How does one judge a movie is this type? Should a person bring the entirety of their knowledge of this character into the critique, or should it be viewed in a vacuum. Does it work as a piece of narrative fiction? I tend to go with the latter, but in this case I feel like a compartmentalization of both may be necessary, because there is just cause for it. Although, I think most people who see this film are going to fall into one camp or the other. Comic book fans, and movie nerds. Sure, there is going to be some crossover with people who take up the noble cause of just being a “nerd,” or “geek,” like say, myself, but that shouldn’t be a detriment to the proceedings. The presence of each both work to expose both the strengths and weaknesses. This is the perfect movie to go at like this, because one of it’s facets is trying to reconcile the fact that this character is an institution, and how to make an interesting and clear narrative. Being a fan of both mediums, there were things in Man of Steel that I feel are worth commenting on in both respects.
Now, before I get into the meat of this thing, I’d like offer a little bit of personal context to how I feel about this character and franchise. I know, I know, “Just get to it, dog!” and all that good business, but I feel to understand where I’m coming it’s important to put it into context(I realize in the modern day of “journalism, and “film criticism” some feel this isn’t important, and would rather you just accept their position for those age old reason of “Just because,” and “Don’t you know who I am?!”). What if I just hated Superman? That would be a pretty important thing to disclose, wouldn’t it? I don’t, by the way. That was just an example of the importance of “full disclosure,” and how to appreciate, or even rage against my wordage(“Wordage,” because my words are high mother truckin’ voltage!). If you’re going to agree or disagree I feel that stuff is pretty important.
So, other than this photo being the most adorable thing you’ve ever seen, I’ve been into super heroes since I was barely able to walk. Okay, I guess you could say that this disposition was thrust upon me, but none the less it started me down a road of fandom that I’m currently on, but that doesn’t mean that I’m a fanboy with tunnel vision. It means, like I said before, that I was pretty much the most adorable thing you’ve ever seen, but contrary to what some might say I have grown up a little bit, and I have a larger perspective on the world and how things work, or should work, rather. I wonder what “Toddler Shaun” would have thought about Man of Steel? He probably would have giggled, burped, shit himself, and then fallen asleep(Well, maybe I haven’t changed all that much.). Moving on… The thing I’ve always loved about super heroes is their archetypal nature. They are better than us, but not just because of the fact that they have super powers. They often represent the best that humanity could hope to be, and no hero exemplifies this more than Superman. He is american/human idealism in action, and a lot of the attraction to his character is how hard he tries. He is in equal measures both a benevolent “superman,” and also a down to earth(Not a joke. There’s probably one there though.) every man in a lot of respects. He is the perfect power/human ideal fantasy, because his disposition allows him to be so. The fact that Superman has these abilities, and still continues to “do the right thing” is, in my opinion, his most interesting trait, and what’s also interesting about this is how he became instilled with his value system. In Superman: Red Son they explore the idea of Superman being raised in Russia as a communist, and how that would not only change the world, but also his values. It is a perfect illustration of why Superman is such a “good person.” He was raised to be one, and now we’re going to talk about the movie(I know, I’m “super” exhausted too… Hahaha! Oh aren’t I precious. You have looked at the photo on the left, haven’t you?).
The most troubling aspects of Man of Steel, from a “knowing” the character from the comics perspective, is the re-working of his origin, and the relationship, or lack thereof, between Clark and the Kents.
Man of Steel makes some changes to the nature of Superman that seem small and subtle, but actually change his journey to become a hero in some really drastic ways. Firstly, they present Krypton as a planet that has not had a natural birth in centuries. Children are grown in pods and have a clear delineated purpose. It’s pretty much socialism taken to it’s extreme. They do not have a choice in what they’ll do with their lives. Well, all of them except old…er young Kal-El. He is the first krypton in centuries that has the ability of choice. Now, this was a kind of “interesting” idea, but not really. Why? Because they don’t do anything really with it, and because this next thing kind of negates it. So there. The movie has this macguffin called the ancient Rolodex… No, wait, I’m sorry… The ancient codex! That’s it! Anyways, this device has all the genetic information of the Kryptonian race inside it. Kal-El is then fused with this information. Taking it into his own genetic code. It is implied that this genetic information is that of the greatest minds of Krypton. So, I would assume that this genetic information carries with it genetic memory, and would, I don’t know, make Kal-El genetically predisposed to be an intelligent altruist. I suppose there could be an argument made against this assertion, but I don’t know. Maybe it’s just me. The problem I found with this is that if he’s most likely going to be an altruist, doesn’t that strip his choice to become one of any significance? This circumstance bleeds into the next part…
The fucking Kents.
One of the things that’s always been very clear and consistent in every telling of Superman’s story is the importance of the Kents in his rearing. Superman is able to grow up to be the man he becomes because of the Kents. They are kind, and forward thinking. They teach Clark about things like, responsibility, why doing good deeds are worthwhile, and pretty much instill him with a moral compass that always points due “good guy.” They, like Superman, are ideal and archetypal in nature. The best parents for the best man. Not in Man of Steel. Nope, the Kents come off as cold and dispassionate at best, and at worst… Assholes. Especially Johnathan Kent. As a young boy Clark saves a bunch of kids from drowning in a school bus, and Johnathan Kent basically says “Maybe you should have let them die.” Now, that’s not to say that he should have had a perfect answer, or anything, but he could have maybe comforted Clark. Maybe, told him it was going to be alright, and that they would figure it out. As far as this movie is concerned, the only thing of importance that he might gleam from his adoptive parents is that maybe he shouldn’t be totally forth coming about the fact that he has super powers. Martha Kent! What about Martha Kent!? Well, what about Martha Kent? She’s pretty much a non-character. I don’t have ANY sense of who she is, other than the fact that she might be a nice lady… Sometimes… I guess… Whatever. The non-linear flashback style of dealing with the way Clark was raised, never allows enough time to get a sense of the impact the Kents had on him. The weirdest part about their “relationship” is that they seem to pro-actively, and to a nauseating/groan inducing amount, remind Clark that he is an outsider and doesn’t belong. Yeah, I know what they “meant,” but they do a really terrible job of getting that across. There is one moment of actual warmth between Johnathan and Clark, after he shows him the ship he arrived in, he reassures Clark that he is his son, and implies he always will be. The problem here is that it comes off as nothing more than lip service, and there isn’t really any material therein to support it.
The combination of the above two elements effectively change the character in pretty significant ways, in my opinion. I’m not all about fealty to source material, but if you’re going to adapt a character they should probably, at the very least, keep the recognizable aspects of their nature. I don’t know. Like I said before, maybe it’s just me. These things take away a lot of what makes Clark’s decisions hold weight and renders them pretty much pointless, and confusing. Good thing Clark has been infused with the ancient Kryptonian Rolodex, because if it was up to the Kents he would probably have grown up to be a secretive sociopath. Also, Johnathan Kent dies saving the dog. Lesson learned, I guess? If that doesn’t instill Clark with a sense of the value of life, what would? If Superman is told to never “save the day” in any real way, then what is the point? I get that this is his “origins,” and he has to learn some hard lesson(This shit is gritty, god dammit!), but Superman always TRIES his hardest. If memory serves me correctly isn’t one of the most consistent mantras he has “There is always a way.”
There is a lot of importance placed on the fact that Superman is an alien. Oh, but not just a being from another planet. No, but like an immigrant, and stuff, dog. I found the handling of this sub-text in the movie kind of disconcerting. It sends a weird message about naturalization, and asserts that you will never really ever “belong.” I understand that Superman is the world’s hero, and not just a uniquely an american one in the modern day. I’m fine with that, and it makes sense. Even if we were only thinking about it from the perspective of a business(Buy! Buy! Buy!), but by asserting that Superman isn’t “one of us” smacks the face of what Superman represents. Like I said before, he represents the best of us, and gives a positive example of what we could achieve. Being part of the fabric of our/your societal fabric is a big part of what makes this important. This all wraps around to what I’ve been talking about. How he comes to be, from a philosophical perspective, and what determines where his moral compass points. He’s humanity’s hero, and in this flick he never feels like he’s part of said humanity. Kind of defeats the purpose, no?
The reason I went into all of the above business is because the movie is so scatter brained and poorly paced. Man of Steel is constantly asking you to fill in the gaps for the story and the characters based on your knowledge of the characters/comics. It does this while simultaneously asking you to forget other things. Listen, people, this isn’t your grandfather’s Superman. The devil’s in the details, though, and the film never seems to be able to reconcile our foreknowledge and this new “interpretation.” It’s a grand “cherry picking,” but these cherries aren’t ripe yet. How does a movie of this size and cost get into production with a script that is so fundamentally flawed. From the numerous sub-plots that go nowhere, the clunky dialogue, and it’s heavy handed political and religious allegory/allusion/symbolism(Seriously, if these things were a syrup of some sort, blueberry perhaps, it would be so thick you’d start choking, and have you asking, “There is a pancake/waffle in here too, right?” Then you’d go into a sugar induced coma, and die… Sorry for your loss.)… I don’t know, I’ve never considered Superman a “messianic” presence, but having said that, I could let that go if the movie didn’t feel the need to beat me over the head with it.
Yeah, Man of Steel, I get it. He’s SPACE JESUS! There are several scenes that take out a 2×4 and beat you over the head with this. Firstly, it’s revealed that he is 33 years old, you know, just like Jesus! Then he ends up at a church, struggling, and he talks to a priest. This all happens while Clark and the priest are framed with stained glass windows behind them of… Wait for it… THE AGONY IN THE GARDEN(All caps just so you get the point!). Lastly, there is a moment where Superman floats out of a Spaceship, after his first real contact with Zod, in the shape of a cross… Yup. Pretty deep stuff, folks. If these things weren’t enough, don’t worry, the movie will just tell you in one of it’s many clunky expository scenes. Although, in this movie, there isn’t really any other kind.
Usually, in these types of films, I can accept a lot of convoluted stuff, but it has to, at the very least, be clear. It all goes back to the script, and is kind of indicative of any script that Christopher Nolan has a hand in. They are so paranoid that you won’t grasp any of the concepts or plot that they feel the need to belabor pretty much every point. Nolan is just a better film maker, and has a better understanding of structure than Zack Snyder. So, he more often than not can pull it off. Snyder does not have this tool set. While exposition dumps like this can come off as exciting and inclusive in something like Nolan’s own Inception, they come off as tedious, cold, and boring in Man of Steel. They knew that they had confusing plot elements at play, and they didn’t know how to make it work in an entertaining way. Even with all the emphasis on exposition, it still comes off as slightly confusing. There are so many mixed messages, that seem to directly contradict each other, that at some point you stop caring about what is being said all together. Honestly, there is just too many elements at play in this story. So, as a consequence everything, and everyone, gets short changed.
This movie is really bloated. Especially when it comes to side characters and their sub-plots. A lot of them go nowhere, and to call their character developments “anemic” would be kind. It goes back to whole “what we bring into the movie with us” business. “You know who these characters are! Why would we tell you again,” said Man of Steel with a tinge of annoyance in it’s voice. The character that gets the most “fleshing out” is Lois Lane, but apparently being a determined reporter is enough. Just making her “aggressive,” and relentless doesn’t really do much, and at best makes her feel hollow. If not a little annoying. I never got a sense of who she was as a person, and the movie doesn’t even bother making an argument as to why Lois Lane and Superman would fall in love. Other than the fact that he’s a “stud muffin” with super powers, why does Lois fall for Superman? Between the lack of chemistry by the actors, and the before mentioned bad writing, you’re left with “It is this way because it’s in the comics” type of impression. Other than the whole Kents thing, this is one of the more glaring oddities, and problems. Their relationship is pretty important to the psychological make-up of Superman, in my opinion. The short changing of this goes back to whole bloated thing. Because of all the unnecessary sub-plots, and confusing plot devices, nothing is ever given anytime to breathe.
I could get into the whole General Zod and friends business. Their plot to make earth a new Krypton, but what’s the point. The whole affair is mindlessly predictable, and obvious. Even Michael Shannon seems bored, and the direction renders this interesting casting choice totally inert. Sure, he goes big, and is even fun in moments, but it doesn’t make up for the general sense of apathy that he puts off. I would have been totally fine with this stuff, and would have found it less annoying, if it was in a movie that was well made. Even the action scenes are tedious and boring. Superman punches Zod into a building or structure. General Zod reciprocates. Wash, rinse, and repeat… For, like, half an hour. There’s no real drama here, except for the last thirty seconds of…. The last(Oh, there was quite a few.) General Zod confrontation, wherein Superman actually saves some people. That’s the thing, without Superman directly saving humans, like catching people falling out of the sky or something, there is no real conflict. We know that he’s going to over come Zod, but we wouldn’t be entirely certain that he was going to be able to save everyone. In Man of Steel he just doesn’t try. “Try” being the operative thing here. Beyond that, the action is shot in that shaky-cam, up way to close sort of style that is annoying. Maybe, there was some “cool” stuff in there. I would have loved to actually have been able to clearly see it, but I digress…
There was a few things I did appreciate about this flick. Some of the imagery is really beautiful, and aside from the action scenes, the cinematography is pretty decent. Henry Cavill looks fantastic in the suit. His performance is a little lacking, but that might have more to do with the direction and the script, to be fair. There are moments in this film that look liked they are ripped straight from an Alex Ross produced panel. Some really striking stuff, and sometimes it even transcends the mediocrity of the rest of the proceedings. It makes for a good trailer. Not a good movie. Watching the trailer, and seeing all this beautiful imagery is what sold me on this flick in the first place. So, it just makes Man of Steel even more disappointing. I even like the fact that the movie, even with it’s “gritty” aesthetic, is very clear about being a comic book movie. It embraces the “goofier” aspects of the mythology. It’s kind of endearing. Even with it’s clunky opening scenes on Krypton, I still had hope for the rest of the movie… And then the rest of the movie happened. So…. Yeah… It’s a superficial experience, even though, it constantly tries to tell you it’s not. Okay, this was supposed to be the positives, but it’s hard not to go back into “the negative zone.”(Oh yeah. I went there.)
There’s a lot more to talk about, but this thing is starting to have too much in common with Man of Steel. I will say this, though, Russel Crowe is GHOST DAD!
Maybe, it’s me. Maybe, I’m out of touch with Superman. I don’t regularly read the series anymore. So, maybe in the interim he’s changed in ways that I just don’t understand, or in ways that I don’t want to understand. They changed too many of the fundamentals to make me even really like the guy. Putting aside my feelings about the character, it’s a poorly paced, badly written mess. It’s slow and ponderous, but without any real depth(*Points to nose.), and is plagued by exposition dumping. Bloated, confused, and overlong. Having said all that, I would still see Man of Steel 2. Now that there’s some forward momentum, and the origin stuff is out of the way, maybe, just maybe, they could make something interesting in the sequel. They need to keep it simple, make the characters likable, add some actual fun to the proceedings, and go for broke with the goofy comic book stuff.