Man of Steel IS NOT a Good Superman Movie: Diego Crespo
One thing we need to get out of the way: a movie should be based on its merits as a movie first and as an adaptation second. Separating the qualities of Superman from the page and previous iterations to the new screens. Just because it’s a bad adaptation doesn’t mean it’s a bad movie. The Shining and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest are failures of adaptations and are among the most respected artworks in the industry.
Got it? Good.
Here’s the disappointing part where I tell you, “I still think this is a bad movie”.
Zack Snyder is a talented visual filmmaker. If he was interested in silent films, there’s a good chance we’d be calling him a visionary in more than just marketing trailers. He can articulate elements of storytelling with a scene but when a character opens their mouth, it often contradicts what he was trying to get across to the audience.
Man of Steel hits marks of the character’s legacy with dialogue beckoning the audience to understand what an important symbol the character will be. There’s also talk of being genetically superior, the dangers a Superman would have on society, and how young Clark Kent should hide himself from that society. None of these ideas really coincide in any way besides burdening plot threads upon one another. That’s not to say there aren’t good ideas at play here. Every plot and character beat is actually a good idea but there isn’t enough interest or time to develop these ideas before moving onto the next checkpoint, which in turn usually ends up negating a previous or future point.
With the massive destruction set pieces being the primary focal points in the argument against this movie, it only makes sense to talk about why it doesn’t work for me.
When these superpowered gods try to beat the piss out of each other for the entirety of the climax, the excess of action is only part of the problem; it’s how it’s presented. When Superman tackles Zod into the streets of Smallville, the action isn’t filmed particularly well but it is the best live-action iteration of a Dragonball Z fight. Buildings come crumbling down, people are smashed into the earth, and Superman does lots of punching.
A big issue with the fight is Superman doesn’t save people. He does, but it’s an after thought. The planet is saved but in the heat of the moment, the civilians are oddly forgotten about. We see their perspective but it’s a story filled without consequence until the infamous line Jenny Olsen utters covered in rubble and ash, “He saved us” wherein Superman lands on ground zero and kisses a doe-eyed Lois Lane. This is probably the most tone-deaf portion of the movie from here on out.
Since we are ultimately relating this to comics Superman, I should note there has been plenty of destruction in every iteration of the character. The best stories use the threat of destruction as a motivator for Superman to save people or stop a villainous plot. My personal favorite Superman story is Alan Moore’s unsung masterpiece “For the Man Who Has Everything” and that story takes place entirely within the Fortress of Solitude (there’s a rad adaptation of that story in Justice League Unlimited on Netflix for those interested). Like I mentioned before, Snyder’s visuals are superb and lend themselves to a great visual destructive treat, if far too toned down on the color spectrum. What if the fight had taken place primarily in space, with Zod and his men trying to plant the World Engine on earth with Superman trying to destroy it. You don’t need the second World Engine and you don’t need a fight in Metropolis. You need the fight above Smallville and with the Kryptonians making their way to Earth. There’s your stakes. Can you imagine the image splendor of Zod and Superman fighting in the clouds above an onlooking city full of people as they await seemingly imminent doom?
The rest of the actual fisticuffs being traded in the movie fall into a pattern: Superman tackles someone into something, someone tackles him into something harder. Rinse, repeat, and switch the order. Minus the over-the-shoulder look, the sequence is nothing to write home about (it’s okay to write about it online though, I guess). No, Superman is not primarily responsible for the damage either. It shouldn’t be treated so haphazardly, but it’s not the make or break part of the movie for me. David Goyer’s script leaves the character indirectly responsible for the damage done to society. They’ll answer it in the sequel” is not an answer. In the entirety of the Smallville and Metropolis fights, Superman reacts once, maybe twice, to a destructive sequence around him. But this is more than morally murky (an odd trait given how the movie thrives on your pre-established knowledge of the character) it makes the disaster feel weightless. When the whole argument for the destruction is because it’s supposed to create stakes, we should feel those stakes being firmly planted in dirt and not tossed on top a pool of mud.
Of all the ideas Man of Steel has going for it – I’ll likely be tarred and feathered for this – the idea I’m drawn to the most is Superman killing Zod as a last resort. If there had been pre-established conversations between Superman and another character that Clark didn’t want to kill another person, let alone the last of his kind, the movie could benefit from a heartbreaking yell in the finale. I don’t agree it should happen given the context, but it’s not a far-fetched idea from the start. And at the very least there should have been exploratory dialogue on the merit of death instead of Superman talking to a priest in Kansas for some reason, or a quick transition from Zod’s death to Superman smashing a drone in front of a General’s car after a barrage of noise for 45 minutes.
I guess that’s where it all comes down to for me. Man of Steel is a movie so in love and obsessed with the idea of Superman, it loses sight of who Superman truly is beyond mere lip service. The movie has Superman punch Zod into space, buildings are smashed, a truly spectacular flight sequence, and a menagerie of people talk about the symbol of hope he’ll become without ever showing us why. Dialogue is nothing, action is everything. Man of Steel left me with a whole lot of nothing trying to be something. I can always appreciate the endeavor but you don’t get a passing grade for trying. I sincerely hope Batman v. Superman can put us all on common ground.
You Decide: Is Man of Steel a Good Superman Movie?