Kudos, Man of Steel, for being the first movie in a while to leave me practically seething. There is so much wrong with this movie, it’s difficult to know where to start, and even more difficult to write about it without possibly spoiling it. I’ve tried for a couple of days to write this review, but every time I describe a scene it makes me incoherent with frustration at how to explain what bothers me about this movie without directly describing events. So I’m not even going to try avoiding spoilers. If you haven’t seen Man of Steel yet and want to remain spoiler-free, you should stop reading now.
As far as where to start, let’s begin with a small moment from the trailer that piqued my interest in the first place. One of the images I keyed in on when I first saw the trailer was the young boy posing with the red cape. It’s such a genuine, relatable image. I know as a boy I struck the same Superman pose, homemade cape and all, so seeing that against a Kansas cornfield, sun setting behind him, was a great visual. It’s hokey, but it at least appeared honest in it’s earnestness.
Unfortunately, it makes no sense within the actual movie. The boy isn’t just some Smallville resident, mimicking the ascendant hero after he’s saved the world, it’s actually young Clark Kent who’s aping an iconic pose his character hasn’t struck yet. At the age he is in that scene he hasn’t run faster than a speeding bullet, has yet to hoist a car above his head, has not put on the cape and suit of the hero he will one day become. He’s so young there he probably barely knows he’s not an ordinary human boy. And yet there he is, dressed in reverence to a character that doesn’t exist. The film-makers could easily create that image by having Superman as Clark see a boy playing Superman after the battle that brings the hero to worldwide attention, but crafting that image wasn’t enough for them. They needed Jonathan Kent to see Clark as a boy emulating Superman, even if it makes no sense.
When the movie isn’t trying to have it’s cake and eat it too, it’s so self-conscious of avoiding whatever the obvious direction seems to be the film-makers waste actual opportunities to show characters growing. In the bus accident also referenced in trailer a classmate of Clark’s is bullying him before the crash. After he is saved from drowning, we see this boy with his mother at the Kent farm, and she believes what Clark did was a miracle. The second time we see him he’s helping Clark up after some bullies knocked our future hero down. He’s become something of a friend to Clark. When the grown up Clark (Henry Cavill, who looks the part but is given little more to do than look the part) is considering turning himself over to Zod (Michael Shannon, who’s trying to give depth to a character made up of little more than full on rage), he goes to a priest for counsel. Just a random priest, not his boyhood friend, who’s life he saved and who could have found religion in the wake of what he was always told was a miracle. No, our former bully has grown up to be an IHOP manager, who points an intrepid Lois Lane (played here with real passion and determination by Amy Adams) to the Kent farm, and later he stands dumbly by while Kryptionians battle their way through downtown Smallville. Here was an opportunity to create a solid second level character, someone profoundly changed as a result of knowing Clark. There would have been a whole narrative arc, leading him to a place where he could repay his rescuer and bolster Clark on his way to accepting the mantle of Superman. Instead he’s dumped to the side, turned into a throwaway joke. Even if it seems like a corny or obvious choice, a well-written, well-delivered speech could make that kind of a scene work. Instead the priest Superman does visit swallows comically at learning the man before him is the alien General Zod is searching for, then gives a wan platitude about having faith before having trust. Not exactly an inspiring beat before our hero opts to possibly martyr himself for a greater good. And, lest you were concerned the direction they went was a shot at moderation over visual gluttony, just keep in mind Clark wrestles with his choice under a stained glass window of Christ the night before the crucifixion. Subtlety isn’t exactly a spice in their rack.
In fact, Man of Steel is so concerned with the iconography of Superman, it pays no attention to making any of that work in the execution of the story. We get a traditional scene with folksy Pa Kent (played by Folksy Kevin Costner) telling Clark violence doesn’t solve anything, and a final act drenched in excessive violence. We also get a speech from Jor-El (Russell Crowe) about how mankind will be inspired by Superman’s example, followed by acts of bravery committed by people who haven’t yet seen Kal-El be super. You could better argue Zod’s second-in-command Faora (Antje Traue, who gives one of the film’s best performances) has more impact on exposing the courage within Colonel Hardy (Christopher Meloni) than Superman. Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) also gets a moment to be heroic, but it’s his own inner goodness that leads him to try and save the Daily Planet intern trapped in rubble, not the inspiration of Superman. At that point in the movie he’s never seen Superman in action, his bravery is entirely his own.
Young boys like the young Clark Kent tie bed sheets on as capes because they love the pure heroism of Superman. Where Batman’s cape engulfs him, cloaking him in darkness and helping him hide, Superman’s cape bellows behind him, a vibrant beacon of good to everyone who sees him. What makes the character heroic isn’t just his strength, it’s also how often that strength isn’t ultimately how he defeats his foes. Some of the best Superman stories are ones where his compassion or his cleverness are the true tools of his success. I wish they’d found a way to show that Superman is smart as well as strong, instead they just found more attractive ways to have him destroy every structure around him. He doesn’t figure out how to destroy the World Engines, Jor-El tells him how through Lois. He doesn’t draw his attackers to somewhere remote to protect the humans around him, he fights right back in the midst of the weak and defenseless. When Zod gives him the option of either killing him or letting humans die, Superman doesn’t find a clever third option and outwit his nemesis, he simply kills him. And yes, “simply”is appropriate there because Superman spends less time in anguish over his rage-kill than Anakin Skywalker did after slaughtering sand people in Attack of the Clones.
True, Zack Snyder and company can create any version of Superman they want. They’re no more confined to a particular take on the character than Christopher Nolan and his team were when they relaunched Batman. But for the two and a half hour running time it was like watching a compilation of suggested scenes from Superman movies, rather than a coherent narrative. What’s disappointing isn’t that they didn’t create a “better” Superman, it’s that they didn’t live up to the promise they themselves made for this Superman.