With Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice about to hit theatres worldwide I thought I’d take another look at Warner Bros’s first entry in their DC Comics Extended Universe. Man of Steel was directed by “visionary director” Zack Snyder and as is often the case the term “visionary director” is to highlight the director’s unique visual style that hopefully compensates for his lack of storytelling ability. This is definitely the case here. Man of Steel is wrought with some truly breathtaking visuals but as a Superman story it’s a bit of a mess.
The benchmark to aim for when making a Superman movie is of course the Richard Donner movie starring Christopher Reeve; now I’m not saying that the 1978 Superman movie was perfect but to date Christopher Reeve is still the best live action portrayal of Superman/Clark Kent we’ve seen and Donner’s film was the first serious comic book movie that showed the studios you could make a lot of cash with this stuff, if done well. In 2006 Bryan Singer made a sequel to that film but unfortunately it was more of a love letter to Donner’s movie than a film that could stand on its own, and poor Brandon Routh, who is an excellent actor, was forced to do his best Christopher Reeve impression instead of being allowed to make the role his own. Flash forward seven years and Zack Snyder brought us his incarnation of the world’s first superhero, and he basically pissed over everything Superman as a character stood for. He also, for some reason, insisted on giving us Superman’s origin story again, as if everyone on the planet didn’t already know it.
It’s in this overlong opening that we learn of planet Krypton’s imminent destruction (we totally already knew this), but then we get Krypton’s military commander General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his followers initiating a coup d’état against the ruling council. Zod’s rebellion fails because it consists of like six or seven people. Did Krypton’s military commander forget to ask his army to join him for this little coup? Regardless the planet blows up and Jor-El (Russell Crowe) manages to send his son Kal-El, the first naturally born Kryptonian child in centuries, off in a rocket, but for some reason he infused Kal-El’s cells with a genetic codex of the entire Kryptonian race. Why did he do this? Zod wants the Codex so that he can pick and choose what genetic traits for his new master race, but what was the purpose of Jor-El sticking it inside his son? Was it just the best hiding place for it or did Jor-El plan on his son populating the Earth with a new race of Krptonians all on his own?
Zod and his compatriots survive the destruction of Kyrpton because they got sentenced to the Phantom Zone, but they are freed when the planet explodes, which I’ll grant is better than them being freed by an exploding French elevator. We then see Kal-El’s little rocket speed across the galaxy on its way to Kansas. The film then jumps ahead in time to an episode of Deadliest Catch where we see adult Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) working on a fishing boat that is then called to aid an oil rig that has become a raging inferno. Clark dives off the boat and uses his super strength and invulnerability to help with the evacuation.
This leads to some of the best and worst sections of this Superman story. Zack Snyder decides to jump back and forth along Superman’s timeline to tell of the early days of Clark Kent, and with these flashbacks there is stuff that we’ve actually haven’t seen depicted countless times before; a young Clark being terrified of his X-Ray vision, not being able to fight bullies because he could kill them with one punch, and him saving a school bus load of children when it goes off a bridge and into the river. Which brings me to my least favorite moment in the entire film and that is when Jonathon Kent (Kevin Costner) chides Clark for risking exposure by saving those kids from drowning.
Pa Kent: “Clark, you have to keep this side of yourself secret.”
Clark: “What was I supposed to do? Just let them die?”
Pa Kent: “Maybe.”
What the fuck? Superman’s dad actually says “maybe” when asked if he should have let a bus load of kids die. Superman is the way he is because of how he was raised by the Kents, and this version of Jonathon Kent is just such an asshole that I can barely wrap my head around the character, but then again this scene does kind of explain why Superman isn’t all that upset about the thousands of people in Metropolis who die during his fight with Zod.
Just how dumb is Jonathon Kent? Well when an approaching tornado threatens to kill the family dog good ole Jonathon runs back to the car to rescue said pooch, and though he saves the dog he is caught by the tornado and killed. I love animals just as much as the next guy and yet I’m not sure what kind of person would risk his life to save a dog in this instance, but sure, say they really loved that dog and Krypto is a swell pooch that they can’t live without, but then why didn’t Clark run back to the car? He could have easily run back at speeds not too suspicious for onlookers to see, got the dog free, and then made it back to safety. Instead moron, thy name is Jonathon Kent, stands in front of the tornado nobly waving off Clark’s desire to rescue him because that could expose the “Big Secret.”
How else did being raised by this version of Jonathon Kent affect Superman? Well in another flashback we see Clark working as a busboy at a truck stop and when one of the truckers is rude to a waitress he steps in to help and the trucker responds by pouring beer over Clark’s head. Now Clark could pop this jerks head like an overripe zit but that isn’t a very Superman thing to do so he turns and walks away, even ignoring the beer can the trucker bounces off Clark’s retreating head, but later when this asshole leaves he finds his truck smashed and impaled by several telephone poles. Let’s let slide the impossibility of doing that much damage to a truck, located just outside in in the parking lot, with no one hearing anything, but what this does show us is that Clark Kent is a vindictive dick. He just totalled a vehicle that costs roughly between $130,000 to $180,000 dollars and unless this trucker has a very understanding insurance company that guy’s livelihood is pretty much fucked.
So right there we have some interesting “Nature vs Nurture” elements that show how being raised by Snyder’s version of the Kents has changed his personality from the one most people are familiar with, but is there anything of Superman’s character we can recognize? Well when Zod shows up and demands that Kal-El surrender himself, or the people of Earth will suffer for it, Superman does come forward and hands himself over to the government. That is the kind of self-sacrificing move we’d expect from our Superman, but unfortunately it has to follow a scene where Clark goes to a church to find answers because we haven’t had the Superman is Jesus metaphors hammered into us enough over the last few decades.
When Clark finally dons the tights and cape and brings the fight to Zod, his tactics to say the least, are not all that good. Zod and his minions arrive at the Kent farming looking for the Codex and they threaten poor Martha Kent (Diane Lane), but Superman arrives in the nick of time, tackling Zod and carrying the villain away from the farm and Superman’s sweet mother. There are two problems with that strategy; first he ends up taking the fight from the rather isolated farmland to the much more populated town of Smallville where collateral damage will be greater and more lives put at risk, and secondly Superman left dear ole mom back at the farm with the other three Kryptonian supervillains.
Sure, we don’t actually get a shot of Zod’s henchwoman snapping Martha’s neck but there is no reason for them to leave her alive except to maybe take her as a useful hostage, which they do not do. Snyder never cuts back to the farm so we are supposed to assume that the three minions just immediately took off to help their fearless leader without one thought as to what to do with their enemy’s mother. At least Superman isn’t the only one who with poor tactical thinking. Speaking of bad tactics…
Experts estimate that the damage caused by Superman’s fight with Zod during the film’s third act to be at about $700 billion, with a total economic impact of around $2 trillion, and that’s not counting the 129,000 killed during the fight with another 250,000 missing in the rubble, and another million beyond that left injured. In Superman’s canon of films only Lex Luthor’s plan to drop California into the ocean would have caused more damage and loss of life, but Superman STOPPED THAT FROM HAPPENING.
In Superman II once Superman realized that the fight with the Kryptonian supervillains was causing too much damage, and was endangering lives, he lured them off to the Fortress of Solitude where he used his brain to defeat them. Now in Superman II it does look like Superman drops the de-powered villains to their deaths in the bowels of the Fortress but there was a deleted scene where the Kryptonians were later marched off in handcuffs, because Superman does not kill.
With the popularity of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films DC has taken the wrong lessons to heart. Nolan’s films were not successful because they were dark and gritty with the hero being a total badass, but because they had strong stories and dealt with characters that made logical decisions based on their life history. Henry Cavill is a fine actor, and he certainly looks the part, but he is not the Superman I poured over page after page of when I was reading comics as a kid. Now I’ve talked to many people who quite enjoyed this movie, and Snyder’s version of Superman, because they had no problem with the liberties he took with the character, and to be fair there have been many versions of Superman over the years, and there is an entire collection of DC comics that is dedicated to alternate versions of beloved characters called Elseworlds. Mark Millar’s wrote an Elseworld story entitled Superman: Red Son which answered the question “What if Superman was raised in Russia?” and so Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel is basically an Elseworld story that posits the theory of “What would Superman be like if he was raised by a terrible Jonathon Kent?”
Though this version of Superman wasn’t my cup of tea there were a few things I quite liked about Man of Steel; Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is finally shown to be fairly good investigative reporter who is able to track down and figure out who Superman really is, Laurence Fishburne brings the proper gravitas to the character of Perry White, and not since Christopher Reeve has there been an actor who looked the part as well as Henry Cavill does. I’d also like to give a shout out to Ayelet Zurer who played Lara Lor-Van, Superman’s biological mother, because she was just fantastic in this. Russell Crowe as “Action Jor-El” left me cold but Zurer’s Lara brought so much pathos and dignity to the character, and with virtually no dialog, that I wish she’d been the one to become a hologram in the Fortress of Solitude.
Man of Steel is one of those movies that angers me the more times I watch it, if just for the sheer loss of potential this movie squandered. With that cast and the amount of money spent on visual effects we could have had one of the best Superman movies to date, but instead we got Zack Snyder’s dull colour palette, with David S. Goyer’s nonsensical storytelling, making me look back more fondly at the misstep that was Superman Returns.