Movie: Man Of Steel
Director: Zack Snyder
Writers: David S. Goyer, Christopher Nolan
Release date: June 14, 2013
U.S. box office: $291 million (5th best of 2013)
Worldwide box office: $668 million (9th best of 2013)
Days in U.S. theatrical release: 98
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 56 percent
Metacritic score: 55
Letterboxd average grade: 3/5
“Snyder is skilled at putting Man Of Steel’s hero in iconic poses, cape flapping in the breeze as he floats placidly with the sun at his back. But though the script makes frequent reference to him serving as an Earthling-inspiring ideal sent to improve humanity, Snyder mostly turns him into a punching machine.” — Keith Phipps
“Man Of Steel is a blockbuster of titanic proportions that swings back and forth between human existentialism and clobbering action deserving of the biggest screen imaginable. If the word ‘epic’ has lost its meaning in the throes of recent summers, Man Of Steel forcefully redefines it.” —Matt Patches, Film.com
“Mr. Snyder isn’t capable of mythmaking, but in his sometimes poetic, sometimes crude way, he has given Superman a new lease on franchise life by affirming that this most American hero is also an alien yearning to breathe free.” —Manohla Dargis, The New York Times
“Man Of Steel does locate and deliver on the abiding appeal of Superman: an unguarded, irony-free idealism, plus dazzling displays of power, wrapped up in the heartening notion that a man who could do anything he chooses to look out for us. What it fails to supply much of—surprisingly, it must be said—is fun. This is serious business, Snyder seems always to be saying. This is badass. And given the sheer logistical size of the spectacle on display, it’s a position that’s hard to argue with.” —Glen Weldon, NPR
The combination of the Man Of Steel and the foremost man of geek cinema: Christopher Nolan. His second Batman film, The Dark Knight, became a huge cultural phenomenon in summer 2008. Widely regarded as one of the best comic-book movies ever made, Dark Knight lent Nolan near-mythic status in the nerd community. (In 2010, The Los Angeles Times called him “the Hitchcock of superhero cinema.”) When the possibility of a Christopher Nolan Superman movie was first floated around that time, it almost seemed too good to be true.
In fact, it was; Nolan was too preoccupied with the final Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises, to devote his full attention to Superman, but he did shepherd the project into production along with his Batman co-writer, David S. Goyer, though Goyer had previously said he didn’t think he’d “ever be good to write Superman.” To direct the film in Nolan’s place, Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures hired Zack Snyder, another geek-friendly filmmaker with several comic-book movies already under his belt.
Though Nolan’s producing partner Emma Thomas told HitFix that Nolan and Goyer “had an idea they couldn’t believe wasn’t being explored by Warner Bros.” and then handed the finished screenplay off to Snyder to make his own movie, the finished product feels like a Christopher Nolan movie. Goyer said that he pitched Nolan a “first contact” story, but based on the finished film, he also could have said “Make a Batman movie starring Superman.” Some of Goyer and Nolan’s screenplay has its roots in the various Superman origin stories published by DC Comics—particularly a 2003 series called Superman: Birthright by Mark Waid and Leinil Francis Yu—but the greatest influence on their writing was their own writing for the Dark Knight trilogy.
In structure, style, tone, and protagonist, Man Of Steel bears a close resemblance to Batman Begins. In both films, the audience is introduced to the titular hero in the middle of a soul-searching journey. Like Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne, Henry Cavill’s Clark Kent is initially a bearded, buff wanderer looking for his place in the world. Flashbacks reveal both characters’ tortured backstories: lonely childhoods, harsh lessons about the way of the world, and parental death. Eventually, they each come into conflict with men from their pasts—Batman must stop Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson), who trained him in the martial arts, while Superman battles General Zod (Michael Shannon), one of the only other survivors of the planet Krypton—and both are forced to choose between helping former allies destroy their home, or fighting them to save it.
In some respects, Snyder was a strange fit to direct a “Christopher Nolan Superman movie.” Snyder films like 300, Sucker Punch, and Watchmen were less philosophical and more aggressive than Nolan’s, and they tended to emphasize stylish action over brainy subtext. In other respects, Snyder was ideal; he often sublimated his own aesthetic to faithfully re-create someone else’s onscreen. His 300 brought Frank Miller’s dynamic compositions to the screen, and the film version of Watchmen treated the Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons graphic novel like storyboards. Snyder successfully aped Miller, Moore, and Gibbons. Why not ape Nolan, too?
For this reason: Snyder and Nolan took totally different approaches to their source material. To Snyder, comic books were sacrosanct, to be treated with the sort of reverence typically reserved for holy texts. His comic-book movies didn’t adapt their source material, they transcribed them, sometimes re-creating scenes panel-by-panel and line-by-line. Good, bad, or indifferent, Snyder’s films are some of the comic-bookiest comic-book movies in history.
Nolan, on the other hand, did his best to leech as much comic book out of his comic-book movies as possible. In 2004, Nolan said the crux of his Batman was “humanity and realism,” and described his Gotham City as “a recognizable, contemporary reality against which an extraordinary heroic figure arises.” Nolan and Goyer applied the exact same strategy to Superman. “We’re approaching Superman,” Goyer said in 2013, “as if it weren’t a comic book movie, as if it were real.”
The result was a movie whose writers and director were almost working at cross purposes. Man Of Steel is a gritty, realistic story shot by a director whose instincts constantly push him away from grit and realism, and into flash and fantasy. (Snyder’s Sucker Punch is almost literally about this exact tension between reality and dream.) It’s no wonder that Man Of Steel sometimes feels like such an uncomfortable mix of styles and tones; it was the result of an uncomfortable mix of artists.
Nolan and Goyer’s obsession with realism paid dividends in at least one way: Man Of Steel’s depiction of its hero and his powers. This Superman looks better than incredible; he looks credible. The tagline of Richard Donner’s Superman was “You’ll believe a man can fly,” but there has arguably never been a more convincing-looking superhero in any movie than Henry Cavill in Man Of Steel.
Every previous Superman, even Donner’s, demanded a certain amount of suspension of disbelief; ignoring the trampoline that was hiding just out frame, or the wires keeping Christopher Reeve afloat. Snyder’s Superman looks real, full stop, with a raw physicality that has never been present before in any iteration of the character—even Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns from just seven years ago. Cavill actually seems to be able to violate the laws of gravity at will.
Warner Bros. spent a reported $225 million on Man Of Steel, and it’s all there on the screen, in an epic superhero film that crosses continents and spans planets while still paying incredible attention to the smallest detail, from the earth crackling and buckling under Cavill’s feet when Superman takes flight to the alarmingly accurate building-collapses during the climactic battle between Superman and Zod. On a technical level, Man Of Steel is a major achievement, particularly in the field of tactile computer effects. Every punch and impact has weight. If nothing else, the massive damage caused by the battles between Superman and his fellow Kryptonians reminds viewers of the enormous power these creatures possess. They look like human beings, but they are truly alien.
That tension between man and superman is well played by Cavill, who makes a likable, relatable, eminently hunky hero. He has all the qualities Superman fans want from the character: He radiates decency and goodness, with kind eyes and a wry smile, but he also looks like a legitimate ass-kicker, and he fills out a set of tights and cape like nobody’s business. Superman gets a bum rap for blandness; he’s so good, some say, there’s nothing interesting about him. But some of his core contradictions—he’s both impervious to pain and incredibly sensitive—make him tough to play. Cavill pulls it off.
So does the rest of the cast. Snyder, Nolan, and Goyer don’t give Amy Adams much to do as Lois Lane, particularly in the film’s final hour, but she has just the right blend of intelligence, defiance, and determination, and she has an obvious, immediate connection with Cavill. Michael Shannon, who excels at playing oddballs and eccentrics, oozes menace at General Zod, and while the character doesn’t quite let him fully unleash his penchant for theatrical lunacy, he does at least get to bellow lines like “Release the World Engine!” from time to time. Russell Crowe’s dialogue is at least 40 percent hilariously goofy Kryptonian jargon, but he’s also a big part of one of Man Of Steel’s coolest sequences, where Jor-El’s computerized ghost leads Lois Lane through Zod’s ship, giving her timely instructions to help her evade and fight her captors.
Batman Begins’ journey of discovery worked because Bruce Wayne is a flawed human being. But Superman, by his very definition, is perfect, and retrofitting him with Bruce Wayne’s character arc, daddy issues and all, makes for an awkward fit. As Jor-El says in Man Of Steel, Superman represents “an ideal to strive toward.” But if Man Of Steel’s Superman is the ideal humanity needs to strive toward, then humanity is royally fucked. The only thing this guy is ideal at is thoughtlessly generating enormous amounts of property damage and inadvertently killing thousands of innocents.
Still, an origin that followed the character from imperfect beginnings to paragon of virtue might have worked if Superman actually seemed to grow over the course of the film. Instead, Cavill’s Clark Kent, egged on by a human father (Kevin Costner) who suggests he lets people die rather than exposing his secret identity, spends most of the movie regressing from selfless do-gooder to reckless powerhouse.
His most heroic acts occur in the film’s earliest scenes. First, he rescues the staff of an exploding offshore oil rig; then, in flashback, a teenage Clark saves his classmates from drowning in a bus crash. He even goes out of his way to come to the aid of the bully who was picking on him moments before. A few scenes later, the adult Clark gets picked on by a trucker at a bar. Instead of turning the other cheek, he impales the man’s vehicle on a telephone pole. When Zod’s minions descend on Smallville, Superman orders the locals to get inside—then punches the bad guys into the same buildings where he just told them to take cover. By the time the fight reaches Metropolis, he barely gives bystanders a second glance as he pummels Zod over and through the city.
Confining a battle between Superman and a bunch of super-soldiers to a Midwestern town certainly looks cool if you don’t consider the ramifications of the explosions, and it’s mighty convenient from a product-placement standpoint. (“IHOP: The official collateral-damaged pancake house of Superman!”) But it also clashes with the character’s unselfish ethos. Each time Superman smashes Zod or one of his minions into another carefully branded storefront without a single attempt to take the fight away from valuable human life and property, it diminishes his stature as a hero.
A few of Clark’s decisions are downright baffling. When Zod’s ship descends on Metropolis and begins demolishing the city, Clark jets off to the Indian Ocean, where the rest of Zod’s “World Engine” is at work terraforming the planet with no immediate threat to any human life whatsoever. Rather than save the people who are imminent danger in Metropolis, Superman leaves the task of destroying Zod’s ship to the American military, who succeed at the cost of every single person on board their cargo plane—except Lois, whom Superman rescues just in the knick of time. The sequence reaffirms Snyder’s long-standing admiration for soldiers’ sacrifice (see: 300), but it makes Superman look like a dope.
It also speaks to the movie’s core confusion about its hero, who occupies a liminal position between his two identities; to paraphrase Britney Spears, he’s not Clark Kent, not yet a Superman. People call him “Clark,” even in his iconic costume, because he hasn’t been given the name Superman yet, but he doesn’t really act like Clark Kent. When you get right down to it, Man Of Steel is a movie about Clark Kent in which “Clark Kent” doesn’t appear until the last scene, and a movie about Superman where Superman frequently fails to act like Superman. Cavill is more a man of unmolded clay than steel.
Oh, also: The dick-shaped spaceships that send General Zod and his crew into the Phantom Zone do not hold up. Like, at all.
Unlike Star Trek Into Darkness, which received ecstatic early reviews that were eventually tempered by a severe backlash, Man Of Steel’s critical rejection came faster than a speeding bullet. The film definitely had its share of fans, and almost everyone agreed the movie was an impressive show of visual effects, but it also opened some 30 points lower than STID on Rotten Tomatoes, and sparked an intense discussion about the appropriateness of its violence and destruction. The day before Man Of Steel even opened, Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan used the film as the launching pad for the first of a wave of pieces on 9/11 imagery in modern blockbusters. Two days later, Badass Digest published a piece called “Why The Destruction In Man Of Steel Matters,” explaining the reasons the film’s action “should give [viewers] pause.” A widely shared post on Buzzfeed interviewed experts who estimated the amount of damage ($2 trillion) and lives lost (129,000) in the film’s final battle.
Even comic-book creators felt moved to weigh in on Man Of Steel. Mark Waid, longtime Superman author and scholar, wrote a lengthy blog post outlining why Man Of Steel, for all its dazzling visual spectacle, “broke [his] heart.” In his mind, the film lacked the single essential component of a Superman story: “We don’t just want Superman to save us,” Waid wrote, “we want him to protect us.” Waid and others also objected to Snyder’s decision to end the film with Superman killing Zod to end his rampage.
The film’s defenders, like Drew McWeeny from HitFix, countered that the Superman of the comics killed the Zod of the comics once, and that in this case, it was an action taken only as a last resort, and even then, with great regret. They also pointed out the moments in Man Of Steel when Superman did act selflessly, as when he turns himself in to the U.S. government to keep Zod from hurting others, or chooses to save Earth instead of helping Zod rebuild Krypton. Clark’s occasional lapses in judgment could be chalked up to Man Of Steel’s nature as an origin story; his mistakes reinforce the character’s unformed nature. Some even insisted that the upcoming sequel, Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, will address the unaddressed “consequences” of Superman’s actions.
But Superman kills Zod to save four people in immediate danger after he’s ignored the plights of (if not indirectly killed) literally thousands of Metropolitans during the rest of his fight with the Kryptonians. His regret, a guttural scream, is a few seconds of sadness after literally an hour of indifference; the next time we see Superman, he’s knocking $12 million surveillance drones out of the sky like it’s no big whoop, and cracking jokes about growing up in Kansas. Then he finds a miracle job at the Daily Planet (a full-time staff writer at a newspaper? With no experience? You call this realism, Nolan?!?), flirts with Lois Lane, and the movie ends.
It’s possible that Batman V Superman will explore the unexamined fallout of Clark’s actions. But even if viewers ignore how frustrating it is to watch a movie on the hope that its dangling plot threads may pay off in a future film down the road, the rest of the argument on behalf of the film’s action and violence would hold more water if Man Of Steel didn’t seem so willfully ignorant of its violent imagery, and if it didn’t focus so intently on Superman’s (mostly unseen) ability to inspire and protect humanity.
Over and over, characters remind Clark how fantastic he is. Jor-El tells Clark the symbol on his super-suit (handsomely redesigned for the film by James Acheson and Michael Wilkinson) “means hope,” and that “embodied within that hope”—i.e. in Superman—“is the fundamental belief in the potential of every person to be a force for good.” Later, Jor-El insists Clark “can save all of them,” meaning the entire planet, from Zod’s wrath. Superman promptly proceeds to let untold thousands die while he heads to the Indian Ocean and then dukes it out with Zod. I get it; Jor-El’s a proud papa. If your son was the last survivor of an entire planet, you’d rave about about great he was, too! But the son’s deeds don’t match the dad’s words.
The single most galling moment comes after Superman returns to Metropolis from the Indian Ocean. A U.S. military cargo plane and all of its inhabitants have heroically sacrificed themselves to send Zod’s ship back into the Phantom Zone. Superman arrives just as the ship vanishes, and catches Lois. As they descend into the bombed-out ruins of Metropolis and share a passionate kiss, a few survivors push their way out of the rubble. With ashes still floating in the air, a Daily Planet employee named Jenny (Rebecca Buller) who’d been trapped by falling debris, gratefully announces “He saved us!”
Except Superman didn’t save Jenny; her boss, Perry White (Laurence Fishburne), and his assistant, Steve Lombard (Michael Kelly), did, with a timely assist from the U.S. military. And even if Superman had saved Jenny (which, again, he didn’t), he clearly dropped the ball for almost everyone else. Look around you, Jenny! You’re standing in a crater that used to be your office! The city is devastated! Thousands of people are dead! (And this, mind you, is before the final battle between Zod and Superman, which rages through many more buildings and causes many more unseen deaths). This scene isn’t just tone-deaf; it’s borderline-delusional. Who knew Superman’s powers included the ability to talk out of both sides of his mouth simultaneously?
The film’s relentless Biblical allusions aren’t much better. When Zod demands Earth hand over Superman, a confused Clark goes to a church for spiritual guidance, where Snyder frames him in front of an enormous stained-glass window of Jesus. When Superman leaves Zod’s ship to head back to Earth, he floats away posed like he’s nailed to the cross. Clark’s age at the start of Man Of Steel is 33, awfully old for a confused young man searching for his place in the world, but just the right age for someone planning to sacrifice himself in the most Christ-like way possible. But here, again, the film has its cake (or wafer) and eats it too. Superman is Jesus—and a bad-ass! It’s just like that classic part of the New Testament where the Son Of God snaps Judas’ neck to save Peter and John from his eye lasers.
Fundamentally, Man Of Steel suffers from the cinematic disease known as acute blockbusteritis; it wants to be all films to all people. It wants to be a bombastic Zack Snyder movie and a grounded, meditative Christopher Nolan movie. It’s a deadly serious disaster movie and a deeply silly science-fiction movie about Russell Crowe riding a dinosaur and Michael Shannon talking about “World Engines” and “Genesis Chambers.” It wants to throw in some Biblical references to appeal to the faith-based crowd, and some comic-book references (Hey! A WayneTech satellite!) for the fanboys. It tries to inspire and terrify. It shows what would “really” happen to a city if two super-powered being waged war through it—but only as much as it can get away with in a PG-13-rated movie, so families will still come see it together.
Superman has two identities; Man Of Steel has about six. It’s too much, and too many movies, all of which look great, but none of which resonate on an emotional level. The film feels like it’s at war with itself. With a sequel on the way called Batman V Superman, they might as well retroactively retitle this film Superman V Superman.