The Man of Steel Lacks Heart, Brain, Courage

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.

Superman Vol. 2 #22I 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?

Superman killsI 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?

especially not Superman

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Mike Greear is a journalism graduate from the University of West Florida currently living in New York City. During his time as an undergraduate, he reported on everything from Presidential campaign stops to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, eventually working his way up to being the editor-in-chief of the University of West Florida’s student newspaper, The Voyager. Since graduating, he worked briefly as a reporter for Foster’s Daily Democrat in New Hampshire, reporting on crime and municipal stories in the city of Rochester as well as interviewing Republican primary candidates, before returning to Florida and freelancing for the Pensacola News Journal. He now resides in Long Island City, writing weekly columns for and hoping to break into the comics scene.

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  1. Mike
    Not to single you out, but your review is part of the problem. See, everyone is treating Superman like he is a litmus test for morality. He is a fictional character that can shift and change as is the want of his writers. It doesn’t really matter on a critical level what he “does” for you or me. This is not only reductionist, but fatally so because you don’t quite elucidate what it is you wish Superman would have “done” for you. Within the world of the film he made a choice and one you wish he wouldn’t have made. But there it is. In pure digital brilliance. But, what does that choice mean for the over all series that is sure to come? You do raise one great question that will have to be addressed next film: Why not just snap the necks of every villain? Because by snapping Zod’s neck, he has actually put forth a form of Earthly justice. By killing Zod, he really is aligning himself with Earth over Zod, and in a way, over Krypton. He is saying, this place Earth, it is my home really. But he does not murder Zod. Let’s be clear. He kills Zod, as do soldiers in a war, but he does not murder. It’s the same reason the actual translation of the Ten Commandments says “Do not murder” and not the often mistranslated “Thou shall not kill.” No, you can kill and it can be utterly justified, but murder is wrong, it is a sin in that it misses the mark (the translation of the word ‘sin’). I think if anything this film deals with ethics and morality far more maturely than any part of Whedon’s Avengers flick. If anything having people banter over a destroyed city is, to me, a far darker affair than killing Zod.

    I am not a Synder apologist. Sucker-Punch was the epitome of video game-esque movie making and hollow at that. The only crime I see that Goyer/Snyder committed was possibly over-reach.

  2. I look at this movie from a very liberal point of view (and no not the annoying political usage of “liberal”). I’m OK with change, and in a chaotic way, I welcome it, in hopes that it’ll lead to something better.

    With that said, I’m seeing the modern movement of comic book movies (since, let’s say, BLADE in ’98 or X-MEN in ’00) as a sort of microcosm of comics history. It’s a stretch, but bear with me:

    Some writers, fine with “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” (in other words, money trumps all), will deliver what Mike Greear refers to above as the proper tone; with only the tiniest variations to the same old stuff that has made Company XYZ lots of dough. There’s nothing wrong with that, from a business standpoint. It’s safe. It’s conservative.

    However, through the lens of comics history, there have been liberal storytellers who became bored with the status quo, and they have tried to revise and / or subvert expectations in the name of (a) loosening the stranglehold “status quo” has on said hamstrung writer and (b) good storytelling. This sort of thing happened here and there throughout comics history, but it really became a “movement” in the mid-1980s. We all know the titles I’m talking about.

    Anyway, now let’s shift our focus to comic book movies. Since the turn of this century, comics movies have become big box office. This has sent Hollywood into a frenzy, looking for the next big thing. This frenzy has spawned all sorts of comics-related movies, from the indie-flavored variety all the way to super-heroes, and we’ve definitely seen some subversive and / or revisionist comics-related movies since ’98. but now, in 2013, we’ve come to a revised / subverted version of the Comic Book Daddy of them all: Superman. People are losing their shit over this movie. I’ve heard complaints before about comics movies not getting the tone right, but I’m getting “YOU DON’T FUCK WITH SUPERMAN. HE’S UN-FUCK-WITH-ABLE. THIS MOVIE MISSES THE POINT OF SUPERMAN.” (I’d like to point out here, that I’m not quoting Mike Greear or busting on him in any way. I love Mike and his output here on Sequart. My comment here is based on the overall reaction I’ve seen from people who have a similar opinions to the above review.)

    Now, I agree that the tone of this film can be jarring. But I feel that it’s only going to be jarring to hardcore Supes fans and / or comics purists. It won’t be jarring to your every-day Joe Popcorn Flick, who just wants to have a good time and who only knows a little about Superman. In other words, if you’ve never downloaded tons of Superman comics adventures into your brain, this film won’t be tonally jarring.

    Back to my microcosmy thing. Like I was saying, as with comics history, liberal revisionism and / or subversive tactics have been used in comics movies before, but now, with Superman, the daddy of them all, it’s just too much for hardcores and purists to handle. But I argue that these are the same people that most likely look back on DARK KNIGHT RETURNS as a classic or (at the very least) necessary for the sake of good storytelling. Yes, necessary. Necessary for the maturation of comics as a medium. Now while MAN OF STEEL probably won’t one day be looked at as a classic, I feel that it’s a necessary turning point for super-hero movies in the way that DKR was for comics. Let’s get some weirder stuff made, people! This could be the door we needed opened to get a proper Vertigo movie made. I know that jumping from MAN OF STEEL to ANIMAL MAN or DOOM PATROL is a stretch, but maturation / evolution doesn’t happen overnight.

    If you can’t revise, you’re forever going to be watching / reading the same stuff with only tiny variations. Doesn’t sound like a fun thing for a liberal person like me.

    (This is where someone chimes in to tell me, “But isn’t it ironic for a couple of reasons that the WATCHMEN movie didn’t get it’s tone right? You yourself probably complained about that didn’t you??” but they’d be wrong. I liked that movie too. We could categorize that movie as Subverting the Subversive. I love the thought! However, based on being faithful to the source material, MAN OF STEEL is way more subversive than the WATCHMEN film. I digress.)

  3. Mike Greear says:

    I don’t know. I just don’t think Superman is an idea that needs to be given all this heft and gravitas. It’s a guy with laser eyes who can deflect bullets and jump over buildings. His alter ego is a nerdy writer who can’t get a date. He’s every kid who ever felt like he was born on another planet because he didn’t fit in here. There’s no reason this needs to be some overwrought, pseudo-intellectual Nolan drama. Just tell a good story with the characters, already. These guys, Snyder and Goyer, just plain and simple don’t do that. This film was like someone taking a terrible, sub-par summer action film, like “Transformers 2,” and telling you that you absolutely had to take it seriously. Because superheroes are serious things and the world is a terrible place.

    I don’t want to take Superman seriously. I don’t need a Superman who kills people at the end of his films. To me, that misses the whole message of this character by a mile. I’m not saying Superman can’t be revised. The guy gets a new iteration every 15 years or so. To say he’s set in stone is ludicrous. But you can’t deviate from the core of the character as flagrantly as this film does. It doesn’t work.

    And beyond that, this was just a bad movie. Zack Snyder just does not make good movies. The action was boring and redundant and had no stakes. The dialogue was fucking terrible (“I’m a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist!”). The main character was a cypher. The relationships never feel real. None of the characters had even a fraction of the charm that they did under Richard Donner in the ’80s. I don’t know.

    • Does RED SON miss the point then? It massively deviates, but it’s still an important story. It pushes the boundaries of the super-hero medium.

      Now, this movie isn’t a masterpiece or anything, but it is necessary and it does expand the boundaries of super-hero comics movies. If we want better super-hero movies (just like we want better comics), you can’t expect the medium to go from zero to sixty; it has to start somewhere. The existence of this movie is a good thing, as far as my argument goes. Just like the WATCHMEN movie was a good thing for the same reason. I didn’t say they were amazing movies (they’re still solid, in my opinion; in fact, Julian’s review nails how I was feeling about it), but their existence is important if we want better super-hero movies.

      • But Mike, if we want better super-hero movies, shouldn’t we start with the basic things that make simply better movies? Again, I haven’t seen Man of Steel, but from 300 and Watchmen, I know that Snyder can’t stage a good scene. He may be good with special effects, but you give him two actors and some lines, and you get crap from him.

        We seem to judge superhero movies only for their overall concept (or, worse, by how faithful they are to our particular view of the characters), forgetting all the important stuff that truly makes a film memorable. I know that some of these films truly move some fans, and I’m fine with it, but they’re just not my thing. I mean, after all these superhero movies, we got only two great performances (Ledger and Downey Jr.), and frankly I don’t remember one great scene with them. When these movies try to show some emotion, they get weak, shallow, obvious and annoying. Instead, we get fake, unnecessary character motivativation and development. And then they blow stuff up. Sure, superhero comics weren’t usually the most subtle of arts, but… I see the cover of Secret Identity just below, and it pleased me so much more than all those movies.

        And that’s the thing: the best comic creators are better in their craft than the filmmakers doing superhero movies.

      • Cody Walker says:

        Facebook has ruined my brain in that I now want to click “like” when I read a comment I agree with. Sequart has no such function (nor should it, really, it’s just a product of conditioning).

        I guess what I’m saying is that I agree with Mike Phillips.

        Also, didn’t Superman kill Zod, Ursa, and Non in Superman II? Yes, he did with force beams from his fingers and a cellophane shield, no less.

        Didn’t Clark reveal that he was Superman to Lois? Didn’t they have sex? Wasn’t there a “super-kiss” that brainwashed Lois?

        All of those things happened and NONE of them would fit with a Superman story, but everyone wants to give the Donner films a pass because of nostalgia.

        Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE the Donner films and can ignore the ridiculous elements. I can embrace all the good in them just as I fully embrace all of the good in this film.

        Man of Steel didn’t do anything that didn’t already have precedent in the comics (with the exception of the DNA of every Kryptonian being embedded in Kal-El which was really cool and provided hope for a better future that so many of the films detractors are so willing to deny it). Sure, Superman probably should have saved more people, but in the grand scheme of things, it is a minor error in a film of so many wins.

      • Damn fine points about SUPERMAN II. *like*

  4. Cody Walker says:

    In 1989, my grandma taped the Adam West Batman movie off of Chicago’s WGN Channel 9. When the movie would go to commercial, an announcer would say something to the effect of, “We’ll be back to the REAL Batman in a few minutes” and in one commercial break, I recall the announcer even making fun of Michael Keaton as Batman (as if Adam West was a more legitimate choice).

    I bring this up because the arguments that Mike G is making here are nothing new. WGN was making the same arguments in 1989 about Burton’s Batman films and I’m sure people were making the same arguments in 2005 about the Nolan films. We all have these ideas of what a hero is or isn’t and then we complain when media doesn’t fit with our preconceived notions.

    Hell, Jim Beard and I used fight about this all the time and if he didn’t block me on Facebook because of our arguments, we would still be having them now! In the grand scheme of things, Man of Steel was more good than it was bad and it was a hell of a lot better than it could have been (Superman Returns or the failed Kevin Smith/Jon Peters film, anyone?) So, let’s count our blessings that Krypton actually blew up (because one script didn’t want that to happen), that Ma Kent wasn’t raped (as she was in the J.J. Abrams script), and that Lex Luthor wasn’t secretly Kryptonian.

  5. Cody Walker says:

    I just realized the title of this article refers to the Wizard of Oz. Now I’m imagining Superman singing the Cowardly Lion’s song.

    “If I were king of the forrrrrreeeeeesssst!”

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