Man of Steel: Not My Superman

Man of Steel PosterWhen Man of Steel was first announced, I wasn’t as excited as I wanted to be.

I’d already been burned a bit by Superman Returns (which, in my opinion, told a bad story and wasted some really solid actors), not to mention Superman IV (the last of the Christopher Reeve films). They weren’t going to spin-off from Smallville, which, despite it’s uneven track record, did a great job overall with Clark and, especially, Lex Luthor.

As more and more came out before the release, I became less and less enthused about the prospects. I had mixed feelings about Zack Snyder doing the film–I’d liked a few of his other films (like 300, and I think he did a good enough job on Watchmen)–but his immediately prior Suckerpunch had left me questioning a number of his style choices, especially when put in the context of the Superman character.

All was not hopeless, though. David Goyer had been involved in a number of movies and TV shows as writer and creator that I really, really liked. Henry Cavill looked like a good choice for our Kryptonian hero and I’m a bit of an Amy Adams fan in general. So maybe it could all work.

I caught it opening weekend with a friend of mine and we both walked out more than a little unhappy.

The Plot

It starts out the same as every other Superman franchise ever–retelling how Kal-El was shot off into space by his parents in order to escape the destruction of Krypton, how he was found and raised by the salt-of-the-earth Kents on their Kansas farm, and how he, eventually grew to be a man. The difference here kicks in with the Kents. Gone completely is the “help others, but be careful of exposing yourself” sensibility of every other iteration. Instead, after Clark saves a school bus full of kids, he’s told he probably should have let them die rather than risk exposing himself.

That’s… a pretty big difference. And it carries through the rest of the film.

Because he’s been conditioned to keep his secret at all costs (that includes letting his father die in a tornado when he could have easily saved him without revealing himself), Clark ends up not the friendly, happy, decent guy we know. Instead, he’s basically a sullen loner. Spending as little time as possible around people. Moving on if he ever fails to keep his resolve and actually uses his powers to save a life or ten.

The only thing that brings out the “hero” in Clark is when the safety of the planet as a whole is threatened by a band of other Kryptonian survivors lead by General Zod.

Many questionable decisions are made and, after a fight that destroys most of Metropolis and kills many thousands of people, Zod is vanquished and Superman is… feared? A hero? Still considered a threat? On his way to becoming a bastion of altruistic good? All of those? None of those? It’s really not all that clear. (But boy was it a pretty ride to get there.)

The Problems

This has been one of the more talked about films of the past decade. If you don’t know the details of what happened in it, you likely don’t care. What I’m going to be getting into here is spoiler-filled, but everyone’s been talking about this stuff pretty much since the movie came out. That’s how much is pissed people off. (And not in the normal “comic book purist” sort of way.)

Here’s the thing: At his core, Superman has always been the good guy. Could he pretty much take over the planet all on his own? Yep. Does he? Nope. Why? Because he’s the good guy. Because he was raised by the Kents to put other people first, to believe in “Truth, Justice, and The American Way.” (Yes, there have been some great stories told where he’s not the good guy… but those are all alternate universes or propagated by extenuating circumstances like various flavors of Kryptonite… the main Superman has always been the Boy Scout.)

There are two things not to be seen in Man of Steel: those true good guy colors (both literally and figuratively) and awareness of the safety of others. A third thing, bad writing, contributes to the problems caused by both of these other things.

This all comes to a head in the final fight with Zod. Leaving aside the fact that Zod, an undisputed military genius, chooses to fight to the death, one on one, with Superman instead of anything more tactically sound, there’s a lot wrong with how this fight plays out.

First is that Superman never tries to move the fight outside of the city. These are two men who can accidentally destroy buildings, slugging it out, in a major population center that has not, in any way, been evacuated. Superman generally couldn’t care less, apparently, as he continues to throw Zod through populated buildings and rain debris down on the crowds in the streets. This whole fight should be Superman rushing to save people while Zod tries to tire him out by continually putting people in danger… it is not.

The much bigger deal, especially for me, is that this ends up being a fight to the death. Superman kills Zod. Snaps his neck. Right in front of a crowd of horrified men, women, and children. It’s hand-waved away as the “only way” he could have stopped Zod. But that’s not true. We’d seen Superman weakened earlier in the film by some Kryptonian atmosphere (which, really, brings up the question of why, exactly, would Zod want to terraform the Earth).

Just about any other version of Superman would have gone out of his way to get the fight out of Metropolis. To keep from being a second-hand mass murderer. Any Superman other than Snyder’s would also have found another way to incapacitate Zod–even if it was just a temporary solution. Superman doesn’t willingly and knowingly put people in danger and he doesn’t kill people, even his enemies (yes, there are other canonical exceptions, but the general rule stands).

There are tons of other little problems I have, but they all stem from the distinct lack of appreciation this film has for the idea of a selfless hero… of a genuine Good Guy. (Also the questionable writing.)

The Verdict

As a summer blockbuster, Man of Steel wasn’t bad at all. It’s a pretty move to look at. Even with all the muted colors, there’s a depth to the shades of gray and brown that permeate the film. The cinematography is generally solid, the action quotient high, and the destruction level off the charts. So, as a summer blockbuster, total success.

As a Superman movie, though… as a Superman movie it lacks everything that makes Superman “Superman.” He’s not that shining bastion of hope and goodness. He’s not the kind of quirky nice guy who would be so awesome if he’d just get contacts and stop dropping things so often. He’s a detached loner who only saves people when he absolutely has to. He’s grim and he’s a killer.

I distinctly did not like it and I think it set a very bad precedent for the DC movie universe. (That was a fear I had going into this movie when it opened… and a fear that has been justified twice over so far. I’m hoping that Wonder Woman will break that depressing streak.)

If you’re a Superman fan like me, skip this and pretty much anything else so far that has Superman in it. You will, at best, not be happy. At worst, you will be livid.

If you’re just looking for a casual action film and don’t care about any fidelity to one of the most recognizable and known characters in the world… you’ll have a good time with this.

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