Man of Steel

There's something really iconic about this poster.
There’s something really iconic about this poster.


Well, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is coming out this week, hopefully kickstarting the DC Extended Universe. With that in mind, it seems right to take a look back at 2013’s Man of Steel, the first entry in this continuity, and one of the more divisive superhero films of recent memory. This piece will consist of two parts: first, a review of the picture; and, second, a response to one of the more prolific criticisms levied toward this movie.

Part I: Review

Man of Steel followed in the wake of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy; and it clearly owes much to those films. For starters, Nolan served as a producer on this movie; and just as he and Warner Bros. had given new life to Batman, they wanted to reinvigorate Superman after the lukewarm reception of 2006’s Superman Returns. Other Dark Knight-alumni also came aboard for Man of Steel; Dark Knight-writer David Goyer penned the screenplay, and Dark Knight-composer Hans Zimmer composed the score. Ensuring that that the film wouldn’t simply be a case of Batman folks now working on Superman, Nolan chose Zack Snyder of 300 and Watchmen fame to helm the picture as director.

The movie is divided into three acts: the opening on Krypton, Clark Kent’s time on Earth prior to his becoming Superman, and the battle with General Zod that also reveals Superman to the world. Each of these three acts is very distinct and memorable.

The depiction of Krypton at the beginning is nothing short of a full on Jack Kirby drawing brought to life, with other-worldly landscapes, fantastic creatures, and an exotic culture shown to the audience with a great sense of bravado. Visually, it’s striking; and in terms of story telling, it’s quite intense. Russel Crowe as Jor-El, Superman’s father, is excellent here, and he brings the kind of physicality and determination to the role that one would except from the man whose son would become the Man of Steel. We learn much of Kryptonian culture in these first twenty-or-so minutes–how they have instituted artificial births, employed genetic modification to repress individuality, and exhausted their natural resources, compromising the stability of their planet as result. We learn that Kal-El is special, partly, because his is the first natural birth on the planet in centuries, and unlike other Kryptonians, he will be free to choose his own destiny. It’s a nice expansion on the basic Superman lore, one that connects to modern day issues. We also get introduced to Zod, played very intensely by Michael Shannon, whose commitment to Krypton and its way of life turns him into a violent, uncontrollable monster.

What’s perhaps most notable about this section in particular–and the movie as a whole–is how straight the material is played. There are no winks to the audience about how silly all of this is. Everything is treated with a unique sense of weight and earnestness, which makes Man of Steel stand out amongst the broad comedy/slapstick-employment of its Marvel peers. While this movie is a very different animal than the Dark Knight-films, I do think that this idea of treating the subject matter with this level of seriousness probably does stem from those pictures. Note that I say serious, rather than realistic (many people, even those involved in the film, threw the word “realistic” around,  but I’m not sure they really understand what that means), because this is still a movie of impossibilities, just ones done with a straight face.

The second act is much quieter. It details Clark’s life on Earth as he struggles to find meaning in his existence. Henry Cavill hits the right notes as Clark during this time. There are subtleties and nuances in his performance that I really appreciated. He plays Clark as someone who understands the power he’s capable of and tries to help people with it, but is still unsure of the exact nature of how he should use his gifts. Cavill effectively conveys how lost Clark is, which is something we haven’t seen all that much from other depictions of the character. He also shines in the way he delivers the right amount of modesty in the role: Clark is a good, well meaning person, but it’s presented in a non-over-the-top way and feels more natural than other representations of the Big Blue Boy Scout.

I also appreciated the flashbacks to Clark in his youth. We see him as a child attempting to cope with his powers (which he struggles to control) and his sense of identity; and we come to understand the influence of Jonathan and Martha Kent (played by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, respectively) on his life. Martha, as a supportive mother, helps him to hone his abilities, while Jonathan, who has to be pragmatic, delivers complex lessons about how the world will see him, what he will represent for mankind some day, and what that entails for him in the mean time. These are more sobering depictions of what an other-worldly being growing up on Earth would have to deal with, and I like that the movie doesn’t hold back in these portrayals. It’s both fresh and thought provoking.

This second act is also when we’re first shown Amy Adams as Lois Lane, and all I can say is that her Lois is by far the best interpretation of the character yet seen on film (Sorry Margot Kidder). Not only was this the first time I believed her as a reporter, but Adams’s depiction also gives us a heroine who is far more proactive in the story than any other version of the character. It’s quite spectacular.

The third act, involving Zod’s arrival to Earth, is very action-filled, but in a good way. We are shown monumental clashes between Superman, Zod, and Zod’s lieutenants. In an age where super-powered action has been surprisingly underdeveloped given what technology has enabled, Man of Steel delivers the goods in the spectacle department. Kryptonians fly at each other with palatable force, Superman fights a robotic Kryptonian Doomsday Machine, and he and Zod brawl in a final mono-a-mono that is absolutely thrilling. The ending, involving some tough choices for Superman, doesn’t hold anything back; and I like that it takes the direction that it does, both in terms of how it involves us more emotionally in Superman’s decision, as well as how it will serve to inform his choices in Batman v Superman.

I’ve been very complimentary of the film up to this point–I enjoyed it quite a bit–but that is not to say the movie is flawless. It does have problems. One of them is pacing. In particular, I think the flow during the second act of the film is very erratic. There are too many instances where the movie jumps ahead in time too quickly for the audience to follow, and the timing of Clark’s flashbacks is a bit abrupt. In particular, two flashbacks happen within only about a minute of each other, such that there is virtually no time to reflect on them. Based on some footage in trailers and other sources, I get the sense that a significant amount material was cut from these sections, which might explain the poor pacing.

There’s also way too much product placement in this film. Granted, most of it is limited to one of the fight scenes between Superman and Zod’s commanders, but it’s really obnoxious in that span of time. Superman and these other Kryptonians crash through brand placements like U-haul, Sears, and IHOP, with their logos in plain sight. It does nothing except distract the audience from otherwise powerful moments. I also don’t understand the corporate logic behind it. I don’t think seeing super-powered beings destroy an IHOP will make people hungry for their pancakes. Also, while it’s not in the same scene, Nikon must have paid through the nose for its presence in this movie. There are enough shots of the camera in this film to put together a full-length commercial for the product. Again, it’s quite irksome.

And lastly, while I am supportive of the filmmakers more complex interpretation of Jonathan Kent’s message to Clark in the movie, I do think it would have been better had more been done to emphasize the point that he believes that one day Clark will do good, even if that means waiting for the time being. I understand that Jonathan’s teachings are nuanced, and I like the idea of factoring humanity’s general distrust of outsiders, but I feel that some of his gloom-and-doom viewpoints–that is, his fears over what will happen if the world finds out about Clark prior to the right time– overshadow a message that is ultimately one of hope–which is that when the time is right, Clark will be a great force for good in the world. I think a quick rewrite would have ironed this out.

None of these problems, though, ruined the film for me. Overall, I am pretty pleased with how Man of Steel turned out. It’s exciting and varied, with a huge scope, a great sense of myth, intense action, and complicated themes. Its no-nonsense approach makes it unique when compared to other non-Batman superhero films, and I hope that this is a sign of good things to come. There’s a lot of other stuff that I haven’t mentioned, like some of the other notable performances or Hans Zimmer’s terrific score, but rest assured, there’s plenty to appreciate here beyond what I’ve written about. I think this movie sets a wonderful path for the rest of the DC Extended Universe, and I look forward to what comes next in Batman v. Superman and beyond.

Part II: Addressing Criticism

Before wrapping up, I want to address one of the complaints that has been levied against this film. Namely,  the nature of the collateral damage that occurs in this film. As Superman fought it out with the other Kryptonians, many people were upset that

A) Several buildings got destroyed when there were people around; and

B) Superman wasn’t doing enough to show an overt concern for these people.

This has been a recurring issue on the Internet; one that has really gotten under many writers’ skins and inspired a wealth of hatred towards this movie. It is a bit surprising how vocal people have become over this perceived problem, and it appears to have gotten prominent enough to have affected the way events in Batman v Superman will be portrayed (I am not quite sure that this is a good thing).

Thankfully, other writers have taken a stand to defend the film’s portrayal of destruction, an excellent example of which can be read here. I’d like to add my voice to theirs.

There’s an implication in Man of Steel that while Superman is incredibly strong, he lacks the kind of all-powerful capabilities that have defined him in other iterations. This is not someone who can lift entire continents or travel faster than light. He has incredible abilities, but in this film, they are limited. Admittedly, that’s never explicitly spelled out in the movie–it’s not as though there are lines of dialogue that detail this. That being said, I think it’s never the less easy enough to see when, for example, Clark struggles to hold up the beams of a collapsing oil rig, or when laser blasts and bullets actually appear to hurt him, or when the giant Kryptonian Doomsday Machine that he destroys actually knocks him out for a while.

By extension, during the epic fight scenes in populated areas when he’s battling Zod or his second-in-commands, Superman is clearly struggling. He’s obviously overwhelmed against better-trained adversaries, and it’s not as though he can be expected to have enough control over the fight to direct it miles away to a safer, more isolated location (and I don’t think we could have expected the Kryptonians to follow him if he just up-and-took off in the middle of a clash, hoping he could lead them away); or to stop the fight for a few moments to save citizens from falling debris.  I have no doubts that Superman cares about the citizens around him (there’s plenty of evidence in the film to show that he does); and he does try to save people where and when he can; I just believe that his powers are such that he is forced to focus on neutralizing manic Kryptonians, rather than individually saving people from rubble or holding up falling buildings.

I get the feeling that many people missed this implicit restriction on Superman’s abilities. I think that’s a case of people’s expectations from past ideas of Superman overriding what is presented in the film. As such, I argue that it’s rather erroneous to believe that this is a movie where Superman could have managed collateral damage while fighting other super beings but chose not to. I think it’s nearer to the mark to believe that this is a movie where Superman certainly wanted to make sure everyone was safe, but his abilities were limited and so he couldn’t do everything we normally associate with the character.

Of course, this leads to a broader question: why would Zack Snyder, Christopher Nolan, David Goyer, and the rest of the people involved with this movie have gone that route? Why would they put a Superman with limited powers in fights that result in a good deal of urban destruction? In my opinion, it’s because that’s more entertaining than having an all powerful Superman fight people in an isolated cornfield or an ice sheet or the side of a mountain. As much as people wax philosophic about the merits of such an approach (seriously, people really do complain about this and wonder why it wasn’t done in the movie), you need to have tension and thrills in a film like this. Making the protagonist omnipotent and the surrounding environment completely secure just doesn’t make for a fun, engaging flick. It’s simply more compelling to have the protagonist get challenged and have some buildings get knocked down; that there are people around adds worthwhile suspense to these situations. It also avoids the filmmakers having to concoct some absurd reason why an entire city would be empty prior to Superman and the Kryptonians getting to fight.

I know this is a sore subject for some people who argue that the “true” Superman wouldn’t have fought in these locations or would have been able to do more for those around him (these same people seem to ignore that he saves the entire planet in this movie). While I don’t believe you should drop key character traits for the sake of entertainment, if your view viewpoint of a character is so narrow as to result in a depiction that is innocuous and boring, then it’s simply too limiting.

So yes, a lot of the destruction in the film was intentional; but while I’m on this subject, I also want to approach the issue from another angle and argue that the level of destruction, while deliberate, is not as bad as some people have framed it. For one, neither Smallville nor Metropolis were “completely destroyed” in this movie. Yes, the main strip of Smallville got pretty roughed up (more due to the American military and the other Kryptonians than to anything Superman directly did), but it was still standing after the fight, and I tend to believe that Superman’s explicit instruction to people to “Get Inside” before the battle started was movie shorthand for, “The citizens of this town are out of the direct path of harm and therefore they are okay.” In regards to Metropolis, maybe a square mile of it was destroyed through the Kryptonian Doomsday Machine (and a good deal of people probably did die in this, though that wouldn’t be Superman’s fault), and Zod does knock down a building (and part of a parking garage when he punches Superman through it) during his fight with Superman, but if you watch the movie, it’s clear the Metropolis is far larger than that square mile and that most it is still intact at the end. It also shows people running and getting away from Superman and Zod’s fight, which, again, I think is movie shorthand for “The residents of this city are getting out of the direct path of harm and therefore they’ll be okay.” The point being, Superman didn’t wipe out either of these places. Most of the destruction is caused by other entities, and he is doing his best to stop them as quickly as he can.

I apologize if this section has seemed a bit like a rant; I only feel the need to delve into this because many people seem convinced that Superman leveled entire cities and directly murdered hundreds of thousands of people in this film, which is just ridiculous. It’s like a Cracked.com fan theory if everyone forgot the part about not taking it seriously. Superman is not a monster; he’s not unheroic. He does the best he can, he saves the human race, and he is a hero at the end of the movie. And the many (otherwise) rational, intelligent people who disagree with that are simply wrong. Not about everything, but certainly about this.

 

 

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