FLIXICUFFS: Man of Steel VS Star Trek Into Darkness

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Ben Flanagan and Corey Craft have asked us Film Nerds to submit “Parting Shot” recordings describing our favorite films of 2013 (as of June) for their upcoming episode of their wonderful movie podcast Aspect Radio. So far, there only two titles that I know will make it onto my top five list: The fantastic, emotional science fiction horror film UPSTREAM COLOR and Jeff Nichols’ wonderful boys’ adventure MUD. Other 2013 releases hovering around the list are the newest film from Terrence Malick, TO THE WONDER, which plays like Song of Solomon to TREE OF LIFE‘s Psalms, and Joseph Kosinski’s sincere, gorgeous OBLIVION. My big indecision comes into play when considering two of the summer’s best blockbusters so far: Zack Snyder’s highly anticipated Superman film, MAN OF STEEL, and the bombastic sequel STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS.

I don’t think I need to make a hard case for the similarities between these two movies. They’re both tent-pole franchise films, they both feature massive space battles, plenty of urban destruction, super-powered maniac antagonists, and populist themes of family and self-actualization, played out through physical feats by our protagonists.

So the big question is, which film do I prefer? I’ve seen each film only once, theatrically. I doubt I’ll get the time to re-watch and re-assess them before submitting my Parting Shot. As soon as I realized how much mental time I’ve already committed to deciding which of these films I enjoy more, I knew that I would have to utilize the Film Nerds blog to help me work through this conundrum. So, I’m trying out a new exercise: something I’m calling FLIXICUFFS, in which I pit two films against one another based on a variety of qualifiers.






Beware: There will be spoilers for both films below. To be clear, I’ve got both films rated 4/5 stars on Letterboxd at this point. So, without further ado…

“No, no. More like this: BRAAAAAAAAAAAAAA.”


Boy, right out of the gate this is a really tough one. On one hand, you have Hans Zimmer doing the impossible and creating a new theme song for an American icon, asking us to forget the legendary John Williams march that we all sang when we were kids. That new theme succeeds, although Michael Giacchino brings in what might be a better, more effective all-around score, one that improves on his work in the 2009 STAR TREK film. That said, Zimmer’s new Superman theme, exemplified in the track “What Are You Going to Do When You Are Not Saving the World?” is, in fact, just that good.



Summer is the season for giant lasers.


Both films exhibit ridiculous amounts of computer-generated imagery, and arguably rely on digitally rendered action scenes too heavily. However, whether it’s because of ILM being the lead group handling the effects in STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS, or because of the higher standards for photo-realism necessary for IMAX distribution, JJ Abrams shows his traditional aptitude for blending digital and practical effects via lighting in his film.



“Why are you here?”


Both films are excellently cast, although Abrams has the advantage of bringing back the wonderful cast from his first film. There is a bit of a stumble in his selection of a female foil for Chris Pine’s Captain Kirk, though, as I could think of several young actresses much more charismatic than Alice Eve. In Snyder’s case, his female lead turned out to be the best Lois Lane ever, and she’s joined by tremendous performances from Russell Crowe, Henry Cavill, and especially Kevin Costner.



“Like me, some day you will learn to derive your strength from audience tears.”


This is the toughest one, considering that this where the flaws of both films stand out the most. Then again, I’m not a screenwriter, and I watch films as much for spectacle as I do story, so I don’t give scripts as much weight as other viewers. Speaking as objectively as possible, STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS reaches for less and achieves it. It seeks to take Kirk and Spock on a simple, emotionally involving journey that stresses the importance of surrogate families, and succeeds in terms of finding parallels in both of the film’s villain characters. MAN OF STEEL, however, reaches much higher by asking hard questions about the responsibilities of power, the caution of self-identification, and nature versus nurture. The script pits Zod’s values against Jor-El’s, and pits both against Jonathan Kent’s perspective, and those conflicts are rich and interesting, but I’m not sure the movie ever really lands on them as succinctly as other far-reaching superhero epics like THE DARK KNIGHT or THE INCREDIBLES. In the end, a rollicking good adventure story is just as challenging to create as a thoughtful hero’s journey, and I think Abrams and crew just had a bit more time and a bit more creative elbowroom to work with.



“This is fun. We should do this again after everyone hates me for STAR WARS 7.”


I mentioned that, for me, screenwriting is not a heavily weighted qualifier. Directing certainly is. Shot selection, pacing, framing, visual metaphor, blocking… these are the things that excel in my favorite films. Simply put, JJ Abrams is just a better director than Zack Snyder. Indiscernable time progression, tonal consistency, and baffling music selections show up in MAN OF STEEL. Abrams’ worst sin in STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS is indulgence, especially in terms of breakneck pacing and sex appeal, but at least those mix well with the overall tone of the film.


It’s odd. Ever since 2009’s STAR TREK, I’ve been of the mind that it has the kind of glitzy, Michael Bay-inspired glossy tone that would work extremely well for a Superman film. And here we are, with that same tone going head-to-head with what might be the best Superman film in existence. I can’t stress enough that my preferring one of these films over the other is a matter of degrees. I’m also fully aware that the critical consensus of both film is mixed, and that neither will be remembered as one of the all-time great examples of big budget filmmaking. All that said, I look forward to revisiting both movies in the near future, hopefully on the big screen… because that’s where they both belong.