Saturday, August 24, 2013

Less Than Superb

I went to see Superman a few weeks ago (with a friend—Batman III has been the only movie I watched in theaters alone, and I rather regretted that decision). It was with low expectations that I sat down, fifteen minutes late with five minutes of trailers to go. It might seem that those low expectations paid off, as they generally do; but even low expectations can be disappointed, in proof of which I submit as exhibit A my evening with Star Trek earlier this summer. (It was all downhill after the red forest with the white natives in the yellow thingamajiggers. But as usual with movie watching, the company was good.)

The low expectations of Superman came courtesy of the Register’s Steven D. Greydanus, who generally hits Catholic/cultural/family matters on the nose, and is remarkably good at avoiding spoilers. Usually I find myself agreeing with him; if there’s any disagreement, it’s generally because I’ve set bars higher in some way. But not for Man of Steel.

In the first place, the obvious issue of the final half hour battle is—well, an obvious issue. I don’t even object to the violence, necessarily—that would be another argument. I object to the incredibly bad story telling that seems to be indelibly graved onto every director’s brain which directs him, like a code from some benighted science fiction film, to spend the last quarter of his action movies in, well, action. It might be OK if said cyborged director knew how to make the action build to a climax. But you can’t build action to a climax if all you’ve got to create that climax is large CGI buildings and slightly larger CGI explosions. It takes suspense for a climax, and fire alone does not create expense. That requires brimstone. But that, too, like the psychological effects of on screen violence, is another issue; and anyway, Mr. Greydanus and I agreed about that.

We also agreed about Superman’s adoptive father’s storyline, and the remarkably silliness of its conclusion. (Though, in contrast, Superman’s wonderful mid-movie line about his mother probably deserves mention as well.) We agreed that the plot probably is full of holes, and more heavy—in cause or compensation?—with scifi wonders than was strictly necessary: “an overstuffed tale involving a Codex, a World Engine, a Genesis Chamber and a Phantom Drive.”

It’s a pity about the overstuffing, because the plot and the stuff that stuffs it are actually worth thinking about. It is unfortunate that the stuffing of the stuff doesn’t tend to make the viewer think about, well, stuff, because it really is stuff worth thinking about. The World Engine and Phantom Drive are perhaps dispensable, but the Genesis Chamber and the Codex are not only connected, but offer what could have been, with more skillful emphasis, the circulatory system of a truly interesting story about the difference between the human or natural and the transhuman. Even the World Engine, as silly as it is, plays or could have been used to play into that concept, transforming (as it does) the natural into the anatural at the cost of nature, rather than to its benefit and with its cooperation. In fact, with a little more attention to what they were saying, the filmmakers of Superman might have realized that they were really doing an anti-Hegelian, anti-Sangerian, pro-natural family movie. Maybe it’s a good thing that they didn’t—but it’s tantalizing to imagine how much stronger and more coherent the movie would have been if they had.  As it is, the viewer has to untangle the threads of the plot and weave them back together; but at least those threads—threads leading back to principles about the value of human life, and the value of relinquishing control over it, and the evil that follows attempts to “improve” on it—are there.

Next Saturday(ish): Why Mr. Greydanus AND Fr. Barron are both (probably) wrong to dislike (if they do) Superman (the character).


  1. I have to absolutely agree with your assessment of Superman. I thought it a sub-par movie across the board especially as regards a lack of story and intrigue and the plot holes...

  2. Yeah, much as I'd like to like Man of Steel, I have to agree with everything you say here. The only positive point I might add would be Henry Cavill's own acting performance: I thought he did a pretty remarkably good job of combining strength/confidence with humility and down-to-earth-ness (and the image of him reading Plato as a kid definitely found a weak spot in me...)

  3. And the worst of it is, as Emily says in The Kid, it "could have been GREAT!"