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Notes On A Film: Man Of Steel

There has been a lot of response to Man Of Steel, which is to be expected with one of the best known fictional characters in the world and the many different attachments people have to the concept of Superman, so I thought I should add my own – it’s been a week since I’ve seen the movie and it’s taken me that long to compile my thoughts. Herein be spoilers, so fair warning.


Despite my love of comic book superheroes, I’m not a huge fan of Superman. This isn’t a slight on the character or the great creators who have added to the mythos over the years – it’s just never connected with me in the same way as Jerry Seinfeld or Mark Waid (more on him later). I have read and own some Superman stories – the aforementioned Waid and Leinil Yu’s Birthright series, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All Star Superman, and John Byrne’s Man Of Steel post-Crisis reboot (all three of which are referenced in this film – screenwriter David Goyer has written for DC and has good taste in where he borrows elements) – but I don’t have the same attachment for character that a lot of people do. I don’t revere the Christopher Reeve Superman (I have always hated with a passion the ending of the first film), and I quite liked Superman Returns, so my opinion on this film is either tainted or informed, depending on your interpretation.

To summarise my feelings for this film: I think it was a very good sci-fi film that happened to have someone like Superman in it, but it wasn’t a good superhero film. All the rest of the rambling to follow extrapolates on that.

The variation on the Superman story told in this film was an interesting take on the origin – I’m particularly fond of good origin stories, something that superhero characters do well – and it shows contemplation on the nature of the character and an intriguing angle on a well-known story. Using some of Waid’s Birthright approach, this Clark Kent is a wanderer trying to find his place in the world, undecided on his future and unsure of what he can be, albeit with a sense of wanting to help and do good. We see him working on a fishing boat, eventually helping out trapped workers on an oil rig on fire, before moving on to working in a bar and then on a military site in the Arctic that is digging up an unexplained object buried in the ice. This isn’t the bumbling Clark of old; it’s more serious, thoughtful, troubled and perhaps more interesting.

The film starts on Krypton, where an advanced but sterile world (they produce babies in pods, Matrix-style; Kal-El is the first natural-born child in centuries; people are bred to do the job they will perform in society; energy shortages led to mining the planet’s core against the advice of leading scientist Jor-El [Russell Crowe], which is leading to its destruction) is dying and General Zod (a wonderfully intense and purposeful performance from Michael Shannon) attempts a coup to save the planet and the people. The coup fails, Zod and his followers are imprisoned in the Phantom Zone, and Krypton explodes, but not before Kal-El is sent to Earth (along with the Codex, the source of Kryptonian DNA to continue the species). Taking some of its cues from Byrne’s take on Krypton, it looks great – dark and techy and alien, it’s a strong start to a more sci-fi-edged film.

On Earth, the film takes a Batman Begins approach to the Superman story, as we see the grown-up Kal-El (Henry Cavill in a beefed-up and brooding performance that is very good and perfectly suited to this film) on his travels mixed with flashbacks to his youth with Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha (Diane Lane) Kent on the farm in Smallville. Clark is a troubled child, freaked out by the emergence of his X-ray vision, scared by his strength, troubled by his differences. His parents are loving but Pa Kent is worried for his son, knowing what could happen if the world found out about him and what they would do to him, advocating a passive and isolationist life, and not wanting Clark to have saved his class when the school bus crashes into a river (this approach seemed to echo some elements from Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s Superman: Secret Origins).

Man of Steel image with Henry Cavill as SupermanOn the Arctic dig, Clark enters what turns out to be a Kryptonian scoutship nearly 20,000 years old, followed by investigative reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams, who is a really good actress who is perfect for the role of smart, feisty, independent Lane). Using the Kryptonian USB stick from the ship he came to Earth with, Clark is able to access an interactive hologram of his father, who explains who Clark is, where he came from and what he hoped for him (using words from Grant Morrison’s All Star Superman in the process). Inadvertently, he sets off a distress signal which attracts the attention of an escaped Zod, and he saves Lois from an overeager security robot, even using his heat vision to cauterise her wounds. Clark then drops off Lois to be picked up by the military and he flies off with the scoutship, which provides him with the new Superman costume (although how it is in the scoutship isn’t made clear, now why it has the symbol for hope on it, which is the symbol of the House of El and happens to look like an S, nor why it has a cape or the red and blue colour combination when all the Kryptonian clothes have been brown or black).

Clark learns how to fly (one of the few moments of lightness in the film is seeing the goofy grin of joy has he flies for the first time; the film is very, very serious, with hardly any instances of levity or humour) and Lois writes a piece about her ‘superhuman’ rescuer which gets spiked by Perry White (Lawrence Fishburne in a small role), so she leaks it to a website because she feels it is too important. This is unfortunate timing because shortly Zod arrives and demands the surrender of the alien who has been living in secret on Earth, meaning Lois is arrested by the FBI and the military and Clark has to make a decision about his place in the world. At this point we get another one of the Jesus references: Clark has a conversation about what he must do with a priest underneath a picture of Jesus, echoing the conversation in the Garden of Gethsemane asking to have the burden taken from him; there is a pointed mention of Clark being 33 years old, referencing the age of Jesus when he came to the attention of the authorities; previously, Jor-El talks about sending his son to Earth to help them, and later there is Superman in classic ‘Jesus on the cross’ pose, and a quite blatant piece of dialogue when someone says ‘He saved us’. It seems a little unsubtle, but at least Jesus never flew or punched aliens through buildings or destroyed a ‘world engine’ that was terraforming Earth. At least, I don’t remember those parts of the Bible …

Clark now has to man up (or Superman up) and surrenders to the military, and specifically to Lois, which somehow leads to Zod sending down a ship for Clark and a completely unnecessary Lois as well – why an alien general who is going to terraform the planet would need the reporter who first mentioned a superhuman isn’t explained very well in the plot. Unfortunately, this is because the narrative needs Lois to be on board their spaceship so that Clark can give her the Kryptonian USB stick, which she instinctively understands to slot into a hole in an alien spacecraft, so that holographic Russell Crowe can explain how to destroy the Kryptonians, because somehow the recorded brain patterns of a dead scientist are a mixture of AI and imaginative reasoning and planning death scenarios on alien worlds. Apparently. Some of the plotting is a bit hand-wavy, don’t-look-too-closely waffle, including the reason for the Kryptonians wanting Kal-El – they want the Codex to restart the Kryptonian race, which was encoded into the DNA of Kal-El by his father before sending him to Earth, which seems counter-intuitive to Jor-El’s aim of sending him to Earth to start anew and lead the humans into the future. This seems to be par for the course in most summer blockbusters, unfortunately, as they try to have a thematically linked plot engine for the story and leading character.

It’s now we get to the last third of a long movie (it’s nearly 2 hours 30 minutes long) and which is nearly all action, as Superman starts to punch things. And here is where things have divided a lot of people. Firstly, I should point out that Zack Snyder has done a good job of putting a superhero slugfest on film – you feel everything: the knockdowns and the power and the speed and the comic book action – and he makes it look good (although it’s quite dizzying at times because it and the camera are moving so fast; I watched it in 2D because I don’t watch films in 3D, and I can’t begin to imagine what sort of effect it would have on your eyes when watching in 3D). I liked the way his heroes moved in Watchmen and I like the way he does it here – there’s a scene where Superman is in a high-rise office building and the floor is blown out from under him and he hovers in exactly the way I imagine Superman would do in that situation. However, it’s not the choreography that is at issue.

Man of Steel visual with Henry Cavill as Superman

The last part of the film sees Superman fighting Kryptonians in Smallville, a digression to the Indian Ocean to destroy the machine trying to terraform Earth, and then a huge fight with Zod in Metropolis. And in all this time, Superman shows no indication that he’s aware of the colossal property damage he’s inflicting fighting equally powerful people, nor is there any sign that he cares about the civilian casualties that occur around them. There’s no real attempt to take the fights away from populated areas, and it feels very un-Superman. I understand that Snyder and Goyer view this as a raw Superman who isn’t as great as fans of the comic book know him, but it jars with the rest of the film where he’s been wrestling with the issue of saving people despite the problems it would bring. [An aside: I like the idea of Clark’s conflict of emotion at the moment of not saving Pa Kent, on Pa Kent’s instructions, but I felt that ‘saving the dog’ was a very silly way for Pa Kent to die. Your mileage may vary.] Kal-El knows he has the power to save people and wants to save people, so it doesn’t make sense that he shows no hint of that while facing the Kryptonians, and I can understand the negative reaction to this and the massive destruction of a city, which is done because it’s more ‘cinematic’ to demonstrate the powers unleashed on buildings than in a field or in space. They don’t show explicitly any deaths, but it’s obvious that there are hundreds of thousands of casualties, and that doesn’t feel right in a Superman movie.

Then there is the killing (I mentioned spoilers before, right?). Zod has seen his comrades returned to the Phantom Zone, he knows he’s the last of the originals left and that he can no longer do the thing he was born to do (and genetically programmed to do), which is protect the people of Krypton, and so he’s going to kill Superman or die trying. This is a great interpretation of Zod – he’s not a one-note villain; there is a reason for everything – and Shannon does a great job of selling this aspect of the character. And so, after an even bigger slugfest, Zod is threatening to personally kill (instead of accidentally kill, as he has been doing in the slugfest) some humans with his heat vision, putting Superman in the position of having to kill him in order to stop him. In the context of this movie, it is almost logical; however, this is supposed to be a Superman movie, and Superman doesn’t kill. (Yes, Superman killed criminals, or allowed them to die, in the early Action Comics, but that was a long time ago.) And, as the clever Mark Waid (a man who knows a lot about Superman) put it in his blog post about the film, the film doesn’t even build up to this by showing Superman having moral quandaries about the loss of human life or worrying about making the difficult choice; the only reaction (and, admittedly, I did like Cavill’s emotional response) is the roar of anguish after the fatal act, and sobbing into the arms of Lois Lane, who happens to appear in the right place at exactly the right moment in a bit of dramatic licence that ignores the fact that people can barely keep up with the whereabouts of the slugfest and that anyone with any sense would be getting as far away as possible. Again, Snyder and Goyer justify this as this is the reason why Superman never kills because he will forever remember the cracking sound of breaking Zod’s skull, which is perfectly sound logic, but it still leaves a strange taste in the mouth, which is probably why one of the very few jokes in the movie is left to the epilogue.

As I said in my introduction, I think that this is a good sci-fi movie and not a superhero movie. There was a lot I liked. I really enjoyed the first two-thirds of the movie with its interesting take on the Superman character. I enjoyed the fact that Lois Lane is a smart reporter, who actually uses her investigative powers to discover the identity of Superman (Amy Adams is a very good Lois Lane, and I hope she’s back for the sequels). Cavill makes for a very good Superman and he really looks the part (he packed on solid muscle for the role and you get to see it). I liked the little Easter eggs – I noticed the Lexcorp logo on the truck, but I didn’t spot the Wayne logo on the satellite, which was a nice touch. I think the film did a good job of setting things up for future films. I just wish they hadn’t had to go the route of Disaster Porn and Superman Kills.

Rating: DVD (as a Superman film)/DAVE (as a sci-fi movie)

[Explanation of my updated film rating system]

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