Man of Steel
Genre: Action, Adventure, Comic Book Adaptation
Director: Zack Snyder
Stars: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon
A young itinerant worker is forced to confront his secret extraterrestrial heritage when Earth is invaded by members of his race.
Man of Steel totally sucks.
Okay, perhaps I should justify that with an explanation about why I didn’t care for this movie. I should probably also preface the fact that I’ve not read much of the Superman comics. I’ve tried but I’ve always found his character to be too infallible, too perfect, and too void of weakness. Cracked has a fitting article on the subject I can completely agree with – 3 Reasons It’s So Hard to Make Superman Interesting.
So I watched Man of Steel after hearing both good and bad reviews so I expected, in the very least, a movie that made an attempt to bring interest to Superman and try to entertain. What I ended up doing was scratching my head and screaming: “What the fuck was THAT about?”… when I wasn’t just outright laughing at how bad this movie was.
So we all know the basic story.. right? Krypton was facing its own inevitable destrucion. In order to preserve the life of their son Kal-El, Jor-El and Lara send him away where the infant crash lands on Earth and is raised as Clark Kent – later to become Superman. That’s the gist of the story. It has some plotholes – but that’s the basic idea of it. There’s not much to really say about Krypton other than, it existed. There’s a great novel out there, The Last Days of Krypton, by Kevin J. Anderson that covers the whole Krypton backstory well enough. That’s all Krypton is, really, backstory. After all, the story of Superman is about Superman – not a planet that was destroyed when he was barely a few days old. That’s how comics throughout the Golden and Silver Ages adressed Krypton – It was a faraway place not too different from Earth. Then came the 1980s and DC Comics’ Crisis on Infinite Earths and The Man of Steel got a reboot. Now Krypton had a LONG history and high tech with cloning and some dumb “birthing matrix” and whole story arcs dedicated to this strange, befuddled Krypton. Guess which version of Krypton is depicted in Man of Steel?
This place is a CGI paradise that makes no sense. Jor-El (Russell Crowe) screams to a high council that the world is ending but before any action could be taken, General Zod (Michael Shannon) comes along to stage some sort of coup. What’s the point of a civil war when the world is already ending? Jor-El jumps into the ocean, swimming through some strange baby farm while a face is shouting at him to retrive some charred, black skull which activates some sort of thing in his baby rocket to send Kal-El to Earth. I was able to follow the story but where these visuals even necessary? General Zod and his buddies are frozen in outer space in a 3 minute sequence of CGI space garbage. Even after Jor-El dies and their rocket is sent “to the stars” we still hang around on Krypton to watch it blow up. Seriously there is millions of dollars in CG effects going on here for 20 minutes and for what purpose? To establish a backstory that amounts to one sentance: “In Krypton’s last days a child was sent to Earth to maintain their way of life.” What Man of Steel does with it’s opening is just decadent and confusing – beyond establishing General Zod as a character and sending baby Kal-El to Earth, we don’t need all of this glamor. It’s distracting.
Here’s how it takes me out of the story. Superman has existed since LONG before I was born and I’ve had frequent exposure to the character and his mythos my whole life. Watching Man of Steel was the first time I questioned the logistics of “Where is Krypton?” Even the closest start to Earth is still over 4 light years away. In order for this rocket carrying Kal-El to make it to Earth with the child instead STILL a baby, that thing would have to be going much faster than the speed of light – Since the people on Krypton were just normal folks, that it was the Earth’s Sun which created Superman’s powers – the G-forces in that rocket travelling several times faster than the speed of light would have turned little Kal-El into a mist of baby mush. Sure, it’s a comic story and I never questioned its logic before – not until Man of Steel was dumb enough to MAKE me call bullshit on its science.
After that WAY too long prologue, we jump to Clark Kent – nameless drifter. Well I guess he’s not THAT nameless, he is named Clark Kent, after all, but he wanders the country, working odd jobs. Something happens where he has to “unleash his powers” and then runs back into hiding. This isn’t Superman – this is The Incredible Hulk. There’s a fire on a deep sea oil rig, nameless difter saves the day using super-human powers. From job to job Clark goes FOR AN HOUR interspersed with flashbacks of young Clark Kent learning his powers.
There is a time and a place for non-linear storytelling and flashbacks – the origin story of Superman is not that place. We get to see young Clark getting a grasp on his powers as he’s able to see through everybody’s skin and hear the strange voices of all these jabbering skeletons. Seriously, what the fuck was THAT about? He saves a bus full of fellow students from drowning and then the citizens of this small Kansas town are ANGRY about it? He lets his father (Kevin Costner) die in a tornado because he’s constantly told “don’t use your powers.” later on, apropos of NOTHING, there is a brief flashback where some bullies are picking on Clark Kent. He does nothing about it and then his Dad shows up to say “yeah, forget about it.” That’s the WHOLE flashback. It’s pointless. There is a conversation he has with Jor-El that establishes WHO Kal-El/Clark Kent is, why he was sent to Earth and what kind of destiny he should fulfill. That’s all we really need – not an hour of Clark Kent wandering around and going “I don’t know what to do,” mixed with flashbacks of young Clark Kent going “I don’t know what to do.”
When I said there was an hour of Clark Kent wandering around doing pretty much nothing amidst non-contextual flashbacks, that wasn’t a hyperbole; it really is an hour. There isn’t even character development going on here – or even believable dialogue. Literally, ONE HOUR of “Hey, Superman is good, OKAY?!” People don’t act like humans, they are just two-dimensional Superman fanboys or Superman haters. Lois Lane goes around forming a story about this mysterious drifter capable of super human feats of heroism. She has a voiceover about “this great guy” while she talks to people that say “yeah, he was a pretty great guy.” An HOUR of this. We have flashbacks where Kevin Costner as Mr. Kent (okay, JONATHAN Kent but he’s never referred to as such in the film’s narrative, he’s just “Clark’s Dad.”) spouts lines about “you’re a great guy, Clark, you have a great power, you have a great destiny, your power will change the world,” for AN HOUR. I could accept an hour of non-eventful things if it was an hour spent with interesting characters. Man of Steel is just faces speaking lines about how great this Clark Kent fellow is. Who is Lois Lane (Amy Adams)? She’s a reporter who likes Superman? Who is Perry White (Laurence Fishburn)? He’s a guy that doesn’t like Lois writing about Superman. These aren’t characters – not in the slightest. The words that spill from their mouths isn’t dialogue, it’s trite garbage that doesn’t contribute to any kind of story?
Let’s look at the classical three act structure for a moment.
Act 1 (~30 minutes) – characters and their objectives are introduced, story begins to develop.
Act 2 – (~60 minutes) – the story develop as characters encounter a series of obstacles in order to achieve their stated goal leading to the climax of the story
Act 2 (~30 minutes) – Resolution of the story.
Now let’s look at what Man of Steel offers for what would laughably be considered “Act 1” – 60 minutes establishing NOTHING other than “Superman has powers and he’s a kinda neat guy.” 60 minutes where we don’t get characters, we just get names attached to faces. This is NOT storytelling, not in the slightest.
FINALLY General Zod shows up – FINALLY there is a villain, an obstacle in the way of Superman’s stated goal of “protecting Earth and its peoples.” We spend a half hour slowly learning what Zod’s intent is – to wipe out the population of Earth and use that charred skull in Kal-El’s baby rocket (which was apparently a Codex of some kind) in order to rebuild Krypton. Turns out the Codex was completely absorbed into Kal-El’s cells – therefore Zod’s goal is to kill Superman in order to retrieve the genetic blueprints for ALL future Kryptonians. You know, that’s actually a STORY. I won’t comment on the contents or functionality of the story other than saying the basic elements are there. Two characters with conflicting goals will do battle with each other in order to achieve those goals. That really could have been established in the first our of the movie – because that’s a legitimate narrative right there. The problem I have at this point is that Man of Steel spends an hour doing NOTHING then summarizes it’s whole story in about 20 minutes. Where a climax would normally appear one realizes that there’s still AN HOUR left to the movie. An hour of what exactly?
At its heart Man of Steel is nothing more than a masturbatory CGI montage of destruction – just one long climactic battle as Superman fights Zod and his henchmen destroying every goddamn thing in the whole process. A lot has been said about the wanton destruction in Man of Steel, the fact that millions of innocent bystanders probably die during this climax. Zod and Superman destroy EVERYTHING they touch in a fury of CGI and LOUD NOISES. Metropolis is reduced to barely more than a mass of rubble. It doesn’t even stop there – Zod and Superman fly out into space and start busting up satellites. There ceases to be a story at this point – it simply becomes destruction, for an hour. A lot has been said about that before so I won’t go in to detail about this being the antithesis of Superman’s character. This is what grabbed my attention instead.
That’s just during the fight that levels Smallville – just imagine when this unending rampage of destruction carries throughout the rest of the country. This monstrous CGI destucto-fest was not cheap (the cost was $225 million to be exact) – so of course there’s bound to be plenty of product placement.
WTF Clark Kent?!
Now there surely has to be some positive things to say about Man of Steel, right? I mean, it can’t be ALL bad. Well, yeah, it kinda is ALL bad. The fight scenes are exciting enough visually, but without the proper context they feel empty. I don’t know who these characters are – the movie made ZERO effort for me to feel compassionate about them or concerned for their cause. The ONLY character that even had a purpose behind their actions, really, was Zod. Sure, he had a genocidal purpose and was insane, but at least he had something he wanted to accomplish and a reason for his aims. There’s this nonsense with Perry White and a bunch of others from The Daily Planet running around as whole skyscrapers fall around them and I don’t care. They’re screaming each others names as if they actually mean something: “Mary, watch out!” “Oh no, Jenny!” Who? Did I miss who these people were? How am I, the audience, supposed to give a damn about characters you just introduced? Maybe the senseless loss of innocent life is supposed to get me motivated? Then why kill MILLIONS of people – that’s just being a goddamn sociopath.
Then there was the one legitimately positive thing that stuck out for me for almost the entire movie: there is no distinction between Clark Kent and Superman. Clark Kent is his name and Superman just happens to be what they call him. No secret identities or things like that. This I was appreciating – it could have been a boon to the character (if they bothered to develop the character) and it would have helped the story to flow better (had they chosen to actually tell a story). A comic franchise like Batman often gets mired down with the differences between Batman and Bruce Wayne – but it seemed like Superman was making a good go of it with just having one character – Superman/Clark Kent/Kal-El is one person with one singular objective.
And then they screw it all up by having him don a pair of glasses, assume the identity of “Clark Kent – Reporter for the Daily Planet” and work incognito.
Man of Steel is only enjoyable to marvel at the wonders of CGI. Certainly the $225 million worth of effects work paid off because the unending destruction looks nice, to say the least. However there is no context for that destruction. The people committing them aren’t characters, they’re just wrecking balls that happen to shout “I’ll get you!” from time to time. While destruction on a massive scale like this COULD be exciting – here it’s just boring. Zack Snyder found a way to make the most boring comic book adaptation ever. There have been some bad comic book movies in the past (Fantastic Four, The Green Lantern, Steel) but at least stuff happened in those movies – there was an attempt to create a character and then give them a believable objective with understandable obstacles to overcome. Man of Steel is an hour of NOTHING happening, then 20 minutes of Michael Shannon hurridly spitting out random plot elements followed by an hour long montage of destruction. This isn’t a movie – it’s a DC Licensed product.
Take for instance a little kid playing with a Superman toy, flying him around and crashing him into other toys. THAT is the essence of Man of Steel – the difference being that the little kid playing with the toys is probably more interesting as he’s imagining a story in his head, a purpose for Superman to be flying around and crashing into other toys. Lacking that purpose, man of Steel is just a kid shouting and throwing things around.