‘Man of Steel’
Directed by Zack Snyder
Written by David S. Goyer & Christopher Nolan
Starring Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner & Diane Lane
Editor’s Note: This review details and analyzes plot aspects of Man of Steel, and as such is laden with spoilers. Please read at your own risk.
I’m realizing as the lights begin to dim that this is the first Superman movie I’ll have seen in a theater. I was too young for the original Donner films; as a newborn, my parents were more interested in taking me to see Sleeping Beauty than Supergirl, and at a mere three years old, my parents certainly weren’t going to drag me the hour long drive away from the base to see the newly released Superman IV. As for Superman Returns, well, I just managed to miss that one during it’s theatrical run, but today I couldn’t tell you for the life of me why that is. But here I am, in a dimly lit theater in 2013, with a handful of strangers who, like me, just didn’t make an earlier showing because of the real world intervening, preparing to see Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, the first true reboot of the Superman film series.
After sitting through 20 minutes of commercials (God, I miss when movies didn’t start out with commericals) and 10 minutes of previews (Grown Ups 2? Ugh.), the movie finally starts. Snyder, with a script by David S. Goyer and Dark Knight Saga mastermind Christopher Nolan as his producer, have taken a key step which Bryan Singer missed; the film severs all ties to the original Donner film. There’s no homage in the opening, or nod to the original, it’s just a clean start. Good. The worst thing about Returns was it’s inability to decide if it was an entirely new franchise or a masturbatory love story to the original’s glory.
We start out on Krypton. A zoom in on a wild beast feels a bit too much like a shot from a Star Wars prequel, but I find myself momentarily excited. A fully realized Krypton on film? When it was shown at the beginning of Superman: The Movie, there were some hula hoops and the Phantom Zone mirrors, a very sterile feeling and some science jargon, Britsh accents, glowing costumes…Donner’s Krypton was very flashy, but emotionless, soulless, and exceedingly brief. I’m excited to see a fully realized Krypton, with new life and new characters. Unfortunately, it’s just silly hats, Russell Crowe, and the guy who played Death on Supernatural. In this version, Krypton is the cause of it’s own demise. We learn that Kryptonians had once flourished throughout the galaxy and sought out other planets to inhabit, but eventually pulled back and have been living off Krypton’s natural resources. They’re exhausted now, and as a result the core is unstable, and the planet will eventually blow up. Russell Crowe is Jor-El, Superman’s proud Kryptonian papa and Krypton’s chief scientist. Jor-El is here to tell the Kryptonian High Council that Krypton is doomed. Russell Crowe is here to collect a paycheck. He’s phoning it in pretty hard, but you can’t really blame him, as no one appears to be taking it all too seriously.
Enter Michael Shannon as General Zod. Zod’s pissed because the script tells him to be. There’s some nonsense about Krypton being traitorous to it’s heritage, but I’m not sure how. It’s never really explained all that well, other than both Jor-El and Zod want something called The Codex. The Codex is a skull fragment mcguffin which contains the coding for all Kryptonian births, and every Kryptonian for centuries has been birthed in a Genesis Chamber. The exception being Jor-El and Lara’s son, Kal-El, whom we saw being born minutes ago in what is probably the cleanest, most peaceful child birth ever captured on film. So Zod kills the High Council and chases after Jor-El, who steals the Codex in a scene more suited for an Avatar sequel than a Superman movie, and makes it home just in time to send Kal-El off on a rocket ship. Zod arrives, as Lara preps the ship and Jor-El straps on his battle armor, no I am not bullshitting you, Jor-El is wearing Kryptonian battle armor which has the massive flaw of only protecting about 30% of his body and comes with a gigantic rifle. Zod demands the codex, Lara sends the ship off instead, Jor-El gets stabbed in the gut by a pissed off Zod, and Zod and his soldiers are arrested for treason. Zod is enclosed in a giant space dildo and sent off to the Phantom Zone, while Superman’s mom dies alone on an exploding Krypton in what must the most depressing iteration of Krypton I’ve ever witnessed.
I’m immensely disappointed by this Krypton, if only because everyone keeps trying to expand Krypton and making it this huge, realized alien world, but no one can do it particularly well. Donner did the best job, with Britsh actors and glowing costumes, but there just wasn’t a lot to that Krypton other than an ice planet and people who were kind of dicks. Snyder’s is dark and almost apocalyptic, brutal, violent…the exact opposite of every Krypton we’ve seen or heard of so far. I was hoping we’d go the Grant Morrison route here and get a brief glimpse of Krypton, as everyone already knows Superman’s origin, but we had to establish that Zod is evil and wants the mcguffin, I guess.
The ship hits Earth, sputters, lands in a Kansas field, and forces the film to warp ahead 30 years. Clark is now bearded and working on a crab fishing vessel, where everyone is kind of a dick. Eventually there’s a distress call, and Clark slips away to save trapped sailors aboard an oil rig. We spend some time here with Clark and learn he’s going across the world, trying to discover his place and who he is but being forced to take up roots whenever he has to use his powers to save someone. This, we find out, is because of his adoptive father, Johnathan Kent, played by Kevin Costner. Pa Kent is here to provide the moral and narrative compass for Clark. Kevin Costner is here to collect a paycheck. He’s phoning it in harder than Crowe is, and that’s saying something. This Pa Kent is a little more drastic than other iterations, outright saying that maybe Clark is supposed to let some people die in order to protect his secret. He’s not necessarily concerned about what will happen to Clark; though he does express concern, he’s more worried about what the presence of someone like Clark will do to the world as a whole, how it will change human beliefs and shake the world up. I’m glad this is brought up, at least. The idea that Superman does his best to let humanity move along on it’s own is so rarely touched on these days, only brought up when it’s convenient to a particular story. We find out there are more than a few instances where Clark as a young boy saved the lives of people around him.
Eventually, we find out Pa Kent is dead in this continuity. When a tornado came bearing down on the highway, and Pa went back to the car to save the family dog, he twisted his leg in the ensuing accident, but waved Clark off from saving him. Pa Kent dies in probably the most peaceful tornado related death ever captured on film. We didn’t spend a lot of time with Pa, and the only real thing we learned from him is he’s kind of a dick. No, seriously, he told Clark, as a pre-teen, he probably should have let his classmates drown. Look, that’s a great sentiment. I get it! Pa was supposed to be conflicted, confused, hurting. He doesn’t know what to do about Clark, or how to handle it. You know how we know that? Because Kevin Costner told us. Nothing in the performance indicates he feels this way. He’s just kind of monotone and very….I don’t know, Kansas-y? Such a spectacular moment that a great director could have pulled out of an actor like Costner, but no such luck with Zack Snyder.
And while we’re at it, I will point out how impressed I am that Zack Snyder hits approximately zero slow motion in the film. Good on you, Mr. Snyder; we didn’t know you had it in you.
So Clark is now working at an Arctic mining site run by the military where they believe they’ve found an alien craft, and of course Lois Lane played by Amy Adams rolls in. I dug Amy as Lois, but I feel like this Lois didn’t have any real bite to her. There’s no real moment where she’s the feisty, snarky Lois we’ve known for 60+ years. She’s here to be Superman’s love interest who happens to keep getting in trouble. That’s all. I feel like Amy Adams could have done so much more with this character, but they don’t really give it to her. So Clark ventures on to the ship, which we later find out is a Kryptonian exploratory vessel. When Clark puts in the Kryptonian thumb drive…sorry, “control stick” that his dad left on his rocket, it comes to life and the spirit of Jor-El speaks to Clark.
Here, we see Clark getting the costume. It’s established that he wears a costume similar to his father’s clothes and, again, the S is not an S, it’s a Kryptonian symbol. I didn’t originally have a problem with this idea from the throwaway line in the trailer, but here it is stated repeatedly, rammed down our throats and emphasized: this is NOT an S, this means HOPE.
I don’t get why we keep shying away from the hokier elements of Superman. Why can’t it be an S? Why can’t his mom make the costume anymore? All these great, classic elements which are done away with because Superman’s costume was lame or the S makes no sense. Also, we keep fretting about Superman having his underwear outside of his costume, but dammit, could somebody come up with something better first? He’s just wearing a blue jumpsuit now, and there’s nothing to break up the colors of the body of the costume. It’s terrible.
So Clark learns he can fly…wait, he’s not been flying all these years? He’s been hitch hiking? How did he hitchhike to the Arctic? Buuuuuuh.
Anyways, Clark leans he can fly and promptly flies home…uh, out of costume, in time to find out that Lois has managed to successfully track him down and discover his secret identity, by following the list of incidents involving a super human with a falsified identity and work history and no, no, stop. Stop, stop, stop. Lois is a hot shot reporter, sure, but you’re telling me that later in the movie, when the government is trying to find Clark…they couldn’t pull that off? She didn’t really dig deep. They’re publicly reported incidents. Lois literally found her way to Ma Kent’s doorstep, and found Clark hanging out around Pa Kent’s grave. The FBI couldn’t pull that off? No?
So, yeah. Lois knows that Superman is Clark Kent right off the bat this time around. Okay, sure. It’s different, I’ll give it a pass. After explaining to Lois about how his dad died believing the world would reject him, Zod makes his ultimatum to the world that he’ll destroy Earth if Kal-El does not surrender, so Superman, of course, does not immediately surrender. He kind of wanders around confused for a bit before finally deciding that yeah, he should probably surrender. He turns himself in to the military on the terms that he immediately is taken to Lois Lane. The movie then tries it’s damnedest to recapture the magic of the jail interrogation from The Dark Knight, ending with Superman having a conversation through one-way glass using his x-ray vision and super hearing. It’s a really great moment, until it cuts to show Superman talking to his own reflection in the one-way glass, and you realize how ridiculous this must look.
So Superman surrenders to Zod, who is capable of neutralizing his powers, but Lois gets ahold of his Kryptonian memory stick and puts it in a console, which allows Jor-El to take over the ship and un-neutralize his powers. Joe-El explains he’s going to stick plans in Lois’ head to weaponize Kal’s ship, which sounds like it’s how the film is going to get rid of Lois’ knowledge that Clark is Superman, but it’s not. Jor-El then ejects her from space in an escape pod, which is damaged just as Kal runs into the Jor-El spirit, which allows Jor-El to give Superman one last “You can save them all” motivational speech before he jumps ship to save Lois. At this point, Zod lands in front of Ma Kent’s house, believing The Codex to be on the ship Supes came to Earth on, but it’s not. Zod threatens Ma Kent, Superman flies in and tackles Zod and holy shit, we get a fist fight. An actual, honest to God, 100% legit fist fight in a Superman movie, something we’ve never really gotten. And it’s great! So Superman knocks off the helmet that is muffling Zod’s enhanced senses, and Zod starts flipping the hell out because he can’t cope with the sensory overload, which gives Superman a weakness to exploit. So Superman starts yelling about how Zod can’t handle it because he had to learn how to focus his senses, and holy shit Superman, way to tell the villain how to overcome the one weakness of his you’ve found so far, nice job breaking it hero.
They wind up escorting Zod off to recover so Superman can have a fight scene with Zod’s sub-commander, Faora, and a big hulking brute in full armor who I’m sure is supposed to be Non, but they never actually say his name that I can recall. It’s a huge fight, the majority of Smallville is now destroyed, but no one really bats an eye, and the military declares Superman is not their enemy.
This is the point where we find out that Jor-El hid the codex in Kal-El’s genes. So Zod sends something called a World Engine to begin terraforming Earth to better suit Kryptonian life. A two pronged assault is planned: the military, headed by Lois and General Guy-From-SVU, will take the weaponized spacecraft, which can now be launched into the engine of Zod’s ship to create a black hole that leads in to the Phantom Zone. This goes poorly, with Lois being thrown off the ship and General Guy-From-SVU being sucked in to the Phantom Zone alongside everyone from Krypton not named Kal-El or Zod. On the other side of Earth, Superman stops the terraforming robot which is sapping his powers so he can’t be around to save General Guy-From-SVU because he’s got to have a meaningful death, but he makes it back just in to catch Lois so they can make out on the rubble of Metropolis, which is now a desolate holocaust thanks to the terraforming machine.
So, the final battle commences. Zod is all “Oh man, you could have rebuilt Krypton and you chose this filth instead!” and Superman is like “Dude, I’m gonna teach you some manners!” or something contrived like that, I don’t remember exactly, but the two fight and proceed to turn the rubble of Metropolis into even more rubble. Yes, Metropolis is basically destroyed after this, and still no one bats an eye. The collateral damage is insane! Zod eventually manages to get a hold of himself and control his enhanced senses, probably because Superman told him how to five scenes earlier, and doffs his armor and starts blasting heat vision all over the place.
Eventually, we have Zod locked in a sleeper hold by Superman. Zod starts blasting heat vision at some civilians, and he’s all “You can mourn for them, Kal-El!” and Superman is like “No don’t do this!”. Now there’s like a dozen courses of action here that Superman could take. He could fly straight up and throw Zod in to space. He could throw Zod through the ground. He could blow the civilians away with heat vision. He could cover Zod’s eyes with his hands, which should be strong enough to block the heat vision. He could yell at the civilians HEY GUYS GET THE HELL OUT OF THE WAY, since they don’t appear to actually be trapped, and Zod can’t really move his head all that well because Superman’s holding it down.
Nah. Superman breaks Zod’s neck and kills him. I kinda have an issue with this. Not because Superman doesn’t kill; that’s not entirely true, he just doesn’t believe in killing, but he has shown in the past that he will if he has no other choice.
See, there was this story in the 80s where Zod, Faora and Non showed up and wrecked shit. Superman stops them, but what now? No prison on Earth can hold them. No jury really has the right to try them, and even if they did…what do you do? So Superman acts according to Kryptonian law, serving as judge, jury and executioner, and he sentences the trio to death. He carries out the order himself by exposing them to Kryptonite. The act really screws with Superman, to the point where he develops a split personality and chooses to exile himself from Earth to prevent harming anyone else. It’s a really well done story, and a pivotal moment in the characterization of Superman.
The only reason anyone could perceive Superman suddenly breaking Zod’s neck as better or more shocking is because they probably haven’t READ the original story. It’s just a shit, shocking ending here. It’s out of place, out of character. Maybe if Pa Kent had a bit better acting coach that day; I feel like the Pa Kent scenes were supposed to instill in Clark the knowledge that death is sometimes an ultimatum, but nothing like that makes it to the end.
So this probably screws with Superman, right? Nah. He screams one good time. Lois comes in and consoles him. Then we time skip a bit ahead, where he gets a job at the Daily Planet with his girlfriend. What a crap ending. It’s a shame, because I feel like there is a really good Superman movie buried somewhere in here. The first half had all the starts of a great flick. But once Zod shows up, it settles in to sci-fi schlock and tries to carry building destroying action set pieces as drama. Plot points are muddled, or rushed. Lois is introduced as feisty reporter who is immediately downgraded to Superman’s girlfriend once her plot significance is gone. Cavill’s a great Superman, but the script just doesn’t allow him a chance to really exude any kind of presence or drama, as it tries to rely too much on artificial drama created by the rest of the cast.
What’s worse is, who do you really blame? It’d be easy to throw the blame on Snyder but, honestly…the cinematography was great. A bit dark and muddled at times, but the film is visually very pretty. Nolan? He was really just a producer, and even he has come out saying he was firmly against the killing of Zod. David S. Goyer? Maybe, his track record is fairly hit or miss, but he’s been more hit lately. Maybe it’s some combination of the trio. Maybe the beauty of Nolan and Goyer’s Dark Knight Saga rested in the duo tempering each other, with Goyer focusing on the realism of Batman and Nolan able to bring to life what his scripts were lacking. Man of Steel is a fun movie, and could prove as a great stepping stone for a new franchise. Is it perfect? Lord, no. It doesn’t fire on all cylinders a lot of the time, and it never really feels like it delivers on all aspects. The beginnings of a great franchise are here, and the seeds of the perfect Superman movie are buried within, but for now Man of Steel will just have to settle with being better than the last two silver screen romps for The Man of Tomorrow.