by Will Nepper
We’ll get this out of the way first: I know that Christopher Reeves is dead and I did ‘get over it.’ (Mostly.) I’m also aware this is ‘not Donner’s Superman.’ (What is?) And finally, the fact that I really enjoyed Superman Returns may render my opinion invalid in your eyes. In fact, that may’ve been enough to stop you from reading further. I can live with that.
(What I can’t live with? A “World Machine” for starters, but more on that later.)
On the positive end of the spectrum, there is a lot to like about Man of Steel. That, perhaps, is what makes the entire experience so frustrating. The problem isn’t that it isn’t Donner’s Superman; it’s not even Superman’s Superman.
I enjoyed Kevin Costner, Diane Lane (even though, she wasn’t given much to do but beam proudly and look concerned) and almost all of the Smallville-era Kent family backstory, particularly moments where a young Clark becomes overwhelmed by his super senses in the classroom. His struggle to keep his powers a secret in the face of bullies presents some solid moments – some of the best in the Superman movie history.
Unfortunately, those moments make up about 20 percent of MoS, serve an origin story that we don’t really need and leave two hours of running time open to completely botch the rest of the job with increasingly boring battles and no real sense of peril or characterization.
I admit that I prefer my Superman movies with a bit of humor and characters that smile from time to time. (Henry Cavill smiles once or twice during the two-hour-plus epic.) But I’m willing to sacrifice all of that on the Fan Boy Alter because those aren’t Superman-story necessities. There have been plenty of “dark” story lines for the Last Son of Krypton and he can’t always maintain the boy-scout-in-blue attitude that many of his older fans (…Who has two thumbs and is an ‘older fan?’…) are accustomed to. Fair enough.
If you can’t see that this incarnation of Superman was built around the fan boy gripe that Superman Returns didn’t have enough punching in it, your brown-tinted, grit-covered Chris Nolan glasses may be blinding you.
We’ll never know (well, until we hear a DVD commentary) who’s most responsible for which of MoS’s problems, but I’m sure there’s plenty of blame to go around. The convoluted Kryptonian story components are almost certainly the fruits of Nolan’s influence. The static, unrelenting stake-free action sequences – well, those reek of Snyder’s style. For example: the fast zoom-in-zoom-out moments (to give you the POV of a flying Nikon, I guess) and the terrible pacing. (Snyder blew his wad on his remake of Dawn of the Dead as far as I’m concerned.)
Let’s scratch beneath the surface to the spoiler-y list of gripes I have with MoS and how they keep the movie from being the “Superman movie I’ve been waiting for.”
1. Lois Lane, as played by Amy Adams, looks more Lana Lang than spunky reporter and her character plays more like a History Channel “History’s Mysteries” sleuth than a “Pulitzer-prize-winning reporter.” In fact, there’s no evidence that she’s much of a reporter at all considering that she spends the entire movie tracking one story she’s been told to drop in favor of, you know, news. I’d say she’s miscast, but I don’t think Adams is the problem. Her LL is written as bland, and LL has never been bland. Adams singing scene in The Muppets was a showstopper and she was the only actor to rise above the material in the god-awful The Master. Her relationship with Superman – if we can call him that (Nobody does until the last reel and even then, only once.) –seems to have developed off-screen. I won’t say there’s a lack of chemistry between the two leads because we never get an opportunity to see for ourselves. The movie shifts back and forth in time and jumps to a new scene whenever things start to actually get interesting. To be fair, Superman Returns had some major Lois Lane problems too. (She was played by a woefully miscast Kate Bosworth and was Superman’s baby mama. Whaaaaa?!)
2. Krypton occupies waaaaay too much of MoS – even after we leave it – and this is a huge miscalculation where story is concerned. EVERYthing is explained to no substantial effect. What’s accomplished in the early scenes on Krypton could easily be chopped down to about 5 minutes without leaving us wanting or needing more. It would kick start the flick with some action-movie pacing rather than serve as a bloated Krypton history lesson. It doesn’t help that Krypton is … well, brown – like a cross between the sets of Dune, The Neverending Story and the Dark Crystal dropped into Nolan’s Gotham City. And the flying monsters, like the one Russel Crowe’s Jor-El hops on? They only served to remind me of a similar moment in a Star Wars prequels (they blur together for me) where Obi Wan mounts a similar CGI beastie eliciting similar groans from me.
The meat of these scenes is our introduction to this movie’s Zod, which is necessary but also problematic when this particular villain’s agenda is revealed and we learn how, in some ways, he’s a more sympathetic enemy than he is pure evil. He’s a Krytonian patriot just as he was genetically engineered. That means this dye was cast without his say, making him less a big meanie than a diligent servant of his race. Kal-El, on the other hand, is the only Kryptonian capable of free will. He faces tough decisions, can weigh the pros and cons, and act accordingly. Everyone else (including bred-for-science, Jor-El) is just doing the Gattaca shuffle his or her destiny demands. This leads me to another major gripe:
3. Superman does not snap necks. He never kills unless he’s left no alternative, and he almost ALWAYS finds an alternative because he’s super smart and calculating. (How many times has he outwitted confirmed genius, Lex Luthor?) Unlike Batman, Supes is a lover, not a fighter. Where DC’s second banana (kidding, Steve-O!) (… Even though he totally is … ) is a vigilante, Superman is more in the business of being a rescuer. His priority: protecting the people of the world (and the individuals within earshot of his super hearing). When Faora (Ursa 2.0) announces that: “You will not win. For every human you save, we will kill a million more,” she nails it because in that way, the bad guys DO win. Her prediction proves correct and though Zod and Co. don’t walk away with the store, they certainly rack up what must be a substantial body count. Remember what 9-11 did to this country? Imagine where the country’s head would be under the rubble of a completely trashed Metropolis. (It’s going to take Smallville several years to rebuild as well, and forget about a late night trip to IHOP for a while.) Superman would never let that pass. He would find a way to save as many people as possible AND save the planet, because HE’S SUPERMAN!
Not to kick it all nostalgic, but remember in Superman II when the panic-stricken Superman pleads with Ursa to rethink throwing the city bus full of people? He knows that a big Metropolis showdown between four superfolk would create a lot of collateral damage, so he leads the bad guys away from the city to battle them where they’ll do less damage. (The Artic was a good choice.) Instead we’re forced to endure a battle of indestructible Gods in which all the real damage is done to the city and its residents. Instead of outsmarting the villain, Superman breaks Zod’s neck and screams.
[An aside: On the topic of collateral damage: What the fuck, Hollywood? I had this gripe with The Avengers and Star Trek Into Darkness too. Our primary characters go unharmed while millions of simple city folk are squished under demolished buildings and thrown cars. I don’t need realism. I don’t require that we dwell on these things, but it would be nice to feel like something is at stake for once. We KNOW the good guy is going to win, but at what cost? That question is never answered because we never get an inkling of suffering despite the mass destruction. Even if we could just hear an off-screen newscast reporting: “Millions dead as Metropolis comes tumbling down like a lost game of Jenga, because a battle we have nothing to do with is being waged in our city by aliens, one of whom is supposed to be the good guy despite his inability to strategize.”]
Within minutes of Zod’s snapped neck, which, it would seem, indicates Supe’s victory, we make a rare visit to The Daily Planet, which looks to be in pretty damn good condition after the battle waged there. Did city engineers start reconstruction with The Daily Planet (a PRINT publication)? Instead of, like, schools? Things look like they’re back to business as usual, though we know outside Perry White’s windows are dead bodies trapped under the rubble left by a battle between two indestructible forces. Unless we’re to believe several years pass between the two scenes, and I’m pretty sure we’re not.
4. Lazy writing. Allowing Pa Kent to be swept away by a tornado is laughably lazy writing and makes no goddamned sense besides. Seriously, I laughed. It was the ONE TIME in his young life that Clark could have used his powers without it being detected by others. (–Even though Papa Costner forbids him, I bet Pa would be rethinking that stupid move as he free falls through the roof of a Smallville hardware store when the tornado eventually drops him.) But he let’s Dad’s raised hand force him back under the overpass? Maybe Clark just didn’t love him enough. I’d like to think that Ma, would immediately have slapped the shit out of Clark after that scene. “What the fuck?! He was your dad, dumbass!”
In Superman: The Movie, it’s important and pivotal when the elder Kent dies of a heart attack because “even with all of these powers, I still couldn’t save him.” Teachable lesson there, Kal – and one that will inform many of your future decisions as a protector of “truth, justice and the American way.” (In the Donner version anyway.)
Also, Snyder wants us to believe that Kal kills Zod because he had no choice! Zod was gonna heat-vision that family to death!
So, only then he finds the strength to do effective bodily harm to Zod? This after they’ve been having an aerial fistfight in which they sustain virtually no damage? Again: lazy writing that caters to the demand for more punching! Lazy writing made worse by the fact that Zod just made the case that he’s protecting what he was genetically engineered to protect. That’s not evil enough for a main villain. It’s pitiable. He’s not sadistic or cruel so much as he’s trying to maintain what he sees as “the greater good” even if he’s crazy, angry and misguided. But think about it: If Earth people had to relocate to another populated planet, we’d totally take over and think nothing of dropping a Target and Starbucks smack dab in the center of the alien planet’s red-sun-worshipping sacred ground.
5. Kryptonian jargon. It’s confusing, useless and poorly named. The only thing sillier than Kevin Costner being whisked away like Dorothy is all of the jargony, macguffiny, mumbo jumbo about things like a “codex” and (God help me) a “world engine.” I get that the villains are up to terraforming Earth into Krypton II, but did we need knowledge of Kryptonian science to make this effective? (I’m not saying bring back the crystals, but didn’t they do the job without us having to know exactly what they were doing?) Also did we need over-explanation of the House-of-El family crest? I mean, it works, but that was also done in Superman: The Movie – without the need for dialogue exposition I might add. Can’t we, the audience, sort that shit out for ourselves?
While they’re at it, why not explain why Kryptonians speak English? And have “military generals” that say things like: “Where did you train? –on a farm?!” Because it’s unnecessary. Like Star Wars prequel politics, we stop paying attention to what it all means halfway through the movie because we don’t care. A full season of Battlestar Galactica had less in-your-face fiction-based science.
6. Important elements left out. Most disappointing – and fatal, I think, to MoS’s potential acceptance by his *ahem* older fans – is what’s missing. I’m guessing a lot of this is to stretch the origin story even further into the inevitable sequel, by waiting to introduce REPORTER, Clark Kent, as a coda before the credits. For all the bitching fans seem to do about superhero movies being oversaturated with origin stories, this makes no sense. (It’s the ol’ Prometheus switcheroo, where we know there will be another movie or why else put Guy Pierce under all of that terrible old man makeup?) Without Clark Kent, the intrepid, mild-mannered reporter for the Daily Planet, there’s no signature Superman transformation to get a kid’s heart racing. It also means no real fun with glasses, double identities and the balancing act required to keep reporter and hero separate entities in the eyes of the public and, most importantly, Lois Lane.
Does NO ONE else have a problem with the fact that, throughout most of the movie, Lois is fully aware that Clark Kent and Kal-El are one and the same? It’s one of the primary tropes of the Superman mythos and it’s snuffed out, and what’s worse: for no discernible reason. (Will he be giving her one of those Superman II-style Forget Me Now kisses to reboot her memory later?) Lois seems to exist solely to be rescued by Superman, awkwardly bridge scenes and provide a quasi-romantic moment in the last act so that our two primaries can share a head-scratching kiss that is completely unearned by the story’s wobbly narrative.
Finally, a word about the inexplicably maligned Superman Returns:
What’s everyone’s beef with it? Brandon Routh’s performance was spot-on and the character, well developed. Yes, it used Donner’s movies as a jumping off point but I was glad. It wasn’t a sequel so much as it existed in the same universe. Donner directed most of Superman II before the Salkinds replaced him, mid-shoot, with British director, Richard Lester, who admitted to not giving a shit about Superman and who specializes in comedy.
Snyder and Nolan don’t seem to give much of a shit about Superman either. Thus, we get a stoic, humorless hero and a soulless movie that seems hell-bent on being different for difference-sake. “Let’s make Perry White … BLACK! Let’s modify the costume almost completely! And let’s make the final battle … Well, can we go bigger than The Avengers? Let’s try! … And don’t forget! MORE PUNCHING!”
MoS’s flying sequences are the most well rendered of any Superman movie – I’ll give it that. And Cavill looks great in the cape (and there’s less wrong with his performance than there is with the writing of the character), but there’s more to Superman than that. And Team MoS doesn’t seem to understand or care. They just want to out-action every Superman movie that came before and it’s obviously priority one.
I think the lesson to be learned here is an easy one. Superman is a tough hero to bring to the big screen, now more than ever. Different times require different movie heroes. (It’s why post-Last Crusade Indiana Jones movies can’t be done right. It’s why the return of Star Wars is/was a lost cause. And there’s a reason Bill Murray is telling Dan Akroyd to fuck off with his Ghostbusters III dream.) Someone got Superman right once. For my money, SR came close for many pre-millennial fans. (And critics. Note the 75% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes compared to MoS’s “rotten” 57% … but who pays attention to critics? … oh … wait. Nevermind.) MoS seems to be pleasing younger audiences with the spectacle of its relentless battle scenes, spaceships (Spaceships?!), mass destruction and thin characterization. I don’t blame them though because that’s consistent with the movie heroes they’ve grown up with. (See: Transformers) Perhaps it’s time to just accept facts: No one is ever going to make a modern Superman movie that works for everyone. I’m of the belief it just can’t be done and I hope to God people stop trying. (Not likely.)
As for a Justice League movie? Just say no.
by Steve Habrat
With Christopher Nolan making the decision to bring his Batman trilogy to an apocalyptic close and 2011s The Green Lantern bombing horribly at the box office, DC Comics has been forced to turn to their last A-list hero in a final attempt to hang with comic book juggernaut Marvel Studios. Now we have Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, a gritty and epic reboot that is the Superman film we deserved way back in 2006. DC Comics made a grave mistake when they allowed Bryan Singer to craft another sequel to Christopher Reeve’s Superman films of the late 70s and 80s, a flub that has actually ended up hurting Snyder’s breathtaking reboot of the big blue boy scout. Man of Steel has taken quite a bit of negative criticism for its decent into massive action set pieces in the final stretch of its runtime, something that Singer wasn’t as eager to do in his wandering effort. The fact is that Man of Steel is seven years too late and it is entering a market that has been saturated by Marvel Studios. If this film would have been released in 2006, I guarantee it would have been met with as much praise as 2005s Batman Begins. That being said, Man of Steel is still a powerful entry into the superhero genre, a film that is perfectly grand for a true-blue do-gooder. It completely rejects the sunny optimism of the previous Superman entries and embraces a heavy heart of darkness that many fans may not be quick to warm to. In my opinion, it is just what the legendary superhero needed.
Man of Steel begins on the planet Krypton, with the wise scientist Jor-El (played by Russell Crowe) and his wife, Lara (played by Ayelet Zurer), giving birth to a baby boy they name Kal-El. With the planet of Krypton doomed to destruction, Jor-El and Lara send their son off to Earth, where he will have a chance for a survival. Meanwhile, General Zod (played by Michael Shannon), the military leader of Krypton, attempts to take over the planet with a handful of loyal followers including the vicious Faora (played by Antje Traue). Zod’s attempt to overthrow Krypton’s counsel is prevented and as punishment, he and his followers are banished to the Phantom Zone. Thirty-three years later, Clark Kent (played by Henry Cavill) is a mysterious drifter with superhuman abilities. He largely remains in the shadows, working odd jobs and occasionally saving people from horrific accidents. Word gets out about a mysterious object found in the ice in the Artic, which catches the attention of Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Lois Lane (played by Amy Adams). Lois sets out to do a piece on the mysterious object, but as she snoops around the dig, she comes face to face with Clark, who has also taken an interest in the object. After Lois is injured, Clark narrowly saves her life and then disappears. Shaken by what she has seen, she begins digging into rumors about a drifter who always seems to be in the right place at the right time. Clark, meanwhile, uncovers secrets about where he came from and learns about his superhuman abilities.
Almost instantly, Snyder, screenwriter David S. Goyer, and producer Christopher Nolan set their vision of Superman apart from the previous attempts through a gritty and emotionally riveting stage setter on the crumbling planet of Krypton. Gone is Donner’s neon crystal environment and in its place is a gunmetal gray landscape full of zippy spaceships and roaring and soaring alien beasts. There is plenty of exposition about Krypton and it is spiced up through bone-snapping fistfights and blaring explosions that dwarf anything we saw in Superman Returns. While this sequence ends in tragedy, there is still plenty of optimism from Crowe’s Jor-El, who is convinced that Kal-El will be a god to the people of Earth. When Snyder shifts clumsily to Earth, Nolan’s gloomy cinematic fingerprints begin to emerge. The filmmakers take their time working up to Superman’s big reveal, spinning a soulful tale of a man who is completely at odds with his abilities. To make things worse on the guy, he is entering a post-9/11 world that trembles in fear over the very idea of a man that can glide over the clouds. Despite numerous attempts to convince us that he means no harm, he is still met with suspicious eyes from the jumpy U.S. government.
The most pivotal part of Man of Steel is Henry Cavill’s performance as Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman. Cavill is absolutely excellent as an outcast who has been warned not to reveal his superhuman abilities to the world. He wants to help any way he can but the fear of rejection hangs heavy over his head. Cavill uses his eyes to convey this constant vulnerability and confusion, looking to the stars and his earthly father, Jonathan Kent (played by Kevin Costner), for guidance. While the new vulnerability is great, wait until you get a load of him in a fight. There is a surging intensity and almost a pulsing anger buried deep within his character that was completely unexpected. When Cavill is finally allowed to stop brooding, it is easy to see why he was chosen for the role. He is just bursting with all-American charm and he certainly is a warm figure of hope, even if he isn’t relegated to saving a kitten from a tree or helping an old lady across a busy Metropolis street. No, this Superman has bigger fish to fry when Shannon’s General Zod comes calling. We all know that Shannon can go fully crazy when he wants, and he certainly does get a little nuts with General Zod, but there is a measured insanity to his performance. He is a man driven by the love of his planet and he will stop at nothing to carry out his mission.
Then we have Amy Adams as the no-nonsense Lois Lane, who early on proves that she can hang tough in a room full of guys. Her strength and determination is certainly well played, but near the end of the film, her character is slowly shifted to damsel in distress, which was a bit disappointing. There was also a lack of build up in her romance with Supes, which sort of felt stuffed in there because it had to be. They share plenty of scenes but that spark just didn’t seem to be there. As far as Kevin Costner goes, he shines as Jonathan Kent, Clark’s adoptive father who constantly warns Clark against revealing his powers to the world. He shares a scene with the teen that is guaranteed to send chills down your spine. Russell Crowe is strong and sturdy as Jor-El, Clark’s biological father who believes that his son will be the Christ-like savior that Earth needs. Laurence Fishburne shows promise as the stern Daily Planet editor Perry White, a small role but one that I feel will be elaborated on in future installments. Diane Lane is affectionate and understanding as Martha Kent, who has to walk and talk a terrified Clark through his emerging abilities. Antje Traue is wickedly evil as Zod’s right hand woman Faora, who snarls threats like, “for every one you save, we’ll kill a million more.” Now THAT is a threat if I’ve ever heard one.
When Man of Steel finally ditches all the character building, the film dives into a climatic battle that is fittingly colossal for Superman. There is an adrenaline pumping battle in the streets of Smallville and the end man-a-mano between General Zod and Superman in the streets of Metropolis laughs at every superhero finale that has come before it. As far as criticisms go, there are a few plot holes that are difficult to ignore and Clark’s education about his home planet and abilities from a holographic Jor-El seems a bit brushed over. There are also a few lines of dialogue that will make you giggle and not in a good way. I should also mention that Snyder bashes us over the head with the Christ references, something that Singer was also guilty of. In case you don’t see the similarities between Jesus Christ and Superman, wait for the scene that finds Clark Kent wandering into a church and confiding in a nervous priest. Overall, while it isn’t perfect, Man of Steel certainly sets the stage for a refreshed Superman franchise for our dark times. It has a unique hand-held visual style and features a pounding score that only Hans Zimmer could provide. Snyder, Goyer, and Nolan successfully manage to wash away the sour taste that Singer left in our mouths and leave us wanting more from the hero that stands for truth, justice, and the American way.