I still don’t think anyone has made an amazing Superman movie, but at least Man of Steel made me believe that it’s possible.
After The Avengers and now Man of Steel, I think there needs to be a name for the phenomenon where a comic book movie attracts incredible production talent, who proceed to write some of the most inspired, creative, entertaining popcorn movie content ever created, only to be hamstrung in the end by their own nerdish worship of the weak source material. Back in writing workshop, there was a frequently repeated phrase you’d hear in critiques where people would point to the top of your piece and say “this feels like throat clearing.”
Basically, it means you had these germs of an idea or ideas at the beginning that sparked some connection in your brain that eventually lead to something so much better, and now you just need to go back and delete those half-formed origin thoughts. Man of Steel feels like Christopher Nolan and David Goyer and company were inspired by the idea of a showdown between Superman and General Zod, to create an even better story about what it means to be Superman. But in the end they just couldn’t bring themselves to cut those cables of homage to the initial inspiration. Thus we’re left with an inspiring, beautiful origin story grafted onto an anti-climactic hero/villain showdown, and all the the hackneyed tropes that go along with it.
Seriously, is there some rule I don’t know about where every superhero movie has to have a scene of the hero flying into the mouth of a giant laser pointed at Earth? Look, Drunk Randy Quaid in Independence Day is the best that scene’s ever going to get, so stop trying.
Man of Steel‘s most impressive accomplishment was to make me think, “Wow, Superman, huh? What a great story. Why hasn’t anyone been able to make an amazing movie out of this before?”
I still don’t think anyone has made an amazing Superman movie, but at least Man of Steel made me believe that it’s possible. Goyer and Zack Snyder sell the hell out of the concept, by constructing a relevant Kryptonian origin story, and dropping the hokier Superman elements that feel too campy or like relics from another time – the nerd disguise, Lex Luthor, tights under his clothes, phone booths, red underpants, the idea that the ‘S’ stood for “SUPER,” and kryptonite as a glowing red rock. All gone, and good riddance. Well, mostly gone, but we’ll get to that. (Also, they added sonic booms!) What we’re left with is a Superman who’s a product of two fathers, one for whom Superman represents the last embodiment of the squandered potential of a dead civilization, and another for whom he represents an ideal towards which a young civilization can strive, if they can be mature enough to accept him. Both fathers good men who believed so strongly in the dream their child represents that they were willing to sacrifice themselves for it. Basically, Superman represents the smartest and best of humanity, which is why he’s played by a handsome British.
If it sounds melodramatic, maybe it is, but it’s melodramatic in the best way possible. Like most good sci-fi, it uses the fantastic as a way to express the childish optimism that drives every human. To repay the sacrifices of our forebears by being faster, stronger, smarter, better, than anyone who came before us, to be invincible and live forever; the dream that maybe we can do it right this time, and realize the potential of the last 100,000 years. Isn’t that the psychological underpinning of all reproduction? Maybe I’m becoming a sentimental f*ck, but they totally sold me. I teared up more than once during the first act, which has never come even close to happening in a comic book movie before. Now, before you rightfully hang me from a locker by my underwear or beat me with socks filled with wet tampons, I should point out that a few factors contributed to this sentimentality.
First, Hans Zimmer’s score. I don’t particularly like Hans Zimmer and I don’t even really like scores, and his work in The Dark Knight Rises was so overbearing and distracting that it made half the movie feel like a music video. With Hans dialed back a little and used in the proper doses, Man of Steel is one of the best uses of score I’ve ever seen. Things like a nice score and slow motion are what a lot of film students would consider “cheating,” because they’re icing, not cake, but few directors cheat as well as Zack Snyder (forget Sucker Punch, think back to the JFK assassination scene set to Bob Dylan in The Watchmen). The tinkling music, slow motion, glowy lighting, and gently-blowing breeze combine into something magical in the early scenes of Man of Steel. There’s also something about the tanned, micro-wrinkle quilted skin on Kevin Costner’s face that evokes a strong childhood memory of sturdy farmers and the counter crowd at a small-town Perko’s. I swear to God, their skin all looked like that. Costner really looks like a kindly old farmer from the Heartland, a human John Mellencamp song. And as much crap as Russell Crowe gets for being a bloated prick, few actors can do paternal gravitas like he can. I could listen to that fat Australian piece of shit give life advice all day.
The film all but falls apart as soon as the Kryptonian fascists arrive, saved from their planet’s destruction only because they were imprisoned in a giant space jail made of flying penis pods, roaming the galaxy for thousands of years (I think? All of a sudden there was a lot of expository stuff going on). The problem, just like the problem with Star Trek 2 and Amazing Spider-Man and probably countless other comic book movies, is that the villains’ motives never quite make sense. “Realism” is a misnomer in the sense that we don’t expect a sci-fi story to be something that could actually happen or to be able to explain the specs of a warp hyper drive, but it is nice to know what the characters want when they’re throwing trains at each other. It’s hard to be full invested otherwise. And the fights in Man of Steel are truly a landmark in lots of shit blowing up for some reason. But it was nice to know that even on Krypton, the villains have Russian bad-bitch sidekicks.
Zod just sort of shows up to kill everyone, and you wonder, why? You’re already invincible, what’s the point? And if you showed up to a planet where you could fly, have super strength, and melt steel with your eyeballs, why would you want to change it?
This fight kicks off, by the way, with Superman trying to decide whether to save the humans who don’t even believe in him while talking to a priest in a church. If you thought I was reading too much into the Jesus allusions in the trailer, wait till you see Superman deciding to save humanity framed against a giant stained-glass window of Jesus on the cross, and half a scene later fighting a Russo-Kryptonian who shouts “Evolution always wins, Kal-El!”
Guess you never met SuperJesus, bitch. (*knocks her into the sun with giant crucifix, puts Calvin praying decal on cape*)
I know they think they have to directly acknowledge the Bible because of the similarities between Jesus and Superman, but aside from the fact that Jesus allusions have already been done to death, it cheapens it. It adds nothing to Superman to allude to a lesser story. For one thing, Superman’s father is much more fleshed out than Jesus’s. Honestly, Superman is a better origin story. We don’t even know what Jesus did between when he was a baby and when he was 30. Why do you want to remind people of that?
And if Man of Steel hadn’t already ruined the amazing story it had built enough, it ends with a callback to the lamest, most outdated element of the Superman mythos.
A lot of people are going to hate Superman because of the maddeningly wasted potential, but in the end I give it credit for creating that potential with a first half that was entertaining, inspiring, earnest, heartfelt, and beautiful. And the cast is incredible, aside from this guy. Man of Steel strikes me as both a shining example of what a comic book movie can be, and a perfect reason of why a lot of people wish the talent pool comic book movies attract could be applied to something less comic booky.