When I was a kid, my favorite story was the story of Madhushudhandada. My father told me this tale once during a weekend break at Ashoka Lodge in Hazaribagh, and then had to tell me the story a few thousand times over. I knew the story backwards, but I never tired of asking him to tell it to me again. And every time he did, he would throw in new tidbits, a new character here, a twist in the tale there, and I listened with the intentness of a seeker of truth. It wasn’t till I grew up to where my father had been, that I realized that in my seeking that telling of the story over and over again, I was creating my own understanding of the rules that life deals by, learning to comprehend the playbook, and to improve my own game.
It is the same with Bhagavad Gita, the book of Genesis, Pagla Dashu or the story of Superman. Each reading reveals new contexts, new meaning and leaves you with new insights. Depending on where you are in life, you learn new ways to apply the lessons. We love these tales because they assure us that we are all paired with another end of our spectrum that is flawless and unlimited, that good will eventually triumph since that is the nature of the universe, and that the mess that we are in is there for us precisely because we can overcome it and prove that the spirit of man is indomitable. And some other things too, which I am perhaps too old to look kindly upon.
Chris Nolan set the reboot expectations high with Batman, and it is difficult to leave them aside as one takes a look at Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. Like many of my generation, it was not a movie that could wait for next week, and so there we were on a weekday evening, our 3D glasses on, delving into a retelling of a story we all know too well with the same excitement with which we watch election specials on television.
I am not big on reviews, especially for new releases that I look forward to, but it was hard to escape the overall sense of disappointment that critics were voicing. But then, that is why they are called critics. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t till I started watching the film that I began oohing and aahing at the cast. The story begins with an in-depth look at the conflict that led to the downfall of Krypton, the enmity between Superman’s father and the rebel leader Zod, and the arrival of Superman on earth. The visual depiction is gorgeous. For those who have been cribbing about the overdose of CGI, well, this is a celluloid-on-steroid comic book hero, not exactly Citizen Kane. And yes, it is shot on celluloid. Henry Cavill looks like he has walked out of a men's grooming product ad and it is not till well into the film that you start taking to him. By the end of it, regardless of gender, you will admit that he is kind of hot.
The visuals in the Krypton sequences are rich and symbolic, and the introduction of the S for Superman symbol early on is a nice tribute to Mark Waid, who created the modern origins mythology, where the symbol stands for hope. The title of the film, Man of Steel, however, is a tip of the hat to the earlier origins story by John Byrne. I was convinced that many of the scenes too were tributes to other masters, and that a lot of visual symbolism is missed on a first viewing. Given Chris Nolan’s role in writing the film, it is likely that subsequent viewing will bring up deeper meaning to them. The spacecrafts with their protective “wings” is an image that struck me, as did the later dream (possibly under the influence of bloodmorel) vision of Superman sinking into a sea of skulls.
The journey of Clark Kent from a Norman Rockwellesque Kansas to a falsified identity vagrant worker is not explained very well, but creates the setting for a new Daily Planet storyline which falls into place right at the end of the movie. Jimmy Olsen has been left out, at least in this part of the story. And Pete Ross is largely a nice guy, though there are faint rumblings (along with a quick glimpse of a building in Metropolis with a sign that says Lexcorp!!) that he could be trouble in subsequent parts. The film does not dwell on the romance angle much, since it has much else to do. And it does it brilliantly. Environment, morality, courage, loyalty, trust are some of the subjects that the screenplays deals with very well.
The phantom drive and the black hole are beautifully picturized, perhaps the best they have ever been and I couldn’t stop myself from smiling during the somatic reconditioning sequence. It was like one of the mysteries in life had been explained to me. Only to be shaken out as the story unfolds and the people that Zod leads return to create trouble like only they can, driven by vengeance, ego, and a distorted sense of “my people.” If you take a deep breathe, you might actually like Zod and agree with him on several issues. Somewhat like choosing between BJP and Congress in a manner of speaking. Unlike Manoj Shyamalan’s Unbreakable though, this tale does not offer you an easily digestible black and white resolution to the endless macrocosmic conflicts, the conflicts that we all experience at a personal level.
Russell Crowe and Kevin Kostner are brilliant in their small but crucial roles but Laurence Fishburne is hardly there in terms of significance. Overall, there is a sacrifice of key Superman characters to the need to tell a new and relevant story, and yes, given the overabundance of clever action scenes, one does miss the warmth of the central comic book arc. But the film makes up for it by being contemporary and hard-hitting. The moral conflicts of Man and Superman are nicely depicted by Henry Cavill and the scene where he kills Zod is a fine example.
I thought the film stands out for its messages. Are we willing to sacrifice compassion to satisfy our ego? Are we ready to hurtle along the path of thoughtless development and lose our humaneness? Can we learn to coexist peacefully with the rest of creation? Are we capable of taking decisions that will lead to greater good, especially when it comes with a personal price? In our pursuit of technology and specialization, are we evolving or degenerating?
For example, I loved the bit where, speaking of the evolution of man to where human beings are “bred” for predetermined roles, Russell Crowe says something to the effect of – but what if one dreams of becoming something larger than what society intended? What if one aspires to something greater? And towards the end of the film where Superman destroys spy satellite that was tracking him, and confronts the army intelligence “friend,” one cannot help think that it is a direct reference to the PRISMic lens that governments keep their citizens under.
It is darker and less “fun” than the earlier series. Superman wears a darker suit and no red underpants. The little humorous spots are fleeting and subtle yet enjoyable. The “alert” at a nail-biting point turns out to be a “out of toner” message, before plunging you back into the suspense. Russell Crowe matches Marlon Brando in his quiet seriousness, and his holograph or invasive intelligence (or whatever it is called in Superman language) is just as wry and dry. The Batman reboot went darker as it progressed into the trilogy, but here, a lot of the core moral issues have been dealth with adequately (other than romantic attachment), so one would expect some of the comicbook chirpiness to show up going forward.
Did I enjoy the film? Take a guess. In spite of the pace being a little erratic, especially for viewers who are new to the mythology, I was hardly able to sit back and “bask” in the darkness. I was at the edge of my seat with each new layer being revealed, and enjoying the subtle dialogs and references embedded throughout, many of which are lost to my memory as I write this, which means another viewing is urgently in order.
Should you see it? If you are not a Superman fan, and are averse to long and intense CGI-ridden action sequences, stay away. Both the opening action sequences (brilliant one between Rusell Crowe and Michael Shannon) and the closing fights (don't miss the Wayne Enterprises satellite that Zod demolishes!!) are long, loud, and dramatic. Add to that the fact that these are indestructible superheroes and you will get the picture. There are several apocalyptic moments, rather brutally reminiscent of the 911 attacks, that could have been cut short, toned down or just left out.
But if like me, your basic texts include Mad Magazine, Dr. Seuss, Salinger and Monty Python, you will not want to miss this one. Of course, it is too early to compare this re-telling to the Batman reboot, but it does similarly strip the earlier version of all semblances with comicbook frivolity and turns the story into one about us and the crises we are dealing with today. So, what are you waiting for? If they ask you to buy a ticket, tell them I sent you. Might not work, but then what great good was ever achieved without taking one's chances?
And yes, the story of Madhushudhandada.