‘Man Of Steel’: On My Planet, The ‘S’ Is For Sucks [Spoilers]
If you like Superman movies that we already have, then I imagine you have the best chance of being entertained by Man of Steel. That’s really the nicest thing I can say about it, and I say it because when you get right down to it, most of the considerable mistakes that made Man of Steel downright unbearable for me were made in those, too. In that respect, it’s really just the latest installment of The Adventures of Terrible Movie Superman.
The only real difference is that Zack Snyder somehow manages to do it in a far more drab, cynical and ultimately tone-deaf way. And considering that the last attempt was Superman Returns, that’s saying something.
[Spoilers after the jump ]It’s not that there isn’t anything good about this movie, because there is. There are a couple of nice scenes, and there are even solid intentions behind some of the bits that almost work, but the rest of the movie manages to drown them out with ruthless efficiency every chance it gets. Every single problem with Man of Steel has its roots in a desire to be aggressively “adult” in the dumbest possible way. This is a Superman movie without any bright colors, where there are endless flashbacks to Clark Kent as a sad little boy, where Superman wins by snapping General Zod’s neck and killing him.
For a lot of people — including Superman: Birthright writer Mark Waid — that’s the point that broke the movie. To be entirely fair about it, though, that’s not without precedent. Superman II, the movie that’s been looming over the entire franchise for the past 33 years, ends with Christopher Reeve cheerfully dropping a de-powered General Zod off a cliff and then flying off to beat up a trucker and slip his girlfriend a Forget-Me-Now. It even happened in the comics back in 1988, when Superman went to a parallel Earth that Zod had completely destroyed at the climax of John Byrne’s post-Crisis reboot.
Movie Zod’s intentions toward genocide are made abundantly clear through the course of Snyder’s drawn-out disaster porn (more on that later), so it’s on the same scale as his comic book counterpart’s murder of five billion people, but there’s a key difference. When this scene played out in the comic, for good or bad, it was played as a turning point. Byrne’s version of Superman was still a relatively new take, but the character had a fifty year history of refusing to kill, and when he did, even in a pocket universe, there were huge consequences. It was played as out-of-character for Superman immediately — probably because Byrne left the book immediately after. It was haunting and jarring because everyone played it as something that was fundamentally wrong, and they allowed it to fester as a shameful mark on Superman’s history for over a year.
The stress and shame of having killed someone was so great that he ended up going insane and dressing up as a vigilante called Gangbuster for a while, before exiling himself from Earth because he didn’t want to be a danger to anyone else. There was long-form storytelling about Superman having to come to grips with the decision to kill, whether it was justified, and what it meant for someone with his power to use it to take life rather than protect it. He was pushed to his limit in that story and found the strength to not kill, and to never take a life again. Even if it was just the new creative teams trying to repair the damage of what they (perhaps rightly) saw as a bad story, there were consequences that explored the character.
In the movie, he just yells for a second and then flies off to the next scene, where he’s all smiles and setups for the last big laugh line of the film. Zod’s death at Superman’s hands is shown as necessary and inevitable, just like all the other Kryptonians who died when Superman crashed their ship, or Jor-El and Lois turned the rocket that brought him to Earth into a giant bomb. I think it’s meant to create a black hole that sucks the bad guys back into the Phantom Zone (the movie’s not all that clear on its pseudoscience), but regardless, I think that might be the best summary this movie could ask for: the rocket that saved his life as a baby is turned into a bomb. There’s your “It Stands For Hope,” kids. A weaponized cradle. Violence and death and murder are an integral part of how Superman solves Man of Steel‘s problems.
Look: I am the last dude in the world who wants to see a movie with Superman moping around and coming to terms with his great responsibility. That’s not really what the character’s about. But the best way to avoid that is to not write a movie where he kills someone in the first place. There’s no need for it. All it does is drag things down to the level of a standard-issue action movie, where the good guy kills the bad guy because that’s how action movies work. It’s pointless.
But to be honest, I expected it. Like I said, this mistake isn’t something new to Man of Steel; Movie Superman has always had a much easier time dishing out the death penalty than he does in the source material, and he’s not alone. There are a ton of superhero movies where the good guys kill the bad guys at the end, from Iron Man to Avengers to the dicier bits of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies. At the very least, though, those movies have an arc to them that shows character development, from Iron Man rising above a desire for revenge to Bruce Wayne learning the value of not killing the Joker after leaving Ra’s al-Ghul to die in the previous movie. I guess there’s a possibility that Warner Brothers could release a Gangbuster movie and just not tell anyone it’s Henry Cavill as Clark Kent going through a nervous breakdown under the mask, but I somehow doubt that’s where they’re going with the franchise.
If they do, though, I can assure you that I will rescind this particular complaint. I have plenty of others.
For me, the worst thing about Superman killing Zod at the end of Man of Steel isn’t the neck-snapping itself, but that a few minutes before it happens, during an interminable fight scene through the damn near post-apocalyptic landscape of a ruined Metropolis, Zod tells him something along the lines of “this doesn’t end until one of us dies.” And he’s right. That’s what kills me about it. The bad guy tells Superman that he’ll only stop if Superman kills him, and Superman proves him right. Superman proves that the bad guy is right. There’s no other way. It’s just violence and death as the only solution.
Superman proves that the bad guy is right.
There is nothing you can tell me that will make me think that’s not a completely insane, monumentally wrongheaded way to end a Superman movie. From a character standpoint, it is the worst possible thing they could do, undermining every bit of rancid dialogue about how Superman’s going to Show Us The Way and how It Stands For Hope. It doesn’t. It’s just dudes punching each other until one of them punches harder, the end.
What makes it even crazier is that Snyder spends the preceding two hours hammering the idea that Superman is Space Jesus. Seriously, if you liked the Christ imagery of Superman Returns but thought it was a little too subtle, I have some good news for you.
I said earlier that the neck-snapping was a sore point for a lot of viewers, but the part where I officially checked out came earlier. I managed to get through the part where Superman chatted with a priest while shot against a stained glass window of Jesus that was all but pointing to his head, and I only rolled my eyes a little when Superman made sure to tell us he was 33 years old, but when the hologram ghost of Jor-El showed up, pointed at Earth, and told Superman “you can save everyone” and then Cavill stuck his arms out like Jesus on the cross and fell backwards out of a spaceship, I was done. I don’t think Superman as a Christ figure works even in the best of times, but when you’re making a movie where you build to your Christ figure snapping a bad guy’s neck? It’s been a while since I’ve gone through the New Testament, but I’m at least 70% sure that’s not how that works. It doesn’t work. The storytelling is flawed and disjointed, and the result is tonal whiplash, especially at the end.
It’s riddled with problems beyond the story structure, too, although they’re sins of a more forgivable nature. Henry Cavill is actually really good as Superman, and when the script stops being ashamed of bright colors long enough for him to rescue someone or tell people he’s here to help, he really sells it. The only big flaw in his performance is the thirty seconds we see of Clark Kent, but since the movie seems dead set against Superman even bothering to have a secret identity, that’s easy to forgive. The problems are with the character, not the actor. The shirtless oil rig rescues at the beginning are nice — even if they’re tempered by Clark stealing clothes and using his powers for revenge — because they point to someone who has an overwhelming desire to help others. That’s great, but the movie gets to a point where Superman just doesn’t do anything without someone else telling him what to do.
He only becomes Superman because the hologram ghost of Jor-El tells him to, he kills Zod because Zod tells him to, he even lets Pa Kent die because that’s what Pa Kent told him to do. That last one is another big point of contention, and while the idea behind it is rooted in Clark trusting his father enough to do what he says even when it means he’s making a huge sacrifice, there’s also the fact that nothing about that scene needed to happen. Even if it’s based on worrying about his son, it’s Jonathan Kent giving into fear instead of allowing Clark to use his powers to help people. There are a lot of ways to play Jonathan Kent’s death (including avoiding it), but having Clark stand around watching it happen when he could easily prevent it because daddy said so, because Superman allows the people around him to give into fear, is nuts.
It’s a dick move, and it’s hardly the only one. Perry White kills Lois’s story about Superman because he, Perry White, a journalist, doesn’t think the public deserves to know the truth. Lois enters the movie with lines about having a dick-measuring contest with the army, before meeting Superman and immediately falling in love without any real character development at all. Pete Ross refers to Little Sad Clark as “dick splash,” just in case you forgot this movie was written by the guy who brought us the mind-boggling profanity of Blade Trinity. Everyone’s a jerk. Maybe that’s why Superman doesn’t bother to save most of them when the action starts?
There are a few token scenes of Superman rescuing soldiers from the Kryptonian bad guys, catching Lois as she’s falling and saving his mom from General Zod, but on the whole, there’s way more death and destruction in this movie than I ever would’ve expected. Smallville’s main drag is torn to pieces in a fight between Superman and Zod’s running crew, and while I kept expecting Superman to take them out to the cornfields or whatever, they just crash through (occupied) buildings, smashing up the town and giving Snyder plenty of opportunity for product placement. It might be the first time a fight scene has made me thirsty for a Big Gulp™.
That pales in comparison to what happens in Metropolis, though. There’s this goofy plot about a gravity machine that’s going to turn Earth into a planet more like Krypton, because “Why would these Kryptonian warriors want to live on a world where they all had superpowers?”, I guess. Rather than just putting the big evil McGuffin in Metropolis and giving Superman ample opportunity to save people, David Goyer instead writes a movie where Superman has to go fight some other piece of it halfway around the world so that Zack Snyder can destroy a city for 20 minutes.
It’s clearly and tastelessly designed to echo video footage of 9/11, and throughout, Superman’s not there. This is a Superman movie where a city gets destroyed and the script only has Superman himself show up at the end to save Lois, who’s there because she’s on a bombing run to save the city with a bunch of soldiers, all of whom die. Superman shows up after the destruction has wiped out most of the city, and then he and Zod punch each other through more buildings, until it’s finally time for Zod to try heat vision and Superman to snap his neck. And it’s also clearly stated that the only reason Zod and his cronies are on Earth at all is because of Superman, which raises the question “Wouldn’t everybody be a whole lot better off if Superman never landed on Earth?”
That’s not a question anyone should come out of a Superman movie asking.