Monday, June 17, 2013

My review of "Man of Steel"

Be warned, this review drops major spoilers for "Man of Steel."

For many audiences, Man of Steel might feel like a significant departure from the Superman mythos. Indeed, a cursory glance at some of the negative reviews suggests that the shadows of Christopher Reeve and original Superman director Richard Donner loom large over any adaptation of the 75 year-old comic book. Indeed, it’s hard to think of any live-action incarnation of Superman in the last 30 years that didn’t either pay direct homage to the Reeve films or feel like they could comfortably exist alongside them. (Even though Lois & Clark went somewhat afield, there was little likely to shock casual fans.)

It’s appropriate that the film is entitled Man of Steel, as that was also the name of a 1986 comic book mini-series by John Byrne that reinvented the Superman legend to a similar degree. Though the revamp made the then-48 year-old character more accessible to modern readers (including yours truly), it also alienated some longtime fans who held a more rigid view of how the character should be depicted. Among those fans was future comic book writer Mark Waid, who teased Byrne at one convention “Okay John, when can we get the real Superman back?”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Waid is not a fan of this new film. There is a certain irony in this, as much of the film feels inspired by SUPERMAN: BIRTHRIGHT, a 2004 miniseries that afforded Waid his own opportunity to reinvent the hero’s origins. (Full disclosure: I’m not a terribly big fan of this mini, particularly the art.)

The film opens on Krypton, where we explore a great deal more about the culture and society of the planet as it reaches its final days. There’s a greater sense of scope here than in Donner’s version, even as the film hits the same bullet points (Kal-El launched away in a rocket, Zod and his followers condemned to the Phantom Zone for treason.) Unlike the delightfully evil megalomaniac played by Terrance Stamp in the original two Reeve films, Michael Shannon’s Zod is given more backstory and complexity.

On this Krypton, everyone is bred genetically, not born, and grown to fulfill a specific role in society. Zod – as we learn – was created to preserve and defend the sanctity of his race. Kal-El is an aberration because his parents conceived him naturally so that he would have the freedom to choose his own path. To Zod, this is a perversion.

After the prologue where Kal-El is rocketed away seemingly moments before Krypton explodes, we leap forward some 33 years to find Clark living the life of a drifter. Circumstance often puts him in a position to save others in peril, essentially turning him into an urban legend that reporter Lois Lane comes to investigate following a later encounter when Clark saves her life.

Much like Batman Begins, the film leaps back and forth through Clark’s life at will, filling in his childhood years even as we see his adult self step closer to his inevitable destiny. Though Kevin Costner shines as Jonathan Kent in all of these scenes, the non-linear structure isn’t quite as impactful here as it was in Nolan’s first Batman film. Many of Costner’s scenes are good enough to make this a minor issue at worst.

The film’s depiction of Jonathan Kent is likely to be one of the bigger points of dissention between those who love the film and those who hate it. Throughout all the incarnations, one constant has been that Jonathan Kent provides Clark with his moral compass. That’s essentially true here, though in this version, Jonathan is fearful for what would happen if Clark were to make his existence known. Cleverly, this isn’t couched only as a father’s protective (or selfish) desire to keep his son safe. No, in one scene Jonathan ruminates on what it would mean for the world to know for certain that they aren’t alone in the universe. He believes – rightly or wrongly – that the greater good of humanity is better served by preserving that secret, even in the face of saving lives.

And he dies for that belief.

In virtually every other version, Jonathan Kent is felled by a fatal heart attack. It’s the absolute embodiment of Superman’s limitations. As the famous line from the Donner film goes, “All those things I could do - all those powers – and I couldn’t even save him!” Man of Steel might be the only instance where Jonathan Kent’s death that was 100% preventable by Clark. The only catch is that in order for Clark to save his father, he’d have to expose his powers. It’s clear from Clark’s reactions that he’s fully prepared to do this – to damn the consequences to humanity and rescue his dad.

But that’s not what Jonathan wants. Pa Kent’s last act on Earth is to die for his convictions, to accept a fate he demanded his son leave others to, so as to not risk exposure. And Clark honors it.

In Clark’s shoes, I don’t think I’d be able to do the same. In the context of this film, it’s a heroic act and a noble death for Jonathan. I respect that this will be a sticking point for many. My own gut reaction was to reject this scene, but the more I let it sink in, the more I’m okay with it.

The action picks up in the second half of the film, as Zod and his armies come to Earth and demand Kal-El turn himself into them. This has the effect of casting Superman’s public debut quite differently from the other films. He doesn’t get the heroic coming out of saving a helicopter, a space shuttle or a 777. Instead, his presence is outed by Zod. From Earth’s point of view, they’re caught in the crossfire between one alien infiltrator and a very powerful alien armada. This means that when things go to hell for Smallville and Metropolis, one would expect the world would blame Superman for the catastrophe as much as they might credit him with save.

And make no mistake, this is pure destruction porn for the last 45 minutes or so in the film. Remember the battles in the western small town and later in Metropolis in Superman II? Man of Steel takes both of those and turns the devastation up beyond Transformers levels. It’s at once more violent and less moving than similar scenes in The Avengers, actually. As thrilling as it is to see Kryptonians kick the shit out of each other (and make no mistake, it is AWESOME to see these titans finally cut loose) the human scale is almost completely lost when buildings start tumbling left and right in Metropolis.

The main failing here is that we’ve barely spent enough time in Metropolis to have an emotional connection to it. The few minutes of screentime doled out to Perry White and the rest of the Daily Planet staff aren’t enough to compensate for this. Even though we’re watching a citywide catastrophe that’s on the order of 9/11 times 20, I felt nothing for the poor inhabitants of the city who were watching everything crumble to dust around them. For all we care, Metropolis might as well be a city of a half-dozen people.

After 9/11, we wondered when – if ever – it would be acceptable for Hollywood to depict such wanton destruction again. If The Avengers didn’t answer that, this film surely did. It’s odd – it’s treated too solemnly to be entirely escapist in nature, but there’s also little regard for the casualties of the siege. At least if they’d exploited 9/11, the audience might have felt something more. Larger issues aside, the effects are glorious and effectively raise the stakes for any future superhero battle.

The final resolution of the battle is another moment likely to be debated by comic book geeks. After a battle with Zod that lays waste to most of downtown Metropolis, Superman finally manages to get Zod in a sleeper hold. Still unwavering, Zod reaches out with his heat vision, ready to fry a group of civilians.

So Superman snaps his neck.

Comic book purists argue “Superman does NOT kill.” If one looks at the earlier films, they might be forced to conclude that we’ve long since dispensed with that rigidity.

Superman II: Superman kills Zod, stands by and watches as Non and Ursa fall to their deaths in either a bottomless pit or hypothermic Arctic waters below.

Superman III: Superman strangles his evil twin to death.

Superman IV: Superman throws the unconscious Nuclear Man into a nuclear reaction, which siphons off all his lifeforce.

And the simple truth is that a non-killing code might be all well and good in an ethics debate, but when you’re faced with an incredibly powerful madman who cannot be subdued by any means and is a persistent and violent threat, killing him IS the only answer. Zod was a rabid dog who needed to be put down. (There’s some tragedy in the fact that on some level he was bred to be that, but still, killing him was the only option.)

My mother emailed me to take exception to that scene. She felt the final battles went on for far too long and asked why Superman didn’t just snap Zod’s neck sooner? I’d argue that Superman needed to beat Zod enough so he had the physical leverage to perform that action. (It ain’t exactly easy to snap a neck.) Frankly, given that Zod’s neck should be indestructible, it’s amazing that even Superman could snap it.

Cavill is fantastic in the Clark/Superman role.  There's just something about the way he carries himself that makes you say "That IS Superman," even when only shown in silhouette.  His interpretation is different enough from Reeve's that it avoids inviting direct comparison.  That in itself is a superhuman achievement.  There's not a moment of this film where you're likely to be tempted to compare him and Reeve to each other.  Amy Adams makes a wonderful Lois and she has some great chemistry with Cavill. I bought her as a reporter, but my one issue with her might be her voice. It’s a little too soft and whispery for a reporter who we usually associate with bold, assertive tones.

I haven’t yet touched on the Codex, the MacGuffin that Zod is pursuing. It’s boils down to some sci-fi mumbo jumbo about how Superman’s DNA is coded with all the children who were to be bred on Krypton. I buy a lot in sci-fi, but I hate what some critics have termed “fun with DNA.” As much as I don’t like the mechanics of it, I approve of the drama that it leads to. Zod wants to use Superman’s blood to create a new Krypton. It could be the salvation of a long-dead society. Superman’s quandary is made perhaps too easy when Zod reveals that in order to save Krypton, it will require destroying Earth.

But it forces a clear choice from Superman and he chooses his adoptive home over his genetic one. “Krypton had it’s chance!” he tells Zod in the throes of one of their battles. Kal-El may be Kryptonian by birth, but his heart is human. In a film where the humans characters are shown (rightly, for the most part) to be paranoid and mistrustful of the outsiders, it’s a moment that’s needed.

But these issues aren’t totally wrapped up in a tidy way and I’d expect them to be covered in further depth in the sequel. If nothing else, the fallout from the Battle of Metropolis must be addressed. I’d love a smaller-scaled sequel that finds a way to address what it must be like for the survivors. Perhaps if the film features more of Clark Kent’s work as a reporter for the Daily Planet, that can be an inroad to exploring Metropolis as a city.

The earlier Superman films position the character as a savior. Though he saves the day here, the way it unfolds makes it possible the world would not welcome their “strange visitor” with open arms. It would be a very different path for any Superman film to take, but after the events of this one, possibly the most logical.

For those who didn't walk out of Man of Steel terribly thrilled with the film, take heart.  There is a vast universe of Superman adaptations, and I'm sure that you'll find something more to your liking.  Goyer and Nolan made some bold choices with this version and I'd hope that even if I didn't appreciate the film, I'd salute their moxie.


  1. Best film of 2013. Really was suprised by how good "Man of Steel" was. Loved Michael Shannon's Zod. And I really liked the sunshine and lighting throughout this film. "Man of Steel" definately deserves some Oscar buzz.


    1. The movie has good sunshine?

      That's it -- I'm booking my ticket now.

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  3. In SUPERMAN II, the intention is clearly that they don't die. Even as a kid, I never assumed that all three of them just died at the end. You have to admit that it's pretty vague with the way it's shot and edited. But regardless, Donner filmed (and it's included in the body of the Donner Cut) footage of them being arrested by the "Arctic Police" (Huh? #1), who drive to the Fortress of Solitude in their police jeeps (Huh? #2). So they evidently just spend the rest of their days in prison, I guess?

    Look, I'm not saying it's perfect storytelling. I'm just saying that it's different.

    In SUPERMAN III he basically strangles a metaphor to death. I would argue that this isn't the same thing as MAN OF STEEL.

    What is this "Superman IV" of which you speak? Everyone knows that Christopher Reeve was only in three Superman movies, duh. What a wacky imagination you have. Inventing a whole sequel like that.


    My problem with it ISN'T that he kills. I'm all for the powerful "I just had to kill a guy and I totally regret doing that almost instantly" moment of growth for the character. I'm saying that it needs to be in a different movie for it to have any weight at all.

    Look, I'm sure that Goyer didn't literally write "and then they fight, and a hilarious number of people die off screen. I'm talking just a ridiculous amount of people in every shot. Buildings fall on other buildings which fall on people, so on, so forth..." Snyder just shot it that way. So when Superman is suddenly all "No, don't kill those four random people, Zod!", it suddenly means almost nothing as a moment because he's done nothing to protect anyone else during every last moment leading up to that one.

    Superman himself is responsible for a great deal of (unintentional, sure) death, for no reason other than "I am so pissed off right now." He blows up a gas station in Smallville (and that thing BLOWS. UP. Like, hard), so already at that point in the movie he has a higher body count attached to his name than Zod. All of that stuff might look cool, but it takes the air out of the balloon of what is supposed to be a pivotal turning point at the end of the movie.

    1. I don't think you can say the intention is "clearly" that they don't die, considering they cut out the only scene that contradicts that notion. As far as the theatrical cut is concerned, the Arctic Police scene doesn't exist. I don't usually consider deleted scenes when it comes to debates like this. No matter what alternates may have been shot - that's not what made it to the final cut.

      There's also the fact that when Donner had the opportunity to restore that scene in his own cut, he lopped it out too.

    2. The "Arctic Police" are in the Donner Cut.

      Also, in the interest of full disclosure: I grew up watching SUPERMAN II on TV. I don't think I ever owned it until that first DVD set in the silver box way back when. In the TV edit, that scene is also present. Along with a zillion other scenes that were designed to make it as long as possible because the Salkinds were geniuses and sold it by the minute to networks.

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    4. Superman did catch the solider who fell out of the helicopter. I do agree that I would have liked a little less destruction (seen him care a little more about the collateral damage) and would have liked to have seen Superman try to avoid some of it. He stops to save a few people and gets punched from behind by a Kryptonian. I think their could have been some large scale destruction without going so over the top that you'd have to imagine that tens of thousands of people were killed during that battle (BUT, thinking about what was at stake, the needs of the many- the world- outweighed the needs of the few- metropolis- at that moment. If Superman didn't defeat Zod, the whole world would be gone). Like article said, the more I sat with the specific details of the film, I can see where they were going with things and genuinely enjoyed the movie. Can't wait for the sequel!!!

    5. uh….
      Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) ;

  4. I had the same problem as Kevin. The insane levels of destruction of Smallville and Metropolis with no regard from Superman for the safety of their citizens was just too much, and I hope that BSR is right and that they address his carelessness in the sequel. My bet is that they won't.

  5. Seeing as how the movie didn't end with that general going "Aliens are dicks - especially that one. He's the worst thing that ever happened to us," I'm also assuming that they won't.

  6. Say what you want about WHY superman killed. All the answers are fine, but the real and only true answer to this, and what the movie shows, and more than hints at with the utter destruction of the city and humanity, is that superman is completing his arc on becoming more human. He actually became human in 2, but he needed to change back. But now, superman is a killer, and that perfectly reflects the world today.

    The human race has created a killer from a alien species that did not know how to kill. It's like SEVEN, for the comic book world. Hell, supes dolls have a receding hairline. Supes is HUMAN.

  7. I agree that the damage to both Smallville and Metropolis hinted at enormous casualties, but I don't think that was either the director or screenwriter's intention.

    For one thing, virtually every single time we go inside a building *with* a fighting Kryptonian of any stripe, it's empty. Empty offices full of abandoned desks, empty stores without a single visible customer. Not just when we go back after impact, when it might seem like the shoppers were trapped/dead under rubble -- when we go through an office *with* Superman, the lights are out and he's the only one in sight. In contrast, the beat inside the IHOP is full of innocent bystanders who cower, trying to avoid harm, and Superman is so hamstrung by the potential collateral damage that another character chastise/beats him about this weakness.

    Secondly, there are *several* beats of people leaving/fleeing -- including one of a police officer urging people to run in a particular direction. When some characters are unsuccessful in their attempts to flee, there are *no* other people nearby -- not dead, not running, not cops, nothing. Also, we have a couple moments where people *are* facing certain/nearly certain death inside a structure -- and those get played on screen, with us standing right next to the character as all hell blows up around them.

    I would love some official confirmation, but for now my theory is that the filmmakers *thought* they had shown the innocent bystanders leaving/going to safety -- but did not actually succeed in selling this on screen.

    (Maybe the single most damaging detail in the whole movie is the moment, late in the third act, when it gets late enough in the day that we see cars with turned on headlights and offices lit up from the inside. Maybe the filmmakers even though it would help, because we could see that nobody was inside these buildings -- but no, it didn't. Even though I've worked in offices where the lights were automatically turned on at a certain time, I could not shake the feeling there were people in those buildings. And I knew there had to be drivers in those cars, so that added to the sense that lights = people.)

    So that's my theory: They tried to convince the audience that everyone had fled, but they didn't succeed. Otherwise, I have to think that, literally, nobody in the making of this film noticed that thousands of people were going to be killed by the various conflicts. Or that maybe, having seen the Transformer movies get away with spectacular destruction, they figured they could do just the same, without realizing that Superman is held to a much higher moral standard than a talking truck.

    But I just can't buy that. Partly because of the several beats where we see people being urged to "go inside" or otherwise move to safety. Partly because the human cost wasn't totally ignored -- the Perry White/Jenny/Reporter rubble story brings that to the forefront. And partly because I have seen many, many cases where smart, gifted filmmakers accidentally created the wrong impression with a single thoughtless edit or costume choice. So yeah, I'm going to hope that's the case here.

  8. In terms of comics, I was never the biggest Superman fan, but I loved the Christopher Reeve films. I grew up with them, and watched them ad nauseum (none more so than the third, cause even then I knew I liked Superman as a little bit of a bad ass). I agree wholeheartedly with BSR's review. I didn't walk of the movie feeling as invigorated as I thought I would, I wasn't even sure I liked it, all I knew for certain was that I wanted to go the gym, fly and punch things. But the more I sat with it, the more it started to agree with me. Yes it has its faults; Jor El is used to often for my tastes, affecting too much of the plot posthumously, and as BSR pointed out the flashback tactic wasn't as well executed as in Nolan's Batman. May biggest complaint however is the "destruction porn." The Avengers destroyed NYC, but I never felt like the story stopped. Here, however, despite these action sequences being awesome as shit to watch, they also became tedious and boring, and the story was sacrificed for Summer Blockbuster mayfair. I missed the characters they reinvented so well in the first half, who were cast aside for another falling building. The tactic was only forgivable, barely, because what came before it was so good, but I can't help but wonder how much better it could have been if they cut about 30 minutes of it out, made the moments closer, and more character driven like his first fight with Faora.

    Everything about this movie from suit, to music to tone, was telling us to that our preconceived notions weren't welcome in the seat next to us. So, as far as Superman's decision to kill Zod at the end, it may not have been "true" to the Superman character as some critics say, but I do feel it was true to this Superman's character. Not for nothing but the guy killed his dad, and tried to kill his adoptive mother. I'd be a little pissed too! But aside from that, and aside from the somewhat contrived circumstances, I think the scene ultimately works. Zod isn't just the bad guy to Superman, he's a link to his home world, a chance, however small it might be, to not be alone anymore, to not feel like an outcast, to belong. And he kills that idea, to save four people who are probably just as afraid of him as they are of Zod. In my head, it was weirdly the most human thing he does in the whole movie. Yes he had already chosen to protect his adoptive home, but in that moment, to me, he was choosing to be human, despite the loneliness, bullying, and fear he's been subjected to. He's damning himself to more of that life, a human life, because we're worth it to him. Plus who's to say that this isn't the impetus of his "no kill" morality, or that the effects of it won't have a larger toll on him in future installments. The character, in this world, is still in his infancy. So for me, despite my hangups about it, I'm certainly looking forward to seeing where they take him next.

  9. I'm one of those who was really disappointed with this latest silver screen adaptation of arguably my favorite comic book hero. The greatest strength Superman has is the values learnt from Martha and Jonathan Kent. The heart attack that Pa Kent should have died from would be Clark's lesson in humility.

    I suppose I'm just a big fan of The Big Blue Boy Scout. There are already enough dark superheroes out there. The fact that the strongest of them all has the most amount of humanity with the irony that he's not even human, just appeals to me. He was the anchor of the JLA and all he stood for was needed in Kingdom Come.

    I also think that having more machine's on Krypton only makes it look more primitive. Earth seems a mere …50 years(???) behind. Having the knowledge of the known universe and using crystals is just too cool a concept for our young race to grasp. In my opinion they should have just stuck with the incomprehensible.

    I was also impressed at how well a scientist like Jor-El defended himself against a seasoned warrior like Zod and his Kandorian hit squad. But then again after seeing him ride his pet dragon / mode of transport, H'raka, I soon realized nothing was going to be as expected.

    I really just wanted the whole thing to end. Just as my dreams of seeing once again the Superman I knew came crashing down, I wished Jor-El's brain trust would have done the same when he had control of the invading mothership. Man, that that would have saved some lives.

  10. I was looking forward to this film after the clever trailers but would only give it a 3.5 out of 5 in the end. After the first hour it was a slugfest. All that aside, I feel the film and characters reflect the current tone of the world, so its accurate but that's also my problem. Superman for me was always a beacon of light in the dark times, not a character that joined in! This film could have been uplifting but really has just added itself to the darker masses. Roll on the Sequel!

  11. Hey Bitter,
    some bold choices they made indeed. I have only little to critisize about this movie though. In my opinion, it's the best live-action Superman movie that has ever been made. The casting is superb, the effects are really good and all the visuals were simply awesome (except for Zod's goatee).

    My main problem with the story though is all the techno babble bullshit they put into the movie. Virtually anything connected with the Krypton technology. In Superman Returns we had too much crystal technology - people complained about that a lot. Now we have the same technology just with a different design. It's still the same Deus Ex Machina story device. :D

    On a second note, Snyder really exploits his action sequences. He loves them to death. If an action sequence is so long that your mind starts drifting away from it, because nothing new happens, then it's probably too long. If you start thinking about the human casualties or who is going to repair that later on, it's too damn long!

    Superman doesn't kill ... well, he did in the comics on several occasions and he had a long time of soul searching to do, before he was able to forgive himself. It's not a problem in the movie! The mood for this action has been set from the very first scene and Superman's cry later is an indicator that he wasn't too happy about it. What comes after this scene is a problem.

    After killing Zod, the more or less light-hearted entrance of Clark Kent / Superman into the world feels awkward. Terry Rossio likes to call this a storyteller cut. Nothing is really resolved. The writers just didn't know how to resolve this and frankly, I don't either. The fact that Superman didn't make an entrance before Zod showed up, created this structural problem in the first place.

    There is another minor logical error in the movie. Showing Clark as a kid with a red cape and the Superman pose. Who is he emulating in this scene? It doesn't make any sense whatsoever.

    Still, it's the best Superman movie I've ever seen and Henry Cevill is THE MAN (OF STEEL) :)

  12. A few thoughts :

    The climax scene with the buildings being smashed was repetitive and boring. If it had been shorter and had built to a climax it would've been better. I'm not a big fan of the half-hour or more spectacle/chase climax that's been popularized in recent years.

    I loved the scenes with Kevin Costner and agreed with your assessment. Given the theme, it was the "right" way to go.

    The thing that bothered me most and what ruined the movie for me was the killing of Zod. Not specifically that he got killed, but the way in which the writer/director chose to do it. I noticed the camera spent a long time on the scene during my first viewing of the film - and that Superman let out a long primal scream afterwards.

    I felt that this was a deliberate attempt by the film makers to make superman a murderer all in the name of "strengthening character ." As you indirectly pointed out, each film or comic adds to the mythos of the character of superman (or any superhero for that matter.) superheroes are the modern equivalent to greek gods. Our children practically worship them. And by creating a scene where superman DELIBERATELY murders a villain (rather than passively allowing them to fall to their deaths), the film makers were adding murder to the mythos of superman, a heretofore "pure" superhero. They did the same thing with Batman in the last decade. We'll be seeing superman degenerate in the decade to come.

    Mark my words.