This is going to be a controversial review, I think. This film has already been noted to have divided comics fans. We seem to either love it or hate it. And, sadly, we also seem to be directing a good deal of hate at those who don’t agree with our opinions. That’s too bad.
And yet this movie represents some trends in modern entertainment and storytelling which I think need to be identified and discussed, so I’m going to share my opinion no matter how much it pisses off those who disagree. If you disagree with me, I’m sorry. But I’m not going to hide or deny my opinions simply because you don’t like them.
I went into this film with, I thought, zero expectations. I had enjoyed Superman Returns, and felt it was more than a little insulting to the efforts of that film’s creative team that the studio felt it necessary to “reboot” after they’d made a pretty good film. But I’d also been upset that Sam Raimi had been discharged from the Spiderman films and that character had also been reboot, and yet I felt that Amazing Spiderman was an enjoyable film. So I went in willing to be entertained. Maybe that’s not “zero expectations.” I did expect to be entertained.
And I wasn’t. I was made uncomfortable, I was bored, and I was angry. Man of Steel is the first film I’ve seen in a theater that actually motivated me to get up and leave. I didn’t because I was with my family. But I did squirm a lot, and I did cover my face several times, just because I couldn’t look any more. I am well aware that Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight have been declared by some to be, not super-hero movies, but good dramas which have a super-hero as a protagonist. I get that. And I thought those were good films.
But this was not only not a Superman film, it was also not a good drama and it did not feature a character I could recognize as Superman. Superman is a hero. You are meant to admire him, and you are meant to see that he has qualities not found in your average man on the street. A hero should inspire you to personal greatness. He should set an example for you. This Kal-El is a picked-on kid with a lot of rage and, granted, an inexplicable love for the human race. As a screenwriter, there are three quick methods you can use to make an audience identify with a movie protagonist: Humor, Sympathy and Competence. You give your character one of these qualities in an obvious way, and, within the first few minutes of the film, you’ve established a bond between him and the audience. That’s why James Bond always saves the day before the credits. He’s being established as competent.
David Goyer, a very good comic book writer, chose the sympathy device. That’s a hard one to pull off if you want your protagonist to also be a hero. If you feel sorry for the guy at the outset, then you might be moved to pity. Admiration is not going to come organically. When you start with a sympathetic protagonist, most likely the emotional payoff of the film is going to be that he overcomes his problems and wins some kind of moral battle. Kal-El wins nothing in this film. He demonstrates no competence and the story has absolutely zero humor. He does manage to save the human race, but it’s not really a victory. It’s a holding action. He does not grow in any way (other than becoming 33 when he starts the film as a baby) and he learns no lesson.
And he models absolutely no behavior that an audience member can take away and model himself. All he does is punch is exceedingly annoying arch-nemesis, General Zod, through a lot of buildings.
But let me give a quick rundown of the positive and the negative, for a lot of work went into this film, and I don’t want to absolutely dismiss the artistry of the team.
What I liked:
The cast – was excellent, with one exception, which I’ll address below. They were all well-picked for the roles they were playing, and would have been enjoyable to watch, if this had been an enjoyable film.
The Smallville scenes, mostly. There are a couple of exceptions, again below.
Jor-El’s nice big role. I’ve always been a Jor-El fan, and I love Russell Crowe.
The parent-child dynamics with both the Els and the Kents.
Perry White’s small, quiet heroism, his courage in taking care of his people.
Steve Lombard finally making it into a film.
What I did not like: (SPOILERS AHEAD!)
Krypton. Gray and brown and ugly. It struck me as porn designed for people who get hot and wet watching shows or movies where the “world building” took years of development and the characters are mostly stock.
Jonathan Kent’s death. One of my examples of how this Kal/Clark is not Superman. Superman would not let his father die just to prove a point in a stupid argument, which is essentially what happened. Jonathan tentatively played with the argument that maybe Clark should let people die in order to protect his secret, so Clark let his dad die to protect his secret.
Michael Shannon as General Zod. Not the actor’s fault, but this character was exceedingly two-dimensional. I got that he was a career soldier from a sorta-Communist world where your career is assigned. I get that, losing Krypton, he lost everything. I do not get why that turned him into a tin-plated, bad-dialogue-spouting cipher. My friend Phil pointed out that Terence Stamp’s Zod in Superman II was also two-dimensional, but he was a fun comic-book villain. This Zod was written to be a complex character, and then didn’t make it. He came off to me as whiny. Here I am with my frustrated ambitions and my Hamlet-hair. I’ve killed my greatest rival, but now his son’s in my way. Guess I’ll pout.
And ohmigod what awful dialogue this guy got! “This only ends with one of us dead!” “Release the Kraken — I mean the World Engine!” (And Jax-Ur’s “We are now slaves to the World Engine.” Really? Did he say that?)
The off-screen deaths of some very good characters — Meloni’s Colonel Hardy, the new Ursa, whatever her name was (It was Faora-Ul), and Dr. Hamilton. I understand their plan blew up and all, but, still, I felt they were cheated, especially since Faora was a much better villain than Zod.
Superman killing. A few folks on the web are saying that, if you dislike this, you know nothing about comics; because Superman killed Zod in the John Byrne comics run and Superman killed Zod in Superman II. Okay, I love John Byrne. Great artist, good storyteller. But in the course of trying to push the creative envelope, he’s made some fairly big mistakes. His run on Avengers was unfortunate in the extreme and essentially ruined some very well-drawn characters. His Man of Steel was a cheapening of the character. It narrowed the universe and limited his greatness. So I don’t really care what happened in his run.
Superman II? Yes, Superman wrapped Zod in cellophane (I know, I know) and threw him off a cliff. But, in fact, neither the writer nor the director intended that to kill the character.
The studio cut the scene which came after Zod’s plunge into the crevasse. All three Kryptonian villains survived that battle. Assumed killing is not killing. More, this is a first-film in a reboot. Do you really want to go right to “Why Superman might kill?” Is that the message you want to send? Sorry, this is not something that says “Superman” to me. This is something which says to me that the creative team had so little respect for its audience that they think they need to throw out big shock moments, just so the poor near-brain-dead larvae can feel something. I’m sure there are a few audience members of whom that’s true, but I don’t think entertainment should pander to them.
Too too too much CGI. At times, Kal was actually battling nothing, but it was a cool-looking nothing.
Rampant destruction – Kal-El punched Zod through building after building through a lot of this movie. And it was not a case of “I have no choice but to do this to stop you,” It was a case of “you’re really pissing me off, so I’m gonna hit you really hard, or grab you and fly you through walls, regardless of how many people are crushed when those walls (and whole buildings) fall.
The complete and total lack of humor. Maybe the Reeve movies played too much for laughs, but this sucked all the warmth out of the characters. I didn’t like these people. Any of them. Okay, maybe Perry.
Jimmy Olsen as a girl. No. Just no.
If this is the film DC wants to build a franchise on to compete with Marvel, then Marvel is in no danger. The Marvel movies are so much better than the comics they’re publishing now, because they’re mostly based on the comics of thirty to fifty years ago. Those movies are character-driven and often slow down and quiet down to let you breathe and enjoy the characters.
This film was ripped from the pages of current DC, using all of the intense, violent and dark storytelling techniques that marketing departments say make good stories. It was designed only to shock and make people say “wow.” Even Nolan’s Batman films, which were a bit dark for my tastes (and I can’t watch the second one again), had character, depth and humor. This? This was pure noise. It was an ode to violence and destruction.
And that’s not Superman.
If you liked it, great. Don’t let my criticisms get you down. Write me off as a guy from the previous generation of fans who just doesn’t “get it.” I don’t mind. I ask only one thing, a small prayer to the gods of entertainment:
I hope you found inspiration in this film somewhere that I missed it.
I hope this film leads you to make your life and your world better.
I hope, in this film, you found a friend you enjoy spending time with, who can get you through the rough spots and is always there when you need him.
I hope this film convinced you that people, overall, are worth knowing and looking out for.
Because that, my friends, that is Superman. And if it was in this film for you, then he was there.