First, if you’ve come to this page just to read the blog entry, do me a favor–check out our fine, free comics offerings here at Thrillbent. I bring this up because it seems like a wasted opportunity not to. You don’t have to; I’m not posting a movie review here to link-bait, it’s just…well, it’s my blogspace, and we do good things here. Anyway.
Non-spoiler review: It’s not for me. It had some very nice moments, several I wish I’d written (and at least three I did, I’m proud to say–there was lots of BIRTHRIGHT in it), but I can’t imagine wanting to watch it again anytime soon. YMMV. It’s a good science-fiction movie, but it’s very cold. It’s not a very satisfying super-hero movie. That said, if your favorite part of SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE was Superman standing in the Fortress while Jor-El lectured him, you’re gonna love MAN OF STEEL.
At its emotional climax, at the moment of Superman’s ultimate “victory,” MAN OF STEEL broke my heart. I mean, absolutely snapped it clean in half.
I went in ready to forgive a lot. I knew we wouldn’t get much, if any, of the secret identity–“Clark Kent” as we know him, as a reporter in glasses, as in “disguised as…”, appears only in a cute nod, and I’ve said all my adult life that a Superman story without Clark Kent in it never really feels like a Superman story. But I was willing to give that a pass. And I suspected they’d front-loaded the story with so much Kryptonian backstory that it would end up being a science fiction movie, not a super-hero movie. But the music was good and the look of Kal-El , at least from the waist up, was good, and I had to suffer through four seasons of LOIS AND CLARK Superman with no spit-curl, so while I missed the ‘do, it was hardly a deal-breaker.
And I genuinely enjoyed the first two-thirds or so of the movie. Krypton was great. Zod was great. Really, there was a lot to like there. And I got my first of many proud-papa BIRTHRIGHT glows when we cut straight from the rocket’s entry to Clark as an adult, and I grinned like an idiot at the many, many other BIRTHRIGHT moments. I can’t really describe for you what it feels like to me to see evidence that I really have been lucky enough to add a few lasting elements to the Superman myth.
And I think you’d be surprised to find that I loved everything about Jonathan Kent. I loved his protectiveness, even when it made him sound like an asshole. (“Maybe.”) And I loved, loved, loved that scene where Clark didn’t save him, because Goyer did something magical–he took two moments that, individually, I would have hated and he welded them together into something amazing. Out of context, I would have hated that Clark said “You’re not my real dad,” or whatever he says right before the tornado. And out of context, I would have loathed that Clark stood by frozen with helplessness as the tornado killed Jonathan. But the reason that beat worked is because Clark had just said “You’re not my dad,” the last real words he said to Pa. Tearful Clark choosing to go against his every instinct in that last second because he had to show his father he trusted him after all, because he had to show Pa that Pa could trust him and that Clark had learned, Clark did love him–that worked for me, hugely. It was a very brave story choice, but it worked. It worked largely on the shoulders of Cavill, who sold it. It worked as a tragic rite of passage. I kinda wish I’d written that scene.
But about the time we got to the big Smallville fight, my Spider-Sense began to tingle. A lot of destruction. A lot of destruction–and Superman making absolutely no effort to take the fight, like, ONE BLOCK AWAY INTO A CORNFIELD INSTEAD OF ON MAIN STREET. Still, saving people here and there, but certainly never going out of his way to do so, and mostly just trying not to get his ass kicked. (I loved Clark Kent’s pal, Pete Ross, and not just because they cast pre-teen Mark Waid as Pete Ross.)
And then we got to The Battle of Metropolis, and I truly, genuinely started to feel nauseous at all the Disaster Porn. Minute after minute after endless minute of Some Giant Machine laying so much waste to Metropolis that it’s inconceivable that we weren’t watching millions of people die in every single shot. And what’s Superman doing while all this is going on? He’s halfway around the world, fighting an identical machine but with no one around to be directly threatened, so it’s only slightly less noticeable that thousands of innocents per second are dying gruesomely on his watch. Seriously, back in Metropolis, entire skyscrapers are toppling in slo-mo and the city is a smoking, gray ruin for miles in every direction, it’s Hiroshima, and Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich are somewhere muttering “Too far, man, too far”…but, you know, Superman buys the humans enough time to sacrifice many, many of their own lives to bomb the Giant Machine themselves and even makes it back to Metropolis in time to catch Lois from falling (again), so…yay?
And then Superman and Lois land in the three-mile-wide crater that used to be a city of eight million people, and the staff of the Planet and a couple of other bystanders stagger out of the rubble to see Superman and say, “He saved us,” and before you can say either “From what?” or “Wow, these eight are probably the only people left alive,” and somehow–inexplicably, implausibly, somehow–before Superman can be bothered to take one second to surrender one ounce of concern or assistance to the millions of Metropolitans who are without question still buried under all that rubble, dead or dying, he saunters lazily over to where General Zod is kneeling and moping, and they argue, and they squabble, and they break into the Third Big Fight, the one that broke my heart.
See, everyone else in Zod’s army has been beaten and banished, but General Zod lives and so, of course, he and Superman duke it out in what, to everyone’s credit, is the very best super-hero fight I’ve ever seen, just a marvel of spectacle. But once more–and this is where I knew we were headed someplace really awful–once more, Superman showed not the slightest split-second of concern for the people around them. Particularly in this last sequence, his utter disregard for the collateral damage was just jaw-dropping as they just kept crashing through buildings full of survivors. I’m not suggesting he stop in the middle of a super-powered brawl to save a kitten from a tree, but even Brandon Routh thought to use his heat vision on the fly to disintegrate deadly falling debris after a sonic boom. From everything shown to us from the moment he put on the suit, Superman rarely if ever bothered to give the safety and welfare of the people around him one bit of thought. Which is why the climax of that fight broke me.
Superman wins by killing Zod. By snapping his neck. And as this moment was building, as Zod was out of control and Superman was (for the first time since the fishing boat 90 minutes ago) struggling to actually save innocent victims instead of casually catching them in mid-plummet, some crazy guy in front of us was muttering “Don’t do it…don’t do it…DON’T DO IT…” and then Superman snapped Zod’s neck and that guy stood up and said in a very loud voice, “THAT’S IT, YOU LOST ME, I’M OUT,” and his girlfriend had to literally pull him back into his seat and keep him from walking out and that crazy guy was me. That crazy guy was me, and I barely even remember doing that, I had to be told afterward that I’d done that, that’s how caught up in betrayal I felt. And after the neck-snapping, even though I stuck it out, I didn’t give a damn about the rest of the movie.
As the credits rolled, I told myself I was upset because Superman doesn’t kill. Full-stop, Superman doesn’t kill. But sitting there, I broke it down some more in my head because I sensed there was more to it since Superman clearly regretted killing Zod. I had to grant that the filmmakers at least went way out of their way to put Superman in a position suggesting (but hardly conclusively proving) he had no choice (and I did love Superman’s immediate-aftermath reaction to what he’d done). I granted that they’d at least tried to present Superman with an impossible choice and, on a purely rational level, and if this had been a movie about a guy named Ultraguy, I might even have bought what he did. But after I processed all that, I realized that it wasn’t so much my uncompromising vision of Superman that made this a total-fail moment for me; it was the failed lead-up TO the moment. As Superman’s having his final one-on-one battle with Zod, show me that he’s going out of his way to save people from getting caught in the middle. SHOW ME that trying to simultaneously protect humans and beat Zod is achingly, achingly costing Superman the fight. Build to that moment of the hard choice…show me, without doubt, that Superman has no other out and do a better job of convincing me that it’s a hard decision to make, and maybe I’ll give it to you. But even if I do? It’s not a victory. Not this sad, soul-darkening, utterly sans-catharsis “triumph” that doesn’t even feel like a win so much as a stop-loss. Two and a half hours, and I never once got the sense that Superman really achieved or earned anything.
The essential part of Superman that got lost in MAN OF STEEL, the fundamental break in trust between the movie and the audience, is that we don’t just want Superman to save us; we want him to protect us. He was okay at the former, but really, really lousy at the latter. Once he puts on that suit, everyone he bothers to help along the way is pretty much an afterthought, a fly ball he might as well shag since he’s flying past anyway, so what the hell. Where Christopher Reeve won me over with his portrayal was that his Superman clearly cared about everyone. Yes, this Superman cares in the abstract–he is willing to surrender to Zod to spare us–but the vibe I kept getting was that old Charles Schulz line: “I love mankind…it’s people I can’t stand.”
Look, I know everyone involved in MAN OF STEEL went into it with the best of intentions. And trust me, there are not rivers or coastlines on this planet long enough to measure just how much I wanted to love this movie. If you don’t know me, you can’t imagine. And there were certainly things to like. But there was no triumph to it. None of Superman’s victories in this movie are in any way the kind of stand-up-and-cheer events you’d think necessary in a movie with Superman in it. Did it succeed in what it sent out to do? I think probably so. But what it set out to do, as it turns out, leaves me cold. With the exception of the first-flight beat–the smile Superman gets when he first takes to the air–it’s utterly joyless. From start to finish. Utterly. Joyless. And I just have no interest in relentless joyless from a guy who can fly.