She Has No Head! – The Problem(s) With Man Of Steel
I love superheroes. I really really do. And so there are few things I like more than a good superhero film. One that reminds you what is great about superheroes – that gives you those superheroic chills – but that also manages to be a good film. It’s more rare than you’d think, especially since we’re in a sweet spot where some filmmakers are actually figuring it out – Batman, Avengers, Iron Man, Dredd – there have been some very good superhero movies in the last few years – which sometimes makes us forget how hard a thing it is to create a movie that is both good film and good superhero movie.
Sadly, Man of Steel is not among them.
But before I get into this, let’s take a moment to say, it’s great if YOU liked or even loved the film. I am honestly happy for you, in fact, I’m jealous, because I wanted to love it too. And I am not saying you are a moronic dolt that doesn’t know a thing about film or superheroes if you liked it. Don’t personalize this. This is about why I think Man of Steel is a terrible film, from both a superhero fan and a film lover perspective.
There’s a lot to say and so I’m going to lean on the crutch that is a list.
Let’s get what’s good out of the way up front, and there was some good, but don’t worry, it will be quick.
Oh, and suffice to say, here be spoilers!
01. Henry Cavill is a pretty great Superman. If only they had given him a good movie to be in, we might be having an entirely different conversation. He’s handsome and brooding, but not too dark, he’s big and tall and broad shouldered but with a sweet smile. And even though as a viewer you have to look for it (since it’s not really in the script) there’s a kindness and a warmth in him, as there should be in any Clark Kent/Superman. The film gives him exceptionally little to work with, but he does well with what he’s given. The last two minutes that show him as the Clark Kent fans know and love, were maybe the best two minutes of the entire film.
02. Amy Adams is also good. She’s not my personal ideal take on Lois Lane as I prefer to see a Lois with a slightly harder/meaner edge – which generally works as a nice contrast to Clark’s softer/kinder default setting. It’s ironic that in such a dark, humorless, and “edgy” Superman film the Lois interpretation is so “light” and likable, but that is what you were always going to get when you cast Adams. The role was significant though. Lois was smart, she was a “war correspondent” (or some version of that) and she mostly had something reasonable to do. Adams and Cavill also had decent chemistry, another plus, but probably not deserving of its own “point” for reasons outlined down below. The bottom line is that Adams was good and in a movie with so few good things, let’s grab hold onto that for dear life, okay?
03. The first “Clark action scene” with the Alaskan (?) rig rescue was great. Unfortunately it was so good that I got all stupid and hopeful that the whole opening Krypton shit show was just a bad blip and that everything was going to turn around. Not so. But it was good. I got those good old fashioned superheroic goosebumps you get when you see something awesome that you love in comics/superheroes translated so well to the screen. I loved it.
04. Faora-Ul was good. She didn’t have a lot to say (which was probably a good thing/makes her lucky) but her action scenes were some of the better ones (partially because they were slow enough to be seen by the freaking human eye). Antje Traue was solid in what could have been a thankless role, but got some good screen time. In truth, visually, she would have made a far better cast for Lois than Adams, which was kinda odd while I was watching, but still, mark this as a positive.
05. Wait…there is no five…that’s it. God, how depressing.
01. DARK AND JOYLESS. Man of Steel is dark and humorless, without any charm or humanity, despite its forced central themes that supposedly are about exactly that – humanity. It is joyless. Full stop. It is only capable of severe shifts in tone and does not know the meaning of words like subtlety and nuance. When the story swings toward the emotional moments that are supposed to ground our characters they are dripping in saccharine. They are cloying in their sentimentality and characters yell “Noooo!” at the sky, unironically. The movie leans on clichés frequently, never attempting to make them new or subvert them in any way. And the worst part is that none of the flashbacks (or the history of Krypton nonsense, which we’ll get to) are even necessary. None of it truly connects to present day Clark/Superman so it’s even more impossible to care about all that wasted film time. It’s only there to help us understand the plot, which is poorly chosen (again something we’ll get into more later).
02. PACING. The pacing in the film is wildly inconsistent as it drifts from an utterly tedious and bombastic opening sequence on Krypton to treacly flashbacks of Clark’s youth. And let’s talk about that opening sequence on Krypton for a moment. It details no less than: Kal-El’s birth, the politics of Krypton, the rebellion of General Zod, the dissent between Jor-El and Zod, the short-sightedness of the leaders of Krypton, the flaws in the Krypton way of life, the Kal-El escape pod, and the utter destruction of Krypton. Did that sound like a lot? Yup. It is. It’s more than 20 minutes that start the film and that you don’t need one minute of (except because Snyder/Goyer/Nolan have decided to absurdly base the whole film around this – again, huge mistake which we’ll cover below). To add insult to injury it all gets repeated back to you in case you missed it the first time when Clark talks to the “holographic” Jor-El. So yes, you get all this information twice. Once in the unnecessary opening – twenty plus minutes of talking heads nonsense and action scenes and then again in an info dump talking heads scene. I just told you that twice in this review, because apparently this is a thing we do now. Did you get it? I hope so, cause I can’t bear to tell you a third time.
03. ZOD. Michael Shannon is a great actor. I am actually kind of a super fan of Michael Shannon, buy there is nothing for him here. His Zod is one note because he’s written that way, and Shannon is directed to yell his lines as if that makes them mean more. Every line is delivered at approximately this equivalence:
And thus none of it means ANYTHING. There is literally zero nuance. The film makes all the classic mistakes that keep villains from being interesting and relatable. His sole redeeming characteristic is that he wants to save his “people” and rebuild Krypton. But the movie isn’t terribly smart, and so neither is Zod. He can’t see that his best opportunity to save Krypton and his people is to rebuild things the slow way, the hard way and to make his people a superior race on the planet…um, what downside? The fact that he’s unwilling to do this, reveals that his motivation has little to do with saving Krypton, but in being Krypton’s savior…which are not the same things. So even Zod is a liar, or an idiot, and thus an inferior villain. One worthy of neither Superman nor the lead in a major motion picture. A villain can of course be a liar. But isn’t it more interesting if they’re not? Isn’t it more interesting if Zod genuinely only wants to save his people. Isn’t it more interesting if he’s kind of the good guy, Krypton’s ultimate hero? But it’s not presented that way at all. Instead he’s one note and horrible. And did I mention unsubtle? Yeah, this (see right) performance had more subtlety.
One of the best things about Game of Thrones is the fact that you love a lot of characters that are in conflict with one another. I adore Tyrion (favorite character, easy) and I am of course rooting for Danerys the badass Mother of Dragons, and Robb Stark, but all these characters are ultimately in conflict with one another. It’s part of what makes Game of Thrones so complicated and beautiful. Now, you’re probably always going to root for Superman, but wouldn’t it be great if you could really see Zod’s point, if you liked him too? If he wasn’t a cartoonish buffoon? Yeah, don’t expect anything like that here.
04. LEANS ON THE WRONG THINGS. Man of Steel also leans on comic book knowledge in the laziest of ways – like hoping you’ll care what happens to Perry White and “Intern Jenny (not Olson)” and Lombard but only having spent less than ten minutes with them in the entire film (here’s a hint: you don’t care, how could you?) Meanwhile it refuses to lean on the other things the audience surely knows, about Clark’s youth in Smallville or how he came to earth, the destruction of Krypton, and instead dwells on it for nearly half the film (if not more). Why the disconnect? Why lean on comics and common Superman mythology for one thing but not the other? I can’t think of any reason except laziness and devotion to a poorly chosen plot the creators find themselves executing.
05. LOVE STORY. Though the chemistry between Superman/Cavill and Lois/Adams is good, the love story is painfully forced. I literally laughed out loud in the theater when they kissed. It was poorly timed, awkward, and completely unearned. The kiss feels like it was studio mandated (I can see the memo now: “Well, they HAVE to kiss! Find a way! Make it work! – Signed Evil Tim Gunn”). But they didn’t make it work, not at all. They’ve blown it. The filmmakers have now blown THE FIRST KISS. You can’t ever get that back. They have blown the will they/won’t they/when will they/ on a laughable moment that has absolutely zero resonance. It’s a damn shame.
06. TONE. Tonally the entire film is off. It clearly wants to be Batman, except it’s SUPERMAN. Batman is a very specific animal, and Superman should be something utterly different. Taking a modern and progressive approach to Superman does not mean it should (or can) be Batman. For starter’s it’s not a tenth as smart as it would need to be to be Batman.
Batman films Nolan Batman films, much like Batman in the comics, creators go to extreme pains to show that Batman DOES. NOT. KILL. He just doesn’t do it. No matter what happens. Is there collateral damage? Yeah, definitely, it’s a huge action film, it’s going to be assumed that people are dying. But Batman doesn’t break necks. He goes out of his way to save the bad guys in fact. Batman knows that it’s that thin line he cannot cross, the line that separates him from being a vigilante hero and just being another costumed freak locked up in Arkham. You know who else doesn’t kill (almost universally)? Superman. Except in Man of Steel where he not only has a complete disregard for civilian life (human casualties in Man of Steel must be in the millions) but he also kills Zod. Literally breaks Zod’s neck. He shows great remorse for it, which is good, but it’s just unbelievable on every level. Yes, the script puts him in a position where he is sort of forced to make that decision, but that just one of many illustrations of why it’s a bad and “convenient” script. The script is more than happy to force an unlikely and unearned scenario in order to get the “dark and edgy” ending it wants. While Superman and Zod’s final battle is brutal (mostly to the city of Metropolis) and they are evenly matched through much of the fight, none of them show the wear that you would expect for them to be at a point where they’re considering breaking eachother’s necks (or at least not Superman). And it makes Clark out to be a big dumb ox if he thinks that the “nice family” being threatened by Zod’s laser eyes are the only innocents being killed in this battle. Hundreds of thousands must have died just in the Superman vs. Zod one on one (and that’s conservative) and if Clark was really someone that had an interest in saving those lives and he really believed that breaking Zod’s neck was the only way, then he would have snapped Zod’s neck thirty minutes prior. But the movie wants its big action sequence, and it wants its edgy “Clark is a killer” ending, and so we get this movie that is not only bad, but in no way represents what we all know Superman to be.
07. WHO IS THIS SUPERMAN YOU SPEAK OF? I’m not as die-hard a fan of Superman as many of you, so I’m not as attached to the mythology, but even I balked at Superman snapping Zod’s neck. In no way did the film earn that desperation. I don’t mentally live in a place where Superman cannot kill under ANY circumstance, but I do live in a place where you have to fucking earn it if you’re going to do it. They did not earn it. Full stop.*
*Yes, I sorta of gave this point two bullets…but it earned those two bullets, unlike the film itself.
08. BREAKS CHARACTERS FOR PLOT. Pa Kent got the very short straw in the script. Again, I’m not a hardcore fan but even I don’t recognize Pa Kent in this interpretation. While there were interesting angles to his death, and in some ways it did up the personal stakes for Clark, the idea that Pa Kent actually advises Clark that he was wrong to save a bus full of children because it might have outed him is just absurd. We’re supposed to believe that Clark largely gets what makes him Clark (and not someone like Zod) from Ma and Pa Kent and his small town wholesome upbringing, it’s part and parcel of the Superman mythos. But a huge chunk of that is missing here. You begin to wonder how Clark turned into the good man he turned into if his good ol’ Pa was suggesting he let buses of kids drown so that he could stay “undercover.” Man of Steel’s version of Pa Kent really needs to have a long talk with Spiderman’s Uncle Ben…he could learn a lot. But again, this goes back to the script making a lot of convenient choices. You know why this Pa Kent character assassination er…change is in there? It’s there because the writers need Clark to feel compelled to stay “undercover” until he’s 33, so that they can harp on the Jesus parallels with all the subtlety of a fucking chainsaw. You just fundamentally do not break character to service your plot. It’s especially heinous when you’re breaking long standing and well-known character for plot, but it’s really a no-no under any circumstances. Sure your characters grow and change based on what you put them through (i.e. plots) but you don’t retroactively go back and change who they are to make a plot decision “work.” Fans that take issue with this character break for Jonathan Kent will surely be called hysterical irrational fans, but I’d argue they’re reacting, even if subconsciously, almost as much to the wrongheadedness of breaking character to service plot, as they are to no longer recognizing Pa Kent.
09. A POORLY CHOSEN STORY TO TELL. Perhaps this should have been first, but it felt more natural to put it here, maybe because it’s just so key to the problem but only when you get all the other stuff out of the way. Man of Steel is just not a good story. The funny thing is that Superman Returns, for all its flaws (which are nearly limitless) is a good premise. It’s an innovative and unique way to look at Superman. It ultimately failed but it’s a good idea. This movie has no idea. I guess the idea is “bring new people into the Superman family” (give us your money!) but it’s tediously boring, I suspect even for people who know very little about the mythology. There are no real stakes because we know what Superman will do at every turn, simply by knowing that he is Superman. So with no stakes and no joy what is left? Nothing. Nothing is left. Well, action scenes.
10. WORSHIPS AT THE ALTAR OF ACTION FOR ACTION’S SAKE, CAUSE, ACTION! I really like action movies. I have trouble seeing a lot of them because so many are really dumb and because we live in an age of pushing visual effects to their limit at all costs, including good filmmaking. So in Man of Steel, while there was some awesome stuff (again the Alaskan Rig scene springs to mind) most of it started to look more like a video game than a movie, and when that happens it becomes increasingly difficult to connect to the characters or to engage in the violence as something that has consequences and thus, stakes. Sure, I like to be able to say “that’s badass” just as much as the next moviegoer, but not at the sake of all else.**
11. OH SO SERIOUS. In the end, Man of Steel takes itself so seriously it actually becomes impossible to take it seriously. It breaks under the weight of its own seriousness. I counted less than half a dozen jokes in the entire movie (none of which made me laugh) and they were painfully forced because this movie was simply no place for jokes. Even the one attempt at real joy – the scene where Superman learns to fly – falls flat because it’s housed in this dark dreary joyless film. Instead you know where the laughs come from? From stuff that’s not supposed to be funny at all. Like when our two supposed romantic leads move in for a kiss, before the battle is over and without being earned at all, and amidst the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives. Or when Lois Lane is sneaking down into the Kryptonian ship and the camera pulls back to reveal her basically shimmying across the miniscule edge of an ice cliff. Or how about the (near) climax when a Kryptonian device the humans desperately need to work is not functioning and the resolution is for a character (whose name we don’t really know) to turn the device a little bit and that solves the problem. SERIOUSLY? I mean, people, I NEVER talk in movies, I hate it when people talk in movies, and yet I, without realizing it, both guffawed and then said “Seriously?” OUT LOUD. That’s how laughably bad a moment it was.
I just…you guys, I’m so sad. Like Mark Waid, who wrote a far better piece about this, my heart is a little broken. I wanted so much for this to be good. I wanted so much to get that happy superheroic rush I get in a good superhero film. I wanted so much to see them get it right if only so that I could believe in a great Wonder Woman movie happening some day, or even Justice League. But now…but now I’m just grateful they can’t get Wonder Woman off the ground. So very grateful.
There IS, however, a tiny silver lining!
I read Scott Snyder’s Superman Unchained this week and liked it. It was way too expensive (especially since I read it digitally and thus the “four page pull out spectacular nonsense” was lost on me) but it was good. Jim Lee is not my ideal artist, but the plot twist alone will keep me coming back for more. So in a week in which I learned the hard way that Man of Steel is not for me in way shape or form, maybe I can find some love for Supes back in the medium that gave him life in the first place? Here’s to hoping.
**[For reference, some action movies I like: the new Bond movies, the Jason Bourne movies, um…cough…Avengers…cough, Nolan’s Batman (when it doesn’t get too dark to be incomprehensible, Inception, the first Matrix, Kill Bill Vol. 1, Die Hard With Vengeance, stuff like that.]