Man of Steel

With high hopes, I went to see “Man of Steel” last Sunday. Superman has always been my favorite superhero from when I saw the original 1978 Christopher Reeve film when I was a wee lad. I came away from the movie feeling somewhat perplexed.

The bottom line is that I enjoyed this movie, want to see it again, and you should go see it too. The rest of this review will not be spoiler shy.

———SPOILERS BELOW———

Wow. This Superman is different. There are a lot of good things about the movie, but there are significant flaws as well. My initial disappointment over this movie was that it could have been so much more. I came out of it not sure whether I liked it, or whether it stacked up to “Superman Returns” (which is, I think, better than all the Reeve ones). I had to digest what I saw, and the feelings that distilled and crystallized were: This is the best friggin’ Superman movie ever made.

The Good

We open on Krypton. I remember being pleasantly surprised with the movie “Thor” how much time we spent in Asgard. “Man of Steel” is like this. We really get a feel for the death of the planet, and why things have gone wrong. Zod is evil, but for the right reason. I’m glad he’s not just a card-carrying member of the Diseased Maniac Club(tm) whose only goal is to rule. I find the new Zod much more convincing: a genetically programmed military general created for only one purpose: to protect Krypton and its people.

The visuals of Krypton are amazing. True, there’s some blatant borrowing of imagery from “The Matrix” (the birthing chambers,) and later, Mass-Effect’s reapers (the world building ship and kryptonian flag ships), but all in all there is an effective artistic vision that makes Krypton seem spectacularly advance, alien (i.e., not just a future Earth possibility, but distinctly non-human), and believable (it’s not the cold ice world from the previous movies). As a particularly need touch, I like that all the display panels are 3D displays reminiscent of a toy we had when we were younger (I can’t remember what it was called, but it was a bed of blunt nails in which we could leave imprints of our faces). The visual conception of Kryptonian technology also has a somewhat gigeresque, organic feel to it.  There are a lot of sci-fi homages in this film, casting it’s nods far beyond the Superman franchise (Matrix, Mass Effect, Alien, etc.)

We’re introduced to one theme immediately: environmental disaster. Instead of the red sun going nova, the planet collapses because they’ve harvested the planet’s core for energy too quickly. This eventually dovetails into a theme about natural life vs. control disguised as choice. Krypton is a completely genetically engineered society where people are grown, not born. Kal El (Superman) is the first naturally born Kryptonian in centuries, his parents taking the random chance that he will be Krypton’s hope, and not engineered for a purpose. (Yet another Matrix theme: the engineered people are created for purpose, much like the programs in the Matrix. Zod is one of these “programs”). The line, “What if a man wanted to be more than what society told him to be?” refers to Kryptonian society. In Kal El/Superman, we get the concept of free will, self-determination, under the umbrella of “Hope”, the virtue of the house of El.

Man of Steel spaceship invasion of Earth:

 

Reaper invasion in Mass Effect:

 

I like the changes in lore. It works for the modern version of the story. The essence is preserved.

There’s one more thing I want to mention about Krypton. It feels like a dark version of Star Wars. The four-winged creature Jor El (wonderfully played by Russel Crowe) rides which reminds me of the lizard that Obi-Wan rode in “Revenge of the Sith”.  He did that amidst a space-based civil war on Krypton with starships and lasers galore. Another homage, this time to Star Wars.

Ok, we see Kal El’s ship launched and sent to Earth, as we would expect. The ship lands…

…and the next scene is Clark Kent as an adult, wandering the country and quietly helping people while he can, yet remaining hidden. So, it’s before “Superman” emerges, but after his childhood. I like this. I like not having had to sit through another 40-60 minutes of “Smallville” again. They do address his childhood (Jonathan Kent played by Kevin Costner), but it’s a series of interwoven flashbacks that occur throughout the movie. This proves effective in telling what they need to tell you without making what is still essentially prologue stretch to far.

Here we get to another theme (and this is later where I felt the movie falls short, but more on that at the end): faith in humanity. Jonathan Kent tells Clark that the world is not ready for him. Humanity isn’t ready to learn we are not alone in the universe, and Jon Kent displays a fundamental lack of faith in the American people and the people of the world.

This reflects the signs of our times. Superman has always been a moral hero, and his stories reflect the essence of the time when the story is written. Today, America, and the world, has lost a sense of faith in itself (how many of us have expressed a lack of faith in the American people to vote the way we want them to, our politicians, our leadership, the global economy, etc). So, part of the story is Superman deciding to put his faith in humanity when he reveals himself. (This falls somewhat flat).

Lois Lane actually finds Clark Kent, and I totally like the fact that she knows his identity from the beginning… and that she’s loyal to preserving it once she talks to him.

Skipping ahead through Clark’s journey to find an alien spacecraft in the north (not the icy Temple of Solitude we’re used to, but an ancient scout ship sent by Krypton long ago), where he meets the programmed memory of his father (there’s a satisfying explanation for this)… ah yes, skipping ahead to Zod.

Zod shows up with a small fleet and a host of Kryptonian battle warriors, and Superman finally reveals himself. Without going into blow by blows of the plot, let me say what I like:

Zod and the battle warriors don’t have Kal El’s powers. They use Kryptonian battle armor, and the fight scenes are awesome (especially with the girl).

Oh… and they don’t call them by the same names, but the girl looks like Ursa, and her sidekick bruiser companion doesn’t speak, just like Non.  I like the throw-back to Superman 2, except everything is more awesome.

Of course, everything builds to a climactic fight with Zod. The good thing about fighting Zod… Superman actually kills him. I like that. I like that he can do what’s necessary when faced with no other choice. However, everything else about the final battle(s) lead me too…

The Bad

You know something’s wrong when you get towards the end of the movie and you’re bored. You’re ready for it to be over, and then of course Zod comes up, and you’re thinking, “Ok, really? I have to sit through another fight scene?”

You know what movie was great about taking long action/fight scenes and making them interesting, unique, and advance character? “The Avengers”. The fight scenes in Man of Steel are individually good… but they go on forever, and by the end they’re stringed together with no narrative breaks. The movie tries to take it up to 10 (it doesn’t hit 11), and then sustain it for too long, and I found myself experience “action scene fatigue.”

Relatively minor complaint. There’s a lot of good in these sequences.  I love the terraforming ship, and the visual shout-outs to Mass Effect.

But… how many sky scrapers do you need to destroy as Superman and the Kryptonians punch each other through them?  After you see one or two, the next twenty lose their dramatic impact.

The fight scene with Zod is almost completely contrived. I understand why they had to give Zod superpowers like Superman in the end.  They tried to rationalize how he suddenly gets them, but it just falls flat. They spent too much time explaining why they don’t have superpowers, and Zod says it will take too much time for them to adapt to Earth’s atmosphere, too much pain… and then suddenly he’s all “I’m a supersoldier, I can use my powers immediately”.  Well, all his crew were supersoldiers too; why couldn’t they? (Meaning, why would he have thought earlier of the need to terraform?)  And if he was thinking of the genetic code to start the new Kryptonian race, Zod’s moment of “compassion” for his own people isn’t believable, since they make a big deal about the soldiers having no sense of morality. You’d think he’d jump at a chance to rebuilt the Kryptonian people with superpowers.

So, that feels contrived.  Then, Superman kills him, and feels remorse.  This too feels somewhat contrived, given that they must have just killed tens of thousands, if not millions of people who were in all those skyscrapers they just knocked down.

But, in hindsight I’m willing to forgive this. However, since all this “bad” came at the end of the movie, I left the theater feeling let down.

Final note: military character in this story is so-so.  I’ve seen worse, and I’ve seen better, but it just felt to me like the writers don’t get the military, or are quick to cast the military in roles of mindless aggression.

Ok, the more I think about it, that did piss me off.  You don’t have A10s strafing a city street with civilians like they had in this movie. It was just completely out of character for the military to lay waste to Metropolis to get the three fighting aliens. Or at least there would have been a lot more consideration and angst of it. It was just passed off as, “This is what the military does. We shoot people and break things.”  And I don’t think they would have targeted “the blue guy” after the earlier exchanges.

Missed Opportunities

There are several missed opportunities.  The first is Superman himself. You never get “inside” him like you did in Superman Returns. You never get to “feel” the challenges of being a god in a mortal world. You very much see him from the outside, as Lois does. If this is the start of the series, this is acceptable.  The first Reeve film has a complete Superman adventure, and the “coming out to the world” is just a chapter in it.  This movie zooms in on the “coming out to the world” story.  This is the story. So, I see this as the first chapter in a larger series.

The second is minor complaint. In the other films, we always get to see Superman being a god-hero, and solving petty crimes and human crimes… showing off his powers to the audience.  These are fun scenes, and we get very few of these (if any at all) in the movie. With the broader perspective of a larger series, I’m willing to accept this.

Finally, back to the aforementioned theme of faith in humanity. This was built up, and then fell completely flat. It almost never went anywhere. I think they tried, but the theme got overcome by plot events.

Synthesis

Superman stands for hope. They make a point of this in the movie. He also stands for the hope present in natural life, as the “engineered society = bad” theme is highlighted. They certainly don’t go into this deep enough to prove a case, but the example works for the plot… and Americans like the optimism of Hope…

…which brings me finally to this: is Superman an American hero? There’s been some controversy with this character recently.  Reeve’s Superman says he stands for “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.” In “Superman Returns”, Perry White says: “Ask him if he stands for Truth, Justice, and… all that stuff.” Finally, in the comic books, Superman renounces his American citizenship.

At the end of this movie, the military is trying to track him, and he brings down a spy satellite.  The general asks how they can be sure Superman won’t act against American interests.

The response is great, actually, and this is what saves the movie for me:

Superman said, “I was raised in Kansas. You don’t get any more American than that. But Washington needs to understand that I will do things on my own terms.”

They depart with a two-way statement of trust and hope in each other.

Yes. Superman is Hope. He’s a symbol of the American ideal of hope and faith in ourselves and our way of life, which is Kansas, not Washington. I think this ending is a brilliant, yet subtle, return of Superman to himself, and brings us back to the theme of the movie, while acknowledging the nuances of distrust Americans are feeling for our government. America is not its government, it’s its people.

And so, in the end, Man of Steel has an uplifting side to it. As it should. It’s Superman!

Finally, in the spirit of hope, I’m hoping that Superman addresses some of my other minor complaints in future series, filling in the gaps. I’ll go see it again.  And the soundtrack is powerful.  Despite its flaws, I give this move an A-.

Until next week,
Kyle

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