Man Of Steel (Or Why That Movie You Like Isn’t Very Good)
They may have ditched the y-fronts from the costume, but the movie’s still a bit pants.
I’m going to SPOILER a fair bit, so if you don’t want to read anymore, here is an image of Superman Suitably Concerned About A Throttling to enjoy before you leave.
One day, I will get tired of telling people why that movie they thought was great isn’t really that great. Today is not that day. Luckily for you, you at least get to read this blog and don’t get the immediate earful like my long suffering housemate.
So let me acknowledge this: I went to see Man of Steel with three other people who all enjoyed it. One actually went to see it again and said they enjoyed it even more the second time. The people I went with are not stupid, and they adore their movies. I just think they’ve given this movie the benefit of the doubt, a kindness powered by a sense of good will towards the franchise, that lets it get away with a lot. I understand this Stockholm Syndrome – I defend Star Wars Episode 1 to this day (“But, but, the pod racing and that last Darth Maul duel!!’). However, I’m not a fanboy for Supes, so here it is:
I think Man of Steel is a mess. There are some decent parts, but it is otherwise all over the place.
I wanted to love it. The teaser trailers totally suckered me. “A thoughtful, elegiac Superman? Call me Señor Intrigued.” A world away from the fun times of the original movie, sure, but that’s no bad thing.
Man of Steel certainly ain’t your Daddy’s Superman but it’s not particularly satisfying either.
To start, it attempts to tell an origin story in a non-linear narrative; this is a laudable ambition. In execution here it stunts the emotional journey of the character. You don’t get a sense of why Superman does what he does until far into the movie and even then it’s a bit muddled.
I’m sure I’ve seen movies pull off this style of haphazard character growth before (and in a manner straighter than the Amores Perros styled narratives). They tell their own story, but function strongly on a level of dramatic irony. Still compelling on their own, but its true importance and resonance is only really found in the mind of the audience when presented in juxtaposition to the main narrative (think Memento and Sammy Jankis). Man of Steel reaches for this, but doesn’t quite grab it. The placing and build of the intertwining of the two stands feels completely off to me. It saddens me to say that I think a straight telling would’ve been more effective but I give the film marks for trying something narratively interesting.
However, Man of Steel is also riddled with terrible, lazy writing, in both a structural (plotting, scene construction) and textural (dialogue, characterisation) sense. Glaring plot holes aside (I can forgive these – all fantastical movies like this have them), the obvious solutions are used, things happen for the sake of narrative convenience (there are a tonne of ways Superman could’ve dealt with Zod’s laser eyes – in no way did it set up that snapping his neck was the only option, nor did it warrant the pain it caused Supes considering the HUNDREDS of people he must’ve killed via collateral damage and, as later mentioned in this post, the disregard he seems to have for the fate of his fellow Kryptonians), the Big Bad Threat is painfully uninventive. I cannot count how much laser based destruction Earth has taken in the last decade. Even on the micro level, there are some incredibly odd writing decisions.
As an example, Martha Kent has almost sweet FA to do, and in a movie that touches on two and a half hours there’s no reason why this should be. If we’re talking Christ parables, Martha should be a huge figure. Yet in a moment of existential crisis, Clarke goes to talk to some random priest we’ve never seen and will never see again. And the scene’s played for a laugh. To be clear: Clarke is debating whether to give himself up for possible death to an alien space general. Is it so hard to imagine he might just have this chat with Ma? The one who has, previously in the movie, (and I imagine, in his life) helped him get past tough times. What would be more grounding for a superhero to seek his mother’s counsel in a moment of crisis? Why toss this gigantic moment over to a random stock character instead of using it to reinforce the bond between mother and child? She gets a couple of lovely moments (“Nice suit, son.”) but she deserves more.
Whilst we’re on the Kents, Jonathan Kent’s death felt massively contrived to me. In this one case, I wish it had something more towards the comics – a heart attack, something Clarke could not save him from. But let me take Man of Steel‘s death like it wants me to: Jonathan Kent dies because he would rather not risk his son revealing his powers and becoming ostracised. You’d imagine this would traumatise Clarke into holding himself back as per his Dad’s dying wish. Or regret it so heavily, that he throws himself into helping everyone and everything at the expense of the consistency of his life. Both of those would be meaty wounds for a character to have. All we are shown is that Clarke goes on to help lots of people, par for the course. That beat of regret or the moment where Clarke defies his Earth father’s dying wish so as to save people, revelation be damned isn’t there. If you’re generous, you can maybe read it in there but seems odd that in a movie that is otherwise quite explicit with its attempted emotional journey doesn’t acknowledge such a vital instant. It’s relying on the affection you bring to it for emotional short cutting.
On this, I have a theory.
Let’s call this diegetic emotion (of the movie feeling) and extra-diegetic emotion (not of the movie feeling).
A dad dying is, for the most part, sad, regardless of narrative and context. Good movies create their own context, diegetic emotional context.
Tom Hanks losing the volleyball he’d turned into his companion in the movie Castaway is sad (Well, it was to me – your mileage may vary with this example) within the movie but outside it isn’t…if anything it’s faintly comic. But when you’re engaged in that story, it’s a heartbreaking moment that’s well earned and of that story. Man of Steel has precious few of these. Jonathan Kent is a Father Figure, but didn’t feel like a father.
So for me there are huge issue there, but it’s not all script – Snyder has to take some of the flak for how he positions us.
There is a moment where Clarke, having found his way onto an ancient Kryptonian spaceship learns about the fate of his home world from his father’s tech-ghost. The film delights in showing as an arty rendition of the Fall, and it is quite lovely. But this can’t be our moment since we’ve already seen this in all its explosive glory at the front of the film, the dialogue clunking down as awkwardly as the falling masonry. This moment is surely about Clarke taking in this news. The moment that the answer he’s been searching for his entire life turns out to be far more brutal than he ever could imagine. Is it Clarke’s moment? Do we even get a real reaction shot? Nuhuh. He is in fact curiously unaffected by the news that his race are pretty much all dead. We enjoy the slick CGI of something we’ve already seen and that is all. No time for chat or even a facial expression – gotta get the boy into the suit.
I suspect that, like J.J. Abrams with Super 8, Snyder knows that there should be emotional bits, ’cause that’s what Good Movies have. However, neither has a real feeling for it and those bits seem almost cynically tossed in in the way that a student filmmaker might casually toss in a rape or a racial assault into their movie because Important Films Deal With That Stuff but don’t really investigate them. Their concern is with the action which you could forgive for a big-ass superhero movie but even that was a bit derivative.
There are the odd flashes of invention, and some sublime touches, but otherwise it was near-invincible people being lobbed into buildings for an hour. And I got really fucking bored. Where’s the sense of threat? Danger? Tension?
This is all indicative of why I found the movie so frustrating. It’s not outright terrible. The set up for greatness and conflict is all in there, this could’ve been not just a stunning blockbuster but a stunning movie in general, but just like a pre-Superman Clarke, it’s all potential and no real product. Snyder and Goyer are in love with archetypes and know them inside out. True character, however, often seems to elude them and frankly I don’t think it would have taken much to put some real heart into Man of Steel. I’m not after full-on Hamlet broodiness, and I know Smallville spent ten years turning a farm boy into a Superhero but some warmth, some genuine crisis is missing. Strangely for an origin story, Superman is pretty much ready to be Superman for the majority of this movie.
Perhaps the film suffers for trying to do too much. It wants both its small scale origin story and sequel sized action plot and it doesn’t quite pull off either. Between two dead fathers, a dead mother, a mourning mother, growing up, coming to terms with super powers and defeating the alien threat before it can terraform humanity off the face of its Earth it’s not a surprise the movie can’t give real time to any one thing in particular.
If there’s one foundation of hope for the future of the series, appropriately enough it is Superman himself. Henry Cavill, the latest posh British actor to grace the big screen, is a great fit for the part. I’m not sure what more draws the eye – his hairline or his jawline. I am glad that the film’s doing so well because it means he’ll get to step out into a fantastic sequel.
Man of Steel left me cold, but this incarnation of Superman has all the elements for something incredible. Despite all my reservations about this movie, I still cannot wait for the next outing. Maybe I am a fanboy after all.