Man of Steel | The Andrew Review

 
Superman is an alien from beyond our solar system, but also a part of humanity. He’s a boy from Kansas, but also a demigod. He is, at once, both the other and the familiar. It’s a duality that director Zack Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer explore in Man of Steel, and they demonstrated the similar duality that’s inherent in attempting to adapt Superman for the screen.

In the film, Superman struggles with the tension between his knowledge that he is a living monument to a world and a people who have long since been destroyed and the feeling that he is a part of our world with friends and loved ones who are just as meaningful. By the same token, the film’s creative brain trust (which includes the director of The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan) struggles to both honor Superman the icon, the character who has come to represent so much over the course of decades of stories in every medium imaginable, and make him a relatable character who movie audiences can connect with.

It was a noble effort, and a difficult one at that, but ultimately, an unsuccessful one as well. At the end of the film, Superman is still more icon than man and more symbol than individual.

The film’s greatest failure on that front comes through the movie’s dialogue. It’s hard to know whether the blame lies with the writing or the acting, but rather than feeling warmth or depth from nearly any of these characters, the audience witnesses a series of exchanges that feel cold and almost robotic from individuals who seem strangely removed.1

Russell Crowe in particular, whom the film leaned on far too much for a character who nominally dies during the movie’s introduction, gave repeated bits of stale pontification and stilted speeches that greatly hindered the proceedings. By the same token, Henry Cavill’s Superman did not have the blithely optimistic bent established by Christopher Reeve and Richard Donner.2 But his few, intermittent conversations felt less like moments of real emotion and more like someone explaining the benefits of a particularly good toothpaste. Michael Shannon seemed to be doing the best he could with limited material as General Zod, but even he was still unable to overcome the halting dialogue.

 

General Zod practices his moves for bowling night on Krypton.

 

Sadly, he was not alone. Nearly every character seemed oddly detached. They were portrayed more as automated exposition delivery systems than human beings. That detachment made the sporadic moments of heightened emotions – the big “NO’s,” the despair at total destruction, and the bystanders in peril – not only ring false, but come off as devoid of real stakes.

The only characters to escape this curse were Superman’s parents, played by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane.3 The flashbacks with Ma and Pa Kent counseling a young Clark through his early difficulties with his identity and his powers provided the few scenes in this movie that not only made the characters feel real, but which convincingly conveyed the struggle between the Superman’s dual identities as both an alien and a human being.

The film was also replete with serviceable but uninspiring action scenes. I’m willing to give the film the benefit of the doubt with respect to the ridiculous amount of collateral damage it depicted.4 But the fights themselves were overstuffed, generic, and littered with painfully contrived product placement. Jor-El’s adventures on Krypton had the distracting green screen quality of the Star Wars prequels, and Superman’s own battles had so much on-screen whiplash that it made them into little more than moderately-interesting blurs of fists and spandex.

The only major set piece that truly captured the awe and raw power that Superman ought to engender is one of his first outings of the film. Early in the movie, a still green Clark Kent strained to hold up a massive support on a collapsing oil rig, giving the workers the precious few seconds they needed to escape. The scene showed both the lives in the balance of Superman’s struggle and the sheer force the hero can represent.

 

Zach Galifianakis has really gotten into shape.

 

The scene concludes, incidentally, with an unconscious Superman drifting in the water with his arms out in a not-so-subtle crucifix pose. Add in the fact that Superman is supposed to be 33 in the film and that he is a man sent from the heavens to save the people of Earth, and it’s easy to see the movie’s biblical allusions.5 The film’s villain is also a clear historical reference. General Zod delivers polemics about only saving Kryptonians of a certain “purity” and harbors ruthless plans to ensure that his once mighty empire will rise again.

Accordingly, I have to ask – how many science fiction, fantasy, and superhero stories have to give us Jesus vs. Hitler? From Neo and Agent Smith to Harry Potter and Voldemort, it’s become cliche to have a messianic chosen one fighting against eugenics-espousing villain. There’s a universe of motivations to give an antagonist and an even greater number of motifs to support a hero. Why must so many of these works fall back on the same hoary archetypes?

And that’s what Man of Steel gives its audience – a collection of archetypes. The attempt to humanize them is there, it just falls woefully short. Instead, there’s the usual intrepid reporter, the snarling villain, and the consecrated hero, lightly dusted with the grit of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, yet lacking the underlying substance and humanity that raised it above its cape-clad predecessors. Man of Steel, like its titular hero, tries to rise up through the morass of baggage and expectations placed upon it, but unlike Superman himself, it never really gets off the ground.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. I’m inclined to attribute the problems to the script, if only because many members of the cast have acquitted themselves well elsewhere.
  2. While much of the criticism of Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns in 2006 stemmed from accusations that it hewed too closely to Donner’s blueprint, Man of Steel has faced the reverse criticisms – that it departed too far from both Donner’s vision and from the source material, particularly when it came to the character of Superman himself. With respect to the latter  criticism, nerdier comic book fans than I have pointed out the numerous precedents in the comics for Superman’s actions in the film. With respect to the former, while my loyalties lie with the Superman as envision by Bruce Timm and Paul Dini in Superman: The Animated Series, rather than with Donner’s, I still think that Snyder and Goyer’s interpretation of Superman is an equally valid one in principle, though one that falters somewhat in execution.
  3. Richard Schiff’s portrayal of Emil Hamilton also managed to breathe some life into the dialogue, but he was not given much to do and essentially reprised his role as Toby Zeigler from The West Wing.
  4. A good reason for Lex Luthor to rail against Superman in the sequel, perhaps?
  5. The Bible indicates that Jesus Christ was 33 at the time of his crucifixion.

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One Response to Man of Steel | The Andrew Review

  1. What exactly do you want to see instead of Superman being super and battling supervillains? More real estate scams from Lex Luthor? Richard Pryor skiing down a skyscraper? Supes getting drunk off bad Kryptonite and being a superjerk? Otis?? Nuclear Man?!?

    Just think about what you’re saying. People have bitched since 1983 about how the Superman movies are weak because he basically never punches anyone or does much other than lift heavy things. Now, we get a movie that is a direct response to 30 years of Superman movies (60 if you go back to George Reeves) where he doesn’t do a god-damned thing.

    I’ve come to accept how nerds are always going to be greener on the other side of the crowd. Nothing will ever make you happy. “The movie was too serious!” What, so we need more cutting room floor Richard Pryor stand-up and slapstick routines in the opening credits? More “rebuild the Great Wall of China rays” coming out of Superman’s eyes? Big celophane S’s being hurled off of Superman’s chest and turning into big plastic nets?!? I mean really, listen to yourself.

    Is Man of Steel perfect? No, absolutely not. But is it good? Yes. Was it made with a love and respect for the character? Yes. And there is nothing in this movie that people have been bitching about instensely that wasn’t in the original Christopher Reeve movies. That thing about what happens with Zod in the end… Yeah hate to tell you, but it also happened in Superman 2 (both versions I might add), and way worse, in a manner that made Supes out to be way more of an asshole, to be honest.

    Was it too long? Maybe, but it’s the same length as the Richard Donner version, which as much as I love, I find way more of a snooze to watch these days.

    Everyone says “It’s a fucking hour before Clark puts on that suit!” Again… way longer in the Donner version. At the one hour mark, Clark’s stil hanging around Smallville… a Smallville we DIDN’T get the benefit of being abridged… just one straight long-ass shot. Same with Krypton, yeah, they both take up a half hour at the beginning, but the first time in 1978, it was a half-hour of just standing around and mispronouncing “Krypton”.

    Lois having no real business in the second act… Hell, in Superman Returns, Lois has no purpose in the entire narrative at all, except to be a loathsome attempt to market her as the ultimate single mom working girl, despite that not being anything close to what Lois Lane is all about.

    I could go on and on, but my point is if all of you are going to whine and complain about things in this movie, you MUST hold the older films responsible as well when they do the exact same thing. It’s the same argument that can be made about the Amazing Spider-Man film from 2012. Fine, dislike the choices they made, but don’t stand there and go on about how perfect the originals are when they do the exact same shit.

    I do hate that reboots and remakes lately force people to take such a strong stand that you can only like one or the other. I love the originals, but I feel myself having to bash them to defend my point against the people bashing the new one. It just seems stupid to me. I think people need to start being happier things aren’t as bad as they could have been and stop bitching how it wasn’t as good as you wanted.

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