[Review] - Man Of Steel

Courtesy of Warner Bros
Since the announcement of Man of Steel, I've been... pessimistic. This was only reasonable, considering the cinematic history of the Superman character is spotty at best. And with each announcement, I was prone less and less to raising my hopes. That being said, I did go into Man of Steel with hope in my heart. I actually said aloud, as the lights dimmed, "Please impress me." I wanted to be blown away, to have every snide thing I've said over the last year mixed in with a daily recommended dosage of crow and shoved in my mouth. And while the claim many are making that Man of Steel is the best Superman movie ever made is technically true, that bar is set so low as to not actually be a comment on the quality of this film.

What is a comment on the quality of this film is this: visually and technically, Man of Steel succeeds over the previous entries through a temporal quirk; this stuff wasn't possible before, and therefore this movie looks better then the rest. But in terms of the stuff that matters, like the script, and the direction, and the characters, Man of Steel is just another passable entry, buoyed by a few clever moments, but dragged down by gross misunderstanding and an unsubtle amount of shame.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that

There has been a lot of talk about the "realism" of Man of Steel in the build up to the release, and having seen the film, I think that was all a smoke screen, a way to have to not admit that everyone involved in this picture, from Warner Bros down to the writing/producing/directing unit of David S. Goyer, Christopher Nolan and Zach Synder are ashamed of Superman. Because realism is not a term that can be applied to this story. Grounded, certainly, but any discussion of a human-form alien child being sent across the galaxy, to develop god like powers, dressed in a strong man outfit and fooling people with a pair of dime store glasses is not a discussion that can involve the term realism. What you can discuss is shame, and embarrassment. It isn't anything new in the world of Superman, with executive producer Jon Peters famously giving Kevin Smith the edict that Kal-El was neither to wear the suit, nor be called Superman in the proposed mid nineties reboot. And Smallville went to painful lengths over its ten years never to show the suit, settling instead on a bland faux leather jacket. And it was more of the same here. The removal of the exterior undergarments wasn't an attempt to make the costume more real world - because it's still a big blue leotard with a cape and technicolour S on the chest - it was an attempt to mitigate the embarrassment the whole production felt having to deal with it.

Batman is an easy sell: he looks like a bad ass, and even when he doesn't, he hides in the shadows. Though, I would argue that Nolan felt equally ashamed of Batman, considering how little the Dark Knight was costumed in those films. But Superman stands in the sun, for all to see, in his 1930's getup, a getup that is pretty much the most iconic costume in modern literature, outside of maybe Sherlock Holmes' anachronistic deer stalker. And all it makes the people involved in the story do is cringe. I start my review with this belief in the shame of all things Superman, because Man of Steel cannot be watched with the expectation that it will treat the character with the same reverence that Nolan and Goyer gave Batman in the excellent Batman Begins. On the surface, they are pretty similar stories, and would traditionally follow the same story beats: the painful separation from the birth parents, the comfort given by the adoptive ones, the discovery of life's true purpose, the creation of a persona, and the reveal. Begins took it's time getting through these points, while Steel rushes past the character development, desperate to get to the CGI action, the one thing that is obviously cared about.

At two and a half hours, Steel is a bizarrely rushed film. Everything is hurried, to the point where there is at least two films worth of material here. Ideas, some of which are interesting and clever, are introduced, explained, and pushed aside in minutes to make room for the next bit of information. The opening scenes on Krypton, for instance, would have been a perfect opportunity to world build, and there are signs of that, introducing strange creatures and technologies. Instead, he are forced to follow Jor-El as he goes from a home birth, to a council meeting, to a giant womb, to a lab, and in each environment, having to give a speech to whomever is nearest to him about what exactly he's doing. At least forty minutes of the run time of the film is exposition, and much of it it repeated. No matter the chronological edits the films makes (harking back to the method used in Begins), the bogging down of "important information" destroys the pacing of the film, and part of that is the lack of elaboration. Unlike the other films, where Superman's tutoring by Jor-El's ghost takes decades, here it takes a couple hours, tops. The interactions between Zod and Jor-El are some of the strongest of the film, and I would have loved to see more of their philosophical debates about how to achieve what is actually a shared goal. Instead, there is a lot of shouting, and we get the bullet points of their arguments, but none of the substance.

And that is the film's biggest problem in a nutshell: there is very little of substance here. If Superman Return's problem (not it's biggest, but a big one) was it's lack of action, Man of Steel went too far in the other direction. Krypton is essentially Huxley's Brave New World, with Kal the biological oddity that doesn't have a place in that society. The DNA used for the cloning is taken from a fossil. These are clever ideas, that very little is done with. On Earth, much is made of Superman being accepted by society, but we never seen any of that. Aside from the Daily Planet staff, the only characters in the film are military, who react with caution and force because that is their job. We never know how the rest of the world might have reacted to Superman, as is Jonathan's concern in the little-more-then-cameo appearance of Kevin Costner, because the film never explores that. In fact, considering that the entire action of the film takes place over a day and a half, and Zod's attack is front and centre, I'd say it's a safe bet that the world at large doesn't know that Superman exists, and they sure as hell aren't going to trust him after Zod has levelled Metropolis (seriously, that city is unlivable now, let alone having the Daily Planet up and running again).

Because of the inherent shame the film makers feel over the character, the film has none of the awe or spectical that is the whole point of the Superman character. The "you will believe a man can fly" tag line that follows Superman '78 was apt: the introduction of Superman, the swell of the orchestra, was an important moment. I never once felt impressed by Superman here, or by anything the film had to offer. And Hans Zimmer's score is as placid and unremarkable as anything. The closest the film gets to a inspirational moment, the first flight scene, which sees Sups speed past every continent, is backed by a bland, by the books and underwhelming accompaniment. But the film is divorced from drawing attention to itself, or within universe, the character, all the way through. When Sups presents himself to the military, the general states "you've got our attention," but does he? He is floating a dozen feet above the desert. He didn't stop a speeding train, or save a boat full of nuns, or do anything that would attract attention other then showing up. And that is all this film does: it shows up, and expects that is enough.

Because the film is embarrassed by Superman, it should be no surprise that it misunderstands a lot of what the character is about, and the point of many of the things it glosses over. Superman doesn't hide away like Batman, he makes himself a spectical. That way, villains will focus on him rather then on the innocents, and he can be a beacon of hope that causes people on the street to look up and know they are protected. By cloaking Superman in self doubt and making him subdued, they eliminate his greatest strength: his ability to inspire. Take, for instance, his uniform (he calls it a uniform, wherein Batman calls his own suit a costume). He (and usually Martha) specifically design it to stand out, to be loud and a little gaudy. There is a purpose to the suit looking like that. In this film, he finds it in a closet (the closest I've come to a logic behind the suit being in the 20,000 year old ship is that the colonial Kryptonians wore bright colours, and there was a member of the House of El on board. Over time, the Kryptonian society came to favour of the monochromatic suits of Zod and Jor-El). 

What did the film do well, you might be asking at this point. Well, stuff. As I said, it is visually impressive, and shows yet again that Weta put more time and effort into doing the effects for someone elses film then their own (see the Avengers vs last year's Hobbit). But CG is either good or bad, so that doesn't count. I was muchly impressed with the character of Lois, who corrected the biggest flaw in her character since it's inspection: she figures out that Clark Kent is Superman in, like, five minutes. Having never met Clark Kent as a person, at that. Really makes the other versions of Lois look super dumb. I respect and applaud the change. Though, this version of Clark gets the left over stupidity, revealing his identity to pretty much everyone (he even tells a military general he grew up in Kansas, assuming I guess that the military won't have the resources of a single newspaper reporter). I also, and really didn't expect to be saying this, really dug Zod. Perhaps the most interesting character in the film, when he isn't bellowing, I understood his position. He was genetically bred to protect Krypton, so his while his actions may be extreme, there are at least reasonable. There is something Shakespearean about him, the tragedy in his story. And when you sympathise more with the villain then with the hero, that might be a sign that the script has went a bit astray. Now, we never, ever, need to see Zod in any format ever again.

I won't nitpick about the finer details, that's for another time. I won't mention that the film isn't internally consistent, like whether it is the sun or Earth's atmosphere that gives Superman his powers. I won't mention that, like every other damned film that insists on having a sliver of science, they got it so annoying wrong that I wanted to throw something at the screen. I won't mention that the characters are so underdeveloped, save for Zod, we never know why anyone is doing anything other then that they are, or why Lois and Clark kiss despite showing no romantic tendecy towards each other before hand. Or that we are expected to care about the Daily Planet staff despite not having spent any time with them, or only learning one of their names after the life threatening peril. I won't mention that most of the characters are just plot devices to get Superman involved in an action sequence. And that those action sequences are so loud and fast, that you never have a clear idea of what is actually happening, to the point where I found myself yawning during the Doctor Octopus sequence.

I do want to talk about death for a moment, and if you haven't seen the film, the real spoilers begin here. There are two deaths in this film that made me sick. The first was Jonathan Kent, the second was Zod. Jonathan doesn't always die, but when he does, it's of a heart attack. This is important. This is Clark's first defeat. Because he can step in front of a bullet, or jump into a tornado. But he can't prevent a person's heart from stopping. With all of his power, all of his strength, there is nothing that Clark can do to save his father, and it kills him. This is hugely fundamental to the character, because it begins his journey, and his obsession with helping others. Every fibre of his being is tuned, because of Jonathan being stolen from him, towards saving everyone that he can. Jonathan being whisked away by a tornado undercuts that moment. Because Clark could have saved him, and Jonathan refused. That isn't sacrifice, that is selfishness, which might explain why this Man of Steel is less altruistic and more begrudged. Also, Jonathan dies saving a dog. That isn't noble or heroic. Noble and heroic would have been saving the little girl. Dying for a dog makes him a sucker.

The second death was Zod, and I'm say this simply: Superman would have found another way. Superman, perhaps second only to Batman, does not kill. Others will argue that Zod left him no other choice, that giving him the "you or me" ultimatum meant there could only be one way for the film to end, but I say no. I say that was an easy, and ultimately lazy way to end things, because aside form a primal scream, Clark seems to have suffered no ill effects or grief over taking that life. Death needs to mean something, and it needs to man all the more for the person taking the life. This movie treats it so nonchalently, it's sickening. Superman, no matter how terrible the enemy, finds another way. He preserves and protects life, even at its worst. Superman would have found another way. He would have flown out of the train station, to protect that family, and would have dealt with Zod somehow. It would have taken thought and precision and time. But he would have done it. Instead of just getting into just another fist fight, he would have had a plan. This is a guy who has given his clones entire planets to live on in isolation, who considers the Phantom Zone a humane way to dealing with criminals, and would never use his powers to harm anyone he knew couldn't take it (he can't even bring himself to kill Darkseid). Superman would have found another way.

Man of Steel is a cynical movie that is ashamed of itself, and as the final proof of that I need only say that the word "Superman' is spoken exactly once, and is treated as a joke.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


  1. Great review. I had a good time with this movie, but wish it was more than just another loud, superhero movie that’s heavy on the effects and action, and light on the story.

  2. With ALL that said, *Accept the new normal*. Your Superman is gone. The films success proves that people wanted different, fresh. WB is less likely to alter anything. So this whole what needs to change in the sequel idea is moot.

    1. Personally I don't think that the film's "success" proves anything about what "the people" want, and I doubt that that was at all relevant during the initial creative process. A film like Man of Steel will make a pile of money the first weekend anyway, the WB knows this, and thus doesn't have to care about the final product's quality. The 65% decrease in ticket sales between week one and week two is proof that the people, having seen what they were given, decided they didn't want it. The sad truth is that the sequel will make just as much money the first weekend, and that's all the matters. Of course the WB doesn't have to, and probably won't make changes based on the critical reception, because they've already got their money.

      But my point and belief, as ever, is that with a little effort, a film can be both successful and of quality. They are not mutually exclusive concepts.

  3. Saving the girl would make him heroic, but saving the dog, not? What kind of person are you? O.o seriously, that's sad.

    1. A terrible one, clearly. So terrible that I think that a fictional character's death, which by its nature is by design, should have some meaning or purpose. And that the tradition of Pa Kent dying of a heart attack, thus representing the limit's of Clark's powers, and how even Superman is powerless to save the people that he loves, is a far superior narrative device than him running after the dog.

      If the dog had turned out to be Krypto the Superdog, I might be more amenable to the incident. But really, if a tornado was baring down on me, and the only choice I had available to me is between saving myself, or sacrificing myself for the dog, then I'm going to live and mourn the dog.