Reporting Eric Henderson
When The Dark Knight Rises came out last summer, and the world of film criticism was for the umpteenth time rocked by the backlash of fan culture ready to cut down anyone who dared say “nay” about the franchise, I wrote: “I’m not personally bothered by the inconvenient fact that (Christopher) Nolan’s Batman movies play so directly into their audience’s alleged desire to supplant all cultural literacy with newer, more overtly tragic variations on the simple stories that first captured their imagination at age 6.
“Whether or not that’s a good thing depends, I guess, on how highly you rank being a Batman fan among your life goals.”
Look back even further, I can no longer remember what sort of reception greeted director Bryan Singer’s 2006 Superman Returns. The story today is that it was instantly rejected and ridiculed, and certainly Brandon Routh’s career since has seemed to confirm that movie’s poisonous touch. But the box-office figures and critical cross-section tell a slightly different tale, according to Indiewire. The movie apparently did just fine for itself, if short of spectacularly, in both corners.
Is this just a case of buyer’s remorse? Or is there something more telling about how the movie’s reputation has changed prior to Warner Brothers and Nolan (working as an executive producer) shepherding the Caped Crusader’s legacy into the Batman reboot’s own brand of humorless heightened realism?
Man of Steel is, to my eyes, a drag act. All of Superman’s defining features suggest the comparatively sunny, optimistic approach of most of the earlier Superman films is much more appropriate fit for the character, but unfortunately for Clark Kent, nerdy and unapologetically virtuous are out. Brooding and alienated are in.
The movie offers an updated origin story, as Jor-El (Russell Crowe, presumably getting paid far less per minute of screen time than did Marlon Brando in 1978) sends his newborn sun Kal-El through space to find a new home, just hours before their overharvested home planet Krypton’s core melts down and the globe turns itself inside out.
The saga of Clark Kent as the adopted son of two Kansas farmers (and, from all appearances, part-time Dodge spokespersons) is told elliptically, through flashbacks and prowling low-angle shots meant to convey the boy’s sense of isolation, remembered in bullet-point fashion by British beefcake Henry Cavill’s fully grown Kal-El (and I do mean fully … grown) as he struggles existentially to figure out what his purpose on Earth could be.
No sooner does he learn to sing the body electric does his father’s old foe General Zod (Michael Shannon) arrive with a small bunch of ex-Krypton rebels hell-bent on terraforming Earth into their next home planet. Having been molded by his corn-fed father’s brand of prairie morality, Kal-El decides he must risk discovery in order to save the planet, a story enterprising Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is all too willing to exploit.
Clearly, director Zach Snyder (300, Watchmen) and Nolan bend over backwards to put a furrow in Superman’s otherwise zestfully clean brow, in an effort to differentiate the fledgling franchise from the 2006 film, which in less than a decade couldn’t seem more hopelessly out of fashion. But does that solution make any sense?
The reason Nolan’s Batman films are so in step with the sensibility of today’s event film audience is because Batman himself is in step with them. He’s not an outcast unsure of his role in the grand scheme of things; he’s a well-connected, self-assured titan who social circumstances dictate must conduct himself in solitude, below the radar. Nolan’s movies only make the audience identification of the loner mystique easier by putting it into the context of a post-War on Terror mentality.
Man of Steel presumes the exact same apparatus, but the movie’s pretentions fall apart because Superman is constitutionally obligated to rise above the fray, to soar above the muck. The movie doesn’t explore the paradox of how an alien becomes the avatar for truth, justice and the American Way incarnate. It instead tries to transpose the psychological profile of its target audience onto a figure who is by definition supposed to be superior to them. In this context, all the visual effects and urban carnage in the world can’t make the spectacle of two basically invincible figures duking it out emotionally involving.
I didn’t want to like This is the End.
Almost every one of the Team Apatow names attached to the project could have already been accused of refusing to stretch beyond their slovenly cachet even prior to conceiving of an epic comedy in which they all play, with some minor exaggeration, themselves.
And the less said about James Franco’s transformation into a gay-flattering, Yoko Ono-esque piece of performance art, the better. (And I say that as someone who actually made it through and, in some masochistic sort of way, dug Interior Bar. Leather.)
In This is the End, Jay Baruchel flies into Los Angeles to visit Seth Rogan, who insists Baruchel make one more attempt to ingratiate himself into the Hollywood scene by getting his bro down at a throwdown at Franco’s hilariously brutalist concrete manse. Among the party-goers: Emma Watson, Aziz Ansari, Rihanna, Jason Segel, Craig Robinson, Paul Rudd (for all of 4 seconds) and Jonah Hill. Oh, and a cocaine-addled sex-jonesin’ Michael Cera.
As Baruchel and Rogan are painfully reevaluating their friendship, the earth opens up and swallows almost everybody, just as blue beams of light pull almost everyone else up into the sky. While Rihanna plunges to her death and Cera gets impaled by a streetlamp, Franco, Rogan and the rest wonder if they’re dealing with the Big One, or if maybe something more disturbing is actually taking place. After Hill gets raped by a demon a la Rosemary’s Baby and becomes immediately possessed a la The Exorcist, it’s pretty clear they’re dealing with The Rapture.
And all they can do is fight about the proper etiquette for how to handle Franco’s skin mag and who gets to eat the Milky Way bar.
This is the End could’ve coasted far enough on its commitment to vulgarity; this is the movie every group of 13-year-old boys wishes they could make. But the very ingredient that could’ve made it totally insufferable — the roman a clef aspect — is what actually elevates it. This is the End shows a group of stoned, over-privileged, under-achieving posers trying to fake their way into heaven by doing the barest minimum of worthy work … and earning eternal rewards.