Superman, the Man of Steel, Last Son of Krypton, Could Have Been Amazing
I’m going to give you fair warning: After the break, there will be spoilers. If you haven’t seen Man of Steel yet or don’t want it spoiled, don’t go past the break until you’ve seen it.
But before I go into spoiler territory, let me give you a spoiler-free rundown of what I thought of the film, in brief. First, it’s worth your time to see. It tells a story worth telling, mostly. It does take liberties with the classic Superman origin, but some of these are done in a meaningful way. Second, there are many things wrong with the movie: it is impatient, revealed in the poor timing of the editing, and it puts far too much emphasis on the action, to the point where it’s exhausting. Third, the actors are all pretty good, but are unfortunately given far too little time to shine. You may safely expect that once a scene of great character development begins, it will end abruptly, in favor of yet another action sequence, especially in the last 1/3rd of the film. SFX are mostly great, though some are a bit silly (more robotic tentacles? Really?), and Cavill, though not as good in the role as Christopher Reeve, can mostly be forgiven for his cardboard performance due to the mediocre writing. Still, this is a more modern Man of Steel, and some changes are to be expected.
Now, onward to the spoiler-filled review. You have been forewarned.
Man of Steel continues a trend I noticed most recently in Star Trek Into Darkness. Specifically, it seems to go down a list of things a great movie should have, and is careful to include all of them. It diligently checks off the major features a great movie, and especially superhero movie, should have: it grounds its characters in genuinely human experiences, specifically the search for identity; it raises the stakes and challenges the hero to become more than he’s been; it provides a villain with a meaningful back story that you can empathize with; it touches on grand themes, such as choosing between two alternatives that each have their own appeal to the hero; and it delivers action–this last bit, arguably too much. So without further ado, I’ll get into the review proper, starting with the good news.
What I Liked
1. Krypton. This one is on the edge between “Liked” and “Didn’t like,” but I’ll forgive some of the weirdness because it succeeds in adding some depth to both Jor-El and General Zod. The introductory sequence on Krypton is interesting, yet bizarre. The world is obviously one built on great technical advancements, and yet jor-El’s ride is…a great big bug. Now, that’s not necessarily outside the realm of possibility, I guess. Who knows, maybe one day humankind will be able to fly on big bugs we grow cheaply! But it seems like an odd juxtaposition to watch a man fly home on an insect, after stealing a chunk of skull, which he then disintegrates, encoding its information into his newborn son, only to quickly send his child off in a rocket ship bound for another planet.
It’s in this intro, much like the 1978 Richard Donner Superman movie, that we also meet General Zod, who becomes the film’s pseudo-villain. I don’t say that as an insult, but it’s true: Zod isn’t really a villain in Man of Steel. Rather, he’s a man with a specific purpose–one he did not choose of his own free will, but which was foisted upon him by society–and when that purpose is thwarted, he basically does what anyone does when their entire worldview collapses–he loses his shit. This was a good character direction for a lot of reasons, but the most important of them is simply this: it makes him a sympathetic character, a man you can sort of relate to, rather than some random thug.
2. Superman himself. In the same vein, the Man of Steel himself, Kal-El, Clark Kent, Superman, is very much Zod’s foil. Whereas Zod was built and trained to be a warrior, Clark wasn’t built at all–he was born naturally and raised with the idea that freedom of choice was important, and that one day, when the time was right, he would have to make a choice about what kind of man he would want to be. This is the making of great conflict, and lays the foundation for precisely the sort of decision making that separates the heroes from the, well, not-heroes. It also draws a deep line in the sand between these two very different kinds of men, and it’s these kinds of lines that can help make characters in conflict be interesting regardless of which side of the line they happen to be on. Man of Steel, sadly, squanders too much of this potential.
3. Lois finds Clark before he ever becomes Superman. This was, in my humble opinion, the film’s only stroke of genius. It’s always been a little preposterous that this award-winning investigative journalist, who is constantly dealing with both Clark Kent and Superman, never makes the connection between the two, and this approach circumvents that entire problem. It also helps develop Lois’ character in a meaningful way that takes her seriously. During the first half of the film, she’s not an idiot.
While Clark is traveling the world, struggling to learn who and what he is, he’s leaving tracks and Lois is following them. She’s obsessed by the story, and driven to find the truth, which is far more believable than the idea that she’s just somehow forever fooled by a pair of glasses. Now, in fairness, Christopher Reeve pulled this off exceptionally well because he changed everything: mannerism, posture, hair, voice–the whole enchilada. But really, no one else has ever been convincing in the switch, including Henry Cavill. When he finally puts the glasses on at the end, it’s pretty clear nobody would ever be fooled by the disguise, much less Lois. This is good, strong female characterization, and more movies need more of it. unfortunately, it collapses in the second half, when Lois turns into a typical damsel in distress.
4. Clark’s Journey. The film lays out Clark’s journey in a fairly linear fashion. Taking a page from other recent flicks, not the least of which is Batman Begins, as the story moves forward it flashes back to relevant bits of the past. This is really the film’s primary method of exposition, as the current-day stuff tends to fall on the side of “show, don’t tell,” which is generally good advice when writing a movie. However, there are some really dumb things, which brings us to:
What I didn’t like.
1. Man of Steel takes “show, don’t tell” to sort of an absurd extreme, and the audience is robbed of a lot of the heart the film might have actually had. This is a huge shame because the film actually has a lot of small, heart-wrenching moments that really should have left audiences in tears, but the problem is that for whatever reason, a choice was made to never, ever linger in those moments. When Pa Kent dies, for example, the camera tracks Clark’s reaction just long enough for you to start feeling the moment, and then cuts back to the present. It did the same thing earlier when young Clark freaked out because his powers started kicking in while he was at school, and suddenly he could see people’s bones, muscles, etc. It does the same thing at the worst possible moment, right after he kills General Zod. Clark lets out a primal scream, horrified at what he just did, and in Cavil’s face you can see the horror of the moment–but then they cut away to a scene with a completely different mood, set sometime later, with yet another explosion and a humorous quip.
Put simply, Man of Steel is too impatient. The moment where Superman is forced to make the choice to kill Zod is one of those storytelling moments that is transformative and revealing about a character, yet the audience is robbed of that experience because the director is in too much of a hurry to get to the next scene. I’m a big fan of the notion that, following a moment of darkness, you need a moment of levity, but Man of Steel takes it to an absurd level, and as a consequence all the emotion that comes with making big decisions is snatched away. That problem is pretty easy to solve, and would actually solve the film’s other huge problem.
2. There is far too much action in Man of Steel. Now, I want to be clear: some action is welcome and helps to tell the story. When we see Clark repeatedly taking enormous risks to help people, each of which shows off his increasing strength and other powers, that tells us something good and meaningful about the kind of man he is. He’s compassionate, he’s helpful, he’s willing to engage his strength where he can, to help people who otherwise would suffer or die.
When we see him bounding across the tundra, going from a man who leaps really far to one who realizes he can fly, there’s a certain joyfulness you can see in watching this man, who’s lived so much of his life in the shadows, unsure of himself, transform into someone with self-confidence.
When we see him leap into action against people who are his own genetic kind to save Earth and humankind, we understand that he considers himself a part and parcel of humanity, and is willing to defend that. All these are great uses of action for the sake of showing us who Superman is. It’s good stuff.
But the problem is that in the moments between when Superman takes to the streets of Smallville to defend it against the Kryptonian invaders and the moment where he fells General Zod, a good 30+ minutes of non-stop action takes place, much of which is simply gratuitous violence for its own sake. How many buildings need to be blown to smithereens before we get the point? How many villains–some of whom are wearing masks and don’t even have a face–do we need to see Superman pummel before we understand? By the time Superman gets to the end of the battle with Zod, most of the tension that comes with the question of “how will superman fare in battle against other Kryptonians when they’re trained warriors, born and bred?” is gone. when Zod falls, Superman doesn’t have a mark on him, though the city is in ruins (seriously, Metropolis would trade the Superman/Zod conflict for 9/11 in a heartbeat and be grateful for it), and there were so many smackdowns and returns by this point that it’s pretty clear the only way this fight will stop is for someone to grab the other man and just tear his head off. And that’s almost what happens.
3. At the end of the movie, Clark decides he needs a job where he can “keep my ear to the ground,” so he puts on glasses and a suit and winds up at the Daily Planet for the last 30 seconds of the movie. The problem is that it feels more like a “Well, of course!” moment, and yet it doesn’t ring true because throughout the film we’ve been given no indication whatsoever that Clark has the background to become a reporter at all, much less one working for the Daily Planet. Did he even go to college? Has he ever actually done any investigative reporting? Any reporting of any kind? We just don’t know, because these aren’t things that were told or shown. This has the effect of making the transition appear forced and contrived, much like Kirk being handed the keys to the Enterprise after just being almost expelled from the academy in 2009’s Star Trek reboot.
4. Mechanical robot tentacles. Really, Snyder? Come on.
5. Abrupt editing. One of the most jarring aspects of Man of Steel comes in the form of the way they cut from scene to scene. It seems that there’s no room for anything other than a hard cut in Snyder’s film. Now, hard cuts aren’t necessarily a bad thing. When used judiciously they can be an effective way to underline a point, or to startle the audience, or simply to juxtapose two distinct scenarios. Snyder seems to think, however, that it’s the only kind of transition available, because that’s all this movie uses. Every cut is a hard cut, even when the mood calls for something gentler. In many areas it’s fine, but in others it’s unsettling and makes the next scene feel completely out of place, such as in the moments following the aforementioned execution of General Zod. The next scene entails an explosion and a snarky comment from Superman to Colonel Whosawhatsit (I forget his name), completely derailing the seriousness of the moment we just witnessed.
6. Lack of plot logic. Superman meets his real father, Jor-El, and learns more about who he is. He gets the super suit, he tests his powers, yada yada. Five minutes later, aliens show up demanding he surrender to them. To whom does he go for advice? Jor-El, whose location he knows? Who just told him he’s an alien? No. He talks to a random priest who knows precisely *jack shit* about the situation. Literally, if Clark had simply made the logical choice to consult Jor-El, the entire second half of the film would never have occurred. In short, Zack Snyder turned Superman into a moron.
7. Last but not least, there were some fairly meaningless changes to the Superman mythos, chief of which was the switching of Jimmy Olson to Jenny Olson. The character barely had any lines in the entire film, and yet was the focal point of one of the film’s best emotional scenes. the combination of the subsequent cut coupled with the fact that we’d barely even seen this character, much less formed any attachment to her, robbed the scene of the emotional punch it could have had. On top of that, the gender change was effectively meaningless, as Jenny wasn’t really given anything to do for the entire film.
As happened with the recently released Star Trek Into Darkness, Man of Steel hits all the notes a great movie should, but fails to consistently connect them in an artistically satisfying manner. It’s a pretty good movie, with a lot of excellent moments, but unfortunately the combination of abrupt editing and frantic pacing steal many of its best moments right out from under it. These problems aren’t enough to render the movie bad or unenjoyable, but they do detract from a film that would, I believe, have been fairly easy to turn from merely “good” to “great”. Perhaps next time they’ll have the good sense to take a deep breath and just let the characters and the audience live in those defining moments for a little while.