Last week I took my first vacation in a couple years, from both work and the Internet. I didn’t take a vacation from superhero movies though, so I caught Man of Steel and well, I loved it. Or at the very least I loved a lot of things about it. So imagine my surprise when I returned to the Internet this Monday to find a kryptonite fog of negativity hanging around the movie.
A score in the low 50s on Rotten Tomatoes, and it wasn’t just critics not digging Man of Steel — regular moviegoers were grumbling too. Box office numbers were fine for a movie with this amount of hype, but well below those of smirking wankfest Iron Man 3. I walked out of the theater on Saturday thinking Man of Steel was going to be the next landmark superhero movie. The next Iron Man or Dark Knight. What happened?
Man of Steel is nearly everything I’ve always wanted superhero movies to be, but then again I actually read comics. Most people who watch superhero movies don’t, and I think Man of Steel may have crossed an invisible line — the superhero movie that’s just too much like superhero comics for mainstream viewers…
A quick scan of the negative (and many backhanded “positive”) reviews of Man of Steel uncovers some common complaints — there’s not enough humor. The movie takes itself too seriously. The critics aren’t wrong — Man of Steel is a serious movie. Not joyless or dour, just serious. In fact it may be the first major movie to really, truly take the concept of superheroes seriously.
Well, okay, I can’t take that haircut entirely seriously.
Nearly every superhero movie to date has been either an outright comedy or maintained a certain winky “don’t worry, we know this is silly” undertone throughout. Most major superhero movies, from Batman to Fantastic Four to the The Avengers have had to serve the superheroics with a hefty dollop of humor or romance. The Spider-Man movies are essentially just rom-coms with upside-down kissing. The Avengers was more about hunky dudes bantering than the plot or action.
I mean, sure, there’s been a couple serious Batman movies, but the Nolan Bat-flicks tone down the superhero stuff as much as possible. The Nolan Batman is basically just Dirty Harry with more money and a mask. By comparison Man of Steel asks the viewer to take a super strong flying alien in a cape completely at face value, which, it turns out, is something a lot of people don’t want to do.
It isn’t just a question of seriousness either — there are all sorts of things about Man of Steel that you’ll just get if you’re a regular comics reader, and probably won’t like if you’re not. For instance, the movie’s action scenes blew me away. For the first time it felt like the epic actions scenes you regularly see in comics had been properly translated to the big screen. The scale was appropriately massive, there were no cheesy shots of Henry Cavill hanging from wires or bad rubbery CGI — this was the kind of stuff I’d been dreaming about seeing on a movie screen since I was a kid.
And yes, there were a lot of shots of Superman being punched through skyscrapers. That’s just what happens in Superman fight scenes (and in most superhero fight scenes in general). I can see how somebody not familiar with comics may find all the destruction weird or even a bit disturbing, but to me I was finally getting to watch Superman get punched through a skyscraper after seeing it happen in comics hundreds of times.
I also liked everything about Amy Adams as Lois Lane, because c’mon.
If you’ve been reading comics for a while, you long ago hardwired your brain to not think about things like civilian causalities. I mean, of course any major superhero punch-up would kill thousands of innocent people — it’s just something you have to take out of the equation to enjoy the medium. Man of Steel was playing by the old “uhhh, all those buildings were empty” comic book rule in its final action scenes. I think most comic readers understood that (Mark Waid exempted apparently). I can see why non-comic readers wouldn’t have. Oh, and by the way, Superman has killed tons of guys, so I had no problem with that other thing about the end of the movie people are complaining about.
We’ve arrived at an interesting crossroads — superhero movies are massively successful, but until now moviegoers have largely been receiving a watered down product. With Man of Steel we’re, at long last, getting the undiluted superhero experience. For now audiences still seem to prefer the easy-to-digest weak sauce that is Iron Man 3, but thankfully first reactions aren’t always the ones that last.