SPOILER WARNING: I spoil pretty much the entire damn movie. Proceed with caution.
Superman has had a quite a rocky history when it comes to film.
It didn’t even start off this way, which is the strange thing. Richard Donner’s Superman is one of the most well-regarded and beloved superhero movies of all time. It started off this little ‘genre’ that has only gotten stronger with time. Superman II is as beloved, if not more so, though personally I deem the original superior (no, I have not seen the Donner cut). After that, though, there has not been a critically strong Superman film to come out in over 30 years. They’ve either been outright failures or critically mixed.
|George Reeves is not impressed, Hollywood|
After 2006’s too-safe-for-its-own-good Superman Returns failed to be financially successful enough for the company, Warner Bros went to the drawing board. What made Superman unable to connect to audiences in the same way that Batman, or the now influx of Marvel heroes, do? Maybe he just wasn’t relatable enough, maybe he needed to be darker (the ‘deadbeat dad’ subplot in Returns apparently wasn’t enough). They’ll make a Superman that was darker, grittier and more violent, while still keeping core iconography with the character and make him more emotionally complex. Perhaps that will get asses in seats again!
If Man of Steel is an indication of anything, it’s that the problem with Superman is that they do not know how to write for Superman.
Let’s not mince words here; outside of it being a slightly bigger financial draw than Superman Returns (and even then, Warner Bros were so unsatisfied with it, they’re sticking Batman into the follow-up), Man of Steel was not the darling that the studio was hoping for. Seeing as this movie is also supposed to be the start of a cinematic universe akin to Marvel’s, you can see why the fact that this wasn’t a hit is kind of a big issue. So where did it all go wrong?
|With SUBTLE world building like this, how could it fail?!|
Speaking from personal experience, I actually quite liked Man of Steel! The first time I saw it. It helped that I saw it in IMAX and, while I’d recommend sitting in a dark room for a while afterwards, it’s quite a spectacle. I then went to see it flat, and it did not hold up that well. Now, having seen it for a third time, I begin to dislike it more and more because, my God, watching it for this review was actually a chore!
I’m probably gonna get a lot of ire for this, but I see potential in this. I don’t think this is completely a wash-off. To put this in perspective, I saw potential in Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. Having potential doesn’t stop you from being a shit movie. Still, there is stuff in this I admire. It’s just offset by the terrible.
Without further delay (because my intros are way too long), let’s look at five things that worked for Man of Steel…and how these things failed. Starting with:
The director of Man of Steel is Zack Snyder, of 300 and Watchmen fame. Now, I’ve never found Snyder to be the most…complex of storytellers (and man, does that show here!), but his visual tastes and sensibilities are really second to none. He makes really great looking films. So credit where it is due, the visual style at play here is great. It really gives the movie this epic, moody tone, while also getting across a real sense of majesty.
Some shots look like they could be pulled out of an Alex Ross book; they truly are impressive to watch. Some of the best scenes are at the start, where Clark is just walking around and the real ‘wanderer’ feel is allowed to set in. When the frame is given room to breathe, it looks gorgeous! I’d almost think the movie would work better as some American roadtrip instead of the alien battling monstrosity it turns into, but alas the way the movie is shot looks great.
|I don't care what people say, that's a great shot|
Some of the visual effects are pretty stellar, too! Krypton looks really cool; a mix of primitive and technological aesthetics. The helper droids and computerised bead…things are nice little tech additions that gives the world a lived-in feel. The scene where Jor-El tells Clark about Krypton (outside of being wholly gratuitous because we get most of this shit in the opening) is very cool and a great visual feat.
|Man, Krypton school must have been awesome!|
Finally, my favourite scene of the movie has to be the one where Clark learns to fly. It honestly gets across the inexperienced Superman’s unbridled joy and learning experience so damn well. It’s all in visuals, it uses that ‘zoom in/out’ effect really effectively, it gives a scope and a scale of grandeur to it and it’s fun to see Supes fly all over the place.
So, I clearly love the movie’s visuals, right? Well…
The camera work is bad. Like, really, really bad.
When I say the movie works best when the frame is allowed to breathe, this happens about three or four times throughout the 140 minutes. For the rest of the film, the shots are kinetic, move too fast, get really tight and close into the action, zoom in and out at random times, and this all gets a hell of a lot worse at the fight-a-palooza at the end. It’s glaring, annoying, distracting as hell and really diverts from people’s enjoyment of the movie.
|ARE YOU GUYS VOMITING YET?!|
Also, while this may seem like I’m backtracking on a lot of what I said above (because there is no such thing as ‘mixed bag’ to some people), while some of the effects of Krypton look nice, it doesn’t do a lot to make the world feel distinct. It just feels like a blend of every sci-fi movie ever made and, while the visuals can be cool and some of the smaller things stick out, overall the planet lacks a sense of identity. Though we do only spend 20 minutes there, and never see it again, so make of that what you will.
That Americana feel is where the movie feels a bit more comfortable, but a lot of this is in the flashbacks, and most of them are seriously badly set up. I know everyone complains about them, but the first two flashbacks to Clark’s childhood are terribly placed, and there’s no real progression between them and the present day sequences, they all feel crammed together without any rhyme or reason. The editing of this movie just feels really off, like scenes were cut randomly and put in place with absolutely no thought put in.
Actually, a lot of the story structure in this movie is strange, too. The scene after Clark flies off on the not-Fortress of Solitude, Lois has an entire bit where she writes her piece, it’s rejected by her boss, she leaks it online and then…we cut back to Clark and Jor-El just about to speak. I mean, I know the movie is going back in time and we don’t need that spelled out for us, but wouldn’t it make more sense to push all that stuff together and have Lois’ after? They seem to not care about breaking up the pace of the flashbacks vs. the present day sequences, why not do the same for parts of the story where it would make sense to do it?! Again, it’s a minor thing, but it just goes to show you that the style and visual aspects of the movie are all over the place.
So, that’s how the movie looks. But how does the plot fare?
Man of Steel really could have been a great allegory for human progression and our fear of the new. I’m not kidding.
I feel that this would almost be a great companion for the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy and how they are a reflection of post-9/11 America. Do we follow this new ‘super man’ or be wary of the power it might contain? We as a people have the means to get our voices out there and heard more than ever before, to fight against a threat that grows more powerful. I know this may seem like conspiracy malarkey, but you could work that into a serviceable metaphor for the new power dynamics and class restructuring we face in the 21st Century. Especially when we consider that Superman is an alien.
(note: don’t read any political dimensions into this, as I don’t know what real life events Man of Steel could have possibly been inspired by because I doubt there was any in mind as the movie was being written. This is speculative at best, overanalysing at worst).
|I'm pretty sure they wanted Superman to represent something...|
There are even moments of good writing and characterisation here and there. I really like how Lois Lane is when she starts. No nonsense, straight talking, very independent and even tracks down Clark on her own; she’s a very well rounded character. Jor-El is a great mentor figure, and I like how bad-ass the script makes him. It’s a great movie for minor characters as well, with a lot of the soldiers and Zod’s henchmen really standing out among the rest.
The script is a fucking mess.
Do I need to show the plot holes in this movie? Why are the Kryptons sitting around accepting their fate when they have WEEKS to leave their planet?! They can shoot a baby across the fucking galaxy but they can’t go to another planet?! Why is Zod sent to the Phantom Zone as punishment for his coup when they ended up just SAVING HIS AND HIS SOLDIER’S LIVES when they could have just left them on Krypton to die?! Why is Clark so terrible at keeping his secret?! I mean, it didn’t exactly take a lot of leg work for Lois to track him down; he basically left a trail to find him. Considering it’s such a central concept to the movie, you think they’d pay more attention to that! Why does Zod tell Clark that he’s going to kill the people of Earth?! Why is Lois brought onto their ship?! Why is the entirety of the finale so confusing and hard to follow?! This isn’t dense, complex stuff here, it shouldn’t be this badly laid out! Why does the key only seem to need sunlight the one time it adds tension to the plot?! Why is Zod so over the top and then under-performed?! Why do birds suddenly appear every time you are near?! Why why why?!?!?!!?
All that stuff about Clark being Jesus (shown OH SO SUBTLY throughout the movie-even his conception is a reversal of the Virgin Birth!), and needing to bring people salvation? Ignored. He really doesn’t do anything outside of nearly level half of Metropolis. The fear of people finding out he’s an alien? Earth has no reaction to it whatsoever, and there’s one scene where the army guys say he’s not their enemy, and that’s it. I guess the big-ass fight was more important. Lois’ character? I’m not even sure why she’s in half of this movie outside of the fact that her name is in the credits.
What’s even weirder is that, despite what a great job they did with minor characters, a lot of other characters are not so well treated. They cast a great actor like Laurence Fishburne and he’s barely in the thing! I’m kind of questioning why the Daily Planet are in it at all, outside of the final scene where Clark apparently bypasses any training or struggle you need to be hired at a major metropolitan newspaper. Journalism is easy to get into, people!
Zod’s character is horribly ill-defined. They didn’t know if they wanted to make him the evil despot willing to murder everybody to further his goals of a new Krypton or a man driven to extremes by his desperation. I guess that’s why Michael Shannon’s performance was so mixed; he didn’t know whether this guy was an overzealous Krypton patriot or a nutjob! So, yeah, way to give your minor, two-line characters more definition than your main cast, guys.
|I WILL EAT HIM!!!|
It’s disappointing to see a movie you thought would be good end up being bad. Its soul crushing when you see damn potential in a movie either be squandered or totally misused. The script is an absolute mess and reads like a first draft; it desperately needs some editing and a sense of direction. Plus, none of the dialogue is insightful, memorable or even funny. Nothing about it works on any conceivable level.
You know what really doesn’t work, though?
3. Family dynamic
Jor-El is kind of cool. And I liked the emphasis on how Superman’s fathers had to mould their son for greatness (no mention of the mother’s influence, because what purpose do THEY serve in our lives, amirite?!).
I now have to introduce you all to the true villain of this movie. Not Zod. Jonathan Kent.
|This guy. This fucking guy|
To put it simply, this guy is an asshole. He fills his son with ideas of doing something with his powers and achieving great things, then chastises him for doing the great things. He tells him to allow a school bus of children to die (I’m sorry-MAYBE they should have died!), and says that there will be a day where he shows the world what he’s made of, but alas never says when that day will come. Then balls on Clark because he wants to do more with his powers.
I just…I get that he’s supposed to be the concerned parent. I’m not against that idea at all. It’s just why tell your child he’s great, then tell him he has to hide his powers from the world and not do great things? Why not train him to be secretive, because Clark doesn’t exactly do a great job of keeping that side of himself a secret! I really don’t get where he’s coming from; it’s like he wants his son to feel bad for doing the right thing.
(actually, that would explain why he destroys all those buildings…)
Do I have to even need to point out how stupid his death is? Why couldn’t Clark have saved him? Even without his powers, he could have grabbed him before the storm hits! With his powers, there are plenty of ways he could have gotten his father to safety without people seeing him! Nothing about this dilemma makes any sense!
|And the cats in the cradle and the silver spoon. I hope my death|
will make you a freaking loon.
Also, what a crappy burden to lay on your son. ‘Just remember, kid, keep your powers a secret to the point where you have to second guess saving people, or my death was for nothing. Do great things! Whenever that will be. Oh, nobody understands me like tequila…’
So, yeah. Sorry Kevin Costner. I know Jonathan Kent made you feel an emotion, but he’s a terrible father and easily one of the weakest, most frustrating parts of the movie.
Clark’s mom is great. She has a lot of lovely, quiet scenes with him and Diana Lane does a fantastic job, but she doesn’t really do anything to further the plot. I guess women can be strong as long as they have no real impact on the proceedings of events…
|Though this one scene proves she's a better parent than her fucking|
Part of Superman’s appeal that’s never really been explored before is that he is an alien. Which means that a lot of his more sci-fi villains, outside of Zod who is one of his people, have never really been introduced and a lot of the more out there concepts that aren’t core to his character have not been implemented. While not a lot of this was changed by Man of Steel, it did lay the groundwork of being more open about using the science fiction aspects of the character, and there was a lot of emphasis on said aspects.
And a lot of this does work! Again, Krypton feels very lived-in and alien, and it got some idea of its culture across (dumb, self-genocidal culture that it was). There was a really clever emphasis on how Clark needed to adjust to a new planet’s atmosphere being the product of another world. It’s a really nice flashback, and it’s tender and really well played. The way Clark’s struggle is visually expressed was well done, too.
There was a lot of cool imagery and concepts all around. I think one of the most interesting things/ideas utilsed is that time seems to move differently in other parts of space. That’s a really nice touch and something overlooked by most space-faring movies.
It’s a pity none of this is consistently used at all.
So the powers thing was interesting, except Zod at the end manages to adapt to it pretty quickly without the protective gear the Kryptonians were using on Earth. So, a boy can struggle through his whole childhood to examine and explore his powers, and his people wearing protective gear can remove the protective gear and adapt to it in a matter of minutes. Right.
Also, they can absorb the sun’s radiation through the suits, but they didn’t build their ship in a way that allows them to be super-powerful? I mean, sure, it comes in handy to depower Clark when he’s in there. However, according to the script, he was weakened by the atmospherics…even though it’s stated that he gets powered by the sun on a CELLULAR level, so planetary atmosphere shouldn’t weaken him that much. And he gets his strength back when the ship’s computer reroutes the atmosphere to match Earth’s, so…he’s powered by Earth’s atmosphere? Are they powered by the atmosphere of Earth, even though the movie keeps saying the sun powers them? This doesn’t make any fucking sense!
|HENRY CAVILL IS CONFUSED!!!!|
(also, why do they have atmosphere settings and a breathing apparatus for a planet they’ve never been to?)
Some of the stuff with time is pretty odd. So the El’s scouter ship was abandoned there for thousands of years and nobody thought to check it? They have the tech to get there, they just need a hyperdrive to get to it. Also, Krypton tech is amazingly resilient. Zod managed to salvage stuff from abandoned outposts, and the not-Fortress of Solitude worked perfectly. It was even going to be used to bring Kryptonian life onto Earth! (what would Zod have done if those gestation pods didn’t happen to be there, btw?).
So, even as a science fiction flick, it doesn’t really run that well on its own logic
Henry Cavill is amazing in the part.
He looks physically imposing and confident in the suit, and demure and even bashful out of it. He’s got a sense of awkwardness without being a full-on dork to Jekyll-and-Hyde the performance. There are some great scenes of him surrendering to the military and saving the day. I truly, 100% believe he can make a great Superman.
Please write him like one.
This guy only really has the good-natured saviour stuff when the plot needs him to. Otherwise, he tries to help people but stay true to his dad’s word, goes on aimless journeys with no real point or purpose and generally seem confused or angry. He’s horribly ill-defined, and that’s before you get into the stuff like his destruction of Metropolis and the neck break.
Ah, the neck break. I’m gonna be honest here, and possibly piss off a lot of people; I can kind of see what they’re getting at.
First off, yes, Superman has killed before. Pushed to extremes and as a desperate measure of last resort, and he usually staunchly finds another way, but there have been circumstances before where he’s been forced to kill his opponents. Even if he hadn’t, putting him in a situation where he has to take a life is actually really interesting on paper. It’s not something explored a lot and it’s a hard slice of life. Sometimes we can’t do the right thing and have it be 100% morally just. So no, I don’t think it’s out of character and it’s a way to challenge him and put him in this situation. I don’t feel the same about the destruction stuff I keep making a crack at, but it’s been discussed to death so much, I don’t know what else I could add to it.
Two problems I have with the neck break, having said that:
One, the people he’s trying to save have the survival skills of lemmings. There’s clearly an opening for them to run, but they keep on clamouring back into the wall. This really feels less like a life-or-death situation and more that Zod managed to attack the only family in the world who all lacked peripheral vision. If you want to have a moment where Clark is forced to do something horrible, you better make damn sure there was no other options for him to take and shouting at them ‘RUN TO YOUR RIGHT!’ could have sold this situation as easily.
Two, after Superman yells in anguish (Cavill is great in that moment), it does not come up again. No impact. No repercussions. It’s not even talked about. Superman knocks a satellite out of orbit, and we get to the ending. If you’re going to make a decision that out of left field and against most people’s visions of one of the most iconic superheroes in American fiction, you better get as much out of that moment as you can!
So no, I don’t have a problem with the neck breaking. What I have an issue with is how ill-defined Clark is as a character. Like all the characters. Like all the ideas in this movie.
That really is Man of Steel’s biggest issue, at the end of the day; it’s a 2+ hour wander around with very little definition. The concepts are half-baked, the characters either have no character or no development, it’s terribly confused as to what exactly it’s trying to get across, and even the movie’s cinematography seems haphazardly shot. It’s got a lot of epic battles (if waaaay too long, another point I didn’t get into as it’s been discussed to death), and a brilliant cast. It’s clearly got a style to it and it really does want to try something new with Superman. It doesn’t reach any conclusions on what it’s trying to say or do, and leaves the audience with a characterless, soulless mess. It’s a movie filled with empty promises.
Next Time: So what was 2014 like for film?