I’ll disclose that Superman is not exactly in the upper-echelons of my fandom preferences. I find the mythos to be rather interesting, but the tales of his heroic life on Earth often feel dated and unimaginative. After the trailers I was optimistic that perhaps an updated, engaging version of the story of Kal-El was possible, even probable. It’s been a very long time since anyone has managed to pretty much anything good with the Superman franchise. The latest attempt brings together writer David Goyer (whose credits include the latest Batman trilogy and the Blade films) and director Zach Snyder (300, Watchmen, Suckerpunch), with a little help from Chris Nolan. With these guys at the helm, I was definitely expecting a grittier, darker take on Superman mythos. What we got was a bleak, grim film full of gratuitous CGI fight sequences that drag on for what feels like hours that ultimately fails its canon, the characters and the audience. Even more frustrating is the suburb casting and the fleeting moments where the nuance from Goyer and Nolan show through, and hammer home just how good this film could have been.
From a nerd point of view, the movie often feels like one long “oh, SO close moment.” At a few points throughout the film, it’s almost painfully close to exactly what I wanted, but then screws it all up. The opening of the film is chief among these. We’re treated to a lengthy introduction showing how and why Jor-El and Lana are so adamant about sending their only son to Earth, as Krypton faces destruction. I was very impressed with the overall look of Krypton itself; the production designs did a fantastic job of portraying a world both futuristic and entirely alien. The story managed to get some good traction as you watch Jor-El and his wife Lana scramble to save their son from the destruction of their planet. But then it all starts to fall apart, the questions start, and so many good things are squandered for an action moment. Why is Jor-El, supposedly a man of peace and a respected scientist, able to match guns with the elite of the Krypton military? What exactly is the point of Zod’s coup, when the planet is doomed in just weeks? And why send Zod to the Phantom Zone and spare him from the destruction of the planet?
We then jump forward and see the now-named Clark Kent doing the anonymous good-guy thing, wandering from city to city saving people and slipping out before anyone can say “who was that guy?” These random acts of heroism are interspersed with flashbacks to Clark’s formative years on Earth with his adoptive parents, leading to his eventual discovery of his origin via an ancient bit of Krypton technology, along with the chance to save the life of Lois Lane. I think this part of the film is where all the possibility really shines through. It does a surprisingly good job of establishing an emotional core to the film, and a reason for Kal to feel an attachment to the people of Earth. Kevin Costner and Diane Lane are picture-perfect as Jonathan and Martha Kent, and their acting is superb. Unfortunately, the writers (I believe) altered the critical life lessons that Jon shares with young Clark, going from the canonical “Always Do Good Things” to “It’s Ok to Let People Die If You Can Keep Your Secret.” While I can see how this later sets up the gamble of Clark trusting the people of Earth, I think it detracts for one of the Superman series’ most core thoughts..the idea that doing the right thing is paramount. As well, Jon Kent’s death is changed from a heart-attack (something Clark is powerless to stop) to a tragic death by tornado that Kal chooses to allow (at his father’s insistence) in order to avoid revealing his abilities. But overall, this portion of the movie works better than almost any other, and it left me hopeful for the prospects of the rest of the film.
Sadly, soon my hope were dashed. Not long after the intrepid Lois Lane manages to discover the identity of her mystery savior, Zod arrives at Earth with his demand for custody of Kal-El. Again, the set-up here is very good, and Michael Shannon is believable and disturbing as the single-minded military despot. However, what ensues following this is an hour of trite action footage filmed at camera angles that move at a migraine inducing space. Kal fights the Zod and his soldiers all over the damn place, always with the same city-wrecking results. And the fight sequences pointless drag out far longer than is necessary, to the point where they actually become so boring that I lost any interest in who might win…I just wanted to be able to look at the screen without getting motion sickness. (And I saw the film in 2D…I can’t even imagine how 3D audiences felt!) Almost all storytelling is lost, and Clark’s lines (and Henry Cavill’s acting) go right down the tubes, with Zod and Lois right behind him. What makes the whole thing especially depressing is the beautiful cruelty of Zod’s plan (to terraform the Earth into a Krypon-like replica and save his race at the expense every human life), and how perfect it fits the mindset of his character, both in the film and in the canon. It also sets up what could have been a perfect tipping point moment for Kal-El…how to manage to save both his own people and the people of Earth. Sadly, the writing takes a nosedive here and Superman essentially commits the complete genocide of his own people (for reasons that aren’t entirely clear). For me, this was where the tone of the film reached its nadir. There was nothing in the way of even a little dark humor, let alone any real comic relief, up to this point and the sheer grimness of the entire affair settled on me. More excessively long action sequences follow this, and we reach another point where there was SO much squandered potential. Zod has been defeated, but he is able to engage his heat vision long enough to endanger a nearby family, forcing Clark to kill him to save them. Had Clark not committed genocide not a few hours prior, this moment could have been far more impactful, even more so if the canon lessons of Papa Kent been left in place. So instead of a Superman torn apart by having to take a life so brutally, it becomes just one more death in an already bloody, depressing (and bloody depressing) movie. The denouement again shines with a sense of possibility for the film as we see Clark taking his new job at the Daily Planet and slyly flirting with Lois, along with an incredibly moving flashback sequence of young Clark Kent with a red towel for a cape as his parents look on and hope aloud for his future. This short moment is by the best in the film, and it leaves me wondering how Man of Steel could have turned out if the same care used in this small sequences had been used throughout the film.
Despite the numerous failings of the film, there are a few other positive pieces worth mentioning. The film does manage to use a few wonderfully subtle moments to remind us of the details from the earlier incarnations of the franchise. A very short but purposeful shot of the water tower over Clark’s hometown reads “Smallville” without any other mention of the town’s name. Weather maps and images from the military radar are clearly labeled “Metropolis” without much other mention of the name of city that plays host to much of the story. The name “Superman” is said only twice in the entirety of movie, giving subtle homage to the eponym of the franchise without being cheesy and cliche. Unfortunately, they do little to save this disappointing entry in the Superman legacy.
From a feminist point of view, there’s a lot to like about Man of Steel, particularly early on. Lana, wife of Jor-El and mother of Kal, bravely faces the possibility to death to save her son, stands defiantly to see justice served to the man to killed her husband, and fearlessly awaits the end of her planet. Sadly, she’s marred slightly in the strange need to have her fight with Jor-El to send Kal to Earth…after all, no one is going to survive the destruction of Krypton. I love Amy Adams’ portrayal of the fearless Lois Lane (even if I object to her hair color) as she berates her way past military commanders in search the story she’s seeking. Almost as good is the moments she’s her boss at the Daily Planet to print a story she thinks is important, even if it risks her career, and then finding a way to get it printed after she loses the argument. Unfortunately, after Zod’s arrival on Earth, she seems to be reduced to doing very little other than staring at the sky while her hair blows artfully in the wind. Martha Kent provides a strong anchor point for Kal, especially after the death of Jonathon. She handles the destruction of her house in a manner befitting her unflappable resilience in the face of all she’s encountered over the years. Diane Lane’s performance is one of the biggest highpoints of the entire film. Finally, one of Zod’s most trusted and able soldiers is a woman (who isn’t named in the film, but is identified as Faora in the credits), and she’s pretty much a bad-ass. All in all, against the backdrop of superhero films, I can’t complain too much about the depiction of women in this movie. A little more plot-critical action for Lois would have been nice, but it’s overall much better than I expected.
I could absolutely write another 1000 words on the horrific abuses of all things physics in this film, but I think I’ll just sum it up briefly: physics do not appear to apply to anyone or anything in this film in any consistent or reasonable way. (If Superman is able to fly mostly because he’s jumping REALLY hard, how can he change direction or HOVER?!!?!) Beyond that, I’ll leave those gripes to the physics bloggers.
I don’t think that Man of Steel has killed the Superman franchise…after all, the film pulled in almost $150 million. I just really hope that if they decide to build a sequel, they put someone else at the helm. Zach Snyder should stick to films about naked Greeks killing lots of people in very stylish ways.