Warning: This piece contains oblique spoilers to Man of Steel.
I’ve anticipated the release of Man of Steel ever since they announced they were going to make it. Another Superman movie? With the technology (e.g. CGI) at their disposal to completely realise the magnificence of this character? I loved the first two movies (Superman: The Movie and Superman II, particularly the Richard Donner re-cut), which remain amongst the best superhero movies ever made. But now, in a Hollywood where superhero movies were taken seriously and you could make minor heroes like Iron Man and Thor entertaining and credible, surely this could be Superman’s crowning moment, especially with the talent (Zack Snyder of Watchmen fame, Christopher Nolan and David Goyer from The Dark Knight trilogy) behind the camera.
Well, I watched Man of Steel last week, expecting to be wowed. And I was, but for the wrong reasons. More than that, though, I was disappointed.
Here are my major issues with Man of Steel.
There is no investment of Superman in this universe. This movie could’ve been some generic sci-fi action film which involved bad guys hunting the protagonist who’s meant to be the good guy because we’ve been told, hey, this is the good guy, i.e. I am Number Four, or any other generic, competently made action flick. Name, suit, and powers aside, there’s nothing super about Superman. Henry Cavill is excellent, and you’ll shudder to imagine what he might’ve done with this character in a good story, but Superman might as well have been called John Smith. Compare this with Superman: The Movie, where they take time to build the character, then devote him to the good of the universe they’ve created. Maybe modern moviemaking prohibits the pacing of the former (although, retrospectively, Superman: The Movie established Superman well before Man of Steel ever attempts to get out of neutral), but you can still accomplish the latter, which brings me to my second point.
Superman is indifferent to humanity. They go to some (read: perfunctory) pains to establish that Clark Kent saves a few people before becoming Superman. But then when he is Superman, people die in the battles that ensue, sometimes (presumably) as a result of the actions he takes. By the time Superman shows concerns for potential casualties, the movie’s over, which is a bit late to retrofit the character with the compassion and empathy required to be, well, super. Compare this to Superman: The Movie. Lex Luthor crows about his plan, and Superman openly expresses his horror at the countless innocents who’ll die. When Luthor’s girlfriend, Eve Teschmacher, saves Superman from kryptonite, she does so on the condition that the first of the two missiles which Superman stops be the one heading for her mother’s hometown, and he honours that commitment because that’s who he is (super!), despite the other missile leading to greater harm. He reverses the world, for chrissakes, because he can’t accept the death of Lois. In Superman II, even as Superman battles with Zod, he is constantly ducking away to save civilians. He openly exclaims about the possible casualties during the battle. Invariably, he flees because he knows continuing the fight in Metropolis will result in the deaths of innocents. Man of Steel, conversely, is staggering. It’s open slather, and bad luck who gets in your way. With the amount of damage done, hundreds of thousands would’ve had to die (if not millions). The real Superman – and by real, I mean if the writers actually understood the character and weren’t trying so hard to make him brooding and grim – would’ve led the antagonists away from civilisation.Not here.How are we expected to believe that Earth would adopt him given the numerous deaths to which he has contributed? How do you connect to this indifferent prick? Unfortunately, they (the moviemakers) rely on your connection to the legacy, rather than the incarnation they’ve created.
Is This The Dark Knight Lite? They’ve gone for a grim feel to the Superman reboot, but Superman isn’t about grimness. You can get away with that in Batman movies because Batman is a dark, foreboding character. That is where he – and his stories – thrive. Superman is a bright character. He’s symbolic of what we want to be – infallible, invulnerable, and perfect. If you decide to paint him darkly, you run the risk of two things: firstly, destroying the essence of what makes the character special; and, secondly, transforming him into a prick with powers, a la Hancock in Hancock (starring Will Smith). That’s not the point of Superman. He doesn’t have to be a campy boy scout. But neither does he have to be – and remain throughout – intense and manic.
Pacing. Christopher Nolan and David Goyer – who were responsible for rebooting Batman – use the same structure in Man of Steel that they did in Batman Begins: back-story told in flashback before the action unravels and (in this case) becomes so overdone and overlong that you can’t help but disconnect, battered into submission – or even indifference – by it all. How can you care when there seems no cost to what’s going on, and nobody (least of all Superman) shows any genuine concern to the collapse of their world around them? It’s a visual eyesore, a magician’s trick, an attempt to keep your mind occupied whilst distracting you from the vacuum of the story. Worse – and just like Nolan’s and Goyer’s last superhero movie, The Dark Knight Rises – the exposition is insane, with characters excreting mammoth information dumps for the sake of the audience. The overall feel is a string of set pieces sewn together to establish the identity of Superman, before unleashing the interminable action. Some of the contrivances to put characters in place so they can deliver their speeches are also truly bewildering.
There’s simply a lack of magic, of joy, of wonder. Oh, visually it’s amazing. But there’s none of those breathtaking moments, none of those moments which’ll make you beam, which’ll make you feel like when you were a kid and you could believe in superheroes.E ven Batman Begins and The Dark Knight have these – dramatic entrances (e.g. the first time Batman appears to the Joker), Batman accomplishing feats in a way that distinguishes his persona (e.g. strapping criminal kingpin Carmine Falcone to the spotlight in Batman Begins), and even a synchronicity of visuals with score. Superman: The Movie had them with Superman catching Lois, and then the helicopter, and then the various feats he accomplishes during his first night.Superman II has several, with Superman showing up to take on General Zod, and then – in one of the best superhero movie scenes ever – when he dupes Zod in the climax. Let’s also not forget when Clark returns to the diner to give that bully his comeuppance. You root for the characters here.You grin. You invest. You remember these moments for years. Man of Steel has half a wondrous moment (when Superman first reveals himself to the military). The rest is just action without character or tone.
Nobody’s expecting a reinvention of Superman: The Movie. That (and its sequel) aren’t flawless, but they get things right more often than they don’t. Importantly, they tell a story where you care about the characters and their world, where there are repercussions to actions. That’s not the case here. It’s almost like they’ve made every wrong choice, sometimes only by a fraction but enough to eschew the result. The revamp prejudices everything in the wrong direction. The issue is if you’re going to make a movie of something which has a ton of source material – and Superman has five movies, three live-action series, cartoons, and eighty years of comics – then you have to be faithful to reinterpreting the spirit of what the character and his universe is about.
You can re-contextualise the way it’s portrayed and the way it looks, but there are still beats you have to hit. The TV series Smallville did it brilliantly, whilst taking their own route.Man of Steel doesn’t.In fact, Man of Steel fails miserably.It rewrites backstory into a confusing, unwieldy plot, lacks structure in the development of the character and the story, and misses – or perhaps is uninterested in – the beats that make Superman who he is, and which have made him such a lasting success.