What Makes A Good Story? – Making Movies Is HARD Podcast

mmih.jpgToday is a special one because I’m the guest on one of my favorite podcasts in the world: Making Movies Is HARD.

I had the wonderful opportunity to talk with indie filmmakers Alrik Bursell and Timothy Plain about what makes a good story. We discussed our favorite storytelling principles, delved into some of the nuts and bolts of how stories function, and examined Andrew Stanton’s excellent TED talk.

The whole reason I started the Story Punch podcast was to try and figure out how to tell compelling stories. It’s incredible to sit down with a couple of filmmakers who really know their stuff and swap ideas with them. I hope you’ll give it a listen and check out their podcast!

Listen here – iTunesStitchermp3

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The Nature of Greed in The Desolation of Smaug

smaug

Today I want to examine what I believe to be the main unifying theme of The Hobbit films. Although this central idea was touched upon in An Unexpected Journey, it really wasn’t until The Desolation of Smaug that this theme crossed over into the foreground.  The Hobbit is first and foremost about the nature and duality of greed.

As wonderful as The Lord of the Rings is, the central conflict of that series is the battle between good and evil. Sauron is a dominating oppressive force whom the heroes must resist in the face of impossible odds. Although it is a powerful story in its own right, this theme is also difficult to relate to on some level. Evil in our world tends not reveal itself with legions of orcs and corruptible rings. No, here the good guys and the bad guys use the same words and often look indistinguishable from one another.

So while I appreciate Sauron and what he represents, I greatly looked forward to seeing The Hobbit on the big screen anticipating a somewhat smaller story with a much more relatable evil. And in the second film I was not disappointed to see an increasing emphasis put not just on the evil of dark lords but also on the surprising evil within ordinary folk. In The Hobbit, Thorin’s Company has goals less virtuous and pure than those of the fellowship of nine companions. Whereas Frodo and his friends were tasked with defeating Sauron and saving Middle-Earth from tyranny and slaughter, the motivations of the dwarves are much more selfish.

If Thorin’s quest succeeds, Erebor will become a restored kingdom for all the Dwarf exiles and wealth will flow from the mountain once again. Yet the Dwarves are clearly just as interested in profit as they are in the fate of their displaced kin. Thorin and Company are not fighting a widespread global evil but a personal regional evil, Smaug. They are self-interested, they just want their home back along with all the gold that comes with it.

While this has often been mentioned as a critique of The Hobbit films, I see this as a strength. After all, perhaps what our culture needs is not another message about black-and-white morality but rather a reminder on the pervasive influence of greed, materialism, and isolationism.

However in context of the story, things are of course more complex. Thorin also has a moral duty established by lineage, prophesy, and the support of Gandalf and Galadriel to revive the kingdom of Erebor to its former glory. Yet Oakenshield also has an ever increasing desire for gold. The more he craves, the more he loses touch with reality. Thorin carries the same strain of madness that aroused the dragon, brought his grandfather’s kingdom to ruin, and drove his father insane.

This consuming greed is perfectly represented in the Arkenstone, an impossibly brilliant jewel that radiates light and beauty. This is the true purpose of Thorin’s quest, revealed to Bilbo only at the doorway to the mountain. Thorin would risk the life of his burglar just to lay hold of this deeply seductive gem once more. Possessing this stone determines whether Thorin is to be a wandering disgraced outcast or the rightful ruler of his race. Understandably he desires this gem above all else.

Yet this desire is not pure. He may want to be crowned King Under the Mountain and re-light the great forges of his ancestors, yet he will likely also be torn apart by greed. His grandfather Thror sat on mounds of treasure, ripping off the elves, basking in the light of the Arkenstone, and constructing a huge golden statue of himself. This perverse image of addictive soul-destroying wealth is the exact same fate awaiting Thorin Oakenshield if he defeats Smaug. As the dragon insinuates, the Arkenstone is able to destroy Thorin all on its own.

Throughout the film, we see there are two twin forces at work. These are the agents of greed and agents of the common good. Characters work together and against each other in interesting ways, pursuing their own agendas sometimes at the expense and other times at the benefit of others. Greed, although clearly not a force of good, sometimes yields altogether unexpected results. Let’s examine character motivations one by one and see the surprising manner in which this all plays out.

Agent of Greed: The Dwarves

As we have already mentioned, Thorin and Company are essentially there to get the gold. Their people have already established a nomadic and semi-prosperous existence in the Blue Mountains. In fact, Dain and the other Dwarf families refuse to even assist the Company on their journey. After all, the gold of Erebor belongs first and foremost to the heir of Durin. As proof, Thorin’s promised reward for his companions’ help is nothing less than an equal share of the gold, 1/14th of it to be exact.

Although they are not evil beings like the orcs, goblins, trolls, and wargs, ostensibly the dwarves are not entirely benevolent either. They love their iron-forged weapons, great underground mines, and glimmering gold. The wider fate of Middle-earth is only tangential to the dwarves compared to their love of precious rocks.

We see in Bard’s boat that Gloin is reluctant to invest more coin into the quest, having been bled dry by this venture. Why? Because this is primarily a business trip. Gloin (and by implication the other dwarves) are expecting to get rich helping Thorin reclaim Erebor and would not be risking their lives otherwise. For all Thorin’s talk of courage and loyalty in Bag-End, we can be assured that if there were no riches lying under Smaug’s belly they would leave the beast in eternal slumber. Though not particularly unethical, it’s hard not to think of their quest as in large part a money-making scheme.

Agents of the Common Good: Gandalf and Bilbo

In the Bree prologue we see the fortuitous encounter that set this quest in motion. Gandalf chooses to aid Thorin Oakenshield because he fears the terrible effect of a dragon if he were to come under the influence of Sauron. The Free People of the North were crippled by the loss of Erebor and Dale and are thus vulnerable from another eventual attack from the enemy. Only by restoring balance in the North can the whole of Middle-earth be safeguarded.

Bilbo, though unaware of these geopolitical aspirations, also cares about the common good. Familiar with the comforts of home, he accompanies the dwarves because he cares to see their dwellings returned to them. (He also revels in the chance to experience a Tookish adventure.) However I believe Bilbo’s true motivations are revealed once he enters the mountain. Quite courageously Bilbo accepts the task to burgle the Arkenstone from Smaug, willingly accepting the likely danger in store. Upon finding the Arkenstone and learning that it will bring Thorin harm, Bilbo conceals the gem from Thorin not wanting him succumb to greater madness. With great difficulty the hobbit chooses to place a higher goal above the quest itself. He have yet to see what other intentions the hobbit has behind this decision, but greed does not seem to at play here.

Agent of the Common Good: Beorn

The great Beorn is one who lives in harmony with nature, a living bridge between the natural world and the races of sentient beings. He does not care for wealth nor those who threaten the lives of plants and beasts alike. Despising orcs for their cruelty, he has no fondness for dwarves either. He thinks they are hopelessly greedy. Understanding that the dwarves’ quest, driven by greed as it is, will help counter the more dangerous forces of evil, the skin-changer decides to assist them.

Though not interested in their gold, Beorn is however interested in the preservation of the world from the spreading darkness from Mirkwood and Dol Guldur. He recognizes the orcs roaming across his land as a serious threat to the world at large and so he provides lodging and ponies to these dwarves to help turn the tide. He contributes to the common good by supporting the Company’s greed-centered goals, knowing that it will ultimately curb the evil of the land. We can only look ahead to see what will draw him back for the third film.

Agent of Greed: Thranduil

The strong-willed isolationist king of the wood-elves is another example of the corrosive influence of greed in this world. Robbed of precious jewels by Thorin’s grandfather, Thranduil has since refused to aid the dwarves instead blaming their misfortunes on their own stingy behavior. Even as Thorin singlemindedly seeks the Arkenstone, Thranduil sets his heart on the jewels. He would rather imprison the Company wrongfully against their will than be deprived of the wealth that belongs to him.

It is this same self-interest that leads the unscrupulous king to close his doors to the larger world outside in dire need. Although spiders and orcs creep viciously across the borders of the Woodland Realm, the great Thranduil who has faced dragons and slayed orcs in great battles of old will now turn a blind eye to the growing peril. An enemy has returned to drown the world in darkness and yet the wood-elves will do nothing but feast under the stars and lock their gates tight. He is corrupt and we have yet to see if there is any redemption in store for this lesser ruler.

Agent of the Common Good: Tauriel

Hardened by battle and long serving her king, Tauriel finds her loyalty tested when the Company passes through her forest. She forms an attachment to the dwarf Kili in particular whose spirit she finds unexpectedly sweet. Tauriel decides that the lives of these dwarves, though different than her own people, are worth protecting from the treachery of orcs and disobeys Thranduil to pursue them.

To this elf-warrior, the common good outweighs the narrow interests of her people. If evil triumphs over one race, it will soon spread to engulf others. The fate of a few dwarfs is indeed intimately tied to the rest of the larger pattern. Hiding in their deep halls away from the problem will not keep Sauron from one day shrouding their own beloved starlight in gloomy darkness.

Tauriel also effects an influence on Legolas. Torn between his father and his fondly liked captain of the guard, the prince ends up choosing to follow in Tauriel’s path to aid a dubious quest that carries a larger significance he can’t yet fully recognize.

Agent of the Common Good: Bard

Bard is both a friend and enemy of the dwarves. Like Thorin, he has a secret identity as the descendant of disenfranchised royalty. Although initially he aids the Company, when he uncovers their true intentions he works against them in an attempt to prevent them from unleashing the dragon’s fury.

Weirdly Bard is right. If Thorin enters the mountain, it will put all of Lake-town at risk and will endanger many innocents. He has a motherless family to look after all. We can’t doubt his motives or disagree with his intentions. But although Bard is seeking the common good, there is something beyond Thorin’s greed at stake. Oakenshield is the rightful heir. The dragon is a real evil that threatens more than just the future of Lake-town.

Although Bard is technically correct in his assessment, the greed around him pushes the quest forward and though the consequences will be grave, it will also accomplish the elimination of darker forces at play. Again, we will have to wait for the third movie to see how Bard’s part in this story is fully resolved.

Agent of Greed: The Master of Lake-town

The primary antagonist of Bard, the Master seems to be greed and self-interest personified. Overweight, diseased, and pompous, he uses his authority to extract wealth from the people rather than seek their benefit. Unlike Bard who cares about feeding the people and giving them a voice, the Master chooses to silence those who would interrupt his scheming machinations.

It is a great irony then that it is the Master who lends his full support to Thorin’s quest while Bard is the sole voice of opposition. Erebor reborn means wealth for Lake-town and most of all for its despotic Master. Thus he provides weapons, armor, supplies, boats, and fanfare for the Company sending them right on their way. Curious how such greedy intent moves the story forward to ultimately result in a terrible confluence of fire, war, and ultimately (we hope) peaceful prosperity.

Agent of Greed: Smaug

He is the epitome of selfish wanton greed. After all, what use does a dragon have for gold? He cannot spend it. He simply uses it to bathe himself in deep slumber. He does not enjoy his riches, only depriving others of it. Like much of the greed in real life, it is excessive and cruel, the ownership of wealth by people who neither need it nor know what to do with it.

Smaug is a scathing indictment of misappropriated wealth. He will guard it as long as he lives but never knowing why. Too much money in one place attracts at type of dragons, clouds the mind, and numbs the heart. Just as Thror could not part with a single box of jewels to give Thranduil, neither will Smaug part with a single cup from his hoard. Sounds disgusting? It is because it is.

If there is one thematic problem with Smaug it is that he is almsot too grotesque. I’m afraid one could easily gaze upon Smaug’s treasure in a theater and then return home feeling smug for not sleeping on a bed of gold coins. However just because Smaug is the most prominent manifestation of greed should not let us forget that the true victims here are the dwarves, men, and elves who will ultimately die as a result of this madness. Smaug is the chief evil in this story, yet it is Thorin who will suffer most because of his treachery.

Wealth can blind us to those around us, preventing us from sympathizing with their needs. It closes the eyes of dwarves and elves causing them to look inward instead of outward. It distracts them from the bigger issues at play and the more significant issues happening in the world. You don’t need to be rich to experience these things, you only need to live in a world that contains riches to be seduced by its power.

The Hobbit is a story of how material possessions can corrupt otherwise good people. That impulse can be destructive but sometimes it works toward an unforeseen good. Wealth can be cruelly addictive but sometimes it accidentally slays a dragon. That is the reality in which this story engages. And it is one that I find deeply fascinating and frighteningly true.

Greed is real. I am greedy for things I neither need nor know what to do with. And whether I have much or little, it is something that constantly threatens to drive me apart from others and turn my gaze inward. And I expect if you’ve read this far it is perhaps true for you too.

The Many Leitmotifs of The Desolation of Smaug

DOS

As a follow up to last week’s analysis of the music of the first Hobbit movie today we will be exploring the many new musical themes in The Desolation of Smaug. Whereas film reviewers felt the first film relied too heavily on familiar themes, this time around some argued that the score was too dark and that none of the new themes were memorable. However reviews for the released soundtrack told a different story: this was an ambitious, beautiful (if somewhat dark) addition to Howard Shore’s Middle-earth magnum opus.

As with all his prior contributions to this series, Shore’s most intricate work on The Desolation of Smaug comes out through his various leitmotifs denoting different themes, locations, and characters. While many of them could be missed in a first or second viewing, Shore really has put tremendous effort into tying a grand assortment of these small musical statements into a larger cohesive whole. It is this devotion to telling one big story that really sets his work on The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings apart from the vast majority of film scores.

Although I’m sure I haven’t identified all the new themes in this movie nor am I knowledgeable enough to give anything even close to a professional musical assessment, I feel that these themes and what they represent to filmmaking are too important to be left unnoticed. We will try to stay in chronological order of the film although since these leitmotifs are repeated at various times this will prove difficult.

A final note: since the soundtrack was recently removed from Spotify, I am stuck with posting links to YouTube videos, some of which may eventually be taken down. Just in case, I will include the track listing and time for your benefit.

The House of Durin

The leitmotifs for Thorin Oakenshield are pretty well established in An Unexpected Journey so I won’t get in to them here. There is however one brand new theme for Thorin representing his family legacy and his duty to restore the kingdom of Erebor to its former glory. It’s called the House of Durin and it is integral to the story of The Hobbit.

This low humming melody is played in several places, including when Bard finds the tapestry, as the dwarves find their dead kin, and the climactic battle with Smaug. It’s my personal favorite theme of the entire film.

House of Durin – Girion, Lord of Dale, 2:35

Heroic version (during the battle with Smaug) – My Armor Is Iron, 0:57

Beorn

This deep brassy theme for Beorn rises and builds in intensity appearing several times in the film’s opening act. It shrouds Beorn in mystery, refusing to reveal whether he is friend or foe. The introduction version slowly explodes into Smaug’s theme as played over the title credits of the movie.

Introduction to BeornWilderland, 0:53

Running from BeornWilderland, 2:32

Breakfast with Beorn, The House of Beorn, 0:32

Mirkwood

The Mirkwood theme is built around three falling notes in slow succession. It appears briefly at Beorn’s house when he mentions the forest’s danger. The full theme appears when the Company arrives at Mirkwood as Gandalf steps onto the path. Different variations of the theme are played as the Company wanders through the myriad paths of the forest.

Beorn talking about Mirkwood, The House of Beorn, 1:16

The Company arrives at Mirkwood, Mirkwood, 0:00

Into the forestMirkwood, 1:53

“We’ve lost the path”Mirkwood, 3:08

Wood-Elves

There are several themes for the different Wood-elves and they often blend and run together quite seamlessly. However they are quite distinct as we will see below. To remind you just how important these characters are, the end credits music (Beyond the River) is pretty much solely devoted to the Wood-elves and their various themes.

Thranduil

Our first hint at Thranduil’s theme is again during Beorn’s conversation when he mentions the more dangerous and less wise wood-elves. However the big appearance is at the introduction to the king’s underground throne, orchestrated with beautiful strings and ethereal voices to create a wholly majestic effect.

Beorn talking about the Wood-elvesThe House of Beorn, 1:26

Thranduil Main Theme – The Woodland Realm, 0:39

Thorin’s confrontation with ThranduilThe Woodland Realm, 2:49

Thranduil’s first appearance in AUJ Extended Edition – My Dear Frodo, 3:23

The Woodland Realm

The Woodland Realm and its inhabitants have an appropriately mysterious theme. Most of the musical references to the Woodland Realm are dominated by Thranduil’s theme and I can only think of one time where the Woodland Realm theme is played in full, but it does seem to be hinted at in several places in the film. It’s main introduction occurs when the elves are leading their dwarf captives over the bridge to the entrance of their kingdom.

Main theme, The Woodland Realm, 0:00

Legolas

Legolas’ theme is very fascinating. Since his theme is usually played fast (during frenetic action sequences) and Thranduil’s theme is played slow (over long extended introductory and dialogue sequences), it’s easy to overlook their relationship.  Legolas’ leitmotif is actually based off the first line of Thranduil’s theme but it is obscured due to the tempo differences. Listen to Thranduil’s theme and then compare it to the Legolas leitmotif below and behold the uncanny similarities.

Legolas arrives at the river – The Forest River, 1:32

Legolas mega action version – The Forest River, 4:11

Legolas at Bard’s houses – The Hunters, 4:22

Variant: Legolas chases after BolgThe Hunters, 9:20

Tauriel

As Thranduil’s captain of the guard as well as the center of an unlikely love triangle, Tauriel has perhaps the most complex musical themes of any character in this film. She not only has her own leitmotif but also a few dedicated to her different relationships.

Tauriel Battle Theme

During her first appearance we hear her main battle theme as she leaps down to rescue Kili from the spiders. This powerful and melodic string rhythm appears many times throughout the score and reminds us of just how dangerous Tauriel can be.

Tauriel saves Kili from spiders, Flies and Spiders, 7:23

Tauriel arrives at the barrel chase, The Forest River, 1:15

Beautiful end credits version, Beyond the Forest, 2:45

Tauriel Reflective Theme

We also hear quiet meditative oboe music for the times that Tauriel is reflecting upon her place in the world as a lowly Silvan elf. This music, more of a style than an actual melody, is first heard during her conversation with Thranduil but is also heard in other places. If you listen carefully to the first example below you’ll hear a lovely blend of Tauriel’s reflective music, Tauriel’s battle theme, and finally the second half of Legolas’ theme.

Lowly Silvan Elf, The Woodland Realm, 3:49

Tauriel Reflective theme, Feast of Starlight, 2:19

The Feast of Starlight

Of course there is also special music for Tauriel’s budding attachment to Kili. This elegant vocal piece is one of the highlights of the entire score, providing a stirring emotional weight for their scenes together.

The Feast of Starlight – Feast of Starlight, 1:35

Plucked harp version – Kingsfoil, 1:07

Flute version – Beyond the River, 1:06

Fittingly, there is also a final reference to the Legolas theme right as Tauriel decides to stay behind and save Kili’s life. The music transitions quickly from the Legolas leitmotif to the Reflective theme and right into the Feast of Starlight.

Tauriel chooses Kili over Legolas, Kingsfoil, 0:20

Esgaroth

While not quite as many as the elves of the Woodland Realm, the men of Lake-town get a good amount of new themes all to themselves. With a more medieval feel to them, its themes add great personality to this ill-fated town that has seen better days.

Bard

Bard’s theme reflects his ambiguity as a character. Switching between descending minor and major notes, his theme shows us how uncertain everyone else is about this dubious smuggler. The first instance of Bard’s theme contains only a few notes but later versions develop his melodies further as we get to know his character more fully.

Bard on his barge (simple version)  – Bard, a Man of Lake-town, 0:11

“That trouble-making bargeman’s behind all this.” –Protector of the Common Folk, 0:00

“Where are the weapons?” – Thrice Welcome, 1:36

Lake-town

Much like how the human city of Edoras was given big stately music in The Two Towers, the Lake-town leitmotif is centrally featured several times during outdoor shots. Carrying a strong Medieval pulse, the theme pretty much captures the heart of this city right away. When Thorin delivers his speech about restoring Esgaroth to its former glory, a quieter version of the theme is played.

Lake-town theme – Protector of the Common Folk, 1:53

“Our house is being watched” – Thrice Welcome, 2:15

Alternate somber version during Thorin’s speech – Durin’s Folk, 0:32

The Master of Lake-town

Although the Master doesn’t have too many scenes and often shares the ones he does have with other main characters, he does have his own peculiar and sometimes ominous melody. Since he exerts his will through his servant Alfrid, they seem to share the same theme. However when the Master is present, his theme is played with a dulcimer-like instrument instead of strings.

Alfrid questions Bard – Protector of the Common Folk, 2:38

Alfrid dumps the fish – Protector of the Common Folk, 3:22

The Master’s theme (quiet version) – Thrice Welcome, 0:31

The Master’s theme (loud version) – Thrice Welcome, 1:01

Girion

Girion, Lord of Dale, is only seen in flashbacks but he is prominently discussed twice during the film. Both times he is given new interesting music. I can’t quite figure out exactly how his two pieces fit together, although the second one sounds a little bit like Bard’s theme.

Girion’s failure – Girion, Lord of Dale, 0:45

Girion’s heir – Durin’s Folk, 1:32

The Nature of Evil

The High Fells

The spooky tombs of the Nazgul receive a haunting high register vocal melody. It’s beautifully eerie and not what you would expect from one of the more evil places in Middle-earth.

The High FellsThe High Fells, 1:01

The Necromancer

The major Necromancer cue appears at his battle with Gandalf battles in Dol Guldur. His dissonant pounding feels vaguely familiar until eventually fully transforming into a distorted Sauron melody.

The Necromancer Revealed – A Spell of Concealment, 2:05

Bolg

I haven’t been able to figure out if Bolg has his own leitmotif, if his is a variation of his father Azog, or if he simply shares generic battle music with the other orcs. If you sort it out, let me know.

Smaug the Terrible

As the primary villain and impetus for this entire quest, Smaug naturally has three main themes all to himself. Each of these contain numerous variants which I will try to all list below.

Main Theme

We first heard Smaug’s theme back in the prologue to An Unexpected Journey. His sinister six note melody has shades of Sauron in it, yet remains distinct. In The Desolation of Smaug the dragon’s theme is first played vehemently over the title credits. It then takes on so many different forms I have lost track. It is also has a two note component that sometimes precedes the full theme.

Smaug (An Unexpected Journey version) – My Dear Frodo, 4:56

Smaug (introduction) – In the Shadow of the Mountain2:11

Smaug (sneaky version) – Inside Information, 2:06

Smaug (subdued version) – Inside Information, 0:08

Smaug (intense version) – Inside Information, 2:54

Smaug Slinking

This music is used for when Smaug is sneaking around. It sounds similar to the sneaky version

Smaug (slinking) – Smaug, 0:15

Smaug (more slinking) – Smaug, 0:58

Smaug’s Wrath

This particular theme doesn’t appear until the final climax of the film as Smaug flies toward Lake-town. It’s strangely beautiful and captivating. I believe it represents the dragon’s terrible and majestic beauty. Though he is on his way to burn all of Lake-town to the ground, he is still an irresistibly amazing creature to behold.

 Anticipating Smaug’s Wrath – My Armor Is Iron, 2:13

Choir variant – My Armor Is Iron, 3:33

“What have we done?” – My Armor Is Iron, 4:30

A Note on the Controversial Score of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

howard shore

When An Unexpected Journey arrived in theaters back in 2012, we finally journeyed back into Peter Jackson’s cinematic take on Middle-earth. Featuring many familiar faces and places, this was a second chance to visit this strange world yet again. Clearly the filmmakers wanted to go to great effort to tie these prequels into the same tone as The Lord of the Rings.

No where was this felt more than in the many musical callbacks, ranging from the rustic fiddles of the Shire to the rising crescendoes of Rivendell. Back in the first trilogy, composer Howard Shore rigorously applied the concept of Wagnerian leitmotifs across the three films, developing expansive and evolving musical themes each tied to important themes, characters, relationships, and locations. Like the production of an entire trilogy all at once, this had never really been done. And now it looked like Shore might do it again for The Hobbit.

However at An Unexpected Journey‘s release many critics expressed disappointment that both the film and its accompanying score fell far short of the magisterial heights of the first three Middle-earth films. Blaming a lack of source material, slow pacing, overt use of CGI, and comical tone, concerned reviewers felt that the new film was not up to par. Concerning Howard Shore’s efforts in particular they leveled several accusations.

First, many felt that Shore’s music relied far too much on the pre-established themes of The Lord of the Rings rather than standing on its own. Critics questioned the score’s dependency on the familiar leitmotifs for the Shire, the One Ring, Rivendell, Gollum, A Hobbit’s Understanding, and the Eagles.

In addition,the score featured a liberal dose of the Misty Mountains song first sung by Thorin and Company. Not written by Shore himself, the melody was composed by the New Zealand group Plan 9. Feeling that this non-Shore theme was both the best new melody of the film and yet at the same time largely overused, critics seemed to agree that the 66-year old Shore had lost some of his mojo.

Conspicuously, there were also some major last minute changes made to the score. Many segments in the released soundtrack were completely absent from theatrical release. In addition, new themes in the movie were nowhere to be found on the original soundtrack.

Changes in the film include a much pared down Radagast theme, various repetitions of the Misty Mountains theme, a new sweeping choral piece for the Eagles, and the controversial repurposing of several key leitmotifs from The Lord the Rings, specifically the themes of the Ringwraiths, Lothlorien, Nature’s Reclamation, and Gondor Reborn.

These missing themes from the soundtrack and late additions to the theatrical cut caused some consternation. Diehard fans familiar with these theme’s associations in The Lord of the Rings were perplexed at their reuse in An Unexpected Journey. Why were the originally intended themes from the soundtrack replaced with the repurposed ones from the original trilogy?

At the end of the day, the exact reasons are unknown. But we can be fairly confident that these late decisions were made directly by Peter Jackson and Howard Shore upon viewing a close-to-final cut of the film. The recorded music they had wasn’t working well as it should have. And Shore, known for his consistent detail to the meaning of leitmotifs in The Lord of the Rings, now incorporated these preestablished leitmotifs into An Unexpected Journey. While we can’t know why, we can reflect upon what old themes were used and what Wagnerian connections Shore might be making.

Let’s look individually at four most controversial leitmotifs and examine just why they may have been employed.

LOTHLORIEN

Listen the theme here.

This theme is used when the Company slides down to the hidden path to Rivendell and a hunting party of elves take out Azog’s warg-riders. This theme is first heard in The Fellowship of a Ring as a mystical choral piece when the Fellowship enters Lothlorien. This beg the question, what do Elrond and the warriors of Rivendell have to do with Lothlorien?

Rivendell elves have their own music completely separate from Lothlorien elves (as do the Wood-elves.) It could be easily argued that swapping themes between elves cheapens their use.

But as it turns out, Howard Shore has only used this particular battle version of the theme once before. It occurs in The Two Towers when elves from Lothlorien arrive at Helm’s Deep. However there is a Rivendell connection after all. Here’s the context. Previously Galadriel asks Elrond in Rivendell telepathically if the elves should leave Middle-earth to its fate or if they should in fact step in and aid men. Fast-forward to Helm’s Deep, the Lothlorien battle music plays as Haldir leads 200 Galadhrim archers inside the gates.

When he arrives, Haldir’s exact words are as follows:

I bring word from Elrond of Rivendell. An alliance once existed between Elves and Men. Long ago we fought and died together. We come to honor that allegiance. We are proud to fight alongside men once more.

Even though these elves are from Lothlorien, for whatever reason the impetus for their arrival seems to rest on the decision of Elrond. It is by the authority of Rivendell that these elves have come. And as we know, Elrond fought alongside men in the War of the Last Alliance and was gravely disappointed when Isildur refused to destroy the One Ring. Although technically the Lothlorien theme belongs to Lothlorien, as it is established in The Two Towers this leitmotif also has connections to Elrond and the former alliance that once existed between elves and men.

And when this theme resurfaces in An Unexpected Journey, who of course is leading elven archers to the last minute rescue of non-elves? It is Elrond again. Could Shore have created or extrapolated a brand new theme for this brief appearance? He could have, but instead he picked a theme that already had close ties to battling elves, an alliance between elves and non-elves, Rivendell, and Elrond himself.

As we will see in the next few leitmotifs, Shore’s reuse and repurposing of familiar themes never arrive completely out of the blue. They always build some kind of thematic connection between something we have seen before and what is now happening in an unfamiliar but similar variation.

Where the problem arises is when we take a theme like “Lothorien,” give it a static name as such, and then refuse to see any other circumstance which is not as literally similar. Even though some of these definitive leitmotif names do come from official sources, just because they have been given a name shouldn’t negate the fact that Shore’s music is always evolving and growing. Why should Shore be limited by a name picked out 10 years ago when there were only three Middle-earth films? Given Shore and Jackson’s history of meticulous attention to detail and unprecedented level of leitmotif development across multiple films, I believe that the use of these themes,  though at times difficult to fully understand, are always intentional.

RINGWRAITHS

Watch an example here

In An Unexpected Journey a pounding version of this chanting chorus plays when Thorin sees Azog for the first time and runs through the burning branches to challenge him. For many diehard fans of the LOTR soundtrack, this music actually took them completely out of the moment. Why was the theme for the Ringwraiths playing when there were no Ringwraiths in sight?

As perhaps my favorite moment in The Hobbit films so far, it took me a while to understand why this was so disconcerting. Listening to the released soundtrack, Shore originally had a completely different idea in mind for this moment. Late in post-production Shore re-recorded a version of this old theme and inserted it into this sequence.

As jarring as it is for some, especially those who own the Doug Adam’s book, it’s very possible that Shore simply decided to expand the use of this particular theme beyond the narrow confines of the Ringwraiths. There is already one instance where this has precedent: the first introduction of this theme in the prologue of The Fellowship of the Ring. It is here at the Battle of Dagorlad during the War of the Last Alliance that we see this theme’s primary association is with Sauron and his army. Although perhaps we forget it later on in the trilogy, the Ringwraiths’ use of this theme is as primarily and thematically as an extension of Sauron himself. As direct agents of Sauron’s will, the Nine only do what their master commands them bound eternally by their rings of power. Fittingly their music belongs to Sauron as well.

So by claiming this leitmotif as the Ringwraith theme all along we have been forgetting that this is really the theme of Sauron, first used for his charging orc battalions at Dagorlad and then next used for his embodied armored form as he wields the ring. It is only afterward that this leitmotif is used for his nine servants of evil. By playing this theme over Azog (who clearly has his own distinct theme of dissonant notes in the lower register) Shore is making a strong association between the Defiler and the will of Sauron. You might not like the overt way this thematic connection is made, but it is there.

In The Desolation of Smaug, we see this relationship confirmed. Azog is no ordinary orc. We discover he is actually the commander of Sauron’s armies and that the elimination of Thorin’s claim to Erebor is indeed the Dark Lord’s number one military priority. He is building an army to claim the mountain for himself. Sauron would like nothing more than for Azog to cripple the Free People of the North for good, recruit a dragon to unleash upon his enemies as he has in the past, and use the gold of Erebor to buy the allegiance of easily corruptible men. At the moment Azog the Defiler is Sauron’s chief servant, very much like the Witch-king will be later on. By employing this obvious theme, a theme that establishes Sauron in the prologue and later defines his chief servants, Shore is making a statement. It may not be a subtle or veiled statement, but the meaning is pretty clear. If you want to know what Sauron is up to in The Hobbit, you need only look at Azog.

To speculate further, it’s possible there are more connections that we just haven’t unearthed yet. We don’t know exactly what will happen in The Battle of the Five Armies, especially concerning Azog, the Ringwraiths, and Sauron since none of them feature in the actual book of The Hobbit. However Jackson and crew have clearly decided to take Sauron’s Necromancer role literally, having him resurrect the Nazgul. As we know, Sauron is very good at overcoming things like death and disembodiment.

According to Tolkien, Azog was definitely killed at the battle of Azubiliazar outside the gates of Moria. Interestingly, Thorin offers the same explanation to Bilbo, claiming he died of his wounds long ago.

Is it possible that Sauron, a powerful necromancer, raised Azog from the dead just as he brought back the Nazgul?

That would explain the Pale Orc’s allegiance to Sauron which overrides his burning motivation to eliminate Thorin himself. If Azog has indeed been resurrected just like the Nine to be a servant of evil, this would make his relationship to the Ringwraiths and their musical cues even more appropriate. We will just have to wait for the next film and perhaps the extended editions to find out.

NATURE’S RECLAMATION

Listen to examples here.

There are several versions of this leitmotif used throughout the three LOTR films. It is used to signify the natural world or sometimes men taking back something that evil has stolen. Its first instance occurs as a soft boy solo used when the Lord of the Eagles reclaims Gandalf from the top of Orthanc. The most exemplary use of the Nature’s Reclamation theme occurs in The Two Towers when the Ents go to war and the Rohirrim ride down the hill to Helm’s Deep.

A few other uses are notable. In The Return of the King when Rohan arrives at the Battle of Pellenor Fields, a brass version of the theme plays over the men and horses as opposed to the usual chorus of boys used for the moths, eagles, and Ents. The theme last occurrence is when the eagles arrive outside the Black Gate.

In An Unexpected Journey, this theme is played when Gandalf sends the moth for help and the eagles snatch up the Company from the trees. This is pretty straightforward. It connects the two eagle appearances from LOTR to the eagle rescue in The Hobbit and makes thematic sense. The only issue I can see is that we have heard this theme quite a lot before, used in the climaxes of both The Two Towers and The Return of the King.

However if the theme is familiar, Howard Shore extrapolates further and leads into a stirring choral piece as the eagles carry the Company through the skies and a beautiful sunrise. Not found on the soundtrack, this is Shore at his best. Here he takes a relatively bare moment in the story and turns it into a beautiful meditation on the harrowing danger that Bilbo and his friends have just barely escaped from. The fact that this is also a late addition to the score should alert us to the fact that these last minute changes were not laziness. Shore is both willing to recycle and devise something utterly new as needed.

GONDOR REBORN

Watch an example here.

In the closing sequence of An Unexpected Journey, a wounded Thorin confronts Bilbo and warmly embraces him as the other dwarves cheer them on. It’s a moment that signals Bilbo’s acceptance into the Company and a turning point for Thorin and Bilbo’s relationship. However the music was changed at the last minute, reusing a theme known as Gondor Reborn. This perplexed many fans since this moment in The Hobbit has nothing to do with Gondor and comes off as thematically incongruent.

This Gondor Reborn cue comes from The Return of the King originally intended to mark the crowning of Aragorn and the dawn of the Fourth Age of Middle-earth. There are two especially notable uses of this leitmotif in the third film and both occur toward the end. The first takes place at the defeat of Sauron right as Barad-dur comes crashing down. A second use occurs at the crowning of King Elessar, signaling the titular return of Gondor’s royal lineage. What’s interesting is that only one of these uses has direct ties to Gondor. While I suppose the destruction of Barad-dur does very much affect Gondor’s survival, it’s not the same thing as Gondor being physically reborn through its reinstated monarch.

In fact, I believe in retrospect this theme is now misnamed. As presented in The Return of the King, it is not narrowly limited to Gondor’s revival. The theme signals the climactic defeat of evil and it’s also about celebrating the unexpected victory of hobbits over the larger forces of evil in the world. When Sauron’s lidless eye explodes and his tower crumbles, it is because of two brave hobbits. When Aragon receives his crown, it is in large part because of the four hobbits standing before him who outran Nazgul, convinced Ents to overthrow Saruman, deceived Sauron, and delivered the One Ring to Mount Doom. This theme is about the strength of ordinary everyday folk over the looming shadow of darkness. Though intended for Gondor and Elessar, late changes to The Return of the King seem to have expanded this leitmotif to encompass a much broader meaning.

Bilbo singlehandedly saved Thorin from Sauron’s agent, Azog the Defiler, and preserved the Quest for Erebor from certain doom. The dwarves cannot reclaim the mountain without a king and clearly his nephews are not ready to carry that mantle. They need a capable leader and a rightful heir of Durin to defeat Smaug and restore the throne of the Lonely Mountain.

One might argue that the embrace of a hobbit and a dwarf pales in comparison to the climactic defeat of Sauron and the crowning of the long-awaited king of Gondor, but one might also argue precisely the opposite. Bilbo prevents the quest from failure inspiring a chain of events that will lead to the destruction of Smaug and the restoration of Erebor and Dale. His actions directly lead to the reestablishment of a prosperous and strong civilization of dwarves and men in the North. If Thorin dies by Azog’s hand, Sauron’s armies will explode unchecked beginning in the North and spreading down through the rest of Middle-earth. It is Erebor and Dale who will fend off Sauron’s advances in the coming War of the Ring and keep his attention divided between themselves and Minas Tirith.

Shore uses this small moment to illustrate the greater meaning of the actions of a single hobbit. Though he cannot know it, Bilbo’s courage affects the fortunes of many across the whole of Middle-earth. And as Gandalf reminds us, only deeds of ordinary folk like this can stop Sauron. This emotional orchestral theme is all at once victorious, celebratory, and illuminating. Just as it will happen gloriously in The Return of the King, in this short moment a hobbit quietly thwarts a great evil.

The Thematic Significance of Weapons in The Desolation of Smaug

legolas 3

For my first article on The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, I want to talk about the weapons. Although it’s a common theme across all of the Middle-earth movies, it seems clear that possessing weapons directly expresses a character’s power to exact their will on those around them. Simply put, having a well-crafted sword, axe, or bow allows you to effect change on the world in a way that bare hands do not.

It seems rather obvious that weapons should be a natural source of power. When you are armed, you are dangerous. When you are not, you are usually defenseless. Yet The Desolation of Smaug states and repeats this theme several times employing the characters’ weapons or lack thereof as a reflection of their current situation.

When we first meet the Dwarves in An Unexpected Journey, they are each armed with a particular and unique set of weapons. Their choice of weapon also signifies something important about their individual personalities.

It’s no accident that Kili, the Dwarf who shares a certain affinity for Elves, also happens to be an excellent archer. We see him occasionally fight using his sword, but usually he chooses the bow.

Think of Ori, one of the youngest Dwarves on the quest, who is constantly being fussed over by his protective older brother Dori. What does he wield? A slingshot, the most innocent and child-like weapon in the whole company.

Bombur, the overweight cook, is armed with a large ladle. Balin, despite his age, brandishes a devastating mace that is both sword and axe. And Thorin Oakenshield, though now bereft of  his oak shield, carries a superb Elven blade known for slaying a thousand orcs. Curiously the handle of Orcrist is made from the tooth of a dragon.

Weapons mean something. The fact that each Dwarf begins their journey well-armed and skilled at fighting signals that they have great ability and willpower to accomplish their quest’s goal. They are not helpless Shirelings or defenseless merchants. They are effectual doers capable of imprinting their will upon Middle-earth and bringing about the change they seek.

And as we know from Tolkien’s writings, the success of the Quest for Erebor is a crucial component later on in the War of the Ring. When Sauron unleashes his forces upon the nations of Gondor and Rohan in the South, it is the reestablishment of this Dwarven kingdom and the city of Dale that holds evil at bay in the North.

Throughout The Desolation of Smaug, weapons are a symbol for each character’s status. The possession of a sword or a bow shows which characters can accomplish their goals and impose their will and which ones cannot.

bilbo

Case 1: The Naming of Sting

Although I failed to notice it in the first film, Bilbo’s sword actually remains unnamed until the company enter Mirkwood. A year prior in the Shire, Thorin asks Bilbo what his weapon of choice is, axe or sword. Unable to answer, the neurotic hobbit jests about his skill at conkers. To the Dwarves, an individual who cannot fight is powerless and weak. It is in great battles that the fortunes of the world are decided and initially Bilbo is a non-participant.

That changes when Gandalf hands Bilbo his famous sword that glows blue when orcs are near. Initially reluctant at carrying such an instrument of violence around, in time Bilbo learns to wield his sword against orcs, wargs, and goblins. He crucially also learns when not to use it, sparing the life of Gollum.

Through the power of this sword he saves the life of Thorin from Azog and finally becomes a real player alongside the rest of the company. But it is not until his sword is named that Bilbo really comes into his own.

Attacked by huge spiders and wrapped in their webs, Bilbo draws his sword to free himself and slay these creatures. Cloaking himself in the ring’s invisibility, he repeatedly stabs a spider which cries out, “Sting, it stings!” Remarking at what a good name that is, Bilbo names his sword subtly reminding us that this sword is now truly his. He can wield it. He can use it to overthrow the menace of evil. It is not a one-time tool but a reliable means to furthering this quest.

Unlike the Dwarven weapons, this sword will remain with Bilbo up until the moment he ultimately bequeaths it to his nephew Frodo. Now that Bilbo has established himself as a potent force, Sting will not be removed from his side.

elves 2

Case 2: The Wood-elves Encounter

Unfortunately the Dwarves face an opposite situation, finding themselves parted from their weapons. As the company is surrounded by the Mirkwood spiders, the Wood-elves arrive with disastrous consequences.

Moments after meeting the company, the Elves begin disarming the Dwarves and diminishing their agency. Tauriel slaughters the spiders attacking Kili but when he asks her for a weapon for himself, she denies him.

Legolas is especially suspicious and unkind to the company. Almost immediately he accuses Thorin of being a thief and a liar. In a grievous act, Legolas takes Thorin’s iconic blade Orcrist and claims it for himself. For the rest of the film, he carries it and uses it in battle as his own.

The Elves proceed confiscate all of the company’s weapons. Under Thranduil’s direction, they are to be placed in prison indeterminately. Fili is relieved of his many many knives seemingly wedged into every nook of his outfit. One by one, these defensive weapons are stripped from him. These were a sign of his skill and prowess and now they are gone.

bifur bofur bombur

How tragic it is that the Dwarves each lose their special armaments. It seems that they will never get these weapons back, although we will have to wait for the third movie to know for sure.

Overall, this is a humiliating encounter, one that leaves the company vulnerable and weak. As the main symbol and expression of their strength, weapons are key to their very survival, not to mention the outcome of their quest.

 

barrels

Case 3: Barrel Ride

During the daring barrel escape, the Dwarves are without weapons. As the Elven guards on the bridge raise their swords against the escapees, Bolg’s orcs ambush them out of nowhere. Suddenly the Dwarves and Elves are no longer fighting each other but united against these new foes.

Both Legolas and Tauriel reappear, armed again with knives and bow. Their many weapons indicate that they are indeed in control. Hardly an orc can touch them. During the skirmish the Dwarves manage to grab a few weapons fighting off the enemy. These they pass around, reminding us of their weakened status.

Several times the Dwarves get the upper hand. Bombur goes on the offensive in his barrel, turning into a whirlwind of death. The Dwarves hack through a log, plunging many orcs into the river. Thorin heaves an axe through the air just in time to save Legolas. These are all signs that the Dwarves are reestablishing their power against any force that would try to stop them.

However the orcs are equipped with effective weapons of their own. A Morgul shaft pierces Kili’s leg. Though he is bandaged up, an evil poison has already begin to spread through the wound that will eventually kill him. These are powerful weapons that the enemy wields.

Throughout this extended sequence, we witness Elves, Dwarves, and orcs each fighting for dominance, agency, and the right to effect their will on one another.

laketown

Case 4: The Weapons of Lake-town

Meeting Bard on the riverbank the Dwarves realize immediately his skill with a bow, a sign of his strength and leadership. The company offers him a small fortune not only to transport them across the lake but also crucially to supply them with weapons. With an orc pack behind them, the vulnerable Dwarves find themselves forced to trust this stranger against their better judgment.

Unfortunately the weapons Bard has to offer are not up to their standards. As it turns out the Master of Lake-town keeps all the real weapons under lock and key, an indicator of his iron rule over the city. Subservient to this despotic Master, the people of Lake-town can neither defend themselves from oppression nor enact their own will.

The company breaks into the armory and retrieves weapons for themselves once more. Although they are caught, this attempt reveals their latent abilities as free agents able to take matters in their hands. After convincing the Master to aid their quest, they are once again fully armed, their strength restored.

Despite Bard’s apparent lack of true weapons, he does have one little secret: a famed black arrow. Inherited from his ancestor Girion, this single shaft is the only weapon among men known to be able to kill a dragon. Even though the Master governs the town, it is Bard alone who possesses such a potent weapon.

In this story, one arrow makes all the difference.

black arrow

Evaluating the Summer Blockbuster: Star Trek Into Darkness

star trek
Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

Summary

1) Nibiru
2) Starfleet Command, Kronos, & USS Vengeance
3) San Francisco
4) Can you learn to take personal responsibility for others?

1) A Killer Opening

Executing step one of the Blockbuster formula to a tee, the film opens on the colorful planet Nibiru as the crew of the Enterprise attempt to neutralize a volcano without disobeying the Prime Directive. When things go wrong, Kirk end up flying his starship by in full view of native population. Although this straight plunge into the action is a little jarring, it’s a fun and visually immersive sequence. While the brisk pace is a bit overwhelming (which will continue for the rest of the movie) the events on Nibiru have important and direct ramifications for the main characters.

2) Two Major Set Pieces

John Harrison attacks a gathering of Starfleet leaders on Earth, leaving Kirk’s mentor and surrogate father — Admiral Pike — dead. Soon after, Kirk leads a covert assault on Kronos leading to a battle with Klingons and Harrison. With little time to figure out what is really going on, the USS Vengeance arrives and opens fire on the Enterprise taking the crew to the brink of destruction. Khan and Kirk rocket through the debris to board the temporarily disabled Vengeance. All these set pieces are big and beautiful, but function as essential plot drivers keeping up the relentless pacing established on Nibiru. Whether or not you think these scenes are effective, this experimental pacing style is not exactly formulaic.

3) A Killer Climax

Here is where the high speed train derails. What should have ended in Kirk’s sacrifice, an event ripe for a story punch, just keeps going. The real climax happens in space with the salvation of the Enterprise, but instead we get a bonus battle chase in San Francisco with Khan, Spock and Uhura. A lot happens but nothing of real consequence. It’s a valiant effort but this climax doesn’t remotely dovetail with the larger themes established earlier in Kirk’s dismissal.

4) A Concise Statement of Theme

Can you learn to take responsibility for others?

Conclusion

What happens when an unstoppable force meets an unmovable object? You get the ending to this movie, a sort of non-ending. I think of this film as a grand experiment in pacing. While this creates a tense kinetic urgency, it also results in some unsatisfying narrative pitfalls. The plot must keep moving at any cost so that moments that should be emotionally moving like Kirk’s death completely unravel. The film’s momentum can’t afford to have him stay dead for more than a few minutes.

However despite those setbacks, I would argue that this film is unlike the bland cliches and formulas you might expect from a big budget picture. It’s a thrill ride, not a clunky conventional structure. It succeeds in building exactly the wild frenetic narrative it desires and refuses to compromise that goal, even when it might make sense to. Even if this choice is not entirely successful, it is both bold and interesting nonetheless.

The Story Punch

In line with its inability to build to a real conclusion, the narrative places its story punch at the safest place possible: the beginning. Knowing that it won’t have time to pause later, the story achieves its moment of highest human drama in Admiral Pike’s conversation with Kirk in his office.

Kirk is reckless and proud. He places his own ambition above the safety and wellbeing of his crew. Pike confronts him on this and reveals the stunning news: Starfleet has stripped Kirk of the captain’s chair.

Why? He is not ready for it.

This contradicts everything we expect from a Star Trek movie. We expect the captain to be the captain. We expect him or her to be ready to fulfill that duty. Yet we can all agree that up to this point Kirk has based most of his success on brash luck. He is courageous, yet also irresponsible and too willing to take unnecessary risks. This is perhaps the strongest statement you can make about a character, not that they are unethical or flawed, but that they are undeserving and unable to perform the very character role we expect of them. They are less than they should be.

Throughout the rest of the story, Kirk addresses this internal issue which outweighs the other external issues swirling around him. When he has victory inside, then he can victory out there. That is the true end of this story: Kirk resolving the deep struggle within himself played out on the bigger canvas of the conflict between Marcus and Harrison.

Evaluating the Summer Blockbuster: Man of Steel

man of steel

Read the introduction to this series here.

Man of Steel (2013)

Summary:

1) Krypton
2) Smallville
3) Metropolis
4) How and when should we use the power we’ve been given?

1) Killer Opening

Man of Steel kicks off with an extended sequence on Krypton much longer than most summer movie openings. It’s pretty memorable and makes up for the fact that there’s not much action in the first half of the movie. Though not particularly connected to the main theme of the movie, the events on Krypton sets the pieces in motion for the later conflicts.

2) Two Major Set Pieces

Unless you count the oil rig scene or the ancient scoutship, there is really only one big set piece in the middle the film: the Battle of Smallville. Like the opening on Krypton, it is a rather extended sequence. If I would argue that it is perhaps the standout action piece of the whole film, capturing the raw power of Superman and his kin in a truly cinematic spectacle.

3) A Killer Climax

The climax arrives with yet another extended set piece, this time split across three distinct phases: the World Engine, the Kryptonians in Metropolis, and finally the last stand of General Zod. All three have a definite goal which Superman is able to accomplish sequentially. If anything the final battle with Zod feels slightly unnecessary.

4) A Concise Statement of Theme

What does it mean to belong and how far should you go to defend the people to whom you belong?

Conclusion

Man of Steel opts for a huge opening, a huge middle set piece, and a huge climax. For the most part this works well. However where the formula falls short is Superman’s characterization. He is after all a man juggling three different identities: Kal-El, Clark Kent, and Superman. Compounded by the fact that his main character moments were split between Lois, Martha Kent, Jor-El, Zod, and Jonathan Kent, it’s too much material with too little focus. The story is technically sufficient but clearly one that left many people wanting.

The Story Punch

Clark’s struggle in this film is his isolation. It is about how he is separated from other people due to his strange powers. He hides his true nature, traveling the world in search of his origins until eventually he finds out about his people. When Zod and the Kryptonians arrive, Clark feels more alone than ever torn between saving his adopted home and destroying the last of his race.

The story punch, the defining moment of the story, comes in a flashback surprisingly. After discovering that his parents found him in a crashed alien pod, Clark asks his father worriedly, “Can’t I just keep pretending that I’m your son?” Jonathan replies without hesitation, “You are my son.” It is this foundation of love and acceptance from his adopted father, this moment of radical uncertainty confronted with paternal comfort and warmth, that ultimately enables Superman to become Superman.