MAN OF STEEL: The best and worst Superman movie ever (Spoilers)
I just got back from seeing Man of Steel, and I can’t recall the last time I had such intensely mixed feelings about a movie. There were some things about it that were simply wonderful, ways in which it captured or interpreted aspects of the Superman story better than I’ve ever seen a live-action adaptation manage to pull off. But there were other aspects that were horribly, offensively wrong, and I’m astonished anyone who knew the first thing about the character could think they were acceptable in a Superman movie.
On the plus side: Henry Cavill, as an actor, is just about the perfect Superman. Nobody since Christopher Reeve, at least, has been so effective at convincing me that I’m looking at Superman, that this is a guy who has both incredible power and the fundamental clean-cut decency to be trusted with it. He’s a bit blander as a performer than Reeve or most other screen Supermen, but I could absolutely buy him in the role, which is more than I could ever really say for Dean Cain, Tom Welling, or Brandon Routh. This is someone I want to see donning the cape for years to come.
The rest of the cast is mostly good, my favorite being Diane Lane as Martha Kent; I’ve always found her a very effective, engaging, and beautiful actress, and she was no different here. Russell Crowe and Ayelet Zurer were a good Jor-El and Lara. Michael Shannon was an effectively menacing and nuanced Zod. Laurence Fishburne was given a one-note authority-figure role but it was right in his wheelhouse and he Fishburned the heck out of it. Harry Lennix and Christopher Meloni were good as the military characters, and Richard Schiff was fun if underutilized as Emil Hamilton. Amy Adams was not the ideal Lois — she didn’t really have the edge or the attitude — but she was competent and reasonably engaging in the role, and was definitely not as profoundly miscast as Kate Bosworth was the last time around. As for Kevin Costner… well, I’ve always felt he was a negative void of charisma, sucking all the interest out of any scene he was in, but here he actually managed to be neutral and maybe slightly engaging, which is about the best I could’ve hoped for. And it was also nice seeing cameos by a number of familiar Canadian TV stars such as Flashpoint‘s David Paetkau and Battlestar Galactica‘s Tahmoh Penikett and Alessandro Juliani (who was also Smallville‘s Emil Hamilton, so it was amusing to see him sharing a scene with Schiff’s Hamilton).
There are some bits that range from good to marvelous. The sequence where Kal-El (I guess he wasn’t called Superman yet) turned himself in to the military and talked with Lois and Gen. Swanwick was just perfect, the one part of the film where he was most effective at being Superman. The Kryptonian nanotechnology was cool — I absolutely loved the retro, Art Deco-meets-Melies styling of the ultra-high-tech visual display that showed Kal-El the story of Krypton’s history. I liked the worldbuilding and backstory for Krypton, which was better thought out than most live-action screen versions I’ve seen. I liked the film’s fresh take on certain things, like the way it pretty much casts aside the whole secret-identity thing from the start. Lois working alongside Superman every day and never suspecting it has never been flattering to her intelligence, and she’s known his identity in the comics long enough to prove that the secrecy isn’t really needed. I liked the thread about Kryptonians needing to adjust to Earth’s environment — and I absolutely loved how Zod and Faora were crippled by their inability to cope with their supersenses kicking in. That was a superb payoff for the setup scene with young Clark earlier.
*sigh*… I’ve been trying to think of more things I liked, but I guess I can’t put off talking about the bad stuff any longer. To sum up, this is a movie where they cast an ideal Superman, set up a great and clever backstory for him to become Superman… and then didn’t let him be Superman. Because what defines Superman is that he’s the guy who saves people, and this guy hardly saved anyone. It’s like the screenwriters went out of their way to make him as ineffectual at doing his job as they possibly could.
The film is simply overloaded with disaster porn, with populated areas being devastated by the battles and attacks going on. It’s taken to ridiculous excess, and Superman is at best unable to do anything about it, at worst complicit in it by not choosing to take the fight away from populated areas. The most he does to save anyone in the Smallville sequence is to say “Get inside, it’s not safe” — which proves to be useless and hypocritical advice as half the battle involves Superman, Faora, and the other guy smashing each other into occupied buildings. But that’s just the appetizer for the pointless orgy of destruction in Metropolis — with Superman literally on the exact opposite side of the planet, useless to save thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, from certain death.
And then they defeated the world engine and things calmed down and I thought it was finally over — but then Zod showed up and we got a whole new wave of disaster porn. I’m usually not a guy who talks in the theater (I’m not going to the special hell), but when the interminable wave of building collapses started all over again, I all but shouted “Really?” at the screen. I did not need any more of it. By this point I had lost patience with this movie and just wanted the destruction to for Rao’s sake stop.
Look, if I want to see a movie with cities being destroyed and everyone helpless to prevent it, I’ll watch a Godzilla movie. The whole essence of Superman, the thing that makes the fantasy of him so compelling, is that he’s the guy who can prevent it. It’s that when Superman is among us, nobody has to feel helpless anymore. In a Superman story, the action should be driven by Superman saving lives — giving us the same positive thrill we feel when we see firefighters saving people from burning buildings or people in disaster areas selflessly coming to one another’s aid. My favorite portion of the disappointing Superman Returns is the sequence where Superman is saving various Metropolitans from the disasters befalling the city. And it’s significant that Superman’s big debut sequence in the 1978 movie doesn’t end after he saves Lois and the helicopter pilot, but goes on to show him foiling crimes and saving lives all through the night. Superman is here to help. He saves people. That’s what makes him Superman. A Superman movie should not be a straight-up disaster movie, since he’s the guy who can stop disasters in their tracks.
But here, he hardly saves anyone, at least not on purpose. There’s a bit where Perry, Steve Lombard, and Jenny (Olsen?) are watching Superman with Lois in the lull between huge battles and Jenny says “He saved us.” Now, I’m usually a very easy audience when I see a movie in the theater; I let myself go with the visceral feel of the film and reserve my more critical reactions for later. But as soon as she said this line, I found it totally unbelievable. Why would she say that? As far as she was aware, the only person Superman had saved was Lois when she fell out of the exploding plane. And that’s not far from the truth. Sure, he did accidentally save the Planet staffers from getting crushed when he coincidentally destroyed the world engine at that moment. But that’s pretty much all he did. Superman didn’t save the world. Jor-El saved the world, by formulating the plan that was then enacted by Lois, Col. Hardy, and Hamilton as well as Superman. Sure, he had a key role to play, but he was just following instructions. He seemed like the least proactive participant in the plan, just a weapon to be pointed in the right direction while everyone else did the clever stuff. Now, I generally love it in superhero stories when the ordinary characters get to be heroic too. Heck, I even wrote a Spider-Man novel where J. Jonah Jameson got to be a hero. So it’s cool that all these other characters get their chances to be heroic. The problem is that it comes at the expense of Superman’s heroism. He comes off as a secondary character in a story about Jor-El and Lois saving the day.
Worse, he doesn’t even manage to save most of his own allies. Hardy and Hamilton and the rest of the flight crew all sacrifice themselves, and Superman only flies in at the last second to save Lois. Pro tip: if there are many people in danger and your superhero only belatedly arrives to save one person after many others have died, he’s not doing it right. The Green Lantern film had the same problem.
(For another thing… why did Zod choose Metropolis as one of the anchor points for the world engine? Superman hadn’t yet made it his home — as far as I could tell, he’d never even been to Metropolis at that point. Did Zod choose it to spite Lois? We didn’t get any sense that he felt any particular animosity toward her. There was no indication that Zod had any specific reason for the choice. So that made all the destruction even more monumentally gratuitous.)
And I have to join in the chorus of voices complaining about how Superman finally defeats Zod, by snapping his neck to stop him from killing innocent bystanders. I’m actually glad that I was spoiled on this, because it didn’t shock me and I was able to focus on how it was handled. I did like it that Superman reacted to having to kill Zod as a tragedy, that he mourned it rather than celebrating it. That ameliorates it somewhat. But it should never have been necessary in the first place. Again, it’s missing the point of Superman, which is that he’s the one who makes it possible to find a better way. By doing what he did here, he just sank to Zod’s level and, essentially, proved him right. Again, he’s a passive figure letting others dictate his choices. How can he live up to Jor-El’s exhortations to lead and inspire if he’s just reactive, if he doesn’t stand up and find his own, nobler path? He talked to Swanwick about how he had to help on his own terms, but then he let others, even Zod, define those terms for him.
But maybe that’s because this version of Jonathan Kent was such a dreadful role model. Usually, Jonathan is portrayed as Clark’s moral anchor, the one who inspires him to become the hero he grows into by instilling him with the good, wholesome values he lives by. But this time, Clark becomes Superman in spite of Jonathan, not because of him. Jonathan is basically wrong at every turn, leading Clark astray and teaching him to hide and mistrust and do nothing to help others. He even quite stupidly gives his own life out of fear of Clark’s discovery. Now, in a way I kind of liked this, because it gives Clark a motivation much like Peter Parker’s — he lost his father figure because he chose not to act when it was in his power, and that gives him an incentive not to let it happen again. But it really came at the expense of Jonathan Kent as a character. Just as Jor-El is effectively the real hero of this movie, Jonathan is essentially the villain, someone whose influence Clark has to reject before he can become a hero.
(Plus Jonathan was an idiot to tell people to get beneath the overpass to escape the tornado. The enclosed space would actually intensify the winds and increase the danger — that’s basic physics. Overpasses are one of the worst places to shelter from a tornado. It’s one thing for a movie to mishandle its character or to callously play on 9/11 imagery for gratuitous shock value, but the filmmakers may have actually endangered lives by recklessly perpetuating this myth. Which is pretty much anathema to what a Superman movie should do.)
Now, I might be able to forgive Superman’s killing of Zod and his failure to save lives in general… if he never lets it happen again. I’d like to see a scene very early in the sequel (if there is one) which establishes that he’s deeply unsatisfied with his failures and that they’ve motivated him to become much more careful and dedicated about saving lives and finding nonlethal ways of dealing with his enemies. Then I can chalk up the grotesque shortcomings of this movie to Superman’s learning curve. I can forgive a mistake more easily if the culpable party admits the mistake and strives to do better as a result. The same goes for the filmmakers, of course — this would also show that they’d recognized their own monumental mistakes here and resolved to correct them. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s likely. We seem to live in an era where the cinematic superhero is not required to care about saving lives. True, one thing that worked about The Avengers is that the heroes remained focused on protecting civilian lives throughout the climactic battle — a lesson Snyder and Goyer really, really need to learn from — but they were still utterly callous about killing the invaders, and in other Marvel movies the heroes don’t seem to be bothered by killing human beings. (And it’s very hypocritical for Tony Stark, who’s supposed to be on a journey of repentance for his complicity in building weapons, to be so cavalier about using Iron Man’s superweapons to kill bad guys left and right.) Filmmakers just don’t seem to remember that superheroes should be rescuers first, not warriors or vengeance-seekers.
There is so much in this movie that I like, yet so much that not only displeases me but actually makes me angry and bitter. I rarely react that way to any movie, but… come on, this is Superman. And that carries certain expectations with it. True, earlier Superman movies haven’t really surmounted these problems either. Reeve’s Superman also apparently killed his Zod, and did other pretty bad things like using his superpowers to get revenge on a bully and forcibly robbing Lois of her memories. But here it was just so over-the-top, so tiring having all this gratuitous, pointless destruction rammed down my throat (with a tediously blaring Hans Zimmer score only intensifying the sensory assault), and knowing that Superman should have been there to make a difference but wasn’t being allowed to because the filmmakers had no idea what to do with him. And it’s just so frustrating because this could have been a great movie. There are things about it that are wonderful, but there’s too much that totally ruins it.
Maybe the reason filmmakers have so much trouble getting Superman right is that they keep feeling they have to apologize for him, that they have to distance their takes from the perceived cheesiness or unrelatability of the basic premise. This film shied away from even using the name Superman, as if they were embarrassed by it. They didn’t use it in the title, they barely used it in the script, and they even credited the lead character as “Clark Kent/Kal-El.” How can you make Superman work if you’re embarrassed even to admit that he is Superman?
Well, trying to look on the bright side: I didn’t think Batman Begins was very successful either. It also fell apart in the third act due to excessive, implausible action and a hero who was uncharacteristically callous about letting people die. But then we got The Dark Knight, which hugely surpassed its predecessor (though also, sadly, its successor) in quality — which built on the parts that worked and improved on the parts that didn’t. I’m hopeful there’s a chance that will happen again — though at this point I really don’t feel like I ever want to see another Zack Snyder movie. I do want to see more of Henry Cavill as Superman, and I do want to see an interconnected DC movie universe. But, as with this movie’s Clark and Jonathan, that would have to happen in spite of this movie, as a rejection of its approach, rather than because of it.