I’m glad I’m not a movie critic, because I find it takes me a considerable amount of time to put my thoughts together about a movie past my initial impression. But the first day of Comic-Con International seems as good a time as any to put down some of my thoughts on Man of Steel, the latest attempt to reboot Superman as a film character, and likely the DC Universe as a setting for a film series.
Overall I enjoyed the film. The movie looked great, the cast was very good, and the script did a good job of building the setting and exploring the characters. I am glad that the film was willing to take liberties with some parts of the established Superman tradition, because what’s the point of doing the story in a way that it’s already been done? I wish that the film had found a way to work a little more joy into its tone. In the end, I will happily buy a ticket to the sequel. Now, on to specifics, and if you’re waiting to watch it at home, spoilers follow.
Man of Steel definitely shares a lot of DNA with Christopher Nolan and David Goyer’s work on the Christian Bale Batman trilogy. The hero is troubled and isolated. Every effort is made to ground the setting and events in a sense of realism. Even triumphs come with an emotional cost. Indeed, a friend reminded me that the Batman movies (at least the first two) probably had more light or humorous moments than this movie. This approach clearly connected with audiences in the Batman films, and it seems like audiences responded to it in this movie as well. But I would have liked to see the tension and melancholy interspersed with more joy and hope and inspiration. I enjoyed this movie, but I did not have much fun watching it. And I think a comic book superhero movie is a great place to have some fun.
I’m going to make two obvious comparisons here just to try to explain myself a little better. The first is to the Marvel films. Every one of the Marvel Studios films I have seen works in some humorous banter and shows the characters exhilarated by their powers and what they can do. Yeah, there are bad guys to be stopped and people to be saved, but the movies recognize that being able to fly like Iron Man or call down lightning like Thor is pretty cool. They find humor within the tension and the drama, and I don’t think that devalues the stakes of their stories. In Iron Man 3, Tony Stark has some pretty serious emotional problems to work through, but part of him working through it is cracking a joke. I cared about the character but I did not get depressed watching him.
The other comparison is with the original Richard Donner-directed Christopher Reeve Superman movie. I have a copy of the poster for the movie on the wall behind me, with the S-shield logo and the tagline “You’ll Believe a Man Can Fly.” Think about how much of that movie was based just on Superman being able to fly. Entire sequences, like the Can You Read My Mind encounter between Lois and Superman, were built around flying. In Man of Steel, there is a very brief sequences that hints at the joy of flying, but that’s quickly eclipsed by the need to fight a Kryptonian invasion. Not only that, the movie wants to emphasize the speed and power of the Kryptonians, so most of the flying a CG blur. There’s no leisurely flight into space while Reeve or Brandon Routh smile at the camera and turn; we just see Henry Cavill zip past on his way back to deal with pressing matters. I really would have liked to see that smile.
I understand the rush, though. Matters are pretty pressing indeed. Even though Clark has been using his powers to save people for years, he’s pretty much stuck to natural disasters before he puts on the blue suit. He doesn’t get a chance to warm up against some common criminals or even a regular army. He has to go straight into battle with an army of Kryptonians in order to save the entire planet. Even though this is definitely an introduction movie, and there are plenty of flashbacks to Clark’s youth, it didn’t feel like an “origin” movie because the story was so much bigger. I wonder if the filmmakers will try to go smaller in the sequel, and create more character-based conflict, or if they will feel they need to up the scale. I almost feel like fighting Lex Luthor in the next movie would be a letdown, and wonder if we would see something more like Brainiac or even Darkseid. That would definitely set Superman apart from Batman, Iron Man, and a lot of the other superhero movies. This is the big guy, the guy who doesn’t need a crossover teamup to take on an alien invasion of New York, I mean Metropolis.
In fact, unlike Iron Man or Green Lantern, DC’s last attempt to launch a cinematic universe, Man of Steel did not feel like it was explicitly trying to set up a universe of films. Iron Man featured SHIELD and then introduced Nick Fury and the Avengers in its post-credits tag. Green Lantern included the character of Amanda Waller and used the post-credits tag to tease the creation of the Sinestro Corps, which is largely a Green Lantern concept but tied into some of the company’s crossover events. Man Of Steel had no post-credits tag, and while concepts like WayneTech and LexCorp apparently worked their way into the backgrounds, I did not get the sense that this movie was trying so hard to set up spinoffs or connections.
That’s not to say that the potential isn’t there. Superman was the original superhero and for a long time he was first hero in the fictional DC Universe as well. So it would be totally consistent to introduce other heroes into the world established by Man of Steel. And given that the movie introduced the idea of Kryptonian colonies and scout ships that remain dormant for centuries, there is plenty of opportunity to introduce other Kryptonian characters. If Man of Steel is a launching point for a series of connected films, I have two hopes. One is that now that the fairly-realistic setting has been introduced, future films can lighten up a little bit. I actually have some faith in this regard based on the little tag near the end of the film where Superman tells the general not to snoop around to figure out where he hangs up his cape. My other hope is that subsequent movies show as much willingness as this one did to reinterpret and reconstruct elements of the characters.
Some of the tweaks to Superman tradition are relatively minor, like Laurence Fishburne playing Perry White or the presence of a Daily Planet intern named Jenny but no photographer named Jimmy. Others are substantial enough to mark Man of Steel as its own version of the Superman story, even as it takes significant elements from established stories. The decaying Kryptonian culture where children were genetically engineered rather than biologically conceived reminded me a lot of John Byrne’s 1986 reboot, which was also titled Man of Steel. Indeed, the focus on Clark Kent as the primary character, who has to assume the identities of Kal-El and Superman, has appeared in many versions of the story over the last 25-plus years. (I’ve already written about how much I approve of that vision.)
But it is definitely a big deal that Lois Lane figured out who Clark Kent was before Clark Kent ever became Superman, let alone showed up at the Daily Planet wearing glasses. I could not be happier about that change. Trying to keep up the secret identity schtick tends to make Lois look clueless or Clark look like a jerk or both. Making Lois a partner in the secret gives her more ways to participate in the story rather than being the person Clark has to rescue and/or sneak away from.
It’s also a big deal that Jonathan Kent essentially commits suicide rather than risk Clark’s secret getting out too soon. I think I like the concept that both of Clark’s fathers sacrificed their lives in their efforts to protect him, and that their examples may have inspired Clark’s willingness to sacrifice himself to save Earth from Zod. I don’t know if I completely buy the way it was staged; I feel like Clark should have been able to do something while staying out of sight. But then, coming up with situations that Superman’s powers can’t solve is one of the biggest challenge of telling Superman stories. Overall, I liked the way the Jonathan Kent scenes explored the tension between the good that Clark could do for the world and the radical shifts that would come for both Clark and the world if he did.
Of course there is one more significant “change” that has occurred in the comics before.
I’ve read that the final conclusion of Superman’s fight with Zod came late in the filmmaking process. Originally Zod was supposed to get absorbed back into the Phantom Zone with the rest of the Kryptonians, but director Zack Snyder felt they needed a more dramatic resolution. So Snyder and Goyer had Superman break Zod’s neck in order to save a family that Zod was threatening with his heat vision. I feel like there’s a whole other essay and conversation about the “heroes don’t kill” ethic and maybe I should write that this week. The short version is that I am OK with the choice. I think that the filmmakers had done enough to establish that Clark was trying to save as many people as he could even though, frankly, he was out of his league. I think that in a world where our stories have developed to the point that villains are routinely threatening the deaths of millions of people, I do not find it dramatically satisfying to have heroes adopt the exact ethics of stories from an earlier time. I understand why some viewers disagree with me; they don’t feel like Clark’s heroism was sufficiently established, or that the necessity of the killing was earned. I can see where they’re coming from, but all I can say is it worked for me.
Of course, it may have been possible to avoid the whole no-win scenario, as the folks at How It Should Have Ended argue: