Monday, June 17, 2013

Man of Steel Criticisms: Actually Painful

Have you seen Man of Steel? If so, odds are you enjoyed it. That is, if you went into the film with reasonable expectations. Unfortunately, it seems that dozens of critics and what could easily be thousands of moviegoers have (I suppose not unsurprisingly) failed to take the simple preemptive measure of not being completely and utterly swept up by the hype train before walking through the theater doors. In fact, from the looks of things I'd say a fair amount of folks have already killed the conductor and taken the now compromised engine for a complete one-eighty, nose pointed directly at Zack Snyder's head.

Why all the hate? Before I'm called out, I really don't think hate is an inappropriate word choice here - some of the criticisms being directed at this movie are literally causing me to have triple-takes at my computer screen. It's not because they are so invalid, or that people aren't entitled to their opinions, but rather the fact that the use of the same tropes and idioms that are so painfully rampant throughout all of superhero-filmdom is being absolutely torn to shreds, and I can't figure out why. The film was far from perfect, no doubt, but I found myself walking away completely unoffended, which is somewhat of a feat considering my reaction to the laughable, paper-thin panderfest that was Iron Man 3. In fact, "pander" may be doing the film a favor, as I can't think of anyone who actually wants to see an Iron Man film devoid of any and all stimulating action sequences, replacing them instead with pointless wisecracks, Pepper Potts in a sports bra, and flaming mutants that seem to take cues from the Human Torch in both capability and capacity (read: illogically overpowered and read: stupid). Sure, the film was funny, but that's not why I see superhero films, it's why I see Norbit 2.

Anyways, I'll try to stay on topic here, though to be fair Iron Man 3 isn't a completely irrelevant talking point. You will be hearing about it again. In the meantime, lets get on to the three most cretinous criticisms I've seen directed at Man of Steel, and why they hardly meet the definition of the word.

Criticism One: This movie was filled with product placement! Fuck corporate greed, and fuck IHOP! Zack Snyder can go choke on a silver dollar while bathing in money, SELLOUT!

My Response: Sigh. While I won't deny that I prefer my films be devoid of distracting advertising, I can honestly say that I didn't even notice the cleverly inserted placements going on in Man of Steel. And whether you did notice them while watching or not, I would argue that Man of Steel's usage is far less offensive than most other movies, particularly superhero films, that do the same thing.

I'll start with the presence of IHOP in the film, since that seems to be the one causing everyone to act like they have a Pancake Puppy up their ass. Oh wait, is that a Denny's item? My bad. (Can't wait to get my placement money from them next week, muahaha!)

Could the company responsible for this really be evil?
My main measure for whether product placement in a film is acceptable is whether or not it logically fits into the onscreen happenings. And by logically fitting in, I mean that it could both reasonably happen, and doesn't distract me while I'm watching. And for the record, that doesn't include irascibly Googling "product placement in Man of Steel" the moment you walk out of the theater to satisfy your paranoia that, heaven forbid, the studio needed a little extra dough to bring things to life the way it wanted to. If you leave the film not actually knowing whether something was product placement or not, and need Google to confirm it, then it shouldn't be a problem in the first place.

As an example, let's compare the presence of IHOP in Man of Steel to the presence of Verizon FiOS placement in Iron Man 3.

Man of Steel: Superman and Faora, Zod's accomplice in the film, smash into an IHOP while fighting. They continue to fight in the IHOP, and it is discovered that the bully who used to pick on Clark as a kid now works there. The IHOP sustains some damage but is not destroyed.

Iron Man 3: At the end of the film, the character that Tony Stark refers to as "kid," actually known as Harley Keener, returns to his lab/work area to find that Stark has completely revamped it as a gesture of thanks. The place is pretty decked out, with lots of cool robot-looking stuff, super powerful computers, and -- you guessed it -- Verizon FiOS! Front and center, a computer monitor point-blank before the camera, its pixels all black except for a logo with the words "FiOS: A Network Ahead."

Now let's put both of these up to my logic-distraction test. To me, the presence of an IHOP in Smallville isn't all that strange. It is, after all, a somewhat middle-of-nowhere locale, smack in the center of Kansas. Stereotype though it may be, such places do have a reputation for containing greasy mom-and-pop diners and mediocre breakfast chains such as IHOP, Denny's (cha-ching), or Sonic. I didn't find it at all odd when the two Kryptonians went hurtling through the establishment's roof - in fact, I got a good chuckle out of it. It was the film acknowledging the aforementioned stereotype, and poking it with a stick.

The situation was made all the more comical when the childhood bully shows up in his IHOP garb, and when him and Clark exchange a knowing glance, it's almost touching. It's essentially the final stage of them separating their differences, which began when the red-headed fellow helped Clark up off the ground after he was threatened in their teenage years. Now let's be realistic here - I was hardly crying over the beauty of this exchange, but it served it's purpose well. They just happened to be in an IHOP, and to me whether it's an IHOP, a Sapp Bros, or a Suburban-Metropolis-Pancake-House-That-Is-Entirely-Fictional is pretty much inconsequential.

Now this I could see being offended by. Maybe.
Shift focus to Iron Man 3, and the situation is not quite as rosy. There are so many things wrong with this, but I'll just pick a few. First off, let's keep in mind that Tony Stark is unarguably a genius. His IQ is through the roof, he engineered and built the Iron Man suits himself, his house is an intelligent robot - the list goes on. Now, I know a fair amount of tech savvy folks, and usually when installing new software or functionality on a computer, they don't rely on tutorials or packaged CD-ROMS to help them. For example, say you're installing a Linksys router. If you have no clue what you're doing, you'll use the packed-in CD, and a software wizard will pop up and assist you. It will set up your router with some Linksys software that will sit in the system tray and do its job, as well as constantly bombard you with information or product updates pertaining to Linksys.

The savvy user, on the other hand, will bypass those steps completely, locate the drivers on the disc, and install the router via the Device Manager. No Linksys software, no annoying popups, no delayed startup and extraneous tray icons.

My point? Why on earth would Tony Stark, a computer whiz, set up FiOS in such a way that would install and enable a "FiOS: A Network Ahead" screensaver? The man is a GENIUS. Do you really think he needed the setup CD to tell him what to do, and subsequently force him to enable a screensaver that doesn't even move? Ok, so it wasn't a screensaver then. Was it the wallpaper? I didn't see any icons. Were icons turned off? If so, why? Why would Stark do that? The way this product placement was handled makes zero logical sense, with zero consideration for damage to viewer immersion. It single-handedly obliterates the fourth wall with an oversized, money-grabbing sledge hammer, and never looks back.

Obviously what I want in my movies.
Now, to be fair, I do apply the same logic for Iron Man as well: if the filmmakers needed the extra cash to get their budget where they wanted it, then they had to do what they had to do, and I can accept it. While I doubt this was the case for either film, there's no excuse for the embarrassingly shoddy implementation on Marvel's part. Man of Steel's situation looks saintly in comparison, and even standing on its own, I don't find it terribly problematic. Update: Looks like I was onto something after all! If the most product-heavy film of all time can manage to handle placement tactfully, and recover 3/4 of its budget in the process, I think that means other films need to step up their game.

I would also like to add some info I discovered in an interview that BusinessWeek conducted with Craig Hoffman, a company spokesman for IHOP. In it, he commented that the partnership was born out of the idea that both IHOP and Superman are "iconic American brands." He goes on to say that IHOP had no say in the creative process or story, their only condition to Snyder that he refrain from "disparaging the brand in the script." Woe is me, what an outrage! Corporate greed at it's finest! While we're at it, I'd better mention Denny's once more to make sure they pay me in full.

Criticism Two: The filmmakers took away the charming, colorful world of Superman and made it drab and gray! How dare they strip Superman of his red trunks! This series is the Call of Duty of films! I guess Zack Snyder wanted to make his movie the same color as his soul, the DOUCHEBAG!

My Response: This is the sort of insular fear of change that prevents reboots from being good in the first place. 2012's The Amazing Spider-Man comes to mind. Sure, Andrew Garfield's clever snark as Peter Parker was somewhat new, but was his masked swinging and wise-cracking really all that different from Tobey MaGuire when push came to shove? At least he hasn't gone emo - yet.

Time to get over it, nerds!
Though the shift to a more gritty and realistic presentation with Man of Steel was, inherently, a big choice, I'm unsure about how the world Snyder and Nolan have brought to life can be described as drab. The opening scenes of the film alone can easily refute this - Jor-El's dramatic grand theft of the Kryptonian codex and subsequent escape atop a winged beast was quite vibrant visually, with greens and blues abound and a swirl of impressive CGI that I would describe as anything but gray. But no, according to these rabid, change-fearing, Snyder-hating comic book purists, anything less colorful than Superman's bright-red ass cheeks from the 1940s qualifies as "gray."

The ironic thing is that many of the people complaining about this are the ones also complaining that the film didn't live up to Nolan's Batman films. You want Superman to be more like Nolan's Batman? Well, it seems like a good place to start might be, oh I don't know, the look and feel of the entire film. Snyder and company did in fact strive for a more realistic tone, just like the Nolan trilogy. Just because he didn't top the best superhero films of all time doesn't mean that Superman's slightly less dynamic trousers are to blame. Sheesh. Which brings me to my final point.

Criticism Three: This was not nearly as good as Nolan's Batman films! This was supposed to revolutionize superhero films just like The Dark Knight did! I can't believe Nolan put his name on this and didn't deliver! How dare he bait-and-switch me! It was cheesy when Zod said "release the world engine!"

My Response: Look - if you're making this complaint, then you need to accept one simple fact: your expectations were too high. Why were they too high? Because you either don't know the difference between a film's producer and its director, or you chose to ignore it.

Christopher Nolan produced this film - that's it! Now don't get me wrong, it's still a huge, involved job - he's even credited with helping David Goyer with the story, and obviously he oversaw the whole project to a certain degree. That said, it's not his baby. It's Zack Snyder's. Personally I'm a fan of Snyder, but for anyone somewhat skeptical of him taking the reigns on Man of Steel, it wouldn't have taken more than a quick Google search to pull up his page on Rotten Tomatoes.

Now look, I'm not one to regard RT as the holy grail of whether a film is worthy or not, but it's a pretty solid measurement of whether something is simply "good" or bad," in general. If you take the average of Snyder's rankings on RT for all of his films before Man of Steel, you get 54.4%. And hey, what do you know - Man of Steel currently sits at a 56%! Funny how that works isn't it? With this expectation in mind (and it is the expectation I had in mind going into the theater), the film totally knocked my socks off. Was it great? Maybe not. The next Batman? No. But was it good? Most definitely.

The fact that this film has a 56% on Rotten Tomatoes while Iron Man 3 is enjoying a 78% is something I find mildly disturbing. For those who don't know how the site works, this means that only 56% reviewed the film "positively," meaning above 60 out of 100 when converted from the original rating scale. Now, I'm not questioning critics' rating per se, but I would love to know this: what percent of that 44% who scored it negatively would say that Man of Steel was a worse film that Iron Man 3? I'd wager less than half. As much as a critic's aim should be to review things objectively, at the same time assessment without comparison is at its root impossible. How can good and bad be differentiated without the reviewer acknowledging his or her exposure to both? Reviewing films like this in a vacuum leaves only potentially unreasonable expectations and the resulting bias. And as is so often the case, here expectations have spoiled reality for everyone. How many people will now refrain from seeing Man of Steel in theaters when they see its Tomatometer ranking? "Woa, Captain America: The First Avenger was terrible and that has a 79%, Man of Steel must be complete junk!"

Being angry at Snyder is unfortunate. Being angry at Nolan is ridiculous.
But alas, no - Man of Steel is both blessed and cursed by Nolan's name, and despite his positive contribution, nothing short of him actually directing would have been able to save this film from a lukewarm reception. In a recent interview with Hero Complex, Nolan said the following about his involvement with the film.

“What I've been hoping for is to be able to take my kids to see a version of this story that is going to fry their imaginations the way the 1978 [Superman] that Dick Donner did for me when I was an 8-year old boy. That’s what I’ve been focused on and that’s my role in things. So anything beyond that, I can’t comment.”

Wow, big time jerk huh? Well, I hope everybody's happy. My only hope now is that people feel so betrayed by Nolan and Snyder that they refrain from seeing the film's sequel, and let the rest of us enjoy it in all of its good-but-not-great glory.

Fingers crossed!

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