I took my three youngest kids to see Man of Steel over Father’s day weekend. Overall, I liked the film quite a bit. I was a little surprised at the volume of angry fanboy reaction online… most seemed to think Christopher Nolan and Zack Synder missed the boat on the character. I read some comments saying Superman was a “homicidal monster”, “soulless” and that there was “no character development”. They must have been watching a different movie than the one I saw.
SPOILER ALERT!! I cannot examine the character decisions at the root of this film without revealing major plot moments, since they define the characters. Read no further if you don’t want to see any spoilers.
This was not a perfect film, by any means. I thought it was too long. There were some mind-numbing fight scenes between Superman and some of the Phantom Zone Kryptonians that became pretty boring since neither was able to hurt the other, but only cause massive collateral damage. I would have liked a few lighter moments, and there was zero chemistry between Superman and Lois. That said, I knew I was in for a darker and more realistic take on the Superman legend with Nolan as producer, and I got what I expected, and then some. Maybe we are all expecting the popcorn-munching fun of the Marvel films these days, and unless your hero is throwing out endless one liners and smart-ass quips, we just can’t enjoy a superhero film anymore. I disagree. I liked the Marvel movies for what they are, but I don’t mind a headier look at the superhero genre.
For those lamenting that “this was not Superman”, I think you mean this is not the Superman character that has basically been stuck in neutral since the 1950’s. The world has changed, and the golly-gee-whiz boy scout take on Superman has gone way past old-fashioned and into the realm of self-parody. These are the days when terrorists fly planes into skyscrapers, when deranged people open fire on strangers in theaters, grade schools, or shopping malls, when entire countries erupt in drug wars that leave bodies strewn across highways and cities, when gangs of young kids shoot each other down in the street not caring who gets in the way. A Superman today isn’t going to spend his time stopping bank robberies, and dropping crooks on the steps of the local precinct to go to jail. Morality issues are inescapable if you have that kind of power.
Superman has always been one of those characters that is very difficult to do anything with. He’s so powerful you can’t really create much conflict that he can’t resolve without much trouble, or any risk to himself. You can’t have story without conflict. If you couple that basic omnipotence with a 1950’s view of the world, you have that big blue boyscout that is about as boring as you can get. Yet, so many people got so upset that Nolan and Synder actually had the guts to step back and re-examine the character and, like with the Dark Knight, imagine what would REALLY happen if someone like Superman suddenly showed up on our planet. I think they did an admirable job making Superman someone who does have flaws, who can make a bad decision and feel guilt and anguish about it. He can be cowed by his father’s unreasoning fears, so much so that he becomes directionless for years over them. And, yes, he can decide to kill when that is the only way to end what would be a constant threat to the extinction of the human race. Far from making him less of a hero, I think it makes him more of one, and certainly more interesting. If you think this was dark, go look up Alan Moore‘s Miracleman comics series, and have a look at what might really happen if superheroes with God-like powers suddenly appeared on Earth.
It was inevitable that they would play up the alien aspect of the story. That was one thing I always thought was ridiculous about the Superman mythos… the guy is an alien and no one seems to care. He might look human, which was just something you had to accept despite the odds an alien race from another galaxy would evolve as being indistinguishable from human are incalculable, but he isn’t. There has to be some real differences at least in culture, and the genetic engineering idea was a good one. Making Kal-El the first natural child on Krypton in centuries also sets him apart, even from this native species. That said, despite looking human, the actual reaction of this world when it’s not only revealed an alien is living among them, but he has the power to devastate the planet with his bare hands if he so chose would be pandemonium.
The best thing about this movie was the casting, with one big mulligan in the mix. Henry Cavill was great as Clark/Superman. Physically, he was as perfect as you can get. Michael Shannon was awesome as Zod. Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner and Diane Lane were likewise terrific, especially Costner. It was not easy to make Jonathan Kent a sympathetic figure, because the root of Clark’s turmoil and aimlessness in life was the fear instilled in him by his father. That was one plot point I was sad to see, though I understood it. In the legend, Pa Kent is a gentle, moral man who teaches his adoptive son the value of human life. This Pa Kent suggests it might have been better to let a busload of kids drown than have Clark risk revealing his true nature, so deep is his paranoia about the world finding out about his son. The man has an unreasoning fear that he cowed his son with throughout his life, and then commanded Clark to let him die in a tornado to make his final point. That’s not a man to admire… that fear and guilt made Clark an aimless drifter for years, searching for an answer to following his heart and using his power to help people, or fulfilling his father’s dying wish to stay hidden. Did someone say this movie had no character development???!?
Other casting was good, but some of the characters didn’t get much time to shine. I get the feeling Lawrence Fishburne‘s Perry White would have been outstanding if he hadn’t spent most of the film running through the streets of Metropolis looking up over his shoulder like all the Tokyo citizens in a Godzilla movie. The big miss, in my opinion, was Amy Adams as Lois Lane. She talked the talk, but didn’t come across as a hard-nosed reporter, or even an intimidating person. I almost laughed out loud when she asked the commander of the arctic dig site if they were “done measuring dicks”. I thought it was Dakota Fanning for a second, she was about that threatening. She also had zero romantic energy with Cavill. Bad choice, that one.
As for the story, when you are talking about Superman you of course have to have the very Earth and all of mankind threatened with total destruction. What else is there? Somehow drug kingpins and rogue weapons inventors don’t seem very threatening to a man who can probably crack the earth’s crust if he put his mind to it. The Phantom Zone inmates are the only villains that could really threaten Superman physically, but they mostly just beat on each other to no avail. Usually, with superhero films, I can ignore major plot holes and logic flaws knowing that beings with that kind of power are utterly impossible anyway, so you have to take the rest of it at face value, but there was one major flub in this one I have a hard time ignoring. According to the story, it took Kal-El years to adapt to the earth’s environment and he spent three decades soaking up the yellow sun’s power, which slowly built his powers to their present levels. Yet, with only a few minutes exposed to the Earth’s environment, Zod and Faora have equal powers to Superman. Ooookay.
The massive destruction really got old after a while, I have to admit. Half of Metropolis got smashed to bits. No doubt tens of thousands dead. That didn’t seem to bother Superman, although he was pretty busy and maybe didn’t have time to think about it. I’ll let that one go, too. In a way, it helps explain the final confrontation between Superman and Zod.
Which brings me to that moment. Faced with the knowledge that alive, Zod will never be contained and will eventually fulfill his promise to kill every last human being on earth, and witness to the destruction already leveled on Metropolis, Superman kills him. The internet raged… Superman would NEVER KILLl ANYONE!!! Well, he would if it meant the only was to save two billion human lives. In the comics, Superman would have come up with some lame, last second solution to imprison Zod and save the day, without killing him. This is not the comics. Superman agonized over it, but in the end he knew it had to be done. Genocide? Nope, there are still Kryptonians in the Phantom Zone. Even so, if the last of your race ended up being a Hilter… what’s the point?
This was a brave take on the character, and not everyone is going to like that. I personally did, but you are talking to a guy who loved the Adam West Batman as much as the Christian Bale one. Never fear, followers of the Last Son of Krypton…if you didn’t like this one, the reboot is probably only 10 years away.
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131 Throwback Thursday! Art from the “Coneheads” comic book miniseries I pencilled for Marvel circa 1994 #SNL #coneheads
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