(This contains spoilers for Man of Steel.)
Random Loot is a new series in which I get to focus on one particular game, movie or even comic, be it relatively old or quite new. This series is far less critical than my reviews. I’m less concerned with being entirely fair, and more with just presenting my personal views. You’ve been warned.
Last night I sat down to watch Man of Steel on Blu-ray, the first time I’ve seen it since its initial cinema release. It caused quite the rift in viewers, with some really enjoying it and others struggling to find anything good about it. Having watched it for the second time, I’m compelled to say that I fall within the second group; this is an action-packed, often visually lovely film that ultimately feels hollow.
It does a lot of things right. Ignoring the wanton destruction and the amount of people who probably died during it, the entire fight between Superman and Zod is incredibly epic, and while I’m not always a fan of cinematography it’s just amazing to see Superman getting to completely unleash against an enemy that can not only take the punishment but return it as well. Michael Shannon only seems to have two distinct extremes in his portrayal of Zod, namely relatively quiet or screaming maniac, but he brings intensity to the role and feels imposing. And yet he is an example of my big problem with the film; he’s a one note character. His motivations are easy to understand and grasp, but there’s little more there. I also question the choice to have Zod get the snot beaten out of him by Jor-El in the film’s opening scenes on Krypton, as that made me view him as less of a threat later. Zod is supposed to be a tactical genius and brutal fighter, yet a man of science pummels him, as does Superman later, despite having no experience in hand to hand combat. The only valid excuse Superman has is that he had more time to learn how is powers work than Zod.
Speaking of Zod I’m not really buying his survival of Krypton’s destruction. They imprison him and his cronies inside the Phantom Zone, which I must assume that they would have known would keep them safe, so why bother? Why not simply place them in the containers and leave them sitting in the cupboard? The entire thing plays out like Krypton isn’t actually going to get destroyed, yet everyone knows it is.
The Superman suit looks fantastic. It got the hackles of a lot of fans up, and I do wish the colors were a shade brighter, a criticism I can actually apply to the entire film, but ultimately I loved the design of it, the darker tones conveying a grittier take on the comic book hero. Clark’s donning of the suit is a moment of nerd-joy. Which leads me into the wonderous flying sequence. Watching Superman discover his power of flight is an outstanding moment that’s wonderfully filmed and realised. Although for the sake of all that is my already limited sanity I wish the film would easy back on the use of quick-zoom. Every time there’s some fast action the camera starts zooming in madly. No, it doesn’t ramp up the intensity, it just makes me wish that the zoom function had never been invented. It’s a neat trick, and sort of works during the flying sequence, but it’s incredibly overused throughout the movie.
And I even loved the controversial snapping of Zod’s neck, which I view as one of the better scenes throughout the movie. While I understand why Superman fans struggled with this scene, viewing it as a complete abandonment of the character’s very core, it’s really a great way of making this cinematic Superman more human, and it fits in with the grittier tone. This is a more vulnerable Superman, who even with his great power is sometimes faced with a situation where his strength simply isn’t enough. It’s an effective way of dispelling the misconception that many movie goers would have had that Superman is some perfect hero that can’t be defeated by anything but Kryptonite. Sure, he ultimately battles and bests Zod, but it costs him a part of his soul to do it, leading to space for stronger character developement down the road. It builds the foundation for Superman to vow to never take another life, which then of course opens the road for moments where’s he pushed toward that outcome.
The movie damages this scene mere moments later, though. After Superman’s anguished, guilt-ridden cry at having to end the life of the last Kryptonian. other than himself – and therefore doom himself to a lonely existence – we’re treated to a scene with a smiling Superman. I assume we’re supposed to have jumped forward in time a little here, but I would have appreciated a bit more fallout, both from Superman’s obvious emotional truama and from the quite literal fallout of an alien invasion which levelled most of a city. Just a few scenes showing Superman dealing with his grief would have developed his character further. There’s also a problem with the fact that throughout the entire film Superman’s moral code isn’t made very clear. We, the audience, never get any indication that he’s morally against killing when the situation arises. Fans of the comic know this, but that doesn’t excuse the film’s inability to explain this. One could argue that everyone just knows Superman doesn’t kill, but given that Man of Steel is a darker, grittier reboot that has very little interest in following the comics or previous films there’s no way to know what rules it operates by, nullifying the argument. Superman might not kill in the comics, but Man of Steel is playing by different rules, and thus it needed to be setup earlier in the film that Clark was against killing. Indeed, this arguably should have been instilled within him by Jonathan Kent, but once again amidst all the dramatic monologues Jonathan doesn’t imbue Clark with a set of morals.
And good grief does Clark need some development. In Man of Steel Superman feels like a husk, offering nothing more than a surface personality and no depth. Cavill absolutely looks the part and has some good acting skills, certainly enough to make me look forward to seeing him in future roles, but it’s the writing that kills the story. The flashback sequences are interesting and manage paint a solid picture of Clark’s core struggle with dual identity, but that’s it. We never have enough time really see what kind of person he has grown into, and that left me struggling to connect with him. I wanted him to kick ass because he’s Superman and he’s awesome, but on a personal level I didn’t feel much for the man in the suit. This is the same sentiment I had throughout Nolan’s Batman films: loved Batman, but didn’t care much about the actual person.
A distinct lack of personality affects most of the characters within the film. The worst offender is Lois Lane who is little more than a tired stereotype, a generic “tough girl” who does nothing but prove that writers seem to believe that a strong female character essentially needs to be a dude without a dick. She ticks all the boxes, downing a strong drink in a few swallows and facing off against some military goons. She’s got spunk, you know. And that’s it. There’s nothing else there, and that renders the apparent romance between her and the equally personality lacking Superman laughable at best, a romance that comes completely out of left field with almost no convincing build-up. But at least she’s not some damsel in distress for Superman to rescue every five seconds. If you want an example of a good female character within a comic movie, I’d put forth Gwen Stacy from the Amazing Spider-Man. She’s smart, funny, likable and brilliantly written. She can look after herself, supports Peter and yet doesn’t sacrifice her femininity. Even Black Widow from the Avengers feels like she has more to her than Lois Lane.
The film simply has no substance, and while a Superman flick arguably doesn’t need vast amounts of depth it would have been nice to have gotten a little more than “that Superman bloke is sort of a nice guy.” While it’s easy to view the Man of Steel as nothing more than a trumped-up boy scout he’s a character with plenty of depth to his personality, none of which is reflected very well in the film, which seems content to provide a hollow build up before whacking on the suit and providing a huge brawl. Everyone seems to only talk in exposition and dramatic speeches about how important Superman’s destiny is, and none of it feels natural or driven by genuine emotion. In trying to feel epic and vast, it feels like the writers forgot drop the scope down every now and then for a more personal, less exposition heavy moment. This would have done wonders with the lacking scenes between a young Clark and his adopted dad, because in their current form they just don’t feel like genuine father/son conversations.
I do also have a problem with Jonathan Kent’s death in the movie in comparison to how it was handled within the comics. Within the hallowed pages Jonathan dies via a simple heart attack, which provides a harsh lesson for our hero that he cannot save everyone, a moral which would have actually fitted in neatly with this film, since Superman doesn’t seem to be very good at saving people anyway, though I’ll forgive him due to a lack of experience. In the movie we get a death that feels rather out of place (Tornado? Really?) and that doesn’t seem to teach us or Superman anything of value. Jonathan chooses to die so his son does not reveal himself to the world just yet, which is admirable, but as we’ve seen Clark doesn’t seem to heed his adopted father’s advice by intervening on the oil rig and destroying an innocent truck. I admit that he doesn’t get seen destroying the truck, but it’s still suspicious enough to draw potential attention to him. While I see what the writers were going for in such a dramatic and over-the-top death, it just doesn’t hold much weight for me. At first glance it seems powerful, but look deeper and Jonathan really dies for very little.
Hell, I even find fault in other areas that I otherwise enjoyed. The action is hugely entertaining, but the heavy use of shaky cam left me feeling annoyed on a couple of occasions as it made the fight harder to see. One of the things I loved about the Avengers is that when it came to the big battles there was a simple, clean style used so that we could see everything in all of its glory, whereas in Man of Steel it can be hard to appreciate the details with a camera that won’t sit still. There’s also the problem that neither Zod or Superman show much in the way of pain, rendering all those massive punches and crashing through buildings fun but strangely pointless.
Above all else, why does Clark become Superman? Obviously Earth being invaded by Zod and his chums is the eventual reason that Clark goes into battle, but why does the person, Clark Kent, choose to become and remain Superman? Because he’s going to be a savior or because he’ll lead the people of Earth into a better future isn’t an answer. Those are things that Clark and we, the audience, were told through heavy exposition by almost literally every character, but that’s not why Clark Kent becomes Superman. We never get to find that out.
Man of Steel is a fascinating film because of the way it divided audiences. Where I see little depth to the characters past superficial traits and heavily flawed writing, others seem to find the exact opposite. When questioned people tell me Man of Steel is about ideals and morality and what it means to be human, but I don’t think it is. All of these things are brought up on the dialogue briefly, usually when chatting about how awesome Superman is, but the film never goes anywhere with it. There’s dramatic speeches every few minutes that sound awesome, but in reality don’t have anything much to say past what we’ve already heard. Man of Steel is chock full of lovely visual symbolism, but again it doesn’t mean very much past the initial, “Oh wow, how symbolic is that!” In truth I think people are reading a lot of this deeper meaning into the film when in reality it isn’t there. And you know what, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s like painting the idea of what Superman is to you, using what’s provided as the building blocks.
The desire to create a more psychologically damaged Man of Steel is admirable, putting more emphasis on his differences rather than his similarities with the people of Earth. As a concept I’m completely onboard with Man of Steel; an outcast Superman who wants to protect Earth yet is completely disconnected from its people is a brilliant foundation for the character, though I’d urge the filmmakers not to forget that Superman does have a lighter edge too.
There’s stuff I love; the action is great, even despite the damn shaky cam, and Cavill is killing it as Superman/Clark. The special effects are often breathtaking, as is the overall visual look of the film, although the constant grey-blue tinge paints it as a little too bleak for my tastes. This is the best Superman film ever, and certainly the one that does the most justice to portraying his powers, yet in many, many ways, it’s disappointing. The dialogue is heavy-handed and there’s little to the characters. In short, it’s a great action flick, but that’s it.
I don’t hate Man of Steel, even with my many criticisms of how it was put together. But I do think it could have been so much better. I watched it, I had fun with it, but I’m no rush to view it a third time, and doubt I will for some time. Yet I’d be lying if I said I can’t at least see why there’s so many people who adore it.
Categories: Opinion Piece