When Goyer pitched Nolan the story for Man of Steel, Nolan stopped everything he was doing because he realized he had just stumbled upon the freshest idea since Marty McFly invented Rock'n'Roll. I had my doubts because I really didn't like having "Mr. Batman" connected to Superman, because I didn't want the Man of Steel to live in the shadow of the Dark Knight. However, I acknowledged that Mr. Nolan loves to play with characters, explore what their meaning, and play with the big moral questions that arise. He treats movies like case studies with much to learn. Even though his involvement in this movie went little further than a phone call, his name came up before any of the other producers and it's a glowing endorsement, and I suspected that he would not have helped get this movie made if it didn't appeal to his sensibilities. Then the trailers came out, and they had a number of philosophic lines that looked like they were the tip of the iceberg for profound thought. Zack Snyder talked about making a movie about this character, and how it was fitting that after Watchmen, in which he deconstructed the superhero genre, that he could take things the other way and construct a defense for the genre with its purest archetype. Then reviews came out ahead of time saying that it was one of the best movies of the year, that audiences got up and applauded.
Many of you know that I have held this movie in contempt before it came out because of Nolan, Snyder, Zimmer, the costume, the casting, and other things that looked bad to me. However, in these last couple of months, I made sure to get excited for this movie. I wore a Superman shirt almost every day, and I got over many of the issues I had. The movie wouldn't satisfy a purist like me, but I figured that it was bound to have a great story nonetheless and be a good movie. It would probably show what was special about Superman and what set him apart from other superheroes. It would probably sell him to the rest of the world. I stopped being critical once I noticed the excitement and enthusiasm spreading throughout America, as anticipation built up for an inevitable surprise. I went to Universal Studios the week before the movie came out and noticed that there were countless numbers of people wearing Superman shirts, with no other superhero being represented. After living for a few years feeling like a minority for thinking Superman was cool, it was nice to see my passions gain popularity and for someone to finally make the case for the man I see so much in. I biked twelve miles to see the midnight premier, wearing a Superman shirt and cape, expecting to be blown away.
Well, it turns out that Man of Steel does none of these things. Think you're in for a philosophical treat? Think again. All the deep thought that goes into this movie ends with the lines in the trailers. Pa Kent says to his son "You existence has some profound implications." Which is about it. Nobody says anything further on the matter. The film doesn't thematically explore these. Jor-El tells his son that he will "become an ideal for the people of Earth to strive for." Just one problem: what is the ideal that Superman represents? What does it mean to be him?
Screw it all. Let's move on to the punching.
This movie had so much potential, but to explain where everything all went wrong I'm going to have to start at the beginning. After the production companies flash by, Man of Steel starts off with little Kal-El's birth. Jor-El then talks to the council, and Zod bursts in, killing people and overthrowing the Kyrptonian government. The tensions between Zod and Jor-El come out purely through exposition. There's no chemistry between them whatsoever, because the storyteller decided to tell us the story in vague terms instead of show us. Jor-El fights with Zod and his men, except it's nowhere near as epic as it could be because Snyder chose to shoot it all in shakycam closeups. Jor-El runs out to view Krypton at war, which would be totally epic, but there's nothing new to this beyond what's revealed in the third trailer, except this time he's accompanied by electronic music instead of a timeless, noble orchestral piece. He flies a cool Kryptonian animal to a place to find this MacGuffin. I have nothing wrong with MacGuffins, so long as the MacGuffins are cool and have a cool story to go with them, like in your typical Indiana Jones story. But this is some sort of special skull called the Codex, which we know virtually nothing about except through vague exposition. Apparently, it's where all the DNA for every Kryptonian who will ever be born is stored. Why was it only stored in that one place? Why did it have no security? I don't know.
Here's where I make my suggestions. First of all, I always wanted to see a science fiction epic set purely within Kryptonian civilization, focusing on Jor-El and Zod. It would be a great way to put Superman's story in perspective, but even more than that, it would be a really great piece of science fiction. The death of a world doomed by its mistakes and the tale of two men torn apart by their differences is really interesting, something a good writer can stack implications upon. There's a very great narrative here, a classic Greek tragedy. Snyder wouldn't need to cram in rushed exposition, and we would have a much better idea of what was going on. Best of all, the war of Krypton could receive a full amount of screen time and it would be the most epic thing since Star Wars. And John Williams could write the score. Seriously, it would be one of the coolest movies ever.
The one thing I can give this opening sequence credit for is that it's the most interesting part of the movie. Krypton is a cool place, and I'd like to see more of it. I will always have a special place in my heart for the Donner version of Krypton, which was a giant crystal, but I appreciate how elegant Snyder made this place, and I think it fits the character of what Krypton is supposed to be, a beautiful, noble utopia that symbolizes everything humanity aspires toward, or at least on the surface. It's a shame we couldn't have spent a little more time there to make the film a bit more of an adventure and to increase the scale of the story. Snyder's a visual director, so I'm surprised he didn't do that.
But moving on. I said I biked twelve miles to see this movie on its opening night. The second day it was out, I biked fifty more miles to watch it with a friend. It was his second time, too. He told me he knew the movie wouldn't be too good when Lara-El puts her son in the spaceship and sends it off to Earth. She cried for a moment. Then she sees her husband die. She doesn't cry for that, for some reason. These should have been tearjerker scenes, but they did nothing for us. This is supposed to be a seriously very emotional story, but I can't connect with Jor-El and Lara, and the narrative of this story simply didn't do it for me. They weren't crafted out of love, and seemed to be thrown on mostly out of obligation. I have a major problem with that. The producers needed to find a director who could not only be visually poetic, capture all the power behind each moment. Snyder couldn't do that.
That leads me to the next problem I have with this movie. The marketing puts a lot of emphasis on Clark's two sets of parents. People might walk in thinking they're in for something far more psychological, that the parents have a bigger effect on Clark than they have in other incarnations. This isn't true. The parents are about as involved in his character development as they were back in the Christopher Reeve days. It's just that now they're involvement is a little more dramatized. Russell Crowe gets more screentime than Marlon Brando ever did, but he never had anything on any of Brando's profound, heartfelt monologues. Meanwhile, this new Jonathan Kent is infinitely inferior to John Schneider's definitive rendition. Kevin Costner can't even compete with the scarcely present Glenn Ford in the 1978 movie, and I can make that contrast because Ford's death was truly sad. I was given no reason to fall in love with Clark's adoptive parents. There were no happy scenes with them.
This film really lacked any happy scenes. It was joyless and didn't take flight. For a Superman film, that's a real problem. There should have been scenes that really placed me in Clark Kent's shoes, but that didn't happen. If anything, Snyder managed to make him even more alien and harder to relate to. I didn't buy the stuff about him being a loner. He was an outsider to everyone - including the audience. Making him someone we could connect with shouldn't have been too difficult. Smallville managed to do that in just 45 minutes of pilot episode material, and yet this film wastes two and a half hours of my time on an action romp with no emotional journey whatsoever.
Oh, and let's not forget that not only was the entire film shot using handheld cameras, even when set on elegant Krypton and swooping over the landscapes of America, and had far too many closeups, but it also told the story out of sequence. There are constant flashbacks throughout the film, half of them at random points that make no sense. Sometimes I had to wonder what the relevance of some of these flashbacks were, and I really thought there was a much better way of telling this story. Primarily, Goyer shouldn't have told this story through flashbacks in the first place. Between the cinematography, the editing, the low ASL (Average Shot Length), and the way much of the story was told out of order, it felt like this was one giant trailer. The style of this film wasn't bad for a trailer, but it was wrong for this film. The trailers suggested that this film would have a lot of majesty, as a Superman films should, but it doesn't have that. There are no smooth shots. There are few scenes that are allowed to truly play out. Everything is rushed and there are often awkward scene transitions. Snyder proves that he can hold a camera and hold it at angles suggestive of drama, but that's far from being a genius with cinematography. As I said earlier, he can't find the most powerful way to capture a moment. His choices seem arbitrary and hardly definitive.
Lois gets introduced early on. There's some profanity and she says some things that I would prefer children not hear. She discovers Superman in her second scene and starts following his trail. That's an interesting story premise, and I will agree that Goyer found an interesting new way of having these two characters meet for the first time. Yet, as the movie wore on, the chemistry between both the actors and the characters felt forced. Cavill and Amy are hopelessly outmatched by all previous pairs who played the comic world's most prototypical couple. They lack that charm that lights up the screen when they're together. Then Superman goes out of his way to help her when the fate of the world is on the line, when he had met her only twice, briefly. Neither times were even slightly romantic, so here I was thinking "Wait, she's special now? I was unaware that she meant anything to you." Perhaps if they had exchanged glances the two times they met prior to that one pivotal scene, suggesting some sort of attraction, I would have understood, but there was none of that. Then they kiss near the end of the film, which was stupid. For some reason which proved to be irrelevant, the villains also made a big deal of taking her onto their ship, where she proceeded to be of help to Superman. Again, it was forced. There was absolutely no reason for her character to be in this story, which was sad, because some exposition between her and Perry White reveals her to be quite an impressive person.
Perry White and the rest of the Daily Planet staff, meanwhile, prove to be blank characters. I'll give Lawrance Fishburne credit for bringing gravitas to the character. He was certainly more interesting than Lois. There's a moment at the climax of this film where he really gets to shine, one which you get a glimpse of during the trailers when he and Jenny Olson are running away from falling buildings. He had the potential to be a very compelling character, but since he's not as recognizable as Lois Lane, he has less of a role in the movie. Meanwhile, his coolness got pulled down by Jenny Olson, who's apparently Jimmy Olson's sister. I love Jimmy. He's classic, and he's fun. I can really connect with his character in the comics. Yet, I have no idea what kind of person Jenny is. She's an extra with a name and some lines and a scene dedicated to her, but they don't reveal anything about her. She didn't have any relevance to the story at all. There's another guy, too. I have no idea who he was, but he had a name and lines, too. I guess that's realistic, but I did have to wonder what the point of including him was. He brought nothing to the screen. He didn't even help contribute to the feel of any particular scene. For a story about how Kal-El is meant to connect with humans, there was very little of the human element in this story.
Again, I can't stress this enough. Not only did Clark lack the human element, but humanity itself lacked the human element. People going into this movie expected a brought story about all the effects that Superman's existence had on mankind and how humanity reacted. The only reactions we see are those belonging to the military, which is is a little skeptical of him but surprisingly accepting, considering what I and many others were expecting, since this was marketed as an epic first contact film focused on realism. Society at large is absent throughout much of this story. In fact, once Clark officially reveals himself as Superman, I never see any of society's reactions again. That's when I would have wanted to see it the most. It's a pity, and it gets worse, because after he officially becomes Superman halfway through the film, the story stops dead.
No, seriously, there's virtually no story after the point when he officially becomes a superhero. He fights Zod. He fights and fights and fights. Actually, he fights a bunch of other Kryptonians first, including Faora, who's actress, Anje Trau, had more presence than anyone else in the film. Yet, I can't say they gave Faora much recognition in this film. Again, that really frustrates me, because I really want Faora to become her own independent entity and no longer defined by Zod. TV Tropes would call her an "orbit character". Trau is perfect for the character, and yet she's little more than Zod's main henchman and a source of physical conflict for Superman. She has some cool lines, actually, but she really could have used more. Especially since Antje Trau is beautiful. Too bad she can't possibly come back for the sequel, considering the way this movie was written. Then there's a giant, faceless Kryptonian who must have been Non, which again I guess is cool, but I still have to wonder how these Kryptonians can jump up in the air without any flight powers and pull Superman down from the sky. Why couldn't he just toss them out into orbit? Why did all of their fighting have to take place on the ground?
Visually, all of these fight scenes are spectacular. Superman fighting the giant robot in the trailer wasn't all it was cut up to be because of all the close cuts and the shakeycam, though. And the sound editing was cringeworthy both times around. You'll know it when you see it. Or hear it. Well, he's flying toward the robot, and then all of a sudden he begins coughing. It's really loud and it sounds really fake. Really fake. And they use the same stock sound effect throughout the scene. Were they kidding me? Far more interesting and stimulating was the giant gravity laser being fired at Metropolis, destroying buildings and threatening people. As far as action went, I actually found that the most interesting, and it would have been nice to see Superman doing that thing he does. You know, saving people. But I didn't get to see him juggle the task of saving people and stopping Zod's same plan at the same time.
Then there's the fight between him and Zod, who wasn't as intense as Faora. I guess it was supposed to be more personal, but the two characters had just barely met each other. It didn't feel too personal to me. The conflict, as far as I was concerned, was purely physical. They throw punches repeatedly, but unfortunately, these people really can't hurt each other, and it gets reduntant. The destruction is cool, but eventually it gets a little boring, or at least for me. The whole time, Hans Zimmer beats lifelessly on the drums of war, creating a beat that has a lot of energy but no character. At the same time, I have to admit that this was what I was hoping for the climax of Thor when it came out a few years ago, except for that movie it would have been set on Asgard. Seeing Asgard getting destroyed would have been so much better eye candy.
Then Supeman kills Zod. Just like that. Snaps his neck. Yes, this is a major plot spoiler, but I'm sure a million and one people have ranted about this already, and if you haven't already heard about this then you've been living under a rock. It's the main thing people have been bringing up.
You know, I was afraid of some of these other mistakes, but Superman killing someone? No. No.
"But Superman has killed before!" I hear some of you cry. Yes, but those were in storylines that completely centered around this. He was traumatized by being forced into getting his hands dirty. He remained effected for a long time. Nothing in this movie builds up to that moment. It doesn't fit into the themes the film was suggesting at the beginning, what with Kal-El choosing his own destiny and affecting the world. This was not supposed to be a "Superman breaks his #1 rule" story arc. It was never mentioned what Superman stood for, what he believed in. Henvry Cavill cringes his face, screams in horror at what he did, but a minute later this tragic act is trivialized with him returning back to normal. His murder is never brought up again and doesn't affect the rest of the film whatsoever.
Superman finds a way. He almost always finds a way. When he doesn't, it's in a story that really builds up to it, like the famous "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow"? But then, the Man of Steel had plenty of time to be constructed before being deconstructed, before being torn out of his normal predictable pattern. Yet, in this film, I still don't even have that much of an idea of what kind of person Henry Cavill is supposed to be. There's no conclusion. I don't feel his character has even changed.
I'm a major Superman fan. He's my favorite superhero. Most people who get to know me know that. I read a ton of Superman comics before watching this film, especially all the classics. Suffice to say, I understand the character and I should watch this film and be able to explain him. I can't. I don't understand Cavill's Superman. I can't come out of the theatre and explain him to a non-Superman fan. I'm just s familiar with this guy as anyone else.
It's very difficult to think of this as an actual origin story. If anything, the sequel should play the role of the origin story and build up the character. Now that he's introduced, and all the flashbacks are out of the way, they can actually start to explore the implications of his existence.
Snyder said "We can't mess this up!" He was so determined to present something new, because Superman had apparently never been made relatable before. He wanted this character to be understood. With this as the supposed focus, I expected a character story. I expected him to justify Superman as an engaging character, to show to the world what set him apart from other superheroes. He must not have wanted it that much. That was a heck of a lot of false advertising, if you ask me. These people didn't just take Superman in the wrong direction, but it's almost as if they didn't even understand him. Or even what they were doing. I can understand why they did what they did. After Superman Returns, people complained that Superman never threw an honest punch. That movie was all story and very little action, and it turned out disappointingly. Ergo, a swing in the opposite direction. It seems like a natural response. Yet, that's not what Snyder said he was going to do. He didn't say "We're going to make this an action movie." He talked about character, and he said how they had to get this story right.
Was it a bad movie? Actually, no. I won't say so. It might be good. I won't fault anyone who likes it. The action personally wasn't my thing, although I think a large part of that was the cinematography. I can see how someone else would find it awesome. I have met other people who have enjoyed it. My uncle thought it was good. The friend I watched it with the second time around personally didn't find it his thing, but he said that objectively it was probably a good film. Meanwhile, I really want to like this film. I will probably see it a third time. This time with my Batfan superfriend. If she can be entertained by it, I suppose I'll find some good things. I really do want this to appeal to people, even if it isn't true to Superman's character. And I promise, I will post a second review listing only the positive things about the film.
Even though this film broke my heart, I will watch it a third time. Heck, I will pay for my superfriend's tickets. I'm desperate to like this movie and have a good time. If that doesn't work out, well, at least I got a date.