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The power of flight means a lot to me.

Man of Steel is the movie that will do for Superman what Batman Begins did for Batman. This does not mean it’s perfect. Like with Batman Begins and due to their having the same writer, there are stretch-marks here and there that feel like the pangs of a mighty child whom suffered a difficult birth. Man of Steel is probably a much better film than Begins, however, if only because as a directorial effort it far surpasses the often clumsy Begins. The only reason I compare these movies is because it is the Dark Knight trilogy of Christopher Nolan’s that most directly informs the project. This ends up coming up more as a writing comparison, because of David Goyer, than anything else.

Zack Snyder is making movies at his peak right now and Man of Steel is the finest distillation of his tremendous, possibly unique strengths and sensibilities. He knows what kinds of things people want to see in a Superman movie and he was absolutely the right guy for this job. He understands instinctively how to shoot and score and direct in a way that keeps this movie both epic and grounded which seems to me like a very difficult balancing act. The purest joys of Man of Steel are derived from its cinema, not it’s story. For one thing, Man of Steel is a sensory slam dunk with constantly beautiful imagery accompanied by rousing, grandiose music. I said the same sort of things about Sucker Punch and probably about Watchmen but here is a creativity backed by serious resources and unhampered by the demands of adaptation or of authorial vision. Free from the responsibilities of writing the movie or slavish translating a beloved, singular story, Snyder is allowed to play in the sandbox like the visionary architect that he is.

All credit where it’s due, Goyer is consistently a writer whose work I struggle with liking. His pretentious, on the nose themes and speeches and indulgence in cheesy, pandering one-liners that induce cringes instead of the limp grins they’re going for. That said, Goyer frequently takes ideas and concepts from comics and makes them work on a very different kind of paper. He’s the guy who made Blade work (though he deep-sixed that franchise when he tried to direct it) and he’s likely who we have to thank for fucking ninjas in Begins and the best-written (let alone performed) Joker we’re ever likely to get. Man of Steel is not free from his irritating indulgences: they have been pared down making cringey shit few and far between but also resulting in that shit being even more noticeable and jarring than usual. I’ll get to specific examples later.

FROM THE DEPTHS OF SPACE COME SPOILERS. GO EASY, STAR-SAILOR.

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There’s quite a bit of Krypton in this movie.

One of the best and most surprising things in the movie is the expansive prologue on Krypton. Not only do we witness the birth of Kal-El, the first “natural birth” on Krypton for centuries, but we also see the entire fall of not only the stagnating Kryptonian society but the planet itself. Jor-El (Russel Crowe) is the planet’s foremost scientist and tries to warn the government that the planet is about to be destroyed. Their massive energy needs have caused them to push the place past its expiry date, a grave error made in spite of the warnings of Jor-El and his colleague Zod (Michael Shannon), the planet’s foremost military leader. General Zod means to hold the government (and their silly fucking hats) responsible for their misdeeds and wants to save the Kryptonian future. Kryptonians are born under a Matrix-like machine apparatus complete with a eugenics program that selects individuals for certain roles in society. Kryptonians are bred to be warriors like Zod or scientists like Jor. Understanding that this is one of the reasons their civilization fell, Jor opted to let his son be born naturally as a symbol of freedom of choice for his people. Imbuing him with the genetic history of Krypton, he sends him off into the stars in defiance of Zod’s eugenics-centric plans for a new Krypton. Zod thinks some “bloodlines” are less worthy than others, pointing to the government’s endless debates and inaction as a condemnation of softer, intellectual selection as unworthy. Jor, given his ideals, rejects this and they have them a big ol’ fight as civil war rages across Krypton.

This sequence is staggering, simply staggering. Not only is Krypton a wildly fantastic place, the kind of thing that seems like it jumps right off the cover of a 1940’s dimestore scifi novel, but everything about it is informed by incremental world-building. The technology, based seemingly on metamaterials and particle manipulation, feels consistent and unique. Alien, also, which is very important. Even the ornate clothing and armor feel consistent to the alien culture and environment of Krypton. Even the flora and fauna get a bit of attention, with Jor riding a dragon (as you do) in a thrilling chase that is one of the better of the many great action sequences in the film.

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Russel Crowe is all over this movie.

One of the writing problems consistent in David Goyer’s work is his occasionally half-assed approach to character motivation. A question that sort of makes you pause during the prologue is “why do Jor and Lara stay behind?”. One could surmise a number of reasons, had the movie not gone there, or they could simply have supplied one. Why does Jor stay behind? Because their fate is “tied to Krypton’s”. They simply refuse to leave and it doesn’t really make much sense when the means (as we see later) are present. Why do they have to stay and die? I can accept that they do, of course, but not the reasoning as given. Ultimately a minor issue but one that belongs to a category of writing problem that threads through this movie and pretty much all the movies Goyer has written.

With baby Kal safely dispatched to Earth, Zod is arrested by the council and sent to the “Phantom Zone” along with his handful of lieutenants. Before going, we get a brief but intense measure of the insanity and zealotry that boils beneath the surface of a man who claims to be serving “the greater good”. Zod is the kind of villain that gets almost as much development and attention as the hero. It’s always nice when a villain has a better motivation than “being evil” and it’s through Zod that we begin to understand what Jor meant when he said that Kryptonians had “lost something” when they started their eugenics program. The burden of being trapped in a predetermined role is at the center of Zod’s aggression, ruthlessness, and eventually his insanity. It’s all up to Shannon, who is more than game for it, to get across that complex vortex of emotion running underneath the veneer. In a less than subtle movie, Zod is a character whose motives are subtly handled even as he speechifies about them.

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Getting Shannon was a coup.

People may be surprised, given Man of Steel‘s very effective trailers, that the movie does not segue from the fall of Krypton to Kal’s childhood. Instead, we meet Kal-El/Clarke Kent (Henry Cavill) as an adult. Lost in the world and trying to stay that way, Clarke has grown to his 30’s still not knowing the full scope of his origin. However, he’s compelled to help people and Snyder presents the audience with a statement about how he’s approaching this as a superhero movie. Clarke doesn’t hesitate to save a burning oil rig full of people, revealing himself to them (inexplicably shirtless) as he does so. He crumples doors, withstands flames swirling around his body, and holds up a control tower in the space of a few minutes, a dizzying display of realistic application of his powers that shows how coy Snyder is not going to be about them.

Not just Clarke’s powers, but also his limits. He is not limitless. The feat of strength required to hold up that tower is probably the greatest he’s ever attempted by this point (the reason to think so is given by the movie a bit later) and it causes him to pass out after the whole fucking thing falls on him. Alone, he drifts under the waves and flashes back to his childhood. The formative years of Clarke’s life are delivered to the audience intermittently, in sequences much like this one. Sometimes the triggers are a bit thin (the school bus for instance) but it is an interesting, if not entirely effective, way to both do and not do the conventional origin story. Superman’s origin is ultimately familiar to us and this movie only delivers what it has to, saving time and energy for the stuff that is remixed or given a fresh coat of paint (like the Krypton stuff). Man_Of_Steel_SupermanTrailerPic14.jpg

Henry Cavill looks remarkably like Hugh Jackman here.

An element that rings out as Clarke awakens underwater, with playful whales swimming above him, is the sense of awe and wonder evoked by Snyder’s camera. It is not an accident that people compared some of the shots of sunlight over Kansas corn-fields to Malickian capture of natural beauty as a means to evoke almost cosmic wonder. Man of Steel plays with this as well, and it’s a subtle intelligent hint about what differentiates Earth from Krypton (it’s a barren, harsh world) and why Clarke may feel enough of a connection to his adopted world to choose it over Zod’s plan for a terraformed, Neo-Krypton version.

After the oil rig episode, Clarke goes back to business as usual. He moves around, place to place (even Canada), taking odd jobs and occasionally finding opportunities to help people. Urban legends spring up wherever he goes but he’s always trying to cover his tracks in respect to his human father, Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner). Clarke is a man who has a pathological need to use his powers to help people. This need springs naturally and evocatively from the movie’s handling of flashbacks detailing all the times he’s had to hide who he is, even at the cost of his father’s life, and how using his powers to help people began as an impulse toward rebellion. Now, as an adult, that impulse is beginning to blossom into something else. Clarke isn’t quite Superman yet and even though it may have been partially intentional, he doesn’t feel like a character that Goyer and Snyder quite pinned down on the page.

Krypton factor … Henry Cavill in Man of Steel

I do really like the anonymous, David Banner style of Clarke’s transience.

While Clarke’s penchant for doing good comes across well as a core characteristic, and I like the tension the movie sketches between he and dad, there’s not much else about Clarke that gives the impression of a strong character. I think this may have been partially intentional because this is a guy who is still figuring out who he is. But in true Goyer style, he’s also spouting off about himself whenever the script needs him to. One minute he’s referring to Krypton as “my world” and the next he’s telling General Swanwick (Harry Lennix) that he’s as “American as it gets”. It’s like the script can’t decide if Clarke is an alien or not, whether he’s entranced by his true origin so much that he immediately identifies with it, etc. There are some really obvious emotional journeys Clarke could have as a result of everything he is and learns but they are roads not taken. I would have preferred something generic over nothing at all. As it is, Clarke has surprisingly little to say throughout the movie and even less that helps us identify what he is thinking and feeling. Superman was always a mild-mannered boyscout and Henry Cavill gets that across well, with a wide-eyed benevolence exuding from his shiny blue eyes and ridiculously chiseled jawline. Beyond that, it’s hard for me to say much about him as a character with an emotional arc. He is already predisposed to helping people so I suppose his arc is deciding between Earth and Krypton. The movie does keep this at the forefront of the plot, but Clarke’s feelings about it never really come out through interaction. His interactions with other characters are sterile, even with supposed love-interest Lois Lane (Amy Adams).

The age of 33 is not a coincidence. Though he’s probably more correctly understood as a Moses figure, Superman has also long been infused with Christ-like characteristics, imagery, and allegory. That Clarke Kent is 33 years old when he discovers who he is, receives his moral imperative from his father, and gets thrust into a larger destiny, is totally intentional as a reference to this connection. And fine, I guess. Superman Returns did it a lot more ham-handedly than does Man of Steel. Aside from one glib reference and the circumstantial connection, there’s not much made out of Superman as Christ. This is wise, I think, as I don’t know much patience contemporary audiences have for a geek idol being turned into Jesus.

That said, Superman is a figure with enormous responsibility but with the moral character to wear it lightly. This does eventually come through in the movie, but it also renders the character more inert than he should be. He’s remote, detached, and omnipotent. Is this supposed to be somebody’s characterization of a God?

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Clarke has struggled with his powers and the urge to use them his whole life.

Part of the reason Superman never really feels like a three-dimensional character is that once he actually becomes Superman, the movie takes off running and never stops. He barely has any time to interact with the human cast, people like Lois Lane and the slew of unconvincing generic military types. Well, except for Harry Lennix. That man would exude militaristic authority if he were playing a transvestite retailing golf clubs. Lois Lane’s attraction for Clarke is completely underdeveloped, though I suppose it’s because he catches her falling like forty times in the movie. Too many times, really, for a character that is way more self-motivated and “strong female protagonist” than usual. This is all good stuff and Lois is well served by a script that constantly keeps her in the mix. It’s just that Goyer uses her falling off shit as an easy infusion of stakes and he uses it too many times.

Clarke’s attraction for her makes more sense, really, since she’s his first friend who actually knows him and his need for human connection (while understated probably too much) is also one of those pieces of characterization he does get. When they finally kiss, a Goyerism is produced to ruin the moment as Lois says “you know it’s all downhill after the first kiss right?” and Clarke quips about being an alien. I cringed so hard I have three eyes.

Plus, the actors have simply no chemistry. I hate mentioning that because it feels so trivial in some way, but it’s really not. You buy movie romances that hinge on very little precisely because the actors are able to convince you via inflection, body language, etc. In this case, none of that is there. What sparse accounting for the relationship is present on the page is all there is. This subplot reminded me of how the relationship is handled in Thor but Chris Hemsworth is allowed to have more charm in his beard than Henry Cavill is allowed to have in his entire meaty body. Fortunately, nobody behind Man of Steel was trying to make Lois and Clarke’s romantic interest in each other a centerpiece for the movie. It’s obligatory, yes, but a good way to dodge obligatory romance is to reduce its importance to the plot.

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Seriously, he’s practically her Google Car.

Up until Zod lands on Earth and fucks up everyone’s year, Clarke has mostly stuck to accidents and natural disasters. He has not learned how to fight, that we see, or match his powers against others like him. Earlier, when Clarke gets an infodump from the computer-bound ghost of Jor-El, he hears about how the only way to know his limits (and to stretch them) is to keep testing them. This beautifully recalls the oil rig where we see him somewhat vulnerable, just as it beautifully sets up his attempts to break gravity’s hold over him. We understand that so far as we see, Superman is not at the full height of his powers. As the movie progresses, his unwillingness to give up is what keeps him in the game. It’s not skill or training, he doesn’t have those, and the movie doesn’t always do a great job of conveying this. When we see Superman fighting Zod and his underlings, we’re supposed to probably understand that he keeps getting his ass kicked because he’s out of his league, but it’s that willpower that makes the difference. Unfortunately, it’s not until Zod actually points out this shortcoming that we can contextualize the beatdowns we’ve been watching.

Plus, Clarke’s inability to take out one or two Kryptonians on his own necessitates a perfunctory and disappointing exit for all of them except Zod. They get sent into a singularity after an incredibly techn0-babbly and silly plan that feels a bit too much like the way the bomb in The Dark Knight Rises was handled (thanks again, Goyer) for comfort. Only this time, instead of flying it away from the city they are using the MacGuffin Device (Clarke’s ship) as a bomb against the Kryptonian world engine that is violently terraforming the planet.

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Almost like something out of He-Man. Almost.

The body count in this movie is a huge troublesome thing. In The Avengers, the first thing the heroes do during the climactic fight is try to contain it and come up with a plan to keep civilian casualties to a minimum. Man of Steel pays little attention to considerations like this until it’s convenient. This is a movie where Supes tells people in Smallville to go indoors while his battle (and the military’s ill-informed intervention) basically level the whole fucking place. Planes crash into the streets, Supes gets knocked into and out of buildings, and he eight foot tall Kryptonian soldier throws a fucking train. It’s madness.

It’s also nothing compared to what is visited upon the people of Metropolis. The world engine uses gravity to somehow alter Earth to be more like Krypton. The effect is huge in scale and levels several blocks of the city center. We see plenty of people presumably die during this chaos. Buildings shatter and fall over, people get caught in fireballs or rubble, and that’s before Superman and Zod start their version of the super burly brawl.

And yes, talking about this begs a comparison to The Matrix Revolutions. While that movie is dated, effects wise, it has a better version of the same fight. Zod and Supes don’t fight for very long, anyway, and it’s punctuated by melodramatic speeches, making it a disappointment for being something you’ve waited the whole movie to see. You keep waiting for Superman to have a really iconic godlike moment and it never really comes. You find yourself preferring the smaller (it’s almost funny thinking of it that way) acts of superheroism he does earlier in the movie. To wit, I found his actions on the oil rig much more heroic and moving than when he destroys the world engine in the Indian Ocean or any single moment he spends fighting Zod. It’s not as if it isn’t a glorious action sequence. It is. It just gets tiring watching super-strong, indestructible guys punch each other.

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Though it does make for moments like this one.

In spite of the size and spectacle, the last reel or so of the movie just doesn’t connect. The most major sign that additional course-correcting was needed comes when Superman kills Zod. By this point, the two of them have probably killed hundreds in collateral damage. Their fight is a natural disaster of monumental proportions. We do see that there’s a lot of Metropolis that doesn’t get destroyed, but it’s hard to shake the bombed out buildings and familiar white ash that the human characters are left with on the ground. Given all this, it seems trite and unbelievable that Superman finally ends the battle as Zod is about to heatray a family in a train station. After the unimaginable death toll no one seems to care about, it’s actually having to be up close and personal with the cost that freaks him out enough to kill a guy. He’s like a talking predator drone.

Okay, though. Superman shouldn’t just execute motherfuckers, that’s not who he is. But they really couldn’t spare a throwaway line during or after the fight to explain or justify all that death? They couldn’t leave Superman partially haunted by it?

Instead, the ending barely works because they expect the audience to believe that Superman’s face isn’t the most well known face on the planet by this point. Because the movie works like only five people are ever involved with this huge, global scale alien invasion event (come to think of it, Man of Steel is as much an alien invasion movie as a superhero movie), I guess they thought that having Clarke go work at the Daily Planet would be an acceptable thing. My criticism here is less that this happens (it’s part of the Superman mythos after all) but that they so lazily support it as a thing that could actually ever happen after the events of the movie.

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A lot of people had to have seen his face, right?

Even though it seems that Zod has knocked out all the electronic equipment (not actually so, but people will argue it), there’s enough people who see Supes up close that it would be impossible to keep his likeness a secret. No credence is paid to this in the movie. Audiences are not really tough on unlikely things so long as they are attended. Had they done an Avengers style bit of the world coming to grips with the events and character(s), the movie could have avoided this criticism. It’s jarring while you’re watching it. Too much of the last act boils down to “wait, what?” for the spectacle to be enjoyed without pause.

There’s a sense to which spectacle and raw cinema at this scale and of this quality sort of undermines issues posed by narrative or writing problems, uncrossed t’s and undotted i’s, but there’s also no denying that Man of Steel would be a better movie if they’d paid more attention to that shit. In fact, I think Man of Steel is going to register as an uncomfortable but minor disappointment on a couple of levels. For some people, spectacle matters more than anything else (it’s why they go to the movies). At the end of the day, Man of Steel is not the sacrifice of good sense/taste to spectacle that, say, the Transformers movies are. I only mention this because I’m afraid I may be giving the impression that it’s some empty-headed CG-fest when it isn’t. Snyder is too good at creating images and moments that rouse, move, or amaze for that to be the case.

For all its problems, it is not a stupid film. It’s just so well realized so much of the time that stupid shit (Zod can somehow enter Superman’s dreams?, “I just think he’s kinda hot”, etc) is jarring and it feels like precisely the kind of stupid shit that isn’t well-intentioned but lazy or pandering or cloying. The unfortunate reality of things is that if your quilt is immaculate, that one fucked up patch brings the overall quality far more into question than does a rough patch on a rough quilt. Blights mar astonishingly beautiful things more than they do the mundane things, which is why a movie like Fast 6 gets an overwhelmingly positive review while Man of Steel gets the “good but not great” treatment.

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“Evan, stop it. It’s just a mooooovie!”

Overall, I think there’s a ton of merit in Man of Steel in spite of how much time I’ve spent discussing its flaws. A lot of people are reviewing the movie less charitably. There’s a lot of talk about how boring it is and I just don’t agree. It’s structure (not quite an origin, but trying to have that cake and eat it too) and pacing (long foreplay, too quick to climax) create or cement its narrative flaws, but there’s a lot of thought behind this movie. It has fucking themes, even if the movie kind of rolls over them. Henry Cavill is a plenty good Superman and I hope to see more of him and his cape. Some people are going to wonder if they alter the explanation for Superman’s powers, or change them around, or do Kryptonite. This is a good place to describe why I say there’s a lot of thoughtfulness here. Like I said earlier, Superman is still just figuring out his powers. By the time he’s Superman, he’s only tested them fully this once and they seem to grow a bit even over the course of that. He’s had longer to adapt to Earth’s atmosphere and solar radiation than his fellow Kryptonians, and it makes a noted difference in his ability to handle all that extra power. Only Zod figures out how to fly, in one of the better moments during their fight, and the others avoid the disadvantages of superhearing and Xray vision by staying protected in their cool, transparent breathing masks. There’s a nod to the concept of Kryptonite, even. Superman is weakened by Krypton’s atmospheric conditions because he has never had to adapt to them. It provides the same function and is somehow less hokey than Kryptonite.

I also hope to hear more of Hans Zimmer at this caliber. The score is brilliant, iconic, and informs every scene. Like his score for Inception, Zimmer works with a basic theme and reinserts it, bolsters it, thins it out, or lets it sing whenever the movie calls for it. What it amounts to is probably one of the most memorable scores for a superhero movie, if not the most.

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There’s a lot of unnecessary shaky-cam in the movie, but fuck it if Snyder doesn’t shoot the big stuff like a boss.

With Zimmer’s help, Snyder has crafted a memorable movie that features some truly awe-inspiring ideas and moments. That’s where its merit is. It’s one of the great superhero movies, though seldom are they as ambitious as Man of Steel is. I tend to think that Snyder made this movie almost because it afforded him the opportunity to do that Krypton sequence. I hope so. Everything from the weird robots to the insectoid design of their ships and armor feels like it could just as easily be from some as yet unmade Miyazakian epic. Man of Steel will be a success and with that success will come a legacy for new Superman movies and possibly DC finally catching up to Marvel. But more than that (I’m a Marvel guy anyway), I hope that this movie proves the viability of cosmic-scale, ridiculous worlds and characters. I want to see more Kirby-inspired spectacle, dammit.

I think I’m going to see Man of Steel again for that Krypton bit. Honestly, I grinned like a happy infant for a lot of the first half of this movie. The beauty and wonder Snyder is able to evoke kinda washes pleasantly over you until the plot sets in. In its hurry to get the big action shit going, though, it sacrifices too much of the more thoughtful and unexpected stuff that made the early parts work so well. I wonder if I’ll feel the same way after watching it again. Sometimes you appreciate a movie more when expectations are left to the side and you’re cognizant of where the flaws are. I am at least sure that Superman may come off as a fuller character on a rewatch.

Eager to find out.

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