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.
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 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 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’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.
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.
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. 🙂
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.
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.