Some pages on Man of Steel
I’m writing this from the assumption that you have either seen Man of Steel, or do not care about major spoilers. I feel the only way to talk about this film the way it deserves to be talked about is in detail, describing major plot points in detail. You have been warned.
(Side note, some years ago I had a similar disclaimer before a long facebook note about some of my theories about the television show, LOST, when that group of loyal fans like me used to do things like that… Before we realized that none of it mattered… Anyway, after the disclaimer, I proceed to talk about a particular, recently aired season finale and some theories regarding the show. The first comment on the note was from my friend Eric, and it read something like, “Nooooooo! Why did I read this?!” I didn’t feel the least bit bad for him. Take that anecdote to heart.)
A little background: those of you who read this blog may be familiar with the fact that I may be considered what some would call a “fan boy.” That is, I like what I like, and sometimes those things that I like are on the brink of social acceptability, like science fiction and comic books. In the case of this blog post, we are going to focus primarily on the latter. Specifically, how does Superman translate from the page to the big, Nolan and Snyderized screen? Is this a good place for Warner Bros. to begin their answer to the Disney/Marvel “Cinematic Universe?” Should they even attempt to have an answer? If so, where should they go from here? Probably more questions than that, but we’ll get to those as we go along.
Let me be upfront with you: I don’t like Superman movies. I think Smallville was cheesy and juvenile. I also think DC heroes are much harder to adapt to the screen from the page. Most of them just look dumb when not confined to the pages of the comic… I mean, most of them still wear their underwear on the outside of their pants. Unlike Marvel heroes, which seem to have constant aesthetic shifts (for better or worse), DC characters (at least the main crew) have remained largely static in their iconic, 1920’s style outfits. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman- the “Trinity-” remain largely unchanged aesthetically. And this presents just the first problem in translating these heroes to the 21st century big screen- they look stupid.
Think about the early Batman films (not even the TV show. We don’t even need to go that far). That scene where Batman is flying his Bat Plane and has to turn his entire body to give the thumbs up? Firstly, thumbs up, Batman? Secondly, not being able to turn your head? Stupid. Hollywood couldn’t figure out a way to keep the Batman look the same that is is on the page without sacrificing his head’s mobility.
Fast forward to Batman Begins and Nolan’s crack at the Dark Knight. People will probably argue with me about this, but the bat-suit that Nolan’s crew put together isn’t that awesome either. It’s super blocky and awkward, but hey, at least Bale could move his head back and forth. The thing those first two Nolan films did exceptionally well, though, was creating a world in which these characters could exist without being too out-of-the-ordinary. Nolan’s Batman and his villains (with the exception of, in my opinion, Bane in Dark Knight Rises) are deeply rooted in realistic backgrounds and rationales that create their character and put them in a world that is just a half step removed from our own; any one of us could become the Batman under the right circumstances.
But this isn’t a review of the Batman trilogy. It’s a review of Man of Steel. So, do Snyder and Nolan reproduce the formula that made the Dark Knight so great?
Firstly, I must say that I believe the film was completely mis-advertized. Whoever was in charge of cutting the trailers and promoting the film should be fired. Seriously. I had zero desire to see the film based on the series of trailers that were released, and I believe they painted a plot picture in those trailers that was completely different from the completed film. So, what was that completed picture? Really, Snyder and team could have gone one of several directions with this film. Obviously, with Nolan’s production credit, and the success of his Batman films, the team looked to root the idea of Superman in a relatable reality, much like Nolan did with Batman. But how do you do that with someone who’s not even human? In the past, especially on the big screen, Superman’s identity has been rooted in protecting “truth, justice, and the American way.” However, as explored in more recent story lines on the page, what happens when Superman is not, as so many in my generation, necessarily in love with or have a sense of nationalism for this once great nation? After all, Superman is technically an immigrant. The most extreme immigrant. That thought process is what Snyder and team decided to explore in this new incarnation of Supes.
A child of two fathers- of two worlds- with conflicting ideals. On the one hand, Jor-El wishes Superman to rule justly as a bridge building god between the extinct Kryptonian race and the fragile yet lovable human race. Jonathan Kent, on the other hand, fears of his son’s discovery and works to keep Clark’s true identity a secret from the world, even at the expense of his own life. The scene where Jonathan dies was, in my opinion, probably the most moving of the film. We get this sense of loyalty-unto-death from both of Superman’s fathers, however, even though Jor-El’s sacrifice was for a much larger scale, Jonathan Kent’s firm stance to protect his son from our world seemed much more personal, and delves to a deeper place in the heart. Not to mention the fact that Jonathan doesn’t get a lifelike hologram embedded with all of his memories and ideals for Clark to visit whenever he pleases. But besides that point, I think it is this grounding by Jonathan that gives Clark the very human side to his character. The idea that he has to wrestle for a large portion of his adult life with whether to reveal himself to help save those around him in danger, or continue living out in hiding is a very interesting point of character development that gives Supes a depth not seen hereto on the big screen.
I think Henry Cavil did an excellent job filling the role of this brooding, war-within kind of Superman. I was completely against it until I finally saw the movie (another side effect of poor promotion, I feel), but he definitely pulls it off. He is brooding and emo, as I said, but also definitely pulls off that regal, “I am Superman” kind of monologue voice when addressing the puny humans. I was in to it.
As far as the other characters go, I think you have an automatic problem when your hero and his nemesis hardly interact with each other until the last 20 minutes of the film. Unfortunately, we had a case of “Power Ranger syndrome,” as I like to call it, where most of the action is taken up by Supes having to fight against not the big bad Zod, but his henchmen instead, until they’re all defeated and Zod finally is forced to do battle. When you have this kind of non-interaction that’s supposed to be super climactic, you need a different kind of writing. Unfortunately, it all seemed pretty forced to me, as cool as Faora was (except for some of her duologue. What was with that evolution line? Seriously). Zod needed to have that monologue he had at the very end wayyyyy earlier- about how he was genetically predisposed to fight for and protect Krypton, and that’s why he was doing what he was doing. If that had come earlier, his attitude would have seemed less laughable, I believe. Unfortunately, we simply have a lot of overacting and honestly laughable scenes with someone who, I think, should have been a lot more villainous.
Amy Adams was a great Lois. The camera men did her absolutely no favors with their shooting angles, so shame on them, because between them and the wardrobe department, I was practically crying for her. They made her look terrible! However, she didn’t let that stop her (if she even knew it was going on) from delivering a solid female role. EXCEPT, and this seems to be a common problem in super hero movies recently, the romance. I thought it was super ballsy that Lois was basically just Clark’s confidant the entire movie. I was interested to see where that kind of relationship would lead in future movies, if they would have Supes kind of dependent on her in that way or what. And then, several minutes before the credits roll, they kiss. I literally laughed in the theatre. There was zero spark leading up to this scene. In fact, it was almost like Clark thought, “Oh man, here’s the first human being that happens to pay attention to me and not think I’m a freak other than my parents. Better lock it down or I’ll never get a chance like this again!” Which. Sucks. It felt like when I was watching Thor and all of a sudden Thor is all, “After these two days I’ve spent on Earth, I know that I’m in love with Natalie Portman and I’m just gonna stay here on Earth for ever, OK Odin?” Yeah. OK, Thor.
Some smaller things to note: there was a female character who was in the entire movie who had no lines except that, at the end, she said to her COMMANDING OFFICER that she thought Superman was “kind of hot.” No.
Lawrence Fishburn’s Perry Mason and the rest of the Daily Planet crew were kind of laughable. They could have, honestly, been removed from the film quite easily. They served very little purpose to advance the story, and the actors all gave pretty subpar performances compounded with some subpar writing. Just sort of a mess all around.
The SFX team needs to revisit their Metropolis build. The iconic architecture that make up the skyline- the LEXCORP building and the Daily Planet globe- were nowhere to be seen. So we were basically in New York City the entire time. It felt very strange.
Also, as intense as the fight scenes were (namely the one with Zod at the end), I felt like the SFX were really junky. It felt like a cut scene from Final Fantasy. It just reeked of computer animated character builds, and that’s a shame. Especially when contrasted with the Avenger’s Hulk (specifically that slow-mo scene when he’s chasing Sharlet Johanson on the helicarrier.)
Besides the mechanics of the characters and the sfx/world building, there were some other striking changes that need to be mentioned. Firstly, the suit. I thought it was pretty poor from all the stills online. However, it worked on camera better than I thought it would- especially prefaced with the fact that it was based on the Kryptonian armor and clothing worn by Zod and the gang, as well as Jor-El in the film’s prologue. I’ve been trying to think about how the suit would work alongside something like Bale’s Batsuit, but I just can’t see it. It might need some more work, it may just not work in stills… We won’t know unless we try. However, I wouldn’t be opposed to departing even further from the original suit in the future, since this new Superman is also a departure character wise.
Which brings me to, perhaps the biggest departure for me during the film, and something that is definitely problematic, but not so problematic that we can’t come back from it in the future. And that’s this: Superman kills. Technically, he kills a butt ton in this movie, but, specifically, at the end of the film, he snaps Zod’s neck to save the life of a family in danger. Now, I will say that Zod does have his neck snapped in the comics, but it’s by Wonder Woman. Snyder is notorious, already, for taking actions done by female characters and giving them to male characters (Watchmen), and, honestly, in Watchmen I didn’t think it was that big of a deal. However, here I believe it is a big deal. And I’ll tell you why: Superman and Batman don’t kill. Ever. It’s part of who they are. Hardcoded into their characters. Having a Superman who kills is an extreme departure. Wonder Woman, on the other hand, has killed. She is by far the bloodiest of the Trinity (although, no one would know this because no one reads her comic). She is an Amazonian warrior, and that has always shown in her writing. Taking that unique trait away and saying, “Well, now Superman kills, too” takes away, potentially, the one thing that sets the two of them apart (besides the invisible jet, I guess). This is extremely problematic for Warner Bros. if they continue to build their “cinematic universe” because you’ve already taken away a defining, unique characteristic of your lead female.
Besides Zod, though, you have an entire hour of fighting in both Smallville and Metropolis where basically both of those cities are completely leveled in the aftermath of the battles. There is an astounding amount of collator, which is something else that sticks out to me as a sharp departure from the typical Superman. At no point does Superman ever attempt to lure the enemy away from those heavily populated areas, those sky scrapers, to avoid needless death. He simply continues punching Zod and crew through buildings, into cars and trains, explosions going off everywhere, buildings collapsing… And this is especially interesting because we see in an early draft of the script that Supers does attempt to lead the bad guys away from the populated areas. This means that Snyder and crew deliberately decided to have the battles stay in the populated areas, which begs the question.
However, like I said, I don’t think this is something the writers of the next film can’t overcome. If the killing of Zod and the destruction of Metropolis and Smallville are what drive Supes to vow never to kill- if those memories fuel his dedication to justice and order, and if we see a voice of reason rise from the masses giving voice to our concerns, “Whose side is this alien on? Clearly he doesn’t care for the people of Earth, as seen by the destruction all around. What’s to stop this ‘Superman’ from turning on us in the same way the other aliens did? We’ve seen that he has no regard for life. He is a danger to the human race!” I can hear Lex now. If done correctly, this is, indeed, a perfect setup to the world turning against Superman because of these obvious flaws in his character. However, it will take a careful hand and the right face to unite humanity against this symbol of “hope.”
So does this film deserve a sequel? More importantly, should this be a jumping off point for DC’s own “Cinematic Universe?” I think the answer to both of those is yes. I believe, despite the mixed reviews and obvious flaws in the film, with the right vision and scripting, the cast and this particular DC world can be a great jumping off point for more Superman, and more DC characters. However, before they begin adding to the roster, there needs to be a lot of careful planning. As we’ve seen in the past, DC is really good at making really bad super hero movies.
Here, though, we are presented with an enormous problem. Late last week, the day after I saw the film, Warner Bros. lost Jeff Robinov (EDIT: It seems as though Variety was ahead of themselves, as Robinov, at least as of Sunday night, has not actually left, although his departure seems imminent- it remains to be seen, though, under what terms). That name may not be familiar to you, but it’s very important. I’ll tell you why. Robinov is a head exec at Warner Bros, and the person who snagged not only Nolan and Snyder for the company, but also Ben Aflack. There seems to have been a falling out at the company, you can read more about that, but Robinov is gone now. It is conceivable that Nolan, Snyder, Aflack, and others will follow him, wherever it is that he lands. Which means that Nolan is more or less out of the running as a creative overseer of the DC cinematic universe, despite what many of his followers and fanboys had hoped, despite Nolan’s own reluctance. This exodus could be an enormous bump in the road for Warner Bros, as well as DC. Who will they get to replace this creative team? Will Warner Bros. even bother, or will they just call it? I think that, despite the mixed reviews, the box office numbers for Man of Steel will be too hard to pass up. The question now, though, is: will what we get from here build in the direction of- to put it in comic book movie terms- The Dark Knight, or will we get something closer to Batman Forever?