Although we have a Sound Bytes roundtable coming up, on the 75th Anniversary of Superman’s first appearance, I thought it would be fair to talk about his latest feature, Man of Steel.
There was a scene towards the end of Man of Steel, previewed in trailers, where Clark Kent is running around as a boy with a red towel tied around his neck, his father (played excellently by Kevin Costner) working on his truck and watching the boy frolick with his dog. The scene had a subtle flavor of Terrence Malick’s 2011 film, The Tree of Life. Regardless of how you felt about that film, it was ambitious and poignant. This film had all the pieces to do that. There was greatness waiting to ooze out of this movie. In a misstep, it abandoned the interesting parts halfway through the movie, completely embraced the Michael Bay style bang pow style of summer blockbusters, and missed the mark of achievement it could have easily earned.
Boosted by an always wonderful Hans Zimmer soundtrack, Man of Steel follows the story of Clark Kent (the ruggedly gorgeous Henry Cavill), a man who grew up on a farm in Kansas and is spending his adult life trying to find out why he was always different from everyone else, and where his destiny lies. He decides to use his great abilities to protect and inspire humanity, and becomes known to the world as Superman, a being of great strength and powers. If that was the movie in a nutshell, it would have won my heart. Unfortunately, there were problems.
The movie weaves element of the Superman DNA throughout the film while still creating its own path. While I usually hate the movie designs of superhero costumes (Batman, ugh), I absolutely love the Superman outfit here, weird texture and all. I would avoid spoilers, but I believe most people know the origins of Superman, even if only by cultural osmosis. He is the last son of a dead planet known as Krypton, sent into space by his parents to reach earth. Due to some funky science, our planet’s yellow sun gives Clark special abilities above and beyond normal people. He is raised by good American farm folks as if he was their own child, and so he has a strong sense of doing the right thing.
The movie begins on Krypton, showing us the origins of Clark (known as Kal-El), his parents, and General Zod (Michael Shannon), the main villain of the movie (and known to most people from the earlier Christopher Reeve Superman movies). The first twenty minutes of the movie are completely unnecessary, as we are essentially told the same thing again later in the movie when Clark discovers his origins. Due to some more funky science, Clark is able to have a conversation with his dad (again, a throwback to the Reeve movies), and his dad tells us everything we already sat through. We could very well have learned the backstory of Krypton along with Clark. Also, the weird science fiction and fantasy elements of Krypton are completely off and irrelevant to anything needed to tell a Superman story. The brains behind the film could have cut out 90% of the Krypton scenes and fleshed out some of the one dimensional supporting characters, like LOIS FREAKIN’ LANE.
General Zod comes to Earth and decides he wants to transform the planet into his old homeworld, due to some more of the oddball science. In some regards, the ensuing battles were pure Superman. You have a guy with super powers facing other guys with super powers, you may as well go Dragonball Z and let them duke it out. The fight scenes were extraordinary, and that is perhaps the best ability of director Zack Snyder (Watchmen) – he knows how to show comic book characters pounding the crap out of each other in very enjoyable manners. Of course, it also led me to wonder if Superman was even bothering to protect innocent lives as he was throwing people through walls and being smacked around into buildings. Here’s a thought, Clark, how about you take the fight away from major population centers (they even did that in a previous Superman movie, cough). Due to the massive loss of life, there is a scene towards the end of the movie that is supposed to hold serious emotional weight, but ends up coming up hollow. It’s hard to care about a handful of lives when you’ve just watched a city of millions get turned into rubble thanks to Superman’s gung ho attitude.
Man of Steel just does not offer a terribly interesting story. Amid all the noise and lights, there was not much going on. The parts of the film where Clark is learning about himself and growing as a person, that was a fascinating tale that I wanted so much more of. Instead, after a few bumps along the way, Clark becomes a full fledged fighting machine. If I was joining co-writers Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer (of the Dark Knight trilogy), I would have cut out a lot of the space ships and aliens and military stuff. For me, a more compelling movie would have focused on the journey of how a farm boy discovers how to become a Superman, which turned out to be only about 1/4 of this film. Costner and his character’s wife, Diane Lane, were criminally underused. More time in Smallville to show reasons for why Superman ultimately becomes a good guy (allegedly) would have provided a much stronger foundation for his morality, such as it is. I wanted more of Clark testing the limits of his powers by rescuing strangers and less of the superhero punching through spaceships like tissue paper. Sure, it was fun to see Superman go to town on supper baddies (not to mention the towns he was supposed to be saving), but really, that’s only a fraction of what makes Superman. Superman is Clark Kent. Clark is a good guy with a good heart. He has absolute power, but he has to learn about himself, and he never lets that power corrupt him. He fights for truth, justice and doing the right thing. Superman says all the right things, but based on his actions, I would be scared shitless of having this Superman living on Earth.
Another problem with this movie is that it is joyless. While a non-fun Superman movie could have worked, the massive death toll just makes it uncomfortable. Superman can get angry and sad, sure, but Superman is not Batman. He’s not a tortured soul. He’s a good guy fighting the good fight. He is a hero we should all be able to look up to. I’m not even sure why Superman does anything he does. In the movie, he’s in his early 30s, but he’s as sullen and angry as a teenager.
Man of Steel should have been a perfect starting out point for a relaunched Superman franchise. There was a captivating story that was lost to big explosions, an overabundance of pseudo-science, and a rather threadbare plot (don’t even get me started on the shoehorned romance). I’m disappointed that, despite all the elements for a truly transcendent Superman story, we have to settle for a superficial, albeit it visually entertaining, Superman.