So I saw the above two films on back-to-back days, and taken together, they’re pretty emblematic of all that is right and wrong with summer movies these days (and all that’s been right and wrong with big-budget blockbusters for a while). Truth be told, I kinda liked both, though they’re very different in tone and, critically, self-awareness.
Man of Steel
Here is a summer movie that does NOT exactly know what it is. It purports to tell the Superman story but also thinks it has a duty to remake The Dark Knight at the same time. For better and for worse, Christopher Nolan completely reframed our conceptions of superhero movies. The better: Superheroes are, in theory, complicated figures for us dumb, normal folk to process, because they are super after all and come most in handy when there’s a huge global crisis in our midst, so they should be treated as such. It makes perfect sense that a superhero movie shouldn’t be a sunny affair. The worse: Not every superhero is Batman. Many have commented on the proliferation and—if you’re growing tired of them—overabundance of antiheroes, but those who have staked this position have confined their criticism to TV, arguing that Tony Soprano and Walter White have spoiled us, leaving us with both Ray Donovan and the pain you get just below your temple from rolling your eyes too much in a one-hour span. But Batman, come to think of it—he’s an extremely rich dude who’s been orphaned, conflicted about his wealth, and not immune from wreaking some of his own collateral damage—is kind of like a super-antihero, if there is such a thing. There’s a reason telling Batman’s dark milieu melded so well with our cynicism, post-9/11 consciousness, and unease with wealth inequality (the underrated finale The Dark Knight Rises hammering this last point home).
Will Leitch and, I assume, others, have made this point, but Superman isn’t dark by nature. He’s an orphan, too, but unlike Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent actually has parents even if they’re not his biological mother and father, rather than some butler who caters to his every whim. Clark Kent isn’t rich, but a humble son of the land from REAL AMERICA, y’all. Superman and Batman both have to process why they’re different and the loss of multiple parents (depending on how you’re counting), but there’s still fewer impediments blocking Clark Kent’s maturation. There’s a reason Superman stands for Truth, Justice, and the American Way, and Batman stands for a rich guy who feels guilty.
To borrow a line from Jerry Seinfeld, then, Superman should definitely have super humor; he’s got “super” everything else after all. But giving Clark/Superman an ounce of humor never even occurred to the people behind Man of Steel. As I said earlier, there’s no superhero that’s totally free from darkness, but not every superhero is living in Christopher Nolan’s hellscape.
At no point in the movie is this more obvious than, unfortunately, its end, although it would be a stretch to call a 45 minute explosion fest “the end.” Ask my boy G-ross to confirm. Superman’s fight with Michael Shannon’s General Zod (a former colleague of Superman’s biological father, who’s looking to build a new Krypton on Earth) drags on…and on…and on until they’ve leveled every building in whatever city in which Zack Snyder chose to shoot the film. Towards the end of the fight, Superman and Zod take their punch-throwing into space, destroying a satellite in the process, because their was no other freestanding structure in need of obliteration. There was no need for Man of Steel to keep me in my seat for two and a half hours, and to do so only so Superman could behave in a quite un-Superman-like way. (The prologue lasted a little too long for my taste, too. We all know the Superman backstory by now: Krypton blew up and Kal-El’s little capsule crashed into the Kents’ Kansas farm.)
I will give Man of Steel credit for its casting. Henry Cavill makes for a commanding screen presence and a convincing American. Kevin Costner, who hasn’t performed in movie I’ve liked (or performed in a way I’ve liked, period) in ages, is right at home as Mr. Kent; say what you will about Costner but he was born to act on any set that involves a farm. Shannon is crazy, and makes for a creepy villain, even if they could have just renamed Zod “Michael Shannon.” And Amy Adams is as talented an actress as you’ll find today, but once the movie decides to sideline her intrepidly journalistic and quick-witted Lois Lane for BLOWING SHIT UP, the movie loses steam. Man of Steel was a perfectly fine, if rather humorless, film for two hours, and then it overstayed its welcome.
Here is a summer movie that knows EXACTLY what it is. Wasn’t being 13 years old awesome? Guillermo del Toro certainly thinks so, and luckily, his Pacific Rim treats everybody as if they were 13 years old. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Del Toro is a man with a voluminous imagination, and even if his ideas and visions involve buildings and cities falling prey to mass destruction, too—here at the hands purely inhuman beings like del Toro’s imagined kaiju, or Japanese water monsters, and jaegers, or human-operated robotic behemoths—at the very least del Toro has liberated himself from the repetitive and easy-too-misinterpret origin stories of comic strips we all know a little too well.
He has a juvenile but inventive imagination. The characters he’s drawn have little depth, which is a problem with large-scale action movies that predates Christopher Nolan’s filmography. Most everybody is a cliché or a stereotype: There’s the crazy scientists (one played manically by an inspired Charlie Day); the soldier (or robot operator, I guess) roped into One Last Mission; the old general who’s still got It, the young female rookie who has to earn the respect of the men; Eccentric Rich Dude (played by del Toro—and Buckeye—favorite Ron Pearlman) and three Chinese dudes who are really, really acrobatic. All are simply drawn, but they blend perfectly into del Toro’s colorful dystopian vision.
And importantly, Pacific Rim is fun. Rather than just end with a bang (though I’ll vouch that this movie’s end doesn’t last too long), del Toro starts with one. Here it’s the opening credit sequence that is lengthy (it lasted what seemed like twenty minutes, before the title card flashed and my buddy Joynick and I giggled in pure adolescent delight) and over-the-top. The jaegers were built specifically to fight the kaiju, but require two operators because the machines are so large, the catch being that the pilots’ minds and memories must merge so that they can control the jaeger in sync—the film opens with a kaiju killing one of the pilots while the other pilot, his brother, escapes. Sounds kinda ridiculous, and it is, but del Toro illuminates the machines’ interiors with every shade of neon on the spectrum and had to choreograph the operators’ movements so that it looked like they were working in tandem. Unlike Man of Steel, del Toro made no use of handheld cameras, and for me the experience was certainly less visceral but still appealing and refreshing way; it was del Toro subtly saying, “don’t take this too seriously.” Del Toro is committed to his imagination and his silly material, but would rather entertain you than burden you.
Should you get back to me in ten or twenty years, you might look upon Pacific Rim similar to how people talk about older summer movies (War Games, maybe?) now: dated, but devoted to and ultimately respectful of its audience by asking moviegoers to just fucking relax for once.