Man of Steel is not the Superman movie we need, but it’s the Superman movie we deserve.
Or so says my friend who has enough opinions about comics, movies and TV to fill his own blog about this stuff, but doesn’t try to write it up. He means, I gather, that Man of Steel is a movie that has been made in response to Marvel’s successful superhero films, as well as to previous iterations of the character (especially Christopher Reeve, presumably) and thus we, as paying members of the public, “deserve” it, and yet it’s not the one we need because what we need is a great Superman film, and this is not it.
With the “deserve” part of his statement, I think maybe he’s overstating it a bit but I can see where he’s coming from. With the “need” portion, the bit about how this movie is not the great Superman movie we were hoping for, I have to wholeheartedly agree. Unfortunately.
As much as anyone else, I wanted to love Man of Steel. I mean, we all hope that every movie we see will be something we enjoy. But I wanted I really really wanted to love Man of Steel. And I thought I had a good reason to, based on the trailer. Not that we can judge by trailers, as we’ve all learned. But the thing about this trailer wasn’t that it was full of such awesome adventure, or great jokes, or anything like that. It just had a tone which had a lot of promise that the movie would have a bit of a noble and majestic quality…or at least present Superman in that way. A hero. A guardian. A protector. The original superhero, really. I thought, said, and even wrote on this blog, that if the movie could just capture that tone, and avoid having a completely dumb story (something that is no mean feat, it seems, in the big movie business) than it’d be terrific.
So, in case you haven’t gathered, there are SPOILERS lurking here. Also, really long NERDTALK warning.
Well, it avoided having a dumb story, and least in terms of basic storytelling sensibilities. There were no massive dangling plot holes or twists that came out of nowhere – depending on how you classify the points brought up later. I was a bit worried when the Kryptonians took Lois Lane prisoner for no apparent reason, but eventually they did explain that (they were probing her mind as well, in order to find out where Clark might have kept the “Codex”).
But in terms of re-creating that tone…pretty unsuccessful. It wasn’t noble. It wasn’t majestic. And sadly, it wasn’t really fun.
The movie spends a lot of time on the theme of how a human population would respond to the presence of a super-powered alien on earth, especially one that seems to be at the heart of a conflict amongst other super-powered beings. This is a fine theme to tackle in a Superman movie, but the problem is the film doesn’t give Superman enough of an opportunity to really earn our trust. It’s not that he does anything wrong, necessarily. It’s more that he’s not given the chance (by the film makers) to do enough things right. He’s fighting the bad guys, and giving it his all, and we hear people talk about his concern for the welfare of the humans on his adopted planet, but we don’t really get to see it.
In the celebrated miniseries, Kingdom Come, Mark Waid had Superman say, during an intense conversation with Batman, “The deliberate taking of human–even super-human–life goes against every belief I have–and that you have. That’s the one thing we’ve always had in common. It’s what made us what we are. More than anyone in the world, when you scratch everything else away from Batman, you’re left with someone who doesn’t want to see anybody die.” Now, this sounds like I’m getting ready to talk about Superman’s execution of Zod at the end of the film, but actually I didn’t have so much of an issue with that. They put him into a no-win situation, and it’s a story beat that reflects at least one moment (albeit not a universally liked one) from the comics, at the end of John Byrne’s run, which lead into some of my favorite Superman comics by later writers like Jerry Ordway and Roger Stern. The problem was that the film pretty much failed emotionally to set up at that moment in an effective way.
While Man of Steel addressed a complaint against the prior cinematic incarnation of the character by having him engage in lots of physicl conflicts, we missed out, largely, on seeing a Superman who seemed most interested in saving lives. Mark Waid again wrote a review of the movie on his blog which you can read here, where he articulates this issue very well. The gist of it for me, though, is that the joy of watching Superman isn’t just watching a really strong guy, or a really fast guy, or a really powerful guy. It’s watching a good guy. A man who will do anything and everything to help people. So while I want see Superman fighting bad guys, I want to see him protecting the innocent at the same time. The great angst, if you can call it that, of Superman is his inability to help everyone. And though that concern is there a bit in this movie, it’s bowled over by all the images of buildings being knocked down during Superman and Zod – and it’s hard to believe that all of them were evacuated beforehand.
Now, there were a couple of places where we did get to see that heroic, sacrificial side of Superman. They were all at the start, when he rescued a school bus full of kids when he was just a child. And also when saved those men at the oil rig, when he was a wanderer. Not surprisingly, these moments played strongly in the trailers that I so enjoyed. But then we got to that one moment that helped to derail all of that, the place where I really disagree with Mark Waid’s assessment: the absurd death of Jonathan Kent.
Jonathan Kent is shown in the film to really major on his concern that Clark might reveal himself too early to the world, and thus pre-empt his ability to fulfill his destiny, whatever that may be. He even, infamously, suggests that perhaps it might have been appropriate to let the kids on the school bus die, in order to remain anonymous. I can understand that, actually, as something that a worried father might say – even if I disagree. But his tornado-death is another matter. It’s a scene that is just wrong on so many levels. Can we try to count them?
First, it’s stupid that Jonathan died saving a dog. Sorry, but no dog, no matter how beloved, is worth dying for. I’m sure if you asked Martha, she’d rather have Jonathan alive and well than have her dog. Second, it’s stupid that it was Jonathan who ran back toward the screaming tornado to rescue the dog, and not Clark…Clark, who is faster, stronger, and far more able to survive such a thing. Third, it is stupid that Clark could not think of some way to save his father without giving away his secret. I know he’s young, but it’s a madhouse and everyone is panicking. Are they really going to notice some blurry guy running and saving a stranger on a road? Fourth, it is stupid that the film makers didn’t do something else to sell the scene, like have Clark be busy getting all the other bystanders to safety, and have that play into the reason he is unable to save his dad. Of course, that would have changed the intent of the scene, but frankly, any change that takes the moment from more to less stupid is a good one to make. Fifth, it is stupid that they make this scene about Clark learning an important life lesson from his father when it’s clear that he actually doesn’t learn any lesson at all.
That’s right. According to Mark Waid, the significance of the scene is that Clark is showing his father that he has learned what Jonathan’s been trying to teach him, about not just saving everyone if it means jeopardizing his ability to do even more in the future. But chronologically the next thing we see him doing is saving all those guys on the oil rig. Or in other words, doing the exact opposite of what his father taught him. And, we all come away thinking he’s a better man for it. (Just imagine the scene playing out where Clark stays on the boat, allowing those men to die, because he’s scared of giving away his secret “too soon.”) And, it leads to Lois Lane actually being able to pretty easily track down Clark’s name and address, the very thing that Jonathan didn’t want. So Clark’s line about believing in father’s lesson is nonsense. Instead, we see that he did not abide by his father’s wishes because he thought that saving lives was more important than protecting himself. Which brings us back to the idea that Clark allowing Jonathan to die is a terrible idea, and realistically should have just filled the character with self-loathing and regret. The fact that it doesn’t distances this Superman from us, and makes him harder to relate to.
So how to sum up these problems? We have a Superman who espouses gratefulness for his father’s lesson that it might be better to let people die than risk exposure. He lets his father die but seems pretty okay with that, even though he shows by his later choices that it was a decision based in wrong values. But then we don’t even get to see him play out those more positive values in any strong, experiential way. (And remember, this is film – we want to see it, not just hear people talking about it). All of this sucks the joy out of the character, and makes him cold and distant – which for someone like Superman is big problem. You need those “human” touches to keep us connected, or he comes across as just another powerful alien (kind of like the movie version of Optimus Prime). The romance with Lois helps, of course, as does his time with his mother. But is not enough. It’d be nice to have the character smile a bit. Or laugh.
Certainly, some more time seeing him as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter would have helped as well. I can see why they felt like that wouldn’t have fit into their story, but if you’re going to miss out on that humanizing aspect of the mythos than you have to work pretty hard to balance that out with something else. And more scenes of the computerized ghost of Jor-El facilitating the plot is not it.
I think because such high hopes for the movie, I’m coming down pretty hard on it. There were actually lots of things I liked. Overall, it was probably the best Superman movie since 1978. The Krypton scenes were amazing, full of imagination and wonder. Henry Cavill was good (and refreshingly not trying to look and act like Christopher Reeve) and so were Michael Shannon and Amy Adams – all big improvements over the last film. The final fight between Zod and Superman, in spite of the problems mentioned above with all the buildings, looked fantastic.
But the movie, unfortunately, was not fantastic. It was just okay. Even though, yes, I do want a sequel, because I’d like to see these guys have another go at it, and I’d like to see Warner Brothers doing more with the DC characters. And when they do, I will maintain a Superman-like optimism that it will be amazing.