as I love Batman Begins, we know the story by cultural osmosis. It, too, can be distilled into a few words: Happy family. Unspeakable loss. Years wandering. New purpose. Or Spider-Man: Spider bite. Wasted power. Fallen mentor. Great responsibility.

So we know Superman’s story. The last survivor of an alien race, he was sent to Earth as an infant, where he was adopted by kindly farmers, protected and raised with their values. Imbued with great powers through his exposure to our yellow sun, he now fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way.

Man of Steel is an origin story. There’s no getting around that. It’s a reboot for the Superman film franchise, taking up the torch from the classic movies starring Christopher Reeve and the cinematic saga that came to a close with the rather tepid spiritual sequel Superman Returns. I’m not sure we needed that reboot. I’m not sure we needed to be told this story again. As a rule, I would rather see the origins of these characters taken as read, so we can just get on with new tales. But it was an enjoyable, faithful, and thought-provoking ride nonetheless.

Yes, thank you, Zack Snyder. GET ON WITH IT!

Yes, thank you, Zack Snyder. GET ON WITH IT!

As sentient beings, painfully aware of our mortality and our ultimate insignificance in the face of eternity, we have been haunted throughout our existence with the same questions: are we alone? Is there something out there greater than ourselves? Do we need to be saved – from ourselves, from forces we cannot control, from forces we cannot yet comprehend or perceive – and, if so, will we be saved? And, above all, are we worthy of salvation? Superman represents a potential answer. Above all else, Superman represents hope that, yes, there is something more out there, a great and benevolent force that sees the good in humanity and will act to protect it. The parallels to religious doctrine, and particular to Christianity, are obvious. It is not surprising that Man of Steel grapples with those questions and draws those parallels, showing human beings at their best and their worst, and depicting Clark Kent’s struggle to find his role relative to our planet and our people in the face of all our complexity and contradiction. The movie’s failures are similarly complex and contradictory: it either goes too far in pursuit of these themes, or not far enough. The Christ imagery is heavy-handed and scarcely worthy of the name ‘metaphor’: Clark is 33 years old when he’s thrust before humanity and compelled to sacrifice himself for all mankind. He has a conversation about whether or not he should sacrifice himself, whether or not it’s the right thing to do, in a church, with a priest, while sitting in front of a giant stained glass window depicting Jesus Christ. At one point he drops through the sky while extending his arms in a Christlike pose. Yes. We get it. (In fact, it appears that Warner Bros. is aggressively marketing the film to Christian churches. I’m not sure what to think about that.)

At the same time, the movie fails to really hammer its points about humanity home. At one point, we see Clark confront a trucker harassing a waitress, backing down when it’s clear that the confrontation will only end in violence – Clark isn’t prepared to use force in this situation, even if the guy is an asshole. Later the trucker walks out of the restaurant to find his rig completely totaled, impaled on multiple telephone poles in an act of destruction and petty revenge that hardly seems in keeping with Superman’s sense of morality and self-control. Maybe the point is that Clark hasn’t quite become Superman yet – and it’s true, he hasn’t – but while the visual was good for a quick laugh, it didn’t feel quite right, somehow. Later, during a vicious attack on Metropolis, we see a Daily Planet intern trapped under some debris, and Perry White, as well as another Planet employee, stay with her even in the face of certain destruction. It’s a sweet moment, but lacks the punch of, say, multiple citizens working together to free her, racing against time, saving the day even without powers.

As for the Kryptonian side of the equation, the situation is similarly muddled. Jor-El’s plans for his son, the last survivor of Krypton, are unclear. In the movie’s story, Clark’s cells have been imbued with the information contained within the Codex, a Kryptonian artifact holding the genetic code for all of Krypton’s future citizens – Krypton now relies on artificial reproduction, you see, and each citizen is born to fulfill a specific role. Clark, as Kal-El, is the first natural-born child of Krypton in centuries, and though Jor-El and Lara clearly care for him, he seems to be an experiment as much as a child to Jor-El, a test of the value of free will. The movie’s antagonist, General Zod, wants to use the Codex in conjunction with recovered Kryptonian technology to turn Earth into a new Krypton, exterminating the human race and breeding new generations of Kryptonians. Jor-El, brought to Earth in Clark’s capsule in the form of an AI, finally confesses his own plan when pressed, claiming that he hoped Clark would eventually use the information contained within the Codex to recreate the Kryptonian race as equals to mankind, and Clark himself, familiar with both Earth and Krypton, would act as a bridge between the two peoples. An ambitious and worthy goal, to be sure, but considering that the Codex is designed to produce Kryptonians only for specific roles, it’s not entirely clear to me how ‘New Krypton’ would be any better than the old one. It’s also not clear to me how the Kryptonians lack free will to begin with. Certainly Jor-El was able to break whatever genetic programming he had to deal with and act in open defiance of the laws and traditions of his people.

Laurence Fishburne and Amy Adams as Perry White and Lois Lane

Laurence Fishburne and Amy Adams as Perry White and Lois Lane

Still, despite the muddled plot, heavy-handed imagery and occasional lack of conviction, the movie is a lot of fun to watch, and it does shine in several respects. The cast as a whole is solid. Henry Cavill is an excellent Superman, and Amy Adams is fantastic as a 21st-century Lois Lane. She may not be the fast-talking, nickname-tossing, old-school reporter we all know and love, but she’s a bright, clever, determined woman, a skilled investigator, and a dedicated journalist who only stops chasing the man who will become Superman when the potential consequences of her actions become clear. Despite her decision to abandon the story, she’s pulled into Superman’s life again and becomes integral to the fight against Zod. Though she does indeed form a romantic connection with Superman by the end of the story, it feels fairly natural after everything they’ve been through. The movie adds a new wrinkle to the classic story of Clark/Lois/Superman by introducing Clark Kent as we know him (reporter for the Daily Planet and mild-mannered secret identity for the all-powerful Superman) only at the end of the film, after Lois has already tracked down the mysterious ‘guardian angel’ who keeps appearing out of nowhere and saving lives all over the world and stood alongside Superman in both Smallville and Metropolis. In the Man of Steel universe, the Clark/Superman/Lois love triangle simply does not exist. Lois knows his identity from the start. And frankly, as much fun as that triangle can be, it’s been overused and I’m quite glad to see it dismissed completely in this iteration of the Superman mythology. Basically, I love this version of Lois almost as much as I love Dana Delany‘s version from the old animated series, and the movie is practically worth seeing for her alone.

Similarly, Laurence Fishburne is a Perry White for our time. He may not chomp cigars and shout “Great Caesar’s Ghost!” at the drop of a hat, but he’s a perfect foil for Lois, a caring and dedicated boss who isn’t fooled by her shenanigans but quietly supports her in her crusade for the truth nonetheless. Richard Schiff has a small but memorable role as long-time Superman ally Dr. Emil Hamilton. (Amusingly, Alessandro Juliani, who played Dr. Emil Hamilton in the ninth and tenth seasons of Smallville, also has a small role in the film.) Christopher Meloni doesn’t get a lot of screen time, either, but he makes what little he does get count, particularly as the film reaches its climax. And Michael Shannon chews the scenery a bit as Zod, but, well, it’s General Zod, so I can forgive that.

Jor-El on Krypton

Jor-El on Krypton

Last, but far from least, the movie does not skimp on the eye candy. The Krypton of Man of Steel puts one in mind of Time Lords and New Gods and the Asgard of the Thor movie, with ships and robots and suits of armor that reshape themselves at a thought, impossible architecture, gorgeous vistas, and ridiculous hats to spare. The ideas of John Byrne’s seminal post-Crisis reboot (also titled, in fact, The Man of Steel), are combined with modern cinematic sensibilities into something genuinely beautiful. The powers of the Kryptonians on Earth – their strength, speed, enhanced perception, heat vision and flight – are depicted in ways that, if not precisely revolutionary, are nevertheless decently realistic and fun to watch. The set designers and effects artist have even thrown in a few ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ cameos to reward sharp-eyed fans – notably Lexcorp and WayneTech logos on key props and set pieces.

All things considered, Man of Steel is not a perfect film, nor is it my favorite version of the Superman myth. But it’s a solid film, well-made and a hell of a lot of fun, and it’s saved by stunning visual effects and a charming and talented cast. I can’t wait for the sequel.

Superman Rating: 4 out of 5 capes. Super.

General Film Rating: 7 out of 10. Well worth seeing in theaters, but not the best movie you’ll see all year.

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Wicked Weekends: October Horror Movie Challenge, Part 1

It’s been a few months since I last posted, for which I can only apologize. I’ve been slammed with work and various other real life distractions, and I haven’t really had any time to post. But I’ve finally gotten a bit of breathing room, and I’m hoping to get back in the swing of things now.

Let’s kick things off with one of my latest endeavors: the October Horror Movie Challenge, as recently highlighted on one of my favorite community blogs, Gaming As Women. For those of you who prefer not to click on outbound links, the basics of the challenge are this: each participant is meant to watch 31 horror movies in 31 days, including at least 16 films they’ve never seen before. I’ve been squeezing in my 31 wherever I can, so I’m afraid I’m a bit behind, though I’m hoping to catch up soon. As of today, October 14th, I’ve seen eight movies, all of them new to me, and I’m happy to report that I’m putting a real dent in the horror section of my Netflix queue. As part of this process, I’ve decided to share some of my impressions in capsule reviews and tie them into the relaunch of my media-centered weekend posts, which I’m dubbing “Wicked Weekends”. So, for the next few weeks, expect a grand tour of the good, the bad, the ludicrously comical and the goddamned scary.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale

2010 – 80 min. – Directed by Jalmari Helander – Available on Netflix Instant

Far in the north of Finland, a drilling operation uncovers an ancient evil – the one and only Santa Claus. As children in the area begin to disappear, a young boy named Rauno must convince his father and his fellow reindeer hunters of the danger Santa poses and find a way to end the creature’s threat forever.

This is more of a horror-comedy than a straight up horror film. Perhaps I should have expected as much the moment I heard the words “evil Santa Claus,” because as creepy as the Santa legend can get in some parts of the world (and it can get very, very creepy), I don’t think anyone’s tried to make an evil Santa film that’s legitimately scary. Rare Exports is no exception. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad film by any means. I had a lot of fun watching it. It’s just not all that scary. Creepy in parts, certainly, and there are plenty of deaths, but in the end, it’s more of a horror-tinged farce than anything. It’s worth a watch, but don’t go in expecting a lot of scares. Honestly, it might be best saved for the Christmas season. When you’re tired of Rankin-Bass specials and Charlie Brown cartoons, spin up Rare Exports, spike the eggnog, and let the laughter commence.

 

John Carpenter’s The Ward

2011 – 86 min. – Directed by John Carpenter – Available on Netflix Instant

In the 1960s, a mysterious young woman is captured by the police and admitted to an isolated mental institution, where she and her fellow patients are hunted by a terrifying spectre tied to a dark secret in their shared pasts.

I enjoyed this movie far more than I thought I would. It’s not the greatest horror film I’ve ever seen, but it kept me guessing and it had a lot of great jump-scare moments. In retrospect, the climax of the film was actually quite predictable, but I honestly didn’t see it coming and I felt it was very well executed indeed. The main characters sometimes come off as one-dimensional, but given the fundamental nature of the film, I can’t really say that’s a bad thing. I would definitely recommend giving this one a watch.

 

The Thing

1982 – 109 min. – Directed by John Carpenter – Available on Netflix Instant

The staff of an American research outpost in the Antarctic take in a Siberian Husky rescued from Norwegian scientists hell-bent on putting the dog down, and soon discover that the scientists had very good reasons to hunt the creature. Faced with a monster that can mutate into anything it kills, the Americans must battle their own fear and paranoia as their ranks are swiftly and steadily depleted.

Here’s where I come off as a Philistine: I didn’t enjoy this film at all. I recognize that it’s a seminal horror film, an essential part of John Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy and a profound influence on countless subsequent movies. But I just didn’t enjoy watching it. Perhaps it had just been overhyped. Maybe I’ve been exposed to too many of the revolutionary ideas that sprung from this movie to enjoy it on its own terms. Maybe the 80s-style gore turned me off, as it did with Hellraiser. Whatever the reason, I could not get into The Thing. I suppose I’m glad I saw it – certainly everyone should see the classics of the genre, and The Thing is pretty universally acknowledged as such – but it was more of a chore than anything. Perhaps I’ll try watching it again sometime and see if my opinion improves on subsequent viewings.

 

Grave Encounters

2011 – 92 min. – Directed by the Vicious Brothers & Colin Minihan – Available on Netflix Instant

The cast and crew of a ghost-hunting “reality” show spend a night in an abandoned mental institution, where they soon discover that the stories they’ve been spinning for their audience are all too real.

Another movie I liked far more than I ever expected. I honestly thought this would be schlockfest, and to a certain degree, it was. The sequence of events was fairly predictable, none of the characters were terribly well-defined, and haunted asylums and found footage are among the stalest tropes in modern horror. But I find that when I walk into a movie with no expectations, I end up enjoying it for what it is. Grave Encounters is not a great movie. It’s probably not even a good movie. But it’s a fun movie, packed with genuine scares and creepy ambiance. I’m actually pretty excited for the forthcoming sequel. If you have Netflix, it’s worth adding this one to your queue. Maybe you’ll never care to watch it again – but it’s a fun way to spend a couple hours. Also, I kind of loved seeing a crew of so-called ghost hunters get taken down a peg. Couldn’t have happened to nicer people.

 

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

2010 – 76 min. – Directed by Troy Nixey – Available on Netflix Instant

A young girl named Sally comes to live in the Gothic mansion her father Alex and his new girlfriend Kim are restoring, and whispers in the walls soon lead her to a walled-up basement, where she inadvertently unleashes a long-dormant evil. As the creatures that haunt the home torment Sally in increasingly vicious ways, Kim embarks on a desperate search for answers, racing against time to save Sally from the beings lurking in the darkness.

I wanted to like this one. I really, really did. I generally adore Guillermo del Toro (who wrote the screenplay for this film, a remake of an old TV movie). I’m very interested in fairy lore, and this film draws upon it in very interesting ways. As an intellectual exercise, I find the film fascinating. As a horror movie, I honestly hated it. It was slow and quiet in all the wrong places. The set and creature design were superbly creepy, but the pacing, the writing and the acting were all seriously lacking. The movie wasn’t enjoyable. It wasn’t really frightening. In the end, I don’t think it was worth my time. The Thing was worth watching for its place in movie history. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark will be lucky to be a footnote.

 

Dracula 2000

2000 – 98 min. – Directed by Patrick Lussier – Available on Netflix Instant

A gang of thieves raids a vault owned by none other than Professor Van Helsing, unleashing Dracula, the first and most terrible of all vampires. Chasing Dracula to New Orleans, Van Helsing and his assistant soon discover that Dracula has a very particular target in mind: the Professor’s estranged daughter Mary.

I went into this movie knowing that it would be bad. That it had been near-universally panned. And its reputation is deserved. For all of that, though, I had fun watching it. Christopher Plummer was a wonderful Van Helsing, and Gerard Butler made a decently creepy Dracula. The mythology behind the film was actually quite intriguing, if not entirely original. And after visiting New Orleans last year and falling in love with it, I’m a sucker for anything involving my second-favorite city on Earth. (The first, of course, will always be Boston.) There were some inexplicable and rather jarring elements – the inclusion of Lucy Westenra as Mary Van Helsing’s best friend, for example, even though Bram Stoker’s novel explicitly exists in the world of the film, presumably with Lucy’s role intact, and no explanation for this coincidence is ever provided – but it was an enjoyable romp all the same.

 

Event Horizon

1997 – 95 min. – Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson

A search and rescue team is dispatched to the outskirts of the solar system to recover the Event Horizon, the first starship equipped with an FTL drive, which has mysteriously reappeared after a seven year absence. Though the ship initially appears to be abandoned, a malevolent presence soon makes itself known, and the crew of the Lewis and Clark discover that some doors should never be opened.

Okay, confession time: I’ve had this movie sitting on my shelf for ages, after buying a used copy off a friend, but I was too much of a wuss to watch it until recently. Having finally seen it, I honestly enjoyed the hell out of it. It was creepy as hell and scary in all the right places, and while the damned, haunted ship may be a trope almost as tired as the haunted asylum, the outer space setting made everything old seem new again. I’ve seen a few people comment that this film seems almost like a prequel to the Warhammer 40k setting, and even with my cursory knowledge of that setting, I have to agree – and after seeing the film, I’m slightly more interested in exploring WH40K than I was. My one complaint is this: there’s a toneless comic relief character who feels spectacularly out of place every time he appears, particularly as the film grows steadily more grim. I appreciate good comic relief, but this film really didn’t provide a bit of it; the movie would have been better served by having none at all. Still, even that flaw couldn’t really spoil the film as a whole. Event Horizon wasn’t quite as terrifying as I thought it would be – I think I’d built it up a bit too much in my mind – but it was very, very good and I’ll definitely be watching it again to catch any details I might have missed.

 

Sinister

2012 – 109 min. – Directed by Scott Derrickson

Hungry for another smash hit, true crime writer Ellison Oswalt moves his family to the site of a vicious multiple murder, where he soon discovers a series of home movies chronicling a chain of homicides spread across many years and thousands of miles. As he slowly puts the pieces together, Ellison finds himself literally haunted by the grisly events, and slowly comes to believe that he may have placed his own family in harm’s way.

Just barely certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, this film, released on Friday, has been dividing the critics like nothing else. The main complaint so far seems to be that it’s predictable. Let me get that out of the way right now: it is. You’ll probably be able to see every major plot point coming around ten minutes before it hits. But the devil, as it were, is in the details. What this movie lacks in original plot structure, it more than makes up for in execution. It’s well-acted, beautifully atmospheric, wonderfully creepy, and studded with some awesome jump-scares. This film takes ideas that have been percolating in the depths of the horror genre for years and weaves them together into something that’s much, much more than the sum of its parts. To go into details would spoil the film, and it deserves to be experienced fresh. Suffice to say I highly recommend it. Ignore the critics. If you have doubts, wait for the DVD, but turn the lights down low, curl up with your loved ones and give this one a watch. Just don’t do it right before bed.