Please do not read this review of Man of Steel if you have not seen the film. This will be a spoiler heavy discussion of the movie, and I really don’t want to ruin anything for people looking forward to Superman’s latest outing. You have been warned.
I have issues with this movie. This team of creatives, Goyer, Nolan, Snyder, get so much right, yet they manage to stumble on a few key character and story points. You leave the endeavor feeling deflated. It’s so close to being perfect that it soured me even more when that perfection wasn’t realized.
I love this cast. Each of the actors picked was an inspired casting decision. Amy Adams is a capable Lois. She’s brave and smart. Laurence Fishburne is appropriate for Perry. I love seeing actors like Harry Lennix, Richard Schiff, Christopher Meloni, and Tahmoh Penikett show up. Kevin Costner and Diane Lane make for great foster parents, and Russell Crowe is dynamic as Jor-El. Even our team of baddy Kryptonians led by Michael Shannon’s Zod were all interesting.
The problem with an origins story, which Man of Steel is, these characters are given very little to do. We have to establish them all, and we have to have a climactic showdown between Supes and Zod, but we spend most of the movie watching Clark come to the realization that he needs to stand up and don the “S”. In a movie 143 minutes long, not utilizing this terrific cast leaves ‘Man of Steel’ feeling a little empty. The film needed to depart from the Donner/Singer Superman franchise, but we’re familiar enough with the Superman mythos, that some of this origin could’ve been taken for granted. We could have spent some of this time exploring other character back stories and relationships.
A brief note here, Diane Lane’s old age makeup is outstanding. They give her character a 20 year span, and it’s absolutely flawless. If this film doesn’t get an Academy Award nomination (I’ll understand if it doesn’t win) I’ll be sorely disappointed.
Snyder absolutely nails Kryptonian combat. The opening sequence featuring the fall of Krypton should be its own prequel. It had a unique sci-fi/fantasy vibe. It felt fresh. We haven’t seen this before and I wanted to see more of it. There was more to explore in a world of hyper advanced beings, their society in a state of decay, who are responsible for their own end. That and it’s just fun watching Superman’s Dad kick a little butt.
This holds true for Superman fighting on Earth as well. This is the first live action film which I think appropriately feels like hyper-strong beings fighting. It starts to look like a highlight reel from Dragon Ball Z, but the weight, gravity, and brutality finally felt correct. If anyone can play with the perception of speed in a battle, it’s the director who gave us the “time dilation” effects in 300. Kudos there too.
Many have already criticized the amount of collateral damage in this film, and it’s true that the last 45 minutes is so “action packed” that many are going to be rendered numb by it. I’m willing to give it something of a pass as this isn’t a fully realized Superman. He doesn’t know his limits, and he hasn’t seen anything this horrible before. Though it’s understandably disappointing to classic Superman fans as we’re all used to the idea of a Superman who above all else will protect those weaker than himself.
And this is where we come to maybe the most egregious sin of this movie. Our Superman is a passive victim, and he’s not clever. We’re getting deep into spoiler territory here, so I’ll reiterate my warning at the top of this article.
One of the things I enjoy about Superman is his ability to outsmart smart people. Hiding his identity while still foiling crimes and saving people is maybe the most fun game of a Superman story. The cat and mouse aspects of rushing to the rescue and no one being the wiser. Snyder’s Supes lacks that charm, that spark.
Much is made of Pa Kent instructing Clark to stay hidden, even to the point of suggesting that Clark shouldn’t help other people with his gifts. A school bus full of kids lands in a lake, and Pa Kent pretty much tells Clark he should have let them drown. This is reinforced later as a tornado rips through Smallville and Pa Kent saves the family dog only to get caught in the winds. Kent refuses to allow Clark to expose his powers to save him. This is cumbersome and emotionally manipulative while making absolutely no sense.
The Donner Superman would’ve created a distraction to help his father. Used his super breath from a distance, or his heat vision to cause people to look away. The Donner Superman would’ve outsmarted the situation. Hell even the Smallville Clark Kent would’ve found a way to save the day. Snyder’s Superman is left inactive. He stands with Ma Kent to watch Father/Husband perish, and it’s completely unnecessary.
This victimization happens consistently throughout the film. If Clark acts, it’s in the most passive aggressive way possible. He’s instructed to back down from bullies, but we never see that he can stand up to them. He has to wither on the ground as kids taunt him. Pa Kent loosely tells him that “some time” in the future he’ll change the world, but until then he has to be a doormat. A young Clark could have learned about Passive Resistance. To stand up to bullies, to allow himself to be struck, but to still protect others by not striking back, to be a shield. Maybe this was too much philosophy for Goyer to work in.
A lifetime of being a victim, and then Zod arrives. Zod the bully of all bullies, and we never get “That Moment”. The one moment of realization where Clark understands that for the first time in his life he doesn’t need to hold back. He doesn’t need to worry about accidentally hurting someone. He’s been charging up as a solar battery for 30 years, and he doesn’t even understand the full extent of his powers, but he can finally unleash everything. We never get that moment. It could’ve been a look, a line of dialog, a montage, anything. It just doesn’t happen. We’re too busy knocking down buildings.
Zod sets the rules for the encounter. Either Supes dies or he does. Zod controls everything. When Zod creates a dilemma forcing Superman to choose between innocent bystanders and killing him, Superman plays into Zod’s game. He kills Zod. It’s like the ending to ‘Seven’. Zod wins by taking something from Clark. It cost Zod his life, but Zod still wins.
Superman has Zod in a headlock, Zod’s heat vision is blasting towards some innocent people, and the only thing Superman can do is break Zod’s neck. But it wasn’t the only thing he could’ve done. I was sitting in the movie, excited, Superman was FINALLY going to outsmart the situation. NOT play by anyone else’s rules but his own. Not defer to his father, not defer to Zod, he was going to stand up and be his own man. I really thought he was going to gouge out Zod’s eyes. Leave Zod alive.
Instead we now have a Superman who kills.
I’m not sure how I feel about this. What’s to stop him from just taking out Lex Luther? Lex creates all kinds of situations where lethal force would be emotionally satisfying, but isn’t Superman supposed to represent our ideals? That one man isn’t allowed to act as a vigilante judge, jury, and executioner? Isn’t that why we like Superman instead of fear him? That boundary was important, and now it’s gone.
There are other issues with the film. We have another unnecessary battle between evil science and faith. There’s not much comedy. The tone is inconsistent, and the screenplay is inefficient with several characters introduced solely for exposition, only to be forgotten about in the very next scene. And where the hell was Jimmy Olsen? Superman without Olsen? Heresy!
I think I could’ve weathered these smaller sins. Small flaws in a movie of this scope are to be expected, especially one which walks completely away from previous canon. You need to break a few things when rebooting.
I just can’t handle a Superman who is a victim.