It’s been two days since I saw Man of Steel and I haven’t stopped talking about it. Wait, let me revise that. It’s been two days since I saw Man of Steel and I haven’t stopped debating with my friends about whether the movie was amazing or total garbage. These kinds of highly-anticipated summer event movies usually incite a great deal of debate among fans and moviegoers who go back on forth saying that the movie was either a revelation or a complete pile of shit. And with reboots like this one, people have even more to argue about as they weigh the new film against those from the franchise’s prior iteration. So I knew that this debate was coming. I just wasn’t prepared to be on the side of people saying that this movie was a complete pile of shit.
(Spoilers for Man of Steel from here on out, guys.)
I went into Man of Steel expecting great things. So if I wound up hating it, it’s kinda my fault. I knew Zack Snyder doesn’t make good movies. I knew the grim tone set by Christopher Nolan in his Dark Knight series wouldn’t make for a satisfying Superman movie. I knew that David Goyer is… David Goyer. And yet, the previews won me over, as did actor Henry Cavill saying it was the best script he’d ever read, calling it less of a superhero movie and more of a film about a guy with an amazing story who grows into something resembling what we would probably call a superhero. That sounded perfect. It sounded like they’d gotten it right, and I held out hope that this would be the Superman movie that would finally tell a good story with the character.
Those hopes were dashed almost immediately once the film started. In fact, I remember the exact moment in the film when it happened. I was already worried that it was on shaky ground when it went from a 20 minute action set piece on Krypton (that already left me scratching my head in confusion) and then went straight into another action set piece with Superman as an adult saving people on an oil rig. A few scenes later, we get a flashback where young Clark is in school and he’s suddenly overloaded with stimuli as his powers kick in and he begins to see people without their skin and hear things miles away. The kid freaks out and hides in a closet refusing to come out until Ma Kent comes to talk him down. The scene is horribly acted, which sucks but is kinda to be expected when it centers around a child actor in a small role, but it’s when Ma Kent shows up that it all went south. She calls out to Clark to imagine her voice as an island in a vast ocean. “Can you see it?” “Yeah, Ma.” “Then swim towards it.” Terrible. That was when I got the fear. That was when I thought to myself, “uh oh. Is this… gonna be… bad?”
And it all went downhill from there. Clark meets Lois way too early in the story and she already knows who he is so the beautiful Lois / Clark / Superman two-person love triangle is immediately negated for the rest of the series. Their relationship in this film never feels believable and when they have their on-screen kiss in the third act it didn’t feel earned at all, just thrown in out of obligation. In fact none of the relationships feel believable in this film. None of the characters feel real or properly developed. The Kevin Costner flashback scenes were all hammy and ridiculous, leading up to one of the dumbest scenes in the entire film, Pa Kent’s utterly stupid death-by-tornado moment. Because Zack Snyder can’t have a poignant moment without some kind of large-scale disaster happening in the middle of it? And I felt like the rest of the “Tree of Life”-ish flashbacks to Clark’s childhood growing up in smalltown America were just a put-on to make you think there was some kind of idea or technique or style somewhere in this movie.
Spoilers: there isn’t. The movie falls over itself to get to the big action set pieces, to get Kal-El into the red cape and blue tights and have him punching explosions in the face. But not ever enjoying himself, because superheroing is a curse, not a blessing, right? And never protecting people either, because that would make him boring or too nice. We don’t want all that, we want the hour-long video game cutscene that was the real reason for Zack Snyder being tapped to direct this movie. Superman Returns was too dour and introspective and subtle, so let’s do a Superman film that’s dour and KICK ASS, BRO! This movie was the film equivalent of Dub Step music.
Moreover, this just feels like a Superman story for people who don’t enjoy Superman or his story. I mean, this is a mythology that has been revised and strengthened and enriched by hundreds of different, very smart creators over the span of 75 Earth years. There’s no excuse for turning in a film that can’t make heads or tales of this world or its characters. Unless, I suppose, the people who made the film were never that into this world or its characters in the first place.
I was most certain of this when I got to the end of the film and watched as Superman essentially took it upon himself to murder Zod with his bare hands. Now, for some, this wasn’t that big of a deal. I had a friend today tell me that it was his favorite part of the movie because it showed Superman make a difficult decision, which made him more like us. Sequart’s intrepid webmaster, Cody Walker, said that an issue of Superman by John Byrne actually set the precedent for Supes killing an enemy for the greater good. And of course, in the film we are meant to understand that he had no other choice, that he did what he did in order to save innocent bystanders.
I don’t buy it. If it were a proper Superman story, Supes would’ve figured out a better way. That’s the thing about Superman. He’s not like us. He’s better than us. He shows us the better way. We should be striving to be more like him, not to drag him down to our level. As soon as this moment happened, I was done with this film. I don’t know who that guy is on the screen in the red and blue spandex, but he isn’t Superman. The Superman I know would’ve hung up his cape after taking a life, villain or not. Instead, this guy is totally fine by the next scene, engaging in cutesy banter with General Whatshisface. He’s taken a life and he’s fine with it. The next time will only be easier. Easier to justify. What’s to stop him snapping Lex Luthor’s neck? Or Metallo’s? Or Batman’s?
I can only assume, based on this scene, that the people behind this film weren’t actually trying to write Superman. They wanted to write a badass anti-hero, someone who is flawed and impure, someone who fails at being a hero. Heroes are boring. Antiheroes are gritty and realistic and blah, blah, blah. Who fucking cares.
I know I’ve given a lot of shitty movies a pass before. Amazing Spider-Man was not a great film, but it nailed the tone and the characters and it was a decent Young Adult superhero flick that gave me good ol’ high school-y feels. The Avengers was far from perfect, but nailed the tone and the characters and it was just non-stop pure, unadulterated geek joy. This film didn’t do any of that for me. In general Marvel films don’t beg to be taken as seriously as DC movies do, either. But if you put Nolan’s name on a Superman movie, you’re going to expect a halfway-competent, quasi-mature superhero flick. That’s what I thought I was going to get here. I wanted a Batman Begins for Superman. Something that would not only finally give Superman the post-Donner film franchise that he’s been waiting for, but give millions of moviegoers an honest-to-god superhero to look up to, the way I look up to this guy. But this wasn’t that movie.
Like I said, I haven’t stopped talking about this movie since it came out. I probably have a lot left to say about it in the days to come. So in the long run, this is probably good for Superman. But from an artistic standpoint, these characters deserved better than what they got with this movie. I’m sure Warner Bros. is very proud of itself, and will be making lots of money. They’ve already signed off on a sequel. Comic-book artist Bryan Hitch recently tweeted that the DC cinematic universe has arrived, and it belongs to Goyer and Snyder. This is it, guys. This is the Superman for our generation. Are you really all that proud of what you got?