By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
10:00 AM EDT, June 24, 2013
I have a theory for what is causing "Man of Steel's" faster-than-expected slide at the box office: Jor-El.
Around the fifth time Russell Crowe materializes as Jor, the long-dead father of Clark Kent, a.k.a. Kal-El, a.k.a. Superman, I wanted to scream. Not at Crowe, his character.
Jor returns as a hologram. So on the multiplex screen, dead Jor and live Jor look exactly the same. Lois Lane (Amy Adams) asks hologram Jor whether he can reprogram the Krypton space ship and help save mankind. Of course he can, because "blah, blah, blah, blah, blah...." he always has an answer, for everything.
At that moment it hit me: The TV pilot plague had infected "Man of Steel."
Director Zack Snyder's super-spectacle suffers from a particular illness that sweeps through pilot season every year. Among the hopeful shows trotted out for network executives, ad buyers and media, there are always some that ruin their big shot by saying too much. We're told way more than we need to know about characters and conflicts, explaining flaws and family, their history. Dramas are particularly susceptible. It's like all those extraneous paragraphs you've come to expect in a James Michener novel that can be skipped without losing one smidgen of meaning. ("Texas" stands as my least favorite for just that reason.)
The plague usually proves fatal before a TV show can make it to prime time. The infected that do rarely last long — remember "The Mob Doctor"? Last fall? On Fox? My point.
The major symptom is a kind of feverish fear. Fear of blowing your chance by leaving too many lingering questions, of being misunderstood, of not being able to pay the mortgage on the new place in Los Feliz. But fill in too many blanks and dialogue begins to sound like a Hewlett Packard owner's manual. Or Jor-El.
About half of Crowe's lines courtesy of David S. Goyer's script are meant not for anyone on screen. They are for us, the audience.
The film turns to Jor for historical context, and Superman comes with a lot historical baggage. Apparently the filmmakers believe they have a lot of explaining to do.
It doesn't need to be that way.
Consider J.J. Abrams' excellent reimagining of "Star Trek" a few years ago. I can't help but think that his time in the TV trenches helped fight off the plague. Abrams, Jeffrey Lieber and Damon Lindelof, the creators of ABC's "Lost," found great success in ambiguity.
The most significant lesson? You can intrigue with tantalizing, often dead-end or otherworldly plot twists as long as you always, always entertain. That buys a lot of time, or at least six seasons, without explaining anything. There are still bloggers out there debating the final episode.
The trepidation is understandable. In television, series creators get one shot to set up an entire new world and hook an audience into caring. In Snyder's case — one shot at setting up a new Superman franchise.
There is no sure cure for the fear factor, but as philosophers tell us, it is all about how you face it. As someone wisely counseled Superman (Henry Cavill) — sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith.
Christopher Nolan took a giant leap in crafting 2005's "Batman Begins" — which, by the way, Nolan and Goyer wrote together. They shared screenplay and story credits. The two share story credit again for "Man of Steel." See how distracting it is when someone throws in a piece of information that actually explains nothing?
Nolan never asked whether redrawing Batman for a new era was OK with us. He almost dared us to go with his vision. And we did.
The 2008 sequel, "The Dark Knight," would take two Oscars, one for the late Heath Ledger's haunting portrayal of a strikingly different Joker.
Though there is no sign the writer-director ever suffered through TV pilot season, somewhere Nolan picked up a knack for teasing out the unexplained. It was there in 2000's "Memento," his breakout film, and Nolan has been leaving much unsaid quite cannily ever since.
Which brings us back to "Man of Steel." The director is always first in the line of fire when it comes to laying blame for a film's shortcomings, but Snyder has never been accused of being cautious or fearful.
Snyder has been bold, starting with "300's" distinctive portrait of heroic death in 2006. More visually than verbally expressive, "300's" very brashness put Snyder on the map.
The director's last outing, 2011's "Sucker Punch," was certainly not shy. As one of maybe three critics in the world to like the movie, I did, and I do, see merit in its Dickensian morality tale.
The dialogue offered little about "Sucker Punch's" orphans, such as why the teen girls were hookers or mainly dressed in bustiers and baby doll pajamas. The reasons for the living hell they were in and the various purgatory war zones they were forced to survive were never spelled out. The stunning imagery answered most of the questions.
All this is not to suggest that "Man of Steel" should have been one big question mark. But the high-flying aerial showdown between Superman and his archnemesis Gen. Zod (Michael Shannon), an impressive way to leave a city in ruins, told us what we needed to know about their grudge match. Cavill and Adams' on-screen spark was so hot as Superman and Lois, it let us know without words that this could be a love story for the ages. But the specter of Jor-El coming in for another over-share was always looming.
Now a word to the filmmakers about the sequel, because you know — cha-ching — it is coming. Start by keeping in mind that audiences are a pretty discerning bunch these days. TV has learned to trust its viewers, serving up brilliantly challenging shows. We have rewarded them by watching.
So next time, instead of talking about a leap of faith, try taking one. On us.
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