Man of Steel (2013):
The Plot: After spending his life trying to find a way to help people without revealing his powers so that he can be “normal,” a heavily bearded Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) learns of his true origin and purpose. And by that I mean, he’s an alien and his biological Dad (Russell Crowe) thinks that he should guide humanity towards a better tomorrow. Though this kind of contradicts everything Clark’s adopted Dad (Kevin Costner) has said about how the world will reject him because “damn, son, your powers are scary,” eventually Clark decides to fly around and punch people anyway. It helps that Zod (Michael Shannon), a militant fanatic and Kryptonian refugee, shows up and tries to wipe out the human race, giving Clark someone to fly around and punch. Also, Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is in it, doesn’t get nearly enough to do, and ends up stuck in a perfunctory romance, because Lois and Clark, duh.
So, the trailer I posted above—trailer #3, the best one—promises a big, hopeful story about Superman accepting his potential to inspire humanity with his God-like powers. That sounds pretty great, right? We get to see a more human Superman try to live up to his role as a beacon of hope. There’s even a hint of the super-powered punch-fests that we’ve been clamoring for. But, as far as this trailer is concerned, the focus is on Clark’s character arc and the film’s refreshingly optimistic themes. If only Man of Steel had lived up to that promise.
Now, I don’t normally fault movies for not being the same as their trailers, because that would be dumb. In this case, though, the trailer really does capture the film’s intended themes. See how I said “intended” just now? It’s because Man of Steel keeps undercutting its own message of hope and heroism with the totally insane fights that we always wanted from a Superman movie. Yeah, the action is awesome. Snyder et al. totally sell the idea that these are people with superpowers and they are fighting. Great. Except that Man of Steel delivers so well on the action that we can’t help but start thinking about stuff like “massive civilian death toll” and “hey, wasn’t there a city here a minute ago?”
Before I get into all that, let me talk about some of the things that Man of Steel does right. The opening on Krypton, for example, is handled really well. The sci-fi elements aren’t there to be realistic—they’re meant to be awe-inspiring. And while a plague of lens flares kind of cuts down on the awe factor, it’s still some pretty cool shit. Krypton wouldn’t be out of place on the cover of a pulpy retro sci-fi book. Visually, it’s an interesting contrast to the scenes on Earth, which are very muted. As a setting, it’s totally unlike Earth, but the actors sell the weird stuff like flying lizard things and the Kryptonian government’s fanatic obsession with genetic perfection. Crowe and Shannon, especially, lend a real urgency to the destruction of Krypton. It’s always nice when it looks like characters care about what’s happening around them, especially when it’s the end of the world.
Speaking of Crowe and Shannon, this film benefits from some dedicated performances. Jor-El gets many of the best lines, and Russell Crowe lends them a gravity that is absolutely vital to the character. He’s the guiding force of the better half of Man of Steel’s message: that if Clark chooses to, he can become a powerful source of inspiration on Earth. Jor-El is a flawed, honorable man who sacrificed his life with the absolute conviction that his son can spark the social change that he failed to bring about on Krypton. Crowe imbues the character with a quiet dignity that never feels cold. His pride in watching Kal-El become the man he’s always hoped he would be is actually pretty moving.
Though the film itself isn’t really sure just what kind of man that is, Henry Cavill’s performance fills in the blanks left in a messy script. As Clark, he’s got that same quiet dignity, but he doesn’t make the mistake of playing the saint—whatever some of the film’s overt religious imagery may want us to think—and removing himself too far from the character’s inner struggle. Though much of that struggle is written as furrowed brows and manly brooding, Cavill commits to the role and makes those forlorn stares count.
As Superman, he’s not given much more to do, but he plays the role straight. He is the Big Blue Boy Scout; manly and serene, as ready to offer a reassuring hand as he is to punch a dude through a building full of innocent people. Wait…what?
While Cavill plays the role as if Superman really is the source of inspiration that Jor-El believes he can be, the script takes a weird U-turn when the fighting gets going and starts treating him like the punchy, callous god-thing that his other Dad believes he can be.
John Kent may keep telling kid Clark that the world isn’t ready for him, but that’s bullshit. The world isn’t getting any readier. It’s Clark who needs to grow into the role of protector; the world isn’t going to accept him before it knows he exists. Well, that’s your problem right there. Can’t keep track of yer metaphors. Though Kevin Costner gives a very grounded, human performance, it isn’t enough to make up for the film’s lack of thematic clarity. I get that they were trying to offer a more complex version of Superman, one who struggles with living up to his potential without sacrificing his humanity, but it doesn’t work. It’s like they tried to do that thing where you and a friend stand on either side of a seesaw and try to get it to stay parallel to the ground, but gave up halfway through and just went back to straight up seesawing. Keep that shit on the playground, yo.
All that thematic seesawing comes at the cost of character depth. Over the course of the film, Clark becomes more metaphor than man. Jor-El and John Kent become less human as their dialogue becomes less about personal conviction and more about spelling out the film’s dueling themes.
In an unexpected turn of events, Zod is the most fully realized character. He’s all personal conviction. As far as Zod is concerned, his sole purpose is to keep the Kryptonian race going. He even tells Kal-El that at one point: “No matter how violent, every action I take is for the greater good of my people.” Yeah, he does some really bad things, not limited to attempted genocide, but he is a man with a code. Everything he does in the film is consistent with that code. I love a villain with a reason. Shannon plays Zod with equal parts simmering anger and cold calculation, never hamming it up or going for the low-hanging fruit of full-blown villainy.
Superman, on the other hand, is a man who kind of has a code? Maybe? I guess? I don’t know, my Dads were kind of giving me conflicting messages. Frankly, he isn’t really a worthy enemy for Zod. Jor-El was, another fact that Zod acknowledges, as any great villain would. Clark’s biological Dad was a man of honor and conviction. Clark is just a confused young man who suddenly gets to fly around punching people after years of not being able to do that. Yippee.
Unfortunately, the potential that Clark eventually lives up to his physical potential. He doesn’t take responsibility for his actions. As Superman, he defeats Zod and saves humanity, but he somehow manages to do that without displaying any regard for human life. Zod’s plan is to wipe out all life on Earth and replace it with a new race of Kryptonians, and Clark manages to foil that. He decides to side with humanity against the last of his kind. But then, in an exhausting final battle, he and Zod level what looks like all of Metropolis’ financial district…during the day…in the middle of a work week. There’s no mention of evacuating the city, and Superman never even attempts to take the fight away from the people he’s supposedly protecting. A study that Watson Technical Consulting did for Buzzfeed estimates 129,000 dead, with almost twice that many missing, and over a million injured.
We got the action we wanted, but what does it say about Superman? That it doesn’t matter how reckless you are as long as you’re the strongest and someone tells us that you’re the good guy? This isn’t like 60s Godzilla movies, where he saves Tokyo from aliens only after wrecking the shit out of the whole city. Those films don’t spend most of their running times telling us that Godzilla is a beacon of hope, sent here to lead us to the sun. He’s not a hero, he’s our favorite monster. So what’s Man of Steel trying to tell us? That Superman is our greatest hero, or the new King of the Monsters? Yeah, I’m still giving that one to the Big G.
Man of Steel aims for the sun, but gets confused because my God, it’s full of stars. While you’re watching it, most of this movie is hella entertaining. You’re invested in the story and characters and wowed by the action. Ultimately, though, Man of Steel leaves you feeling more tired than inspired. It’s not a bad movie by any means, but it’s certainly not the movie that it wanted to be.