Unreal Man of Steel
In the first moments of Man of Steel I was completely engaged. On screen I saw Krypton like never before. A tangible, real(ish) world, filled with truly alien terrain, beasts, and headdresses. Russell Crowe deftly carries us through this awe inspiring prologue with the skill we’ve come to expect from him. I could watch a whole prequel starring Crowe as Jor-El.
So there I was, completely hooked. I had been looking forward to this movie for quite some time, and the barometer looked good. With Christopher Nolan producing and a great cast I was sure that the film could overcome the failings of director Zack Snyder. Sadly, then, it turns out that Superman’s greatest Kryptonite is actually shoddy writing. Man of Steel begins with immense potential, and then, as its runtime grows, that potential is continually squandered in favor of crafting a generic and tone deaf blockbuster.
Which sounds harsh, so let me qualify myself.
Man of Steel is not a bad film, but it is a film that could have been great and settled for less. Which is all the more disappointing.
I can’t profess to being a Superman fanatic, Batman was always my style. Still, I have always recognized Superman as an important icon and worthwhile character. His idealism is inspiring and his compassion is compelling. If Batman represents what we can achieve, then Superman embodies what we should aspire to become. As I grew and connected Superman’s myth with Moses and Christ, he became all the more interesting of a character to me. I paid attention to how he is treated by his writers, and how he is used to inspire morality and goodness in his audience. So to find in Man of Steel a misreading of the character was disappointing to high degree.
Well to be fair, much of Man of Steel’s running time is devoted to Kal-El figuring out what it means to be Superman, a demi-god among men. Just rarely in a compelling way. The film’s best scenes belong to Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent as he struggles with what is best for humanity versus what is best for the alien that has become his son. Outside of these scenes Superman’s struggle becomes distant as he is very often only a wanderer and completely alone. Amy Adams’ Lois Lane describes him as a ‘cypher, a ghost who never quite fit in.’ It’s difficult to relate to a cypher. By putting Kal-El in a vacuum we lose the connection to the character built by Jonathan Kent.
This isn’t any fault of star Henry Cavill. He clearly embodies the physical perfection of Superman. He radiates charisma and wholesome goodness. Unfortunately he is more often asked to posture than act. His material is thinly written to the point where we’re left with far more shots of him furrowing his super brow than uttering actual lines of dialogue. His best moments are when he is called to express extreme emotions. Joyful, angry, or despondent Superman resonates, quiet, contemplative, or confused Superman does not. Chief among these moments are when he discovers his adoptive mother (Diane Lane) is in with in the clutches of Michael Shannon’s General Zod. Kal-El bullets to her rescue, tackling Zod across several cornfields and a through a grain silo. While repeatedly bashing the supervillain’s skull, he punctuates, “You think you can threaten my mother?” It’s a strong moment that you can’t help but cheer. Sadly, moments like this are infrequent.
The biggest problem with Man of Steel is that it wants to have its cake and eat it too. It insists on not retreading familiar origin story ground, so key moments of his childhood are distilled down to vignettes that are stiltedly flashed back to. It also insists on being in a ‘realistic’ and ‘grounded’ world, but then devolves into the most extreme cartoon violence. By their very nature as comic book characters superheroes are not meant to exist in a world that so explicitly mirrors our reality. If they do, our willing suspension of disbelief is put under an unbearable strain. Questions arise. If Superman is real, how does he shave his super whiskers? Sealed in his zipperless tights, how does he manage nature’s imperious call when it, as it so frequently and inconveniently does, arises? As soon as we ask such questions, the cracks in Snyder’s approach become obvious.
Batman was able to survive this kind of treatment due to his actual humanity, but even there, the limits of believability were stretched.
As more than a superhero, as an alien, Superman requires a not insignificant effort on our part as audience to accept his story. As a result there is a tonal disconnect between scenes on Krypton and invoking imagery reminiscent of 9/11 as Zod levels Metropolis.
Tone and mood are probably the two most difficult aspects of a film to successfully convey to the audience. Look at the masters, like Hitchcock, they are able to wield tone and mood as powerful tools to create a visceral experience. Psycho drips with dread and feels as taught as piano wire. If the tone of a movie misses then it fails to communicate with the audience as the director intends.
For two thirds of its runtime Man of Steel connects, at least on a surface level. Occasionally it even is able to elicit a powerful emotional response. Again, these scenes belong to either Costner or Crowe. But as we enter the home stretch, all of this effort to build Kal-El’s unwavering morality is thrown out the window. You can almost hear Snyder cackling with boyish glee once the super-punching starts. This is the only reason Snyder wanted to make Man of Steel: to make our action figures clash together for real.
With all the necessary exposition, character development, and dialogue out of the way, the film quickly devolves into an incoherent mess of spectacle. Which would have been exhilarating but for three things.
1) Almost all of the preceding character development was subpar.
2) The climatic battle lasts for an eternity too long and quickly grows tiresome.
3) Not a single attempt is made to depict Superman as a protector.
The prime difference between Superman and other heroes (like Batman) is his status as a protector. He can tackle challenges on a global, sometimes a galactic, scale. He can stop just about anything you can imagine. As such his focus isn’t the end of crime, it is the survival of the human race. Man of Steel forgets this in its final act and as a result, fails the character of Superman on a fundamental level. If the filmmakers had gotten this right, then the final (and controversial) moment of the climax would have landed with its intended force.
Instead we are subjected to an interminable sequence of super-punching that borders on the hilarious, and is certainly in the territory of the absurd. By the time Superman and Zod are punching each other while orbiting a satellite, I had had enough. Only, none of this is actually funny, because this destructive battle, we’re asked to believe, is in the real world, not a facsimile of our world in which superheroes are the norm. As the buildings collapse and crumble we’re invited to recall 9/11 and the thousands of innocents lost that day. Which makes Superman’s failure to behave as a protector all the more egregious. As he does battle he is just as responsible for the swath of destruction as Zod is. Not once do we get a moment to show us that Superman acknowledges the devastation he is causing, nor do we ever see him make an attempt to protect innocent life from being lost. That is not Superman.
Man of Steel is a frustrating experience because so much of it is close to being good, and occasionally almost great, only to be abandoned for a mediocre finale. Which is a shame. It has a fine cast, wondrous production design, and excellent visuals (digital or otherwise). But with a subpar script these fine attributes are rendered inert. By emphasizing destruction over emotion and misunderstanding the core of the character it seeks to reinvigorate Man of Steel fails to be the Superman film we deserve. And it certainly isn’t the one we need right now.