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Non-Review Review: Man of Steel

There are moments of brilliance in Man of Steel. I like the golden-hued Malick-esque glimpses of Middle America, evoking the work of Norman Rockwell. (Indeed, the earliest glimpse of Clark Kent’s life on Earth seems to evoke Teacher’s Birthday.) I like the decision to cast Jor-El as a pulpy science hero rather than a stand-in for God. I like the way that the movie embraces the concept of exceptionalism, and doesn’t shy away from the American ideals embodied in Superman’s mythology. I appreciate the development of the Kents into more than generic slices of apple pie.

However, for all of these lovely moments, there’s a sense that Man of Steel resents the fact that it is a superhero origin film. It’s easy to understand why. Superman origins are a dime a dozen, and it’s hard to imagine anybody could be unfamiliar with the broad strokes of the story. However, Man of Steel does find an interesting and nuanced angle on that first crucial Superman story… only to become something radically different. A little under half-way through, the film morphs into a big budget superhero spectacle, sandwiched between the outline of an origin story and chunks peppered throughout like some form of tossed salad.

Man of Steel suffers because it’s a lot less interesting than it might have been, and it revels in that comfortable blockbuster mediocrity.

High flyin'...

High flyin’…

Early in the film, Clark discovers that he has limitless potential, soaking in the energy of a younger sun. The ghost (or artificial intelligence) of his father speculates that the only way to discover all that Clark can do is to “keep pushing the boundaries.” It’s a nice sentiment, and it’s try of any attempt to reimagine Superman. As a cultural icon, it’s easy for the character to become tired or familiar or trite or even cliché. If you want to keep him interesting, you have to push him a little bit – just edge him outside the comfort zone.

Ironically, Man of Steel comes closest to that in exploring Superman’s origin story. It’s well-worn ground, and David S. Goyer’s script draws from all manner of sources. The influence of Richard Donner is keenly felt, as much as the film tries to deny it. There are also shoutouts to Mark Waid’s Birthright and Geoff Johns’ Secret Origin among others. Still, it works because Goyer takes the best and most fascinating aspects of any number of Superman origins and blends them into one very human tale.

"Sequel just got greenlit! Fist pump!"

“Sequel just got greenlit! Fist pump!”

In his introduction to Secret Origin, Goyer drew particular attention to a scene between Clark Kent and his adoptive father, Jonathan. Revealing the boy’s extraterrestrial origin, his adoptive parents had shattered the character’s world view. “I want to be your son,” he tells his parents. Goyer writes in his introduction, “Right there, in that moment, Geoff contextualised Superman in a way that I’m not sure has ever really been done before.”

Man of Steel takes that moment and works it for its worth. Young Clark discusses his alien origin with his father, finally asking, “Can’t I just keep pretending that I’m your son?” It’s a beautiful way of evoking the isolation and the estrangement that Clark must have felt, but contextualising it in a very human way. Man of Steel mines that conflict for all its worth, giving Clark an identity crisis when General Zod shows up with the last remaining survivors of Krypton.

A dead world...

A dead world…

It’s a very efficient and effective way of dealing with Superman’s origin – to force him to evaluate his own heritage and values. “I found my parents,” he boasts to his mother after one journey, unaware of the obvious pain he’s causing to her. Goyer makes good use of the Kents, and they feel more like real characters than they ever have before. Jonathan Kent is the moral pillar that he generally is, and using him to directly inspire the creation of Clark’s Superman persona is the film’s shrewdest twist on the origin.

Kevin Costner’s Jonathan Kent a good man, but he’s selfish in the most understandable of ways. As much as he instils humanist values in the boy he has raised, he wants to protect his son. The resolution of Jonathan Kent’s plot thread is pretty much the genre standard for superhero films, but it’s handled well enough that it works. It’s probably the most emotional moment of the film, and it amounts to little more than putting a slight twist on a classic origin.

He Kent let you do that, Clark...

He Kent let you do that, Clark…

However, the biggest problem with Man of Steel is that it lacks the courage of its convictions. Much has been made of Christopher Nolan’s producer credit on the film, and the pass his brother made over the film, but Man of Steel could have learned a lot from Batman Begins. Batman Begins recontextualised a classic and familiar origin through a willingness to develop and expand upon it. Batman Begins appreciated that if you are rebuilding an icon from the ground-up, you need to stick with that vision.

Even if it means the title character doesn’t appear for an hour, or that the action sequences or staggered, or even that you wind up cramming a whole film’s worth of explosions into a over-packed final act, you commit to developing an origin. You tell the audience why they need to invest in the character, and trust that the rest will fall into place. Quite frankly, Man of Steel lacks the confidence of Batman Begins. It gives us a tease of a strong Superman origin, and then dumps that immediately for a fairly conventional summer blockbuster. The problem is that we simply don’t care about any of the characters as much as we should be that point.

Superman unbound...

Superman unbound…

To be fair, I can see why Zack Snyder and David S. Goyer were tempted to approach Superman in such a way. The origin story has been done. Indeed, Richard Donner’s Superman hung around the neck of Superman Returns like a dead albatross, one of many problems dragging it down. I can see the desire by Snyder and Goyer to get away from that particular take on Superman, and curtailing the origin is probably the best way to do that.

Indeed, there’s a palpable sense of unease about the Richard Donner version of Superman here. While director Bryan Singer leaned quite heavily on the classic film adaptation of the hero, Snyder and Goyer go out of their way to avoid making too many references. Clark never wears his suit under his civilian clothes and the trademark spectacles only come out towards the very end of the film. There’s also a conscious attempt to get away from the “aw shucks” portrayal of Clark Kent as a stuttering butterfingered fool.

Putting his own Stamp on the role...

Putting his own Stamp on the role…

Henry Cavill is dead serious in his role as both Superman and Clark Kent. Indeed, the whole film is dead serious, with relatively few “wink-at-the-camera” gags. (The few jokes that do make it in are there are quite subtle, wry and effective.) Zod never insists that the son of Jor-El kneel before him. The closest he comes is to paraphrase Marlon Brando’s version of Jor-El, warning the people of Earth, “Though he looks like one of you, he is not one of you.”

That said, I am not convinced that jumping right into re-crafting Richard Donner or Richard Lester’s Superman II for a modern audience was really the best way to break free. It’s not just the presence of Zod which evokes the second Superman film. Zod is a character who has really been marginal at best, outside of Stamp’s iconic portrayal in Superman II. He never really caught on in the comics, and you won’t find too many classic comics or cartoons or radio shows featuring Superman going head-to-head with Zod. For better or worse, he’s anchored in the second Superman film.

This looks like a man who will take defeat in his stride...

This looks like a man who will take defeat in his stride…

However, Goyer and Snyder pilfer rather shamelessly from that film, just with cutting edge special effects and a somewhat more serious script. “You think your son is safe?” Zod teases as he’s sentenced to the Phantom Zone. “I will find him!” Zod manages to broadcast an ultimatum to Earth demanding the surrender of Superman with as much ease here as he did in Superman II. Zod and his followers lay claim to a small country town, which happens to be Smallville here. Superman confronts them in Metropolis, with massive damage to the scenery, rendered more lovingly than possible in 1980.

There are other borrowed elements, with only slight variations. Clark’s confrontation with the trucker in a dive in the middle of nowhere seems less malicious here. Lex Luthor is present only at the periphery of Man of Steel, just as he was relatively inessential in the first Superman sequel. Here, he’s reduced to a visual Easter egg at the climax. Man of Steel offers a somewhat more elegant take on the central dilemma facing Superman at the heart of Superman II: is he human or Kryptonian?

All-American hero...

All-American hero…

All of this feels somewhat hollow. It’s not that there aren’t nice ideas or good character beats, but there’s a sense that Goyer and Snyder have sort of given up on charming the audience and instead want to blast them into submission. Once Zod arrives on Earth, the film becomes little more than a visually impressive explosive blockbuster. Everything rushes by too fast, Superman’s soul-searching becomes a bit simpler, the human supporting cast are reduced to sidekicks to provide human scale to an planet-wide catastrophe.

Snyder can stage one hell of an action scene – it’s hard to hate any film which features Michael Shannon bounding up the side of a building like a rabid monkey – but it all feels rather shallow. It seems as if the film got half-way through an origin before it decided that we needed millions of dollars worth of special effects thrown on screen to keep us entertained. It betrays a massive lack of confidence in the audience, and it’s quite noticeable because the film shifts gears so awkwardly once Zod arrives in orbit of Earth.

"This is so much cooler than a Batcave. Also, easier to clean."

“This is so much cooler than a Batcave. Also, easier to clean.”

Gone is the world-building and nuance. Snyder does try to compensate. I love the film’s art design. There’s a beautiful sequence where Jor-El walks his son through an illustrated account of Krypton’s history, told with stylised animation. Kryptonian technology looks suitably advanced without seeming like the generic sci-fi crystal-tech from the Donner films. There’s a rather powerful scene where Superman is swallowed up by a collection of skulls.

It’s very powerful visual stuff, and Snyder ensures that there isn’t a frame of the film which isn’t busy once Zod arrives on Earth. However, something is lost. Goyer’s script still has some interesting ideas, but it’s not sure how to handle them. In theory, Zod makes a great foe for a Superman origin because he’s neatly tied into Superman’s origin. It streamlines the film, and provides a pretty compelling conflict.

The Lord your Zod...

The Lord your Zod…

It’s old world against new. Superman comes as an immigrant. Zod is a colonial invader. When Superman asks why Jor-El would have sent the repository of Kryptonian knowledge with Clark to Earth, Zod replies, “So we could rebuild Krypton. On Earth.” It’s no coincidence that Krypton is portrayed as older and decayed. Michael Shannon is American, but Zod’s henchmen are rather pointedly Eurotrash.

East German Antje Traue provides Zod’s muscle, while British Julian Richings plays his scientific advisor Lor-Em. Aside from his somewhat ambiguous accent, Lor-Em is defined as a scientist who tends to favour experimentation on live subjects, tied to tables while he works. In contrast, American scientist Emil Hamilton is presented as a somewhat more benign scientific figure. His field is more theoretical, and more beneficial.

The scientists will make Emil of this...

The scientists will make Emil of this…

Indeed, when Jor-El discusses Krypton with his son, he describes it in contrast to “the American Way” that Superman would come to represent. Krypton is apparently a classist society, where everybody knows their place. Zod even suggests purging some of the less desirable “bloodlines” from Krypton, just in case his black uniforms and the somewhat dubious medical ethics of his associates didn’t make the analogy obvious enough.

However, even beyond that somewhat obvious reference, there is a sense that Krypton is intended as “the old world” to Earth’s “new world.” Discussing how the children of Krypton are the result of the careful union of the right cells, with their futures plotted out for them before they are even “born”, Jor-El sounds almost mournful. “Lara and I believed that Krypton had lost something. The element of choice, of chance. What if a child dreamed of becoming something other than what society had intended? What if a child aspired to something greater?”

"There is another world..."

“There is another world…”

Man of Steel has a bit of bother trying to understand Superman’s relationship to America. After all, the character was created as a champion of the sort of social justice and idealism one associates with “the American Dream.” (Hell, he even got to beat up Hitler.) The character was, at certain points in his history, as proudly American as apple pie. However, the world has changed, and Superman has had trouble coming to terms with that. After all, the comic generated no small amount of controversy when the character gave up his American citizenship.

In some ways, Man of Steel seems to embrace the all-American side of Superman without a hint of irony. One of the first glimpses of Superman’s childhood is a quick shot of a golden-hued American flag flapping in the breeze. Towards the end, he assures an uncomfortable army general, “I’m from Kansas. I’m about as American as it gets.” Given the fact that Superman is the embodiment of a particularly optimistic vision of the immigrant’s journey to (and success in) America, it’s nice to see the film shamelessly embrace that optimistic outlook.

Today is our... wait, wrong movie.

Today is our… wait, wrong movie.

I don’t mind cynicism, but there’s something to be said for brightness and hope. One of the film’s strongest moments sees Superman staring down over the planet below with his father. “You can save her,” Jor-El assures him. “You can save them all.” That’s a wonderful way of explaining the appeal of Superman as a character, as is the revelation that the “S”-shield represents hope, with the House of El built on “the fundamental belief that every person can be a force for good.”

The problem is that Man of Steel seems uncertain of itself here. It waivers. It refuses to commit to that optimism. There’s a nice moment towards the end of the film when Zod finally gets some character development. He reveals that he was bred as a soldier to preserve Krypton and that every action he has ever taken was in service of “the greater good” as dictated by his upbringing. It’s just about the only significant character moment that Zod gets, and Michael Shannon nails it, but it raises uncomfortable thematic questions.

Built like a tank...

Built like a tank…

The film wusses out on Superman’s moral philosophy when it comes to Zod. He has no choice in his behaviour. There’s no indication that he could be anything other than what he eventually became. The implication then, despite Jor-El’s optimism, is that Zod could never be a force for good. It turns out Superman can’t save them all. Optimism has its limits. Man of Steel lacks the willingness to follow through on that endearing early optimism.

Indeed, you can even see it second-guessing its Americanism in the second half. The film goes out of its way to clarify that Superman is not a flunky of American political concerns. “You’re afraid of me because you can’t control me,” he warns the military brass. Later on, one general asks, “How do I know you won’t one day act against America’s interests?” It’s just a little cynical, and suggests that film-makers were trying to balance making Superman all-American, but qualifying that he’s not “too American.”

Who's your daddy?

Who’s your daddy?

Again, it feels like Goyer is hedging his bets here. Neither approach to Superman is inherently inferior to the other. I like my wholesome apple-pie eating Richard Donner super-patriot with his folksy charm as much as my deconstructed citizen of the world. Both are valid takes on the character. The problem is that the film tries to do both, and that presents difficulties. It can’t reconcile the two. It winds up feeling like distracting posturing, and occasionally leaves a genuinely bad taste.

Consider the climax of the film. It trades heavily in the 9/11 imagery we’ve come to expect from blockbusters. There’s nothing too unusual about that. Iron Man 3 was about global terrorism, Star Trek: Into Darkness featured a villain ramming a ship into buildings. Man of Steel borrows its fair share of 9/11 iconography as Zod lays siege to Metropolis, a city that generally works as a stand-in for New York. Skyscrapers are levelled, aircraft fall from the sky.

"Why can't we come along? Um, my rocket designs never got past the miniature phase."

“Why can’t we come along? Um, my rocket designs never got past the miniature phase.”

In the midst of this, however, there’s the rather questionable decision to associate some unquestionably patriotic American characters with some more troubling 9/11 imagery. “A good death is its own reward,” one mutters at a crucial moment. It’s the only point where Man of Steel feels truly ill-judged, as if the competing demands on the script to embrace certain ideas, but not to embrace them too much, led to this scene which is really just awkward to watch.

There are other minor problems with Man of Steel. The most obvious is Henry Cavill. Superman is a big and iconic role, it really needs a defining presence. However, Cavill can’t really bring the suitable gravitas to this larger-than-life hero. Christian Bale could evoke Bruce Wayne’s obsession with a single glare, Michael Keaton could make you feel the same character’s intense loneliness with a tilt of the head. Just about any line reading from Robert Downey Jr. tells you all you need to know about Tony Stark.

The long walk home...

The long walk home…

However, Cavill never really makes Superman feel like a character in his own story. There’s a moment in the middle of the film where Cavill tells a story about his father to Lois Lane. It’s a massively powerful moment, told mostly through flashback. However, the scene loses momentum once we cut back to Cavill’s narration, and his attempt to convey what Jonathan Kent means to him. Cavill looks physically  impressive, but he doesn’t have any of the necessary charm to carry off the role.

It’s a shame, because Snyder has built up an impressive supporting cast. It’s great that Lois Lane does stuff here, and Amy Adams is pretty great in a role which is still under-developed. Zod is seldom more than two-dimensional, but Shannon works with what he has. Shannon isn’t an actor who will turn in a role quite as magnificently scenery-chewing as Stamp, but he does the best he can with the material available.

Sure, it's a little corny at times...

Sure, it’s a little corny at times…

Russell Crowe does good work as Jor-El. I like the decision to cast him as a pulpy action hero in the film’s opening fifteen minutes. There’s something really cool about the idea that being a bad ass action hero is in Superman’s DNA, and cinema needs more of these adventurous fifties science hero types. (There’s also a great sequence later on where Jor-El gives Lois an impromptu tour of a Kryptonian ship.)

That said, as much as I enjoyed the opening fifteen minutes, I’m not sure that the movie really needed all that set-up and exposition. Perhaps if the action sequences here had given the film the confidence to develop the “origin” stretch of the film a bit more, I could forgive it. Zod’s entire coup feels like it lasts about five minutes, and seems like a shaggy dog tale. He’s in charge for precisely as long as it takes to establish plot points that are important later on, and then he’s shuffled off stage with remarkable ease.

Floating some ideas...

Floating some ideas…

It doesn’t help that the climax of Man of Steel hinges on a whole load of contrived technobabble. I don’t mind bold sweeping ideas in my blockbusters, but this is a film which feels the need to define the word “terraforming” for its audience. When Superman explains his plan to save the day using a bunch of pseudo-scientific jargon, it’s just a way of dressing up “hit it really hard.” There’s no great twist or plot logic to any of this pseudo-science, and none of it is essential to the resolution of the plot as anything more than a macguffin.

The climax also suffers from the fact that it doesn’t make Superman look particularly heroic. The movie basks in destruction and chaos, as our hero engages in man-on-man super-human combat in the middle of Metropolis. The result is absolutely terrifying, creating a sense that perhaps Superman is something more horrifying than endearing, an idea that is absolutely devastating in its implications for mankind. We are merely fodder for super-human throwdowns, ants caught in a crossfire.

Well-suited to the role...

Well-suited to the role…

Man of Steel is not quite as cynical a vision of Superman as Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns was, with its Superman-as-deadbeat-dad, but it does feel a little skeptical of its hero. The review probably sounds harsher than I intended. I liked a lot of Man of Steel, but it had some very serious problems – the most obvious of which being a lack of confidence in itself. As much as its main character, it seems like Man of Steel doesn’t know what it wants to be.

It seems almost like Snyder and Goyer didn’t trust themselves to tell an origin story, so – look! an alien invasion! It’s as if the film wasn’t entirely ready to commit to the idea that Superman’s “as American as they come”, so we get qualification and confused 9/11 imagery. The film wasn’t willing to pay-off the character’s optimistic world view, so we get a dose of cynicism which leaves a weird after-taste.

On top of the world...

On top of the world…

Man of Steel is an interesting film with some great ideas and the ingredients for a pretty compelling Superman origin story. Unfortunately, it’s also just a little too disjointed and confused.

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30 Responses

  1. Interesting review, but i cant figure out if you actually thought it was a good film overall or not, so I have one question. Is it better than Superman Returns? Because as long as it is I don’t see how it can be seen as anything but a win.

    • It was a lot better than Superman Returns. But then again, I loathed Superman Returns. It turned Superman into a deadbeat dad and possessive superpowered stalker. It’s hard to do more damage to the character than that.

      As for Man of Steel, I liked the first third a lot. Maybe even on the cusp of loving it. And after that it became a mess of interesting ideas executed in a rather haphazard manner. It’s not an out-and-out bad film, but I’m reluctant to call it a good one either.

      I know my reviews can sometimes be quite tough to get a handle on. I don’t like to score films, because I think that’s very absolutist and assumes some level of equivalence that might not exist. For example, I loved Star Trek Into Darkness, even though it was a very flawed film. Does that make it objectively better than Iron Man 3, which was a lot better constructed, but I didn’t feel the same levelenthusiasm towards?

  2. Haven’t seen the film yet, but,

    “Indeed, you can even see it second-guessing its Americanism in the second half. The film goes out of its way to clarify that Superman is not a flunky of American political concerns. “You’re afraid of me because you can’t control me,” he warns the military brass. Later on, one general asks, “How do I know you won’t one day act against America’s interests?” It’s just a little cynical, and suggests that film-makers were trying to balance making Superman all-American, but qualifying that he’s not “too American.””

    That’s not waffling on his Americanism, that’s just giving him a side that’s anti-establishment (or at least suspicious of it). Half of Americans at any given time think their President is a dictator in the making just waiting for the slightest excuse to have all of them locked up in a gulag (an exaggeration, but not by that much). And for a superhero who started his career beating up slum lords, lobbyists, war profiteers, corrupt politicians and other “establishment” figures, it fits pretty well.

    • It’s a very fair point. As I said, I like pro-American Superman and anti-authoritarian Superman.

      The problem is that the film doesn’t pick one or the other. It hedges its bets. Superman warns the General that he doesn’t control him while he’s surrendered to government custody so the US government can hand him over to Zod. If he doesn’t entirely trust the military or the government, why hand himself over to them to act as middlemen? Why not just hand himself over to Zod by flying into orbit? Or do it in the middle of Metropolis with the world watching, so the public can see he means no harm?

      The only reason to surrender to the US government so they can surrender him to Zod is because it’s clear he respects them and wants to win their trust. Not that of the people, although you’d make the argument that the government represents the people. (Although not when they’re making secret deals with alien invaders in the middle of the desert.) This portrayal makes sense. (Indeed, he admits that he only wears handcuffs because it makes the military comfortable.) It’s the kind of thing that Donner Superman or Silver Age Superman would do.

      On the other hand, it’s hard to reconcile with the grandstanding and drone-crashing that he does at other points in the movie, which are more in keeping with the up-for-the-little-guy no-nonsense Golden Age or Grant Morrison’s Action Comics Superman.

      Both approaches are fine, but the movie suffers because it tries to give us both “everybody likes apple pie” Superman and “champion of the oppressed” Superman. To use a slightly more extreme example, it would be like if Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne were to suddenly do the Batusi after pounding the Joker and shouting “where are they?”

  3. Just saw it and figured out that it’s exactly what you’d expect from an origins story. As the franchise continues to build, more and more emotion will be involved, but for now it’s just a solid superhero movie that has fun, but could have been way, way better. Like it seemed to actually promise. Nice review.

    • Thanks.

      I just thought that the opening forty-five minutes offered the start of what might have been the best Superman origin ever. It explained the suit, the psychology, hit on the meaty themes of alienation and identity.

      And then Zod arrives, everything goes up to eleven, the script has a rake of good ideas, but lacks follow-through. It’s just relentless action.

      It’s as if Ra’s Al Ghul had shown up in Gotham forty-five minutes into Batman Begins, and the action from the climactic half-hour had been stretched to a point about five minutes after Bruce arrived home. It just threw the pacing off, made everything disjointed and undermined a lot of the good stuff before it.

  4. Good review. I think I appreciated the story more than you, but what got me was Snyder’s visual style. While I appreciate him trying to go for realism, the shaky cam and snap zooms were excessive.

    • Thanks. I didn’t mind the lens flair, and I liked some of Snyder’s visuals – the Pol Pot sinking into a mountain of skulls (borrowed from a comic cover, I believe), or Superman taking off and pushing the ground down beneath him. But the choreography was a little all over the place and the shaky cam was initially quite nice, but occasionally got overwhelming. (That said, it’s a nice shoutout to the Battlestar Galactica reboot, and Snyder cast two recurring characters from that show in small black-and-you miss ’em roles here.)

  5. Despite all the special effects in this movie there wasn’t even a ‘wow, that blew me away’ scene. I dislike Superman Returns yet the plane crash scene they adapted from John Byrne’s Man of Steel miniseries was quite good.

    I also found the MoS score to be forgettable. Until now all i remember is that some musical cues sounded like they were from Dark Knight.

    Still, it was nice to see a polar bear in the arctic scene.

  6. I really liked the fight scenes – thought they had a nice touch to them, especially with Zod’s group fighting. I liked Faora – at times I thought she was actually more interesting than Zod. Lois annoyed me, but she’s a character that always tends to annoy me. I think Amy Adams did okay though.

    But, the one thing I kept thinking throughout, was how much I would love to see a spin off that’s just about Krypton. I loved the opening sequence. And I also want a Russell Crowe hologram to appear randomly and guide me through my daily life.

    • I really loved Jor-El: Science Hero! I would watch the hell out of that show. Even if it’s just Russell Crowe beaming down to offer life advice to random people. “Pick the second last Mars bar on the left.” “Wave at that person on you right now.” “Ask Suzy whether she believes that every person can be a force for… er… if she caught the season finalé of Mad Men.”

      • That would be amazing! Just random life advice. “Wear the blue. It brings out your eyes.” And every so often just random cliché quotes. “Be the change you want to see.”
        “Wait, why are you watching Prince of Thieves? Do you prefer him as Robin Hood? IS HE A BETTER DAD THAN I AM?”

      • “Change the channel. Now. TNT is running a Russell Crowe marathon.”

      • “You should watch this. It’s me versus Wolverine. Bet you didn’t know I could sing. Wait…THAT’s what I sound like?”

        Thinking about it, my history teacher introduced the film about Cromwell to us by saying “this is Obi Wan versus Dumbledore.” I can totally imagine him introducing Les Mis as “Wolverine versus Superman’s Dad.”

      • The Prestige was always “Batman vs. Wolverine.” Funnily enough, it works quite well if you look at it that way, with Bale’s prep and planning beating Jackman’s magic sci-fi stuff.

  7. Hey Dumbass, who’s Norman Rockefeller?

  8. Hey Darren.

    Man of Steel is probably my favorite film of all time as a blockbuster thus far. I’ve watched it repeatedly and I no doubt see and understand your disappointment with most aspects of the film.
    I myself upon watching it over and over have seen these… ‘incongruities’, and its like each time I view it I discover more problematic features. Still, it’s my film for a lot a different reasons.

    ‘You will guide the people of earth Kal. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in the end- in the end Kal, they’ll join you in the Sun’ I think this pretty much sums up- or probably- declare the imbalances you highlighted in your review. It’s almost as if the whole production team, especially the major players is acknowledging these faults and is just telling us to bear on. There will be better. Even the film’s eponymous character reaffirms this. The doubt’s, confusion etc etc betrays this lack of conviction of aligning with certain ideals consistently. That said I do still think there’s room for duality amongst all of this. After all, he is only just becoming Superman. I don’t think the film has made up it’s mind much like him as to where he really stands.

    You also mentioned Henry Cavill not bringing enough ‘gravitas’ to the character. Again, I think he just needs time to absorb his self in it. He needs time to grow much like the character itself. I mean, he did only just adorn the cape both literary as the character and as Clark Kent so its only fair we give them time enough to embolden themselves through it.

    Christopher Reeves pretty much defined this gravitas that Superman has been accustomed to plus he was the first Superman and that sets a very high precedent. That said, the film also making a conscious effort to distance itself from certain defined Richard Donner elements such as’ the aw shucks portrayal of Clark Kent as a stuttering butter fingered fool’ :-)(that made me laugh a lot!), and the shift of the tone to being bright and charismatic to dead serious has contributed to the shift of perception of how Superman is (or should be) and the overall essence of who he is. So I don’t think its about him being ‘just Superman’, its the whole world being constructed around him and him reflecting what the world is to him and treating them accordingly.

    I like this shift because it has the potential to give us a completely different take on what Superman could be like on film. I just hope Henry Cavill possess the ability to flesh out the characterisation of a Superman going in this direction properly an instill a different sense of gravitas.

    Any thoughts?

    • That’s interesting.

      I find Man of Steel more interesting than most blockbusters, to be honest. For all its flaws, it is more compelling (and more thought-provoking) than most of the Marvel blockbusters – even if I like it less. I think that I would enjoy Man of Steel a lot more if it weren’t a Superman film. I think if it was a generic superhero story or a Marvel “Sentry” film or something like that, I’d have an easier time getting on board with it.

      It is trying to say something, and it’s saying things that most superhero films shy away from. I do respect it for that. I occasionally get drawn into a podcast on film, and I’ve actually argued in defense of Snyder several times.

      But I can’t love (or even really like) Man of Steel, despite appreciating it. The problem is, I think, two-fold. I think Nolan’s Batman trilogy covered a lot of the same ground with a character more suited to the commentary and in a way that was more meticulously crafted. (I think Gotham feels infinitely more real than Metropolis does here, which affects the climax a great deal.) But I also think that Superman is not a character suited to this aesthetic.

      That said, I am excited to hear the destruction of Metropolis is not being brushed aside in Batman v. Superman, like the consequences of so many Marvel movies are relegated to spin-offs that touch on certain points and move on. While I’m more excited about Suicide Squad, I am fascinated by Batman v. Superman.

  9. I’m quite excited over BvS myself. Not so much for suicide squad but I’m curious enough based on the mere fact its a ‘super-hero’ movie. I think 2016 is going to be an unprecedented year for Blockbusters and Movies overall. I’m thinking of calling it the ‘Year of the Nerds and Fanboys/girls’. Kinda corny but based on the amount of Superhero, fantasy based Titles that’s been released I think its warranted. Speaking of BvS, I’ve been searching if you’ve posted any opinions/thoughts on it. Cant find any though. Have you?

    • I’m cautiously curious about it. I’m probably more interested in Suicide Squad, but I’m more interested in the DC movies in general than I am in the Marvel slate. (Deadpool may be an exception. It may also not be, I reserve judgment.) I think Snyder has a great Batman movie in him, but I wasn’t entirely comfortable with his Superman.

      • So are you saying it’s gonna be more or less a new take on a Batman story more than the Justice League universe itself?

        I could understand considering how Christopher Nolan closed his own Batman trilogy and its nice and refreshing-even fascinating- to know it’s likely Snyder may have a completely different take on Batman but, do u think it’s gonna be predominantly about him?

      • I actually know very little about it. I’m trying to stay spoiler free.

        What I meant was that I think Snyder’s aesthetic and tone lines up better with the character of Batman than Superman. I think that his stylistic sensibilities, but also his themes and ideas, tend to fit more comfortably with Batman than Superman.

        (I’m not sure it’ll be predominantly Batman, but I suspect his popularity and the fact that he fits comfortably with Snyder’s aesthetic will mean that he get’s the lion’s share of the film. After all, the film is not Superman vs. Batman.)

  10. Ah. I get you. I wasn’t paying much attention to the title but now that you’ve pointed it out I can actually see the significance of it. Thx

  11. Good ideas =/= a better movie. (I like Man of Steel though)

    Funny you mention Batman Begins, because in a lot of ways Batman v. Superman has a similar structure to the Dark Knight.

    The hero has established himself as a savior, and things are going alright. Then a villain comes in trying to undermine the hero and his cause by turning the public against him. As part of his plan, he manipulates a once noble figure into fighting the hero and ultimately the hero as to make some sort of sacrifice to save the day.

    Lex fulfills the same role the Joker did in the Dark Knight, except he hides in the shadows while maintaining good publicity (as if acting a lot like Heath Ledger’s Joker didn’t give it away). Batman ironically fulfills the same role Harvey Dent did, only he starts off fallen and gradually returns to the light thanks to Superman’s example. Instead of sacrificing his ideals to stop a criminal, Superman stays true to them and battles Doomsday even knowing it would kill him.

    If Batman v. Superman stuck to that structure it would arguably be a better movie. But no. We had a plot that makes no sense, a shitty Lex Luthor, a lot of stuff crammed in there to further establish the DC Cinematic Universe, and just the fact that… well… Batman is just the wrong choice for this type of story. I mean, Batman HAS killed before in the comics and Burton movies, but torturing criminals while branding them? That’s the kind of thing I’d expect from Manchester Black or Azrael, but not Batman!

    • I don’t mind Bruce torturing and branding criminals. Bruce snaps Maroni’s legs in The Dark Knight, and Miller’s cripples a crook in Dark Knight Returns; Bruce suggests he’ll walk again, but the way the act is presented it seems unlikely he’ll walk it off, so to speak. I think that Batman vs. Superman consciously pushes the practice of gritty superhero torture to a point where it is problematicised. The bat brand is presented as an effective death sentence, which is just about the only thing that this Batman does that is well outside the scope of the Nolan/Burton/Miller paradigm. And it is explicitly condemned by the film. It is presented as one small step away from active murder, which is what Bruce considers over the course of the film. The character’s arc culminates in his refusal to torture or brand Luther; to be better.

      • Fair enough, but why is it that BATMAN is the xenophobic douchebag who refuses to see Superman as human and LEX LUTHOR is the clever one who figured out Superman’s secret identity?

      • Also, there’s something else to consider: When Jason Todd died before the Dark Knight Returns, Batman personally retired for years and only returned when things in Gotham city got worse for the wear.

        When Jason Todd died before Batman v. Superman, he apparently decided to continue, going crazier and crazier and went on petty revenge plots against Superman.

        So yeah, being close to the Miller version is a dubious claim.

  12. I was re-reading this review because I’m reading your Christopher Nolan book and there isn’t much discussion of Man of Steel (not a complaint – if you bring that in, do you bring in Transcendence, etc. etc.).
    It occurred to me that while Insomnia is Christopher Nolan retro-fitting a story to his directorial sensibilities, Man of Steel is turning over a Nolan story to someone who doesn’t understand how the machinations work. MOS is the inverse of Insomnia. For instance, I can imagine Batman Begins turning out similarly if Nolan had only contributed a script and let someone like Snyder direct. In MOS, there is a good idea at the core and there are lots of moments that feel like they should add up to more, but the narrative never quite gets in gear. In Batman Begins we see that Bruce was unable to avenge his parents and then Rachel confronts him about how selfish he’s being, which changes how we view his motives in Bhutan right before burning the temple. There are moments in MOS that could work similarly, but they’re too scattered. The death of Jonathan Kent and Clark’s decision to save the oil rig, for example, come too far apart in the story. I think you make this point repeatedly in the book; Nolan’s films exist in his head as a single piece, the story, direction, cinematography, editing, everything. I think at one point you noted that Nolan doesn’t work from an outline and MOS is a good example of why not.

    • Yep. Nolan conceives as a film as a whole, rather than as a series of moments. I think one of the issues with Man of Steel is that it feels too much like the opposite, a series of moments rather than a complete film. (As you point out, those moments don’t always line up.)

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