Written by Charles Meier
What you need to understand is this: there has never been a truly great Superman movie. Even the ones people usually point out as great, the first two Christopher Reeve films, are well-remembered mostly because of Reeve’s performance. It was the actor that was great, not the films themselves–the first was uneven and the second was, in addition to the questionable premise (Superman quits?), every bit the mess you’d expect a movie whose director was fired halfway through to be. To be honest, the much-maligned third movie is my personal favorite of the Reeve series, simply because it’s such goofy fun. I have no such iconoclasm in my heart for the fourth film, you’ll be happy to know–it was simply a fiasco on all fronts.
After that mess, the film franchise went into hibernation for almost twenty years, barring the occasional misguided attempt at a reboot, many of which involved giant spiders. The end result of all this was, of course, the truly horrendous Superman Returns, which apart from an amusing performance by Kevin Spacey succeeded mostly in turning the Last Son of Krypton from “beacon of hope” to “creepy stalker who’s now less heroic than freaking Cyclops”. Summer of 2006 wasn’t a particularly pleasant one for me to begin with, but that movie was just the turd-nugget on top of the pus sundae.
If you think about it, this is all more than a bit odd. For all his ups and downs, Superman remains quite possibly the single most recognizable pop-culture figure on the planet. Grab a random person off the street in, I don’t know, Pyongyang and there’s a pretty good chance he’ll know at least the basics of the characters–origin, powers, weaknesses, secret identity and such. The traits people point to as proof of his being a boring character are, in fact, proof of his ultimate strength–namely, universality. In the face of all this, you’d think Kal-El’s film career would be far more consistent in terms of quality, profitability and release schedule. Instead, all it seems to net is a continued willingness to take a chance on the character.
As you may have heard, recent days have seen the release of the latest attempt to bring Superman to the silver screen. I refer, of course, to Man Of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder, written by David S. Goyer, starring Henry Cavill and produced by Christopher Nolan.
I’ll be honest with you. I went into this movie fully expecting it to suck, if for no other reason than it’s directed by the guy who did Sucker Punch. He also, of course, directed Watchmen, about which the kindest thing I can say is that it was the best Watchmen movie we were ever gonna get, which of course just goes to show that not everything needs a damn movie made of it. Apart from that, we have an unknown actor (Jon Hamm presumably being unavailable) cast as Superman for seemingly no reason other than he looked the part–although, considering I just described literally every person to ever play Superman on screen, ever, this is perhaps not so serious an issue. Also, as a screenwriter, Goyer is all over the map in terms of quality–he can be writing Dark City one moment and Jumper the next.
So what did I think?
Well…first and foremost, the entire first twenty minutes of this movie could have been cut out. Completely. If you don’t believe me, consider that literally everything in those first twenty minutes (apart from why you need to toss someone into the Phantom Zone when you’ve already cryogenically frozen them) is explained to Superman by his dad’s holographic ghost. Consider also that this is YET ANOTHER Superman movie that feels the need to go over the origin story which, as I mentioned above, absolutely everyone already knows. (The only nice thing I have to say about Superman Returns is that it didn’t do this, when they may have conceivably had an excuse.) They could have cut those twenty minutes out, saved themselves several million dollars and streamlined this rather long movie a great deal. Stripped of its necessity to the narrative, it serves simply as an excuse to show Jor-El being awesome.
There’s quite a bit of that in this film, actually. In fact, for the first half or so it seemed like Jor-El was doing more than Superman, which is quite an accomplishment considering how he’s, you know, dead. It helps that Russell Crowe turns in a pretty fine performance as Jor-El, even if he does often seem to be channeling Sean Bean as Ned Stark. He brings us a portrayal of a man who, through his beliefs and actions, sows the seeds of what his son will become, which is far more than can be said for Kevin Costner’s selfish, paranoid Jonathan Kent. If Clark spends much of the movie directionless, the fault can only be laid at the feet of this douche.
I mentioned Clark Kent just now, which leads me to my next point. This film’s biggest failing as a Superman is that many of the elements that make the franchise recognizable are reduced to the faintest echoes. Chief among these is the very concept of Superman even having a secret identity–he spends much of the movie seemingly determined to blow his cover to any and all available observers. Nothing really comes of all this carelessness, but the end result is that the Clark Kent persona–who typically represents the most essential, important facet of Superman’s personality–is barely shown to exist at all, and when it takes on its familiar shape at film’s end, it just feels tacked on. Further along these lines, the idea of Lois Lane as an intrepid, fearless journalist is shoved by the wayside pretty early on–in fact, most of her “journalism” in Man Of Steel consists of her trying to force an implausible story she can’t prove onto her editor (Laurence Fishburne, who gives us a rock-solid Perry White). She spends most of the movie as a reasonably competent hanger-on, and Amy Adams portrays her with the blandness to match. The end result of all this is a movie which often feels like it could have been a stand-alone property, devoid of the Superman license. I find myself wondering if the reason they chose to rehash the origin simply to assure the project was recognizable as a Superman movie.
What is recognizable, regrettably, is a truly obnoxious amount of religious symbolism. The concept of Superman as a Christ-figure is questionable at the very least, and while Goyer and Snyder don’t go quite as overboard with it as they perhaps could have, there’s still enough of it there to be noticeable. In particular, there’s all the references to Clark being thirty-three at the time the movie takes place (which is a problem in and of itself; a Superman film that has him begin his career that late in life just makes it seem like he was dicking around. Which he pretty much was, now that I think of it.) Hey, you know what happened to that other guy when he turned thirty-three? He died. So it’s really not a great jumping-off point for a Superman film franchise, especially when the movie doesn’t even have Doomsday in it.
If I sound like I’m ragging on Man Of Steel a lot, well…that’s because I am. There’s a reason I’m doing so, however–a reason I’m bothering to put so much thought into all this. That reason being, Man Of Steel isn’t that bad a movie. Kinda, sorta pretty okay, as a matter of fact. Like I said, I had no high hopes for this movie going in–the Superman Returns and Watchmen wounds were still too raw. That Nolan was producing disturbed me as well–true to my predictions, I find myself liking The Dark Knight Rises less and less as time goes on. But if there’s one lesson my work on this site has taught me over and over, low expectations are the easiest to overcome.
Henry Cavill, as it turns out, makes a pretty good Superman. He does a good job of conveying a superhuman coming to grips with the notion of being superhuman, eventually coming to accept and even revel in it–the look of sheer joy and exhilaration on his face the first time he flies is one of the best parts of the movie. Cavill’s approach actually reminds of the traditional “five stages of griefs”, though it’s not emo in the least (thankfully). Ironically, Cavill gets across the idea of Superman as a role model/beacon far better than the film itself. I’m not exactly wild, however, with the costume design, with its weird fabric, pseudo-New 52 look and Wonder Woman-esque wrist cuffs. I’m willing to overlook the over-stylized chest emblem, however, as doing so makes it clear its resemblance to a certain letter of our alphabet is coincidental. (On that subject: all you people making fun of the “it’s not an S” thing realize it’s not exactly a new concept, right? The basic idea dates back at least to the first Reeve movie.)
The real standout for me in the cast, however, is Michael Shannon. His General Zod is a surprisingly nuanced character, one who is a victim of his beliefs as much as he is a champion of them. He and Superman are, arguably, two sides of the same coin–where Kal-El is intended as an exemplar of the triumphs of Kryptonian culture, Zod embodies its darker, more questionable aspects. In particular, their fondness for caste systems–while Zod and his followers may be the finest examples of their assigned societal role, it’s also a cage they can’t escape, yellow sun or no. This is why, disturbing as I found it, I didn’t mind the controversial ending quite so much as many other critics–really, Zod was never gonna go out any other way.
The major point in Man Of Steel’s favor is that it has something no previous Superman film has ever really had–namely, proper fight scenes. They’ve been there, sure, but even in cases where Superman is up against opponents who can take a full-on punch you’ve never really gotten the sense of the sheer physicality that would logically be involved–granted, this might have been a tad difficult in the pre-CGI days. This movie has no such issues, however. Despite pitting Superman against Zod and his forces once again, at no point are you reminded of Superman II–no cellophane emblems being tossed around here. Here, we have fight scenes every bit as ferocious as you’d expect Kryptonian-on-Kryptonian combat to be–opponents hurtling toward one another with the speed of a fighter jet, landing punches that could demolish a skyscraper. It’s teeth-rattling stuff, with some actual thought behind it. Much is made of how Superman-like powers take time to develop, as well as requiring practice to control and use effectively (kudos to Snyder and Goyer for actually bothering to address the inherent problems of enhanced senses). You really do get the sense that Superman’s only advantages in the last half-hour are that he’s fully empowered and knows how his powers work, so it makes some kind of sense that he can take on several of his own kind singlehanded and have something resembling a chance.
That last half-hour and its attendant action sequences are so good, in fact, that I wonder if I’m not letting it unduly influence my overall impression of the movie. An issue raised by other critics is the sheer level of collateral damage involved, far more than even last year’s The Avengers–both Metropolis and Smallville pretty much get turned into gravel–and that Superman overall seems far more concerned with beating up the bad guys than protecting/saving people. It is a concern, though my response would be that in many cases Superman’s hardly in a position to help–it’s not like Faora (a suitable vicious and creepy Antje Traue) is going to let him call time-out so he can go catch that crashing helicopter. When not so pressured, Superman shows plenty of willingness to save others–just look at the scene with the oil rig, which when you cut out those first twenty minutes makes for a damn fine opening sequence. It’s pretty clear, to me at least, that in among the fistfights and collapsing buildings the seeds are sown for a more traditionally protective/iconic Superman in later films (a sequel has already been greenlit). And really, it’s a summer blockbuster–what did you think was going to happen in this movie? Much like The Avengers, Man Of Steel is a case of massive action sequences done well, with none of the usual Michael Bay shaky-cam bullshit. I will say, however, that Zod’s plan makes very little sense–yes, I’m sure a group of racial supremacists wouldn’t see any benefit in having godlike power, gosh no.
As you can see, Man Of Steel is a movie with some very real problems. In many ways it fails to overcome the issues inherent in previous Superman movies, and if you stop to think about it many aspects of the character are fumbled quite badly. At the same time, however, there’s genuinely good stuff on display, enough that I found myself enjoying the film in spite of its rather maddening flaws. While it’s the equal of basically none of the recent Marvel films, it’s a pretty enjoyable flick, though you might want to consider showing up twenty minutes late (thirty-five I guess, taking previews into account). So, I suppose I’m recommending that you go see this film if you haven’t already, albeit with major qualifications. You should be aware–very, very aware–of everything Man Of Steel gets wrong, you should be similarly aware of everything it gets right.