Man of Steel

Short version:

I was very disappointed by Man of Steel. I found it largely joyless, thought the writing was sloppy, and it portrayed a nearly unrecognizable version of Superman the hero.

 

Long version:

SPOILERS and NERD SMASH alert. 😉

 

I had a lot of problems with Man of Steel, almost everything of which came down to strongly disagreeing with the writing and directing choices. Superman should be an inspiration of a character, someone who clearly and deeply loves humanity. This version of Superman was too alienated, too detached, and saved people because he was told to (but inconsistently told, by a terribly-handled Jonathan Kent). I’ve been a Superman fan pretty much my whole life, from reading comics and seeing the Donner films as a kid, growing up as a geek with the cartoons, the comics, the games, everything. Superman is a difficult character to write well, largely because most people just write him as an action hero, and have to keep throwing bigger and nastier physical threats against him. Whereas I see Superman as a moral/ethical hero, an exemplar – who chooses not to become a tyrant even though he could, instead inspiring humanity to save ourselves and only stepping in when we can’t.

 

WHERE’S MY BIG BLUE BOY SCOUT?

In Man of Steel, Clark never shows joy when it isn’t connected to his family or flying (the flying scene was delightful, I will admit. But none of it was connected to humanity, it was the joy of power and freedom). He does connect to Lois at the end, but Superman should connect with and love everyone, all of humanity). It seems like he helps people because he was told that he should help people, not because he wants to do it or feels connected to people. Superman is supposed to be a role model, a man who loves humanity and fights to protect humanity for its worthiness, for its potential to do good. There’s almost nothing on the screen to give him hope for humanity, due to how disconnected and shunned he was. I get that it’s 2013, but that doesn’t mean that Superman should become darker. He’s supposed to be a bright shining beacon. When our world gets darker, Superman should shine that much more brightly.

 

VERY BAD FATHER’S DAY MOVIE

Jonathan Kent is a coward and a terrible father (Jor-El was also a terrible father). This version of Jonathan was morally inconsistent and a confusing father figure to Clark, setting his son’s priorities totally askew. On the one hand, Jonathan says “whatever kind of man you become, he’s going to change the world,” but also says that maybe Clark should have let his classmates die, that he can’t reveal himself. He never praises Clark for saving people, never talks about *how* he could make the world better. The out-of-order sequencing of Clark’s childhood and relationship with his parents further muddles this, and the last advice his father gives him is to *not* act, to *not* help people. Which leaves adult Clark totally aimless and detached from the world, which feeds into the joylessness and lack of heartfelt connection to humanity.

 

ZOD

Zod should have been awesome. The Terrence Stamp version of the character leaves a big shadow, and the Michael Shannon version pales in comparison, when he needen’t to have done so.

I wanted a Zod who was desperate, out of resources, driven to his edge by the loss of his people, the repeated failures of their colony worlds, and the compatibility failure of trying to use the World Engine elsewhere. A Zod who approached Clark genuinely, without mustache-twirling. Who beseeched Clark to help them find a compatible planet. That Zod would have then be driven to desperation and decide that Earth is Krypton’s only hope, who comes to violence only when pushed to it. A Zod who rose up against the corrupt ruling council on Krypton  because they were blind and doddering rather than seeming to do it because he was evil and the script said he should, would have been an amazing villain, and would have helped make the end of the film truly emotionally resonant.

Plus, Zod’s choice to Krypto-form Earth seemed needlessly arbitrary given the availability of the genesis chamber and the many seed worlds. He only needed Kal, not Earth. In another version of this film, Zod, done well, would have been an incredible tragic hero-as-villain.

 

LOIS

Lois was awesome, but her presence in the 2nd half of the film was shoe-horned in by weak writing. I love that she was a war correspondent, that she could throw down with all the machismo-idiots and get the story. Amy Adams did a great job with what she was given, which sadly wasn’t much (after Act I).

 

FAORA

Faora’s “your morality makes you weak” made no sense. The Kryptonians care for one another – hell, Zod is all “It is my very purpose to protect Krypton!”, so Clark caring for humans (which he does because he was told (inconsistently) not because he has any connection with people) makes sense. If Faora had said “your compassion for these ants makes you weak” or “you’re holding back. You’ll never beat us if you hold yourself back,” or if she’d been established as a sociopath that Zod had to reign in, that would have made sense and made Faora a very cool character (she was already awesome, and I love that her badassitude was totally unconnected to sexualization).

There were too many Kryptonians, especially since nearly all of them had negligible characterization. They were generic Sci-Fi bad guys. And they even acted like they *knew* they were the bad guys, which totally undermines the idea that they have a Biological Imperative to protect Krypton and Kryptonians.

 

WORLD-BUILDING

Also, this film totally messed with the Kryptonian yellow sun mythology in a messy, clunky way. How is Jor-El a badass able to go toe-to-toe with Krypton’s greatest military leader if Jor-El been a scientist his whole life? Are all Kryptonians supposed to be super-strong on Krypton even under the red sun? Jor-El says that the yellow sun will make Kal-El strong, but if that’s the case, why are all the Kryptonians super-strong from the moment they set foot on Earth? The only advantages Clark has by having been on Earth is having adjusted to the atmosphere and learning to calibrate his senses. This problem could have been solved with one line from Zod when talking about visiting the seed planets. “And as we drank in the light of younger stars, we grew strong.” Done, solved.

Another world-building bit. Why did the Krypto-forming machine have to be used on Earth? There’s no narrative momentum behind it, just Zod’s bloody-mindedness which makes him want to do the most complicated possibility instead of kidnapping Clark and going somewhere that would be easy to Krypto-form. If Zod had said “there is nowhere else. It has to be Earth,” I’d have been far more accepting of the idea.

 

BIGGEST MOST IMPORTANT POINT:

Superman doesn’t kill people. This ending is a HUGE violation of the character’s central morality, and the film’s arc and emotional fabric doesn’t justify the murder of Zod. The ending would have been more impactful and justified if Supes had at said “I don’t want to hurt you.” to Zod or Faora or any of the Kryptonians. There’s no struggle (explicit or implicit), with calibrating his super-strength in the first fight with the Kryptonians, which would have built up to the ending with Zod. I’d have liked it if Supes got angry, lashed out and took one of the Kryptonian’s arms off, then freaked out at what he’d done, which would then let him get his butt kicked.

 

CALLOUSNESS & CONTROL

In the final scene in Metropolis, Supes seems completely callous with regard to anyone who isn’t Lois. When he finally puts the suit on, he mostly stops saving lives, with one or two exceptions There’s no time where he takes a millisecond out of the final Metropolis fight to combat the disaster porn. The film never gives him the moment to have a grace note with the people he saves, for them to salute him, thank him, anything. The closest we get is “this man is not our enemy,” in Smallville, which is a far sight from “thank you for saving my life.” There’s just so much disaster (especially in Metropolis), so much destruction, that any moment Supes spends not saving people’s lives seems callous.

That last fight, IMHO, should have been all about containing Zod and protecting people escalating as Zod lashed out, all the while Supes saying “I don’t want to hurt you. We’re all that’s left. We can live with humanity. They’re like us, we can learn from each other.” An then, when he does kill Zod, the film has earned that as the emotional climax. “Krypton had its chance” was both callous to Kal-El’s people and a totally un-earned line. If the computer Jor-El had said it and then Kal repeated it, I might believe it. Instead, it felt like just another way for Clark/Kal-El to be callous.

And a martial arts nit-pick. If Supes had enough control of Zod to make his head completely immobile, he could have tossed Zod to the side instead of breaking his neck. Writing fail. If the finale was about keeping humans safe, it could have been more dynamic, with Supes taking a beating repeatedly to save people, which Zod turns into an advantage to wear Supes down until Supes is pushed to the edge and has to make a choice. Even though, as I’ve seen others say, Superman is the kind of hero who finds a way to save everyone. Because he’s an inspiration. If Spider-Man can save everyone like in the first McGuire movie, then Superman can save everyone. To do any less is to lessen Superman.

 

Other Bits

 

JESUS ALLEGORY

There was too much of it. He’s 33 years old, the too-blatant scene with the priest, cross-shaped flying formation. There’s no self-sacrifice in the ending, so the allegory is even wasted, both too overt and mis-handled. Plus, Siegel and Schuster were Jewish. I get that there’s a strong thread of syncretizing Jesus and Superman, but I don’t like it, especially in this film.  Jesus was a pacifist (EDIT: okay, maybe not a pacifist, but he never repealed the Sixth Commandment – so presumably he wasn’t about murder – the big thing with Jesus was sacrificing himself to save people, which contrasts to Superman who kills someone to save someone else), and this Superman is a murderer.

 

MISSED EASTER EGG:

We had a Captain Farris at the end of the film – the woman who didn’t know what terra-forming was and who said, “I think he’s kinda hot.” If that had been Cap. Ferris (with an e), we could have had a tie-in to a JL Movie-verse Green Lantern. 🙂

 

SUMMARY

The overall effect of Man of Steel was to create a Superman who was so alien and alienated that he was barely recognizable as the hero. And starting a Justice League sequence with a Supes who has already killed someone sets a very dark note for that universe. Superman should be the light-hearted optimistic counterweight to Batman, not the tragic Olympian older brother. Just because it’s 2013 and we’re a post 9/11 world doesn’t mean that Superman should be darker. He should be brighter, an even clearer exemplar and call to be greater, to be kinder, to be braver. He shouldn’t be a murderer.

 

INSPIRATION

What the film did do was inspire me to write more supers stories, stories that call out to our better natures, that show a brighter path, heroes that inspire instead of heroes that murder and plod along with muddled morality. Over lunch, my girlfriend and I were talking about other superhero stories, and the thing I felt most keenly was the need to write more female superheroes, as well as the desire for a good Wonder Woman movie. I really don’t grok the idea that audiences wouldn’t storm the theater for a Wonder Woman film. She’s only the worldwide best-known female superhero.

The fans of the Lynda Carter show are now of an age for many of them to have children. Daughters to be inspired by Wonder Woman and sons to be impressed by seeing a model of feminine strength and heroism. You’d get to sell a combo tiara and sword kit, for goodness sake! The merchandising alone should pay for the film.

I’m glad I saw Man of Steel, because all of its failures (in my mind – I’m perfectly happy if other people loved it) inspired me to do better, to try harder, to honor the superhero stories that have called me to be a better man, a better person, and to pass that call to heroism on for a new generation.

8 thoughts on “Man of Steel

  1. It’s interesting to see where I agree with you and where I don’t. 🙂

    Zod: weak, man, weak. It’s hard to follow Terrence Stamp, but this guy didn’t even come close. The only point at which Zod became faintly interesting to me was when he said that he’d been created to protect Krypton’s people, and with them all dead, he had no purpose. If that had been used as a through-line for the character — and they’d cast an actor with an ounce of presence — I might have liked him.

    Fights: boring disaster porn. There was no arc from the clash with Faora and the other guy to the clash with Zod. They all used the exact same straightforward tactics — if I can be forgiven the abuse of that word in applying it to “you smash me through a wall! Then I smash you through a wall! Then we smash through a floor for variety!” They needed whoever choreographed and storyboarded the Avengers fights to coe help them out.

    Yellow sun: I spent a while after the movie thinking it through, trying to see if there was some logic I missed. Nope: Kryptonians are all just super-strong, and a moment of concentration on Zod’s part lets him overcome the difficulties Clark spent years adapting to. Illogical and boring.

    . . . but I disagree on Superman himself.

    See, the thing is, your big blue Boy Scout is fundamentally uninteresting to me. All the Superman stories I’ve seen or read, there’s two ways to make me engage with him: either make him part of a team, a la the Avengers, or break him in some fashion. (The only part of the previous Superman movie I remember is the bit where he got stabbed with Kryptonite.) He’s an admirable character, but played straight, he lacks any real weakness, physical or emotional . . . and without those, I jut don’t engage.

    So I liked the fact that this movie showed the arc of him being alienated, and gradually figuring out where to stand vis-a-vis the rest of the world. I think Henry Cavill did a good job showing the gentleness in his character; possibly the best stretch of the whole film was him surrendering to the military, with all the conversational touches around that. This did unfortunately get undermined by the mind-numbing destruction of the ending — seriously, how many people died in the Smallville and Metropolis fights? You can’t tell me they all evacuated to a safe distance in time. Which the movie just blithely ignored in favor of smashing through more walls. But if I ignore the fight scenes (and you know me; I wouldn’t ignore them if they weren’t so terrible), I actually quite like the approach they took. It has its missteps, but for me as a viewer, the core idea was a good one.

    • I see the point on Superman, and I maintain that there are good ways to tell stories with/for Superman, across a number of dramatic axes:

      1) Put him in a team, where his morality/ethics clash with those of others.

      2) Throw him against something equally powerful (necessary for physical threats).

      3) Make him weak/physically vulnerable, as you say (All-Star Superman does this magnificently).

      and my favorite:

      4) Force internal conflict. Make him choose (like the film did at the end with Zod, but done better) between tough options and try to find a way to save everyone. I especially like it when villains/antagonists push Superman or Superman-esque figures into increasingly fascist/authoritarian actions, causing Supes/the Supes-alike to consider their role in society, how far they should go, what their responsibilities are, to whom they should be accountable, etc.

      In this mode, I see Superman as a great stand-in for An Individual With Power – be that social power, physical power, economic power, etc. Superman struggles with how and when to use his power *because* he is so much more powerful than others.

  2. Jesse

    Jesus was not a pacifist.

    • Perhaps I over-reached in describing him as a pacifist. The lessons I like to take from Jesus are indicative of a pacifist philosophy, though there’s some places where Biblical record contradicts those readings.

      But by my recollection of the Bible, Jesus never killed anyone, and never contravened or countermanded the Sixth Commandment. So he was still not about murder.

      Mostly, I don’t like the idea of syncretizing Jesus and Superman.


  3. Michael R. Underwood:

    1) Put him in a team, where his morality/ethics clash with those of others.

    Which doesn’t work so well for his own franchise, alas. If we had JLA movies a la the Avengers movie, sure.

    2) Throw him against something equally powerful (necessary for physical threats).

    This one just doesn’t do it for me at all. I get bored. The kinds of confrontations I really dig aren’t at Superman’s power level — which is why he’s only interesting to me in a fight if he’s somehow weakened.

    4) Force internal conflict. Make him choose (like the film did at the end with Zod, but done better) between tough options and try to find a way to save everyone.

    I like that, too, but it doesn’t really imply an arc to me — more a moment of crisis. It works for me at the end of a story, but it’s extremely difficult for that to hold up the whole movie on its own. When it works, it’s usually late in a series, after I’ve followed the character through more growth-oriented arcs.

    I especially like it when villains/antagonists push Superman or Superman-esque figures into increasingly fascist/authoritarian actions, causing Supes/the Supes-alike to consider their role in society, how far they should go, what their responsibilities are, to whom they should be accountable, etc.

    Again, I think this works better for me when my investment has been built up through earlier stories — stories in the same continuity, ideally. Any feelings I have regarding Christopher Reeve or Tom Wellington or Brandon Routh or comic-book renditions do much less to affect how I react to Henry Cavill, because those don’t form a coherent whole. If I had the depth of fanhood for Superman in all his incarnations that you do, I might be able to really dig a story of that kind right out of the gate — but I don’t have that, for the aforementioned reasons.

    In this mode, I see Superman as a great stand-in for An Individual With Power – be that social power, physical power, economic power, etc. Superman struggles with how and when to use his power *because* he is so much more powerful than others.

    This got me thinking about Iron Man, who is also An Individual With Power, but whom I care about a great deal more. And it comes down to weakness again: Tony Stark has wealth and brilliance and a powered suit, but he also has a raft of psychological flaws and defense mechanisms to help him dodge them. I’d love Superman if he were psychologically weak at the same time that he’s physically powerful. Or if he were psychologically strong but physically weak — that’s how Captain America starts out, and he works best as a character (for me, anyway) when the memory of that weakness is still with him. But Superman’s too perfect on too many fronts: even when he’s dealing with complex questions of how to use his power, he’s doing so from a position of comprehensive strength.

  4. Christopher Long

    As much as I liked “Geekomancy,” your spoiler-free short review left me worried that I wouldn’t enjoy “Man of Steel.” Fortunately, I was mistaken.

    Unfortunately, I disagree with a lot of your review. Almost all of it, in fact. I do agree that Jonathan Kent was unevenly written– but then I remembered that, over the course of my life, my father gave me conflicting messages on more than one occasion. I decided that it might be a case of the writer’s dad was the same way, and I forgave that.

    The thing that I have the most ready answer for is your complaint that Superman should have been containing Zod during their Metropolis battle: My reply to that is that if he had been successfully containing Zod, I’d have been furious, have been disgusted by bad writing, because when, exactly, did he have a chance to learn to contain someone as powerful as he is? One battle with two Kryptonians that happened a little earlier is supposed to teach him how to fight people who can do what he can do and contain the damage the fight does at the same time? I don’t think so.

    Your complaint about disconnection didn’t ring true for me, but I think that one’s purely subjective. I saw a connection. I saw Superman learning to care, learning to connect to people, learning to throw off his father’s admittedly skewed lessons. I liked that. I have been an outsider in one way or another most of my life– watching Clark learn to make a connection to others? That rang true to me, very true.

    In this movie, I saw hope. Hope that DC can learn a lesson and make a successful Superman movie.

    In short, sir, I must respectfully disagree with your review.

    That movie was awesome.

  5. […] came up because I was discussing Man of Steel with Mike Underwood. Now, there are any number of criticisms you can make of that film, starting with the wanton […]

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