Man of Steel is out on DVD and available for streaming but it’s NOT going to be our feature for Family Movie Night. You can probably guess why, but in case you missed it, here’s my review from when it was in the theaters in June.
Fighting a never-ending battle for Truth, Justice, and Product Placement! Henry Cavill in one of the few moments when we get to see him as Superman instead of just a red-blue blur dodging in and out of the cgi battles and explosions in Zack Snyder’s evocative but sadly dull Man of Steel.
When in Man of Steel Superman did that thing you probably heard he does but you know in your heart Superman would never do, there were audible outcries of dismay and anger from at least three different grown men in the theater where I was watching the movie. One of them even said flat out, “He wouldn’t!”
I groaned to myself too. But it wasn’t just because Superman would never do that. It was because the moment in which he did it---“had” to do it---was stupid in several different ways, the main one being that it depended on Superman forgetting he can fly.
A better way to put it is the moment depends on director Zack Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer betting that the audience won’t remember Superman can fly. They’re counting us not to think about how Superman could have gotten out of the situation without having to do what he did or how he might have avoided the situation entirely.
And that’s pretty much the problem with the whole movie. Snyder and Goyer need us not to think, just react. And to make sure we don’t they try not to give us any time to think by moving things along at a frenetic pace and then, to be sure we’re thoroughly confused and distracted, they fill our eyes and ears with movement and noise so that our minds shut down from sensory overload.
Here’s where they made their bloomer. You can move things along rapidly through hyperkinetic editing, by treating single pictures as if they are each worth ten thousand words and flashing from image to image as if your audience is made up of the visual equivalent of speed readers, by rushing through dialog that’s all in shorthand to begin with, bulling aside essential details and exposition, by jumping from fight scene to fight scene, blowing up everything in the background and much of what’s in the foreground along the way, and if nothing is really happening, if no real story is being told, your audience is still going to have plenty of time to think because you’ll have lost their attention. They’ll be looking the screen but they won’t be watching because there’s nothing worth watching.
Critics and disappointed fans have complained that Man of Steel is heartless, humorless, soulless. What it mostly is, though, is dull.
Once you’ve seen one whole neighborhood in Metropolis crumble into dust, you’ve seen every neighborhood in Metropolis crumble into dust.
That’s about five crumbling blocks away from not being a joke.
The dullness isn’t just a matter of Snyder and Goyer seeming to think that all it takes to make a good movie is a lot of motion and noise. The dullness is due to what I implied above. They don’t tell a story. And that’s because they don’t seem to have a clue as to what kind of story they want to tell. The motion and noise are symptoms of their cluelessness. They are clueless about Superman in general, but more to the point, clueless about their own Superman and what makes him tick.
They don't have a Superman story of their own to tell.
They do have a Clark Kent story. The beginnings of one, at least.
But they don't know how to tell it themselves.
So they try to do it by evoking others ' stories.
And Batman Begins'.
Clark’s wanderings evoke Bruce Wayne’s in Batman Begins and match them in imagery, look, and tone. And there are definite thematic parallels. Both young superheroes in the making are leaving behind their old identities and searching for…well, that’s the question. Bruce flees Gotham City after a humiliating encounter with a mob boss, symbolically shedding his now former self in the form of the overcoat he gives to the homeless guy he meets on the way out of town. We know explicitly what Bruce is looking for, power: the power he needs to defeat the criminals who have taken over Gotham City, and that includes not just the ability to outfight them. He's after the ability to out-think them by being able to think like them which will let him think two and three steps ahead of them.
We aren’t shown or told what’s driven Clark out of Smallville and onto the road to apparently nowhere and it’s not clear what he’s searching for. Whatever he's after, though, it's not power. In fact, he appears to be running away from his powers. We know from what little Snyder and Goyer have allowed him to say on the subject he doesn't like having superpowers because they make him different and because they make him afraid of himself. In acquiring both those feelings he’s had help from Jonathan Kent who’s taught him to hide his powers as if they’re something to be ashamed of to the point of its maybe better to let people die than let them know what he can do.
We can also guess he’s not happy being a superbeing from the movie’s evocation of yet another story, the Incredible Hulk’s. In the scene after Clark saves the crew of the burning oil rig we see him sneaking through somebody’s backyard wearing just his torn to shreds trousers, looking incredibly buff but also very much like Bruce Banner after he’s recovered from one of his Hulked-out rage fests, frightened and ashamed and sick at heart and as if he would give anything for this not happen to him ever again.
The parallels suggest the criticism of Batman that’s long been inherent in Superman. Bruce wants for himself what Clark is rejecting about himself. The power to take the law into his own hands or, to put it mythologically, the power of a tyrant. That’s incredible arrogance. Clark is sort of a modern Aragorn, proving himself a true hero-king by not wanting that power.
But the criticism works both ways. Bruce is accepting responsibility for taking on the gangs and rescuing Gotham City from itself. Clark is evading his responsibility. You know which responsibility. The great one that comes with…
(This would make Man of Steel the third action-adventure blockbuster this summer about an immature hero having to grow up, learn what it means to be a hero, and accept the responsibilities that come along with the job, Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness being the other two. Only Iron Man 3 gets it right.
I hear something similar goes on with Sully in Monsters University. Maybe I heard wrong.)
If I’m reading it right, it’s this thematic back and forth that could connect Man of Steel, which, don’t forget was produced by Christopher Nolan, with Nolan’s Batman trilogy and the both of them to a Justice League movie. Or could have made the connection, if Snyder and Goyer had stuck with it and developed it.
(Maybe in the sequel, although making the connection would also depend on Nolan and Christian Bale changing their minds about coming back for more.)
But they rush us through it without giving us an onscreen payoff. Suddenly, thanks to some good advice from the parish priest and his mother’s homecooking, Clark’s ready to be Superman and Snyder drags us in a hurry onto another half-baked theme---Clark’s ready to be Superman but is the world ready for Superman?---that gets lost in the noise and confusion of the final and interminable confrontation with General Zod and his squad of superhenchmen and woman before it can be developed.
Plenty of others have written about the mind-numbing ugliness and repetitiveness of the wanton destruction of Metropolis and Snyder's failure of judgment, tact, and taste in including evocations of 9/11. (I recommend our pal M.A. Peel’s post Superman: For Thine is the Kingdom, and the Power, and the Anger… ) There’s not much for me to add. But I want to make one point.
Joss Whedon did the wreck the city shtik in The Avengers but he managed to continue to tell his heroes’ stories while he was at it. Steve Rogers learns the world still needed Captain America. We learn Bruce Banner’s secret. Thor resigns himself to his brother Loki’s true nature. And Tony Stark does the up until now unthinkable for him---he acts unselfishly.
I don’t know if Snyder thought he was just going Whedon one better, but the lesson he should have taken away from The Avengers---besides the one that says character and story trump special effects---is Maybe I should try something different.
And if he didn’t learn that from The Avengers, then he should have learned it from another movie he evoked.
In Superman II, Christopher Reeve’s Superman confronts Zod and his gang in an epic battle that threatens to destroy Metropolis and saves the day by acting with heart and intelligence.
Why Snyder thought he could get away with reminding us of that while learning nothing from it beats the heck out of me.
Amy Adams is one of my favorite movie stars now working but she's all wrong for Lois Lane. She's an elf. And as an elf she has basically three modes. Good elf (Enchanted, Julie & Julia, The Muppet Movie), evil elf (The Master), and conflicted elf (The Fighter, Trouble With the Curve). No Lois Lane worth her salt or her Clark is elfin.
The script doesn't give her an elf to play, either, and Adams doesn't seem to know what to about that except to work on creating a fourth mode that I think she intends to be spunky elf---a mistake to begin with. Lois is not spunky either.---but it comes off as self-important, pain in the neck elf.
Really, though, as for just about everyone else in the cast, the script doesn't give her much of any sort of a character to play and most of what it gives her to do could just as well have been done by Jimmy Olsen, Lana Lang, Pete Ross, or, for as much as it matters, by Snapper Carr, Krypto, or Beppo the Supermonkey.
For the record, out of that list only Lana and Pete appear in the movie and Lana's there as just a reference point. What the movie does with Pete is a travesty.
Michael Shannon is awesome as General Zod, although he's another who hasn't been given enough to establish and develop a true character. Pretty much his whole job is to roar out his orders, roar out his pain, and roar out his rage at the gods, Jor-El, and Superman while looking angry enough to be in the mood to wipe out the entire human race.
Kevin Costner does an admirable job working against the script to make Jonathan Kent the patient, decent, honorable man and father Clark needs to set him on the path to becoming Superman. As written, this Jonathan is the most twisted, conflicted, and unintentionally corrupting mentor to a potential hero since Harry taught his code to Dexter.
"What was I supposed to do? Let them die?"
"I don't know. Maybe."
How about, figure out a way to come to the rescue without letting people see you? You could have stayed under water and still saved the day. Swim under the bus next time. You'd get better leverage anyway. Then swim downstream and bob up later spluttering about how you got swept away because you can't swim.
See. Too much time to think.
Costner fills all Jonathan's lines counseling Clark on how he shouldn't be a superhero with self-doubt, marking Jonathan as a modest man who just doesn't feel he's up to the job fate's dumped on him of raising a son with powers and abilities far beyond those of his all too mortal self and placing him among the legions of real life parents who've found themselves responsible for children of extraordinary talent or difference.
Diane Lane does a lovely job of quietly balancing out Costner’s angst and doubt. I really like the way she evokes Amy Madigan in Field of Dreams. She doesn’t have Annie Kinsella’s temper but she’s got Annie’s hippie chick turned farmer’s wife combination of idealism and practicality. Her Martha never loses faith…in Clark. She’s had her son figured out from the start and knows where he’s headed and what’s in store. But she’s patient and willing to wait for her over-thinking husband and hot-headed kid to figure it all out for themselves, which she’s confident they will given time.
And Russell Crowe is terrific as the star of the movie within a movie, the one that begins on Krypton and tells the story of super-scientist Jor-El’s attempts to save the planet from ecological and political disaster and of his broken friendship with the super-idealistic Zod. That’s the movie Oliver Mannion says he would have liked to have seen. Unfortunately, that’s another story Snyder and Goyer lose track of before they get close to completing it. They take this one farther and deeper than the others, though, to the point of coming close to giving us its denouement. Then they throw away what should be the big moment and give us instead Superman doing that thing Superman would never do.
Speaking of Superman…
You’ve probably noticed I haven’t mentioned somebody’s name yet.
I’ve been saving him.
Let me put it this way. If I could just show him rushing toward the camera pulling open his shirt to show that bright red S underneath, I’d do it and leave it at that. It would say it all.
Two problems with that. Cavill never gets that iconic moment in Man of Steel and even if he did his S isn’t bright red, it’s a dull metallic red, and it isn’t an S anyway. Where he comes from, it stands for…oh, never mind.
Cavill doesn’t get to be Superman much. He’s Clark Kent more often---and this movie’s Clark is a brooding cipher who has only one scene in which he shows any sign he’s the super man his mother believes he is---and when he puts on the supersuit he’s mostly just a red and blue blur flying through the cgi explosions and debris. But in those few short scenes when he’s allowed to act he makes a very good Superman, maybe even the second best Superman. It’ll take a sequel, a well-made sequel, to show if that’s the case.
Of course, he’s no Christopher Reeve. Who could be?
But he’s got a super smile.
Man of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder, screenplay by David S. Goyer. Starring Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Michael Shannon, Lawrence Fishburne, Christopher Meloni, Richard Schiff, Antje Traue, Ayelet Zurer, Henry Lennix, Michael Kelly, and Dylan Sprayberry. Rate PG-13. 2 hours and 23 minutes. Now available on DVD and to watch instantly at Amazon.
I did a lot of thinking about Man of Steel and Superman before I wrote this review. Probably over-thought things. But I posted some of those thoughts before posting the review, so if you’re in the mood to geek out some more, here they are. Warning some are short, some aren’t. Some contain mild spoilers, others not so much. A few include videos. They don’t have to be read in order. I recommend the Third, Sixth, and Final Thoughts (Oliver Mannion contributed mightily to the last one) myself, but take your pick:
Final Steely Thought on Man of Steel: The stupid and unnecessary death of Jonathan Kent. (Co-written with Oliver Mannion.)