Friday, June 14, 2013

Man of Steel Review (spoilers)

Man of Steel will inevitably be compared to the first two movies in the Salkind franchise starring Christopher Reeve. Fans of the comics will tally up the stories it references, and where it diverges from them. Its visuals, at times lyrical, at times more frantic than a fork in a garbage disposal, are a tour de force. It’s well acted. The dialogue is never strained. And yet, I wonder who it’s for, and perhaps what it’s for.

The earlier Superman franchise followed the example of the character’s history in establishing the Kryptonian lad’s birth and journey to Earth, then an early period in which he faces ordinary menaces like aviation disasters and bank robberies, before things get wickedly sci fi. This time around, not so. This Superman debuts, at least in the suit, precisely to face a Kryptonian invasion of Earth, with nary a cat saved from a tree, nor a Daily Planet article, before he has to face Zod’s army.

Along the way, we are given scenes from Clark Kent’s boyhood and adulthood, with jumps forward and backward in time. His adult phase may remind one of Birthright, although he’s at sea rather than in Africa. His boyhood is close to the one portrayed in Geoff Johns’ Secret Origin, a sort of sorrowful time when young Clark wonders “Why me?” Johns’ take on Krypton and its pre-cataclysmic politics are also used in Man of Steel, with Jor-El and Zod contemplating an alliance before they split. Krypton’s destruction is blamed on a form of fracking, one of two ways the movie takes a jab at the safety of petroleum production. The movie’s main plot most closely resembles the Eradicator plot from the Nineties’ comics, but it is Zod and his fellow criminals who wish to terraform Earth into a new Krypton.

In terms of plot, the biggest surprises take the form of three deaths. Jor-El does not live to see Krypton explode, dying at Zod’s hand shortly before the planet dies with him. However, Russell Crowe gets more than a little screen time, speaking as an avatar so often it’s almost as though he never died. A more surprising twist on comic book convention is that Jonathan Kent dies in full view of Clark in a way that is easily preventable, but it would blow Clark’s secret identity. Father has convinced son that the identity is more important than human life, so Clark, hemmed in by the unfortunate presence of witnesses, stands by as Jonathan goes smiling to his doom. Finally, Superman kills Zod by snapping his neck. The rationale is very compelling, but here any acknowledgement of the gravity of that act passes within seconds. When Superman killed Zod in the comics of 1988, the event haunted him for over a year.

Death is simply quite common in this movie. It’s hard to imagine that the destruction wrought by the Kryptonian villains could have killed any fewer than 100,000 victims, and we see many of those onscreen. These Phantom Zone ex-cons make Superman II’s villains look like peaceniks.

Scenes in this movie are exceptionally well photographed and rendered. You see set pieces right out of Avatar, Sweet Hereafter, even Poltergeist. The battle scenes don’t sacrifice the overwhelming and savage speed that Kryptonians possess to make it easier to follow. They move like gunshots, seemingly materializing and dematerializing because they move so fast, either under their own power, or after being punched, which tends to send them on a 14-mile path of destruction through at least a few buildings.

Ultimately, everything in the movie is well done, but I’m not sure who will rave that they loved it. The luscious, ponderous beauty of some scenes look like Terrence Malick directed them. But does anyone who appreciates that also appreciate CGI battles with skyscrapers exploding into flames? I think a lot of people will appreciate at least one aspect of Man of Steel or another. But there’s a rift between its careful, thoughtful camerawork and the kinetic action. If this reboot earns a second entry in the series, it will be interesting to see if they try to keep the tone or discard it for something more lively.


  1. Thanks for your take Rikdad. I more or less completely agree, the wanton death and destruction and overwhelming cynicism really turned me off. This was a Superman "The Elite" would proud of.

  2. Jonny,
    I had read the headlines of reviews that found the movie too somber. When I saw it, I was surprised by the way in which that's true. This Superman as portrayed by Cavill is no dark character like Frank Miller's DKR Batman. In fact, when we see him in the suit, he's almost as hopeful and chipper as Christopher Reeve's Superman. But he's forced into dark situations. The movie is dark. The villains are actually less sociopathic than Superman II's Kryptonians but their acts are shown in full detail. And lest we forget, Superman II ended with, to any reasonable observer, the remorseless killing of the Phantom Zoners.

    The brutality here is not Superman's nor even the villains but the director's. I saw the movie for a second time last night and was simply unable to comprehend why he wanted to show the level of collateral damage that didn't advance the plot. And about 14 (I tried my best to count) individual deaths shown up-close on camera. I would have cut out 75% of that damage and all of those deaths, and it's a completely film.

    The no-devastation edit -- I'd like to see something like that.

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    2. I agree completely with your reply, all I'll add is that I think – due to the threats at this point unforeseen – he was out of his depth. I believe that (over a few movies) we will see how Kal reins that destruction in. There were times (Downtown Kansas in particular) that I would have expected Superman to prevent a good deal of the damage, even while fighting. I forget, however, that the Superman we saw in this movie isn't yet the experienced one we have come to know. That was my take, anyway – that as this was his first outing as Superman against more than drilling platforms and tornadoes. He was trying to keep his head above water and wasn't quite as good at multitasking as we know he will be.

  3. Faora was quite right: "You will not win. For every human you save, we will kill a million more."

  4. Just for posterity's sake, here is what Grant Morrison had to say about Man of Steel in USA Today:

    "I kinda liked it and kinda didn't, to be honest. I feel bad because I like (director) Zack Snyder and (writer) David Goyer, and (star) Henry Cavill was really good. But it felt like one of those ones where it's like, "Bring on the second movie now that you've done this," and I don't need to see that as someone who knows all I know about Superman. For me, it was a bit "seen it before," no matter how they tried to make it a little bit different. I'm more looking forward to the Dark Knight version of Superman, the next one, where hopefully it will have Lex Luthor and be some fantastic second act.

    It's a credible Superman for now. But I'm not sure about the killing thing. I don't want to sound like some fuddy-duddy Silver Age apologist but I've noticed a lot recently of people saying Batman should kill the Joker and, yeah, Superman should kill, he should make the tough moral decisions we all have to make every day. I don't know about you, but the last moral decision I made didn't have anything to do with killing people. And I don't think many of us ever have to make the decision whether or not to kill. In fact, the more you think about it, unless you're in one of the Armed Forces, killing is illegal and immoral. Why would we want our superheroes to do that?

    There is a certain demand for it, but I just keep wondering why people insist that this is the sort of thing we'd all do if we were in Superman's place and had to make the tough decision and we'd kill Zod. Would we? Very few of us have ever killed anything. What is this weird bloodlust in watching our superheroes kill the villains?"

  5. It took me a while to realize that the character Henry Cavill plays is really very close to the one that Christopher Reeve played, except they faced different circumstances after they put on the suits. The creative minds have the choice as to whether they want to make killing an extremely difficult choice for the hero to avoid, and that's what Man of Steel's creators chose and Superman The Movie's did not.

    What Morrison says about "seen it before" is something which is a fair comment on Morrison's reboot of Superman in Action Comics, and in neither case, the movie nor the comic, is this the creators' fault. Superman has had his origin told and retold before, in the case of the comics almost a ridiculous number of times, and the only way to avoid repetition is to stray from many familiar aspects that people like about the character.

    I think we see the same with Snyder's Year Zero, and in his case he's straying further from the original, thus avoiding the repetition, but also making creative decisions that need to be extremely compelling to avoid becoming disposable and forgotten. There's no easy answer to this. I think Morrison did it quite well in All Star Superman, and Johns did it quite well in Superman Secret Origin, and there was just no way to avoid repeating those recent works.