At the conclusion of the midnight showing of Man of Steel I attended, around half the crowd erupted into standing applause while the other half quickly queued for the exits appearing to collectively prepare their “It was okay…I guess…actually, it may have been kind of bad” arguments for after-film conversations.
Two weeks later and that’s still roughly how everyone is reacting to it. Superman comic book writer Mark Waid said Man of Steel broke his heart, and Chronicle screenwriter Max Landis lamented via YouTube that Man of Steel forgot the ‘hero’ part of superhero. But others in the pop culture section of the internet loved it, arguing passionately and eloquently on the topic – like here, here, and here. Around these parts, we didn’t hate it, we didn’t love it. In my review (which you can read here), I concluded, “It is not a horrible film, for as spectacle film-making goes it has that in spades, it’s just not, well, super.” Julianne looked to the past and argued how Superman Returns is closer to the version of Superman she prefers.
With Man of Steel, the central creative triumvirate of screenwriter David S. Goyer, producer/co-story writer Christopher Nolan, and director Zack Snyder created a film that delights as often as it disappoints. In that same spirit, let’s head straight to spoiler-town and dig into 4 we liked about Man of Steel and 4 things we didn’t:
*SPOILERS A-PLENTY BELOW. THERE WILL BE NO HOLDING BACK ON PLOT DETAILS*
1) Henry Cavill
Cavill is now the man spoken of in hushed tones by many lustful fans and may even cause confused feelings in those not otherwise inclined to fancy a man. However, I’ve been a fan of the Cavill casting for a while for an entirely different yet still ultimately superficial reason: he just looks like Clark Kent/Superman to me, and not just because his physique resembles that of a comic book character. Luckily, he brings more than mere physical resemblance to the part, and is generally adept at making a rather bland character seem less bland. He is better served in the film’s first half especially since he has maybe no more than 8 lines in the entire second hour. This is not a version of Superman for everyone, but for what this version of Superman is Henry Cavill is perfect and the excellent last minute of the film suggests even better things for him now that he has his press badge and glasses.
2) Clark’s First Flight
In the 1978 Superman, Clark Kent simply exits the Fortress of Solitude wearing his Superman costume, and takes to flight with utter ease. Well, that was good for its time, but that crap ain’t going to fly (honestly, no pun intended) now. We need to see our heroes struggling with their powers at first. You have to give us mere mortals something (i.e., failure) to which we can relate. Peter Parker can’t just instantly know how to use his web shooters and jump from building to building in New York City without falling on his face. Tony Stark can’t take his Iron Man armor into Earth’s upper atmosphere without falling down the first time he does so. So, even if it was by-now a cliched scene of all superhero origin films Clark Kent’s joyous first flight as Superman before he goes too high and loses control was a lot of fun.
3) Clark’s Discovery of His Powers
I would argue this film deploys one too many flashbacks, but the one I enjoyed the most involved young Clark is in a grade school classroom where he suddenly experiences X-ray vision and super sonic hearing. This moment is an early establishment of why Clark became an outsider (the scared whispers from the other students he oversees), his bond with the calming presence of his mother (her ability to get him out of the closet he’s locked himself into by having him focus on her voice), and predicts the reaction the Kryptonian villains will have when they are first exposed to Earth’s atmosphere. So, it’s important that they get it right, and in this instance they did not fail. The special effects are incredibly cool, and the young actor playing Clark Kent and Diane Lane as Martha Kent play the scene beautifully.
Antje Trau may ultimately have fewer lines as Faora than Sarah Douglass did as Ursa in Superman II, but she makes better use of her screen time and gives the world some much needed girl power in the form of a woman who kicks Superman’s ass with utter ease. Trau plays Faora as a being with a singular purpose, almost Klingon-like in her welcoming a joyous battle and advising those she is about to defeat that “a good death is its own reward.” In fact, she seems disappointed during the Smallville fight that Clark has clearly never fought before and is no match for her. At one point, Faora is knocked out, but I failed to buy it because she had been shown as such a badass to that point. By the end, when Faora is defeated and sucked into the Phantom Zone boy did my interest level in the film drop considerably.
When it comes down to it, Faora is still just a secondary villain playing second fiddle to Michael Shannon’s General Zod. However, Trau imbued her with enough strength and general charisma that suddenly a Wonder Woman film doesn’t sound so bad (until I remember the lasso of truth and invisible plane stuff).
Honorable Mentions: Kevin Costner, Amy Adams’ good-but-not-great work as Lois Lane, The Semi-Truck Wrapped Around a Powerline, Basically everything after Krypton but before Zod shows back up, “Welcome to the planet” – perfect last line of the film
We start the movie on Krypton, beginning with baby Kal-El emerging from his mother’s vagina and only leaving our time on the planet once Kal-El’s escape pod has managed to evade General Zod’s grasp. In-between, we get a lot of actors in goofy costumes standing on sets with mostly green screen backgrounds. Russell Crowe flies on the back of a dragon, Michael Shannon yells and delivers the most unintentionally funny line-reading of the word “Heresy!” you’ll ever hear, and it just all generally keeps happening long after you’d thought it would have ended. Plus, somebody let the Time Lords from Gallifrey in:
This is an undeniably crucial sequence, plot-wise. Important characters (Jor-El, Zod) and concepts (Kryptonians are genetically engineered but Kal-El is of a natural birth) are introduced, and we get a general sense of why Krypton has failed as a planet (because they just wouldn’t listen to the Gladiator when he was trying to warn them). Plus, later in the film Kal-El will be forced to choose between his adopted brethern (humans) or those of his race by birth (Kryptonians), and it helps at that point to have seen a little bit of Krypton. Emphasis on the little bit, though, as for me this sequence seriously overstays it welcome.
Let me put it this way: you know who are always better heard about but never seen? Pompous, all-knowing aliens with the goofy costumes. In Doctor Who, it’s the Time Lords; in Superman, it turns out it’s the Kryptonians. The idea of Superman being the last of his own kind is incredibly captivating, just as modern Doctor Who has done making the Doctor the last of the Time Lords. However, the specific reasons that Superman’s people perished are simply not as important as the fact that they perished. Nolan and Goyer admirably looked at this as an untapped resource for dramatic potential, and for some it was so sci-fi crazy they could have stayed on the planet the entire film. Me? I was looking for the first exit out of there and down to Earth and relatability.
2) Human Characters We Don’t Know In Peril and Endless Kryptonian v. Kryptonian Fights With Catastrophic Consequences
In the film’s second hour it devolves into endless fight scenes featuring god-like creatures hitting each other and knocking down so many skyscrapers in the process it’s hard to keep count. Is this finally the Superman action that before this only the cartoons and comic books have been able to deliver? Or is this just a repetitive slog which grows tiresome quickly?
It’s both, and it’s also possibly the biggest sticking point for all of the film’s naysayers. Yes, the fight sequences are impressive, and they look pretty cool. However, there is simply precious little narrative tension watching god-like creatures fight each other when there is no prospect of either side losing. Superman II realized this, and gave Superman an Achilles’s Heel – his need to protect innocent bystanders. Man of Steel pays this notion lip service, having Superman do the standard “get back inside” warning for bystanders in Smallville and saving both a falling Lois Lane and a military figure. However, Man of Steel is more concerned with Superman functioning as a symbol of hope who will inspire the human characters to perform deeds of great heroism.
That’s actually a good idea which is ultimately let down by the film’s failure to develop these secondary human characters. The idea of Perry White locking “we’re both going to die” eyes with Jenny because he refuses to leave her behind, a moment of individual heroism, is great in concept. However, by the point it actually happens the film has completely failed to establish Jenny as a character. It’d be like if instead of Agent Coulson being in mortal peril in The Avengers it was instead the random S.H.I.E.L.D. worker who Tony Stark caught playing old arcade games at his work station. You could say that here we’re supposed to care because Perry White is also in danger as a result of his refusing to leave Jenny, but it’s not like Perry’s had a whole lot of development either.
So, with random Daily Planet workers and military figures our only real people on the street humanizing the destruction Superman is free to just play rock-em, sock-em Kryptonians with Zod, Faora, and others. A consultant firm even calculated the estimated damage from the final battle in Metropolis at 125,000 dead, 250,000 missing, and nearly a million injured. Yes, a lot of people would have died in the battle at the end of The Avengers as well, but at least then we saw Captain America saving people and directing rescue efforts. Crucially, the film took a moment after it was all over to acknowledge the destruction. Man of Steel may have held off on such a moment for the sequel, but even a simple acknowledgment that Superman realizes just how much has been destroyed would have made a huge difference.
This of course speaks to what version of Superman do you want – the one who is a hero who saves people, or the one who is super and can tear down tall skyscrapers with one punch. The movie can do the latter and be okay. However, from a mere storytelling perspective you have to find ways to make Superman vulnerable, and that brief section of him being weakened while fighting the doomsday machine really didn’t cut it.
3) Breaking Zod’s Neck – Why Didn’t You Do That Earlier?
Superman straight up murders General Zod in this film. I have no great emotional attachment to the character of Superman nor to a particular set of ideals by which he is supposed to operate. As such, while it was admittedly jarring to see him kill someone I wasn’t horribly alarmed by the mere fact of him killing. Instead, because I had been so distracted during the Superman vs. Zod battle by the wanton destruction and calculating in my head just how many innocent humans were likely dying the second Superman snapped Zod’s neck my immediate thought was, “Holy shit! You mean to tell me you could have done that this whole time!”
This is the climax of the film – it’s an incredibly important moment. It is in this instance that Superman ultimately chooses humans over Kryptonians, his anguished cry afterward not so much a “I just killed a man!” scream but a panicked “I am the last of my kind, and it’s all my fault!” This is a very Doctor vs. the Master from season 3 of modern Doctor Who scenario in which the hero wants desperately to figure out how to co-exist with the sole remaining member of his race even though this person is crazy-town bonkers and evil. Of course, in that scenario it is not the Doctor but somebody else who kills the Master whereas here they were more willing to let Superman get his hands dirty.
I like the idea, I really do. It just feels so out-of-step with the entire last sequence of the film to that point. Plus, although others more familiar with the comic books seem fine with it I am not 100% on board with the notion that Superman could just break Zod’s neck. They’re supposed to be invulnerable. Nothing hurts them, and in fact to that point the only damage incurred by a Kryptonian in battle is that Faora was briefly knocked unconscious in Smallville. But Superman can just snap Zod’s neck? Maybe I’ve been trained to expect Kryptonians to only be vulnerable to damage when exposed to kryptonite, but I call bullshit.
4) Hope? Really? Mr. “I’ve Been On Earth Now for 33 Years and An ‘S’ Has Always Simply Been an ‘S’ To Me, But Now I’m All High and Mighty About It”
Ah, yes, the moment we all saw in the trailer – Lois interrogating Superman about the ‘S’ on his chest and being informed that on his planet it’s not an ‘S’ but instead the symbol for hope. Fantastic. Great. They took the iconic Superman crest and gave it a deeper meaning, which ties into the main throughline of Jor-El’s intention for his son to serve as a symbol of hope and source of inspiration for the humans on Earth. The idea of the ‘S’ having a larger meaning, specifically being the symbol of Kal-El’s Kryptonian family, is even an idea with its source in the comic books, which is a nice touch.
But talk about a quirk turnaround. Clark has lived on Earth for 33 years and only just found out about Krypton and his true identity. What’s it been? Like 48-72 hours at that point that he’s actually even know the word Krypton? Suddenly he fancies himself the expert fit to lecture Lois about what an ‘S’ really means? Here’s another one – why is it that Krypton just happens to have the letter ‘S’ as a symbol of something while on Earth it is a common letter of the alphabet? Why the overlap!
Actually, I kind of liked the scene in question, but it occurred to me afterward how little time had passed from “I’m from a planet called Krypton?” to “Back off, Lois – I am an expert on everything Krypton, and I am a walking symbol of hope. You hear me – hope!”
Dishonorable Mentions: Michael Shannon, Clark/Lois romance not entirely convincing, Way too much exposition from holographic Jor-El
Oh, enough with the ranting. I’ve said my piece. It’s your turn. Go. … Well, I mean go to the comments section, not literally go.
If you like this, check out our other “Nitpicking” Articles as Well as Some of Our Other Man of Steel Content:
- Nitpicking Iron Man 3 – 5 More Things That Bothered Us
- Nitpicking Iron Man 3 – The 8 Things That Bothered Us
- Review: Man of Steel-The Man of Tomorrow Still Waiting for a Truly Great Superman Movie
- What Man of Steel’s Super Box Office Means
- Comic-Con: That Man of Steel Sequel? It’s Actually Going to be a Batman-Superman Team-Up Film