With Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice opening this week, I decided it was time to re–watch 2013's Man of Steel. My rage for this movie had definitely subsided, and I was actually looking forward to seeing parts of it again. I legit went into this giving it the benefit of the doubt and really tried to like it.
(Spoiler alert, it's still terrible.)
Man of Steel is a movie made by people who don't like Superman, for people who don't like Superman, in a feeble attempt to get more people to like Superman. I can pick this thing apart forever in how it fails as a Superman movie (and I'm honestly harder on it than I should be because of my passion for the source material), but it still doesn't work if you take that element out and view it simply as a film.
Let's start by boiling down the story to the simplest possible summary: An alien who was raised by humans struggles to find his place in the world when he's confronted by an army from his home planet that attempts to revive their dead civilization on Earth. Pretty straightforward, and a decent frame from which to hang a Superman origin story. However, from the second scene of this movie things get so overly complicated that they barely make sense.
We see Lara give birth to Kal–El, then suddenly Jor–El is in some type of council chamber going on about mining the planet's core which is causing it to become unstable, then even more suddenly General Zod is leading a military coup to cleanse the planet's bloodlines or something. Next thing you know, Jor–El is riding a dragon and swimming through some underwater baby plants to steal a glowing monkey skull.
The rocket launch that carries a newborn baby away from his parents into the unknown doesn't even get the emotional beat it deserves because we still have another fight to get through where Zod kills Jor–El, then some other army shows up to end what was apparently a 20 minute government overthrow, THEN we see Zod's trial and banishment to the Phantom Zone before Krypton finally explodes and we get to Earth.
Why is any of this happening?? Ghost Dad gives us an exposition dump later in the film that explains some of it, but at this point, we don't know who any of these characters are, what they're doing, why no one seems concerned with the impending planetary explosion, what the Codex is, or why it's so important. Supposedly Zod rebelled because the leaders of Krypton didn't believe Jor–El's doomsday scenario, but how is overthrowing the government going to help anything? Why did he want to destroy the rocket that had the Codex in it? Wouldn't Zod just have to send it off–world anyway since the planet was going kablooey?
The obvious answer to all of this is that it gives Zod something to do once he shows up later in the movie, and it gives more weight to the "is he earthman, or is he spaceman?" dilemma that Clark faces as an adult. There's certainly drama to be had in that dichotomy, but it's also kind of stupid since all the other Kryptonians Superman encounters throughout the movie are clearly evil. He never has a relationship with Zod, and he's never tempted to live with them beyond his connection to a heritage that he's never known. Plus, he'd literally have to kill the entire human race to bring his people back, and even in this "Not Your Grandpa's Superman" movie, it's obvious which way he would go.
So once we're on Earth, the movie tries doing some interesting things, to varying levels of success. I honestly think it's admirable that they tried to get into Clark's head some and make the movie about what would happen if this guy found out he was an alien. And not in like the bizarre way that Christopher Reeve just went into this chamber for 20 years and emerged as a fully formed Superman. And it's interesting to see him as this drifter who's unsure of what to do with his life, but keeps being drawn toward helping people.
And look, I am definitely guilty of tapping that well of an uncertain protagonist moping around while trying to find his place in the world. But this should be a story for a 23 year old, not a 33 year old. In case you missed it, Zack Snyder & Co made a really subtle reference to Jesus by making sure their savior character is also 33. But that's just too old for his first day as Superman.
"Why am I here?" is a valid question that resonates with everyone, but I'd expect Clark to at least have some handle on his life by the time he's a grown ass man. Like, what has he been doing since high school? It's not important to the story at all to know if he went to college or how he got his first apartment, but from when we saw him at like 13 to when he shows up again at 33 (remember, Jesus was also 33), he's just been doing odd jobs and helping people only if they're nearby? Twenty years is a long time for an invincible dude with super powers to still be angsty about being different.
David Goyer lifted a lot of elements from the wonderful Superman: Birthright for his Man of Steel script, but unfortunately, he also drew a lot from dreadful Superman: Earth One as well. Chief among these is the idea that Clark has to be goaded into revealing himself to the world by a bad guy who is threatening humanity it if he doesn't turn himself in. And Superman has to think about it! Look, I get they're doubling down on this morally gray thing here, but even if it wasn't Superman facing this decision, it's such a passive way to have your protagonist do things in a story.
What does Clark Kent want in this movie? He wants to know where he came from, and he wants to be accepted, and I think he wants to help people (if they're in his direct vicinity, but not so much that he has to go out looking for people to help). He's not really motivated by anything, as much as he wanders around waiting for things to happen to him. It would be one thing if he already decided to use his powers to help the oppressed and Zod finally presented a big enough threat that required Superman to make a public appearance. Instead, the hero of the movie has to be called out of hiding to finally do some kind of action. If Zod hadn't forced his hand, I don't see any reason why this Clark would have ever become Superman.
The script just gets lazier from here, and somehow becomes even more complicated for its very basic overall story. Lois stops having a reason to be in the movie, so she's inexplicably brought along on different airships to have something to do. Zod gives another info dump in a hallucination for some reason and then it's basically just this for the rest of the movie.
Much has been said about the wanton destruction in Man of Steel that climaxes in murder to save, presumably, the last five people alive in Metropolis. While I absolutely hate this as a Superman fan, as a general moviegoer, it still just leaves me frustrated.
The Smallville and then Metropolis fights go on for so long, and in such a cold fashion that it just becomes visual noise after awhile. The intent was to show what would actually happen in a super powered brawl, but it just devolves into mindless schlock. And I usually love mindless schlock!
After the fifth giant set piece in a row with nothing actually happening to any character we care about, I just become numb to the CG flashes that are bombarding my eyes. Like, once you pass the point of 10 buildings collapsing in a row, the 11th and 12th don't really raise the stakes any. We get more of the abstract notion that these invincible aliens are fighting for the fate of the planet, but nothing matters on any level that connects with the audience. They can't show the thousands of people who must be dying because then they don't get that sweet, sweet PG–13 rating. Nothing is challenging for either character, neither one of them has to think their way out of a situation, and there is no emotion in the scene beyond Zod just going "FML, let's fight to the death."
The earlier scene where the school bus falls into the river is ten times as engaging than the 40 minute Snyder jerkoff session that ends the movie. We see kids in danger, we have a connection with teenage Clark, and even in two lines there's some very simple drama between him and Pete "Dicksplash" Ross, all on a scale we understand. Yes, we know he'll save the school bus and the bully, but we also feel him growing as a character, and there is some weight and consequences to the choices that he has to make.
And that says nothing of the actual world engine plot that doesn't make any sense. Why does Zod need to increase the mass of the earth? Would that affect the super powers that they currently have? Traditionally Kryptonians are powered by earth's yellow sun, but apparently the atmosphere has something to do with it too? Why did Superman need to destroy the thing on the other side of the planet? If everything in Metropolis gets sucked into the Phantom Zone, then would the second machine have shut down on the other side of the planet? Couldn't they just deal with that thing later since there are no people there? I get that Zod doesn't care about humans at all, but is there a reason they couldn't have negotiated building New Krypton on Mars or something?
The biggest problem with this movie in terms of Superman ties into the biggest problem with this movie in terms of movies. Characters go on and on about how Clark Kent will one day change the world, how he can save everyone, how he can inspire hope within the entire human race. But none of that ever pays off. His character arc basically ends once he gets the super suit and learns to fly. We see Lois trust him after that of course, and the military comes around to him not being an enemy. Then there's a lot more of this:
You could even make the argument that the movie is actually about Clark just finding something he can actually punch. We see multiple bullies throughout his life that he really wants to fight, but refrains from taking action because Pa taught him to never use his powers under any circumstance, even in the face of the biggest tornado of all time. I think what they were going for was to show Clark learning to accept all sides of himself and to really push himself to be all that he can be (an idea that was done way better in The Incredibles). But in the end, this idea only ever manifests in violence.
The point is, there's no message of hope in this movie, despite all the lip service. We technically see Superman save the world, but there is no triumph in it at all. He just stops the bad guy and feels bad about murdering him because I guess now he's really the last of his race? I think Snyder was trying to show that he is anguished over crossing a line, but the movie never tells me he has any convictions against killing beyond what I can assume from past exposure to the character.
This movie doesn't set anything up that the ending resolves, and the things it does set up throughout the entire movie are just abandoned. I read that originally Zod was supposed to get sent back to the Phantom Zone with everything else, but Mr. Suckerpunch decided the hero shouldn't have a victory in a superhero movie. The extended Superman/Zod fight after all the other huge set pieces, and the actual neck snapping feel so out of place and then are never brought up again after they happen that I honestly wonder if anyone involved in the making of this movie actually watch this all the way through.
I promise I'm wrapping up here, but we have to talk about this scene real quick.
WHAT THE FUCK IS HE DOING? Who is he pretending to be here? Where did the cape come from? Why is he posing like Superman? SUPERMAN DOESN'T EVEN POSE LIKE THIS IN THIS MOVIE BECAUSE THAT'S NOT COOL ANYMORE! This was the perfect opportunity to show some kid who saw Superman save the day and is inspired to be a superhero.
Just like the movie about which I'm ranting, I'm going to do a 180 tonal shift and end on a positive note. The cast is great, and Cavill was born to play Superman. The dude looks like a Superman action figure come to life and when he gets the opportunity to do something beyond screaming, he brings the perfect quiet and kind strength to the character. The score is good too, and I kind of dig the costumes if the color palette was a bit more saturated. And the best thing I can say about this movie is that nothing in it has damaged the character so much that a sequel couldn't be amazing. If we're past all the boring origin set up, and if he's already had his first adventure where he sucks as a superhero, then we could get a solid Superman flick the next go around.
But the same creative team who dropped this turd are in charge of the next one, where Superman is sure to get upstaged by Batman and the twelve other characters that are stuffed in there. I have no idea where Snyder can even go from here with Justice League, since one superhero fighting was overkill in this.
I don't want to have to write another thousands words about each if these movies, but I fully expect the next one to be terrible. So far, they've gone out of their way to show me there's no hope in this universe.
So be sure to check back here for the inevitable Dawn of Justice review. Same Bat–time, same Bat–channel!