Opinion: Man of Steel, a (Super)Man of Today - Slow Week


By Timothy Dillon
Photo by Katherine Johnson.

In 2013, how do you make Superman real? It’s a difficult question. On storyboards, and of course, on the pages of a comic book, the magic is that your mind puts it together for you. Filmmakers have no such luxury. In film, the problem of Superman posed stark challenges for blockbusters in the past and continues to do so, all over the question of how do you sell an audience on his power? How do you make it real?

After all, its not just Superman who’s super. In fact, there are a lot of “supers” in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. Zod and Faora play the film’s destructive duo. (In case you’re wondering, yes, they demonstrate they could, in fact, rip you in half like a phone book.) The brutality of the ubermensch lives up to every expectation, and Snyder makes a point of not holding back in the realism, but herein lies the problem.

For supers to be real to us, the audience, the creative team behind this movie (who largely brought us the Dark Knight trilogy) felt the need to make three movies and pack it in to one. The first is an oddly balanced origin story, the last is the latest Hollywood model CGI showdown, and it’s in the center where Man of Steel tries to add something substantive to the Superman myth, but falls short.

First though, let’s get some preliminaries out of the way: the dialogue is expositional, always moving plot more than characters, and telling us what to feel. Now this is not unheard of for comic books and their cinematic adaptations, and I would be more willing to forgive Goyer’s writing had it not been for the filmmaker’s efforts to make the film’s reality as mirrored as possible to our own.

We know what destruction looks like and the artists who can render the best kind of devastation just so happened to be working for Syncopy, Nolan’s production company. What every last super brawl and cape ride with Cavill’s unbreakable jawline failed to do was make me deaf to the painful dialogue of the three movies we are forced to see, instead of the one I hoped for.

Of course, this is just one of three stories being told throughout the gargantuan, brutal, 143 minutes of Man of Steel. That boss fight-to-end-all-boss-fights is rubbing heels with the delicate re-wording of how Superman becomes Superman. Sandwiched in between the two, to tie it all together, is a story of two fathers and one son that pulls right at every heart string lining the all-American ethos that is Kal-El, last son of Krypton.

Image courtesy of Grimeministar.

Three in One

So despite that, it’s unfortunate that the first act film in Man of Steel is almost exclusively the dying planet Krypton. It’s a film you weren’t really expecting to see and a lot of the time you question why it’s still going on. Even if you’re getting more out of the plot from it. You learn who everyone is, and what they’re about. You even get a little flash and glam, and a preview of these ‘pre-super’ Kryptonians and how they are going to fight later. You get an idea of where and what Kal-El came from.

Yet with the way they managed to do Krypton’s last days, it could have just as simply survived as a short film that should have been a prequel (a la The Tales of the Black Freighter animated short film from The Watchmen release). While Richard Donner took it slow and allowed the Zod premise to be set in with the original Superman, The Movie, Goyer and Nolan felt they needed it to round out both the hero and villain’s origin stories right away, in synchronized fashion, and in lengthy detail.

They were right, to an extent, because the film does benefit from a healthy dose of Zod’s motives. Personally though, I think they should have just released the doom of Krypton online for free, and have it end with the Kal-El’s crash landing on the Kent family farm. Get it out of the way while leaving some time in the movie proper for the Zod story to play out with awesome action, but without both they couldn’t tell the story they really wanted to tell.

In the process, however, all the Goyer-Nolan-Snyder team accomplishes at most is making the biggest ‘first contact’ movie we have seen yet. I just wonder why everyone from H.G. Wells to Michael Bay is just convinced that our first contact with aliens inevitably means getting our world devastated with an extraterrestrial wake up call, and little else.

Though of the three films comprising Man of Steel, the one that gives geeks and the average movie watching public the best bang for their buck is kept purely in the climax of Act II: how our adopted alien, Superman, comes to choose Earth over his home world.

Despite the sense of responsibility over great power being rammed home by the father figures of the movie, Superman’s personal choice is the big focus here. The film pushes a sermon about the nature of Free Will vs. Predestination, but unlike the paternalistic themes – these tropes keep hitting you over the head with almost nothing in the way of emotional gravitas.

Shannon’s take on Zod was simple enough for the exact opposite reason. He had but one motivation and no choice but to follow it: to protect and perpetuate the Kryptonian race. How do I know this? He says it. Shannon delivers those lines and character points to us in neat little packages that we don’t need x-ray vision to see through.

I’m not too surprised. They put Clark Kent in a church next to stained glass images of Jesus … are audiences really not trusted enough to remember that Superman can be a Jesus allegory? It’s easy. Any character who martyrs themselves, and this is a trait that Superman is totally guilty of, can have that comparison made.

This last plot point is only possible if you have all the necessary ingredients. You need apocalyptic conflict, which the Krypton “prequel” happily supplies. You need a way to develop the characters so they’ll care about that conflict, just so you can show, that the great thing about Superman, is that, so long as he tries to do good, he will find the strength.

What I love about Superman, and this is something Russel Crowe’s Jor-El tries to impress on his messianic son, is that he is limited only by what he can will to do. More than his mere superpowers themselves is the implied limitlessness that makes Superman an icon on par with Oprah, Elvis, and Marilyn. In which case, Nietzsche would be proud with Snyder’s interpretation, but probably would have fallen asleep long before he reached that epiphany.

The soon-to-be-meme of Cavill popping a blood vessel under the gravity-spider-ship-thingy, actually hosts the moment where our hero is no longer just Clark Kent or Kal-El. In that moment he is Superman, because he is only limited by his will. It’s funny that with no help from the director(s), we don’t question him wanting to be the only super on the planet, but we all know that about Superman. Of course he chooses Earth: Earth came with freedom of will.

Desolation Déja vu

Outside of being a mere remaking Superman 2, Man of Steel is still a movie we’ve all seen before. The Avengers gutted New York City, to the (estimated) tune of $160 Billion dollars. The Transformers films have shown elaborate cityscapes wiped clean, film after film. We have seen Neo take on Agent Smith in nearly the same environment. We know what happens when superhumans fight. While I do appreciate the re-imagining of supers fighting, after the slow build up of transparent character motivations and soapbox morality, Man of Steel felt a roller coaster that was never going to end.

Perhaps the mass devastation and outrageous death toll, due to an elaborate Kryptonian planet spanker, would have been easier to take had it not been for the laborious first act. A movie unto itself that was largely unnecessary, the destruction and fall of Krypton was stunning and otherworldly, and it left me exhausted. Zod’s motives, the romantic extinction event of an ancient alien race, the martyred patriarch who fought to save their species — I would watch that movie. Especially since Russell Crowe has found his niche in being a badass father figure (kudos to Mr. Crowe’s stunt doubles — I stayed for the credits for you too).

Instead, after watching the disjointed introduction to the film we get back to earth to the ultimate invasion movie. Independence Day, War of the Worlds, The Avengers, now Man of Steel. Each one is humanity meeting it’s interstellar superiors and being saved by an exceptional being. The difference with Superman is he is of the enemy world and chooses us.

How many ways can we show a cityscapes obliteration? It might be a sad to admit, but the tragic flaw of Man of Steel is that we have been waiting for the man of tomorrow, but the filmmakers chose to show him as a man of today, grappling with his existential angst, just like they have done in every comic book movie to date. In turn, this man who we’ve been waiting for, comes at the end of a movie that was far too long and cramped.

Moving Forward (and a Silver Lining)

For the record, yes, I started using the phrase ‘silver lining’ a lot more after seeing Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence mash-up dance and make me cry. Thankfully for born Superman kids like me, there is a silver lining here too.

What Snyder gave us, and what Goyer and Nolan hoped to do, was show a world where supers exist and we can believe their existence moving forward. Or at least as much as we can in Hannibal Lecter in clown makeup. They want this to be the launching point for the Justice League, so they needed to make the unbelievable, a tangible experience for us, and they did that well.

Now, being a fan of the comic books and having read some recent graphic novels, I can’t help but look back to one of my favorite books of the past couple years. All Star Superman Volume 1 by Grant Morrison. The first page is four panels, each one with a picture of the origin of Superman. It reads, “Doomed Planet,” “Desperate Scientists,” “Last Hope,” “Kindly Couple.” And when you turn the page: in tights and in flight is Superman with our yellow sun at his back. Do we really need anything more than that?

Photo courtesy of Timothy Dillon.

I haven’t touched enough on Jonathan and Martha Kent. Costner and Lane fall by the wayside as talents lost in excessive exposition. Their performances were notable, and yet in the end, negligible due to the size of this blockbuster.

Skipping Krypton would have sacrificed some great Jor-El and Zod time, but what we would have gained might have been worth it. We could have joined Clark in the uncertainty of his origins, giving a great deal of sympathy with his struggle. Who does he trust? That already brings more depth to the character. Instead Synder tried to treat me like I was Margot Kidder having my hand held, hoping that I would be too distracted by the fact that I was flying to notice that the spelled out the plot for me.

I predict there will be a special feature on the Blu-Ray where you can skip straight to the post Krypton marker in the film. That’s at least how I plan on watching it, because cutting 25 minutes from this film would be doing it a favor. Bottom line, this film was filled with actors cast perfectly, a look and style that helps realize the physics of Superman’s world in ours, and a script that drags its feet through plot point after excessive destruction, when it should be soaring to new heights.

People know who Superman is and they know what makes him unique — that while he is not of earth, he is for it. Our Christ-like savior who comes to protect us from all enemies, alien and domestic. What we didn’t need was a slow and monotonous introduction to the most recognizable hero ever created. Audiences were ready to go along with the character, wherever they decided to start. I just wish it wasn’t at the beginning.