Jan 6, 2020
Man of Steel (2013)
Let me explain a little something about Superman and me, so you know where I’m coming from. To me, Superman is more than just a story. It’s an ideal. It’s a way of life. It’s a family tradition. My father, who himself grew up in Kansas where he jumped off roofs in a homemade red cape, introduced me to the character through the 1950s Adventures of Superman show and the Fleischer animated shorts. George Reeves is and will always be Superman to me. Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman is my favorite comic of all time, and pretty much the definitive Superman story. The character and his universe have been a source of inspiration and comfort since I was very young. You Batman fans can have that self-absorbed little psycho-bitch, me and the Boy in Blue are busy flying.
So it’s safe to say I hold anything Superman-related to a pretty high standard. No existing Superman movie to date has quite satisfied me yet, though the first film in 1978 came the closest. But at the same time, I don’t go looking for problems. The last thing I want is to dislike something Superman-related. So while I do demand quite a lot from Superman, I also try to keep an open mind about change. It took me a while to get used to, but I actually grew to love Grant Morrison’s* recent reimagining of the character in the pages of Action Comics (I would’ve actually preferred the T-shirt and jeans costume from that comic over the color-muted number he wears in this film, honestly).
[*Can you tell I like Grant Morrison? I really like Grant Morrison.]
The point being that there’s nothing I wanted more than to love this film. I desperately wanted to love it. For the last few weeks, little else has been on my mind. I’ve literally had nightmares (as sad as that is) about it. I’ve been so afraid that the film would disappoint, either by some fault of its own or by my own obsessive fanboy hang-ups. I went in with as open a mind as I could muster. I was ready to forgive the film for quite a bit. Whatever changes they wanted to make, however they wanted to play it, as long as it stayed true to the basic spirit of Superman, I was onboard for whatever they had in store.
And what they had in store was amazing. Damn near perfect, actually… for the first hour or so. The first two acts are so close to what I’ve always wanted out of a Superman film that I was repeatedly moved to tears. A lot of this is thanks to the perfectly cast Henry Cavill, easily the best Superman since George Reeves (yeah, I said it), but most of the real tearjerker moments were due to Kevin Costner, easily the best Jonathan Kent ever onscreen. His performance is so effortless and yet, so sincere and moving. His protectiveness towards his family, his basic decency, his quiet acceptance, every scene with him is so heartfelt you can’t help but feel involved.
The first flying sequence is worth the price of admission all on its own. The scope and sense of wonder it evokes is overwhelming, as Superman rockets across the globe, through the clouds, and into space, grinning all the while. Because how can you not have fun when you’re Superman? I caught myself unconsciously whispering, “make me believe, make me believe” in a disturbingly erotic fashion that I’m sure was very uncomfortable for those sitting next to me. Zack Snyder’s always demonstrated considerable skill as a cinematic visual artist, but this trumps all of his previous work. Every scene is so grand in scale it boggles the mind. If the goal of this film was to convey the awe-inspiring majesty of Superman and his world, then mission more than accomplished.
But once Zod and his crew show up, things start slowly growing less involving. Which is a shame, because Michael Shannon is great in the role: intense, menacing, and far more three-dimensional than the classic Terence Stamp version. So it’s a shame his arrival has to mark a turn for the worse. It’s not an immediate turn; it’s very gradual, and it doesn’t kill the movie. It just doesn’t live up to the promise of the first half.
The basic problem with it comes down to emotional engagement. As I said, the first half of the film is very emotionally engaging, because the film is so focused on the characters and their personal struggles. The latter half, however, demands you distance yourself from the characters. The reason for this is simple: it wants to have fun smashing stuff. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. I often enjoy watching Superman smash stuff. This movie was sold on the promise of Superman smashing stuff. We haven’t really had the opportunity to see Superman in an all-out fight in more than twenty years, and the promise of fighting on a Superman scale is a titillating one.
So the fact that Superman smashes stuff isn’t the issue. The issue is that they got so focused on Superman smashing stuff that they neglected the larger implications of Superman smashing stuff. The film has two major battlefields in which Superman engages Zod’s men: Smallville and Metropolis. Both of which are filled with people, and both of which are so thoroughly decimated that it’s impossible to buy that, at minimum, dozens and likely thousands of people weren’t killed in the ensuing carnage. But the film consistently ignores this very real tragedy in favor of focusing on just making Superman punching stuff look really cool. Sure, there’s a handful of moments where he stops to catch someone falling, but they’re few and far between, and thus feel very token. It’s like they knew they had to show Superman saving people, but they were reluctant to do so. Superman makes no real effort to move the fight away from the city, and it’s a while before anyone tries evacuating the area, and even then there’s always plenty of people waiting around to flee from falling debris.
Even once the fighting is over, no one really takes a moment to mourn. The upbeat tone of the ending pretty much confirms that we’re meant to forget the horrific implications of what we just witnessed. So because the last act demands that you not think about it too hard in order to enjoy it as intended, it lacks the personal feel of the first two acts, and feels more cold and emotionally distant.
It’s disappointing, because the film would’ve been so much more amazing if they’d just had the courage to go there. I’ve never really held to the idea that Superman stories have to always be bright and sunny and lighthearted. I’m fine with going to dark places with the character on occasion, as long as he himself remains the hopeful, inspiring figure I know and love. Imagine if throughout the battle, we’d actually seen all those people dying. Imagine Superman rushing around trying to fend off Zod while saving people from falling debris, but repeatedly failing. Imagine him getting more and more desperate to end the fight before more people die. Imagine the weight that would carry. Imagine how perfectly that would build up to those moments during the fight where Superman is forced to do some pretty dark stuff (which I’ll try not to spoil). Imagine the potential ways a sequel could capitalize on that. Superman actually did do something similar to the way he ends the fight once in the comics, and he was so distraught and guilt-ridden, he exiled himself into space over it. I appreciate that Superman seems remorseful in the moment, but it has no real impact when it’s completely forgotten in the next scene.
Like I said, none of this ruins the movie. They never quite cross the line of how far Superman should be allowed to go. But they do walk right up to the line and teeter there teasingly for the rest of the movie. I imagine it will play better the second time around, now that I know exactly how far they mean to take things. There are other things wrong with the movie, of course: most of the supporting cast are given next to nothing to work with, and there’s one clunky MacGuffin that adds nothing and the movie is maddeningly unclear as to its purpose. But an overall fantastic cast and Zack Snyder’s direction overcome what is, all in all, a pretty weak script, and make this easily the best Superman film since the 1978 classic. It’s a fantastic experience, with just enough flaws to make me excited to see how a sequel improves upon them.