Being a father of a five month old, it is tough watching in theaters as many movies as I used to. However, this being summer and the time for “franchise” releases, I had to (than you wife) just had to see “Star Trek: Into the Darkness” and “Man Of Steel.” (I have always found Iron Man to be very meh)
“Star Trek: Into Darkness” has big explosions, big intergalactic set-pieces, Cumberbatch’s accent and lens flare. It has little else. Now I am a big fan of Star Trek’s original series, which I consider to be some of the best science fiction ever to have been produced. I have see every episode many times, read Star Trek themes books and these to the left are 1) on one of my walls and 2) one of my cushions [Read this older post for a more full treatment of my love for Star Trek] The original series was very minimalist in special effects (this was the 60s), almost like a stage play, and hence all of its impact came from dialog, characters and story. JJ Abrams turned the whole thing inside out in his 2009 reboot, sacrificing depth of story for the slam-bang. It still worked for me perhaps because of those lump-in-throat moments when characters you grew up with come back on screen, albeit in a different avatar (Kirk and Spock are almost dead ringers of the original) and because, the character development has already taken place for me before I had entered the theater. For Star Trek: Into The Darkness I had expected depth, since the first one could claim was just the set-up. In that I was disappointed. But the disappointment was made up for by homages to the old show, littered as Into the Darkness is with “in-jokes”, including a play on the “Wrath of Khan” story with a possibly tongue-in-cheek re-doing of possibly one of the hammiest scenes ever in a mainstream Hollywood. Though for someone not steeped in Star Trek lore, I would think that “Into the Darkness” would be another by-the-numbers summer pop-corn blockbuster.
Which brings me to Man of Steel. It’s perhaps the curse of the Dark Knight that every superhero flick is now expected to be deep, dark, somber and provide profound insights into the universe. Bryan Singer sought to provide respectability to Superman with a 2006 reboot, trying to wipe out the memory of the campy but immensely enjoyable Superman series of the 80s, by making Superman into a moping suburban dad. It was as exciting as a root canal. While reviewing Superman Returns in 2006, I had said: [Link]
The movie also did nothing to throw light on two of Superman’s biggest mysteries: why no one can recognize Superman as Clark Kent (remember Superman does not wear a mask and has only to wear geeky glasses in order to become totally unrecognisable) and why he wears his underwear over his trousers.
In “Man of Steel” they solved the problem of the Chaddi pahenke phool khila hai” whether by dispensing with it altogether, Yana Gupta style, or by putting it inside, I do not know. However it most certainly triggered a round of superhero costume discussion not seen since George Clooney’s nipple suit in Batman and Robin, which, truth be told, would have suited Peter Andre more than him. But the message had been sent to the fans—this Superman was going to be different and darker, and so out with the primary colors of the suit, out with the underwear over trousers. As if Nolan’s association with the project was not “This one is gonna be different” enough.
So I went in with high expectations. They start off with a planet about to undergo implosion because they cultivated the core (dependence on oil?) rather than look towards the sun (solar energy?). Okay so maybe they are going to go environment with this one. Within some minutes, the concept of humanoids being bred in pods with pre-determined roles is introduced with Superman being the first un-pod-born for hundreds of years, free as he is to choose his destiny. Ah, so this is going to be a more arty version of “Three Idiots”. But wait. Now there is yet another element. Something about “Is the world ready for a messiah?” And there is Superman on a fishing boat—is that a Biblical allusion (Matthew 4:19 Come after me, and I will make you into fishers for men?).
What happens then, and I have no evidence to back me up, is that with so many thematic balls in the air, director Synder and supervisor Nolan took their eyes off and started watching Zee Cinema. Because Man of Steel then becomes pure old-world Bollywood. Always-ready-to-cry-supremely-sacrificing-father-figure. Check. Adopted son who snaps at golden-hearted foster-father before he dies. Check. (That’s actually a bit of Sukhen Das). Villain traversing light-years to harass the hero’s mother followed by “Abh sailaab ayega Madan Chopraaaa” moment. Check. Villain bringing mashooqa to lair. Check. (If only they had “Zod ne kiya hai isharaa” in belly-dance costume). Now I love Bollywood and I love Nolan profoundness, but individually, not together, and definitely not when the intent is to be Tarkovsky but the execution becomes Manmohan Desai.
But all this could be forgiven if “Man of Steel” was a feast of visual imagination. It is not. Superman’s first flight, which is given a lot of screen-time, with his fist on ground, then ground shaking and then finally a dramatic swoop up, is almost identical to Neo’s flying sequence in Matrix Reloaded. Alien ships descending through portals, threatening the rulers of the earth and then breaking skyscrapers has been done to death—Transformers and Avengers come to mind in the last few years. Epic hand-to-hand battle between alien gladiators and superhero in the setting of a small deserted Mid-west town. I think I saw that in Thor just two years back. Alien insect-like mega-machines shooting death rays through their asses. Please. From Independence Day to Mass Effect. Bang head on desk. Again and again.
Epicly disappointing. (And yes that’s one of my other walls)