“Man of Steel”
Not Your Traditional Superhero Movie

– a review and commentary by David 2

When I heard that the Superman film franchise was going to be rebooted, I had some pretty mixed feelings about it. 

After all, not only was Hollywood in the middle of a serious remake fetish, but DC Comics also decided at the time to do a major reboot of all of their characters and comics.  All of the trials and tribulations, all of the glorious victories and bitter defeats, up to seventy-five years worth of history… scratched off with a wave of #1 issues and a “New 52” banner.

Plus, the Superman movie franchise already got a “boost” of sorts with “Superman Returns”, basically erasing the failures of “Superman III”, “Supergirl”, and “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace”, and moving on (sort of) five years after the events of “Superman II”.  While it wasn’t a full-blown re-invention of the Superman wheel, it certainly was better than what it replaced.  And now even that was being scrapped so that “Man of Steel” could start fresh.  From the very first promotional image seen of him standing in front of a dented bank vault, it was clear that this Superman would be more along the lines of the “New 52” version – complete with the “space armor” outfit – than the traditional brightly-colored outfit that the late Christopher Reeve wore so well.

There was a lot of hope and expectation that came with this movie.  People were looking at “Man of Steel” to be epic!  They wanted to relive the feeling when “Superman: The Movie” first came out almost forty years ago.  They wanted it to rival the billion-dollar success that was “Marvel’s The Avengers”.

That’s an extremely high and unrealistic bar to meet, never mind try to exceed.

Then, when the movie came out, critics trashed it.  Even people that considered themselves hardcore Superman fans were trashing it.  Having not seen the movie myself when it was in the theaters, I didn’t know why they had such a hard time with it.  All I knew was that I needed to see it when it came out on DVD just to see why people were complaining about it.

So that’s what I did.

And I think that I have something of an idea as to why so many people felt let down by it, and why I would have a different feeling about it.

There are two ways to approach the making of a superhero movie.

The first approach is for the director and producers and the writers and the talent to say “We are making a live-action movie featuring a comic book superhero.” 

The second approach is to say “We’re making a live-action comic book movie featuring a superhero.”

What’s the difference, you ask?  With a live-action movie, you need to keep things as realistic as possible, whereas with a live-action comic book movie, there is that built-in suspension of disbelief that you see in comic books.  The heroes are really heroic and the villains are really evil, the good guys always win, and nobody really dies.

We’ve had plenty of that kind of movie.  Pretty much every Batman movie prior to “Batman Begins” was done with the approach of “we are doing a live-action comic book movie”.  Every Superman movie up to “Man of Steel” was done with the obvious approach of “we are doing a live-action comic book movie”. 

And we have seen what it looks like when that approach is done right.  Sam Rami’s “Spider-Man” trilogy and the first two Tim Burton-directed “Batman” movies are the best examples of this.  The same can be also said for the first two “Superman” movies, and yes that includes the original Richard Donner cut of “Superman II”.

Unfortunately, when that concept is done wrong, we end up with abysmal mistakes like “Superman III”, “Superman IV: The Quest For Peace”, “Supergirl”, “Daredevil”, “Electra”, “Batman Forever”, and of course “Batman and Robin”, which can be summed up in three words: Bat Credit Card.

But then, in comes Christopher Nolan, and he decides to take the Batman franchise into a different direction.  Instead of doing a live-action comic book movie featuring a superhero, he does a live-action movie featuring a comic book superhero.  The end result was “Batman Begins”, “The Dark Knight”, and “The Dark Knight Rises”, three critically-acclaimed movies that put Batman at the top of the DC pile.

Were they perfect?  Not really.  There were some flaws.  But, all-in-all, things worked.  You had a story that was somewhat believable, with realistic characters, and ways to explain things that didn’t involve a whole plethora of “Bat-prefix Deus-ex-machina” devices or by twisting your mind seven ways to Sunday like the Joker.

So when Nolan and “Dark Knight” writer David S. Goyer were tapped to do “Man of Steel”, it’s understandable that they would try to re-create the same magic for Superman that they had with Batman.  Then you throw in Zach Snyder of “300” and “Watchmen” fame, and you can see why the bar was set pretty high in the “unrealistic” category.

Okay, let’s get the big stuff out of the way.

Did I hate “Man of Steel”?  No.

Did I despise “Man of Steel” and throw it in with the category of “Worst Superhero Movie Ever” like some Internet reviewers did?  Absolutely not!  In fact, I will take issue with those who claim that it was just as bad as “Superman IV”. 

Unfortunately, I’m also not in the camp of those that think it was great, or excellent for that matter.

I agree that it was not the “epic blockbuster” movie that the masses expected it to be.  I did not get to the end credits and get that adrenaline rush like when I saw “Marvel’s The Avengers”.  Or, for that matter, Tim Burton’s “Batman”.

It was a good movie.  “Good” on the same level as Snyder’s “Watchmen”. 

Not great.  Good.

Let’s start with what worked.  The casting worked for the most part.  Having seen him work as the hero in “Immortals”, I know Henry Cavil was aptly cast as Superman.  Amy Adams owned the role of Lois Lane far better than Kate Bosworth did in “Superman Returns”.  Lawrence Fishburn did a great job as Perry White.  Diane Lane did surprisingly great as Martha Kent.  Michael Shannon did a pretty convincing General Zod, and Antje Traue really captured the spirit of Zod’s lieutenant, Faora.  Russell Crowe surprised me as Jor-El, as well as Christopher Meloni as Colonel Hardy… although I could not help but expect to hear that “Law & Order” sound every time he appeared.

Where the movie didn’t work… well, Richard Schiff as Emil Hamilton?  No.  Sorry, that seemed like a waste of a good supporting character.  And then there’s Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent.  I know that he played the same role that the late Glen Ford played in the first “Superman” movie, but he pretty much played it as an antagonist.

Think about it.  Kevin Costner’s Jonathan Kent was the real antagonist of the movie!  Everything that hinders Clark came from his adopted father telling him not to stand out, not to make a name for himself, to suppress his powers and not see how powerful he could become.  It is only when Clark starts listening to the computer spirit of his real father and his advice to do the exact opposite of what Jonathan told him previously that he becomes the Superman that we were all waiting for.

The special effects were half-and-half.  The shaky-cam has its uses, but, in this case, it was used way too much.  Way, way, way too much.  We should not have to look around to find Superman flying over and over again.  And while I liked most of the Krypton scenery, the “magnetized graphite” imagery to show Krypton’s technology was too bland.  I mean, we saw this stuff in “X-Men” back in 2000!  And the “World Engine” with the wild tentacles?  They looked so much better in “The Matrix Revolutions”.  Speaking of, I’m sure Mister Fishburne and Harry Lennix felt a little déjà vu over that part of the movie, since they’re both “Matrix” alumni.  Oh, and ditto with the idea of the Kryptonian birthing matrixes.  I was waiting to see a bald Keanu Reeves in one of them.

What really did the movie in, in my opinion, was threefold.

First, the overuse of flashbacks.  I don’t care if it worked for “Memento”.  This isn’t “Memento”.  This is “Man of Steel”.  You’re re-introducing Superman to the world.  A little linear time would help.  Plus, some of it was superfluous. 

The scenes that included Pete Ross were essentially wasted.  The whole thing ended up being a reason for Lois to interview him as part of her “Who is this strange alien” story.  There’s even a scene where Clark (as Superman) ends up in the IHOP where Pete is working, and there’s no conversation or acknowledgement that they know each other.  “Oh look, there the kid that used to tease me until I saved his sorry butt.  Hey, he’s working here at the IHOP!  Maybe if I’m not getting my butt kicked by this hot Kryptonian babe I can see how he’s doing.”

The second big failure is the grittiness of the look.  Everything ends up being bland and grey.  Why?  Krypton is bland.  Earth is seen as bland.  Even Superman’s outfit is bland and that should be standing out as iconic as he is supposed to be.  This is a failure that goes back to Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns” with the muted colors.  It’s like everyone wants costumes to eventually be black. 

I’m sorry, but black only works for Batman… and the X-Men.  Oh, and “The Matrix” trilogy too.  But mostly for Batman.  Black is Batman’s color.

Zach Snyder should know about the use of color with superhero movies.  “Watchmen” wasn’t bland, and it certainly wasn’t your traditional “comic book” style movie either.  So there was really no excuse for the blandness of this movie.

And the third big failure has to do with the screenplay, and this is all Goyer’s to own.  You can see the influences of “Superman: Birthright” and the original John Byrne “Man of Steel” mini-series in this, but there were some cut-and-paste parts from the Batman trilogy as well, especially in the beginning. 

I mean, come on!  Brooding loner roaming the Earth like David Carradine from “Kung Fu” until he finds his mentor and becomes the hero?  You can’t tell me that wasn’t ripped from “Batman Begins”!

A big problem is that a lot of the little things in the story are disjointed.  Why is a natural birth on Krypton considered so “heretical” that Zod wanted to kill Kal-El on the spot?  Why did artificial birth control end space colonization?  Why did the space colonists die?  Why does (spoilers) Clark regret killing Zod when there is so much death and destruction prior to this monumental scene?  Hell, Clark was previously told by his adopted father that maybe he should let people die!

Here’s a good example of sloppy storytelling from the movie.  If Earth already makes Kryptonians into “like-gods” (as Jor-El characterized it), then why try to make Earth into just like Krypton?  Why not have the Kryptonians adapt to the new powers, which would clearly give them the advantage in every single way?  Zod complained that it would take “years of suffering”, but he certainly adapted to all of the changes, and he did so in a matter of hours!  He was going toe-to-toe with Kal-El by the time of the big final battle, even figuring out by himself how to fly.  So much for the “years of suffering”, you big extremist crybaby!

This could have been easily explained by saying that Kryptonians were genetically conditioned to only thrive on Krypton.  This was the explanation from the Byrne miniseries, and it could have also explained why the space colonies failed so badly and why a natural birth was considered an abomination.  Then having Jor-El tell both the Science Council and General Zod that they are “already dead” would make absolute sense.  But it was never explained.  They left these things hanging for people to try to figure out by themselves.

Here’s another one: why did “Jenny” make the comment “he saved us” – “he” being Superman – if nobody knows who “he” is yet?  And why were people in Metropolis standing around looking like dumb-asses during the big final battle?  At least the Smallville residents knew what to do when some super-powered dudes in funny outfits started throwing punches in their streets.  They ran for cover!  Even Superman uttered the universal Midwest statement for danger: “Get inside!  It’s not safe!”

Again, this could have been easily explained if Lois started phoning in her stories to Perry White and the Daily Planet started running articles featuring “Superman” to show that he was on “our” side.  Then, at least, there would be a reason why you had all of those rubber-necking morons out on the streets watching the battle instead of trying to flee from the collateral damage.

These are little and simple things that got lost in the movie, and they could have made the movie so much better if only Goyer and Snyder put a little more thought and maybe an extra minute or two in.

Here’s a little tip: if the viewer has to figure these little things out on their own, then you have failed as a storyteller.

As for the big changes, I should point out that there were a lot of changes in the original “Superman” movie that producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind came up with that broke from traditional comic canon of the time.  The crystal-based civilization on Krypton?  That was never in the comics until the 21st century.  Up until then, life on Krypton always looked like something out of the 1930’s World’s Fair or a “Buck Rogers” movie.  The use of the “S” shield as a family crest also started first in that movie and then eventually became the symbol for “hope” in the comics.  The original symbol for the House of El was a sun.  Having only one adopted parent lost instead of both also got started in that movie.  Before then, Superman was always seen as being twice-orphaned.

Oh, and the “shocker” of killing Zod?  Remember what happened to Zod in “Superman II”?  A fully-powered Superman physically threw a powerless Zod into a wall and then he slid into a deep abyss, followed by Non and Ursa.  No powers, a seemingly bottomless abyss… do you really think that they would survive that?  And nobody raised an eyebrow over that, did they?  No complaints that Superman didn’t save them.  They were just gone, never to return.  And there was no regret for that.  No teeth-gnashing or hand-wringing.  No debate as to whether or not he should have done it.  He calmly and consciously threw General Zod to his off-camera death, watched Lois do the same to Ursa, and he allowed the imbecilic Non commit suicide-by-stupidity.  (Yes, I know that the Donner cut had them miraculously taken into custody along with Lex Luthor by the Canadian Mounties.  But that is not what was shown on the theaters.)

And people are complaining about “Man of Steel” Superman being forced to snap Zod’s neck to save innocent lives from certain death?  Guys, seriously… you need to get your sense of right and wrong straightened out!

My personal complaint with “Man of Steel” is with keeping Zod as the bad guy for the second half of the movie.  This is the movie that is supposed to set the stage for who Superman is and how much of an impact he will have on the world.  Yet, by the time he does go public, he’s already been painted by Zod and the media as a criminal fugitive.  Go ahead and listen to Zod’s message again.  He referred to Kal-El as a “fugitive”.  Even the media afterward speculated that Kal-El needed to turn himself in and face “whatever crimes he’s accused of”.  Humanity’s first impression of Superman is already tainted even before he decides to hover over the military in his Kryptonian outfit.  That is not how you establish an iconic character!

Zod and the Kryptonians should have been included after Superman’s public debut, as part of a sequel.  Establish the greatness that Jor-El and Jonathan and the others kept on building him up to be first, have him face off against some unknown alien menace like Mongul, or a throw-away villain like Tyrell in “Superman: Earth One”.  Then bring in the Phantom Zone Kryptonians in a sequel, have humanity question Superman’s allegiances, and then he can validate their original trust in him.  Then Jenny can say “He saved us” and actually have it make sense.

There is only one thing that would make “Man of Steel” worse, and that would be if the Nolan-Snyder team decide to hit the reboot button again with the next movie.  I am not a fan of hitting “reboot” as a way to get out of bad production.  You do better to learn from it and move forward.  And I’m saying this knowing that Team Nolan-Snyder have already hit it when it comes to Batman.

No, “Man of Steel” wasn’t epic, but it certainly deserved a lot better than the troll reception that the Internet reviewers gave.

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