This is late. This is soooo late. And it’s far too long. Ugh. What is wrong with me? Why do I even exist? I shouldn’t. I’m sorry.
I love Superman. That’s why I wrote this piece almost one year ago (and this piece shortly after that. Just in case you wanted to give my site some traffic or whatever. It’s cool, though, it’s totally cool. Just…y’know, if you want to). And I want you guys to know, I was REALLY hoping that Man of Steel would, against all my expectations, be an amazing film. I know that sounds egocentric…because it very much IS. When a superhero movie comes out (especially a superhero as iconic as the Man of Steel) I can’t help it: I DO feel like it should be tailor-made to my sensibilities. I also nitpick it to death and pass judgment on it when it fails to live up to my ludicrous standards. And, as I feared, I was right about Man of Steel. It wasn’t the great movie I desperately wanted it to be. Now the viewing experience itself wasn’t terrible, but it reminded me of The Dark Knight Rises: a film that’s enjoyable on the surface, but immediately falls to pieces upon closer examination. I hope this list adequately explains how I can be a Superman fan and not be a huge fan of his latest cinematic “triumph.”
1. The Cinematography
I am not the hugest fan of Zack Snyder. I was desperately hoping that Brad Bird or Darren Aronofsky or even Martin Campbell would snag the director’s spot for Man of Steel. But once Snyder was on board, I figured we would at least get some decent action scenes. Maybe slow-motion would actually be a great way to depict Kryptonians battling. But guess what? Zack Snyder decided to abandon his strengths and cling even tighter to his weaknesses.
First of all, everything is shot through a color filter. Krypton is a drab parade of different shades of brown. Earth is a bleak gray wasteland. An ultimately pointless scene in which Zod invades Kal-El’s mind was obviously written into the movie so that Snyder could show off his “visionary” style of film-making and cram in some of the same kind of “subtle” and “symbolic” imagery we’ve come to expect from the man behind Sucker Punch.
The action scenes are especially disappointing because Snyder uses no slow-motion, which (as I said) could have really worked in this instance. But no, everything is fast-paced, hyper-edited, and out-of-focus. Perhaps that works for, say, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, or the Bourne series, or even the most recent James Bond movies, but not here; not when you’re showing alien demigods battling for the Earth’s future. That kind of conflict should feel epic, and it doesn’t (weirdly enough, the most “epic” battle scene is the one that’s the most similar to Superman Returns, in which Superman destroys an inanimate object that causes him pain).
2. Plot Problems
Let me lay out a few of these in roughly chronological order. And yes, this one’s going to be a long segment:
How is Jor-El, genetically engineered to be a scientist, able to easily defeat Zod and his troops, genetically engineered to be perfect soldiers? How does the Phantom Zone work? If it’s another dimension, Why does there have to be a giant ship, and freeze-y tubes?
How could Superman’s suit (complete with the symbol of the House of El, no less) be in a scout ship that arrived on Earth 20,000 years ago? Did Jor-El (or his AI) program the ship to build it? If so, why make it blue, red, and yellow, colors that we haven’t seen exist on Krypton? Why doesn’t the suit look more like the armor that Jor-El wears instead of the body stocking that Kryptonian soldiers apparently wear under their combat suits?
What exactly gives Superman his powers? Jor-El said that the Earth’s lighter gravity gave him his ability to fly, and the radiation from Earth’s young sun supercharged his cells, right? The whole thing about earth’s atmosphere was just a throwaway line at the time; something about it being more nutritious than Krypton’s. Well, that line apparently only existed to justify the moment when Superman is on Zod’s ship and he blacks out and loses his powers. Why? Not because of the sun. Not because of the gravity. Because Zod’s ship artificially duplicates Krypton’s atmosphere. Now I know that an atmosphere is determined by the gravitational pull of a planet and that it contains ultraviolet solar radiation, but did we really need to be SO scientifically accurate that it seemingly contradicts Superman canon? Was it just to be “realistic”, Nolan-style? Weirdly specific time to do it. Why not just say it was red sun radiation?
How did Krypton’s destruction free the prisoners from the Phantom Zone? Why was it so easy for a prison ship (that Jor-El designed, by the way) to be taken over and converted into a vessel of war? How has Zod aged appropriately over a span of 33 years, but Faora hasn’t? Why would Zod reveal his presence to earth, when it would have been so much easier to search the internet for references to alien activity, locate Lois Lane, discreetly abduct her, use the brain-raping technology we know they have, and take Kal-El by surprise? I’m assuming that would have been just as easy (if not easier) than creating a broadcast that automatically translates words into every known language on earth, so why did Zod take such a big risk and tip his hand? Because he has “a flair for the dramatic”? WHY? He shouldn’t be susceptible to that kind of vanity if he was really genetically engineered to be the perfect soldier, right?
And if Zod’s ultimatum was some kind of psychological tactic intended to terrify and intimidate, it failed; Earth still tried everything in its power to resist his incursion, and all the broadcast did was give them time to mobilize. Plus, you don’t need to break the spirits of a population if they already aren’t a threat to you AND you intend to completely destroy them, not subjugate them, right? For that matter, why did Zod NEED to terraform the Earth into a Krypton-style planet? His explanation was “We don’t want to endure years of pain adjusting to these abilities like Kal-El did.” WHAT? What kind of soldier throws away a tactical advantage like that? They spent more than three decades living in a flying prison! How could that be worse than spending a little time getting used to your completely AWESOME GODLIKE POWERS?! Plus, his argument is completely moot, since only a few minutes later he’s completely adjusted to his powers and he’s fighting Superman to a standstill!
For that matter, why does Zod need Earth to be the new Krypton? If he has a world engine that can terraform ANY planet into a duplicate of Krypton, why inconvenience himself by choosing Earth? He says he has no interest in the powers a yellow sun gives him, so why Earth? The whole reason Superman resists him is because he plans to use the codex to repopulate Earth with Kryptonians. Easy solution: find another planet (there are plenty of them, as Zod would know), use the world engine there, tell Superman you have no interest in threatening his adoptive planet, and then he’ll gladly cooperate and help you find the codex and use it. Or, why not use the world engine BEFORE coming to earth, show up in a non-threatening vessel, and tell Superman you need his help to revitalize Kryptonian culture. Boom. Done. Remember, this version of Zod doesn’t have anything personal against the House of El (unlike Zod in Superman II). He was even friends with Jor-El. He should have no reason to punish the earth, and he shouldn’t have any animosity against humans or Kal-El. He just wants the codex, which is not an inherently dangerous item.
Of course, Jor-El DID imply that Zod wanted to eliminate the bloodlines of Krypton that he deemed impure or whatever. Now, let’s leave aside the fact that Zod (as he himself states) was genetically engineered for the sole purpose of protecting Krypton, and therefore shouldn’t be:
A) capable of starting a destructive civil war that divides his people during a planetary emergency.
B) jeopardizing Krypton’s future by eliminating any portion of a highly-structured gene pool perfected over generations of planning.
If Zod is willing to destroy the traditional version of Krypton to begin with, why not use his own people as templates for a new Kryptonian society? You know, his loyal followers, the highly skilled people all willing to die for him? Just have them start breeding, or have the creepy German guy whip up some clone-ish stuff. They have the technology, since they were going to use the codex anyways, and Zod already planned on rebuilding Kryptonian society in his own image.
Speaking of all this genetic engineering stuff, Faora has a line during her fight with Superman that is infuriating in its scientific…uh, notness. As they fight, she brags about how he will lose because he still has morality. She, on the other hand, does not. Why? Because she has evolved beyond it. Because she has…what the hell, guys?! Seriously?! First, Faora is one generation removed from Superman; she has not evolved anything that he, a YOUNGER Kryptonian, doesn’t have too. Also, if she has no morality, then why is she doing any of this stuff? You don’t orchestrate and participate in a planetary rebellion, travel across the galaxy for decades, and constantly put your own well-being at risk in order to rebuild your home if you don’t have a set of morals. Faora has to believe that what she’s doing is right. And guess what? Zod, also a genetically engineered soldier, HAS MORALS! He explicitly stated that he did what had to be done, no matter how unpleasant, in order to protect and preserve Krypton. MORALS! But hey, even if Faora was born without morals, it wasn’t because she evolved past them: she was genetically engineered. That’s not evolution. That’s LITERALLY INTELLIGENT DESIGN.
Okay, that was exhausting. Moving on to the other problems. Oh yes, there are more:
3. Jonathan Kent is a Prick
Putting aside the irritation I endured with Kevin Costner’s predictable monotonous drawling (I think I’ve heard him refer to it as “acting”), Man of Steel‘s version of Jonathan Kent is an awful parent, an awful mentor, and an awful role model. He tells his son that he has to decide for himself whether he’s going to be a good or bad person. It’s not a good idea to use your powers to help people, he warns, because the world isn’t ready for you, and they’ll reject you. He wants Clark to stay with him in Kansas and be a farmer, yet at the same time he keeps telling him that he’s going to change the world and that he must find out for himself what his glorious destiny will be. And when he tries to rescue the family dog (yes, the DOG) from a twister, he refuses to let his son save him because he has to keep that side of himself a secret. Are you processing this? DO YOU UNDERSTAND WHY THIS IS TERRIBLE?! When your son is an all-powerful alien, you owe it to him and the world to at least TRY to teach him right and wrong and, raise him to have compassion for his fellow man. The Jonathan Kent of the comic books did. The Jonathan Kent of the first Superman movie did. But from this paranoid, morally ambiguous Jonathan Kent, we only get empty platitudes, grandiose speeches, and the worst parenting style since Robert Downey Sr. Bottom line: Superman should have become a hero BECAUSE of his parents, but in Man of Steel he becomes a hero DESPITE them.
4. Superman Can’t Be Bothered with Bystanders
Superman’s respect for all life is a common thread in all of his depictions. That respect is evident in virtually any battle he finds himself forced into. If he has to fight an enemy, his first priority is to either move the battle away from a populated area or find a way to clear out civilians and cut down on collateral damage. In Man of Steel, Superman couldn’t care less about bystanders. When Zod threatens his mother in rural Kansas, what does Clark do? Tackle him, and fly them both OUT OF an isolated cornfield and INTO a busy urban area. Oh sure, he tells the civilians to get inside because it isn’t safe, but then he proceeds to destroy the town around their ears. Gas stations blow up. Helicopters crash. Buildings are reduced to rubble. Of course there are casualties, and now Superman is just as responsible for their deaths as Zod is. And that final battle? Oh, my God. We can see horrified spectators watching. We can see these two titans of destruction leveling skyscrapers and construction sites and blasting their heat vision left and right. PEOPLE ARE DYING, SUPERMAN, AND YOU ARE KILLING THEM.
That climactic moment when Superman has no choice but to snap Zod’s neck in order to save some humans? Fine with it. In the comics, he executes Zod and Faora with Kryptonite when they leave him with no alternative. I don’t think it’s particularly controversial at all. But I also say this: given his blatant disregard for the THOUSANDS of people he and Zod endangered during their little scuffle, Superman killing Zod for the sake of a small family of tourists and then screaming in anguish has a hollow ring to it.
5. Clark’s Too Old For Pranks
It was a short scene: Clark is a cook at a truck stop diner in the middle of nowhere. A pretty waitress gets harassed by Thaddeus D. Redneckington III, and Clark steps in. He shows restraint when the trucker makes fun of him, pushes him, and pours beer on his head, because he is a mature adult. Two cops (who are apparently also sociopaths) find that funny instead of, like ASSAULT or something. Clark leaves, upset. Thaddeus leaves the diner hours later, only to discover that–Wha?! His truck is completely wrecked and the shipment of timber he was hauling is ruined! BA HA HA HA! Boy, Clark was a real cut-up when he was a teenager! Of course, that was before he became a mature adult and–Wait, he’s 33 years old?! How is destroying a man’s livelihood, a company’s profits, and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment any better than beating up the guy?! I thought the whole “33 years old” thing was a clumsy and unnecessary reference to the Superman/Jesus parallel, but I don’t even think teen Jesus would be that petulant.
I’m quite proud of this one, actually. “Golanitis” is a term I have invented (unless the internet did it eight years ago in which case I’m sorry). The “Golan” is a combination of Christopher Nolan (also his brother Jonathan when applicable) and David S. Goyer, the men behind the Dark Knight trilogy. “Golanitis” is a condition the characters in their movies suffer from. It renders them incapable of saying anything in a short, simple, or even remotely understandable way. Instead they have no choice but to deliver stilted, melodramatic, and pretentious yet endlessly quotable dialogue that:
A) Awkwardly telegraphs huge plot points.
B) Reminds the audience that the movie does indeed have a theme, and is indeed serious and important because Hans Zimmer’s score is getting louder.
C) Is initially intended to answer a question or make a point, but instead devolves into a long story or symbolism-heavy speech that ultimately does neither.
D) Makes a great Facebook status because it sounds deceptively profound; bonus points if it can be used out of context in support of a political, religious, or personal agenda.
E) All of the above.
See, it’s easy to use superheroes (especially Superman, given his Christ-like attributes) to stage a morality play. That’s not inherently bad. But when you focus on having a big, important, serious, thematic motion picture epic without focusing first and foremost on, say, character development (or simply having a good movie with a smart plot), well, you’ll feel obliged to fill your movie with trite, hackneyed sayings that don’t sound like real people talking to one another about important things; instead, they sound like somebody reading off the inventory at a motivational poster factory. If you want a perfect example of how a superhero film avoided this trap despite having an inherently silly premise and requiring a massive suspension of disbelief, watch The Avengers. Joss Whedon knows how people talk, how to let a story’s themes speak for themselves, and how to give a colorful and absurd popcorn flick something it MUST have in order to matter: subtlety and genuineness.
ON THE PLUS SIDE/IN CONCLUSION
Now for some positive things about the movie. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how much I appreciated the acting talents of Russell Crowe, Henry Cavill, Michael Shannon, and Christopher Meloni. Even though the idea of the Nolan boys and David S. Goyer controlling the DC Cinematic Universe makes me anxious, I’m happy that Man of Steel takes place in a shared universe. I enjoyed the church scene. I liked the overall idea of Superman and humanity earning one another’s trust. Lois Lane knowing who Clark Kent is almost from the beginning is a good change. All of these things make me hopeful for the future of DC movies. We’ll get there eventually.