I have no questions about MAN OF STEEL as I have with previous movies because I saw it twice in two nights and the second viewing answered most of my questions regarding just what Zod was up to and why Superman had to use a Kotex to save
Anyway. I enjoyed MAN OF STEEL. It is not a great movie or even a great Superman movie (I guess there was only one of those), but it was a very effective superhero movie which brought out the scope and and power and speed of being super. The grim imprimatur of Christopher Nolan was all over it, but combined with a thoughtful script by David S. Goyer and the stunning visuals of Zack Snyder made for an exciting, memorable film.
Of course there were holes and one shocking character twist that I suspect will make this movie more controversial than the deadbeat dad/Peeping Tom Superman of SUPERMAN RETURNS.
So here’s what worked and what didn’t:
Hans Zimmer: the score for this movie smoothed over a lot of the storytelling rough spots as far as I’m concerned. A plangent, driving tone poem with notes of Sibelius, it left out John Williams’ trumpet and added lots of kettledrums and unresolved sixth and seventh intervals to give a restless, energetic mood. When the intervals resolved it was a great payoff. So yeah, a lot like the Inception score but more heroic. If the movie weren’t so ubiquitous, this would be the next “Gothic Power” for movie trailers. The only flaw: slow piano music for Kansas such as one might hear on South Park. Sorry people, South Park has ruined the emotional piano break for all times.
Henry Cavill: I saw this movie two night in a row and did not tire of looking at Henry Cavill. I would not tire of looking at him every night. OKAY OKAY so he’s a dreamy hunk. Is he a good Superman? He’s a good Superman for THIS version of the character. If you swapped him and Christopher Reeve in their movies they would both suck. (Brandon Routh, you will always be the perfect Todd Ingram.) Cavill’s steely gaze, adamantium abs and I’ll-open-that-beer-bottle chin are a great physical fit for the character, and he expressed the philosophical gravitas of a character who was basically the Kryptonian Jesus. In a movie that suffered from its humorless demeanor, Cavill displayed some courtly charm in the few places it was allowed. Basically, he sold me on being the guy who says “I’ve got this.” And more important for the goals of this film, he was a tough guy who did whatever had to be done, and not a dorky good guy who frets about doing the right thing.
(That said, the more Superman you see, the more you realize what a miracle Christopher Reeve’s performance was.)
Zack Snyder: Okay so I like his movies; sue me. I liked WATCHMEN. Having just recently viewed IRON MAN 3 and STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS, I found Snyder’s visual chops so much better than Shane Black or J. J. Abrams. If you’re going to blow things up, this is how to do it, turbo mode, nothing held back. Whereas so many CGI movies are basically slave to the green screen, the previz on this keyed in on drama, from the shaky cam—used effectively for once—to the loss of focus to indicate how we can never know what it is like to be Superman because…he’s Superman. The scene where Superman learns how to fly is great; for once a streaking blue dot is a symbol of joy and power.
While there was a lot of violence and punching in the movie, what else is a superhero movie supposed to be except a fight scene? Some people have told me that they were exhausted by the time Superman had to fight Zod; I felt that this has been set up as the real showdown and I had enjoyed the visuals so much previously that it became the climax that the film needed.
I don’t know how directly Snyder’s team looked at comics (for some reason that hasn’t come up in any of the publicity materials I’ve seen) but there were definite references to Alex Ross, Frank Quitely, and—in the final showdown with Zod—Jack Kirby. Zod’s bowl cut hairdo and glowing eyes were 70s DC all the way.
Lois Lane: I’m predisposed to like Amy Adams, so no surprises. MAN OF STEEL’s Lois was a comic book movie’s idea of a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter (“I have writer’s block unless I’m wearing a flak jacket.”) and all the Daily Planet stuff here was not much more convincing than that portrayed in the Superman musical I saw a few months back. But she was brave and smart enough to keep me happy. Adams and Cavill managed to work up some chemistry but I am sad to report (spoilers) that the “It means hope” scene from the trailer is about as far as the movie does for banter. The rest is mostly “Where is the Kotex?”
Faora-Ul: Making the secondary villain a woman was a great idea, and she is a badass with no apologies. Even in CGI, all the Kryptonians moved differently, and Antje Traue’s Faora was fast and lethal. Her character (like most in the film) was paper thin, but I liked seeing a female villain who was a real threat for a change.
The Budget: Warner Bros poured endless money into this thing and it shows. I tolerated GREEN LANTERN more than most humans because at least it showed some imagination on screen. Marvel’s movies are zippy and light-hearted but the art direction of the shared world is mundane and dull. I liked Krypton’s flying bees and the ship that looked like a mole rat.
Most of the Cast: Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Michael Shannon, and Russell Crowe were all fine at what they had to do, but none of them were really a standout to me. Shannon was a strong villain who didn’t give the impression of excessive scenery chewing.
David Goyer: There were a lot of “Hunhhh????” moments in this movie that woudn’t stand up to logical scrutiny—the fate of Jonathan Kent being primary among them. The Daily Planet was a total throwaway, and the ending left the whole Clark Kent set-up a complete throwaway. But in general, this script had a through line which stayed consistent: Superman is an alien who must find a way to live up to the teachings of both his fathers. As a villain, General Zod wasn’t much different than Khan in STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS or even “The Mandarin” in IRON MAN 3: all are foreigners with a muddled agenda to take control so their heritage can take center stage. Zod’s plot didn’t seem very clear when I originally viewed the film, but the second time it held together better. Superman’s journey is one of acceptance and self-discovery and that too remained consistent. I didn’t like all of the script, but I see what they were going for.
The sheer level of destruction: The last half of the movie is one giant fight scene that destroys most of a small Kansas main street and then a significant portion of Metropolis. I mean just shatters it. Do you remember that brief moment after 9/11 when turning a city to rubble was considered bad taste? I don’t want to come off like a PTSD victim who has trigger images, but I’m just sick of seeing skyscrapers fall down on movie screens. I saw that happen in real life and it haunted me for years. I know it’s all a video game but to tolerate the devastation I must go to a level of fantasy that makes everything that happens meaningless. It’s getting old, people.
Christopher Nolan: And now we come to the heart of the matter. Nolan’s Batman film’s were dark, unsmiling, and very serious. That same tone has been transferred to Superman, a character that doesn’t really wear it as well. The shift was necessary to give him a new lease on life from a business standpoint. WB has had so much trouble rebooting their superheroes they had to turn to the only guy who seems to know how to do it. But at the same time it’s not quite what you ordered from the menu: Nolan has made great salami sandwiches, but instead of giving us a ham sandwich he gave us another salami sandwich only with pickles. At the end of the movie Superman does something that everyone will complain about. It’s something that Christopher Reeve or Brandon Routh would never have done, but Cavill’s Kal-El can. It’s done, as I suggested, to make the character more dangerous and unexpected. Will this version fly into the hearts of filmgoers? MAN OF STEEL is easier to admire for its technical skill than to embrace like a pal.
Plus, I’m not sure how the young male movie going audience will like it. Guys ate up Batman because everyone thinks, deep down, that they can be Batman if they just work hard enough. The whole point of MAN OF STEEL is that no one can be Superman because he’s an alien Jesus, and that isn’t as relatable. (The Superman-is-Jesus parallels are laid on with a trowel from revealing he’s 33 to his standing in front of a stained glass image of Christ while talking to a priest to his cruciform pose in some scenes.)
Above all, this film could have used some laughs and humor. As mentioned, Cavill and Adams have charm to spare… by making Superman a tortured savior and not a do-gooder, that’s mostly jettisoned.
In the bigger picture, WB has feared being too lighthearted with its superheroes ever since the Batman TV show. Marvel gets away with a wink and a nod in its movies because they’re Marvel, and it’s built into the DNA of their characters. WB has struggled desperately with tone, veering between failed concepts like Jack Black Green Lantern and ice cream social Wonder Woman and serious creepy Routh Superman and now remote Jesus Superman. The Green Lantern movie was about a dull hotshot who had no inner life. This Kal-El is all inner strife.
Now where do they go from here? MAN OF STEEL is tracking to make a lot of money, but the film itself sets up Superman as impossibly powerful—an ongoing problem with the character in all media. My biggest problem with the film aside from it being way too serious is that it left nowhere to go. This Clark Kent can smash through a mountain and jump up a second later. A bone crushing battle with someone as strong as he is crumbles a city. Is the next movie going to be just Superman fighting oceans of CGI henchmen (aka Avengers)? Because the character as shown has virtually no limits and that makes it way harder to tell a story.
Is MAN OF STEEL the key that will open the lock to the WB/DC superhero film universe? Not yet. The past decade has shown us that the Legendary/Nolan/Goyer crew can make good to great Batman and Superman movies. Can they vary the tone enough to make us fall for Martian Manhunter? The source material is thin and will require a LOT of intelligent rethinking. WB chose Snyder over Darren Aronofsky to direct the movie because of studio loyalty, but it was a safe choice given the stakes. (And we were talking about this three years ago, remember?)In the future they need to reach out to quirkier, fresher talents. Marvel Studios has had a great run of effectively matching directors who aren’t exactly at the top of the A list to material— but they’re also confident in their material, something that WB isn’t.
In thinking about the road this darker, serious attitude might take to get to a JLA movie, I keep thinking of Alan Moore, believe it or not. In a few pages of SWAMP THING he introduced the team with the grim, godlike tone that has filled comics ever since. I’ll leave you with a flashback while you go see MAN OF STEEL, if you haven’t already. And then come back and let me know what you think.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.