Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Cinemarena - Pacific Rim versus Man of Steel

Good day,

            Let’s talk about action movies. Summer tends to see action films arriving in droves. Often, it’s because this time of year is plagued with blistering heat and sweltering humidity, and there’s nothing people need more than to be able to put themselves in an air-conditioned theatre for two hours and watch something monumentally daft. This month, I’m going to be looking at two films that deal with massive levels of property damage, science fiction settings, and the concept of action movie machismo on two completely different levels: Man of Steel and Pacific Rim.

            Before I do, I should come right out and admit that I’m operating out of bias here. I am a massive fan of Guillermo Del Toro’s films and while I find Zack Snyder to be a decent filmmaker, he hasn’t made anything that I would necessarily want to own. They both specialize in creating spectacle cinema, films that are treats to the eye, but with their latest adventures, I felt that only one of these directors knew that they were making an action-packed thrill ride, and knew how to make it clever.

Let’s review:

1.    THE BATTLE OF SEXES

Okay, I need to address something before going forward: I fully understand that both of these movies failed The Bechdel Test with flying colours. To clarify: back in 1985, cartoonist Alison Bechdel devised a test she proposed writers should take, which asked the following questions: is there more than one woman in the story, do these women meet, and do they talk about anything other than men? In that respect, Man of Steel and Pacific Rim are quite, quite guilty. Man of Steel has some female leads, but they don’t talk about anything aside from Clark and the boys, while Pacific Rim’s two female characters, Sasha and Mako, just glance at each other from across a hangar.

I do give props to Man of Steel for doing one thing right: having Lois Lane deduce who Clark Kent really was. I’m so glad I’ll never sit through seven films of Lois not realizing that Superman’s glasses aren’t an elaborate cloaking device. I just wish she had something to do after that. I mean, yes, she was brought aboard Zod’s space ship for... reasons, but her purpose in the movie had long expired by then. If they wanted to keep up the image of Lois as a curious and plucky adventurer, they could have had her sneak onboard while Clark is getting assessed by Zod and then break him out using her wit and cunning.

This was considerably different when compared to Mako Mori’s entire arc in Rim. Especially when we consider the fact that she had one, and that it got realized as the film went on. Yeah, it’s a shame we didn’t see more female characters in action, but you know what? I find that very telling of the world they live in. There seemed to be this undertone of humanity falling back on the tradition of sending men out to battle while women worked behind the scenes. It’s like the impending apocalypse forces us to innovate but also to embrace older values, values that Mako casts away the minute she first insists that she serve as Gipsy Danger’s co-pilot, bringing us back to the realm of modernity.

Compare that to Man of Steel’s “Father Knows Best” motif, with Clark being ushered around by his fathers’ wishes, and its rooting of women in secondary roles, and Rim comes off as considerably progressive. And let’s not forget how often the men screw up in Rim. Marshall Stacker Pentecost also has the Daddy Knows Best attitude, but it backfires against him, hindering the war effort and costing him pilots’ lives. Similarly, the lead character Raleigh’s cockiness kills his own brother, and nearly drives Mako over the edge during their first Drift. Men err in the Kaiju War, whereas Superman and the other males in the first installment of the DC movieverse possess impeccable judgment that cannot be questioned or challenged.

2.    SETTING AND TONE

Establishing the rules of a fantasy or science fiction setting is integral, especially if you plan on expanding that universe in sequels or tie-in films. Now, while Pacific Rim could easily stand alone as its own movie, the potential to open up the world is there. We were, after all, sitting on several years of a Kaiju War, with every nation on the Pacific building its own Gundams. Conversely, Man of Steel is meant to pave the way for its own cinematic universe as Marvel did. It has big dreams, dreams of creating a Justice League movie, and means to reach for them.

The one aspect of world building that people have to understand is that world building isn’t about the look, but also the feel. Pacific Rim takes place in the final days of a massive war, but it’s never bleak. Everything has vibrancy to it, from the cities to the Kaiju themselves. More importantly, there’s a sense of humour about itself, seen in both the characters and the over-the-top acting and dialogue. Meanwhile, Man of Steel’s colour scheme is more faded, with everything seemingly mixed with some kind of grey. This reflects Man of Steel’s humourless, joyless universe where everything is dark and serious.

For a superhero film, that’s dangerous territory. Say what you will about the mass destruction the Avengers enacted in their film. At least it’s balanced out with the seriousness of a Saturday morning cartoon, much like Iron Man back in 2008. If Man of Steel is setting the stage of a Justice League film, we’re boned. Gone will be the wonder the comics once possessed, or even the mad joy found in the animated series. Instead, we will be faced with the bitter, juvenile cynicism of The New 52, or even of DC’s works from the last twenty years. Women in refrigerators left, right, and centre; Identity Crisis, The Movie; callous sexism and inconsistent displays of so-called justice. Have fun, kids.

And this leads me to my final point:

3.    THE JOY OF VIOLENCE AND ACTS OF HEROISM

Your enjoyment of the action in either of these films is going to depend on whether or not you were a fan of Dragon Ball Z or Ultraman growing up (that is, if you even knew what Ultraman was, but okay). Man of Steel is definitely DBZ, complete with high-flying kung-fu fights, unapologetic levels of destruction, and macho posturing. General Zod even had a moment where he shed his weighted clothing. That’s not a bad thing, mind; hell, I got a bit excited during all the punch-ups.

However, property damage and insane levels of violence can be forgiven with the right thematic and internal justification. In that sense, Pacific Rim actually surpasses not only Man of Steel but a lot of “hero” films in general. See, in Rim, the “hero” is human ingenuity, our ability to band together to find ways to protect ourselves and work around the destruction caused by our aggressors. This includes constructing walls and super-robots, creating alliances, cleaning up in the aftermath of an attack, and building new homes around the bones of giant monsters. That way, you don’t feel bad when you see a monster rampaging through Sydney or Hong Kong, because you know that we’ll find a way to rebuild ourselves. How many superheroes stayed behind to search for survivors, or clean out the rubble? Like, none.

It’s that element of the film that makes me enjoy it more. I can feel okay with Gipsy Danger using an ocean liner as a billy club or watching a giant lizard-gorilla get blasted across a dock because I know that people will be able to recover. We’ve seen it happen, in flashbacks and in the world around them, and we know that we’ll be able to keep doing it, because by god that’s how we get by.

4.    IN OTHER WORDS

Look, I don’t think I’d have so much ire for Man of Steel if it wasn’t a Superman movie. Don’t get me wrong; there are aspects of this film that I really enjoyed. I felt the opening scenes on Krypton were really compelling, and I gave a pass to the whole “Clark Kent, Superhobo” idea they had in the first half of the film. It didn’t fall apart for me until he put on the suit, caused trillions of dollars of damage, murdered the last of his race, and then left without an apology to the people he displaced.

As a superhero movie, or at least a movie about the idea of being superhuman, it would have been fine. Not as a Superman movie. To me, Superman should be uplifting, should inspire hope and make us want to be better people. If we had more scenes before and after Zod’s arrival where Superman put out fires or saved a suicidal person or cleared away debris, half my arguments would go out the window.

They weren’t there, though. And so I find my hope in Pacific Rim, because it’s not about causing damage, but repairing it. I don’t just mean in terms of city-wide destruction and reconstruction, either. Raleigh and Mako are PTSD sufferers who pilot an outdated war machine that’s been rebuilt out of desperation; broken people piloting a broken mech, healing and learning about each other, working together with a team of the world’s brightest to pull humanity out of the dredges.

            And I’ll take that over an unapologetic übermensch any day.

See you next time,

RWI

PS: I should probably mention that I'm now on Tumblr. I'm now on Tumblr. That is all.

EDIT: August 26, 2013. On viewing Pacific Rim once again and thinking more about it, I should probably retract my "stupid" statement. The film is cleverer than what I gave it credit for.

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