Some Thoughts on Man of Steel

Well, I went to see Man of Steel last night with one of my best friends, Ryn Anhara (all nicknames subject to change based on the desire of the nicknamee), and I have to say that I really enjoyed it. And since I want to talk about it but need both the space and the option for people to not see if they’re afraid of spoilers, I am going to write about it here. Back to important things tomorrow.

 

**OBVIOUS SPOILER WARNING FROM THIS POINT ON*

First spoiler: Clark Kent is Superman. No, seriously, even though we all know this, the movie actually does a really good job of showing Clark dealing with his identity, whether he is Clark Kent or Kal-El or something entirely different plays a major role in the story.

What I will say is that I really, really enjoyed this film, but the things that it does well are also the things that it does terribly, and it goes by turns. I’m going to be jumping around and not fisking the whole thing, but it’s the best way I know to talk about this. Let’s begin.

The movie opens on Krypton and we get Jor and Kara-El standing around being so much smarter and more noble than every other Kryptonian in existence. These scenes are actually really fantastic, despite the El family being really, really Mary Sue-ish. The design of the world is believable and interesting, the technology we see is clearly advanced, but hasn’t changed in a long time, and the clothing is alien, but reasonably so.

Jor-El goes to the Council of Krypton and tries to shame them for hollowing out the middle of their planet to fuel all of their…stuff, I guess. It’s never really clear. They whine about how they had no choice, running out of natural resources, etc. There’s a moment of “Are you suggesting we evacuate everyone from Krypton?” to which Jor-El says “no.”

Now, this really perplexes me throughout the film. I don’t know why the Kryptonians don’t try to evacuate. We’ll get more into this later, but basically Jor-El says he has a plan and is interrupted by General Zod who is leading a coup.

This is the first point where I we see the good-and-bad-by-turns nature of this film. Zod (played by Michael Shannon who has done some great villain parts and this could really give him the stardom he deserves) is a fantastic and three-dimensional villain when we see him. He’s leading a coup because the Council clearly has no idea what they’re doing. They have scooped out the middle of their planet and now seem surprised that this may have caused a problem. If I were Zod and I loved my planet, I would also lead a coup against the morons who didn’t see this coming. Obviously, they are unfit to lead. The problem comes in when Zod is captured and we’re supposed to side with the Council against him at his trial. While the good general had just killed Jor-El and tried to destroy the ship carrying Kal-El, the first natural born Kryptonian in centuries (Krypton grows their babies based on genetic information from a child’s skull called the Codex at Jor-El stole and did something with before sending his son off), I can’t actually side against him completely since these people are arguably responsible for the genocide of their entire race except for the prisoners they just sent to the safety of the Phantom Zone for some reason.

Which reminds me, why did they send the prisoners to the one place where the imploding planet wouldn’t be a problem instead of leaving them on the surface and putting as many Kryptonians into the Phantom Zone as possible until the cataclysm was over?

Anyway, Clark gets to Earth and is raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent. This is mostly told in flashback and I have to give Kevin Costner real credit for playing Jonathan Kent as so…midwestern. He’s clearly a nice guy, but reserved and a little gruff. I had a hard time connecting with him because of this, but I can’t say it didn’t work for the movie. I believed in his performance and his obsession with keeping Clark’s power’s secret, even coming to clashes with Clark over the boy wanting to help people and Jonathan willing to sacrifice literally everybody else to protect his son.

We also see Clark basically living a nomadic lifestyle, taking jobs and keeping a low profile until somebody inevitably needs to have their life saved, which he does and then has to disappear again. Eventually, he finds his way to a government archeological site where he meets Lois Lane, saves her life for the first time…and has no chemistry whatsoever with her. Seriously, both Henry Cavill and Amy Adams do a good job in their roles, but they really have no presence together.

In fact, this is a good time to point out that if you’re heavily invested in a Clark/Lois relationship, this isn’t the film for you. For the vast majority of the film they have what I would classify as a friendship built on mutual respect, and that actually plays really well. In fact, I was hoping that they would just do that throughout the film, especially since they don’t even bother with having Lois not knowing Superman’s secret identity. It would have been a lot better if the feelings they had for one another wasn’t romantic, since we really don’t see that develop until they very suddenly kiss and I wonder where it came from. It felt like Zack Snyder and Chris Nolan thought that those two are supposed to get together, so they threw it in as an afterthought. I would have preferred they left it out entirely.

The first act ends with Kal-El finding that his biological father had uploaded his brain into the small key-thing he put in the capsule with baby Kal, so now Clark can talk to him. And he asks the questions the audience wants for the most part, but the answers aren’t really satisfying. For example, we are told that Krypton had started to colonize and spread out to the stars, but then they instituted population control and their colonies died, eventually leaving the whole race on Krypton with no resources and no planetary core.

But after hearing this, I can’t help but wonder, why they would institute population control while they were expanding to new colonies? Isn’t that the exact worst time to do that? Also, why were the colonies dependent on Krypton for resources? Isn’t the point of a colony that it is self-sufficient? Maybe not at first, but with “a hundred thousand years” of doing this, you have to be pretty damn bad at this colonization thing to have not created at least one other surviving planet.

Kal-El also asks his father why he and Kara didn’t come, too. Now, I happen to think this is a great question. In fact, why were the Kryptonians so reluctant to leave in general? It seems like this movie wants us to think there is something tying them to Krypton (its atmosphere and its gravity are both contenders), but we never really know what it is. Trying to answer these questions in the film is just frustrating.

Suffice it to say, he’s given his costume which is supposed to be Kryptonian armor with the insignia of the House of El on it, we get some awesome jumping and flying scenes, and I really have to give Cavill credit for playing this in a really believable way. He expresses such joy, such excitement, such absolute wonder at learning what we can do. I loved watching this scene.

The second act of the film has Zod arriving, since Clark activated a distress beacon in the ancient Kryptonian ship that also had his family’s special armor in it, and demanding that Kal-El surrender himself or Zod will destroy the Earth. At first, I didn’t get this behavior, but then Ryn Anhara pointed out the Zod is literally born and bred to fight, and a more diplomatic approach would have been out of character for him. However, this is where we also start to see Zod making decisions that make no sense, which is especially jarring since his initial motivations made so much sense. Instead, Zod wants to find the Codex to rebuild Krypton with the genetic information inside, which is fine. But he wants to do that by terraforming Earth, making it suitable to Kryptonians and killing all the humans in the process because…he’s evil? There’s no good reason given why he couldn’t just use one of the old colony planets or Mars or someplace that isn’t populated if he’s just going to terraform it anyway.

Up until this point, Zod hasn’t shown himself to be mindlessly evil, but again I feel like poor Zod is the victim of Chris Nolan and Zack Snyder realizing that the bad guy has to provide some sort of stakes for the hero, so he decided to have the guy occasionally just be uncharacteristically evil to give Superman a reason to fight. Zod is both my favorite and least favorite performance in the film because when he’s good, he’s really awesome, but when he runs into these “Chris Nolan and Zack Snyder are making me force the plot along!” moments, then he becomes as thin as the infamous cellophane S, and I no longer buy into him.

Let’s also talk about symbolism. One set of symbols was fantastic, and subtle, and made for an interesting pun. The other was blatant, ham-fisted, and nonsensical. The latter first.

Oh my Spaghetti Monster, the Christ symbolism. Seriously, I thought that Matrix Revolutions bashed you over the head with a cross, but this movie makes that look subdued. From the scene where Clark is deciding whether to sacrifice himself to save the world and you see the stained glass window of Gethsemane side-by-side with his face, to the fact that they mention he’s 33, to the Jesus Pose he does for no particular reason, they are really bludgeoning the audience with this.

And it’s not that I have a problem with Christ symbolism. It can be really well done and make a great statement about a character, but symbolism only works in a text when it’s subtle. That’s one of the reasons why directors like Tarsem are generally considered pretentious: they want us to know that they are very, very deep, and have no problem telling us.

Also, making Superman into Jesus is just inappropriate since he was created by two observant Jews who drew from a number of sources, but largely from stories of Moses. The insistence of primarily Christian filmmakers and audiences to appropriate other people’s myths doesn’t end at ones that are centuries old, and this is just another example of how clunky it is when you try to jam Jesus into the Torah.

That being said, there is symbolism they did really well, and that was the allusions to the Myth of the Metals. We hear about how on Krypton, the genetically created children are bred for specific tasks, and the ones that Jor-El mentions are roughly equivalent to Plato’s concept of people who are raised to work, to fight, and to lead (men of bronze, silver, and gold respectively). In the middle of the movie, you see Clark reading Plato at one point, which furthers the reference. It also makes the phrase “Man of Steel” a pun, since Kal-El, being a naturally born Kryptonian, has no genetic destiny and is instead an alloy, stronger because he is a mix of other metals (i.e. abilities). This works, and it works well.

My last little gripe is that I feel like we lost something in editing. Lawrence Fishburn does a good job as Perry White, but there’s a scene at one point where Metropolis is under attack and we get some of the other reporters at the Daily Planet being cool and saving themselves. However, at one point “Jenny” (who I assume is a gender-flipped Jimmy Olsen, though we didn’t hear her name until minutes before she is in danger) gets trapped under debris and Perry White is trying to save her. I get that Perry is supposed to be the father-figure of the Daily Planet, but we don’t see that in the movie. We see him be a tough-but-fair boss to Lois twice, but never see him interact with anybody else in the newsroom, so when this scene comes around, I don’t feel the danger. I think there was another scene where we actually saw Perry talk to this character that ended up on the editing room floor, because this is clearly supposed to be an emotional payoff, but with no setup, it just falls flat.

Otherwise, I really liked most of the stuff in the film. Cavill plays Supes with enough of an emotional range that it’s believable, but not overwhelming, and I like that you can tell how much this guy loves being a super hero. It’s fun for him, and even when people are jerks, he still is just a nice person. I love the fight sequences, especially since you can see how the Kryptonians and Kal-El fight much differently from one another, with the former being much more efficient in their movement and Supes just bashing people into shit over and over again while punching them. The second act fight in Smallville was pretty damn sweet.

I also liked that they didn’t do a whole lot of callouts to fans. There’s no Lex Luthor (though a brief scene of some LexCorp trucks in the background), no Kryptonite, they don’t bother making Lois too dumb to realize that Clark and Superman are the same person. And it all works really well for the movie. They strip it down to its basics and make the whole movie an origin story rather than trying to cram one into the first act while establishing another plot. But it’s an exciting origin story, and I would love to see them continue to make the decision to only use what actually helps tell the story.

I sincerely hope this movie does well so we can see a Flash, Green Arrow, or Wonder Woman movie. Also, the JLA film this can be part of the kickoff to. It’s not the greatest film ever, but it’s my favorite Superman film thus far and really worth a watch, despite its flaws.

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