Review: Man Of Steel

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I rarely bother to attend the cinema any more. We have only one cinemaplex in Launceston, and it shows nothing but the shiniest and latest and crappiest and Hollywoodest movies. Of course, sometimes I wouldn’t mind seeing those — but since it costs me well over a hundred dollars to do so with my children (taking into account parking, tickets, fuel, food, and incidentals) it’s not usually worth my time. I’ll probably catch the new Hobbit flick at the cinema when it comes out. That will make… maybe the third time I’ve been, this year. Maybe. Might be the second.

Obviously, I didn’t go to see Man of Steel. And with the tenor of the reviews that followed, I was quietly pleased with that decision, no matter how much I like the Superman character from my earliest days of reading as a child. Instead, I bought the DVD for less than $20, and we watched it the other night in the comfort of our home cinema loft… with plenty of gin and tonic on hand for yours truly. 

Maybe it was the G&T, but I found myself enjoying the film far more than I expected. From the critical noise, I was expecting something worse than Superman Returns, the slow, charmless and vapid 2006 clunker of a movie with Brandon Routh in the eponymous role. What I got was — well, not conventional Superman, no. But frankly, I felt it was the better for all that.

To me, the major flaw in this film lies in the attempt to do too much. The writers and director couldn’t manage to back away from the ongoing and highly irritating Christ metaphor: the Son sent to save us all. (At least poor old Supes didn’t die for our sins this time, as he did when Kevin Spacey dumped all that Kryptonite on him back in 2006). And then there’s the inevitable relationship-with-Lois, because you can’t make a Superman film without perky Lois Lane popping up, can you?

What interested me most were precisely the parts that most reviewers loathed. There’s the infamous mass-destruction fight sequences, of course, and the fact that the Superman character is, by the end, driven to deliberately kill another being. For most viewers, it seems these two things were completely unacceptable. For me, on the other hand, they seemed like a deliberate and very nearly interesting effort to offer a side of Superman never really explored elsewhere.

(As an aside — who has read the famous Larry Niven essay “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex“? If you haven’t, then follow the link. It’s a hilarious look at another aspect of the problem I’m about to cover.)

During the film, the director Snyder repeatedly shows us what it costs Kal-El/Clark Kent to grow up in a society of people without his powers. Early in his school years, he loses control of his super-senses, and he is bombarded by images and sounds that threaten to overwhelm his young mind. He desperately restrains himself when antagonised by a pack of school bullies; and we see how much effort it takes to do so in the shape of a steel fence-post deformed by his straining grip. 

At the beginning of the film, Clark/Kal-El is a loner and a drifter, moving from job to job in anonymity. Oh, sure: he does the obligatory heroic stuff, but he has to move along, and hide from it. Most importantly, he makes no real friends, develops no lasting relationships. 

And to me, Snyder’s point is clear: he can’t

Ask yourself this: how do you form friendships if you can’t carry out the simplest of social behaviours? Play sports? The slightest lapse in concentration might send a ball into orbit, or irretrievably mangle an opponent. And what about handshakes, or embraces? Try to imagine that everyone — everyone! — you ever touched in any way was made of wet tissue paper. Try to imagine that even sneezing might kill them. And no, you really can’t have a few drinks tonight. Oh, and sex? Better see that Larry Niven essay, eh?

This is the Superman Snyder was trying for. And I think he almost got there.

The grand smash-up battle sequences aren’t just CG-Eye candy. They’re important. You’re meant to be shocked by the scale of the destruction. This is what it means to let Superman off the chain, folks. This is what happens when he doesn’t pull his punches. Does it look like he revels in the battle? Not as much as he should. For the first time in his thirty-three years (sigh… enough with the Christ crap already!) he can push himself to his fullest, unleash everything he’s got. For the first time ever, he’s got a reason to stop pretending, stop holding everything back, and be himself.

Is Henry Cavill’s performance wooden? I’ve heard it called that. Maybe it was. But I’d argue that it was meant to imply absolute and utter restraint. Cavill’s Superman has to be calm and measured, or the people around him will die. Yes, it’s possible Cavill himself (and Snyder) didn’t have the chops to suggest that. But a slightly more focused script could have made it much easier, much clearer.

Even the final sequence — the moment where Superman kills Zod — that sent the fans into a raging death spiral… even that seems reasonable to me. Superman never kills, right?

Well… why the fuck not? Are we honestly supposed to believe that it’s his aw-shucks good-guy upbringing in Kansas which produces this ironclad rule? Frankly, the death penalty is a very American thing indeed these days. The idea of Kal-El as a sort of ‘natural boy scout’ is unbelievable crap, a hangover from a period when the US had all kinds of delusions about its moral superiority. The truth is that there’s no clear reason for a modern Superman to avoid killing the bad guys who insist on coming back, over and over again, to terrorise his world and people…

unless Superman has already had an encounter with the death penalty. Up close and personal. Say… if he was driven, against his will, to kill the last Kryptonian other than himself in hand-to-hand, unarmed combat. 

Yeah. That might do it, don’t you think? 

I’m not going to tell you this is a great film. But I will say this: I wish Snyder hadn’t kowtowed to the fanboy continuity crowd at all. I wish the Christ symbolism had been thrown out completely. I wish he’d had the sense to let Kal-El rail at hologram Jor-El over the terrible loneliness of his exile. I wish he’d had the sense to let Kal-El grieve at the destruction of the Kryptonian genesis chamber. I wish we’d been allowed to see a small super-boy accidentally cripple his beloved dog during a game of ‘catch’. 

Because the theme of this movie really ought to have been loneliness, and the desperation that comes with absolute isolation from your fellow beings. Clark Kent, behind his glasses forever watching a world that he can never, ever be a real part of…

…some day, I’d like to see them make a movie out of that Superman. But until then, this is a rather better effort than I’d anticipated, and I don’t resent the time I spent watching it.

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19 comments

  1. Thanks for the review, I haven’t watched it yet. Going to wait till it makes it on to Foxtel later this year. I remember reading a review posted by Prof Boyland and his problem with this superman was the killing, He makes the argument better than I could over at http://cheeseburgergothic.com/5559
    “I respect the opinions of anyone who liked Man of Steel. It was well acted. The production values were spectacular. But the writing, in my opinion, wasn’t up to scratch and a movie that isn’t well written isn’t, in my opinion, a good film. It wasn’t the words that were bad, it was the basic construct that was flawed: ultimately, we were seeing a Superman who didn’t really care about the safety of others (until after thousands had died). I can deal with a more realistic, flawed hero. But this wasn’t a conscious flaw designed to create a deeper character that was meant to transcend the cartoon: this was an inexplicable oversight.

    Compare the Dark Knight. Bruce Wayne is motivated to protect the lives of those around him. Compare Captain America. Steve Rogers throws himself on a grenade to save others even before his transformation into a super soldier. Compare Iron Man. Tony Stark became a hero when he became concerned over those he had placed in harms way. Compare the Avengers. Large sections of that movie were devoted to efforts to protect those in harms way. There is a simply beautiful, brief moment when the Hulk transforms, stops an alien death machine that Iron Man causes to explode. Just before that explosion, the Black Widow turns away from the explosion and Captain America covers her with his shield, protecting her from the explosion at the risk of his own exposure. It is an amazing five seconds of film that cost big money. Joss Whedon wrote that into the script, at high cost, for a reason: he knew what heroes do and why they do it. He made sure we saw it because we choke up with wonder and pride when we witness heroic acts.

    The Man of Steel depicted a Superman devoid of heroic aspect. Yes, he saves some people near the beginning and he saves some at the end, but between those seemingly meaningless moments thousands die without a thought to their safety and without any reaction to their slaughter.

    Don’t even get me started about supervillian Aliens with high tech weaponry who choose not to use their ray guns, but instead prefer to punch American soldiers – who, by the way, keep shooting at them despite knowing (surely, after endless tries, they knew) that bullets were useless against Kryptonian soldiers.

    Don’t even get me started about an alien civilization that is so advanced that they can afford to incarcerate their criminals in orbital prisons (in tubular constructs my wife called “plasma penises [in all honesty they did look like large penises]) and have explored the universe but somehow cannot leave the planet and escape into space before their planet explodes – leaving, as survivors, those prisoners in orbit.

    As always, it has to do with expectations. The X-Men, Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, the Avengers and Nolan’s Batman trilogy showed how good an updated comic book could be. I expected something as good as Captain America or the Avengers from a Nolan/Snyder collaboration. Instead I got something only a little better than Green Lantern that, despite being a bit better, still suffered from the problems that made Green Lantern an enormous disappointment.

    There is a whole analysis as to why this happened based in a comparision of the creative teams exploiting DC properties and the creative teams exploiting Marvel properties. But I don’t have the energy or incination to get into that right now.

    Man of Steel is fine film. Just not for me. I expect better from people who know or should know better.”

    For me I only had one question.
    He was Zod, did no one kneel before him? Tv Tropes has already put up this

    Man of Steel averts this; though General Zod is the primary antagonist, he never actually commands anyone to kneel before him. However, at one point, Superman is kneeling due to sheer fatigue on the platform of a building still under construction, as Zod hovers in front of him to gloat some more. That’s right, it took 35 years, but Superman is finally (albeit unintentionally) kneeling before Zod.

    also I really like the How it should ahve ended (HISHE) crew’s take on the movie

    1. I have no argument with the Prof’s line of reasoning. My take? This isn’t Superman-as-hero. This is Kal-El the lonely exile, incredibly isolated by his very nature, and doubly tormented in that to all outward appearances he should be able to be part of everything he sees around him.

      We’ve seen Superman-as-hero over and over. Superman-as-saviour simply bores me shitless now. As I said in the review: I really wish Snyder had been able to go even more deeply into this side of Superman… because loneliness and near-indestructibility can become marvellous motivators, showing a new reason as to why Superman might want to protect the beautiful, fragile, and desperately ephemeral world around him.

      I really think Snyder was TRYING to get there. But I doubt Hollywood or DC would ever let it happen.

      1. I suppose the question for what you’re proposing is: how much do you take out of Superman before it stops being Superman? If you change who the character is, and what he does, was it necessary to make it Superman at all?

  2. Superman doesn’t kill people. That’s not a restriction of the character – it’s one of the things that makes him Superman. It irritates me every time they write a Superman that kills, whether here in Man of Steel or back in Superman II.

    1. Grant… where and when did Superman make that decision? Sure, Snyder’s film is flawed. Badly. But to me, the moment with Zod looks very much like the place in his life where he makes that defining decision.

      As I observed in the review: that’s a hell of a thing, a decision never, ever to kill. For me, it’s not enough to say “well, he’s all about the truth and the justice and the amurican way” because today’s America embraces the death penalty, and far more. Today’s America rains drones on distant countries, piloted remotely by men who might as well be playing video games.

      SOMETHING has to motivate Superman not to kill. Ergo: I have no problem with the killing of Zod here EXCEPT that Snyder didn’t show us enough to make the soul-destroying effects of that decision clear.

      1. Why isn’t it possible for Superman to just have a strong moral centre? I’ve never been faced with a situation where I’ve been forced to kill somebody and *I* don’t think it’s ever okay to murder.

        This is a significant problem for Snyder that also helped to scupper his Watchmen adaptation: when Silk Spectre and Nite Owl are as brutally violent as Rorshach, the entire story falls apart.

        1. Personally, I don’t believe in the possibility of an ‘absolute morality’. I think that no matter how enlightened you are, morality is a learned thing. It takes empathy and understanding and experience.

          I’m sure Superman the character has a very strong moral centre. And for decades, the character canonically got that moral centre from his parents: which in itself answers your question. (If his innate moral centre is so strong, how is it that for all this time we’ve been shown, over and over, just how vital his parents have been to his moral responses?)

          I accept that this isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. And of course, the question of how much you can remove before the character isn’t Superman any more is a good one.

          And yet there’s another question: how many stories can you tell about exactly the same character before the character has to change? That’s a trick question, as any author can tell you: characters change by necessity. It’s vital to what we understand as narrative.

          Recurrent characters like Batman and Superman are especially difficult, because they’re not expected to change. Instead, they are instruments of change in other characters. They mete out justice, or vengeance, or mercy, or whatever. Nevertheless, there’s only so many times you can tell the story of other characters being changed by Superman, or Batman, or any of them.

          Eventually, you have to allow the central character to change — or you’ve killed them.

          1. I’m not saying he doesn’t learn his morals from *somewhere*, I’m just saying that by the time he’s at the point where he’s wearing a cape and saving people from falling buildings, that morality is already pretty cemented – otherwise he’s not Superman.

            My problem is that we’ve had an authentic Superman on screen precisely once, in Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie, and that doesn’t seem to be so many times that we need to see different takes on the character in cinema when they generally can’t get the central one right.

            1. That Donner film… they really got their ducks lined up there, didn’t they? I remember loving it as a kid. Showed it to my boys a while back, and they liked it too.

  3. paulboylan · · Reply

    I hated this film. I am using the word “hate” here, about this film. You liked it because you expected very little. I hated it because I expected much, much more.

    1. It’s true. I expected little. But expecting little, I maintain I’ve seen a thing in it that was underused and underdeveloped, and all but drowned by the usual trappings of red and blue and big S and krypton and Christ-myth and the rest.

      It should have been a better film. And one way it could have been far better would have been by more wholly abandoning the Superman everyone knows and expects, and instead, showing us more clearly how that Superman arises from lonely, exiled Kal-El.

      I think Snyder tried for that, but I don’t think he pulled it off. Nevertheless, what was there on the screen was enough to offer me, personally, a new way to consider the big blue boy scout.

      Loneliness. Isolation. I’d never really put those into place around Superman before. They’re not part of the regular mythology. He’s always the family guy as Clark Kent, with Ma and Pa and the farm. Or he’s hangin’ with Lois and Jimmy. And when he’s out there heroing, everybody’s watching and cheering.

      The question of how he got to that place… yeah. I like the ideas at play. I’ll give Snyder credit for trying.

      1. paulboylan · · Reply

        Ideas, in isolation, do not make a film – or any artwork – worth experiencing. I readily grant that Man of Steel had some fine ideas. But they were overshadowed if not overwhelmed by bad ideas and mistakes in artistic judgment that are even more aggravating because they are inexplicable. This film was loaded with experienced talent (Snyder, Nolan). It was amply financed (a larger budget than the Avengers) yet depicted things so dumb it ruined, for me, what was good. It depicted those dumb things beautifully, but, in the end, it was still dumb and so was the hero. Good looking, super powered, and dumb as a box of hair.

        I welcome something new and edgy. I loved the Green Hornet because it shattered some hallowed superhero cliches (e.g., the villain has hilarious self esteem issues). Man of Steel may have tried to be something new and edgy, but it did not succeed. It was a mess – an enormous waste of time and money, a tragically lost opportunity to update the Superman myth the way Frank Miller updated Batman in 1986, Brian Singer updated the X Men in 2000 and Sam Rami updated Spiderman in 2004.

  4. I just wanted someone to say ‘Kneel before ZOD” was that too much to ask?

  5. Well, damn. I thought three layers of nested replies would be adequate. I’ll have to fix that as soon as I can. Meanwhile… I certainly understand Prof Boylan’s take. It’s definitely not a good film. But for me, a new angle or a new idea is a valuable thing, enough to let me take something away from the piece.

  6. Huh. Couldn’t have said it better myself. I’ve always joked about Superman accidentally thrusting a naked Lois through an apartment wall (who hasn’t?), but always just gave it the cartoon context, where she’ll have landed on the couch a little contorted, but with a “I’m good” as she gets back up and covers herself with the bed sheet she conveniently held onto during her short career as a demolition ball, minus the Miley Cyrus.
    I haven’t seen it, but I’ve been told about some of the points of it. My gripe is Zod and his appearance as the first antagonist in a reboot. I believe they should have started smaller, before they moved onto God-on-God Action (brown chicken brown cow). But, this is the choice they made. Now to see Lex Luthor make his way into Defending Earth from these Foreign Deities that have made one attempt on his peoples home, and shouldn’t be allowed to again.

    1. Yeah — I figured Zod was the “easy answer” to the question of how you challenge Supes enough to make a movie. The original Donner flick did the easy stuff: bringing the classic Superman everyone knows onto the screen. Doing that again would be not just cheesy, but likely boring enough to kill the franchise.

      So they needed something to push things a bit. And you can just about hear the writer’s meeting where they say: “Why not Zodberg?” (Sorry. Couldn’t resist)

      I guess in the end, the big blue guy is a very tough character to write for.

      1. It’s true. All the good God stories are all about illegitimate mutant children and their antics of kicking ass, taking names and getting kinky with their cousins and mothers.

        Speaking of which, 1981 Clash of the Titans is on.

        1. Oooh! Time to make popcorn!

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