Nothing like a reference to a twenty year old song to start out the review to make it feel relavent and timely, right folks? Note to all readers: In order to really get into how I felt about this film, I had to use specific examples and story elements of the film to back up my points. Though I hate SPOILER-filled reviews, I felt I couldn’t write about it honestly without supporting why I felt that way and so, here it is, my SPOILER-filled, long as hell review of MAN OF STEEL.
AICN COMICS/AICN HORROR’s Ambush Bug here. I really wish I could join the gang pile in support of this film like my fellow AICN brethren, and while I respect their opinions, I can’t help but feel as if I saw a completely different movie than they did when I saw MAN OF STEEL last week here in Chicago. Now, I will give the film credit in having some absolutely fantastic special effects. The mammoth fight between Superman and Zod in the end is the slugfest of the century (though I’ll get into my problems with it further down), and the mini battle between Faora and the big Kryptonian in front of Sears (in one of the most gratuitous logo placements I’ve seen in a film in quite some time—apparently the S on his chest stands for Sears…) was pretty fun too, as was the expansive opening sequence. All in all, effects-wise this was a triumph and gave us a Jackson Pollock painting of an action movie. It’s too bad the story is more like explosive diarrhea. You see, the best effects in the world mean nothing if there’s no character--check out SUCKER PUNCH for a perfect example of this. And while MAN OF STEEL is much, much, much of an improvement from Snyder’s Dance The Pain Away messterpiece as far as character, I still couldn’t get over the fact that this film simply has no soul.
Zack Snyder was able to maintain the momentum riding high from the expertly edited trailers which made the film feel as if it were a grand superhero epic in the first 30-40 minutes of the film. The epic sequences of battle and planet-wide decimation were well done, and definitely something we have never seen in a SUPERMAN film before. And dammit if it wasn’t awesome to see John Byrne’s intricate headdresses and costume design in the Krypton high council which were featured prominently in his revolutionary SUPERMAN: MAN OF STEEL miniseries from the eighties. Because we spend more time on Krypton than in any other SUPERMAN film the opening feels fresh and unique. Though somewhat reminiscent of THE MATRIX in crucial parts, I was willing to forgive that at this point in the film as Snyder’s frantically paced style fit the evergy of the battle as we swoop with Jor El riding a giant dragon across a battlefield and stealing the genetic coding for his people. All of these scenes were done with grand scope and epic scale, with a bombastic battle exploding in the background. Though things like Zod’s introduction, trial, and banishment seemed somewhat rushed, the strong performances by Russell Crowe as Jor El, Ayelet Zurer as Lara Lor-Van, and especially the scene chewing Michael Shannon as Zod made these probably the most compelling and most successful sequences of the film. In these moments, we get to know the essence of these characters, especially that what Zod and Jor El want are not completely different.
Even when the rocket lands and we flash forward to Clark growing up as a pre-teen outsider, refined, restrained, and timid to use his power except in times of trouble, there’s a hint of an understanding of heroism, wholesomeness, and honor that you just don’t get in modern movies. Modern comics and comic book stories feel as if all of the stuff of heroes is something to be deconstructed or made fun of. Superman is both above all of that and, most important, willing to stand for those values despite that popular feeling because, dammit, someone has to be the hero here and he has the power to do it. Those heroic qualities are the elements that were captured so well in the Donner films (and aped decently in Singer’s version and even TV’s SMALLVILLE to a lesser extent), and what we (or at the very least I) think of when we think of the Last Son of Krypton. It’s the soul of the character: heroism in its purest form. Above all of the cynicism, yet humble to his core from a sense of goodness that you only see in old timey movies. Some might feel this sense of heroism is passé or uncool, but set in the right light and given the right type of story and adversary, I feel it still is possible to convey.
It’s during the aftermath of the bus sequence that things started going south and the soul of this movie begins to fade. In cutting to Superman’s early years as a series of flashbacks, we never get a chance to really feel like we know the relationship between Pa Kent (Kevin Costner) and Clark and this is the biggest mistake of the film. Costner plays more distracted and sometimes annoyed with his son than loving in the truncated scenes we get. There may even be a sense of envy there that his son is so much more powerful than he ever is, was, or will be. Sure he wants to protect him, but Pa’s comments, like answering Clark’s question “Should I have just let the kids on the bus die?” with “Maybe…I don’t know…” rang odd to me. Sure, Pa fears what people will do once they know of Clark’s power, but to consider a bus load of kids expendable because of that secret? Off base logic and definitely not heroism, if you ask me.
What happens here is the problem with the whole rest of the movie. There is very little time in this movie for those little moments—the kinds of moments that make one invest in a character, the kinds that show heart and soul and emotional investment. I’m sure there might be some footage of Clark and his Pa just spending time together, establishing their relationship and how special that is, but it’s not shown here. Instead we are rushed into a sequence which basically tells us that this Pa Kent is a complete idiot for going back into the heart of a tornado to rescue his dog from a car and then ordering Clark not to save him for fear that he’d reveal himself to others as an alien. What an idiotic and downright barbaric way to go, especially since Clark could have easily saved him by a) taking advantage of the chaos around them as cover, b) running so quickly no one would see him, and c) staying in character since Clark had just saved a bus full of kids who taunted and bullied him, so why wouldn’t he save the most important man in his life?
Not that I am looking for an exact interpretation from the comics, but having Pa die of a heart attack--an adversary Clark couldn’t conquer with his physical powers--made it much more of a humbling experience and helped to make the Man of Steel more like us. Here, guilt is a much easier emotion than helplessness as Goyer and Snyder decide to go the Peter Parker route and have him there to save his father, but unable to do so. The other way would require a quiet moment or two not set to late Soundgarden or some other schmaltzy song. And since modern heroes apparently need something like guilt to motivate, we needed this whiz bang sequence and another scene of Clark screaming into the camera over a symphony instead of something of real emotional depth. Screaming is much more effective than moments of quiet, hefty sadness in Snyder’s films.
On top of all this, Pa’s death is a beat that is supposed to hit like a sledgehammer. But Snyder, I fear, just doesn’t have the chops to do that. I can’t speak for everyone in the theater, but because of the sheer stupidity of the act itself, when the tornado sweeps Pa away not a single heartstring was plucked, mainly because none of that relationship was really established before the death. Why give a shit if Dances with Wolves goes flying with cows if we don’t have anything but gruff lectures and scenes of Costner avoiding eye contact to care about?
Goyer’s story borrows heavily from Mark Waid’s BIRTHRIGHT miniseries, which focused on the middle years between Smallville and Metropolis. In this timeline, Clark isn’t a member of the Daily Planet yet but a wandering nomad, trying to stay anonymous while searching for purpose with these fantastic powers of his. Not a bad place to start Clark’s journey, and a new one at that. Like BATMAN BEGINS, which focused on the formative years between Bruce Wayne and Batman, Goyer’s story feels like a good beginning and had he been patient and not tried to throw everything into the mix at once, it might have been a good idea. But with Zod in the picture, we can’t help but move Clark to Metropolis without all of that fodder we dealt with in previous films like Clark’s first days at the Daily Planet, first meeting with Lois, Jimmy Olsen, Perry White, and the like. But problem number two again deals with emotional investment, this time with Lois Lane (Amy Adams).
When it comes to emotion, surely we should get it from scenes with Clark’s love interest Lois, right? Sorry, the scenes between Superman and Lois are some of the most flaccid of the film. It doesn’t help that Lois Lane is miscast with Amy Adams, who looks to be five years Superman’s senior and lacks the ballsy gumption to make us believe this is the girl that proves to be emotional Kryptonite to Superman’s heart. Lois literally has nothing to do in this film but be a go-between with Clark and Jor El, Zod and Clark, the government and Clark. Also, pay attention to Lois’ powers of teleportation in this film. She shows up in the Arctic. Then in Metropolis. Then in Washington. Then in an airplane with Chris Meloni (who would have made an amazing Luthor, but is wasted as an Army General here). Then remarkably leaps buildings in a single bound to catch up to Clark and Zod after battling it out over and across the city in Grand Central Station in the end after just being near the Daily Planet. Lois is everywhere and, at the same time, has really nothing to do. There’s a scene between Jor El and Lois in Zod’s ship that is so horribly scripted and edited that the two actors are literally staring at each other for an uncomfortable amount of time. I thought the camera had frozen! Other than the fact that we all expect she is supposed to fall for Superman and know that’s what these two characters are supposed to do, there isn’t a lick of chemistry or even a quiet moment to justify it. In the end, the relationship between Clark and Lois feels forced and unnecessary, a side note in between slugfests.
Taking more fun out of the balloon, by the end, Lois knows who Superman is. I know, who couldn’t see through Clark’s “disguise”, but that’s what makes the whole thing fun. But there’s no room for any of that fun Superman stuff in Snyder’s MAN OF STEEL. In fact, other than the fact that it’s called MAN OF STEEL, there’s really nothing but names that make it recognizable. Gone is Jimmy Olsen, lovable sidekick. I know he was replaced with a female reporter, but honestly, I don’t think she was identified and she surely didn’t matter at all in this script. Gone is the Kryptonite, though for some reason Clark is weak around the rest of his people and the lasers they use to destroy the city. The city they all live in I don’t think is ever identified as Metropolis, and if it is, it’s in passing and surely isn’t a character itself as Gotham was in any of the BATMAN films. There is no reference to tall building leaping, locomotive over-powering, and bullet speeding. Sure, call Donner and Singer’s versions cartoonish and hokey (and in many cases they were), but at least they knew how to highlight Superman’s powers. Here he melts stuff with his eyes occasionally, but mostly just punches Zod into and through stuff over and over and over again.
And speaking of which, let’s talk about the slugfest at the end. The amount of human life which had to have been lost in the city-wide slugfest alone should cast Superman as the greatest villain in Earth’s history. The battle with Zod is pretty spectacular as they punch each other through walls, lift cars and trucks, and topple skyscrapers to their foundations, but pick up any comic with an ounce of insight and it will say that the first rule of thumb when fighting a supervillain is to get them out of a populated area. It’s as if Goyer and Snyder can’t be bothered by that heroic stuff when there’s punching to do. Suspension of disbelief can allow me to believe a man can fly, but when you topple 50 buildings in a heavily populated downtown metropolis, don’t tell me there aren’t going to be fatalities. Here with blind rage, Superman and Zod battle it out, and never once does Superman take the time to melt falling rubble, blow away smoke, or sonic clap his hands together to save any of the pedestrians scampering like ants below the falling sky.
Which leads me to the end, as Superman is “forced” to kill Zod in order to save him from killing a family with his laser eyes. I don’t object to the fact that Superman was forced to kill. What I object to was what happens afterwards, as Superman wails like his ice cream cone melted as Zod lays dead at his feet. I get it. This is the last remaining Kryptonian and Superman had to kill him. He has a right to be upset. The thing is, Snyder couldn’t slow things down for one second before the murder to have a scene with Superman reaching out with any type of attempt at kinship with Zod. No one wants to see Superman heroically try to tell Zod that he could peacefully live among the humans as he had for the last 35 years when a violent neck snap and another melodramatic scream can convey it all much better, right?
“But what of the inspirational speeches from the commercials?” you might be asking--the one by Pa Kent and the one by Jor El (who by the way shows up again and again through the film to explain shit and catch up the idiots in the audience numerous times. Remember the butler at the end of SPIDER-MAN 3 who pops in at the end and explains to Peter exactly what he needs to know exactly when he needs to know it? Jor El is that butler guy in this movie!!! )? Hell, even Zod gets a rant in there a few times. Those speeches expertly edited together with action is fantastic to behold in the trailers, but in the context of the story it’s occurring in, not so much. Or it’s not enough to make us care. A lecture is not a memorable moment spent. Someone preaching or soap-boxing or monologuing does not make you care, no matter how high you swell the music. Sure those are pretty words Goyer writes, but these are not the moments that make us care. Those come from actions between characters and the camera has to slow down to capture them.
And I’m going to go out on a limb and not place all the blame on Snyder here. Sure his attention span in this film makes Bay feel like Malick, but Goyer is the one who brings Jor El back in the latter portion of the film to explain things and drop a stinky deus ex machina all over the place. It’s Goyer who failed to write intrinsic details about saving pedestrians during a slugfest. It’s Goyer who didn’t give Lois anything to do other than show up inexplicably in every other scene. It’s Goyer who gives Perry White the line “I think we need to leave the building” ten minutes after the large robot spider looking machine (YES, THIS FILM HAS A GIANT ROBOT SPIDER MACHINE!) lands in the middle of the city and the buildings around the Planet start falling. It’s Goyer who decided to have Pa wave off Clark’s rescue instead of show us how much of a hero he really was. And why the hell is there a Nazi scientist on Zod’s ship? Most of the bad decisions I talk about above were from the writer of not only Nolan’s DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY but also from the writer of BLADE TRINITY, GHOST RIDER, CROW: CITY OF ANGELS, & most recently GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE. So while Snyder didn’t have the skill to convey an ounce of emotion, there may have been flaws from the get go in the script that didn’t help things along. Who knows how things work out in the process from script to film? All I know is, the soul wasn’t there in the final product.
Henry Cavill makes for a decent Superman, though his facial expressions in this film seem to only have the range for a wrinkled browed Blue Steel to screaming. Still, he has the look of Superman and does a capable job with the script and story he is given. It’s not his fault the scenes that could have given us some chemistry with Amy Adams weren’t there. There are moments of charm oozing through as with some interactions Superman has with the Army General in the all too abrupt ending of this film and given another shot at the role, I’m sure he would be fully capable of handling Superman for quite a few more films.
I’m sure people are going to flock to theaters and MAN OF STEEL will break box office records on its opening weekend, but I seriously doubt many will want to go back for a second viewing. Most likely due to the big opening, this will be seen as a hit by the execs and finally we’ll see movement toward more quality DC Comics interpretations. And that’s great, but this film is far from Donner’s masterpieces and more comparable to Singer’s misstep. Don’t take my word for it. See it yourselves and be the judge. I just know that I left the theater feeling as if I didn’t really see a Superman movie, just characters who vaguely looked like them playing out on the screen. It felt like another noble attempt, but the people behind MAN OF STEEL didn’t understand what it means to be a hero, or at least didn’t feel it was something they had room for in this story. Find the director that understands that and then you’ll have the Superman movie we all have been dreaming of. This one isn’t it.
Ambush Bug is Mark L. Miller, original @$$Hole/wordslinger/writer of wrongs/reviewer/interviewer/editor of AICN COMICS for over 12 years & AICN HORROR for 3. He has written comics such as VINCENT PRICE PRESENTS THE TINGLERS & WITCHFINDER GENERAL, THE DEATHSPORT GAMES, & NANNY & HANK (soon to be made into a feature film from Uptown 6 Films). He has co-written FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND’s LUNA: ORDER OF THE WEREWOLF (to be released in 2013 as a 100-pg original graphic novel). Mark wrote the critically acclaimed GRIMM FAIRY TALES PRESENTS THE JUNGLE BOOK from Zenescope Entertainment & GRIMM FAIRY TALES #76-81. Look for GRIMM FAIRY TALES PRESENTS THE JUNGLE BOOK: LAST OF THE SPECIES available in February-July 2013 and the new UNLEASHED crossover miniseries GRIMM FAIRY TALES PRESENTS WEREWOLVES: THE HUNGER #1-3 available in May-July 2013! Follow Ambush Bug on the Twitter @Mark_L_Miller.