Mission: Impossible – Fallout, or, Le Retour de Tommy C. Dans un Film d’Espionnage

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For Cinema!!!!!!!!!!!

All too often when we talk about cinema, that stuffy moniker reserved for only the finest of film, we fall back on the same few facets of the medium – writing and acting. Specifically, it seems that time and time again the films that are dubbed by the establishment and thus ingested by filmgoers as vegetables, those movies that are hearty and healthy, good for us in the long run, lean on plots and monologues. Both are certainly more than capable of profundity, but they are far from the outer limits of celluloid.

This is cinema, after all! Moving pictures! Light! Sound! To limit the heftiest cinematic discourse to film’s that excel at narrative or performance is to utterly shun the potential of the very medium and all it has to offer.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout, a film that demands the use of not a colon or a hyphen but both, is not the grandchild of Citizen Kane. It is not the spawn of The Godfather. It is the direct descendant of L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat, those first infamous frames of a black and white train barreling ahead at an unsuspecting audience of the very first moviegoers like a bullet from an otherworldly gun. It is a film that takes full advantage of being a film.

Christopher McQuarrie, the first returning director to the Mission: Impossible franchise, has crafted a film that harkens back to the earliest days of Bond, when that franchise was a cinematic passport, taking audiences to faraway lands and showing them extraordinary things they might never otherwise see. Here, that passport is updated for transit in a world in which facsimiles of facsimiles of those places and things are a tap away in our own pocket. This is a movie that rabidly pursues spectacle at its most authentic and whole-heartedly believes in its value.

M:I-F is of distant relation to the likes of John Wick and Mad Max: Fury Road, a work of undeniable craftsmanship, of fine-tuned and purposeful movie-making. These bathroom fight scenes, these helicopter chases, these extended wind sprints are reminders of just how pigeon-holed we’ve allowed the ideals of film to become, how thinly the critical eye for quality has squinted.

Here is a style of film that we don’t get but once a year, if we’re lucky, in which calloused hands harness raw sweat into the sort of lavish exhibition only a movie can offer.

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Permission to Treat the Batman as Hostile, or, Batman Versus Superman Colon Dawn of Justice

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LOGO MASH-UP ATTACK

With 2013’s Man of Steel it seemed director Zack Snyder was intent on applying Christopher Nolan’s gritty Dark Knight aesthetic to Superman. Structurally, Man of Steel very much feels like Batman Begins and one would be forgiven for thinking that Snyder was something of a Nolan acolyte. With that film’s successor, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, however, Snyder proves himself a far more loyal disciple to the likes of comic book writer and artist Frank Miller, whose distinctive insistence on redefining what popular culture thinks of the Dark Knight can be felt throughout the film.

With Man of Steel, Superman was course corrected, moved toward the operatic grit of Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. The tone of Superman was adjusted to mimic the tone of Batman, and in response, the Batman of Dawn of Justice is proportionately moved further into the bleak shadows to compensate. On a scale where a sad face is Batman, a smiley face is Superman and a neutral face lies somewhere in between, Man of Steel flattened out Superman’s smile and Dawn of Justice knocks Batman off the scale completely.

The Batman of Dawn of Justice, played by Ben Affleck, isn’t just bleak. He’s hostile. Not just to the criminals he brands but to the audience. He dares you to like him. He dares you to tell him what Batman does and doesn’t do. He aggressively challenges what Batman is supposed to be in 2016. He embodies the sort of confrontational maverick spirit of Frank Miller’s Batman texts.

Frank Miller wrote Year One, for many the defining Batman origin story, and The Dark Knight Returns, widely considered to be the greatest Batman story ever put to paper. His Batman is a one-eyed man in the land of the blind, cursed to be the only one able to see through a soft, shallow world of senseless violence and half-hearted political correctness. He’s better than the world around him, he knows it, and he’s less than gracious about it.

He’s a jarring reaction to the biffs, pows and bams of Adam West’s caped crusader of the 60s, a whiplash-inducing course correction.

He’s also kind of a dick.

And that was in 1986.

By the time Miller wrote All-Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder in 2005 his Batman was still reacting to popular culture’s perception of the character and, adjusting for inflation, had gone from kind of a dick to an all-out sociopath having sex on rooftops to the soundtrack of screaming criminals burning to death on the streets below.

A little over ten years later Snyder carries that torch forward, continuing Miller’s tradition of presenting popular culture with a Batman it doesn’t necessarily want, and one that doesn’t seem to want them either. The Batman of Dawn of Justice carries on less in the tradition of Nolan’s gritty realism and more in the vein of Miller’s blatant hostility towards the concept of what Batman should be. Like Miller’s Batman of the 80s it proves to be something of a reaction to what the world thinks of Batman. Like Miller’s Batman of the 00s it proves to be an overreaction no one necessarily wanted.

There’s an inarguable difference in quality between Miller and Snyder’s Batmen, undoubtedly because the latter is largely an adaptation of the former. It seems pretty clear already that Dawn of Justice will never garner the reverence of Miller’s best texts. Even its best Batman moments lack compelling context, and are best when you mentally pry them free of the film they’re buried in. But the feeling I get watching Ben Affleck’s Batman operate with such glorified cruelty is the most accurate filmic representation I’ve encountered of the sort of weary fascination Miller’s Batman instills in me.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is burdened by a script that too often forces you to do its work for it, putting the onus of rationalization, logic and character motivation on the viewer. By design it isn’t really fun, or funny and it seems content to wade in a tone of helpless despair. But if nothing else, it manages to mimic the confrontational hostility of the Frank Miller Batman texts that have become inseparable from the character.

While Zack Snyder hasn’t created a triumph akin to Dark Knight Returns, he has still rather successful emulated one of the most important creators to ever interact with Batman. Dawn of Justice is not Snyder’s Dark Knight Returns, but it just might be his All-Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder.

Superman Unbound, or, Superbaby Steps

Spoilers ahead for Man of Steel and Superman Unbound.

LAZERS

LAZERS

I thoroughly enjoyed Man of Steel, but I’m not an idiot, it wasn’t a perfect movie. Like a half a million people got unabashedly obliterated, a stupid dog turned into a goddamn deathtrap and not a whole lot of focus was placed on interpersonal relationships between the characters.

When Louis and Clark finally get their mac on near the end of the movie you have to be content to chalk it up to “I just had a near death experience and holy shit is Henry Cavill hot, I mean have you seen his abs? Have you seen them? They are unreal. I should have surmised this hunk-a-chunka-Kal-El-fudge was from Krypton, because his body is out of this world, am I right?” But at the end of the day is that really want you want the cornerstone relationship of a Superman franchise to have as a foundation?

Ma Kent didn’t fair too much better either. She got a solid scene with a young Clark early on in the movie, but other than that she just kind of acted like a weird mom all over the place in the shadow of Kevin Costner’s Pa Kent. And even Pa Kent’s relationship with Clark was troublesome and ambiguous with it often feeling like he wasn’t sure if he wanted his son to carry a torch for all mankind or burry his powers deep down were no one would ever find them.

And his other dad is a computer and his other mom is dead.

Fortunately for Superfans, this shortcoming just happens to be where the DC Animated film Superman Unbound succeeds the most. The movie, which was released on Blu-Ray and DVD and such in June, is an adaptation of the Geoff John’s Superman story Braniac and sees Clark juggling his relationship with Lois, his cousin Kara a.k.a. Supergirl and, of course, Superman, against the backdrop of the titular villain setting the sights of his baller-ass shrink ray on Metropolis.

BRAIN ATTACK

BRAIN ATTACK

Superman Unbound boasts a solid voice cast (Matt Bomer plays Superman and John “Boromir’s Dad” Noble has an eerie turn as Brainiac), some awesome “Superman fights a million billion robots” sequences and a pretty awesome spaceship robot that makes some equally awesome spaceship robot noises. But as previously mentioned, the highlight here is really the examination of Clark Kent and how his powers influence his interactions with the people and the world around him.

His relationship with Lois is strained because of his desire to protect her, which overlaps with a need to inadvertently control her. He struggles with his cousin because she’s an obnoxious teenager, but more importantly she also serves as his only link to the life he never had on Krypton and he wants to hold onto what remnants of his own native culture he can. And he struggles with Brainiac because he’s a robot monster spaceship guy who wants to shrink America and keep it in a bottle.

It’s good times had by all.

Unfortunately a lot of the admirable voice performances and character dynamics can be numbed by the less than thoughtful animation.

What the hell?

What the hell?

Do I feel for the perpetual identity crisis that is Clark Kent’s life? Totally. Do I have to wonder how he developed a malnourished rectangular face atop a jagged triangle upper body atop two pencil legs? Every second he’s on screen. Do I absolutely adore Lois’ smartass quips in the face of impending doom? Absolutely. Do I feel weird looking at animation cleavage? A thousand times yes. And while Supergirl’s attempts to find her place on a new planet, coupled with what is essentially Brainiac PTSD, are both captivating story points, it’s hard to take either of them seriously when she’s flying around Metropolis looking more like Tara Reid in a slutty Superman outfit than a full-fledged character.

Because every hero needs a hooker sidekick.

Because every hero needs a hooker sidekick.

But that’s were Man of Steel and Superman Unbound balance each other out. Amy Adam’s Lois Lane was a genuinely smart and involved character and she looked like one. She wasn’t wearing heels amongst the ruins of Metropolis or boobily running about Antarctica and that made her character seem all the more realistic.

The all-to-evident highs and lows of Man of Steel and Superman Unbound make it feel like creative forces behind Superman stories today are learning to walk again with a character that for quite a while was essentially out of the spotlight. While Batman has been on one screen or another pretty much constantly for the last 20 years Superman has drifted in and out of the public eye, generally with mixed to poor reactions.

Luckily the Man of Steel looks to be on the upswing and while neither Man of Steel or Superman Unbound are the quintessential Superman film experience a lot of modern viewers might be waiting for, they’re the best onscreen stories the character’s had in some time.

Superman Unbound isn’t on Netflix yet, but when it pops up you could do a lot worse than giving it a view. At least until Man of Steel comes out on Blu-Ray.

If You Build it I WILL FIND HIM, or, Man of Steel Ad Nauseum

They’re birds, they’re planes, they’re spoilers for Man of Steel. Read accordingly.

SHAZAM!

SHAZAM!

Considering Superman is the original superhero his latest cinematic outing, director Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, sure owes a lot to other superheroes. Without Iron Man and its progeny The Avengers, without Christopher Nolan’s colossal Dark Knight Trilogy and without Superman’s own 2006 fumble Superman Returns, Man of Steel doesn’t exist.

It’s a clear and publicly lauded springboard for a potential DC film universe and eventual Justice League film. It’s a darker, grittier take on an iconic hero that’s spent a lot of his time in a more joyful, comparatively care-free spotlight. It’s a movie that tries to redefine an established character, rather than spend time thoughtfully contemplating said character’s past outings with the delicacy of a fan film. And it’s a shit load of other shit too.

The success of The Avengers and all twenty of its various tie-in/spin-off/prequels owe an immense debt of gratitude to Robert Downey Jr. for his character-defining take on Tony Stark. Downey brought enough wit and charm to a movie about an alcoholic and his dad’s friend fighting in robot suits to hoist up not only that film and two sequels, but an entire film universe and one of the most successful movies of all time.

Henry Cavill isn’t Robert Downey Jr.

And that’s okay, because Clark Kent/Kal-El isn’t Tony Stark. Where Stark is relatable because of a cocktail of regret and sardonic smartassery Cavill’s Clark Kent relies on a more traditional coming of age journey to relate to audiences. He’s a directionless wanderer caught somewhere between his adoptive father’s cautious heroism and his birth parents’ being aliens that got shived and blow up a long ass time ago. The 80’s, am I right? Super freaky.

The former is played with an impressive emotional heft by Kevin Costner, whose Jonathan Kent is a man near obsessed with preparing his son for the world he can’t hide him from forever. It’s a more fearful interpretation of Pa Kent than Superman fans might expect, one more concerned with his adoptive son’s safety and freedom then the immense potential for good his son wields. While many fans have cried foul in regards to Costner and writer David S. Goyer’s take on the Kent patriarch Costner performs the hell out of his character and, much like near every actor in Man of Steel’s impressive ensemble, the film is better for his presence in it without a doubt.

Kevin "Dad" Costner is Jonathan "Pa" Kent

Kevin “Dad” Costner is Jonathan “Pa” Kent

Costner finds himself paired with Diane Lane, whose Martha Kent figuratively and literally takes the back seat to the relationship between Clark and his father. But Lane does well with what she’s given, playing a caring mother that just happens to feel like an amalgam of all of your mom’s wackiest mom moments rolled into one. Whether she’s working in the garden in mom jeans or looking through photo albums in mom jeans Diane Lane is utterly believable as a mom in mom jeans for whom having an alien son she cares a great deal for is the norm.

Opposite Costner and Lane’s Kents Clark is equally influence at first by the absence of and later by the demo version of half of his deceased parents. While his mom, somebody-El, is essentially around to have contractions and then get blown the hell up by space lava, Kal-El’s biological father Jor-El, played by Russell Crowe, is a major presence through the film, albeit as a fancy Tomagachi rather than an actually dad.

Jonathan Kent fears for his son because of the unknown. What can his son do to the world? What will the world do to his son? Jor-El, on the other hand, knows the answers to both of those questions. Whatever the hell he wants, bitches can’t do jack shit. As such his influence on his son leans less towards caution and more toward turning into the sun and blazing bright glory onto the man-apes whose planet Kal-El calls home.

Watching Cavill’s Superman/Clark Kent/Kal-El land on a happy medium between the ideals of his fathers lends Man of Steel a theme of nature v. nurture that goes hand in hand with its examination of eugenics. In the universe of Man of Steel the waning days of Krypton saw the implementation of selective breeding, like that movie Antz. Jor-El is a scientist because he was made in a Matrix baby-sphere to be a scientist and General Zod is a general for the same reason. While Superman is inarguably a product of the influence of his two fathers Zod’s entire being is the product of genetic designation.

If the issue was ever up for debate it’s probably safe to say that Snyder and Goyer are again eugenics. Go figure. And these Jurassic Park sentiments are brought to life by Michael Shannon’s performance as not only a General, but a General bred to uphold the outdated Kryptonian ideals both his planet and he himself fall victim too. Long after the physical and social constructs of Krypton are obliterated Zod remains a slave to the possibility of reviving them. And to fashion. And to scary dub step messages.

En vogue.

En vogue.

Much like Tony Stark’s alcoholism, the internal, existential dilemmas Shannon’s Zod and Cavill’s Kal-El bring to the film are the grounding factors that remind you that a man that can fly and shoot laser eyes and get onto a military installation in dick-hugging tights is still a man.

But in its examination of nature v. nurture and eugenics and dads and dead dads and double dead dads and destiny and shit Man of Steel loses the levity of an Iron Man or a Marvel Universe film, so for better or worse you aren’t going to see Clark Kent joking around with a secretary about jerking it. But that’s not to say that Man of Steel goes as deep into the shadows and grit as The Dark Knight.

Like Nolan’s Batman films, Man of Steel strives to be more than just a comic book movie. Even if it doesn’t strive quite as far. Where The Dark Knight was a crime drama and The Dark Knight Rises was a war epic Man of Steel steeps itself in science fiction. Sure every superhero story is technically science fiction or fantasy, but Man of Steel wears its sci-fi elements on its sleeves. There’s an alien planet, an alien robot and an alien cow. Straight up aliens stare down at Earth from expansive space stations while millennia old dilapidated scout ships lay buried in Artic ice until brought to life by a hyper-advanced artificial intelligence. It’s an alien invasion wrapped in blue tights and a red cape.

While Man of Steel doesn’t quite strike a steadfast balance between Marvel and The Dark Knight it does without a doubt achieve its presumed goal of being not Superman Returns. Where Superman Returns focused on being sad and tricking cuckolds into raising your baby Man of Steel puts its eggs in a more enjoyable basket: punching. Superman punches a lot of stuff, including, in a scene that perfectly captures the over-the-top brawling of a Superman comic book, a robot tentacle monster made of smaller robot monsters.

Punch attack.

Punch attack.

The film’s climax is pretty much a half an hour slugfest which is either going to be the coolest thing you’ve see all summer or just plain mind-numbing. To detractors, I say the guy has a dead dad, a dead fake dad and a dead fake real dad. Let him punch something, hippy. I’d be hard pressed to deny that watching Zod and Superman fly and breakneck speed around and through buildings wasn’t totally kickass, but I’d be equally hard pressed not to admit I had a probable collateral body count running in my head the entire time and it was well over 9,000.

I enjoyed Man of Steel, ever more so upon a second viewing, and the sheer volume of discussion it has managed to generate amongst admirers and disparagers alike has made me enjoy it all the more. Judging from the numbers coming in from opening weekend Man of Steel will probably serve as the launch pad for a larger DC Universe and so far as I’m concerned that’s a good thing. Because in case you’ve forgotten the role of Aquaman is my birthright.

Does Man of Steel succeed on every level? Nope. But it does successfully reinvigorate a long dormant film franchise that’s last successful outing came out over thirty years ago. Superman is an age old character whose various incarnations throughout the last 75 years read like the pulse of American culture and Man of Steel has injected that character with the sensibilities or here and now. That’s success enough for me.