Man of Steel
by Christopher Nolan, David Goyer, Zack Snyder, and a bunch of other Hollywood peopleSo 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. 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. 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: 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: 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. 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. 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.
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.
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.