What would happen if you took the fun and joy, the emotion and heart out of a Superman film and simply filled it full of nerd details? Well you would have a film released in 2013 called Man of Steel, that’s what.
This is not the Superman film I wanted and it’s not the Superman film we deserved.
Man of Steel would like for us to forget what came before and consider the film as its own thing, but that is pretty much impossible to do. Therefore, I will need to step into my DeLorean… sorry, wrong franchise… I’ll need to do a few loops around the earth in reverse orbital rotation and go back in time to the year 1978.
Superman The Movie
Of course, the 1978 film staring Christopher Reeve was not Superman’s first outing in the form of a live action drama, but it was the first time the man of steel had been on the big screen theatrically, and the first time a live action Superman had been done really well. For many of us, Christopher Reeve became Superman. For those of my era, and pretty much even now, with those much younger than me, when we think of Superman, Christopher Reeve is who we see and think of.
Richard Donner directed the film, and he did a marvelous job. He had some fun, he let the film have it’s comic book moments, but he didn’t go overboard so the film never felt campy. It’s not a perfect film — in my opnion Margot Kidder as Lois Lane may go down as one of the worst casting decisions in the history of filmmaking (okay, I exaggerate, but only just), and it was a slight stretch to imagine Kal El falling so hard for a whiny and irresponsible Lois Lane as portrayed by Kidder — but everything else about the film was so perfect you kind of move past that. Well, flying around the earth really fast in reverse rotation orbit was also stupid.
The second installment into the Christopher Reeve Superman franchise is something more like a train wreck — a watchable train wreck, but a train wreck none-the-less. I don’t exactly know all the circumstances surrounding the film — and it seems like several stories float around (you can read the Wikipedia entry for one version), but as we understand it, Richard Donner’s vision for the film clashed with the studio’s vision, so they fired him and commissioned Richard Lester to finish the film. The result was not good. The film turned out to be far goofier and much more campy than Donner’s film. It is therefore not very well respected.
Other Superman Incarnations, Pre-2006
If we thought Superman II was bad, it was nothing compared to Superman III and Superman IV. In fact we fans usually just like to pretend those don’t exist.
There was also Lois and Clark which was pretty bad. And I don’t know if you want to count Supergirl, but we really like to pretend that one does not exist.
Unfortunately, though I know the TV series Smallville exists, I can’t really speak to it very well since I’ve only seen a few episodes.
Superman Returns is in my opinion one of the best Superman films to come to the big screen to date. It competes with Superman The Movie in my estimation. It picked up roughly after the events of Superman II (ignoring III and IV like we all do). One complaint with this film is that it parroted or copied previous incarnations of Superman but I did not find that to be the case. It paid homage where it was appropriate and had its own story. Kevin Spacey is the best Lex Luthor I’ve ever seen, and Kate Bosworth’s Lois Lane was really good.
Regrettably I was one of the ten people who felt this way about the film. Most hated it and it did not do well at the box office, which is a shame. This is what directly led to the reboot that we now have in Man of Steel.
A Vision for Krypton
The very first thing we get with Man of Steel is a look at Krypton, and this is Krypton as we have never seen it before. And I loved it. Despite the fact that I’ve already tipped my hand as to how I feel about this film, there were many things that I loved, and Krypton was one of them. I never loved the depiction of the world in Superman The Movie. Here it’s alive and it’s real, filled with real things and real people, not all this weird white stuff and what appears to be a direct exposure to space with no atmosphere as seen in Superman The Movie. This is one of the things the film gets right.
And Russell Crowe as Jor El was fantastic. In fact he may be the only character in this film I cared remotely about (and as I’ll mention in a moment, I didn’t care as much about him as I would have liked). I think that can be directly attributed to Crowe’s performance. I was not sure anyone but Marlon Brando could pull it off, but Crowe did.
A Smart Lois Lane
Up until Amy Adams, Kate Bosworth has absolutely been the best Lois Lane, and I still like her portrayal of the character a lot. Bosworth’s Lane was refreshing if for nothing else than that she was not the whiny voiced, ungrateful, and annoying Margot Kidder Lois Lane. But I don’t mean that she was only good because she was not Margot Kidder, I really did enjoy Bosworth in the role.
But I have to say, my complaints with how the character was written and what she was given to do aside, Amy Adams is the superior Lois Lane here. I have loved Amy Adams in everything I have ever seen her in (if you haven’t seen Enchanted, WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?) so it’s no surprise to find her performance here to be great. She actually does have a real point here in this story, she’s not just someone there for Superman to love and save, she’s integral, which is a bit more than you can say for Margot Kidder in Superman the Movie.
A Terrifying Experience
Another thing I approved of in this film is how realistic it was for Clark to experience growing up as a Kryptonian boy on earth with all these super powers manifesting themselves. Clark was obviously frightened. And wouldn’t you be? The cheesy and terrible line aside in response to Clark’s “The world is too big mom,” where Martha says, “Then make it small,” the realism present in this scene is really and truly great, and that aspect of Clark learning how to channel his focus and his energy, to hone himself and see only what he wants/needs to see works itself into the plot in a really great way as Superman begins battling the Kryptonian villains.
And really, to the film’s benefit, the whole alien aspect of Superman and the Kryptonians is played up in a satisfying way never before seen, and the result is a good one.
Where Was the Heart?
Unfortunately, this is where I part ways with this film. By the time this film was finished, I felt no emotional attachment with any of the characters. Indeed, I did not feel as if I had spent much time with much of anyone, getting to know them, getting inside their head. The whole thing felt rushed. Those moments that were obviously supposed to be heartfelt rushed by so fast I was left wondering if they had happened at all. Despite liking Russell Crowe’s Jor El, I felt almost nothing for him when he died because I had not really gotten to know him and I didn’t even really know what he was up to yet.
Additionally, this story was told in a non-linear fashion, which really served to take the heart out of it. I admit up front that I often do not like non-linear story telling, but I have seen it done right on occasion. This film is not one of those occasions. I felt completely disconnected from those moments in the past, in the flashbacks that shaped Clark and made him who he is. I had a hard time empathizing with Clark because we cut straight from the ship crashing to 30 year old-ish Clark wondering around, working etc.
In another non-linear strange twist, Clark visits Jonathan Kent’s grave before we find out that he died or how, and why this would be so emotional for Clark.
And the dialog in this film only adds to the sense of emotional disconnection. This film suffers very often from a lack of show rather than tell. Too often it relies on poorly constructed dialog to tell the story rather than well crafted dialog that enhances visuals. Near the beginning of the film Jor El says, “We had a boy child, Zod.” Really, is that the best you can do with that dialog?
In another example, after a big fight of wanton destruction between Superman and Kryptonians, one of the soldier dudes cautiously approaches Superman and says, “This man is not our enemy.” No, really. The dialog is that bad. And it’s like this for the whole film. It was often so poorly constructed that it took me straight out of the film. Whole swaths of dialog written strictly for the exposition — nothing natural about it.
Wither The Relationship
Continuing a long standing tradition for Superman, there still is not really a good reason why Clark likes Lois, why she becomes his girl. Sure, circumstances cause their paths to cross, but the relationship is never formed. They have exactly two conversations, one in which Clark saves her life, and one in which she more or less promises not to reveal his secret. And that’s it — bonded for life. What a let down. I thought this time we were really going to see how this relationship was forged, but nope, Supes just likes Lois Lane, as always, end of story, just accept it.
In another bid to remove emotion, heart, and soul from the film, it seems either the screen writers, or the director Zack Snyder decided not to let us spend any time with characters like Perry White, or Jenny Olson (whose name we only know from IMDB). I liked them, I wanted to get to know them. Obviously they hired a top notch actor to play Perry White at least, why on earth wasn’t he actually in this film more? When these Daily Planet characters are in danger, in the rubble and about to die, I feel almost nothing for them because I haven’t gotten to know them. The music swells, and it attempts to tug on the heart strings, but the impact and weight of the scene just isn’t there. What happened here? Was there more for these characters and it just got cut?
So, Jor El left a copy of his consciousness in a (don’t call it a crystal) shiny black object with the symbol of the house of El on it. So it’s a really good thing there just happens to be a big honkin’ crashed Kryptonian ship in the Arctic (or was it the Antarctic? I don’t know if they even said) that can load up and play back that data. And it’s a good thing Clark was just carrying that thing around with him when he discovered it. It sure seems like Jor El would have been more purposeful about such things, but it all worked out so it’s fine, right?
And while I’m talking about circumstantial things, the only reason Lois Lane did not die in the black hole (or get sucked into the phantom zone, honestly I’m confused on that point of the film), is because she was clumsy and fell out of the aircraft. Really, it was not purposeful at all.
And of course, what do you do after an encounter with aliens who nearly destroy the planet, you are a key player in the salvation of the planet, and you are the only survivor other than the strange alien guy in the blue suit with the red cape? Why, you go back to work at The Daily Planet of course… Sigh.
Not a great Dad
In past incarnations of Superman, Jonathan Kent was always a great supporter of Clark, and he always seemed to have a moral compass. In Superman The Movie Jonathan Kent insisted, “Clark, you’re here for a reason. I don’t know what that reason is, but you’ll figure it out.” Well that aspect is still present, but there’s now a much darker side present, and that is a strange sense of morality, among other things. Clark had the power to save people from dying and so he did. And Jonathan gives him a stern talking to about doing something so good.
And the worst part, the needless death of Jonathan Kent — the manufactured drama. Sure, let’s just let the not-super dad head back to the car in the path of the tornado to save the dog. Let’s not let Clark do it. And for sure, dad, make sure Clark doesn’t save you for some senseless and nebulous reason. It’s sort of like, “here son, be responsible for my death for the rest of your life.” It was short sighted. The only thing this Jonathan Kent cares about in his twistedly selfish way, is his alien adopted son. It was short-sighted and foolish and made me really hate him. At least in Superman The Movie there was nothing Clark could do to save Jonathan and that’s one of the things that shapes Superman and makes him who he is. This business in Snyder’s film is absolutely nuts.
You Can Save Them All?!?
Throughout the film, Jor El insists that Superman can “save them all” referring to the people of earth. That’s pretty funny in a sick and twisted way considering that Superman causes wanton destruction and devastation. Yes I know some of it is not his fault. But let’s just take the scene where Superman gets angry about the attack on his mother and plows into Zod, flying him several miles out of the free and clear area of farmland and into the city, blowing up a gas station as he plows through it in anger. Wanton destruction. This is not the Superman I remember, and it’s not the Superman I want.
And really, this is a dark film in many ways, made much darker and less palatable by the fact that the destruction and death is more or less glossed over. In one scene, we see people locking their doors and hiding from the aliens. Not long after, many of those same buildings are destroyed and everyone in them dies. But the film really just glosses right past this so it can stay with the action — ACTION I SAY, MORE ACTION!!!!1!!!11!!
And in the final battle sequence, many multiple buildings are destroyed by both Superman and Zod. I mean, let’s look at a recent film that also caused this kind of destruction and see if there’s anything we can learn from it. That film is The Avengers. Yes, there was a lot of destruction, but none of it was directly caused by The Avengers themselves, they continued to try to prevent it. And that destruction was not made light of or glossed over. I wasn’t completely pleased with how it was handled in The Avengers either, but it was much better.
In this film, the buildings seemed suspiciously empty, and so you never get a good sense of the stakes.
Let’s talk for a minute about the action in Superman. Most of the action centers around invincible Kryptonians beating each other up. It’s always a stalemate, and it never makes sense why the fight ends, which makes the fight scenes end abruptly (adding to an overall sense of the type of poor pacing experienced by the non-linear story telling). And I don’t understand why it’s more interesting to watch invincible Kryptonians pounding each other around (via what is sometimes quite terrible and obvious CG), then to tell a story with actual emotion and heart.
But if you want to see invincible dudes pounding each other around to no effect, each walking away and doing some more pounding, then this film is the one for you.
In a Nutshell
This film should have been a bullseye, slam dunk (to mix my metaphors, it’s okay to do that if you point it out, right?) And from a distance, you might think that, huh, that arrow was straight and true and it hit right dead center of that target. But upon inspection you realize it was the wrong bullseye on the wrong target. This film is a pretty terrible film and I’m sad to say I do not recommend it. There are so many better films that are both coming out, and that have already come out. If you’re on a limited summer movie budget, for sure save your money and see something else.