Warning: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS MANY SPOILERS OF THE MOVIE MAN OF STEEL. IF YOU AIN’T ABOUT SPOILERS, COME BACK LATER.
I’ve been a Superman fan all my life. In fact, in my particular brand of comic book nerdom its probably one of my most defining characteristics. I was raised and reared on a healthy diet of Superman movies, cartoons, comics, and toys. I can recite the words to Superman: The Movie the way people can sing their favorite songs. So suffice it to say that I was pretty disappointed following Superman Returns when the move was unimaginatively bound to the previous interpretation of the mythos without adding anything terribly worthwhile. Superman Returns was like the High School play version of Superman: The Movie and when I left that film, I was saddened to think that it was the Superman movie of my lifetime. A few years passed and on the heels of enormous success on the part of Marvel’s cinematic movieverse and the success of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, Warner Brothers and DC decided to once again try to make us believe that a man can fly. Enter this weekend’s Man of Steel.
Many people have had negative, or at least mixed, things to say about Man of Steel and I will tell you that I think they are wrong. As not only a life long comics fan, but also a fan specifically of the Superman franchise I can tell you that this movie delivered to me what was a renewed faith in the ability of the film medium to make a modern take on the Superman mythos. The emphasis that I must lay here is the modern take on Superman. Currently DC is engaged in a company wide reboot (the New 52) that is seeing its characters take on a grittier, edgier, and more timely vein than they have in almost the totality of their existence, and in that respect Superman is no different. The company has taken a particular point to spin the focus of Kal-El’s personality that I grew up with (that Superman is the act and Clark Kent is the whole person) to a position that bends that prism more towards a subdued or filtered man in both aspects—and the true man only shining through in the most comfortable of situations. This New 52 Superman does in fact feel alien, alone, different, and still tied to Earth and the human race in a way that firmly lays his allegiance there. This Superman is also markedly younger and greener than previous in-continuity portrayals have been, It is this take on the character that director Zach Snyder and screen writers David Goyer and Christopher Nolan approached the character with.
In that respect, Man of Steel does a wonderful job of showing us a Superman that feels suspended between worlds—and not truly a part of either—for most of his life. Without knowing his actual roots, Clark wanders the world under a series of nom de voyages and earning his way as a drifter by working odd jobs in bars and on boats—occasionally saving men on burning oil rigs and presumably cats from hurricane stricken suburbs building something of an urban legend around his acts of angel-like guardianship of complete strangers. Clark is waiting for the day that he can reveal himself against a threat so great that he will deliver mankind from perilous doom…but in the meanwhile he scours the planet looking for some clue as to his point of origin. Eventually he finds it. And we go through the undisclosed motions of Clark deciding to be Superman—even if without a name—after he has a heart to heart with a hologram of Jor-El, his birth father. And while this may seem beat-to-beat with Superman: The Movie it isn’t.
To begin with, the movie employs an entirely different visual language than previous incarnations. The beginning of the movie is set on the Planet of Krypton which is, rather than an icy crystalline world, a hot, craggy, mountainous place with reptilian winged steeds, exotic armors and jewelry, and a fancifully militaristic looking science fiction world. While their technology is more than a little phallic the designs and depictions of familiar characters, events, and places are entirely fresh and different. Shaky camera shots attempt to give the world authenticity and give the viewer a sense of being a fly on the wall as they witness the last days of Krypton and the political strife they endure even in the planet’s violent death throes. From there on out we are treated to a partially non-linear story that disperses Superman’s origin re-telling with the “in time” action and story in a move that successfully manages to only tell relevant information about Superman’s childhood which builds into his isolation, alienation, and reluctance to enter the public eye.
These origin sequences really hit a high point in a scene which depicts young Clark first having to learn to cope with his extraordinary senses. As a special education teacher with years of experience working with students with hyper-sensory issues it was refreshing to see a young Kal-El have difficulty in focusing X-Ray vision and becoming overwhelmed by talking and sounds well beyond the ear shot of others. The flood of sensory overload and his understandable attempts to retreat show the ways in which heightened senses could be a maddening burden if not properly trained.
This is not the only instance in the movie where yellow sun radiation powered super abilities are shown to have some limitations or even drawbacks. In the previously mentioned oil rig scene, I was very impressed to see that even though Superman was able to catch a falling tower and hold it, physics still had some sway, as the platform could not handle the pressure of that weight distributed to a single point under his feet. More reasonable limitations were put in place as Kryptonian flight was revealed to be a kind of controlled jumping which required energy output and focus to maintain (originally Superman couldn’t fly, he could only jump 1/8th of a mile at a time). Additionally, Kryptonians were not seen as being indestructible gods. Missiles, bullets, and shells all take their toll in one way or another, and as such Kryptonian battle armor (as depicted in the New 52 continuity) serves a purpose of protection as well as looking like Underwear and old school dive suits from a steampunk future.
The movie was fast paced and action packed taking moments here and there to dip into some expository information that was either relevant to the next step or had required some context by delving into the past. The super battle sequences were bar none the best usage of Kryptonian super powers I’ve even seen and in many ways rival those as portrayed in last year’s Avengers movie. The special effects were phenomenal and the 3D was very well executed. The colors however, were muted and dull and did add a general malaise to the tone of the movie.
In so far as character development is concerned, the character that received the best treatment in the whole flick is really General Zod who has made the transition from being a cartoonishly villainous bad guy to being an anti-hero with a reasonable motivation to want to murder every living thing on Earth. There are times when Zod’s complexity has you wondering if he is, in fact, right in opposing humans’ right to exist over that of his own people. Superman and Lois’ relationship isn’t given too much service in its development, though the fact that Lois figures out who Superman is, before he is Superman immediately alleviates the silliness of her knowing Superman and Clark so well that her investigative skills are defeated by a pair of horn rimmed glasses. The fact that she is in on the secret and keeps it a secret out of respect and honor at least makes the Clark Kent, reporter guise (to be developed in the next movie hopefully) that much more possible. Other than that the character development is somewhat lacking in this movie. There are some touching scenes of parenthood on the parts of the Kents and the Els respectively, but it is probably fair to assert that if you somehow knew absolutely nothing about any single piece of the Superman mythos going into the movie, then you may not know why the hell certain characters were acting as they did. Luckily, there is probably not a single human American who can make that claim. With a 75 year history, commemorated this month with the release of this very movie, it is safe to say that anyone in America could probably identify Superman and some aspects of the staple stories and tropes of Superman stories.
While I did in fact say that I could not have made a better movie for Superman than this one when I left the theaters, that doesn’t mean this movie isn’t without its faults. Superman does very little to save innocent bystanders, and due to that millions of people probably die throughout the movie. I chalk this up to two key factors: this Superman is totally green with his powers, and is probably not aware of the full extent to which he can be helping those around him. (or he is limited as illustrated in other places in the movie), and also that there needs to be a sense of consequence for modern audiences to feel the danger of a situation. The Battle of Metropolis scene is intentionally and overtly evocative of 9/11 imagery with collapsing buildings, rushing crowds, and avalanches of debris and dust—and while the appropriateness of such is debatable, these images are images of disaster and consequence that are tattooed into our collective minds of what a city under siege looks like. To somehow make a greenhorn Superman able to save every life in the city…or even a majority of them…if too much to ask in an interpretation that, if anything, has attempted to put these fantastical elements of science fiction into a reasonably real world context. However, the small amount of times Superman does manage to save the day is too low, and he is not nearly outraged enough at the level of destruction he is participating in.
The movie also heavy handedly paints Superman as a messianic figure in more ways than one. From shots of Superman talking to a priest with a stained glass image of Jesus behind him, to evoking the post of the cross, to his blood being the salvation of his people its all a little much. That isn’t to say that Supes hasn’t always been a messianic figure but rather that the treatment here is hammered hard and Superman doesn’t really deliver all that much except on panty soaking good looks and abs that made my eyes cross with envy. There’s no moment of him giving people hope, and no moment of childlike wonder at the all-good man here to save us all from ourselves at his expense…just many moments of him drawing lines in the sand and proving to people that he is standing for Earth.
One of the big bones that I know people are picking with the movie is that Superman kills General Zod. I knew that he would kill Zod from the start…as soon as Zod killed Jor-El. This doesn’t bother me. For one, I feel like there is a time to kill your enemy whether your Superman, Batman, or Ant Man. Sometimes villains gotta die—not in cold blood murder, but in the moment and without alternative. Sometimes it is the most moral thing to do. Another reason why this doesn’t both me is because in the continuity of Superman that I grew up with in the 90s, Superman did kill General Zod. Yes. Superman killed General Zod in the comics. Even though it was a General Zod in an alternate reality and he did it using that reality’s Kryptonite (which did not effect him), Superman did kill Zod and his two henchmen, in continuity that one time. So, not only is there a precedent for Superman killing a villain, but there’s precedent for him killing specifically General Zod. To be fair though, it wasn’t by the quick snapping of a neck, it was by painfully slow radiation poisoning.
All in, I think this movie was a success, and was totally engrossing and engaging to boot. It had some points that clearly could have used more work, I think you could say that about most movies. For those who say the movie was lacking wit and humor I have to say that this seems to be what audiences want in order for Superman to be credible. Superman III and IV received a lot of criticism for being preachy and campy, wehre as Nolan’s Batman Trilogy was praised for a realistic and gritty world. While some argue that they don’t want anything to do with a Superman that is angsty, angry, and troubled, others seem to gravitate towards it because they are themselves those things. Superman has always been nothing if not a reflection of the heart of America at the time. If America believes it still has a strong sense of right and wrong, but is lost, angry, and troubled then Superman reflects that. I know there are many days that I feel just that way. Additionally the movie is fairly consistent with the current Superman comics product being put out there—it is consistent with the current take of the character, company wide in comics. Many people hate the New 52 take on characters, so they hate the take in this movie. Some are on the fence so their feelings are mixed. I’m willing to try new things and see if the heart of the character can stay the same, as the trappings are made more accessible and relevant to the masses. I think they can. I think they got it right, for this time and place, and the audiences that are paying to see movies. For longtime fans there are easter eggs and name drops throughout the whole thing (watch out for LexCorp!). In closing I’d like to restate that I wouldn’t have been able to make a better Superman movie…without having seen this one first.
Written by Brandon Melendez