There Might Never Be a Truly Great Superman Movie
(This post may include SPOILERS for Man of Steel.)
Despite Superman being low on my pull lists growing up, I was sold on Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. It had all the right elements as far as I was concerned: Birthright, All-Star Superman, Secret Identity, Last Son, a smattering of Earth One and a good amount of homage to John Byrne’s 1980s Superman reboot mythology — i.e. the handful of Superman stories and concepts that I’ve really enjoyed. However, the movie failed to come together and, despite being significantly different films stylistically, it’s tough not to draw comparisons to The Dark Knight, by virtue of being highly anticipated superhero movies. Christopher Nolan’s involvement in both only makes the comparison more inviting. Frankly, it’s not fair. The Dark Knight transcends the superhero genre; keeping that in mind, I do not plan to compare so much as examine why the Batman film worked where Superman failed.
For all its negatives, there were times when Man of Steel worked. The first hour or so consisted primarily of Krypton’s last days, flashbacks of young Clark Kent growing up, and an adult Clark Kent exploring the world and learning what it means to be a human ala Birthright. The conflict on Krypton was a solid choice for a starting point. Every red, white, and blue-blooded American (and most people on this planet) knows Superman’s origin story — last son of a dying world, tearfully punted into space by his parents, ending up on Earth to fight for truth, justice, and the American way, etc. However, less is remembered about what was happening on Krypton before that and there have been very few attempts in film to make Jor-El and Lara the bad-asses they had to be to save their son. So the dying world of Krypton came alive more than ever on the back of modern CGI and Russell Crowe’s portrayal of Jor-El shortly before he was relegated to the role of a prop in the film.
As far as complaints appearing in the negative reviews of the film, contentions against the flashbacks/frame storytelling seems to be a consistent refrain. This makes no sense to me. Yes, with this style, the pacing certainly feels different from, say, Iron Man 3, but it also gave the movie an almost pensive quality that focused on the more interesting side of a character that cannot be punched into submission. The format was a solid way of exploring his internal conflicts, expressing his feelings of alienation, the pain endured in learning to control his powers, and the genesis of his moral code. For instance, in a moment both poignant and “realistic”, young Clark Kent freaks out because of sensory overload caused by the genesis of his super-hearing. He is then comforted by Martha Kent, whose maternal empathy and insight is displayed by helping him learn to control a power that she could not fully understand.
And while Diane Lane was excellent as Martha Kent, Kevin Costner often stole the screen as Jonathan Kent, right up until his death, which was incredibly stupid. The fact that he dies shouldn’t be a spoiler in itself, since he has the tendency to do that in most iterations of Superman, but the reason this time around was just silly. Finally, the solid first hour of the film comes to an end with Clark donning his Superman suit and Jor-El’s great monologue taken directly from All-Star Superman.
Had the movie ended there, with him becoming Superman and walking across the frozen tundra with the very last flashback scene from the end of the movie spliced in (the one with Clark playing with his dog and donning a red bed sheet), I would have probably left happier than I did. Though not as completely mind-numbing as the problems get later on, I can point at certain things that just didn’t work for me up to this point.
For instance, the whole reason there is a conflict at all: Zod’s escape from the Phantom Zone. It’s possible that the Phantom Zone in Man of Steel is different, but it really looks like the prison ship is being fed into another dimension when Zod and his crew are exiled. The simple destruction of Krypton freeing them from another dimension was lazy and pretty uninspired. Once the gate closes, the destruction of Krypton should be irrelevant to those inside of it. Then there’s the whole ‘YOU ARE NOT ALONE’ repeated in a whole bunch of languages when Zod enters the solar system. That’s one of those ‘wouldn’t it be cool’ in theory things that comes off as really idiotic if you spend a second thinking about it.
Next is Jonathan Kent’s death. For all the camp and time-stream disrupting hilarity present in Superman circa 1978, that iteration has a Jonathan Kent whose death (as a result of cardiac arrest) serves a legitimate purpose: to show Clark, in a most painful way, that all the power in the world sometimes means nothing, which arguably takes away an invincible man’s sense of control and helps humanize him — if nothing, lack of control is a theme in the human condition. In one of the more memorable lines of the movie, Clark laments, “All those things I can do. All those powers. And I couldn’t even save him.” Of course, Mario Puzo (author of The Godfather, who also wrote the screenplay to the original Superman) decides to eventually say “Screw it!” and has Superman turn back time the next time somebody he cares about died, but it could have been an excellent way to ground an almost omnipotent character. In Man of Steel, the reason Jonathan Kent dies is essentially so that Clark can remain a secret for a few more years, which is utterly absurd, no matter how much the story plays into Lois Lane’s decision not to run with the story on his identity. He even repays his father’s sacrifice by completely destroying a tractor trailer after having an altercation with its jerk owner inside a restaurant, as if that would not raise a few eyebrows.
All of this was before the last hour of the movie became little more than a pointless game of Let’s-Fly-Into-Each-Other-and-Cause-Wanton-Destruction between invincible characters.
I get that Superman really wants to defeat the bad guys with all his muscles, but the action gets repetitive when it goes on for so long — keep some of the sequence and then skip to the part where he does something different. In no particular order, I had some problems after this point in the film:
I get Earth’s background noise disorienting Zod — I don’t get how atmosphere plays a role in Superman losing his powers. The atmosphere-based weaknesses generally got thrown out in the Golden Age (1940s/1950s) with the notion that the heavier gravity on Krypton would not make sense as the source for Superman’s powers.
I do not understand how Superman does not ever seem to even give much consideration to the fact that he is destroying Krypton’s legacy. That could have been a huge internal conflict, and it was barely a shadow of an afterthought.
I must have missed why Toby –er, Dr. Hamilton, was able to shove the key into the Superman’s shuttle when Lois could not (ostensibly because Jor-El had been wiped). What changed there? This could have been something I legitimately missed because it seems like an incredibly lazy example of deus ex machina.
Finally, the romance between Lois and Clark goes from zero to sixty pretty quickly. It would have been incredibly easy to hint at her falling in love with him from afar through her exploration of his exploits as he traveled across the country anonymously, but if that was the case, it was not established very well. Also, Lois’s line after their first kiss was cringe-worthy.
There were a number choices in direction that really irked me, but I can only recall some of the more prominent instances of Zach Snyder slapping us in the face with the whole SUPERMAN = SAVIOR = JESUS thing. My most audible grown was likely when Clark was talking to a Roman Catholic priest and the the camera angle put a stained glass image of Jesus right above his right shoulder. For like five whole minutes. Then there was a part when he dropped out of the spaceship to go save Lois. He spreads his arms and there are a couple of frames where he looks like the silhouette of Jesus on the cross. Some subtlety to the comparison would have been okay with me.
So why did The Dark Knight work so spectacularly whereas Man of Steel falls short? I suspect that it is because the superhero genre has evolved to the point where the “NEATO DORITO” factor really is not enough to make a memorable film. You need an “and”, and both films have them. The Dark Knight is a superhero movie “and” a crime/drama epic with smatterings of psychological thriller. Man of Steel is a superhero film “and” a science fiction film. The problem here, as far as my tastes are concerned, is that there are very few truly great science fiction movies where there are hour-long chunks consisting of wanton destruction as a result of pointless amounts of punching between invincible people, who would probably start looking for other ways to end each other. The most compelling works of science fiction are the ones that examine situations, characters, or technology. This is why the first part of Man of Steel works — it’s a great science fiction premise of what would happen if an omnipotent alien lived among us and was trying to fit in? How would he do it? Where would he get his sense of morality? And so on and so forth. The second part is basically the regurgitated action sequences of Battleships and the Transformers sequels I mostly dozed through. It might be enjoyable for a certain audience, but it is not memorable in the long run. And therein lies the rub of Superman as an on-screen entity — because ridiculous fights and wanton destruction is essentially what you need to push Superman to his limits outside of a psychological or emotional context. Superman’s physical fights are going to be a lot more absurd than Batman’s because the challenge needs to be magnified that much more. My observations in this regard are not necessarily new thoughts — Superman’s omnipotence has been lovingly lampooned for decades by the likes of Invincible and Irredeemable, which are both comic runs that sometimes show, often in extremely gorey detail, what would happen if Superman-level capes went up against realistic bad guys.
So will there ever be a great Superman movie? It’s hard to imagine after seeing an example that chose all the right source materials, had great casting, as well as a huge budget, and was still only good for half of the run-time. I am not the most discerning movie critic (I actually hate overly criticizing efforts that are at least entertaining), but this movie disappointed me and reinforced my admittedly ingrained notion that Superman is only compelling as an ideal for virtues and a symbol for all the things we would like mankind to be, but far less compelling as an actual hero in a story.