The Man of Steel is very much Zack Snyder’s. But that doesn’t mean what we thought it did.
(As usual, here there be spoilers.)
Prior to the film’s release, super-hero fans had a lot of concern about Zack Snyder. His Watchmen seemed to miss the quotidian realism of the original. Characters who were all-too-human in the graphic novel, like Night Owl, instead flipped around and kicked in glorious slow-motion, knocking people down and even shattering concrete. Snyder’s 300, while visually beautiful, wasn’t exactly deep, and Snyder seemed completely oblivious to its fascistic and wildly homoerotic overtones. Similarly, Snyder’s Sucker Punch was a visual (and musical) feast hung on a plot that, while filled with interesting themes, seemed to exist simply to justify various action sequences set in different worlds.
Now, choosing Snyder as director made a certain sense for Superman. After all, the previous Superman film — 2006′s Superman Returns, directed by Bryan Singer — was widely criticized for focusing too much on character and for not giving Superman something to punch. Such a criticism is impossible of anything Snyder has done. If anything, choosing him as director seemed to be overcompensating. On the spectrum between emphasis on character and emphasis on action, Snyder’s films have been decidedly on the latter side.
Balancing out Snyder’s preference for action was a script by David S. Goyer, based on a story by Goyer and Christopher Nolan. The pair is best known for its work on Nolan’s three Batman films, on which they brought intelligence and realism to the Batman story.
Complicating this dynamic is the fact that a lot of what’s been most celebrated about Superman isn’t action. Sure, Superman fans love Zod from Superman II. But the original movies were just as famous for Christopher Reeves’ brilliant portrayal of a stumbling Clark Kent. Or for the first film’s extended portrayal of Krypton and of Clark’s childhood in Smallville. Superman Returns got a lot of mileage out of taking Superman’s relationship with Lois Lane in a challenging but touching new direction. It might not have been judged a box-office success (although it made almost as much as Batman Begins), but it showed how Superman could be depicted using current cinematic technology. Above all, Bryan Singer’s Superman was defined by grace. His leading actor, Brandon Routh, had a thin frame, conveying the idea that Superman’s power didn’t lie in muscles. The result was often stunningly beautiful, even meditative, even if it failed to deliver the action many wanted.
I don’t think anyone doubted that Zack Snyder could bring the action. But it’s one thing for Sucker Punch to be a kind of sugary treat, a largely vapid visual extravaganza with only music and thematic lines to suggest anything deeper, and quite another thing to do this with a Superman movie. If his reboot failed to deliver on deeper levels, it would be judged an affront to the character — the dumbing-down of an American icon.
It’s worth staying with Superman Returns for a moment. The biggest criticism of that film remains that it’s too much of an homage to the earlier Superman films. But it’s important to remember that the reason Singer made that choice was because he, like so many, considered those movies to be classics. Why throw them out? Any reboot is obligated to tell the origin all over again, and the 1978 Superman had done so well and at length. Christopher Nolan’s reboot of Batman was premised on the idea that the four preceding films were not “definitive,” specifically contrasting this to Christopher Reeves’s Superman. If you’re going to reboot Superman, it had better be good. The bar’s set pretty high.
In the weeks before the release of The Man of Steel, these thoughts weighed on me. And with every trailer and every advertisement for a product tie-in, my hopes diminished. The movie’s trailers were filled with shots of Superman flying and gritting his teeth, along with the requisite explosions, leading to the impression that this was very much a Zack Snyder Superman, as some had feared — a 300 with costumes. Yes, there were some generic shots of a young Superman saving kids on a bus, and some generic dialogue, but nothing that could compete with Marlon Brando’s narration from the 1978 film.
One clip included a female soldier remarking that Superman was hot. This is something Thor did again and again, to its shame, and it’s become increasingly common, especially in Hollywood. I suppose it’s intended as empowering to women, but it’s a lazy way of achieving this, since it simply transposes male visual arousal at a bizarre, socially conditioned ideal form onto women. But its real function is simply to underline “look at this guy we cast, he’s a hunk!” again and again, as if viewers haven’t already noticed. It’s not something that’s automatically bad, but it’s become a hallmark of some very bad moviemaking.
Worse, advertisements for products flooded the airwaves, often with the most tenuous of connections to Superman. Twizzlers candy was strong like Superman. And you could join the National Guard to be a hero like Superman — surely one of the most insidious tie-in advertisements ever produced. Accompanying these were those same generic shots of Superman flying, completely lacking the grace we’ve come to expect in cinematic depictions of this being so comfortable with his own immense power that he glides effortlessly through the air and alights as he lands. This was bad stuff. It was wrong, and it played into the narrative critics had already set up for Zack Snyder — or worse, that he’d get the tone of Superman as wrong as he seemed to get the tone of Watchmen.
For my money, the trailers for Superman Returns, with that haunting original theme and Marlon Brando’s voiceover over gloriously beautiful imagery, was a thousand times better.
Having seen The Man of Steel, it’s now clear to me that these advertisements didn’t do the film justice. Their goal wasn’t to communicate the film’s plot or its intelligence. They were designed to tell people three things: (1) Superman was going to punch people this time, (2) this is a reboot that doesn’t require any prior knowledge of the character, and (3) this movie’s by Zack Snyder and the people who brought you Nolan’s Batman.
Oh, and that sexual comment? It’s only there once, unlike the deluge of such comments in Thor. And it’s comedic relief, at the end, after the action’s over. Totally not a big deal.
The movie itself isn’t particularly subtle, but it’s not lacking depth. Some of this is certainly Goyer and Nolan’s work. The two especially like to tie a movie together as a single story, which is why Ra’s al Ghul was Batman’s mentor in Batman Begins; the final act fulfills the first, something the 1978 movie can’t claim. Thus, Zod’s a big part of the opening sequence set on Krypton. In fact, Jor-El dies not when the planet explodes but at Zod’s hands, thus making Superman’s battle with Zod more meaningful. And even when Zod’s not around, the whole thing’s tied together by the story of Clark discovering his heritage and figuring out what it means. This might not be a movie with a message, but it is a movie with a thesis.
Like Batman Begins, The Man of Steel displaces as much of the origin as possible, in order to prevent a large information dump. In fact, the fullest history of Krypton is given halfway through the movie, when Clark discovers his origins — a fact that might seem counter-intuitive at first, but which is actually entirely logical. Clues about Krypton’s history, social stratification, and technology continue to drip out as the movie continues, so that you feel as if there’s a payoff to all of that Kryptonian stuff. It’s not simply an origin grafted onto the beginning of the film; instead, it’s woven inseparably into the whole. This smart structuring helps the film feel like it goes somewhere.
Clark Kent doesn’t brood; he doesn’t have monologues about his place in the world. But by the end, he’s come to understand himself both as a Kryptonian and as someone not bound by Kryptonian culture, which ended in destruction.
This is so well done that it’s almost impossible to imagine, after The Man of Steel, that Lex Luthor has been in every single previous Superman cinematic outing. Superman fans sometimes lamented this, knowing that Superman had several worthwhile villains; the Joker might be Batman’s best villain, but the Joker doesn’t need to be in every movie. After The Man of Steel, it’s hard to imagine that anyone wouldn’t use Zod as Superman’s first villain. That’s how well Goyer and Nolan weave their origin story together.
That’s not to say the movie doesn’t have problems on this front. The opening Kryptonian sequence is remarkably weak, filled with melodrama that feels melodramatic. Even Jor-El has to be recast as an action hero. The idea may be to show that he’s a hero too, even if this suggests that the film sees Superman as a genetic hero from superior stock, rather than a self-made man. That’s problematic in itself, but what’s worse is that this is done in the most absurd, over-the-top way, with Jor-El diving and leaping off of buildings and fighting Snyder-style as the world crumbles around him. If anything, Jor-El’s more of an action hero than his son, because Jor-El lacks super-powers. (Watching this, I thought, “Oh, no… a Jor-El straight out of 300.”)
Also, Krypton is a strange blend of science fiction and fantasy. For example, there’s a flying dragon-like animal that seems like something out of Lord of the Rings. And it makes no sense, since a Kryptonian computer flies right alongside the animal. A lot of this feels more like Disney’s recent John Carter than Krypton, and it’s the clearest place in which the reboot makes changes that fail to live up to its predecessors.
(Yes, I get that this is supposed to feel truly alien, and that’s well and good. But the 1978 Superman had an alien Krypton too. Only that one was defined by cerebral austerity, which works better within a sci-fi setting than dragons and swashbuckling action-hero melodrama. The Krypton of The Man of Steel feels a bit more like the Asgard of Thor than an advanced alien planet.)
There’s also the problem of space travel. Krypton can’t have easy space travel because otherwise it could evacuate. Yet we see Zod and his crew shot into space in pods not much bigger than they are. Why couldn’t Jor-El and Lara, or others, simply use these same pods? It’s a big and rather obvious hole in the plot.
Similarly, the technology that Jor-El modifies to send his child to Earth is also modified by Zod, so it can’t be all that difficult. Also, we’re told that Krypton once colonized many planets. Later, we’re even shown that Krypton apparently (and absurdly) left those colonies to die. Why these colonists would have died isn’t clear; they don’t seem to have needed supplies from their home planet. But having Krypton colonize large sections of space only underlines how bizarre it is that Kryptonians, or at least Jor-El and Lara, don’t evacuate.
In fact, the movie’s weakest portion is its opening. It’s so bad that I almost walked out before the end of the Kryptonian sequence. What follows directly isn’t much better; the movie shifts from its melodramatic and nonsensical Kryptonian business to an oil rig fire, which is depicted with lots of fire and meldramatic music. The image, seen in trailers, of a bearded Clark holding collapsing metal as embers flicker around him — an image that looks straight out of 300 — comes from this sequence. In real life, the helicopter that rescues the oil rig’s crew wouldn’t have landed, due to the flames (and the wind currents they create) all around the landing pad.
Soon, we’re treated to the school-bus scene, in which a young Clark rescued his classmates. It’s not badly done, but it’s hard to see the bus go into the water and not wonder why Clark happens to be around so many improbable tragedies. Also in this category is the later tornado sequence, in which Clark’s adoptive father, Jonathan Kent, is killed. (This sequence is poorly done, although it’s in service of the deeper message that Jonathan doesn’t want Clark to use his powers yet.) Being on a school bus that plunges into the water, being in a tornado and seeing your father die, being near an oil rig explosion — any one of these would be more than enough coincidental tragedy for one life, but these things just keep happening to Clark.
There are other problems with the script. Lois Lane follows Clark around a perilous ice ledge, which he presumably only takes because he knows he’s invulnerable. (I know Lois is supposed to be brave, but this seems more suicidal — and a further perpetuation of how Hollywood often treats its all-too-human characters as basically invulnerable.) When Clark takes the scout ship to the arctic, I burst out laughing, thinking about how easily it would be tracked, or at least spotted. I also don’t see why Superman has to have such huge muscles, since there’s no indication that he does a lot of exercise; he gets his power by virtue of being a Kryptonian, and it’s odd to see him looking like he regularly uses steroids.
It’s worth mentioning that most of this was presumably in the script, meaning it’s not entirely Snyder’s fault. Goyer and Nolan share the blame.
But by the time we get to the school-bus scene, the movie’s already starting to get good. And all of it has to do with revisionism, which in super-hero comics was the movement (begun in the 1980s) that brought intelligence and realism to the super-hero genre.
And so one of the reactions we see to young Clark saving his classmates on the school bus is a religious one. Of course, it would be. This is rural Kansas, and one can’t pretend it’s not a red state, with cultural particulars. That’s a very smart, realistic thing to do, and while it’s not done too much in the film (or enough for my taste), the movie’s willing to go there. And to the film’s credit, the dialogue has an edge to it; it’s not a platitude, nor part of the idyllic depiction of Midwestern life shown in the 1978 film.
Similarly, we see young Clark struggling with his powers, seeing people’s bones and musculature beneath their skin. It’s horrifying, as of course it would be for a child. So too does Clark struggle with his super-hearing. Again, the movie doesn’t take this as far as it might, but it’s there. And it’s important, as part of our understanding of what super-powers mean, or would actually feel like to have or to experience. This also comes back later, as Zod struggles in the same way, further tying the film together as a whole.
So too do we see a young Clark struggling not to hit a bully, and we realize that he would have killed the other child if he hadn’t restrained himself. Personally, I find it hard to believe that any child would restrain himself so reliably throughout his childhood to this extent, but this is still a much more realistic Superman than we’ve previously seen.
The Man of Steel also improves upon certain aspects of Nolan’s Batman films, which are known for their realism (but which nonetheless have their own improbable elements and plot holes). One of the biggest failings of the Nolan Batman films lies in their unrealistic depiction of human nature. In those films, people usually can’t wait to comply with terrorist threats. When the Joker says people need to kill a man who’s going to reveal Batman’s identity, people might be horrified by they want that man dead. In The Dark Knight Rises, all it takes is the claim that Gotham will blow up to get the government to enforce Bane’s decree that no one should be allowed to leave Gotham. The city has millions of citizens, yet no one outside of the protagonists is shown trying to escape; everyone else is content to believe and to obey the terrorist who’s taken control of their city.
When Zod arrives on Earth and demands that Superman be surrendered, humans similarly seem eager to comply. But this is much more understandable and realistic, because humans have no idea about Krypton’s culture. Essentially, the situation is no different than when a nation demands one of its own citizens be extradited. That this demand is backed up by obviously superior alien technology only makes complying easier. But even when the military gives Superman to Zod, it refuses to surrender Lois Lane too — as well it should.
On this point, how great is it that Superman surrenders? As he puts it, he’s not surrendering to Zod; he’s surrendering to humanity. This makes perfect sense, since Superman’s an extraterrestrial living on Earth; Earth ought to have some say in whether it grants him asylum or not. And how great is it that, when he wears handcuffs (an image prominently featured in promotions for the film), it’s because he chooses to, to put humans at ease. People may complain that Superman’s sweet heroism, the kind associated with retrieving cats from trees, isn’t present in this film. But for my money, his willingness to surrender, despite not trusting Zod, is extremely heroic.
The scene in which Superman reveals that he can see and hear through the traditional one-way mirror is also well done. One gets the sense that the government realizes it’s impotent, when faced with Superman’s unparalleled power, but still has to take precautions even if they’re not effective. It’s another example of the realism with which The Man of Steel approaches its depiction of Superman’s powers.
The passivity of people in Nolan’s Batman films, in response to terrorist threats, is connected to another, deeper problem in those films: normal people are powerless, and only the protagonists can save them. Even the police (unless they’re a main character) are hapless. They have to be, or else we might not endorse a vigilante beating up villains (and even the police when they intervene). The super-hero alone knows what’s best, and never mind that police and the military have had training for these specific situations. This problem isn’t confined to Nolan’s films, of course. The Avengers is a perfect example; Captain America (whose tactics are 70 years out of date) barks orders to hapless cops, and the military can’t stop the invading aliens but Hawkeye’s arrows are effective enough.
In The Man of Steel, Superman shows respect for normal humans — so much so that he surrenders to them. And crucially, humans succeed in downing Zod’s ship, albeit by following Superman’s plan. Sad as it is to say, it’s truly remarkable that regular humans have anything important to do in a super-hero climax, let alone have such a key role as they do here. Who would have guessed that The Man of Steel would be so affirming of normal people and what they’re capable of?
There are other revisionist, realistic touches in the film as well. Lex Luthor’s not in this film at all, although there are a few LexCorp logos, indicating that the Lex Luthor of this universe is more like the businessman of the comics (after Crisis on Infinite Earths) than the somewhat bumbling villain portrayed by Gene Hackman.
And of course, there’s no sign of Kryptonite. It never really made sense that pieces of his home planet would hurt Superman, and Kryptonite was only invented as a convenient weakness for writers, the same way Green Lantern was vulnerable to either wood or the color yellow, depending on the incarnation. Getting rid of Kryptonite (or at least not showing it yet) is a major step towards realism.
But when it comes to the realism of The Man of Steel, nothing represents this better than Zod. He’s not at all the kind of mustache-twirling villain we still see in many super-hero stories. Yes, he decides to terraform Earth — after Superman has escaped. But Zod does this so that he will have a homeworld again. Ra’s al Ghul doesn’t really need to kill everyone in Gotham. The villain of Iron Man goes on a needless, totally illogical rampage to set up the climax. Zod just wants a home.
Here again, the movie excels by tying everything together. Krypton’s social structure was a caste system, with births occurring artificially and genes cultivated for specific roles. Zod was a military commander, and he was bred to see the survival of Krypton as his paramount concern. Compared to that, humans don’t mean much to him. And it’s easy to understand that thinking; most humans would choose to extinguish another species, if it meant the survival of humanity.
Zod’s not really bad. It’s in his genes.
It’s not Zod that’s evil. It’s Krypton.
That’s not only a dark, revisionist move. It’s also realistic. How unlikely would it be that present-day humans would perceive an alien culture as moral? We would judge our own culture, a century or two ago, as terribly unjust and immoral if we encountered it today. We have every reason to think our descendants will someday feel the same way about us. The rebooted Battlestar Galactica scored a lot of praise by making its human society alien and other, in the process raising moral questions. The Man of Steel‘s Krypton isn’t that different.
The film’s final climax comes after Zod’s ships (and crew) have been destroyed and Superman has fought Zod one-on-one. In the end, Zod uses his heat vision to cut a swath across a wall, causing a family to cower in the corner. Zod makes his deadly intentions clear to Superman, and Superman kills Zod.
It’s a reference to Superman Vol. 2 #22 (Oct 1988), the final issue of John Byrne’s run on the character, in which Superman killed Zod and two cohorts — the first and only time he’d consciously killed someone.
But it’s important that we understand that Zod wants to die. If we don’t, the scene doesn’t make sense at all.
All Zod has to do is move his eyes to the left, and he’d roast the cowering humans. Superman might be holding Zod in place, but he can’t hold Zod’s eyes still.
Zod’s created this situation. He wants to die. He’s already lost. His ships are gone. His people are dead. His mission was to secure Krypton’s future, and he’s failed. All that’s left for Zod is the death in battle that his sub-commander Faora talked about — and has already received.
In a way, getting Superman to kill him is Zod’s final — and only — triumph.
You can call this dark, but it flows directly from what Zod is. From what he was born to be. It’s of a piece with the entire rest of the film.
In fact, this is just the very end of the film’s rather dramatic climax, in which we see Metropolis devastated. Buildings collapse. People die — though sadly, the film (like Nolan’s Batman trilogy) doesn’t show this, which has the effect of rendering violence cool instead of horrific. But there’s a deeper issue at work here.
A world in which super-heroes really existed would have this kind of devastation. Some critics have pointed out the similarities between the sequence and 9/11, and it’s certainly informed by 9/11 — particularly when Perry White struggles unsuccessfully to free a coworker who trapped in debris. But those are just overtones. The real reference is to revisionism. Because it’s been a stable of those super-hero stories that super-hero violence would indeed be terrible, much as Snyder depicts.
This is never clearer than when Superman fights Zod one-on-one. In one shot, the camera holds still as Superman sent flying through one building after another. We aren’t shown it, but it’s hard to believe these impacts don’t cause deaths. In another sequence, we follow the combatants through the air at great speed. It’s brutal stuff.
While the depiction of fatalities has been diminished to get the desired MPAA rating, the sequence recalls nothing so strongly as the famous climax of Alan Moore’s Miracleman, a revisionist super-hero classic. There, the protagonist battles his arch-villain, devastating much of London.
That climax defied super-hero expectations in several ways. The super-hero didn’t save everyone. Not only did people die, but a lot of people died in a super-powered fight that caused widespread carnage. What’s more, Miracleman, like Superman in The Man of Steel, didn’t seem all that concerned about these fatalities, in the context of stakes so dire that taking out the villain can be the only concern.
And in the end, as in The Man of Steel, the hero has to kill the villain to prevent others from being killed. There, as with Superman in The Man of Steel, Miracleman doesn’t want to do it, although he knows he must.
It is, like the best of climaxes, the fulfillment of everything that’s gone before. Not only because the story of The Man of Steel is so coherent as a whole. But because that story is, while not without notable exceptions, so smartly realistic.
Yes, I know New York City was devastated in The Avengers. But the tone there is entirely different. There are no laughs or jovial banter, amid the carnage of Metropolis. And there’s much more emphasis, in The Man of Steel, on the trauma this causes for average people, who aren’t given a voice in The Avengers. It might be exciting to see Superman fight as buildings fall, but it’s not fun in the way that seeing the Hulk humorously crash into a building is.
In their realistic agenda, Snyder and the film’s writers fail most severely in the dénouement. With the drama over, the film updates us on Superman’s relationship to the government and introduces Clark Kent in glasses for the first time at the Daily Planet. What it fails to show us is Metropolis rebuilding, or funerals for the tens of thousands of dead, or eulogies recounting the various ways they died, or a relief fund being set up, or family members mourning. Or the various nations of the world, furious that America seems to have one of these Kryptonians — the only one left — working with the U.S. military. Or, as happened in Moore’s next (and final) issue of Miracleman, the super-hero responding with nothing short of a total political restructuring of the world. All of this is yet too much for Hollywood.
Still, Snyder’s The Man of Steel is as close as we’ve come to something like Miracleman. It’s the closest we’ve got to a real revisionist super-hero classic on the screen.
And it’s this, not the glossiness of his violence, that most defines Zack Snyder’s take on the super-hero.
There’s a reason he was the one to adapt Watchmen. He liked the graphic novel, and he was absurdly faithful to it. He also said publicly that he took the job because he knew others wouldn’t be so faithful. Snyder may have screwed up the tone, but the movie was a love letter to Watchmen. And perhaps, by extension, to the revisionist movement of which Watchmen was a part. As he said in press for the film, super-hero movies haven’t really caught up with the intelligence of super-hero comics like Watchmen.
Snyder may be most known for his stylized violence. But the stylized violence in The Man of Steel, like that in other revisionist works, is about something. It’s about what super-heroes would look like — and what they’d cause — in the real world. That’s something the Marvel movies, for example, don’t seem very interested in exploring. The Man of Steel might not be the Watchmen of super-hero movies, but it’s a major step in that direction.