I’ve already written at great length about how DC Comics’ film department looks like a bunch of clowns right now. Marvel is building up a solid cinematic empire, Fox and Sony are revitalizing their own comic book holdings with impressive success, and DC has… Green Lantern. In addition to that stillborn franchise, there was Superman Returns crashing that franchise into the ground, The Dark Knight Rises putting a resolute end to Nolan’s run on Batman, and so many other DC-related projects that continue to be stuck in development hell after so many years.
I’ve long known that DC/WB could only go up from here, but there was a flipside to that which I hadn’t considered. I had never stopped to realize that at this exact moment, all of DC’s big-screen properties are either dead, forgotten, or both. They’re working with a completely blank slate now. They’re in the best possible position to ignore, continue, or reshape the continuity of their characters as they see fit, or they could hire brilliant storytellers to help do it for them. Though they may be behind the curve, DC has so many chances to learn from their own mistakes and successes, as well as those of their competitors. Not just with Marvel, but with Fox and Sony and anyone else in the superhero game. Yes, DC may be coming in last, but sometimes that’s an advantageous place to be.
With so much at stake, it’s little surprise that DC spared no effort or expense in ensuring that Man of Steel would be a hit. They somehow managed to retain the services of Christopher Nolan, otherwise known throughout all of DC/WB as “the guy who knows what he’s doing.” However, Nolan handed the directorial reins off to one Zack Snyder.
Effectively, Snyder was made responsible not only for Superman, but for the DC Cinematic Universe as a whole. After all, this movie could potentially be the foundation for a massive inter-franchise continuity in much the same way that Iron Man was. That’s a heavy burden for anyone, but Snyder seemed like a good fit for the job. After all, Snyder had somehow managed to bring Watchmen to the screen without completely pissing everyone off or losing a catastrophic amount of money at the box office. He had already done the impossible for DC/WB, so why not give him a chance to do it again?
(Side note 1: As with all of Zack Snyder’s projects, Man of Steel was produced by his lovely wife and business partner, Deborah Snyder. She joins producer Emma Thomas, who enjoys a similar relationship with her own husband/collaborator, producer Christopher Nolan. I can’t help wondering if they all double-dated at any point in the preparation for this movie. To be a fly on that wall!)
(Side note 2: Imagine my surprise to learn that Jon Peters was granted the lofty title of “executive producer” for this picture. For those who aren’t aware, this is the same guy who actively worked to bury the Superman franchise in his own incompetence until Bryan Singer came along. I initially thought that this credit was due to some leftover clause in Peters’ contract with WB from way back when, until I found that he did indeed contribute something to this production: He allegedly threatened and sexually harassed a Man of Steel co-producer. Fucking Hollywood.)
Anyway, WB had of course been extremely liberal in its promotion for the film. They had shown incredible pride in this picture, and the hype somehow spread to film journalists and movie geeks with exceptional speed. I’ve already seen reviews that praise Man of Steel as the greatest superhero film ever made. Personally, I wouldn’t go that far. The Avengers still holds that prestigious title, in my opinion.
Still, if you asked me to come up with a better #2 pick for the greatest superhero film of all time, I’m not sure if I could.
The first thing to know about Man of Steel is that it’s an origin story. I admit that I was wary about this. I couldn’t see the point in rehashing an origin story that everyone already knows, and I’m pretty sick to death of origin stories in general. Ah, but Nolan and screenwriter David Goyer had already proven their ability to take a tired origin story and reinvent it, creating ways to keep the main character relevant and worthy of emotional investment.
For example, it’s shown that Kryptonian children aren’t really born so much as they’re genetically manufactured. They’re designed from conception to be soldiers, scientists, politicians, farmers, or whatever else is needed. Kal-El, on the other hand, was the first Kryptonian child in centuries to be born naturally. This means that he wasn’t born with a particular destiny the way his peers were. Not only was this act of conception a tremendous act of defiance from Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer), but it makes Kal-El himself a symbol of freedom.
By comparison, consider General Zod (Michael Shannon). This guy was quite literally born and bred to be a soldier. As such, it’s implied that he’s incapable of thinking about anything except the defense of his people. Fighting for Krypton is all he does, it’s all he is, and it’s all he knows. As such, there’s the implicit question of how Zod might have been different if he ever had some element of choice in his life. Might he have been more compassionate? Would he have turned his strength and intellect toward more peaceful endeavors? How would he be stronger or weaker?
Another example: In this version of the tale, the people of Krypton were dependent upon their planet’s core for energy. They ruthlessly mined the planet until it finally gave out and led Krypton to implode. Just before that disaster, however, Zod steps in and tries to stage a coup. He blames the governors for their complete inability to get anything done, capable of nothing but endless debate in a time when decisive action is needed.
When I first saw this action unfolding, I thought “Oh, Christopher Nolan. You and your attempts to tie superheroes in with current events.” After a little more thought, however, I realized that this served a deeper purpose. See, one of Jor-El’s stated reasons for sending his son to Earth was to serve as a warning. He was hoping that Kal-El might help some younger civilization avoid the mistakes — and thus, the downfall — of Krypton.
By using modern events as a kind of emotional shorthand, no further explanation is needed. We don’t need some massive history lesson to detail how the Kryptonians failed or how these failures came to pass. We already know the failures of Krypton because we recognize them as our own.
Moreover, by presenting Superman as the unwitting product of such a broken system, the film implicitly states that things in the real world are not beyond redemption. Even such a dark and muddled world as this one might still produce a symbol of hope, freedom, and compassion to light the way. Perhaps more importantly, the film portrays Superman as the remedy to a broken system, reinforcing the notion of Superman as a role model and encouraging the audience to try and step up to his level.
Moving on, the Krypton prologue ends at roughly the 20-minute mark. The film wastes no time establishing Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) as the hero, because he’s saving innocent civilians in theatrical fashion pretty much immediately after we leave Krypton. That’s not to say he’s Superman just yet, however. See, Clark has been travelling all over the country, taking whatever odd jobs he can get while keeping his identity a secret. That’s naturally easier said than done, since Clark can only go so long until he loses his cool and has to either save someone or teach someone a lesson. Hence the constant travelling.
I should also add that as part of being homeless, Clark occasionally has to steal a few necessary items. Seriously, not even half an hour into this movie, we see Clark Kent steal some items of clothing. To repeat: Superman is a thief. I’m not really sure how to feel about that.
Luckily, that one early moral lapse is only a speedbump in what’s otherwise a sterling portrayal of Clark Kent. Henry Cavill does a sterling job of portraying Clark as a man who’s always been alone. He’s made himself into an outcast for fear of his own powers. He’s spent his entire life longing to know where he came from and why he was sent here. This is one of the biggest reasons why his relationship with Lois works so well, but I’ll get back to that point later.
More importantly, this Superman works as a leader and a role model. He has all these wonderful abilities, but he’s very humble and unselfish about them. He’s subjected to bullying just like anyone else, but he doesn’t react out of anger because he’s strong enough to take it. Still, what really sells Cavill as Superman is his authenticity. Anyone could portray Superman as patient, compassionate, and always looking to do the right thing, but the difference is that Cavill’s Superman really means it. There’s a great honesty and sincerity to this portrayal that wonderfully sells the character. I don’t know if Cavill’s performance is up there in quality with that of Reeve’s, but I’d say they’re both in the same class.
A final note on Cavill before moving on: The real trick to playing Kal-El is in how an actor alternates between the heroic Superman and the bumbling Clark Kent. I mention this because Cavill never really gets a chance to play the secret identity. By the time Clark Kent takes his disguise as the Daily Planet reporter, the credits have practically rolled. This is the main reason why I’m reserving my judgment with regards to the Reeves vs. Cavill debate.
Anyway, while all of this is going on, the film flashes back to scenes of Clark Kent as a kid (played in two different ages by Cooper Timberline and Dylan Sprayberry). Those who remember the first act of Batman Begins will be familiar with the structure. This storyline provides a fascinating aspect of life as Superman: The part when he learns to control his powers. It’s hard enough to deal with the sudden hormonal shifts and bodily growths of adolescence, after all. Just imagine how much harder it would be if you had X-ray vision and extremely sensitive hearing without the ability to control either. Watching your teacher’s heart beating inside her chest isn’t something one can unsee, is all I’m saying.
In effect, the discovery of Superman’s powers is tied in with the universally understood terrors of puberty. Yet another way in which the filmmakers allow us to emotionally invest in this godlike being.
While all of this is going on, we’ve got Clark’s adoptive parents. Martha Kent (Diane Lane) primarily serves as an emotional crutch for her adoptive son. She’s a tremendously strong woman, capable of providing the infinite patience and the endless, unconditional love that Clark so badly needs in the process of acclimating to his powers and to life among humans. She’s there to comfort him and stand by him when everyone else is scared to be around him, and that’s no small thing.
Of course, Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) doesn’t love his son any less, but he’s much more cautious and practical about the situation. He tries to teach Clark that people always fear what they don’t understand (gee, where have I heard that before?), and that Clark could potentially be treated like a demon if he made his powers known. That’s not to say he thinks Clark should bury his powers completely, however, just that he should wait until the time is right. Jonathan is of the opinion that Clark should wait until he knows the extent of his powers and how to use them responsibly. He’s certainly afraid to a degree of what his son could become, and what the rest of humanity might do to him. But at the same time, he’s hopeful and confident that things will turn out better than that.
It also bears mentioning that Pa Kent does indeed die at some point in the proceedings. The death isn’t a simple heart attack (like the first Christopher Reeves Superman film), but it isn’t some huge motivational turning point, either (as with Batman, Spider-Man, Daredevil, etc.). Instead, the filmmakers gave Pa Kent some final moments that help define his own character and that of Clark in brilliant fashion.
Getting back to the story, Clark hears rumors about a strange object being discovered under several thousand years of Arctic ice. It hasn’t been completely excavated yet, but the object is thought to either be an alien craft or a forgotten Cold War submarine. Naturally, Clark dons another alias to access the site and investigate. Someone else who goes to check it out is a nosy reporter named Lois Lane (Amy Adams).
In case you hadn’t already guessed, this foreign craft is indeed Kryptonian in nature. Apparently, the people of Krypton sent out shuttles to colonize other planets, but the colonists inside all died out when they got cut off from their home planet. Even better, this craft contains machinery that interfaces with a “command key” that Jor-El sent to Earth with his son.
First of all, why would colonists wither and rot when travelling abroad? Seems to me, that defeats the whole point of colonization. Secondly, it’s a little far fetched to think that this ship, sent to Earth thousands of years ago, would still interface with the latest Kryptonian technology. That’s sort of like using a USB drive to start up a Betamax player, only multiplied by a couple hundred years. Thirdly, I assume that Jor-El sent his son to Earth with the hope that Kal-El would somehow find this alien craft and activate the machinery within. Yet Kal-El had no way of knowing that the ship was even there, much less how to find it. Really, this whole angle is one of the film’s weaker points.
Anyway, Clark boards the ship and uses the command key to activate a recording of his father. This seems like a good time to talk about the Kryptonian tech, which is really cool throughout. The recording, for example, might be called a hologram, but comparing it to our 3D printing technology would probably be more accurate. The rest of the Kryptonian technology — vehicles, armor, weapons, etc. — gives the impression of machines that were modeled after bizarre alien life forms. It’s all designed to be recognizable to our Earthling sensibilities while remaining distinctly alien. Nicely done.
Getting back to Lois Lane, she of course finagles her way on board the alien craft, thereby requiring Superman to come save her from the ship’s security. Because of course Lois Lane needs Superman to come save her. No matter how strong and spunky and intelligent the character may ever get, she will inevitably need Superman to come and save her at some point. That’s just how it works. Even so, this iteration of the character diverts from the norm in some very interesting ways.
To start with, this introduction means that Lois knows about Superman from the get-go. Even before she knows about Clark Kent, she knows what this mystery man looks like, she knows that he has superhuman abilities, and she knows that he’s probably not of this Earth. Therefore, she’s pretty much immediately established as one of Superman’s human allies, one of the rare few he can trust not to treat him like a monster. Setting her up in that role was a very smart move, since it allows for a much easier and smoother transition into the status of “love interest.”
Additionally, it’s worth remembering that this version of Clark Kent is established as a loner who’s waiting for his chance to be accepted by society. As such, it’s entirely possible that Lois might be the first one (aside from his adoptive parents, obviously) to form any kind of emotional connection with Clark. Lois wasn’t the first one to learn that Clark was special, but she was the first to actively track down Clark and treat him with respect after doing so. That would certainly make a huge impression on Clark.
This leads me to an added bonus about Lois: We get to see her chasing down leads, following the urban legends that have sprung up about this strange man and all the strange things that happen around him. In this way, we get to see firsthand precisely how skilled and determined Lois is at her job. It’s one thing for the characters to tell us how great a reporter she is, but we actually get to see for ourselves.
Finally, we’re told when we first meet Lois that she first cut her teeth on stories with the military. With one line of dialogue (“I get writer’s block when I’m not wearing a flak jacket,” she says.), we immediately get the impression that even if Lois can’t hold her own against a Kryptonian, she’s been in combat situations before. She’s a woman who can fend for herself and stay cool under fire. These traits, coupled with her early status as a trusted ally for Superman, allow her to be in situations where she can be useful to the plot without being constantly in need of rescue. She does need a lot of rescuing, make no mistake, but it’s nicely balanced out with moments when she can be more proactive.
Speaking of the Daily Planet staff, I must say that the filmmakers really went to town on reinventing these characters. It was a bold move to case Perry White as a black man, but the geeks of the world were more or less willing to let it go because Laurence Fishburne is a great actor. Indeed, Fishburne strikes the perfect balance with his portrayal, depicting a paternal sort of concern for his employees while also trying to do what’s best for business.
Then there’s Jimmy Olsen, who was given a full-on gender swap in this movie. She’s only mentioned once or twice by name, but there is indeed a Jenny Olsen (Rebecca Buller, making her feature debut) in the background to act as the occasional damsel in distress. Right beside her is Steve Lombard (Michael Kelly), a very obscure character in the Superman mythos who’s here given equal footing with Superman’s Pal.
(Side note 1: Speaking of obscure Superman characters, those who are familiar with the mythos will want to keep an eye out for Pete Ross and Lana Lang. The filmmakers could have made characters out of whole cloth to take their places, but they instead chose to dig deep into the source material for viable candidates instead. It’s a neat touch.)
(Side note 2: Traditionally, Jimmy Olsen is depicted as a redhead while Lois Lane has dark hair. In this movie, Lois is the redhead and Olsen is the brunette. As to what significance this may or may not have, I’ll let you be the judge.)
That said, none of the Daily Planet staff (aside from Lois, obviously) factor very heavily into the overall narrative. Perry gets some nice hero moments in the climax, but that’s it. Then again, Clark doesn’t start working for the Daily Planet until roughly the last 90 seconds, so here’s hoping we get to know these characters better in the sequel. I’m sure we’ll need Olsen and Lombard to provide a bit of comic relief, if nothing else.
Next up, let’s talk about the villains. To start with, Michael Shannon was a brilliant choice to play Zod. He’s a genuinely creepy and scary motherfucker, yet he’s always presented with the intelligence and nobility of a born leader. It certainly helps, of course, that Zod clearly has the best of intentions for his people and his motivations are completely understandable. Also, it bears remembering that Zod never had any choice but to be this way, so there’s that as well.
(Side note: No, he never demands anyone to kneel.)
On the other hand, there’s Faora-Ul (Antje Traue), Zod’s lieutenant. Though Traue certainly looks the part of a lethal beauty, there’s so much about her character that didn’t exactly mesh. I got the impression that the filmmakers wanted to present Faora as a stone-cold killer, devoid of any emotion or compassion. And yet, there are plenty of times when she seems to actively enjoy the act of slaughter, and she tends to get very upset whenever Zod isn’t paid the proper respect. I know she’s just a henchman for the main villain, but I still feel that a stronger actress might have made this character into something far more memorable.
Perhaps more importantly, there’s the issue of how Zod and company got to Earth in the first place. First, they were sentenced to the Phantom Zone as punishment for their attempted coup. For some reason, this involves packing them onto a rocket and sending them out into space, which seems all manner of ridiculously contrived. Secondly, the destruction of Krypton caused the prison to shut down and release its captives. This implies that there was some operational base or piece of equipment on Krypton that might have opened the Phantom Zone at any time if it was damaged or tampered with. Talk about a huge design flaw! So now all these hardened criminals have been set free, and they have a spaceship that the people of Krypton were good enough to provide them with. Clearly, the people of Krypton were so idiotic that they deserved getting blown up.
Back on Earth, we essentially have a battle of one Kryptonian vs. a small army of Kryptonians. With all of this in mind, you’d expect Kryptonite to be involved, right? Or maybe some red sunlight would factor in? Well, no. In fact, Kryptonite is never so much as mentioned at any point in the movie. The film does sort of hint in that direction, however.
See, Clark has spent his entire life adapting to the atmosphere on Earth. As such, when he steps on board a Kryptonian ship and breathes his native air, it has a few adverse effects on him. However, that effect works both ways. The Kryptonians have just as much difficulty breathing our own mix of oxygen and nitrogen, plus they have the sudden influx of powers that Superman could only cope with after a lifetime of practice. It’s enough to cause a complete mental shutdown… except in the case of Zod, who somehow masters it after fifteen seconds of effort. Whatever.
With all of this in mind, you’d expect Zod’s comrades to be hopelessly weak here on Earth, right? Wrong again. Even if they don’t have the benefit of yellow sunlight, you see, they still have power armor of alien design to lend them speed, super strength, and invulnerability. This brings me to the action.
The phrase “over-the-top” can’t even begin to describe a sequence in which Superman and Zod go to outer space and bring down a motherfucking satellite as collateral damage. The climax in this movie somehow manages to outdo that of The Avengers in terms of property damage, effectively turning the whole city of Metropolis into a smoldering crater. I’ve heard multiple reviews invoke Dragon Ball Z, and I can certainly understand the comparison. The film revels in its depictions of superpowered violence, abuses of physics, mass destruction, and explosions visible from space. The action scenes are all so cartoonishly exaggerated that they might easily have been at home on an episode of DBZ.
Of course, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, we haven’t seen a worthy antagonist for Superman on film since… well, the last time Zod got involved. We needed to see Superman challenged, and it’s of course a huge difficulty finding someone powerful enough to challenge Superman. When two such unstoppable forces clash together, the results are inevitably going to be epic. Snyder delivered that in spades, and good on him for that. Even better, Snyder managed to sneak in the occasional joke to provide some levity amid all the chaos (watch for the sign that Superman is thrown into at the construction site).
Alas, the action scenes in this movie all seem to suffer from disappointing ends. In the third act, for example, Superman gets two big fight scenes, one on each end of the Earth. In the first one, Superman is incredibly weakened until he somehow yells hard enough and punches hard enough to get the job done. Again, this should sound familiar to anyone with knowledge of Dragon Ball Z. More importantly, it’s such an uninspired way to end an action scene. The film does a lot to show our hero’s super-strength, so how about showing a little bit of his super-intellect to find a more creative solution?
Then there’s the big showdown with Zod. After causing trillions of dollars in property damage, the moment finally comes when Superman kills Zod (Oh, I’m sorry. Did I spoil the movie by telling you that the bad guy dies?). I have no idea how Zod is killed, he’s just invincible until the moment when he isn’t. And then Superman breaks down crying. I could guess at the reasons why, but just a single line of dialogue to express his thoughts on the matter might have been nice.
Hopefully, I’ve gotten the point across that the script might have used another polish or two. There are other plot holes and ridiculous contrivances to be found, but I won’t spoil them here. Suffice to say that they’re so huge, they’re impossible to miss. So instead, I’ll talk about the padding.
For example, Jor-El sent two Kryptonian relics to Earth along with his son. One of them was the command key that I mentioned earlier. The other one is something called “The Codex,” which apparently contains the blueprints for all the Kryptonians yet to be born. This is used as the reason why Zod goes looking for Superman: Zod needs the Codex to rebuild Krypton, so he needs Superman to show him where it is. However, after Superman has made his loyalties clear, the Codex serves precisely zero relevance in the plot. Seems to me that it would have been far better for the film to just combine its two alien MacGuffins and save us all a lot of time. Just make the command key into some kind of super-USB drive that contains all Kryptonian knowledge and we’re good.
Still, a few script nitpicks aren’t my biggest problem with this movie. In fact, I think that David Goyer turned in far better work than I’ve come to expect from him, all things considered. Also, I don’t have a problem with the actors, all of whom (with a few minor exceptions) were perfectly cast and turned in fantastic work. I certainly don’t have a problem with Hans Zimmer, who created yet another phenomenal score.
No, my biggest problem with this film is in the camerawork.
The production design is great. The visual effects are great. So much of this movie does a superb job of getting us into Superman’s head and conveying his abilities in a visually compelling way. It’s jaw-dropping how the production was able to give so much depth to Krypton as a culture, such that it feels like something was really lost when the planet blew up. It baffles me how this movie could get absolutely everything right in terms of visuals except for the goddamned camera.
For every shot in this movie that looks halfway decent, there’s a shot that abuses shaky-cam and lens flares to the point where it’s painful to watch. I could’ve sworn Hollywood had finally learned not to put excessive shaky-cam in a movie — especially in a 3D movie! — but it seems that DOP Amir Mokri didn’t get that particular memo. I have no idea why Snyder went with this guy instead of his usual DOP, but I sincerely hope that he reteams with Larry Fong for the sequel.
Speaking of which, I may as well get to the part about franchise building. First of all, don’t waste your time sitting through the credits if you’re looking for a stinger. There’s no tease for a sequel or a crossover anywhere in this movie. However, the climax does feature a neat shout-out to a particular corporation in the DCU. Plus, when Clark is in that Arctic Kryptonian vehicle, the camera lingers on an empty pod that should contain a mummified Kryptonian. Deborah Snyder has already confirmed that the empty pod may or may not be significant further down the line.
Also, if Zod’s little science experiment accidentally turned chunks of Earth’s soil into Kryptonite, just remember that I called it.
On a different note, the film briefly touches on what Superman’s arrival would mean for our concepts of religion. It doesn’t really go into detail on that, however. Instead, the film prefers to speculate on how Superman and the American military would deal with each other, which is certainly an interesting topic worthy of exploration. I expect that the religious angle might be explored in the sequel, after the world has had some time to let it sink in that such godly and intelligent life exists outside our world. Or used to, at least.
Put simply, Man of Steel is not a movie without its little nitpicks. The screenplay could have used a couple more polishes, the fight scenes could have used a little more creativity, and the camera could have been put in the hands of a competent DOP. Even so, I still have no problem calling this movie a success. It’s a movie that makes Superman thematically relevant and emotionally relatable, all while keeping the character fun to watch. Huge props are due to Zack Snyder, Christopher Nolan, and David Goyer, all of whom were able to balance so many disparate factors with only a few minor stumbles. Praise must also be given to the sterling cast, especially to Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, and Michael Shannon.
This is exactly the movie that DC/WB needed. If this film is to be their foundation for the Superman franchise and the greater DC cinematic universe, then I greatly look forward to seeing what they have in store for us. In the meantime, this film comes strongly recommended.