DIRECTED BY: Zack Snyder
WRITTEN BY: David S. Goyer
STARRING: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne
Let’s talk about “darkness” in superhero movies for a moment. Christopher Nolan popularized the idea that superhero movies could be both mature as well thematically rich. He built his movies around ideas and thematic concepts rather than strictly character and plot. Hollywood has taken the superficial elements of this philosophy and regurgitated it in an attempt to emulate the success of Nolan’s Batman films. And now it’s come full circle and back to Nolan (well…maybe, I don’t know how much he was actually involved with this movie). Though Nolan tried to hide it under his pretense of “realism”, he still understood the appeal of superheroes is that they are fun, they embody a sense of wish fulfillment in the viewer even when the story might question why. No superhero embodies this sense of wish fulfillment and fun more than Superman, so by that logic a movie featuring him should also be one that is fun.
This movie is not fun.
This movie feels like it was made by a bunch of people who don’t understand what makes Superman interesting or appealing, instead basing their interpretation on some mistaken notion of what they think a “dark” Superman would be. The result here is a ponderous, boring slog of a film that beats you over the head with its message so much that it loses all its meaning by the time the film’s bloated, 4o minute climax begins. Even Han’s Zimmer’s score for this movie is overproduced, blunt, and monotonous in its insistency that yes there is genuine emotion here. It’s a superficial darkness that only goes as far as the washed out colors and explosive destruction and mayhem. What that does is make the attempts at fun and humor feel…weird and, honestly, kind of uncomfortable.
My reactions to aspects of Man of Steel aren’t in any way mild, that is there are things in this movie I really, really liked, and things I really, really, really hated. There is no mild reaction to what you see in this movie, but it’s such a mixed bag of greatness and garbage that it all adds up to an overwhelming and decisive “meh”. A week later and I can’t even remember half of what happened. It’s an hour and a half movie stretched out to two and a half hours, and in all that time I still know absolutely nothing new about these characters that I didn’t already know going into this. People spend more time here talking about why Superman is so great, and less time actually showing us. Of course once we get to the last 40 minutes, we’re bludgeoned over the head with sensory overload action and absurd gravity defying fistfights with suitable accompanying mayhem. Story? What’s that? I can’t hear you over the sound of Superman punching Zod through a building!
The editing and pacing on display here are shockingly poor. The movie bounces back and forth from modern day to Clark Kent’s childhood and back again. What’s weird is that these flashbacks aren’t even done in order. They seem to happen at seemingly random points and jumping back and forth along his life based on some loose context with what the characters happen to be talking about at that present moment. At the end of the opening, as the rocket carrying our hero crashes on the planet, the story instantly cuts to Clark working on a fishing boat and saving some people on an oil rig. There’s no transition, no indication of the passage of time. Even a title card at least would have been appreciated, but I don’t think even that came in until the credits. Even the cinematography was really weird. Not only does it have loads of completely unnecessary shaky cam, but there’s also this weird camera thing where the camera pans for a moment and then does a sudden crash zoom (sometimes two). They did this in Star Trek too, and I don’t know whether this is just some sort of new trend or something, but it’s really unnecessary and distracting.
With all that said, you might be thinking “wow, he really hates this movie, he must think it’s one of the worst movies ever!”, and, well…no, it’s not. I can’t really explain it, but there’s something that’s…weirdly endearing about a movie that completely ignores any semblance of a coherent story in favor of utterly mindless, utterly numbing action and special effects. Endearing, however, doesn’t really equate to “entertaining”, and for most of its run I wouldn’t really call Man of Steel “entertaining”. In fact, outside of some of the films explosive fistfights, the movie was actually kind of boring. It’s not as if the dialogue keeps the film propped up or anything, I mean it sounds like it was written by a 14 year old. It’s hard to believe that this was written by the same guy who wrote The Dark Knight. Then again, he also wrote The Dark Knight Rises…so it’s maybe not that hard to believe.
Essentially, this is a movie without a functioning brain. Everything that happens in this film is either utterly arbitrary, or committed under the pretense of complete idiocy. Why didn’t Zod and Co. just colonize another planet? Mars is practically right next door for them, seems as good a place as any to colonize. Zod gives some sort of justification that he doesn’t want to have people adjust to the pain of gaining super yellow sun powers…but changing Earth isn’t going to change the sun. Also, why couldn’t the Kryptonians have evacuated? We’re told by Jor-el they’re already dead…but they have space travel, and they got Zod and Kal-el off easily enough, what was the big deal? How is it that nobody seems to be able to discover the identity of Superman when it took Lois maybe a couple days and basic investigative skills to do so? What’s this codex thing everyone’s kind of sort of up in arms about? What does it actually do? Why is it important for Krypton’s future? Why is it basically forgotten about once its plot relevance is used up? The reason for all of the above things is because these things are what get characters from point A to point B, that’s it. It doesn’t move the “story” forward; it’s solely a vehicle for plot (which is different).
I kind of get what the Goyer was going for as far as building emotional conflict for Superman. Superman is a character driven by his legacy, torn between the expectations and teachings of two fathers, the desire to live a normal, human life, and a life that lives up to the promise of his heritage and abilities. Much speechmaking is made about one’s ability to choose what path he wants to take in life. There’s this underdeveloped idea of Kryptonians being artificially born and raised to fulfill a certain societal role, and that Kal-El, being “Krypton’s first natural birth in centuries”, somehow gives him the choice to chart his own course in life. It’s a neat idea, but it doesn’t really go anywhere beyond some ponderous sermonizing and a cursory reference before the Zod fight. The film is so focused on the idea of Superman that it spends most of its runtime telling us over and over and over how wonderful Superman is, how much Earth NEEDS him to save him. They really push the Jesus imagery hard in some scenes, at one point basically putting Clark next to an image of Jesus just to hammer it home for us in case we didn’t get it before. It’s kind of ironic, really, that Superman’s very presence on the planet is what causes the problem in the first place. Clearly Jor-El didn’t think his plan all the way through…
Oh and speaking of Jor-El, probably my favorite part of the film is that opening scene on Krypton. Now don’t get me wrong, for all intents and purposes this whole segment is overlong, poorly written, and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. What it does have, though, is Russell Crowe saying “Nobody cares anymore, Kelix, the world is about to come to an end” completely straight without even the slightest hint of irony. Russell Crowe as Jor-El, by the way, is one of the best parts of this movie, and he was the first person I thought would be phoning it in for this movie. The sequences combination of beautiful visuals, creative design, silly story, booming score, and just how perfectly straight everyone plays it makes it teeter on the edge of being outright camp. It’s glorious and I loved every single minute of it.
As far as the other actors are concerned, I can’t really say any of them are bad exactly (the script doesn’t really give them a chance to). Cavill is a really good Superman. He certainly has the look, and he seems to be at least capable of conveying some genuine emotion despite the script. I wish Michael Shannon was given more to do as General Zod. I honestly can’t decide whether he should have hammed it up more or toned it down, but he tries to lend a superficial sense of nuance to a character that’s written to be pretty much lacking in one. Kevin Costner blands it up as only Kevin Costner can do as papa Kent. Probably one of the most unintentionally funny scenes was where he and Clark are having the whole “you’re not my real dad” talk. Then, out of nowhere, a tornado just pops up and forcing everyone to run for cover. Kent Sr. then goes back to rescue a dog, and just as Clark is about to save him, he holds up is hand and tells him not to so he won’t reveal his secret identity. He doesn’t even get sucked up into the tornado; he just gets enveloped by a grey fog while smiling in just about the cheesiest manner possible. It’s not that the idea of the scene was bad, it’s just its placement in the structure of the film and execution are so hilariously out of place that all it accomplishes is to make the audience snigger at the goofy martyrdom complex this movie seems to carry. Diane lane is…there. No, that’s not true; she does actually have one of the best scenes in the movie. Early on we see her comforting a young Clark who is just now dealing with his powers for the first time. In a movie pumped to the max with testosterone, it’s good to have at least some good female characters at least present actually doing something.
Oh that’s right! Lois Lane was in this movie, I almost forgot. Again it’s not like Amy Adams is “bad” or anything, but her character is so thinly written, so utterly superfluous to the plot, that she might as well have not been in the movie at all. It doesn’t help that Adams has just about zero chemistry with Cavill, so their spontaneous romance comes completely out of nowhere. Seriously! Out of nowhere! they just make out after the battle when there wasn’t any indication prior that they had romantic feelings for each other. On that note, the whole Daily Planet crew did next to nothing this whole movie except…be there, because the daily planet is in Superman so it obviously has to be in the movie too, right? It’s a waste of Laurence Fishburne to have him basically do nothing but be there to be there. It’s hard for me to care when the movie allocates large chunks of its running time to what these people are doing during the destruction of Metropolis.
Oh, and speaking of wanton destruction, let’s talk about that ending. There’s been a lot of controversy surrounding whether Superman should have brutally snapped Zod’s neck like he does here. Personally, I thought the decision to have Superman kill General Zod could have worked if it was executed right. It’s not like Superman has a rule against killing like Batman does, but discounting that does it work on a narrative level? Short answer: no. For one thing, for basically the past 40 minutes we’ve seen Superman not care about the thousands and thousands of people his building-shattering fistfights have killed through collateral damage. We’re never given any indication of his aversion to killing before, and the fact that he’s willing to condemn the Kryptonians to eternal torment in the Phantom Zone seems to gel well enough with his conscience already. There is no precedence to his (admittedly compelling) reaction to the deed, and thus it just comes off as callous and cold, a cheap stunt to make the film more “mature”. There’s also the fact that this moral conundrum is promptly forgotten the moment the next scene starts.
It’s all endemic of the problems that constantly take you out of the experience. This film displays all the worst excesses of those involved: Goyer’s juvenile storytelling, Snyder’s obsession with visuals and “cool” factor over story, Nolan’s focus on ideas over character. This is all present without the respective filmmakers strengths present, cancelling each other out in a way that obscures any sense of unified vision in the finished film. It’s a hodgepodge of half-baked ideas and bland characters obfuscated under the cover of superficial “darkness” and relentless, mind-numbing action scenes. There are occasional visceral thrills, but these moments outstay their welcome very quickly. It’s a cynical, bland movie hiding under the veneer of idealism and iconography, and of everything that’s probably what’s most frustrating.
RATING: * * (out of four)
P.S: I’m not sure but I think this movie might have wanted me to buy a Nikon DSLR camera, eat at IHOP, and shop at Sears. There’s product placement, and then there’s building whole set pieces around a brand name pancake restaurant. I guess all for the sake of making the world seem more real amiright?
P.P.S: Also, did, anyone else find it weird that kid Clark was playing around dressed up as a Superhero, cape and all, when his character is the character that invented such depictions of superheroes. I mean, he even does the pose! I mean, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that that kind of costume would exist in that, but wouldn’t people then say “wow why’s he dressed up like *insert equivalent comic hero here*”. I don’t know, I just thought it was kind of strange.