“I understand now what the world wants, what it NEEDS. The world needs people in charge, willing to put the animals DOWN!”
-from What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?
Producer Thomas Tull was quoted in 2008 saying that MAN OF STEEL would feature Superman as an “angry god.” This is largely accurate. My initial impression is that they have fulfilled the promises of countless comic book covers of the 1990s. This was an era when Superman (seen as bland and old fashioned) had to complete for attention on comic racks with the likes of super-violent, dark anti-heroes like Judge Dredd, Wolverine, and Deadpool. As a result we got countless cover images of Superman enraged, embattled, exhausted, or surrounded by carnage.
It’s not that there’s too much action in MAN OF STEEL; it’s that the movie seems to revel in it in ways that seem strangely callous and detached for this character. In SUPERMAN II, at some point during the climactic battle, our hero stops, takes in all the collateral damage happening around him, and makes a conscious decision to take the fight elsewhere. Our new Superman never seems take notice of the mounting death toll. He gets punched through a building (or two, or five, which may or may not been evacuated) and comes swinging back.
He seems to be too busy carrying out his own personal grudge match to worry about saving people.
When I first heard that they were making a Superman movie retelling the origin AGAIN, my reaction was – why? In the past twenty years, Superman has had more revisions to his origin than any pop culture character I can think of. He was rebooted in the comics in 1986 (Man of Steel), then again in 2003 (Birthright), 2009 (Secret Origin), and TWICE in 2011 (The New 52 and Earth One). Then there’s the SMALLVILLE TV show, which spent TEN YEARS telling his origin story. There’s a different version of Superman’s origin in SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE, LOIS & CLARK, and SUPERMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES.
It’s been done. Everyone knows the origin of Superman. If they don’t, then they don’t care to know. When Superman came to popularity, no one knew his origin story beyond a couple sentences and a handful of flashback panels. Still the best version of the origin I’ve seen is in All-Star Superman, and it was one page.
But once again we have a new crop of creators who think they have found the magical elixir, a NEW IDEA that will finally make this outdated character relevant and popular again. And once again, everything they’ve added is extraneous, like the midichlorians in the STAR WARS prequels or “memory cloth” in BATMAN BEGINS. Clunky exposition that ends up causing more questions than it answers.
Meanwhile, I losing count of the number of skyscrapers that are leveled during the course of this battle, but I got no sense that there was time to evacuate them. Meaning every time we see a building reduced to rubble, that’s potentially hundred if not thousands of deaths. And the fighting continues, uninterrupted. It’s only when the innocent casualties are literally right in front of his face that Superman seems to notice the lives that are being lost to his personal grudge match.
It seems to me that the filmmakers were too busy admiring the carnage they’d created to take a step back and think… what would this character really do here?
** spoilers below **
Is it appropriate to have our romantic leads share a first kiss on what is essentially Ground Zero of a site where thousands — perhaps tens of thousands — of innocent people were just killed? Is it a bit tone-deaf to follow up that kiss with some glib innuendo, while the ashes of the bodies are still drifting in the air around them?
I also assume a lot of fans are gong to be talking about a point in the movie where Superman is faced with the decision to kill or allow innocent people to die. I was not bothered by the scene in principle, but again by the seeming callousness of its presentation. What is the point of having Superman face this decision? From a narrative perspective, it is presumably to drive home the point that Superman can’t save everyone.
** end of spoilers **
That Superman can’t save everyone has been the character’s central conflict for most of his 75-year history. In this telling we got the lip service, but I never got the idea that he really tried. What did Superman say to his enemy, once their conflict had begun, beyond calling him “a monster?” This is dehumanizing language, the kind of thing we say make it easier to justify killing fellow human beings.
Granted, the way the narrative is constructed, there wasn’t much time for conversation. Still, there was time for Zod to speechify about his own motivations, acknowledging his actions as “cruel” but putting the blame on the inevitability of his nature. Yet there wasn’t time even for Superman to rebut this (tragically real-world justification) or show some kind of effort, futile as it may have been, to SAVE Zod – yes, even the bad guy, because that’s who Superman IS. This seemed to me a missed opportunity.
Sometimes the threat of violence can be more effective than actually showing it.
Older films used to rely on this a lot, for practical reasons. They simply couldn’t afford to show us everything, so our imagination had to take over at some point. Now they can afford to show it, so they do. But the effect is curiously less engaging. I’m left searching for some emotional anchor amidst all the shapeless chaos happening on screen. Mostly, I just found more chaos.
That’s not to say that I thought it was bad.
Henry Cavill is very good, both as Clark and Superman. His performance comes off as far more natural than what we’ve seen before. Amy Adams, likewise, was a treat to watch as Lois. I liked that we for the first time got to see that she’s an investigative reporter, rather than simply being told. I liked her tenaciousness. She said a lot without saying much.
I also think the movie does a very good job of establishing Clark as someone who’s spent his entire life holding back, so when he finally does get to let loose on the bad guy, you really feel it. I just question the choice of making that penned up ANGER and frustration and helplessness such a central motivating part of the character.
But even on its own terms, the movie ever answer its central question: how and why was the world going to accept this alien with godlike superpowers? He spends so much time holding back because he’s afraid of how the world will react. “My father was convinced the world isn’t ready.” But we never get to see how or why the world ultimately accepts Superman.
He’s never established as a superhero before aliens from HIS OWN HOME PLANET attack. We never see Metropolis embrace Superman. We never see him become the symbol of “Hope” much ballyhooed in the trailers (and a word repeated so many times in the movie I started to Hope someone would take a thesaurus to the script).
So… what was point of bringing up all that “world isn’t ready” stuff, if you’re not going to pay it off with some kind of resolution?
I knew going in that MAN OF STEEL was not going to be MY Superman. My Superman is by now a thing of the past. What I expected to see in MAN OF STEEL is a new version of the character for a new generation, and I’m fine with that. I was hoping that some glimmers of what I think make Superman a great and important character make it through the translation process intact. I think they have.
It’s nice that they didn’t rely as much on nostalgia as other blockbusters this year, and actually tried to do their own thing. There’s no clever quoting of previous films, no “Kneel before Zod” or “Can you read my mind” (two quotes I was convinced would find make their way in there in some ironic way). Michael Shannon made a truly menacing villain, without leaning on Terrence Stamp’s classic portrayal.
There’s a kernel in there that I think is mostly true to the core of the character, but it all just seems geared for an audience with more existential angst than I can muster.
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