Welcome to the Planet: Man of Steel

The movie Man of Steel has been getting a lot of bad press. It receives a 55 on Metacritic, which at the very least is unimpressive. Three of my friends told me they hated it — one said it gave him a headache — and only one told me he liked it. I deliberately skipped the weekend showing, suggested to Amy that she wouldn’t want to go with me and waited until I could catch it at a seven dollar bargain evening showing in non-IMAX non-3D.

My bad. I loved every freakin’ minute of it.

Man of Steel Poster

Man of Steel, Planet of Clay

I’ve been steeped in the Superman mythos since before I was old enough to read. I’ve watched George Reeves play him, Christopher Reeve play him, Dean Cain play him, Tom Welling sort of play him, Brandon Routh play him and now Henry Cavill play him. They all deserve kudos for a job well done. I’ve read about him in Superman Comics, Action Comics, Superboy Comics, Adventure Comics, Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane comics, Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen comics, Justice League of America comics and watched him team up with Batman in some godawful stories in World’s Finest comics. (Me, I have the world’s finest memory for useless pop trivia.) I’ve seen every Superman movie since the first Christopher Reeve one except Superman 4, which I’m afraid to see. I thought they steadily went downhill. I guess it’s possible that Superman Returns, the last Superman film before this one, was an improvement on Superman 4, but it’s hard to imagine. Bryan Singer, after two rather bland X-Men films, directed Superman Returns like a man who didn’t even understand how movies work. Its rhythms were wrong, its casting was botched (though Routh was pretty decent even if his career died with it), and scene after scene was completely tone deaf. And it had Kate Bosworth as an ultra-bland Lois Lane. Gag me now!

This movie is better than any of the ones listed above.

It’s hard to be better than the first Christopher Reeve one, I’ll admit. It’s dated now, but it holds a special place in my heart for that charming first night in Metropolis sequence (“You’ve got me? Who’s got you?”) and for Christopher Reeve’s revelatory performance, which he never outdid. This one, though, actually manages to be better. I’ve heard a lot of people say that the Krypton sequence is boring and too long and that the climactic battle is exciting and too long. I don’t agree on either count. I remember the same complaint about the Krypton sequence in the first Reeve movie, too, and this one is much better. Yes, overly long climactic battles have been a problem in movies for a while now, because they generally exist only because the producers want audiences to feel they got what they paid their ridiculous ticket prices for and that they, the producers, got what they divvied up the movie’s ridiculous budget for. In this case, though, the movie earns its long climactic battle because the battle is the heart of the movie. It’s not just its climax; it’s what the movie is about.

Director Zack Snyder, who say what else you will about him directs what are probably the most visually stunning popular movies currently being made, along with producer/writer Christopher Nolan and co-writer/comic-book-movie-wizard David Goyer, are going for a true epic here and I can’t think of any other story in all of comic book mythology that deserves the epic treatment more than this one does. Certainly it deserves it more than the second and third Nolan Batman films, which were just bloated rehashes of the pitch-perfect Batman Begins. And even those were modest little art films next to truly fruity epics like DeMille’s technicolor version of The Ten Commandments and William Wyler’s 1959 remake of Ben Hur. Now those were movies that really went over the top, so far over the top that at times you couldn’t see them without binoculars.

I don’t have to tell you the Superman backstory, do I? Just in case, it’s about how the planet Krypton is dying, the visionary scientist Jor-El shoots his baby son Kal-El off in a spaceship toward earth just before his whole world literally falls apart, the baby is adopted by a rural Kansas farming couple with the last name Kent who name him Clark, and somehow earth’s yellow sun (Krypton had a red one) gives the child superpowers, allowing him to grow up to be a superhero who takes the secret identity of a newspaper reporter. (Forgive the run-on sentence, but I really wanted to get that out of the way fast.)

Man of Steel is about how Clark Kent/Kal-El — he’s almost never referred to as Superman in the movie — comes to terms with being a man of earth instead of what he was born to be: a man of Krypton. He feels like he doesn’t belong here, that he’s different, that he’s an alien, probably because he is an alien and he is different. And yet he’s also been raised on earth by a really decent pair of earth parents and earth’s ways are the only ways he knows. The movie is about how he learns to accept himself for what he is, a person who belongs here and has a role to play in our planet’s society, which come to think of it is a struggle that a lot of us who were born here have had to go through too.

In a way, the movie is also a remake of the first two Reeve films, with the Krypton and Smallville sequences from the first one and the battle against the three Kryptonian supervillains, led by General Zod, from the second. This time, though, General Zod isn’t merely an evil twit who wants to conquer earth, have the President of the United States kneel before him and — oh, yeah — kill  Kal-El, son of Jor-El. This time he’s a man with an important mission and it’s a mission you kind of understand. You can see why it would mean so much to him. You can even sympathize with it. But you can also see why Super–er, Kal-El absolutely has to stop it!

It’s a meaningful conflict. It’s an incredibly meaningful conflict. And, though I don’t want to spoil anything, on both a literal and symbolic level the climactic battle represents Kal-El’s struggle to finally reject Krypton and fully embrace being a child of earth. That’s what the whole film’s about and why the battle deserves every minute that it gets. It didn’t strike me as being the slightest bit excessive.

And, oh yeah, the movie has what I think may be the most perfect final line I’ve ever heard in a film, but I wouldn’t dream of telling you what it is.

The casting is excellent. Amy Adams makes a terrific Lois Lane who gets to do a lot more than Lois usually does, which is swoon over Superman, write newspaper stories about him and try to figure out his secret identity. This Lois is actually involved in the action and gives significant assistance to Kal-El in his battle against Zod and company. She also doesn’t have to figure out his secret identity because she’s in on it from the beginning. This is a brand new Lois who isn’t just there for Superman to save and smooch with (though he manages to do both of those too).

And then there’s Henry Cavill as Clark/Kal-El. It’s hard to top Christopher Reeve’s performance as Superman. He not only convinced you that Superman could charm both Lois Lane and the entire planet, but he convinced you that, yes, just putting on those Clark Kent glasses and changing the way he combed his hair really did turn him into a completely different person. But Henry Cavill matches him blow for blow. Reeve played Superman with a wink at the audience; Cavill never winks once. His Clark/Kal-El/that other guy manages an even more amazing feat, one just as good as leaping tall buildings in a single bound. He makes the character seem grounded in reality and that’s exactly what this movie needs. Every time Snyder, Nolan and Goyer seem in danger of taking the film over the top all they have to do is cut to Cavill and he manages to do what needs to be done.

He brings the movie, yes, right back down to earth.

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Snark with Weight: The Music of Steely Dan

As I grow older, I find myself thinking more and more about what it is that I like about music, why certain songs appeal to me, why a very few songs go beyond appeal and into a zone that I can’t describe. And the older I get, the more I realize that I really don’t want to know.

I have a Spotify playlist called “Chris’s Writing Soundtrack” — I’m listening to it now and would link to it if I had the foggiest idea how to do that — which contains mostly songs that have to meet a very specific and (I think) unusual criterion: They have to touch someplace inside me that I can’t identify. They have to create an emotion in me that I have no name for. There aren’t many songs like this, at least when counted as a fraction of all the songs that have ever been recorded and gained some sort of reputation, however small. (I have “Voices” by Russ Ballard on the list. Remember that? No, I didn’t think you would. It never even hit the Billboard Hot 100 and I only know it from hearing it on the jukebox at a strip joint I would occasionally visit in the 1980s, but it has a small following, probably because it was once used in an episode of Miami Vice.) I use this playlist for writing because it helps me to tap into emotions that I’d have more trouble accessing without it. Okay, I’ll confess that not every song on the list meets this criterion. A few are just there because I think they’re excellent songs, like Rodgers & Hart’s delightful “I Wish I Were in Love Again.” But most of the songs on it go to that unidentified place.

The performers who belong on it most are Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, otherwise known as Steely Dan, because they hit that mysterious spot or spots more often than any other singer-songwriters I know. I can’t tell you what I love about them because I don’t know. And I think it would destroy my love of them if I ever figured it out. Fortunately, I don’t think that’ll happen.

Becker and Fagen as young men

Becker & Fagen in younger days

Not that there aren’t some overtly likeable things about their music. For instance, individually and collectively, they write some of the cleverest lyrics ever used in pop music. Since I regard Becker as slightly the better of the two lyrically when they work apart, I’ll just throw in a verse from his first solo album, the 1994 11 Tracks of Whack, from the song “Book of Liars”:

Time exploding, the long night passing
Electrons dancing in the frozen crystal dawn
Here’s one left stranded at the zero crossing
With the whole of his half-life left to carry on

This is actually the slightly variant version Becker sings on Steely Dan’s 1995 live album, Alive in America. In either version, this verse just leaves me breathless (as do all the others, come to think of it). Anyone who can create a gorgeous metaphor for heartbreak based on particle physics (and that term “the whole of his half-life” just rips me up) is a god to me. If he dies before I do, and he didn’t look too healthy at the concert two years ago, I’ll create a religion devoted to him. Fagen’s almost as good lyrically and better than Becker, I think, with melody, if not quite as edgy, which is why their talents complement one another so perfectly.

I also love their harmonies. Harmonies are the most reliable way of creating an emotion in me and once again I don’t fully understand why.  (The song “All Day Music” by War is also on that Spotify playlist and I think it may have the most gorgeous harmonies ever used in a pop song.) If you’re familiar with Steely Dan’s work, consider the song “Turn That Heartbeat Over Again” from their first album, Can’t Buy a Thrill. It’s sort of silly and trivial, yet there are moments in that song that send thrills up my spine and it’s mostly done with harmonies. For instance, the couplet:

This highway runs from Paraguay
And I’ve just come all the way

where the italics represent the sudden burst of harmony. I have no idea what that couplet means. I have no idea what the song means. (Either Becker or Fagen once said that all their Steely Dan songs are based on something real, possibly something that happened to them, but they won’t always tell you what it is.) It doesn’t matter, though. For me, the harmony, and perhaps even the cryptic lyrics that leave so much room for my imagination, are what cause that indefinable emotion to occur in me on those lines. I used to go weak in the knees, hyperbolically speaking, when I’d hear them.

What I love most, though, about Becker and Fagen’s Steely Dan work is the snark. One of them has said (I can’t remember where I saw this or which one it was) that all of their songs are essentially comedy songs and I think that’s true, if you regard relentlessly snarky, sardonic lyrics that rarely make you laugh out loud to be comedy. Yet it’s not the comedy aspects of the snark that interest me; it’s the deeper level of emotion hidden beneath the comedy that gets to me. I call this kind of comedy “snark with weight,” because it could easily be taken as simple sarcasm and yet it’s not. It has an emotional heft, an emotional punch. At it’s best, which is most of the time, Becker and Fagen’s sarcasm conceals something emotionally deeper and more serious, and the fact that it’s hidden by the snark and therefore is able to sneak up on me, catching me off guard, lets it hit that unknown button just that much harder. Take the song “Black Cow” from Aja, about a man who knows his girlfriend or wife is cheating on him and actually sees her with other men in a bar, something she makes no attempt to hide from him. It has fairly humorous snark like:

Down to Greene Street
There you go
Lookin’ so outrageous
And they tell you so

But it also has lyrics like this:

On the counter,  by your keys
Was a book of numbers and your remedies
One of these
Surely will screen out the sorrow.
But where are you tomorrow?

The use of the word “remedies” is funny, I think, but when you realize this woman has a serious alcohol and drug problem, and is probably suffering from deep depression and low self esteem as well, and that the guy singing the song keeps telling her to get out of his life and then comes looking for him, or that she seems to need him desperately for one thing — a shoulder to cry on — and he needs her desperately for everything, it’s not funny anymore. It’s not remotely funny. It’s about a complex and tragic emotional situation and that fact doesn’t come over you all at once. It may take several listenings. But you can feel it emotionally, in part from that burst of harmony on “But where are you tomorrow?,” the first time you listen to it, and to me that’s what makes it such a great song, one that touches that magic button.

Of course, I could reel off a lengthy list of Steely Dan songs that do the same thing, like what may be my favorite song by them, “Dr. Wu” (“Are you with me, Doctor Wu?/Are you really just a shadow/Of the man that I once knew?”) from Katy Lied or “Jack of Speed”  (“Don’t stop/When you hear him plead”) from Two Against Nature, or the last and title song of the last album they’ve done to date, 2003’s “Everything Must Go,” which is the most openly comic of all their songs I’ve mentioned, yet still has a sense of sadness, and even a hint of farewell, underneath it:

We gave it our best shot
But keep in mind we got a lot
The sky, the moon, good food and the weather
First-run movies
Does anybody get lucky twice?
Wouldn’t it be nice?

Becker and Fagen have both released solo albums (one, Circus Money, by Becker, and two, Morph the Cat and Sunken Condos, by Fagen) since Everything Must Go came out, but I want them to release another album as a duo before they call it quits, either musically or physically. I want to see if, together, they can still keep hitting that oh-so-mysterious button inside me. Maybe they won’t and I’ll be disappointed.

But at least I’ll know they gave it their best shot.

How Game of Thrones Will End: A Totally Correct Guess

According to a recent Entertainment Weekly article, George R.R. Martin has already confided his “top-secret end-game plan” for the Song of Ice and Fire series to the showrunners of Game of Thrones, presumably in case he drops dead before he gets to it or (more likely, I think) the series gets to it before the books do. In case neither of them gets to it, though, you don’t have to worry. I’ve totally figured it out. And, no, this is not going to be satire (though it really sounds like it should be). It’s a deadly serious, uh, guess.

Winter is definitely coming.

Winter is definitely coming!

I’m sure there are lots of theories floating around as to where Game of Thrones (the TV show) and A Song of Ice and Fire (the books) are headed. I haven’t heard or seen any of them because I don’t follow any Game of Thrones blogs, forums or podcasts. So my theory of how the series is going to end is completely original even if a thousand people have come up with it before me. I want that firmly established in your head, especially if you’ve come up with it too and written a blog, a forum post or recorded a podcast about it. I’m so convinced that I’m right that I’m going to include a

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WARNING SO THAT, EVEN THOUGH THIS IS BASED ON NOTHING THAT HASN’T BEEN IN THE TV SHOW ALREADY, I DON’T WANT ANYBODY PISSED AT ME WHEN I TURN OUT TO BE RIGHT!

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Okay, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, here comes the theory. I hear it slightly contradicts something that’s said in one of the later books, but I think that was just misdirection (i.e., somebody lied). Here it is:

Before he went off with Ned Stark to fight the war against the Targaryens (which must have had a name, maybe The Targaryen War, but even though I’ve read the first book twice and seen the TV season based on it once, I can’t for the life of me remember what it was), I think Robert Baratheon secretly wed Ned Stark’s (now late) sister and got her with child, as they probably would have put it then. How the sister hid this from Catelyn and pretty much everybody else except Robert and Ned, I don’t know, but I suspect it involved taking a long vacation from Winterfell before she started to show, probably at a place that was accessible, at least at one point, to her brother and possibly her husband before they returned from the war. She then died in childbirth. Robert was so stricken by this that he refused to raise the child (or, more likely, he knew the kid would be murdered by his queen’s family when he became king), so he gave Jon — who was, of course, the child, in case you’re not already ahead of me — to Ned to raise as his own. But Catelyn knew damned well that the kid wasn’t hers, so Ned had to say he was a bastard and give him the last name Snow.

This makes Jon Snow a plausible heir to the Baratheon throne. I mean, he has a better claim to it than Joffrey does, should (clears throat loudly) Joffrey survive until Jon figures this out. (Robert and Ned are both dead now, but SOMEBODY else must know.) I think, however, that Jon will abdicate the throne in order to avoid breaking his sacred Night’s Watch vows. Face it: Martin had this part set up in the first book, when Jon learns that Maester Aemon could have been a Targaryen king but renounced the title for the Night’s Watch and also when he has Jon start to violate his oath by running off to avenge Ned then get talked out of it by having his friends catch up with him and recite the Night’s Watch oath to him until he cries. (I think I was crying too. I really can’t remember.)

So that leaves only one serious possibility for the next King, except she won’t be a king, she’ll be a queen. When Danaerys arrives across the Narrow Sea, she’ll demolish any remaining contenders for the throne with a few puffs of dragon breath. (Believe me, I’ve occasionally woken up with dragon breath that would at least have demolished Joffrey. And maybe Renly.) And then, either before or after she claims the throne, Danaerys will realize why she REALLY needs those dragons: to demolish the White Walkers. Because, in case you haven’t been reminded enough, winter is coming and the White Walkers thrive on it. By then they may be trying to cross the Narrow Sea themselves, if it’s iced over enough.

This is where the real battle begins, when (perhaps with Jon Snow’s help) Danaerys fights the White Walkers with her army and (mostly) her dragons. She’ll save Westeros from the actual enemy, probably send reinforcements to the Night’s Watch so they can reopen all 10 forts and, as Danaerys takes the throne, Jon Snow will happily remain with the Night’s Watch, possibly with a dragon or three to keep him company and to keep any remaining White Walkers in line. (Sam can take care of them, like he does with the ravens. After he gets over being scared to hell by them.)

Oh, yeah: There are some subplots that I haven’t addressed here. For all I know, Arya will become a Braavosi hooker, Jaime Lannister will discover that women are really turned on by amputees and Cersei…well, I really don’t want to think about it. But I’ll leave theories about those as an exercise for the reader.

(And I have to give credit to Amy for helping with the part about Danaerys, the dragons and the White Walkers, though I’d really thought of it first.)