Here’s the truth: I didn’t even really like the new Superman movie all that much. I wanted to. I tried. But I couldn’t do it.
I was excited about Man of Steel. Not nearly as excited as I get about films in the Avengers franchise or Nolan’s Batman trilogy or film adaptations of books I’ve loved. But I’m a geek. I love comic books and action films. I was supposed to love this film, especially after Slate claimed last week that Man of Steel is a feminist action flick.
[WARNING: Spoilers from here on out.]
Most of my issues with Man of Steel boil down to the fact that I just didn’t care. Or, rather, the film didn’t make me care. The filmmakers eschewed backstory for intense, destructive, action sequences. I’m sure director Zack Snyder and his team assumed that most filmgoers know to root for Jor-El over General Zod. We were supposed to care about Clark Kent because we know he’s Superman. He’s as American as a Kansas cornfield.
But this is an origin story. Maybe Snyder didn’t want to give us too much information we would already know. For instance, much of the criticism of last summer’s Amazing Spiderman is that the reboot was too soon and the origin story was old news. I get that. But Snyder went in the wrong direction and didn’t give us enough.
The film begins with the end of Krypton. First, Kal-El is born. Then (immediately after his son’s birth?), Jor-El storms into the Council’s chambers, declaring that they’ve made a horrible mistake. Something about a core and using up energy, I think. I should probably look that up. Except that I went to see a film, and I don’t want to have to look up the missing information. I should understand everything vital to the story without doing research. Anyway…Zod storms in with his badass army, declares a coup, kills an Important Councilwoman, fights some, kills Jor-El. In the midst of all that, Lara manages to load her newborn baby into a spaceship and send him towards Earth. We get this pretty epic view of Krypton’s ultimate demise and a scene of the spaceship zooming towards our planet Earth.
And suddenly, Clark Kent is a grown man, seemingly working on fishing boat. He saves some unknown people on some sort of ocean rig, then he’s inexplicably working as a busboy in some cold place, and at some point, he’s working at a military post in the Arctic Circle, where a reporter (guess who?) shows up to investigate a mysterious Soviet something-or-other found in (oh! surprise!) a 20,000-year-old block of ice. In the midst of it all, he has flashbacks to his childhood, with his loving parents and some weird, superhuman occurrences.
It was too rushed. All of it. I wanted to see him landing in Kansas. I wanted to know why Mr. & Mrs. Kent chose to adopt this alien child. We get bits and pieces of that, through flashbacks, but it never felt cohesive for me. The beginning was so rushed that the film never actually had me.
It almost pulled me back in when Zod arrived on the planet. Power goes out, an alien species takes over the airwaves around the world–I’m sort of a sucker for that sort of thing. (Maybe because I visited a UFO museum last week. I’m convinced we’re not alone, and suddenly, here was Zod confirming it for me!)
That didn’t last long, though. Where the film lost me was the “resolution” to preventing Zod and his team from completely taking over Earth. Use Clark’s old ship to create a singularity with Zod’s ship and, thus, a black hole? Okay! Let’s completely forget that idea that black holes absorb everything nearby. Entire galaxies. Yet Earth and our solar system and the Milky Way will remain unscathed! Good grief, I haven’t had a science class in years, and even I know that’s a terrible idea.
And the philosophy behind the movie made me a little angry. The film espoused the idea that nurture will always beat out nature. Clark’s heart, his parent’s love, Lois’ belief in him, is all it takes to defeat Zod–the man trained, reared to be the military leader on his planet. It was a bit too easy, despite the action scenes that were about 45 minutes too long. I wanted Clark to just go ahead and defeat Zod (because I got a little bored), but I actually kind of wanted Zod to win. He was a more dynamic character than Clark, with a much stronger motivation. Zod watched his planet be destroyed, knowing that he was part of the problem, and knowing that he had to make some very difficult decisions along the way. This is supposed to contrast with Clark’s love for Earth and humanity, but it didn’t quite work as well as it should have.
Furthermore, the film wasn’t as well-written as I would have liked. It was a bit too simplistic. For example, Zod’s commander, Faora (who is a force to be reckoned with), says to Clark that her side will win because they have no sense of morality. Yet Zod’s reasoning for wiping out humanity and terraforming the planet is to restore his race: to reclaim the genetic code stored within Clark and to create a habitable planet where they can all flourish once again. It may not align with a traditional American moral code, but Zod, Faora, and the others are operating under a well-defined sense of morality: that anything is right in order to perpetuate their race. It’s an extreme form of utilitarianism that merges with ethnocentrism–none of the races on Earth matters as much as the Krypton race, and any casualties can be validated for the greater good of their society as a whole. Now, maybe Faora made this comment because she actually relishes wiping out other people, and she doesn’t have much of a moral code. But the scene was too pivotal, and the dialogue so much in opposition to what was actually going on, that it just made me angry.
Maybe a decade ago, this movie would have been the greatest superhero movie I’d ever seen. Maybe (probably) Joss Whedon ruined me for superhero movies; I now expect every superhero film to be well-written with sharp dialogue and loads of subtext. Maybe the darkness and ambiguity that accompany most recent superhero films make it impossible for me to merely enjoy a film without dissecting it. But this was Zack Snyder at the helm. When I saw Watchmen four years ago (the only other film I’ve ever reviewed on my blog), I was wrecked. I stayed up half the night, and when I did sleep, I had crazy dreams. That film was all I could think about for days. And with Christopher Nolan producing, I walked into the theater with expectations that this would be as great as his Batman trilogy.
The movie wasn’t all bad. I thought it was okay. But “okay” isn’t good enough for superhero films. Not for me, not anymore. Lest you think, however, that I’m too critical, I’ll tell you what I did like about the film. I loved Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Clark’s Earth parents. I liked that Lois Lane was intelligent and attractive without being a mere sex symbol. I even liked Henry Cavill. Superman is a more simplistic superhero than others, and he played the role fairly well. My faults with the character had nothing to do with the acting, actually. Michael Shannon as Zod is superb. He is almost as fascinating to me as Loki was in the Avengers, and that’s saying a lot. I was delighted to see Richard Schiff in the film; Toby on The West Wing was a joy to watch, and Schiff made me smile whenever he was on screen in this film. The CGI of Krypton was fascinating to watch, and the little bit of Kansas we did see felt just like the heartland of America that it was supposed to.
And even though I was sorely disappointed, at least Zack Snyder provides me with strong emotions about a film. That’s better than apathy any day.