I’ve avoided the Internet all week as much as possible and turned my head away from the TV with fingers shoved in ears whenever a Man of Steel ad came on to avoid spoilers. In fact, I forbade my family to even share with me what percentage the movie was running on Rotten Tomatoes because I wanted to view this film with as few expectations as possible.
So I was shocked when my wife told me as the credits were rolling that the tomato-meter on this film was 56%. From a quick skim of the reviews, seems like many of the reviewers were comparing this incarnation to the sweet, gosh-gee-golly Superman movies starring Christopher Reeve. Well, you know what, those movies sucked. Yes, sucked. Firstly, they were giant castles of cheese and most importantly flying around the world to reverse time is the stupidest deus ex machina in the history of cinema (2nd place: “It was all a dream!”). So, suffice it to say, the 1980s Superman movies are hardly my touchstone when evaluating this movie. I’m sending it up against the other recent standouts in this, what I think we can safely call, Golden Age of Superhero Movies…oh, and as always, ahead there be spoilers.
Getting Superman right is pretty hard to do. Aside from the faults mentioned above, the Christopher Reeve movies constantly relied on Superman losing his powers–through Kryptonite or weird-red-chamber-doohickey–to advance their rather flimsy plots. Superman Returns in 2006 had little plot and suffered from the problems typical to a superhero origin story, even though it wasn’t one. Man of Steel dispenses quickly and skillfully with the origin bits. It opens on Krypton and stays there longer than any other Supes film to date. That turns out to be important since Russel Crowe’s Jor El is more of a character in the film than was Marlon Brando’s disembodied holographic head. What it concocts by way of plot is fairly predictable, but that’s the curse of reboots: the better known the source material, the more you have to remain true to the mythology and the less room there is to surprise the audience. The good news is that it gets Superman right. That’s an important first step, as anyone who has read about the aborted Tim Burton/Nick Cage Superman Lives can tell you. That film would’ve had Superman fighting Matrix-style with weird weapons coming off his suit. Worse still, Superman was in therapy because he didn’t want to bear the burden of being a hero.
Let me say this clearly: Superman does not have angst. He is what’s best in us. He does not brood like Batman. So Man of Steel gives us a proper Superman, without betraying the mythology like Returns (a kid? He’s got a kid?!?). This is best shown when he expresses agony after being forced to kill Zod with a Kryptonian neck-snap.
Supes Done Right…10
No Flying Fast to Turn Back Time…5
Low Cheese Diet…8
The biggest problem for most audiences (not me, necessarily) with Superman Returns was that it was a superhero film that was not an action movie. That turned out to be too much for most audiences. Well, there’s no danger of that here. Zack Snyder is known for his action, after all. In 300, he created the most disturbingly effective piece of war porn since Goebbels. His movies have a slick, deliberate aesthetic, with distinctive color palettes and typically fetishized slow-motion battles. Man of Steel uses the muted colors and frames its imagery beautifully, but thankfully, someone superglued the shutter speed to keep Snyder from showing us every punch at 48fps (dear God, had he, the movie would’ve been sixteen hours long). Man of Steel looks good, particularly when it comes out of the bleak urban jungles, ice-caps, ruined planets, etc. to show us flashes of Superman basking in the sunlight. Those moments are too few, though, and in a movie this long, Snyder’s aesthetic predilections wear a teensy bit thin, particularly in the fight scenes. There are a lot of them and when your combatants are pretty much indestructible, the fights go on and on…and on. After the threat to the planet is dispatched and Superman and Lois get to share their first kiss amidst the rubble of a devastated Metropolis, it seemed like it was high time to wrap it up, but unfortunately, Zod was left out of the wormhole that dispatched the rest of the nasty Kryptonian survivors and we had to have one more, overlong duke-it-out through the surviving spires of Metropolis, up into space, and back down again. Star Trek Into Darkness took a lot of heat for having the crashing USS Vengeance take out several waterfront buildings in San Francisco (I like to think emergency transporters beamed everyone out of those buildings, preventing the disaster from reaching a 2.1 on the 9/11 scale), but the wonton destruction in the Metropolis of Man of Steel is much, much worse. I would say that it’s at least twelve September 11ths, and that much calamity demands some recognition on screen. We should have–no, we needed to see a memorial going up, or better yet, Superman apologizing for the horrific loss of life and vowing to do a better job of protecting the people of Earth in the future. The movie gets his grief at having to willfully take Zod’s life just right, but it should have acknowledged how much it would pain him not to save so many thousands of people–especially when their killers were (A) his race and (B) only there because he accidentally called them.
No slow-mo bonus…+5
Wonton loss-of-life penalty…-5
There you have it. I’m giving it a tie with Batman Begins. Let’s hope the inevitable follow up ($115 million so far) builds on this foundation as well as The Dark Knight capitalized on Begins. We know that they’ve set the stage for the right kind of Lex Luthor (not the egomaniacal “criminal mastermind” who was anything but of the Reeve films, but the corporate titan we saw played so well in Smallville) and Adams and Cavill are both great as the leads, so hopes are high for The Man of Tomorrow (fingers crossed) in 2015 or so.
- Hey, where’s Jimmy?
- What’s with this current trend in sci-fi where all the ships have glowy blue stuff and look kind of like bugs?
- The big moment at the end when Clark has to kill Zod was emotionally satisfying, but my son pointed out that if Superman had the strength to snap his Kryptonian neck, couldn’t he have just moved the guy’s head a different direction.
- As always, Lois Lane gets preferential salvation privileges. At least ten thousand people are dying in collapsed buildings, but Superman leaps up and picks her out of the air. Fortunately, she was falling right toward the center of Metropolis…like everything in this movie. Seriously, he and Zod go up into orbit and then come right back down to the city. Geez, Clark, you probably could’ve saved a thousand more people if you’d figured out a way to take your brawl out of the city limits.