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What if STAR TREK had been a ’40s radio show?

In the interests of having something to post so this blog doesn’t go dead again (it’s already been 10 days since my last post — sorry), I’m going to repost something fun I contributed to a TrekBBS thread last year musing about what TOS might’ve been like as a radio adventure show from the ’30s or ’40s. Based on the binge-listen I’d done of old The Adventures of Superman radio shows online a couple of years earlier, I ended up putting together a hypothetical scene from an episode, a riff on how radio characters had to narrate the action for the audience’s benefit. I’m reposting it here, with a bit of narration added in response to other posters’ comments:

“Yes! Punching the Gorn’s ears seems to have disoriented him. I’ve got to get away… get some distance! Yes! That rise over there.”
(Panting sounds.)
“Yes… this rock should do nicely.”
(Grunt of exertion.)
“He’s recovering. Now — heave!”
(Sound of object whooshing through the air and striking a leathery surface. Growl of pain from the Gorn.)
“Yes! A hit! But — no, it’s barely staggered him! What incredible strength! Now he’s — no — he’s heading for that large boulder! There’s no way he could — but he is! He’s… lifting it above his head! It must weigh over a ton! Could he possibly throw it hard enough –”
(A loud grunt of exertion from the Gorn, and a heavier whooshing sound.)
“He did! Have to dodge, dodge for all I’m worth!”
(Heavy thud of the boulder striking rock, rolling downhill.)
“Whew! That was close! I could feel the breeze as it blew past! Better not take any chances — up the mountain, quickly! My speed is my only advantage!”
(The sound of swift footsteps on stone, and Kirk panting. Fade out these sounds and asteroid ambience; fade in bridge background audio.)

“Meanwhile, far out in space, the star cruiser Enterprise is trapped, held motionless in a powerful force ray by the mysterious Metrons! Under the cool, logical leadership of the half-Vulcanian Mister Spock, the crew now strives to break free of the Metrons’ relentless grip!”
“Have you tried overload, Mr. Scott?”
“Aye, Mr. Spock. It does no good…”

Just something I tossed together on a lark, but I was happy with how it turned out. Credit where it’s due: This is, of course, an adaptation of a scene from “Arena,” written by Gene L. Coon, from the story by Fredric Brown. Acknowledgment is also due to The Adventures of Superman‘s star Bud Collyer and narrator Jackson Beck for inspiration.

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Okay, I finally saw BATMAN V SUPERMAN… (Spoilers)

September 15, 2016 3 comments

The library finally came through with my requested DVD of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. This was a film I refused to see in the theater, because the climax of Zack Snyder’s previous Superman film, Man of Steel, was such an endless, tedious, gratuitous sensory barrage that it almost drove me out of the theater. I read in the reviews that this film’s action sequences were even more noisy and excessive, so I chose to wait until I could see it on a smaller screen and be able to set the volume to my comfort level, as well as take breaks as appropriate.

As you can tell from the title of the above-linked MoS review, there was a lot I really liked about that film, but the stuff I hated was so awful that it ruined the rest for me. As for BvS… Well, I can’t really add much to all that’s been said about it in the months since its release. It’s a mess. I had much the same reaction as I had to X-Men Origins: Wolverine — that it felt like a highlight reel from a significantly longer movie that we weren’t seeing. (Which is somewhat literally the case here, since it’s heavily cut down from a longer version available on Blu-Ray, but the library only had the DVD of the theatrical version.) But it’s more than just brevity. Even within scenes, bits of dialogue follow each other without rhyme or reason. Character actions and reactions appear in a void, without the background to set them up. Too much stuff is crammed in and hardly any of it is given enough attention to make it feel justified.

Character-wise, Clark/Superman and Lois are relative ciphers. We don’t see enough of them to learn much about their personalities or thoughts, and what we get is disjointed because too much is left out. Henry Cavill was a high point of MoS, the first actor since Christopher Reeve that I really believed as Superman. But he’s terrible in this one. Which is probably because he has so little to work with, and it’s just so incoherent. He gets no reaction at all when Congress blows up around him, and he doesn’t even get to speak a word in that entire scene. And his words to Lois afterward are nonsense. Superman is the dream of a Kansas farmer? He’s been living as his father wanted? No. Nuh-uh. MoS made it clear that this version of Clark became a hero despite Jonathan Kent. He had to reject everything Jonathan taught him in order to become a hero. So they’ve thrown out a key part of Clark’s characterization from the first film and replaced it with a detached, unfeeling cipher who speaks in disjointed platitudes. Meanwhile, Amy Adams is probably the blandest Lois Lane in the history of the character. (Even given the existence of Kate Bosworth. She wasn’t exactly bland, just completely miscast.)

Perry White comes off even worse, getting character-assassinated as badly as Clark’s other human father figure, Jonathan Kent, was in MoS. Traditionally, Perry White is the archetypal loud, grouchy boss, but he’s also always been portrayed as a paragon of journalistic integrity, the moral center of the Daily Planet as much as Clark himself was. Here, he’s a caricature of a shallow, sleazy tabloid editor, unrecognizable as Perry White and a total waste of Lawrence Fishburne’s talents. Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor isn’t as annoying as I feared at first, but he gets more annoying when he just keeps on talking and talking and talking while Superman or Lois barely get a word in. (And both characters suffer from having the writers force them to deliver overly on-the-nose bits of foreshadowing, like “This is someone you don’t want to pick a fight with” or “No one cares about Clark Kent taking on the Batman.”)

As for Bruce/Batman, it’s not a completely untenable idea to set him up as opposed to Superman because of what happened in Metropolis, and it’s certainly a good idea to try to make up for the staggering disregard for life in that whole climactic sequence, but I can’t say it works well. Having Bruce pretend to Alfred that he was going after some “dirty bomb” unconnected to Superman serves no purpose, and undermines the momentum of the story by making Batman’s early actions seem disconnected to the plot and thus rather boring. The film was already disjointed enough without that. Moreover, Batman’s casual killing is unpleasant, though Michael Keaton’s Batman was just as murderous (and I’m not at all a fan of those movies either). I’ve heard behind-the-scenes handwaves about how this is an older, more bitter Bruce who’s crossed that line, but I don’t think there’s anything in the movie establishing that, so it just comes off as gratuitous.

Overall, the character’s actions make little sense. Clark and Lois don’t do much investigating beyond having clues fall in their laps. Batman’s actions don’t follow any sort of logic. When he’s going after the kryptonite, he puts a tracking device on the truck… and then chases after it at close range and gets into a big firefight and crashes and explosions and whatnot, which was all absolutely unnecessary because he put a freaking tracking device on the truck!!! After that whole overlong sequence, he just went back to the Batcave and found where the truck was anyway, proving that there was no reason for the chase in the first place. This is Snyder’s problem. Not only does he care more about cool images and moments than he does about story, but he doesn’t even care enough to come up with coherent justifications for his cool images and moments. It made zero sense for the firing of the tracking device and the up-close car chase to be in the same sequence of events. They directly contradict each other. But Snyder didn’t care, because he just wanted a succession of cool-looking moments.

Others have written about how incoherent and overcomplicated Lex Luthor’s plan is here, so I’ll just say that the fact that Lex had to force Superman and Batman into arbitrary conflict reflects the filmmakers doing the exact same thing. They started with the title, the decision that this would be a movie about them fighting, and everything else had to be about contriving an excuse for that to happen. They couldn’t even come up with a good excuse. They tried to set something up with Clark getting fired up about Batman as a threat that needed to be stopped, but then totally abandoned that and went with Lex threatening Clark’s mother. Why? Just because someone thought it’d be cute to point out that Bruce’s mom had the same name? (Which might not have been quite so ludicrous if they hadn’t made such a huge dramatic moment of it, complete with a recap of the frame-by-frame imitation of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns Wayne-murder scene that already opened the film. Not only does Snyder slavishly copy old comic-book pages, now he’s copying his own copy.)

And then we get a whole other completely unrelated story about Doomsday, just so Snyder can indulge in more disaster porn — though they make a forced, clunky point of how abandoned and evacuated everything is this time. This is just a random monster fight out of nowhere, and the character decisions are as random and unsupported as most everything else. Why does the president default to ordering a nuke before it’s even been sufficiently demonstrated that Doomsday is a threat that Superman can’t contain? Far more inexplicably, how does Lois psychically intuit that she needs to go back for the spear? She has no way of knowing that, unless super-hearing is contagious. And why didn’t Superman just give the spear to Diana?

Still, while the climax here was just another self-indulgent CGI-fest, it was more watchable than the MoS climax. It was less repetitive, less crassly exploitative of 9/11 imagery (though we got a ton of that in the opening), a bit more fun with the banter among the three heroes (what little there was). Plus — and this is particularly important for me — the music was actually fairly engaging this time, not just endless monotonous blaring. It was a reasonably good screen debut for Wonder Woman, allowing for how tacked-on her presence was in this film — which doesn’t really stand out given that pretty much every other plot thread was just as cursorily tacked on. Although I’m not crazy about the modern trend to fixate on the idea of Diana as the ultimate warrior, which runs counter to her traditional role as a champion of peace. Hopefully her upcoming solo film will balance her two sides better. Overall, I agree with the consensus that Diana is the one element of the film that really works, and that’s almost entirely due to Gal Gadot’s presence and charisma rather than the flimsy storyline the script gave her.

So… This was bad. Not potentially great but critically flawed like MoS — just plain bad, a clutter of disparate pieces pretending to be a narrative. It had some ideas that had promise but were ineptly or fitfully explored or simply mentioned in passing and forgotten. It had a few scattered lines of good dialogue amidst a word salad of pretentiousness and random subject changes. It had some interesting imagery, but dwelled too heavily on a lot of it. It had… well, it had some good actors, but I can’t say anything positive about the characters, since they were little more than devices to advance the fragments of what passed for a plot. And it was trying too hard to be a promo for future films. This wasn’t a story, it was a corporately mandated piece of connective tissue between other movies. It’s pretty at times, but virtually brainless and utterly soulless. It doesn’t even make me angry like the horrible climax of MoS did. Nothing about it has enough weight to evoke that kind of emotion. At most, it evokes a weary frustration at the Hollywood system that puts such huge amounts of time and money and labor into these elaborate, beautifully made productions but perennially fails to understand that it’s all a waste without the foundation of a strong story and script.

Followup on Cleveland ConCoction

Okay, the convention ended days ago, but I’m only now getting around to posting about it. Let’s see… My last panel on Saturday was about “Shaping the Short Story,” and I was hoping to pick up some tips on how to get better at coming up with short stories, but I don’t think I got the answers I was looking for. I think my problem is that my ideas tend to be big worldbuilding stuff that requires a longer format to explore. I think I’m better at coming up with ideas in universes that are already established and defined, like The Hub or Star Trek. Still, I got to hear from other authors on the panel, including another Analog author, Mary A. Turzillo. Afterward, I ran into Mary and Geoffrey A. Landis in the lobby, and we three Analog veterans hung out for a while in the con suite (a nice perk of the con, a dining area providing free food to guests).

On Sunday morning, I got checked out of my room before my 11 AM panel, “Best Worlds in SF.” I’d thought that would be a discussion of our favorite or most optimistic fictional universes, but apparently it was about “worlds” in a more literal sense, our favorite physical settings and the worldbuilding behind them. Geoffrey Landis was on this panel with me as well, and we both talked about our interest in real planetary science and how that could inform our fiction. There was also some discussion of the worldbuilding process, and I got to talk about The Hub and how pleased I am that its central concept is so simple and distinctive yet provides so many story possibilities growing out of its ramifications. Although that might actually have been in the short story panel the night before. They’ve kind of blended together in my memory.

(By the way, I’ve just discovered that the Internet Science Fiction Database lists my Hub stories under the series title “The Hub Gates.” I guess I can see why they’d think “gates” in terms of instantaneous interstellar travel, a la Gateway or Stargate, but I’m puzzled because I’ve never used that term for it myself — and there’s really only a single “gate,” the Hub itself. I’ve always thought of the series as just “The Hub.” Still, it’s neat to find out I have an ISFDb entry for my own original series. Though my main ISFDb page is in need of updating — it’s missing my non-Analog original stories, Hub Space, and my Star Trek Magazine articles.)

After the last panel, I spent an hour at the guest table in the main hall, trying to sell books, but that can be tough on the last day of a con, when people have spent most of their money already. Plus, I was kind of far from the other guests, since for some reason there was a live rabbit in a cage under the table and I had to move off to the side to avoid kicking it. So I was a little lonely. After that, I moved back to Author’s Alley for a last bout of giveaways and signings before the closing ceremony, and Larry Nemecek took that opportunity to interview me for a podcast. I think he said it was for Trekland, but there doesn’t seem to be a video up there yet.

So then I went off to the fairly brief closing ceremonies, and then I reclaimed my remaining books from the con staff — those from my own stock, at least, since we weren’t sure about the disposition of the remaining giveaway books. (That’s being worked out.) Anyway, it turned out that I didn’t need to bring both my boxes of Only Superhuman hardcovers, since I only sold 3/4 of one box worth. Still, I made a pretty decent haul, better than I’ve ever made at a single convention before.

And then the rough stuff began. First, I had trouble getting out of the parking lot. My car has been having problems accelerating after sitting overnight in cold weather; it takes up to a few minutes before I’m able to get the car moving to any useful degree, though it tends to clear up after that. I then had to endure a drive through heavy rain all the way to Detroit, and I wasn’t feeling too great after all the stress of the convention and lack of sleep, so I had to keep stopping to rest. Under other circumstances, I might’ve just found a motel for the night, but I wanted to get to Shirley and Harry’s home in time for the tail end of their “housecooling” party, as they called the gathering to commemorate their impending move out of their home of over 45 years. I got there in time to see cousins Barb, Mark, and Teddy before they left the next morning. It’s been a while since I’ve managed to see them, since I’ve had to miss the past couple of holiday gatherings at their home.

Unfortunately, their presence meant there was no room at the inn for me that night, so the plan was for me to go stay with Uncle Clarence. Which turned out to be a terrible plan, since getting there was a 40-minute drive through unfamiliar territory in the dark and the pouring rain. There were moments when I was driving on the freeway and could barely see the lane dividers, and it would’ve been so easy for me to have an accident. It was the most terrifying driving experience of my life. I should’ve just found the nearest motel to Shirley and Harry’s house, but I was too tired to think of it. I’m grateful to Clarence for letting me stay over, but in retrospect, it wasn’t the ideal choice in those conditions.

And I had car trouble again the next morning, this time with Clarence observing. He later called an automotive-minded friend, who suggested I might need the transmission fluid changed. Anyway, the car finally started moving, as it does, and I went back to Shirley & Harry’s for the rest of Monday. With things finally settled down and the weather improved, it was a good visit. There was good food and conversation, and we went to the local library and I checked out a collection of fun and zany Superman comics from 1958-9, the era when some of the most important elements from the Silver Age debuted, such as Brainiac, Kandor, and Supergirl. And I finally got a good night’s sleep on Monday night, so I was well-rested for my drive home Tuesday. The folks provided me with lunch for my trip, and also let me have a tea ball and a couple of mugs they no longer need.

The drive home was much nicer than my previous two long drives. The weather was great and I was feeling much better. I ran into a long traffic delay due to construction, but it was well-timed to let me eat lunch while traffic was completely stopped or inching forward, and it turned out to be a much shorter delay than the hour and forty-some minutes that Google Maps predicted. When I got home, I found a sticker on my door from UPS saying they’d tried to deliver a package from Simon & Schuster on the day I’d left for the convention — my copies of Live by the Code, of course, in an odd bit of timing. They’d dropped them off at the local bike shop, which I’d used once before to drop off a return to Amazon, so I guess UPS had it in their records as my preferred location. I picked them up the next day, combining it with a grocery trip. My car still seemed to be having some acceleration problems going up hills, so the transmission issue may be getting worse. I was going to take it to the garage then, but I decided I needed groceries first instead, and once I got home from that, I figured I’d wait until today. But today I had to do laundry, and was just generally too tired to do much else. So maybe tomorrow.

And hopefully soon I’ll be recovered enough to get back to that whole writing thing…

Latest thoughts on fall SFTV

November 7, 2015 3 comments

Continuing my irregular series…

Updates:

Doctor Who has gotten stronger since the first couple of episodes this season. The stories have gone to interesting places and handled them well. The Zygon 2-parter currently underway has done a remarkable job bringing depth and complexity to a race I always saw as rather goofy before.

Minority Report has also gotten stronger as it’s moved beyond case-of-the-week stuff and delved more into the past and present of the three Precogs. The worldbuilding is still a mixed bag, though — sometimes there are some nice bits of plausible prediction (sea level rise, vat-grown meats), but sometimes the world is too similar to the present (e.g. no improvements in firearm safety in households with children). There are only a few episodes left now; FOX has already decided to end the show at episode 10, which was already planned as a midseason finale of sorts. I hope it isn’t too much of a cliffhanger.

Sleepy Hollow has been pretty solid — not as good as season 1, but not as frustrating or uneven as season 2. However, the constant shoehorning in of Betsy Ross, Colonial Superspy is irritating and the actress hasn’t gotten any better.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been puttering along just fine, with one exceptional showing in “4,722 Hours.” It’s a reminder that, for all that we celebrate serialization these days, the standalone stories are often the most memorable ones.

I’m still watching Blindspot, but I’m not quite sure why. I don’t really care about any of the cast other than Jaimie Alexander and Ashley Johnson. And it’s way too gunplay-driven for my tastes. But I am still vaguely curious about the mystery. Some viewers, myself included, are starting to suspect that this is a stealth time-travel show, since that seems the only way to explain the foreknowledge of whoever’s behind Jane’s tattoos.

The Flash and Arrow have been solidly fun so far, even though they’ve mostly been busy setting up the upcoming Legends of Tomorrow spinoff. But The Flash has introduced the multiverse and Jay Garrick, which certainly opens a lot of possibilities. And last week’s Arrow did something rather marvelous, which was to bring back the star of last season’s cancelled NBC series Constantine (based on a DC/Vertigo comic) and retroactively fold his show into the Arrowverse, as well as leaving the door open for his return in the future. The last time anything like that was done, I think, was when Homicide‘s Detective Munch was added to the cast of Law & Order: SVU. There was also that episode of Diagnosis: Murder in the ’80s (or early ’90s?) that was a sequel to an episode of Mannix from the ’70s. Not quite the same thing there, though.

But the big premiere from DC and Greg Berlanti is CBS’s Supergirl, which I am absolutely loving. Melissa Benoist is marvelously charming and likeable, and she brings enormous warmth and credibility to the character of Kara/Supergirl. She has a personality that reminds me of Lindsay Wagner from The Bionic Woman, along with a gushing charm and ready smile that are evocative of Lynda Carter in Wonder Woman. I’m glad we’re past the point where a female heroine has to be all tough and cold and aggressive to be seen as strong. Supergirl is unapologetically girlish and adorable, but the fights she gets into are intense and no-holds-barred, and the show is perfectly matter-of-fact about both, recognizing that there need be no contradiction there.

As for the rest of the cast, Mehcad Brooks is pretty good as James Olsen — not what you expect from Jimmy Olsen, but that’s the point, since he’s grown out of the cub-reporter years and is a grown man now. The rest of the cast is mostly okay, but I feel that David Harewood’s performance suffers a bit from being saddled with an American accent, and Chyler Leigh is a bit bland as Alex.

I like it that the show makes no apologies about being feminist. That’s not a dirty word, and it’s good that the show embraces it. At least, I hope it gets to continue to embrace it. I remember the ’70s Wonder Woman pilot having a front-and-center feminist message that got totally quashed after just a few episodes. Hopefully we’ve gained some ground since then. I hear a lot of fanboy whining about how they changed Jimmy Olsen or whatever, but I also hear a lot of people saying how excited they are to have a superhero show they can watch with their daughters, and that is so much more important.

I also love it that Kara is spending more time in Supergirl attire than in street clothes, something I don’t think we’ve seen in a live-action superhero show since Adam West hung up his cowl (except maybe for some Power Rangers episodes). I’m also really impressed with the Supergirl costume. People like to make fun of superhero capes and tights and trunks, but I just can’t see it. To me, it’s not silly-looking at all, because it’s Superman’s costume, and that makes it a cultural icon, a symbol of truth, justice, and the neverending battle against corruption and prejudice. Granted, some attempts to realize it in live action have been better than others. But when they get it right, it looks to me like something that should be worn with pride. And Colleen Atwood’s version of the Supergirl costume gets it right. I think Benoist looks very classy in it.

I also love how much time Supergirl spends in the air. This is like the anti-Smallville. That show promised “No flights, no tights,” because those things were seen at the time as goofy and embarrassing. But these days, the culture has embraced superheroes, so this show gives us flights and tights all the time, and it’s wonderful.

(One thing bugs me, though. Supergirl has earrings. Not clip-ons, but studs. How the heck did Kara pierce her ears? Heat vision? For that matter, why don’t the piercings instantly heal up after being made? Although I gather there are such things as adhesive or magnetic earrings.)

It’s interesting that this shares something in common with the ’84 Supergirl movie, aside from Helen Slater’s presence. Both stories are about Kara becoming Supergirl in order to fix a problem that she herself inadvertently caused — sending the Omegahedron to Earth in the movie, bringing Fort Rozz to Earth here. (Although I suspect that there’s a deeper story behind just how the fort got out of the Phantom Zone.)

I like it that there’s a clearly defined melodic theme, though episode 2 seemed to use a different one (or a different part of the same one?) than the pilot. It’s not one of the best Super-person themes in the history of the franchise — it doesn’t hold a candle to the Goldsmith Supergirl theme from the movie — but it’s appropriate for a superhero, especially a Super-hero, to have a clear fanfare like this. Most Superman-related shows have had strong themes for the hero, though this is something Smallville totally dropped the ball on until late in its run, because it went with Mark Snow’s atmospheric droning instead of something with actual melody, and then it just copied John Williams’s Superman theme, which just didn’t fit with the rest of the music. (Although later composer Louis Febre did finally concoct a decent heroic theme for Clark in the last couple of seasons.)

One last side note: People may notice that I haven’t said anything yet about the news that CBS is producing a new Star Trek series. This is because we hardly know anything about it yet, so the sensible thing is to wait and see. It’s not necessary to fill the voids in our knowledge with rampant speculation just so we have something to base an opinion on. There’s nothing wrong with having no opinion at all.

Well, I will say that every single time a new Star Trek project has been announced, it’s immediately provoked doom-and-gloom reactions from fandom. And here’s an item from Starlog #117 in which the TOS cast responds to the news that TNG is being made:

https://archive.org/stream/starlog_m…ge/n8/mode/1up

Shatner and Nimoy were skeptical, Kelley didn’t understand the idea, and Doohan pretty much called it a fraud. Nichols and Koenig sounded open-minded… and Takei was pitching a Captain Sulu series even then.  But of course, we all know how TNG turned out. So any opinions or assumptions at this point are hardly worth the effort.

Re-evaluating SUPERGIRL (1984)

I hadn’t planned to do any further entries in my coverage of Alexander and Ilya Salkind’s Superman film series (including the Donner films, the theatrical version of Superman II, and Superman III), but the buzz over the pilot to the upcoming CBS Supergirl TV series got me interested in revisiting the movie — particularly after reading this defense of the film on The Mary Sue not long ago, which argued that it worked as an unapologetic Silver Age story, basically the same mindset that let me enjoy Superman III.

Now, my prior impression of the Supergirl movie, which was written by David Odell (The Muppet Show, The Dark Crystal) and directed by Jeannot Szwarc (who’s since gone on to direct many episodes of Smallville and six of Heroes), was not much kinder than my prior impression of the Superman movies. I remembered thinking Helen Slater looked great and was reasonably good in the role, and I remembered loving the Jerry Goldsmith score, but I also remembered finding it rather silly and resenting the way that Supergirl got stuck with a love-triangle plot while her male counterpart got to save the world. Let’s see how that holds up.

First off, Goldsmith’s score is still fantastic. I think I need to get the CD. It’s very much in the vein of John Williams’s Superman work (which was in turn an elaboration on the earlier Superman themes of Sammy Timberg and Leon Klatzkin and just the general heroic-march tradition), but it’s also very much a classic Goldsmith score, with many of his trademarks including the use of novel electronic sounds to supplement the gorgeously arranged orchestra. I also quite like the main title sequence created by Derek Meddings, with reflective titles swooping through the mists and bright lights flashing off them. It’s the kind of title treatment that would soon go on to become a garish cliche of computer-animated titles, but it was done live with actual reflective cutouts, which gives it a much greater elegance. Though the film has some weak effects (like a couple of really blatant jump cuts), it also has some spectacular ones, particularly Meddings’s superb work with a moving camera and a glass painting to represent the villainess Selena’s fortress in the climax.

The film opens in Argo City, evidently created by Peter O’Toole’s inventor Zaltar as an extradimensional artists’ colony of sorts, much more inviting and organic than the sterile, jagged crystals of Donner’s Krypton. It’s never explained whether it was created/moved to “inner space” as a means of escaping Krypton’s destruction or if it was already there and happened to survive as a result. Anyway, Slater’s Kara Zor-El, a favorite of the iconoclastic Zaltar, is girlish and a bit gawky, a convincing teenager even though she was around 20 at the time. She has a nice rapport with O’Toole, but it all goes wrong when their playing around with the Omegahedron (one of Argo City’s two power sources, Zaltar says, though the identity of the second is evidently lost to editing) causes it to be ejected into space, endangering the city’s survival. (That second power source must not be all that impressive, then.) Kara hijacks the pod Zaltar had made to travel to Earth (where her cousin Superman lives) in order to pursue the Omegahedron and bring it back, while Zaltar gamely sentences himself to the Phantom Zone for his crime. Technically it’s as much Kara’s fault as his, and I like it that the film sets her up with a strong motive to correct her mistake, although it unfortuntely forgets it almost immediately.

After a trip through the lava lamp dimension, Kara somehow emerges from the pod in Supergirl costume, and the coltish teenager has somehow given way to a graceful and lovely young woman, just by a change of hairstyle, clothes, and manner. Slater’s eyes are just extraordinary — perfect for Supergirl and convincing as Christopher Reeve’s cousin, and just plain compelling to look at. And the design of the Supergirl costume is fantastic.

As Supergirl discovers her powers on Earth, we get the lengthy “aerial ballet,” which is just beautiful, a charming sequence as Kara revels in what she can do and the beauty of the new world she’s entered. It’s fittingly named, as Slater’s flying technique is more balletic than Reeve’s, more like swimming through the air, with arms out to the sides and one knee bent. It’s different, but it works for her. Later, she rather randomly adopts the identity of girls’ school resident Linda Lee, and apparently has the same power as Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman to change into any desired outfit instantaneously, except she does it by passing behind things rather than spinning. This includes the ability to change from blonde to brunette as well, and again, she looks very different as Linda. Performance-wise, allowing for the fact that this was her debut role, I think she did a terrific job, creating a mostly strong and expressive character who was also young and innocent. She’s particularly good in her scenes with O’Toole in the Phantom Zone, exhorting him to get out of his self-flagellating funk and help her escape. I would’ve loved to see her mature in the role in later movies.

Most of the film’s cast is terrific. The villains consist of Faye Dunaway as Selena, an ambitious novice witch who gains great power from the Omegahedron and uses it in pursuit of conquest; Brenda Vaccaro as her roommate/sidekick Bianca; and Peter Cook as Nigel, the mentor in black magic who craves her but whom she tosses over in favor of the Omegahedron’s power. They’re all extremely good, particularly Vaccaro, who shows great comedic flair. (Useless fact: When this movie first came out, I knew Vaccaro mainly from The Pride of Jesse Hallam, a TV movie that was filmed at the high school I then attended. I don’t think I ever saw her in person, though. I was too shy to audition for a role as an extra.)

Maureen Teefy also does a good job as Linda’s roommate, who coincidentally happens to be Lucy Lane, sister of Lois and girlfriend of Jimmy Olsen (with Marc McClure reprising his role from the other films and not really doing much). Lucy’s main role in the comics was to be the most mean-spirited and disapproving girlfriend in history (for some reason, Silver Age DC love interests tended to be thoroughly awful toward the male leads), but here she’s basically a mini-Lois, sassy and fearless, with much of the same spirit as Margot Kidder’s Lois. In one of the film’s big set pieces involving a magically controlled runaway construction vehicle, Lucy throws herself into danger to try to take control of it, while Kara/Linda just stands around doing nothing for two or three minutes to let the action play out — a major logic hole, and far from the only one in the film. Lucy is knocked unconscious in the process, and Supergirl rather callously abandons her in order to rescue the male lead from the vehicle.

Unfortunately, that male lead, Hart Bochner as the “love interest” Ethan, is by far the most awful part of the film. The attempt at a love story is atrocious. Ethan is a total non-entity, just eye candy until Selena decides to cast a love spell on him to test it as a tool for control — and he’s thoroughly unpleasant and abrasive in his first dialogue scene, up to the point where she slips him the potion. It’s supposed to make him love the first person he sees, but he staggers off and wanders through town for a good ten minutes, then gets caught up by the construction vehicle and needs to be rescued by Supergirl, all somehow without actually looking at anyone until Supergirl randomly changes to Linda after the rescue. Then he’s “in love” with Linda for the rest of the movie, and though Kara/Linda initially discourages him, she ends up sort of falling for him — which is deeply creepy considering the non-consensual angle to his participation in the story. Which is balanced by the fact that she’s evidently underage, so neither participant is really in a position to consent. It’s creepy and wrong for both of them. The fact that he’s shown to be still in love with Linda after the spell breaks doesn’t ameliorate it any, because that “love” is totally unmotivated; Supergirl even points out that he doesn’t know a thing about Linda. Plus Bochner is a dull, unappealing actor and his character has no discernible personality. I suppose that’s sort of a counterpoint to the way female love interests were often portrayed in male-led action movies — vacuous, personality-free eye candy existing only to be romantically available to the hero — so perhaps one could read a certain satirical statement into it if one desired. But I doubt that was the intent, and it doesn’t do much to ameliorate the unpleasantness of the character and the storyline. The most annoying thing is that Kara pretty much spills her secret identity to him because she can’t resist kissing him as Supergirl. Superman gets to keep his secret to himself, but Supergirl spills it to the first guy who turns her head? Okay, that could be chalked up to her youth and inexperience, but it feels a bit gendered, in terms of who has the control and power advantage in the relationship.

Still, I have to admit, the movie is less centered on the love triangle than I thought. Supergirl and Selena are fighting over Ethan, but Selena’s interested in Ethan more as a trophy and a pawn than anything else, and as a way to manipulate and hurt Supergirl. Her agenda really is world conquest, and she gains the power to pull it off. So, even though the romantic angle is terrible, it isn’t quite as demeaning as reducing Supergirl to a petty love triangle while Superman gets to save the world. The stakes really are global and the villainess quite dangerous, once she gets the hang of her powers. In terms of potential for global domination, Selena easily rivals Zod and surpasses Lex Luthor and Ross Webster. Which makes sense, since she’s getting a power boost from Kryptonian technology. (Which is perhaps amplified in its power on Earth just as everything else from Krypton is, by the logic of Silver/Bronze Age comics. When she first touches it, it seems to bond with her as a “child of the Sun” — the same yellow star that empowers Superman and Supergirl.) True, that threat is more potential than actually demonstrated; we only get one scene of the townsfolk protesting her evil reign without any real portrayal of its effects. But I was clearly wrong to believe Selena’s goals were limited to stealing Supergirl’s boy toy.

Selena’s fusion of magic and Kryptonian technology even allows her to banish Supergirl to the Phantom Zone, the first time in the series that we see what the Zone is like on the inside, and it’s a pretty dark and grungy place. (A brighter version of the Zone would later be depicted in Smallville, but never in an episode directed by Szwarc.) The problem is that getting out of it is implausibly easy. Sure, the way out involves risking a deadly maelstrom to which Zaltar sacrifices himself to help Kara, but still, given that onscreen evidence suggests a roughly 50 percent survival rate, you’d think Krypton’s criminals would be braving the rift all the time and periodically succeeding in their escapes. My personal rationalization is that the rift was only created when Zod, Non, and Ursa were blown out of the Zone in Superman II (either version), and maybe Zaltar was the first to discover it.

It’s in these climactic sequences that Slater’s mostly strong performance as Kara is undermined. Twice, once in the Phantom Zone escape and once when battling Selena’s final-boss demon, Supergirl is overcome with despair and whines “I can’t!” until Zaltar encourages her and gives her the confidence to go on (in the flesh the first time, Obi-Wan-style later). Again, this could perhaps be attributed to her youth, but it feels like the movie was saying a mere female couldn’t succeed without borrowing strength from a man. (And its one attempt to show any kind of “girl power” message is in questionable taste, as she fends off a couple of truckers who randomly sexually harass her, implicitly with rape in mind; and though she thrashes them handily, they’re played more as figures of humor than menace. One of them is a young Matt Frewer, in what is not one of the finer roles of his career.)

The ending is also kind of arbitrary. Since the filmmakers evidently wanted the Superman and Supergirl films to stand more or less independently of each other (or at least decided they did after Christopher Reeve bowed out of appearing in Supergirl), the film ends with Kara getting Lucy and Jimmy to promise to tell no one about her. Really? Don’t tell Superman that he’s not the last son of Krypton, that his cousin, uncle Zor-El, aunt Alura, and hundreds of other Kryptonians are alive and well in “inner space”? That is just so not cool. It’s also unbelievable that she could keep her existence a secret, given her public appearances in the city fighting Selena’s attacks.

All told, it’s a film with a lot of flaws and plot holes and an absolutely horrible excuse for a love story, but there’s still a lot that works, at least by the turn-off-your-brain Silver-Age standards of the series. It’s reasonably well-made, and it has great music and good costume design (by Emma Porteous, who did several Bond films, Clash of the Titans, Aliens, and season 2 of Space: 1999). Bochner aside, it has one of the strongest casts of any of the Salkind Super-movies, and Helen Slater is a worthy addition to the Kryptonian family.

Indeed, Kara herself is a terrific character — she’s intelligent, adaptable, a problem-solver. She spends much of the movie actively searching for the Omegahedron, even plotting out search grids on a map at one point. The sense of urgency she should have about rescuing Argo City is missing, and she does tend to get easily distracted by schoolgirl antics and creepily wrong romance, but those are flaws in the writing and direction, and perhaps can be somewhat attributed to her youth. Indeed, in a sense, they underline her inquisitive nature. Superman grew up on Earth, but to Kara, it’s an alien planet and she’s got too lively a mind to resist exploring its novelties.

Anyway, even with the flaws in execution, what’s intriguing about the premise is that Supergirl is one of the few screen superheroes who’s actually the protagonist of her movie. As my friend David Mack recently pointed out in his comments on Mad Max: Fury Road, a hero and a protagonist are not, strictly speaking, the same thing. The protagonist of a story is the character whose action or pursuit of a goal drives the narrative, and the antagonist is the one countering the protagonist’s actions. Usually in superhero stories, it’s the villain who’s actively pursuing a goal (such as world conquest) and the hero who’s reactively trying to thwart them, so generally the villain is the protagonist. That’s certainly true of the first three Superman films. And in a sense, Selena fills the classic villain-protagonist role, since she’s pursuing the goal of conquering the world and Supergirl has to stop her. But Selena’s powers are merely a side effect of Kara’s mistake in losing the Omegahedron, and Kara is the one who sets the story in motion both by making that mistake and by going to Earth in order to correct it. She’s the one trying to retrieve the Omegahedron while Selena thwarts her efforts with magic. And she’s the one who motivates Zaltar to help her while he’s content to wallow in despair. So she’s the primary protagonist of the film. It makes her a nicely proactive and motivated heroine, and is a real strength of the film, despite its constant efforts to undermine itself.

In sum, I have to conclude that, like the other Superman films that preceded it, Supergirl is not that bad, and is in fact rather fun to watch if approached in the right spirit. (Although the same does not go for the film that followed it, The Quest for Peace. Don’t expect me to change my mind about that one.)

Helen Slater has gone on to play several other DC characters. She was the voice of Talia al Ghul in Batman: The Animated Series, and played Clark Kent’s Kryptonian mother Lara Lor-Van (billed as Lara-El) in Smallville. And she’s appearing in the upcoming CBS Supergirl series as Sylvia Danvers, Kara’s adoptive mother on Earth (opposite Lois and Clark‘s Dean Cain as Kara’s adoptive father). Hart Bochner also returned to DC, playing Councilman Reeves in Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. Marc McClure, in addition to playing Jimmy Olsen in four other films, played Kryptonian scientist Dax-Ur in Smallville. Matt Frewer’s extensive career is surprisingly light on DC roles, but he did a memorable turn as Sid the Squid in Batman: The Animated Series‘s “The Man Who Killed Batman,” as well as playing Moloch in the Watchmen feature film.

It’s a shame that Slater didn’t get the chance to play Supergirl again, since she was really good at it. It might be a stretch to say that playing Supergirl’s mother on the upcoming series is the next best thing, but it’s something, and I look forward to it. I hope the new series manages to make Kara a comparably strong, charming, and proactive character, while avoiding the film’s many failings.

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Shore Leave report

Well, it’s been an eventful few days, with little time to post anything. The drive to Baltimore was agreeably uneventful, except for the night I spent in a very cheap motel with no amenities and spiders in the tub and corners. (Could’ve been worse. Spiders are basically harmless and keep other pests at bay.) And except for the sore shoulder I’m dealing with in the wake of my marathon writing session to finish Tower of Babel.

I got into the hotel around noon on Friday and promptly ran into Greg Cox, who, like me, was waiting for his room to be ready. We spent a while catching up, having a good long chat. Later that afternoon, he and I went to dinner with Marco Palmieri, Klingon language expert Lawrence M. Schoen (who just signed a book contract with Tor), and fellow Tor novelist (and one-time Star Trek: Strange New Worlds contributor) Rod Belcher, and we talked Tor for a while. I had a really nice hummus-and-pita appetizer followed by a pretty good spaghetti with tomato-and-basil sauce. Then we went to my first panel, announcing Tor’s recent and upcoming schedule — basically the same thing Marco and his fellow editor Margaret Clark used to do for Star Trek books, but now for Tor’s much broader line of books, including the upcoming mass-market paperback of Only Superhuman. David Mack helped run the slide show, and in return he was granted the opportunity to announce the exciting new Trek project reuniting him with his Vanguard collaborators Dayton Ward and Kevin Dilmore, Star Trek: Seekers, which you can read about here.

After that came the annual Meet the Pros book-signing event, which was pretty well attended this year, since William Shatner was at the con and thus it drew a larger crowd. I got to catch up with several of my fellow authors/friends. I only managed to sell one copy of OS that night, though, but I also managed to sell one of the copies of Spider-Man: Drowned in Thunder that I brought with me.

Saturday, after having breakfast in my room and finally figuring out how to get onto the Internet from the hotel, the first thing I did publicly was to visit the book dealers’ table, where I did the traditional one-hour shift in what Marco Palmieri (IIRC) has now dubbed the Author Chimney — a narrow space between two brick pillars, just wide enough for one person to sit and sign books for passersby. It’s right near the concession stand where they sell burgers and hot dogs (the only relatively inexpensive place to eat in the hotel now, since the cafe closed when the hotel changed owners recently), so I had my lunch there. I think I moved two copies of OS and convinced a couple of others to check out the e-book.

Then I had my marathon of panels, the topics of which I covered in my previous post. That’s all kind of a blur, but it went pretty well. As a bonus, for the panel “Did Man of Steel Tarnish Superman?”, Dave Mack and I had the privilege of being joined by a surprise guest, Paul Kupperberg, who’s written and edited many Superman comics and was more qualified than either of us to discuss the topic. The consensus: No, Superman’s untarnished since he still exists in many media, but the movie rather screwed up his depiction. I was glad to move from there to the Legend of Korra panel, which was a lot of fun. But by the time the final panel rolled around, I was feeling pretty worn out and punchy. Before it, I’d tried to get a granola bar from the vending machine in what was left of the cafe, but I misread “E5” as “F5” and got animal crackers instead, which I didn’t want. Then, after the panel, I got a microwave entree out of the carousel vending machine, but the microwaves in the cafe were too low-power to heat it adequately, as I found out when I got it back to my room. After another couple of tries, I just gave up on it and threw it away, and went out to try to find some other place to eat. A fellow guest, Steve Wilson (writer of a couple of my favorite DC Trek comic issues) reminded me that the grocery store across the road had a good deli, so I drove over, got a pasta salad, and finally, finally got to retire to my room for the evening.

Sunday began with the traditional authors’ brunch, and then I attended a talk that NASA scientist Paul Abell — husband of Trek author Amy Sisson — held about the Chelyabinsk meteor explosion last year. Turns out he’s one of the team members involved with detecting potential Earth-threatening asteroids, a division called “planetary defense.” But he tells me their offices do not particularly resemble the Hall of Justice.

Speaking of which…

0804130950-00I got my wish to get photographed with the (replica) Batmobile. This is a shot from my crummy cell phone — I’ve got a better one that I’ll need to scan once I get home.

EDIT: Here’s that scan:

Batmobile

Oh, here’s a funny sign I saw at the con and had to photograph:

0804131121-00(Who ever heard of an evil dolphin? Although technically it only says the eyebrows are evil.)

After getting a hot dog and chatting with Greg and Keith DeCandido during the latter’s stint in the Author Chimney, I joined Paul for a panel on the science and fiction of asteroids, comparing what I did in OS with his real-life knowledge of the field — although, since this is me, there was nearly as much science on my side as his. The next panel in the same room, which mistakenly got left off the schedule grid, was on writing Star Trek: TOS and the challenge of finding something new to say. I ended up joining the panelists for that one and talking about my post-TMP work. Finally came my solo Q&A panel, which was rather poorly attended, since people were going home by that point. But the few people who were there got to be the first to whom I showed the cover for the upcoming Drowned in Thunder audiobook (which I’d downloaded onto my laptop just minutes before):

DrownedAudioCvrWhich I think is a panel from the same comics scene that Marco wanted the novel’s cover artist to use for inspiration. (It’s not the exact same page, but it’s clearly by the same artist (John Romita, Jr.) and looks like an earlier panel in the same sequence.) I also got to talk for a while about my upcoming Analog novella “Make Hub, Not War,” which should be out in a month or so.

After that, I left the con and drove to the DC suburbs to stay with cousins Barb and Mark, and I’m typing from their guest room. I’ve just gotten back from my visit to GraphicAudio’s studio, which was very cool and which I think deserves its own post. To be continued…

MAN OF STEEL: The best and worst Superman movie ever (Spoilers)

I just got back from seeing Man of Steel, and I can’t recall the last time I had such intensely mixed feelings about a movie. There were some things about it that were simply wonderful, ways in which it captured or interpreted aspects of the Superman story better than I’ve ever seen a live-action adaptation manage to pull off. But there were other aspects that were horribly, offensively wrong, and I’m astonished anyone who knew the first thing about the character could think they were acceptable in a Superman movie.

On the plus side: Henry Cavill, as an actor, is just about the perfect Superman. Nobody since Christopher Reeve, at least, has been so effective at convincing me that I’m looking at Superman, that this is a guy who has both incredible power and the fundamental clean-cut decency to be trusted with it. He’s a bit blander as a performer than Reeve or most other screen Supermen, but I could absolutely buy him in the role, which is more than I could ever really say for Dean Cain, Tom Welling, or Brandon Routh. This is someone I want to see donning the cape for years to come.

The rest of the cast is mostly good, my favorite being Diane Lane as Martha Kent; I’ve always found her a very effective, engaging, and beautiful actress, and she was no different here. Russell Crowe and Ayelet Zurer were a good Jor-El and Lara. Michael Shannon was an effectively menacing and nuanced Zod. Laurence Fishburne was given a one-note authority-figure role but it was right in his wheelhouse and he Fishburned the heck out of it. Harry Lennix and Christopher Meloni were good as the military characters, and Richard Schiff was fun if underutilized as Emil Hamilton. Amy Adams was not the ideal Lois — she didn’t really have the edge or the attitude — but she was competent and reasonably engaging in the role, and was definitely not as profoundly miscast as Kate Bosworth was the last time around. As for Kevin Costner… well, I’ve always felt he was a negative void of charisma, sucking all the interest out of any scene he was in, but here he actually managed to be neutral and maybe slightly engaging, which is about the best I could’ve hoped for. And it was also nice seeing cameos by a number of familiar Canadian TV stars such as Flashpoint‘s David Paetkau and Battlestar Galactica‘s Tahmoh Penikett and Alessandro Juliani (who was also Smallville‘s Emil Hamilton, so it was amusing to see him sharing a scene with Schiff’s Hamilton).

There are some bits that range from good to marvelous. The sequence where Kal-El (I guess he wasn’t called Superman yet) turned himself in to the military and talked with Lois and Gen. Swanwick was just perfect, the one part of the film where he was most effective at being Superman. The Kryptonian nanotechnology was cool — I absolutely loved the retro, Art Deco-meets-Melies styling of the ultra-high-tech visual display that showed Kal-El the story of Krypton’s history. I liked the worldbuilding and backstory for Krypton, which was better thought out than most live-action screen versions I’ve seen. I liked the film’s fresh take on certain things, like the way it pretty much casts aside the whole secret-identity thing from the start. Lois working alongside Superman every day and never suspecting it has never been flattering to her intelligence, and she’s known his identity in the comics long enough to prove that the secrecy isn’t really needed. I liked the thread about Kryptonians needing to adjust to Earth’s environment — and I absolutely loved how Zod and Faora were crippled by their inability to cope with their supersenses kicking in. That was a superb payoff for the setup scene with young Clark earlier.

*sigh*… I’ve been trying to think of more things I liked, but I guess I can’t put off talking about the bad stuff any longer. To sum up, this is a movie where they cast an ideal Superman, set up a great and clever backstory for him to become Superman… and then didn’t let him be Superman. Because what defines Superman is that he’s the guy who saves people, and this guy hardly saved anyone. It’s like the screenwriters went out of their way to make him as ineffectual at doing his job as they possibly could.

The film is simply overloaded with disaster porn, with populated areas being devastated by the battles and attacks going on. It’s taken to ridiculous excess, and Superman is at best unable to do anything about it, at worst complicit in it by not choosing to take the fight away from populated areas. The most he does to save anyone in the Smallville sequence is to say “Get inside, it’s not safe” — which proves to be useless and hypocritical advice as half the battle involves Superman, Faora, and the other guy smashing each other into occupied buildings. But that’s just the appetizer for the pointless orgy of destruction in Metropolis — with Superman literally on the exact opposite side of the planet, useless to save thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, from certain death.

And then they defeated the world engine and things calmed down and I thought it was finally over — but then Zod showed up and we got a whole new wave of disaster porn. I’m usually not a guy who talks in the theater (I’m not going to the special hell), but when the interminable wave of building collapses started all over again, I all but shouted “Really?” at the screen. I did not need any more of it. By this point I had lost patience with this movie and just wanted the destruction to for Rao’s sake stop.

Look, if I want to see a movie with cities being destroyed and everyone helpless to prevent it, I’ll watch a Godzilla movie. The whole essence of Superman, the thing that makes the fantasy of him so compelling, is that he’s the guy who can prevent it. It’s that when Superman is among us, nobody has to feel helpless anymore. In a Superman story, the action should be driven by Superman saving lives — giving us the same positive thrill we feel when we see firefighters saving people from burning buildings or people in disaster areas selflessly coming to one another’s aid. My favorite portion of the disappointing Superman Returns is the sequence where Superman is saving various Metropolitans from the disasters befalling the city. And it’s significant that Superman’s big debut sequence in the 1978 movie doesn’t end after he saves Lois and the helicopter pilot, but goes on to show him foiling crimes and saving lives all through the night. Superman is here to help. He saves people. That’s what makes him Superman. A Superman movie should not be a straight-up disaster movie, since he’s the guy who can stop disasters in their tracks.

But here, he hardly saves anyone, at least not on purpose. There’s a bit where Perry, Steve Lombard, and Jenny (Olsen?) are watching Superman with Lois in the lull between huge battles and Jenny says “He saved us.” Now, I’m usually a very easy audience when I see a movie in the theater; I let myself go with the visceral feel of the film and reserve my more critical reactions for later. But as soon as she said this line, I found it totally unbelievable. Why would she say that? As far as she was aware, the only person Superman had saved was Lois when she fell out of the exploding plane. And that’s not far from the truth. Sure, he did accidentally save the Planet staffers from getting crushed when he coincidentally destroyed the world engine at that moment. But that’s pretty much all he did. Superman didn’t save the world. Jor-El saved the world, by formulating the plan that was then enacted by Lois, Col. Hardy, and Hamilton as well as Superman. Sure, he had a key role to play, but he was just following instructions. He seemed like the least proactive participant in the plan, just a weapon to be pointed in the right direction while everyone else did the clever stuff. Now, I generally love it in superhero stories when the ordinary characters get to be heroic too. Heck, I even wrote a Spider-Man novel where J. Jonah Jameson got to be a hero. So it’s cool that all these other characters get their chances to be heroic. The problem is that it comes at the expense of Superman’s heroism. He comes off as a secondary character in a story about Jor-El and Lois saving the day.

Worse, he doesn’t even manage to save most of his own allies. Hardy and Hamilton and the rest of the flight crew all sacrifice themselves, and Superman only flies in at the last second to save Lois. Pro tip: if there are many people in danger and your superhero only belatedly arrives to save one person after many others have died, he’s not doing it right. The Green Lantern film had the same problem.

(For another thing… why did Zod choose Metropolis as one of the anchor points for the world engine? Superman hadn’t yet made it his home — as far as I could tell, he’d never even been to Metropolis at that point. Did Zod choose it to spite Lois? We didn’t get any sense that he felt any particular animosity toward her. There was no indication that Zod had any specific reason for the choice. So that made all the destruction even more monumentally gratuitous.)

And I have to join in the chorus of voices complaining about how Superman finally defeats Zod, by snapping his neck to stop him from killing innocent bystanders. I’m actually glad that I was spoiled on this, because it didn’t shock me and I was able to focus on how it was handled. I did like it that Superman reacted to having to kill Zod as a tragedy, that he mourned it rather than celebrating it. That ameliorates it somewhat. But it should never have been necessary in the first place. Again, it’s missing the point of Superman, which is that he’s the one who makes it possible to find a better way. By doing what he did here, he just sank to Zod’s level and, essentially, proved him right. Again, he’s a passive figure letting others dictate his choices. How can he live up to Jor-El’s exhortations to lead and inspire if he’s just reactive, if he doesn’t stand up and find his own, nobler path? He talked to Swanwick about how he had to help on his own terms, but then he let others, even Zod, define those terms for him.

But maybe that’s because this version of Jonathan Kent was such a dreadful role model. Usually, Jonathan is portrayed as Clark’s moral anchor, the one who inspires him to become the hero he grows into by instilling him with the good, wholesome values he lives by. But this time, Clark becomes Superman in spite of Jonathan, not because of him. Jonathan is basically wrong at every turn, leading Clark astray and teaching him to hide and mistrust and do nothing to help others. He even quite stupidly gives his own life out of fear of Clark’s discovery. Now, in a way I kind of liked this, because it gives Clark a motivation much like Peter Parker’s — he lost his father figure because he chose not to act when it was in his power, and that gives him an incentive not to let it happen again. But it really came at the expense of Jonathan Kent as a character. Just as Jor-El is effectively the real hero of this movie, Jonathan is essentially the villain, someone whose influence Clark has to reject before he can become a hero.

(Plus Jonathan was an idiot to tell people to get beneath the overpass to escape the tornado. The enclosed space would actually intensify the winds and increase the danger — that’s basic physics. Overpasses are one of the worst places to shelter from a tornado. It’s one thing for a movie to mishandle its character or to callously play on 9/11 imagery for gratuitous shock value, but the filmmakers may have actually endangered lives by recklessly perpetuating this myth. Which is pretty much anathema to what a Superman movie should do.)

Now, I might be able to forgive Superman’s killing of Zod and his failure to save lives in general… if he never lets it happen again. I’d like to see a scene very early in the sequel (if there is one) which establishes that he’s deeply unsatisfied with his failures and that they’ve motivated him to become much more careful and dedicated about saving lives and finding nonlethal ways of dealing with his enemies. Then I can chalk up the grotesque shortcomings of this movie to Superman’s learning curve. I can forgive a mistake more easily if the culpable party admits the mistake and strives to do better as a result. The same goes for the filmmakers, of course — this would also show that they’d recognized their own monumental mistakes here and resolved to correct them. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s likely. We seem to live in an era where the cinematic superhero is not required to care about saving lives. True, one thing that worked about The Avengers is that the heroes remained focused on protecting civilian lives throughout the climactic battle — a lesson Snyder and Goyer really, really need to learn from — but they were still utterly callous about killing the invaders, and in other Marvel movies the heroes don’t seem to be bothered by killing human beings. (And it’s very hypocritical for Tony Stark, who’s supposed to be on a journey of repentance for his complicity in building weapons, to be so cavalier about using Iron Man’s superweapons to kill bad guys left and right.) Filmmakers just don’t seem to remember that superheroes should be rescuers first, not warriors or vengeance-seekers.

There is so much in this movie that I like, yet so much that not only displeases me but actually makes me angry and bitter. I rarely react that way to any movie, but… come on, this is Superman. And that carries certain expectations with it. True, earlier Superman movies haven’t really surmounted these problems either. Reeve’s Superman also apparently killed his Zod, and did other pretty bad things like using his superpowers to get revenge on a bully and forcibly robbing Lois of her memories. But here it was just so over-the-top, so tiring having all this gratuitous, pointless destruction rammed down my throat (with a tediously blaring Hans Zimmer score only intensifying the sensory assault), and knowing that Superman should have been there to make a difference but wasn’t being allowed to because the filmmakers had no idea what to do with him. And it’s just so frustrating because this could have been a great movie. There are things about it that are wonderful, but there’s too much that totally ruins it.

Maybe the reason filmmakers have so much trouble getting Superman right is that they keep feeling they have to apologize for him, that they have to distance their takes from the perceived cheesiness or unrelatability of the basic premise. This film shied away from even using the name Superman, as if they were embarrassed by it. They didn’t use it in the title, they barely used it in the script, and they even credited the lead character as “Clark Kent/Kal-El.” How can you make Superman work if you’re embarrassed even to admit that he is Superman?

Well, trying to look on the bright side: I didn’t think Batman Begins was very successful either. It also fell apart in the third act due to excessive, implausible action and a hero who was uncharacteristically callous about letting people die. But then we got The Dark Knight, which hugely surpassed its predecessor (though also, sadly, its successor) in quality — which built on the parts that worked and improved on the parts that didn’t. I’m hopeful there’s a chance that will happen again — though at this point I really don’t feel like I ever want to see another Zack Snyder movie. I do want to see more of Henry Cavill as Superman, and I do want to see an interconnected DC movie universe. But, as with this movie’s Clark and Jonathan, that would have to happen in spite of this movie, as a rejection of its approach, rather than because of it.