Recent Dorkiness

A Good and Decent Man (of Steel)

Man of Steel

by Christopher Nolan, David Goyer, Zack Snyder, and a bunch of other Hollywood people

Man of Steel Poster So I went to see the new Superman movie this weekend. Really enjoyed it. It's not a perfect film, by far. It's written in full epic movie style, with all the overblown melodrama that implies. But I like its approach to the super hero genre. It has a contemplative tone and hard-hitting action, and it treats Superman's very familiar power set as an object of awe and wonder. It's a lot of fun. So imagine my surprise when I got back from the theater and checked the reactions on-line. The general fanboy consensus seems to be that the film is dark and joyless, and a terrible creative misstep that doesn't “get” Superman. The “joyless” label is lifted from a comment made by comics writer Mark Waid, whose Birthright series influenced the Man of Steel script. Waid's reaction is interesting, but it's full of spoilers, so I'll deal with it later. First, let me review the film without ruining it for anyone who hasn't seen it. Before I talk about anything else, let me get this “dark and joyless” label out of the way. It's neither of those things. It's just serious-minded. It treats Superman with respect and a bit of intelligence, and presents his story to us from a different perspective than we're used to. We start out on Krypton, and spend a good bit of time there, enough for us to see that it's a dying society as well as a dying planet. The skies are dark, and everything looks old, from the ancient members of the ruling council to the burnished brass look of even the clothing. Man of Steel Jor-El That's Russell Crowe as Jor-El, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked him in the role. He brings a sort of tiredness to the character that speaks volumes about the world that birthed Our Hero. This is not to say that the Krypton stuff is completely about decay, however. There's some great pulpy ridiculousness in the sequence that I won't spoil here, and Crowe still has enough of the adventure hero in him to pull it off. We also meet our villain in this sequence, and that's where things really take off. Michael Shannon's General Zod is fantastic, a menacing fascist who looks like he stepped right off the pages of a Kirby comic.
That face!

That face!

Check out the super-suit Zod's wearing there. Jor-El has one, too, worn beneath the more ornate outer clothing you see above. Which means that, yes, the Superman costume really is long underwear. Heh. And since we're talking about it, here's the outfit itself: Man of Steel Superman This take on the super-suit has, of course, caused some strife in fan circles, but I like it, personally. The traditional red trunks are better from a design perspective, but this one looks fine without. They do some particularly nice stuff with the cape. It flaps and billows prettily, and its noise adds some extra oomph when Superman is in flight. I'm also okay with the slightly darker color scheme. It puts me in mind of one of my favorite versions of Superman, the Fleischer Studios cartoons from the early 1940s. Those were done noir-style, with much of the action taking place at night, and the color palette is pretty close to the one used in this new film: Fleischer Superman Getting beyond the cosmetics of Man of Steel, though, I was maybe most happy with the way they approach the super powers. The first flying sequence is great fun, for instance, but it's the rest of the powers that give the film its contemplative tone. Through a series of flashbacks, we're shown what it was like for Clark Kent to grow up super in a world of normal human beings. The slow development of his super senses is maybe the most interesting thing. Imagine being a kid in elementary school and suddenly being bombarded with sensory input from x-ray eyes, and ears that can hear every sound in a crowded building. It's a long hard process just learning to shut it all out, and I get the sense that even as a grown man, he hasn't yet learned to use the powers so much as work around them. Young Clark has to learn a super-human level of restraint as well, though, and that restraint forms the film's thematic core. Jonathan Kent is, perhaps rightly, afraid of how the world will react when it learns that there's a god-like alien living in their midst, and so he teaches Clark to hide his abilities. That's something Clark takes with him into adulthood, moving from place to place and helping people in secret (kind of like Bill Bixby without the anger management issues). That's how we get to the “bearded Clark” stuff from the ad campaign, and one of my favorite life-saving sequences, with Our Hero rushing into a burning oil refinery to save trapped workers.
Man of Steel Clark

Shirtless Clark! Because the ladies need eye candy, too.

I like the idea of the young Superman essentially being a burly life-saving tough guy, and Henry Cavill fills that role every bit as well as he does the more traditional square-jawed good guy Superman becomes by the end of the film. I should take a moment to praise Cavill for his performance here, in fact. It's not easy portraying the world's biggest boy scout in a way that resonates with modern audiences. Christopher Reeve handled it by playing the part with a quiet confidence that I've always liked. But I've never connected with Reeve's Superman as a real character. Good as that performance is, it's really a subdued sort of camp more than anything else. Cavill, on the other hand, is given the opportunity to show the character growing from the deeply sad and conflicted Clark Kent into the openly heroic Superman. Things have to get pretty bad for him to come out of the spandex closet, but once he does, there's a palpable sense of relief. It's the same guy, but with a tremendous weight taken off his shoulders, and that feeling is down to Cavill's performance. The acting's very good in general here, though. I've already praised Michael Shannon's performance as Zod, but Kevin Costner and Diane Lane absolutely KILL as Ma and Pa Kent. All the Kansas flashbacks are good, and it's their performances that make them so. A lot goes unsaid in this script, but Costner and Lane own their characters so completely that you don't need them to say much anyway. I'd like to be able to say the same about Amy Adams' Lois Lane, but... Well, Lois is something of a cypher here. I'm very happy with how the film establishes her as a top-notch investigative reporter, but beyond that she's a blank slate of a character with weak development that's not backed up by the same kind of acting chops Cavill, Costner and Lane give us.  But to really talk successfully about Lois, I'm going to have to get into spoiler territory. Which means it might be time for me to wrap up the spoiler-free portion of tonight's entertainment. Ultimately, I'd say that Man of Steel, while not a great film, is a really great super hero movie. It offers a fresh, serious-minded take on the oldest super hero there is, and delivers some spectacular action in what may be the best super hero fights ever put to film. It's not a glib pop culture construct like the Marvel films have been, and I for one am glad it's not. Fun as those movies might be, they're like popcorn. Tasty, but with little weight. Man of Steel strives to be something more, and succeeds more than it fails. For me, that's a win. 4 Star Now, on to the SPOILERS... After the jump.

Okay, first let’s tackle Lois Lane. Man of Steel does one thing with her that I absolutely love: she figures out Superman’s secret identity before he even puts on the suit. It’s a good way to side-step the sticky problem of the great investigative reporter who can’t tell that the mystery man she’s always kissing actually works with her behind a pair of horn-rimmed glasses. It’s also a good way to side-step the even stickier problem of Our Noble Hero keeping his biggest secret from the woman he loves. In a lighter version of the story, it might play as screwball comedy. But if you want the audience to relate to these characters as believable people, it just doesn’t fly.

So I’m glad they got it out of the way early. Here’s the problem: we don’t get enough sense of Lois Lane as the tough, ball-busting investigative journalist for it to matter much when she goes soft and decides not to run the story because she believes in Clark’s good intentions. I think maybe we’re supposed to; Lois is given an “I’ll quit if you don’t run the story” moment with Perry White early on, but Amy Adams doesn’t give the character enough fire. All her scenes are played with the same sort of bland affect, whether she’s arguing with Perry, making doe eyes at Superman, or cringing from the evil villains. There’s no spark to the performance, and so Lois remains an enigma. Which, considering that they’re setting her up as Superman’s partner instead of his clueless kinda-girlfriend, is a crying shame.

Margot Over Amy

So, yes, Margot Kidder is still the best screen Lois ever.

Alright, so. Mark Waid. As I said earlier, Waid’s take on Man of Steel is interesting. It can be read here: http://thrillbent.com/blog/man-of-steel-since-you-asked/, and it’s worth the time if you’re a funnybook dork. I suppose I should state up-front that I’m not a big fan of Waid’s comics; I think his ideas are often very strong, but his execution of them usually leaves me cold. Some people like chocolate, some like vanilla. No biggie.

I do respect him as a funnybook historian and philosopher, though, and the things he says about comics usually interest me. This review is no different. In fact, his thoughts on Man of Steel are, for the most part, very close to my own. I like his take on the death of Pa Kent, especially. Pa essentially sacrifices himself to keep Clark’s secret, and Clark stands by and watches as his beloved father is swept away by a tornado. That scene’s been controversial with some fans, but I love it. I love the serenity on Kevin Costner’s face just before the twister gets him, and I love what it says about how very scared he was for his son’s safety. And I love it for another reason I hadn’t quite been able to put my finger on before I read Waid’s review. So let me just quote that paragraph in its entirety, because I couldn’t say it better, even now:

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.

So, yes. Yes, exactly. Best Pa Kent death ever. Good on ya, Mr. Waid!

Where he and I part company is on the issue of character death. Thousands, possibly millions, of people are killed in Superman’s fights with Zod and his troops, and Waid is bothered by the fact that Our Hero doesn’t try to draw the fights away into unpopulated areas. I will admit, that’s a standard super hero kind of thing to do, and it did cross my mind as I watched the incredible destruction being unleashed. But I was willing to let that go, because we do see Superman saving a life or two in the midst of all the destruction, and because we’re looking at a brand new Superman here. He’s only just learned how to fly, for god’s sake! So I’m okay with him not yet having the wherewithall to fight for his life and be tactically responsible at the same time. That can come later.

What really breaks Waid’s brain, though, is the biggest spoiler of the film: in the end, Superman is forced to kill General Zod. They build to it for the entirety of the final battle, with Zod starting the fight off by vowing to kill every human on Earth. He’ll never stop, and Superman knows it. Moreover, Zod’s fully come into his powers by this point, and he’s better at using them than Superman himself.

Is this a man you can reason with? I think not.

Is this a man you can reason with? I think not.

The only thing keeping him from flash-frying a family of three is the headlock Superman’s got him in, and Zod’s still inching toward them with his heat vision. So Our Hero breaks the villain’s neck, and ends the threat. It’s a tough scene that forces Superman to make a hard decision that he immediately regrets, even though he knows it’s the only thing he could have done.

Now, I like that sort of thing. I like seeing heroes put through the ringer and having to choose the best of two bad options. To my way of thinking, that’s good drama. But for many fans (Mark Waid included), it breaks a cardinal rule. In their minds, Superman doesn’t kill. Ever. And I can understand their feelings there. His code against killing was instituted for the 1940s radio series, and became canon in the comics soon thereafter. It’s been a big part of his moral make-up for decades, and has been the basis for some very good stories. So I understand the Fanboy Rage. Really, I do.

But it’s not a perspective I can share. While I certainly don’t want to see a Superman that kills indiscriminately, the code against killing really isn’t integral to the character for me. As long as he’s a good and decent man who’s dedicated his life to helping people, I think you’ve pretty much got the character nailed. So I’m fine with him taking a life under dire circumstances, as an absolute last resort, to save innocent lives. And I’m especially fine with it if it’s a young Superman who hasn’t completely mastered his abilities yet, and if he’s anguished by the act. Again, that’s good drama in my book.

So. Man of Steel. Damn fine spandex movie, or betrayal of everything Superman stands for? As I’ve already said, I come down on the damn fine movie side. But if you’re a really hardcore funnybook dork… If you can’t let go of the character as he was written in your childhood… It might not be the film for you. But if you want a modern take on an old favorite, I think you’ll be pleased.

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About Mark Brett (432 Articles)
Shaved Yeti. Alien. Writer of stuff. Read my fiction at http://reportsfromthefieldblog.wordpress.com/. Read my thoughts on comic books and other dork culture ephemera at https://dorkforty.wordpress.com/.

45 Comments on A Good and Decent Man (of Steel)

  1. Nothing special, but the sequels probably will be so lets keep that in our minds. Good review Mark.

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  2. I agree with you 100% about Lois Lane, she just wasn’t as well fleshed out as the other characters were, she does some pretty crazy stuff (reporting in the mountains?!) but she still has a softie style about her, just didn’t mesh for me. I liked this movie but had to agree with critics that it is just a bit too gloomy for me (we needed some more “he’s hot!” moments in the film!)

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  3. I am looking forward to seeing this great film. Thanks for the awesome review.

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  4. I’m glad you liked the movie. When I wrote my review, I had a very different take on it, not at all influenced that I’m more a Batman than Superman kind of guy. Still, I thought that one scene where Supe kills Zod was the best scene in the movie, and the opening sequence did give me ideas on how to improve one of my own stories.

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  5. I can’t wait to see this in Sunday!

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  6. I thoroughly enjoyed Snyder’s approach on Man of Steel, I also liked some of the serious undertones that subtly occurred throughout the movie. It’s a question of perspective how you view Clark’s actions and even Zodds. I also enjoyed how Clark was brought down to our level and not made out to be invincible, it never really comes off as like “oh well hes invincible so everything that happens is pointless” like previous attempts. I really would prefer not to see Lex Luther in the sequel and if that happens I really hope they make it work… Still leagues away from the Dark Knight trilogy though.

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  7. Thanks, everyone, for all the likes and comments. As I mostly write over-thought essays on indy comics (a niche market if ever there was one), I’m a little stunned at the reaction when I write something that interests more than a handful of people. Thanks again. You guys rock.

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  8. excellent analysis and review – i liked this superman better than the others, more human – agree with most of the analysis which is long, but then this is America’s mythology and myths can go on for ever.

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  9. Saw the original 1970s version at age 6. Really looking forward to this one.

    Love the non spoiler review first. Great work!

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  10. metrohousesrealty // June 20, 2013 at 1:23 am // Reply

    Great review. This made me think to really watch the movie.

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  11. I am tired of superhero movies, wish Hollywood would bring more movies out like Secondhand Lions, Forrest Gump or American Beauty…

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  12. Reblogged this on Never Going Back To Okay and commented:
    Well written, and it fits my opinions perfectly :) I’ll let out a language warning, though. Slight cussing that I don’t like, but this time it’ll fly.

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  13. Wow – an excellent review of Man of Steel – thank you!
    I think I feel exactly the same way you do about the movie and have tried in vain to explain it to my friends… and then I read this! I’ve now shared your review with them.

    My only negative comment that I have about the movie is that the fight scenes dragged on for too long at the end… they could have done away with Zod and Superman throwing each other into every.single.building.
    But the effects and the cinematography were outstanding so as far as Hollywood big-blockbuster-over-the-top-action movies go, this one does it VERY well!

    Again, thanks for sharing your review – it is extremely well written :)

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  14. Great review and commentary. I did like Amy Adams though, she brought a softness to Lois that was never there before. Other than that, I agree completely. Loved the Krypton scenes.

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  15. I have always been a fan of the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, so I was hesitant to see this one, BUT I ended up thoroughly enjoying the entire two and a half hours of it. Great review! Agreed on all points, especially about Amy Adams as Lois Lane. She didn’t come off as the tough reporter reporter to me either. Although I guess maybe they meant to show her softer side (?)

    Oh! And a Lara-El rocks! \m/ Finally, she is given a more significant role in a Superman movie. Yay!

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  16. Reblogged this on Homie Williams. and commented:
    Excellent review. — J.W.

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  17. Oh, crap! I forgot Lara-El! Yes, I liked her, too, even though she’s not on screen very long.

    And, yeah, I guess I did cuss a little. Happens rather a lot around here, I’m afraid…

    Thanks again for all the likes, comments, and reblogs. All are much-appreciated.

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  18. I’m going to see it on Monday and I’m really looking forward to it. I’m not going to be able to stop myself comparing it to the original 1978 movie but I promise to try to not let that interfere with my enjoyment! But it will be difficult. I’ve got to say, it’s got a lot to live up to!

    Thanks for posting – a really well-written article.

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  19. What is it about Superman that’s so hard to capture in film? Maybe someday we’ll get a truly amazing Superman movie.

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  20. A comprehensive review

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  21. Great read! Pretty much spot on with how I felt about the movie as well.

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  22. You watch that movie? Is it really nice?

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  23. Brilliant review!

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  24. Great review.I think the movie did a brilliant job of introducing Superman to a whole new generation.

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  25. I found your review interesting. There is one caveat. If Superman has to try to save everyone every time there is an event endangering them, and figure this is world wide, then how does he choose which people to save. There is a volcano erupting in Peru and a typhoon in Japan. Which one gets his attention? He just is one and not everywhere. Does he save a young boy in Athens, Georgia from a car wreck and not save the baby falling four stories in Dublin, Ireland? Is he twenty four hours running to and fro? Just think of the comparisons of Superman and Jesus. Who gets saved and who does not? This is the real reality of saving and therefore not believable.

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    • Good point, Awax. Powerful as he is, Superman can’t save everybody and would probably go insane if he tried. There was a very good comic done back about ten years ago called The Sentry that dealt with that very issue. Might be worth tracking down if you’re interested.

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      • I give it a look. Thanks for replying. I have noted that at first people like to be wanted, like a doctor or a pastor but over time they end up wanting some alone time and usually can not get it so they backlash what they originally wanted, to be needed. Imagine you have the power to heal, when does the line end and when do you want to stop become a problem.

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  26. I will see it at some point, but I tire of it. They keep rebooting, playing out the early years again, and never really advancing. At least Star Trek introduced a new timeline. Don’t get me started on the never-ending Spider-Man reboots.

    Would just like to see originality.

    Good post btw.

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  27. Thanks for that awesome review and pics :) cant wait to watch the film!

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  28. nice poat! makes me want to go to the cinema and watch it now!! to be honest i kinda like his new outfit!

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  29. Reblogged this on mdcarey.

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  30. This was a good review, but I have to agree with the “dark and joyless” comments you came across. It was a dark, frenetic film that felt much more like Batman Begins than Superman. The dialogue was short, there was minimal emotion on any character’s part, and I totally didn’t get the connection they tried to make between Superman and Lois Lane. It was contrived and there was nothing of depth to their relationship.

    Kevin Costner was a great choice for Jonathan Kent but I find it hard to believe that he would say that it might have been okay to let that bus load of kids die. That’s not who Jonathan Kent was. He respected life and taught Clark the same.

    Now, as for Henry Cavill – overall, I think he was a decent choice. There certainly is potential for him to make the character is own, but only in the hands of the right director. If there is a sequel, I hope it’s done with much more care than Zach Snyder gave “Man of Steel”.

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    • Agreed on the Superman / Lois relationship. While I think that Cavill and Amy Adams had good chemistry, and conveyed the physical attraction really well, I didn’t get a good enough sense of what drew them together as people. I think we were supposed to see Lois as a seeker after truth, an outraged optimist who finally meets someone as good as she wishes the world could be. But they didn’t give her quite enough screen time (and Adams’ performance was maybe a little too subdued) for it to work.

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  31. They certainly caused controversy with this film, it’s like marmite – you either love it or you hate it!

    I had never seen any version of Superman before this film but it still did nothing for me. Maybe it’s because I find too much action bores me and I felt robbed of real character developments.

    But this is a great review and got me thinking about the other side of the story, so thanks!

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  32. Reblogged this on azixf's Blog.

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  33. Enjoyed the review. Really detailed and thoughtful. With that whole cardinal sin thing, I agree with you. It’s canon, but I think, as a dramatic moment, it is a much more effective motive to vow never to commit that act again, unless absolutely necessary. He is, as you point out, a young superman, still growing into his own.
    I look forward to the sequels and feel this did a great job of reintroducing the character to us on screen.

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  34. Hey guys, my blog reviews movies (I reviewed Man Of Steel as well). I also do film discussion, if any of you are interested feel free to check it out and like/comment. It would mean a lot.

    (Nice review by the way).

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  35. Glad you enjoyed the movie! I enjoy reading your reviews. You seem to have a lot of fun writing them, haha.

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  36. lauraswonderland // July 8, 2013 at 3:06 pm // Reply

    Completely agree with your review. Similar points raised in my own. I was starting to wonder if I was the only one who thought Lois was a bit 2D in this supposed 3D movie! Great post.

    Like

  37. Reblogged this on Words of Salman and commented:
    Great review of ‘Man of Steel’ which pretty much resonates how I felt about the movie when I saw it. Looking forward to watching it again once it comes out on DVD.

    Like

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