EDIT 18/08/2014: I said this would be my last word on Man of Steel, but the world keeps on turning and Batman vs. Superman is a thing now. I recently returned to the grey, hero-less world of Man of Steel to talk about DC’s upcoming cinematic universe, The Avengers and why Batman vs Superman won’t turn the tide for this incarnation of The Man of Tomorrow. Check it out.
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It shouldn’t need saying, but this post contains many Man of Steel spoilers. This is one for people who have already seen the film, don’t plan to, or don’t care.
I love Superman. No, really. I’m not a big comics reader, but I do try to keep up with what’s going on in Superman’s world. I love the Christopher Reeve movies, and I’d say the first season of Lois and Clark is one of the finest years of TV ever to hit TV screens. I even had a good time with troubled Superman Returns. I was going to see Man of Steel, no matter what Rotten Tomatoes said!
I didn’t hate the film, but I felt the problems were pretty clear. Here goes:
1) It spends too long trying to hammer home how important everything is.
Man of Steel is a deeply flawed film. In a world of The Avengers and The Dark Knight, it’s surprising just how off the mark it is. There is fun to be had, for sure, but it is rare and tempered by the oppressive tone of the film. Most surprising is seeing Zack Snyder make many of the same mistakes that condemned Superman Returns to the bargain bin. This is a self important, soulless film that has no time for joy. The single biggest mistake it makes is spending the entirety of its two hours and forty minutes, reiterating how important everything is. Literally every scene is a character defining moment for Clark Kent, we travel from one important character moment to a life altering flashback without ever relenting. The result is a film that is desperately afraid we might forget that Clark is special. No film should need to do this. Man of Steel is a film about our planet subjected to the forces of an alien invasion; our only hope is a single member of the alien species that has been hiding among us for decades. Good characterisation and pacing should create the tension naturally in a high-stakes plot like this, but Man of Steel makes the mistake of throwing around words like “destiny” non-stop. It makes the same mistake Smallville and Superman Returns did, it gives us a Superman who is intrinsically aware of how important and iconic a character he is. The result is a meandering Messiah parable, masquerading as a sci-fi film.
2) Superman never saves anyone unless he has something to gain.
This is unprecedented. Somebody finally made a Superman movie where Superman doesn’t save people. I don’t know how they managed it. Unless I fell asleep and missed it, (I didn’t) Clark makes two heroic rescues in this flick. On both occasions, these are beneficial to him and inescapable. He rescues Lois after she falls out of a spaceship. Makes sense, she’s the love interest and one of the only people he can trust. Best not let her fall to her death. He also rescues the crew of a crashing helicopter that had been ordered to attack him. This is a pivotal moment in the film, finally giving the military a reason to trust this strange visitor from another planet. No other rescues are performed in this film.
Superman is still characterised as the same Superman we know and love, of course. He doesn’t rescue the helicopter crew because he thinks it will win over the gruff general, he does it because it’s the right thing to do. The problem is that the film never places him in a position where he can, or will, help people. There is even a scene crying out for just this moment. Towards the climax of the film, General Zod deploys a massive terraforming engine over the planet. Superman contrives a plan for defeating it and flies off to do his bit. While this is happening, Zod’s machine begins causing earthquakes and gravity distortions that start tearing Metropolis apart. A tense, well composed scene begins in which a young woman is trapped under debris while her colleagues try to free her. The destruction from Zod’s machine nears and her friends can not save her. This is a job for Superman! He has not involved himself with much of the public yet, he has not been seen by the desperate citizens fleeing from the alien menace. It is a scene that cries out for Superman lifting the collapsed building high above his head, waiting just long enough for the woman to get free before it collapses around him.
This does not happen. Nor does anything similar happen at any point during this film. Sure, it’s more pragmatic to go straight for Zod’s death-machine, but we want to see a heroic Superman, not a pragmatic one.
3) The plot is dominated by confused themes.
When the credits roll on Man of Steel, what was the film about?
Films are always about something. Often they’re about many things. But Man of Steel wants to be about things, but never really decides which things. Often it will introduce an idea only to forget it later.
There is a theme running through that seems to be about choice. Krypton is, we are informed, a caste based society. Children are genetically engineered, grown and allocated a job according to society’s needs. Jor-El and Lara decide they will go against this and make a baby the old fashioned way, creating Kal-El. The baby with a choice who will revitalise Kryptonian society. But the film is not really about this, since a few minutes after he’s born, he’s put in a rocket and fired at Planet Earth. This is a film for which the source material isn’t enough. It tries to begin a plot on Krypton, but we all know the planet is on borrowed time. Whatever happens on Krypton doesn’t really matter, because soon we’ll be on Earth watching Superman not save people. The theme of choice turns up again later when Superman is given the choice whether to destroy Earth or not, but since he spent the whole of his life on Earth and Zod wants to kill everyone he loves, it’s not much of a choice. (Throw in that Zod’s symbol looks suspiciously like the Hammer and Sickle and an alternative take on this “choice” theme starts to present itself, but let’s not go there.)
Man of Steel isn’t about a hero who comes to Earth to save people, because he doesn’t really do that. He saves the planet at the end of the story, but most of the film is more about Clark deciding if he should go public or not. Which bring’s me to his adopted Dad. Aside from one of the most laughable death scenes in cinema history (Swallowed by a tornado after running into it to rescue a dog is a new one for me.) Kent Sr. has only one role in the film. He tells Clark the world will reject him if they find out about him. That a man like Superman will change the world, they will fear him and hate him when he is discovered. But the film isn’t about this either. Superman is feared at first, but that’s mostly because Zod is threatening to destroy the planet because of him. One saved helicopter later, and most people are on board with Superman.
And just why is Superman here?
Is this a film about a father desperate to save his son from sharing the fate of his planet? That’s the famous Superman plot, but Man of Steel is more concerned with The Codex, a library of Kryptonian DNA saved in Clark’s blood. This strand of the plot renders Superman as little more than a tool for Krypton’s preservation. Though, a pointless tool, since neither Clark nor Jor-El seem to think rebuilding Krypton on earth is that good an idea. Is Kal-El his beloved son or is he a biological tool? Little attempt is made to harmonise these threads.
Jor-El gets a quote that sounds great on the trailer. It’s a momentous speech about Superman being a guiding light that mankind will strive towards. But Man of Steel is a film in which mankind does no striving. Mankind is a pawn in this game and even when Superman is finally revealed to them, they’re a bit too busy running from collapsing buildings. Perhaps mankind will do some striving in later films, but as it is, it’s just another Messiah Metaphor that goes nowhere.
Man of Steel does not know what to be about, but it does know that Superman is very important. That is the dominant theme here.
4) Its action scenes are alienating.
This is one of the biggest problems, but one of the shortest to summarise.
Yes, I know, action scenes suck anyway, but Man of Steel is a particularly bad example. The problem here is that ordinary people have no part in them. The big climax of the film is two Supermen hitting each other through buildings. We’ve seen that quite a lot lately, and it’s starting to become tiresome. A good action scene is the result of good characterisation. Give us time to get to know a character like Tony Stark or Bruce Wayne and when he’s getting his ribs cracked, we’ll feel the pain with him. Watching two indestructible aliens collide with flimsy walls does not have the same pathos. The best action scene in the film is the one previously described in which a woman is trapped under some rubble, and it lacks a strong, Superman lifting, resolution.
The actions scenes in this movie had the same problems as a lot of other movies these days. They are over long light and sound shows in which we see nothing but explosions, building collapses and punches. It has nothing that we can’t see elsewhere. (It even features a stupid sequence on Krypton pinched right out of Avatar.)
No Superman film before has wasted its character so much, even Superman Returns saw a stunning aeroplane rescue. Hell, Superman IV took Clark to the Space Station. There’s nothing here we couldn’t see in Iron Man or Hulk.
5) Superman is distant and unrelatable.
This is probably going to be a matter of taste for some, but I think this is an area where the influence of Nolan’s Batman films has had negative effects. Writers establish Batman as symbolic to create a believable opposition to the mob, Superman is a very different sort of character. Sole survivor of a distant planet, powerful enough to destroy cities, flies around the globe in minutes, fires blasts from his eyes and can see through walls. Superman is totally divorced from humanity. Putting the character in a film that does nothing but builds him up creates a very different sort of character. Superman is good, sure, he’s not going to enslave us any time soon. But he’s good in the way we might be good to a pet. Man of Steel’s Superman is presented to us as a confused human who can’t find his place in the world, but by the end of the movie he feels much more like an apathetic alien that is among us, but not truly one of us. Perhaps this is because the film introduces the concept of Clark Kent and Superman as a dual personality only at the very end of the film. This movie isn’t interested in Clark, the man who hides behind a pair of glasses or changes in telephone booths. Making Lois Lane aware of his powers right from the start is a great decision, but sending Clark to work at the Daily Planet makes no sense in Man of Steel’s universe. This is a loner Kent that has spent most of his adult life living away from humanity. There is no humanity to explore. It’s a pre-John Byrne characterisation, in which Clark Kent is little more than a disguise.
Superman needs to be relatable. If he isn’t the character is actually a little frightening. Superman’s appeal as a character is not in his abilities, but in his goodness. The strength of Superman is in having all that power, and using it to do good. The movie never humanises Clark, treating him instead as an alien that yearns for his lost home.
The End (almost.)
I didn’t hate Man of Steel. I didn’t love it either. But now I’ve seen it and learned what I don’t like, I could probably watch it again and have a better time. It isn’t a totally incompetent film, nor is it completely uninteresting to look at, but it is joyless, pretentious and awkward. Despite its problems, I find myself wondering what Man of Steel 2 will look like.