WHY ‘MAN OF STEEL’ WILL NEVER BE TRULY APPRECIATED

Back in 2010, when Chris Nolan wrote and directed his sci-fi epic ‘Inception’, little did he know that he would eventually oversee the construction of a Penrose staircase. To jog your memory, a Penrose staircase is something that appears in the movie; it’s an impossible piece of architecture that can only exist in theory. Paradoxical architecture, as it’s called in the film, it’s a staircase whose topmost stair meets the bottommost, thereby creating an unending flight of stairs used only to distract the dreamer’s subconscious, as according to the world of ‘Inception’.

 

In 2012 Nolan along with David Goyer (the writer behind Chris Nolan’s Batman trilogy) handed over the keys to the revival of Warner Bros’ holy cow – Superman, under the title ‘Man of Steel’. By now, many of you would have either seen it, or are soon to do so or decided against doing so.

 

Whatever be your stand, here’s mine: Nobody will ever truly love the film. And here are my reasons why:

 

Unearthing a superhero’s origins is always an extremely fulfilling task – both to the filmmakers and to the viewers. And this has been effectively proven in Nolan’s ‘Batman Begins’ where he sweats it out to draw the details of Bruce Wayne, his traumatic childhood and the reasons why chooses to train himself to fight crime and then put on a mask before doing so. It’s when you see someone ordinary; just like you and I, go through something extraordinary and take a decision to become something more than a man. Effectively, the birth of a superhero.

 

On the face of it, Man of Steel appears to be one such story – the character sketch of Clark Kent, his sorrowful childhood, his identity crisis and his eventual acceptance into society.

 

Man of Steel could have been a poignant tale of a human-like alien battling society’s harsh judgement, his loyalty towards two worlds, and choosing between two opposing but equally convincing ideologies. While that would have made it a powerful metaphoric epic on the human spirit and the world we live in, it would have reeked hard of the Dark Knight trilogy. And avoiding that was the primary reason Chris Nolan gave the reins to an equally gifted director – Zack Snyder.

 

But then, nobody wants to watch a Superman film that’s all about soul-searching and personal crises that belong to petty mortals like us. There’s a certain legacy created by the comics that one has to adhere to. It’s when reality hurts harder that escapism finds greater relevance. And that’s why nobody will ever say ‘no’ to a Superman movie full of super-humans busting buildings and slamming concrete into each others’ faces. And doing that makes it like any other movie (read Avengers). Where’s the legacy set behind by Nolan? Where’s the humanisation of the superhero?

 It’s a tough, tough balancing act. A near-impossible task that makes it a great film only in theory. Like a Penrose staircase cast in steel.

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The Karan Johar Alpha Male.

I spent a good chunk of the past month studying humanity, or as Vijay Mallya calls it – employees. One among the most important questions to be answered by evolution, and scientific research is the definition of the alpha-male in a species. There exist many versions of the alpha-male, and one of the most consistently occurring versions of it was designed by Karan Johar. So if you’re doing anything else right now, like finding a cure to cancer, put it aside for a moment and read on.

For the uninitiated, I studied genetics for three years; which consisted mostly of using a hard-bound text on the subject to eliminate unwanted species of insects copulating on the wall. And like the late Steve Jobs, the founder of the company that sues anything it dislikes, said – life is all about joining the dots. And join the dots I did. Here I am today, presenting to you my valuable thesis on the alpha-male using my Ivy-league education to back it.

Definition of Alpha male by Wikipedia: The alpha-male in a species is the one that ‘fulfils its role’, it’s the one with the most desirable characteristics that will make the females of the species drop everything and breed with it, even if the Masterchef Australia finale is on TV.

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Alright, so the definition of the alpha-male varies in different parts of the subcontinent. In South India, it is characterised by large whiskers, sagging eye-bags, a flabby paunch and a hairy chest for good measure. But in the Karan Johar universe, the above description is just about right for a bean bag. The KJo (alright, I’m coming out of the closet with this one because that’s what everyone calls him) alpha male is different.

1. The name:

What’s in a name babes? Everything, hon. The KJo alpha male has a wide variety of names to choose from – Raj, Varun, Sid, and maybe duuude. The choice of surname is smaller – you have a choice between Malhotra, Dhingra, Kapoor, and Malhotra again. Basically the one-line brief to the writers for coming up with a name is “Karan should lick his lips when he hears it”.

2. Physical characteristics:

Now this involves about 546 hours in the gym, 259 at the parlour, and 312 hours at Manish Malhotra’s boutique. It’s basically like training to be a pilot, except you get paid at the end of it. And then finer touches are made by KJo himself; like adding blush on the cheeks, a dash of lipstick, a triple-shave, and every strand of hair is treated like a junior artist from Shiamak Davar’s troupe. It’s like real-life Photoshop. And plus, you don’t need a key-gen to crack it.

3. Gait and body-language:

Walking around the Karan Johar universe is no simple deal. Legend has it that the art department usually paints tiny coloured squares along the floor on which the actor has to step on. So let’s say you’re walking from your Ferrari to the café to order yourself a Jean-Pierre Dutilleux with whipped cream and strawberries, you don’t just walk up and say “Hey, gimme that French soundin’ shit, yo”. No, you do not.

You get off your car, and walk on your toes alongside the dandelions spinning a little here and there, and stopping just in time for a butterfly to fly by all apologetic thinking it could pinch some nectar off your lips. And then you stand at the café and the counter boy will look at you because there’s that golden-yellow sunlight kissing you all over. And then you order that French coffee, and drink it without smudging your lipstick. Got it? Moving on.

4. Language and cultural exposure:

The alpha male has the cultural exposure of a bottle of Bisleri water – it’s just like a bottle of Evian, but the water comes from the Himalayas instead of the Swiss Alps. So he can speak French in five languages, dance in Hindi, eat in English, and trade in dollars and charm. He’s a Golden Retriever brought up on a diet of dhoklas and Chardonnay.

He doesn’t just dress, until he’s got a list of all the places he’ll be visiting during the day so he can colour-coordinate his clothes accordingly. His stole will match the façade of the building, his shoes match his lady’s lip-gloss, his shirt matches the basket of apples the vendor will just happen to walk with in the background. Thank you Manish chacha.

And with that, I conclude my thesis on the Karan Johar alpha male. What have you done today?

I’ve always believed that the best things about movies are the theatrical trailers. And over the years, theatricals in themselves have grown to own a certain fraction of the content that’s available on the internet. In a year from now, Zack Snyder will unveil his version of the iconic superhero, and there are a couple of reasons why this post is dedicated to the theatrical. Cutting up a trailer is a craft in itself, it’s like a chef carefully lifting the lid off a half-cooked dish, releasing a tiny wisp of the aroma to get mouths watering. And of certain trailers, I’ve always possessed a sleeping desire to dissect and say, analyse.

For the uninitiated, ‘Man of Steel’ is the Superman reboot by Warner Brothers and DC comics in an attempt to cover up the flossy, sappy, sugar-coated, rancid film by Bryan Singer. I know it may be a whole year early, and for some, there may not be anyone quite like Christopher Reeves, But when you’ve got the likes of Christopher Nolan, Zack Snyder and Hans Zimmer behind the reboot, it’s worth some speculation and certainly a blog post. And before reading further, do watch the trailer if you haven’t already.

So, after the initial pleasantries with the logos (one of which, by the way, is that of Syncopy pictures- Chris Nolan’s company), the first image we see is that of waves lashing against a rocky shore. Now that doesn’t say much, unless you’re geek enough to remember other opening sequences. The very first shot of Chris Nolan’s mind-bender Inception is of waves lashing against a rocky shore, followed by that of Cobb (DiCaprio) waking up from a delirious state on the shore. Not that, this is intended to invoke the same mood, but one can’t help drawing the lines. And what I love most about the whole thing, is the way a hand-held camera appears to ‘observe’ and ‘document’ rather than indulge.

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And then through the clothes line, you see a cottage (presumably Clark’s home) perched on a rocky hillock, pictured against a dark, stormy sky. And then you see it. The shot lingers on a seagull flying about in circles. It’s a bird, it’s a plane…

This is preceded by close-ups of a clothes line, which seems to make no sense yet. Elementary, my dear Watson, watch until the end.

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And this is the first glimpse you get of a human in all of this gloom. There’s someone behind a large white, rusty boat. It’s a dockyard. Charming, but nothing close to beautiful. Sometimes it’s the sheer cinematic nature of such such imagery and sometimes, it’s the context within which it’s set that makes it so seductive.

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And there he is. A bearded Clark Kent fondling a mongrel. But for the moment, he isn’t Clark, and there isn’t any of that aura about him. He looks like smelly fisherman with little to hope for in a world that has no place for someone that insignificant.

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A couple shots later (of a wild sea and a tiny trawler swaying in the angry waves), is where we see Clark Kent up-close. the blues eyes, and all that, but there’s something still human about him. He still looks like someone who will go back into the humble dust that he came from. Although, if you ask me, Brandon Routh made the perfect Clark Kent. But there’s reason to believe Henry Cavill will stand up to what Christopher Reeves once did.

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And now’s the point that the trailer decides to junk all the linear narrative it followed up until now and adopt a montage to finish all it can. Random close-ups follow. Clark as a little boy standing beside someone who strongly resembles Kevin Costner (and I believe it is him), holding up a medal. Clark was a bright young boy, and he evidently won gold at some science fair. What’s interesting to note, is the picture. It’s a printed photograph in an album. Clearly, Clark grew up in the 1990s (Yay!)

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Now this has to be my favorite bit. Because if nothing, I’ll recommend you watch this film based on what’s happening in this one shot. Superman’s asking for a lift, yo! and guess what? He doesn’t get it. It’s what puts the ‘man’ back in Superman. That he lived a life like all of us wants to make him care for us and fight for what he stands for, instead of going back to his home galaxy and making love to women of steel. And Clark’s clearly in some Alaska or Europe.

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The clothes line shows up again, but in a different colour palette this time- it’s an inviting, warm sunset. Little Clark shows up too. And this time he’s up to something with a large red cloth. The (same?) black mongrel is lazily watching him.

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Yup! It’s a cape. Whatever it was that inspired his imagination enough to think about a cape at such a young age, shouldn’t be hard to find out. His fists at his hips, the cape fluttering in the wind, and cut!

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And this is where I take solace in the fact that you can love superheroes and still be grown-up. The self-indulgent goo that you’d find in Spiderman or an ‘Expendables’ has been kicked in the nuts. Her’s the first and only shot of Superman cutting through the skies, (as you’ll see in the next shot) breaking the sound barrier and leaving behind him a small shock wave in his wake.

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And the most fascinating touch comes in the very last couple of seconds as he shoots off into the stratosphere, leaving twin clouds of smoke. Just like a jet plane, yes. So if you saw it and said “It’s a bird, no it’s a plane, no it’s Superman!” no one really will think you to be a lunatic.

What to expect from Superman.

If Television could make a comeback.

When was the last time you saw something on television that made your heart jump. And I have not the faintest allusion to something as sappy as the monstrously pretentious show that addresses ‘burning’ issues, hosted by that ever-so-righteous movie star. I’ll not go on about this one, because I know there are many amongst you who believe he is the second coming. But the television that’s making a comeback here, is from a country that once stood for good, clean, unpretentious entertainment. Again, I have no distaste for those of you watching the television of yesterday, but it’s time to turn off those Big Bang Theories and How I Mobbed Your Mother, because there does exist real fodder for the mind within the confines of the box. Idiot or not, we’ll know soon.

And not often do you see something on television written by Aaron Sorkin. Without wanting to sound condescending, he wrote ‘The Social Network’. And that film is what it is, because Sorkin wrote it. The last drama of this kind, scale and honest brutality was probably The Network (1976).

The Newsroom, written by Sorkin, is centred around a fictional American news channel. I’m one episode down, and I’m every bit woken up as you’d be at the end of three strong espressos. What follows is an hour of acidic entertainment, that feels nothing like a TV show. It has the scale of a Hollywood feature, the pace of a Bourne film, the writing of, well, Sorkin.

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Picture a busy, chaotic news channel, with everyone hating everyone and lunacy written on the walls. And now picture people that chaotic and shallow with the emotional depth of a Tom Hanks-playing-handicapped-guy film. And if not even that can get you to watch it, here’s a clip that should do the job.

When content changes, viewers change, and when viewers change, minds change. And that’s how TV makes a comeback.

An open letter to Christopher Nolan.

Dear Chris,

The reason I’m writing this at all, is that the amazing thing that the internet is, it might, might just bring it to you. And before I begin, you must know this is not just any angry fanboy’s rant. This is me telling you what it is like to be let-down. It’s like you watching the same Ridley Scott who gave you Blade Runner (which you love so much) disappointing you with a Robin Hood.

Having watched the final instalment of your much-loved Batman trilogy, I staggered out of the cinema wondering if what I’d seen was a dream or reality. I staggered not the same way that I staggered my way out of ‘Inception’, but I staggered alright. I was beaten, defeated, and dejected. Whoever said that you may now trade writing for visual effects. That’s not you, Chris. That’s Roland Emmerich’s job. That’s Michael Bay’s job. They write their screenplays at the visual effects lab. They story is not written yet, until it is rendered in 3D. There’s nothing but respect for you flowing in my veins when I see you resist the studio’s attempts to have you film in 3D. That, like I said, is for stories that have no dimension in them.

I paced around the cinema nervously like a man outside a maternity. I’m someone who usually speaks in hyperbole to make a point, but this time I’m not when I say I wanted to weep. Weep, again, not out of ecstasy. I’m a sucker, Chris, for all the things you’re a sucker for. I love happy endings, I love the contradictory nature of our decisions, I’m a sucker for psychological dialogue, I love thinking about how we think, I love 35mm film, I drool at architecture, and I’m a sucker for the short, cryptic writing you do. And yet, I did walk out a less happy man at the end of the credit roll.

The night we watched ‘Inception’, my friends and I, we walked out of the cinema screeching like baboons. We were not sure what had hit us, but we loved whatever it was. We’d never seen something like that before. A film that made us think, drool, howl and clap. Since then, I’ve been making love to it every month. I turn off the lights, and watch it, and each time there’s something new in it to discover. Even now, for example, I haven’t managed to figure out why Cobb loses his grip on reality all over again at Yusuf’s lab. Ok, never mind that.

And oh! How we miss Heath! How we love the Joker! How often do we shit ourselves watching someone’s face get sliced up by a psychopath. How often do we see a billionaire-superhero sob like a little boy. It’s why your films awe the rest of your creed, Chris. It’s because no one sees them the way you do. It’s because no one turns that kind of simplicity into ingenuity.

In the mad flurry of opinions and speculations that flew between Batfans and the rest of the world, preceding the release of ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, I sat quiet. I stayed my notions to myself, and asked cynics to go buy themselves a lollipop. I went alone for the show, for it was my moment of reckoning. And here we are.

Who was Selina Kyle, Chris? And what in the name of Alfred Pennyworth happens at the sewers? Blackmailing a city with a nuclear bomb? Jesus! That’s material for cheap thrillers! Haven’t you seen ‘Die Hard’? Bruce Willis saves day there. That’s not important.

Where was the heart of the story? Who are we fighting for? Who are we rooting for? The only reason, your Batman trilogy is what it is today is because you managed to drag them all from that unreal, ethereal world of imagination to something real. Gotham is New York, maybe America, maybe the world right now. We understood Bruce Wayne because you and Christian did. So who was Selina Kyle, again?

There are many insensitive souls out there who’re looking at Bane alongside the Joker. Heath is not Tom Hardy is not Heath. We understand that, and I’ll never bring that up. But don’t forget what sort of a character you wrote for Heath to fit into. Remind yourself what you made Maggie do for Rachel. They did what they did because you wrote it for them. I’m curious to see what you’d written for Tom and Anne. I’m sorry, Chris. This is just…

Disappointing.

But I’m glad for some things, Chris. I’m grateful for giving us Alfred and Lucius. I’m grateful for Hans Zimmer. I’m indebted to you for Wally Pfister’s stunning imagery. Your camaraderie with Chris Corbould and David Goyer. And I’m glad that hereafter, anyone that picks up the pen to write a Superhero tale, will ask themselves if what they’re going to write will be better than what you’ve done with the trilogy.

Love and respect,

A fan.