CAUTION: This review does not merely contain spoilers. It is constructed from solid Spoilerium.
So, Man of Steel. Saw it on Friday with my favorite actual Kryptonian, Elizabeth Bear, who wrote up her thoughts here. We’re of a very like mind concerning the film; the parts we enjoyed were spectacular and the parts that underwhelmed us were sad and didn’t need to be.
YOU WILL GIVE THE PEOPLE AN IDEAL TO STRIVE TOWARDS (The Not-Bad Parts)
1. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the first half or so of the prologue on Krypton. It was lively, visually inventive, and fun. It went on for too long, but there’s not much in this movie that doesn’t, and eventually all the logic leaked out of the premise, but that too will be a common refrain in this review.
2. The music! Hans Zimmer certainly does pound those drums, soundtrack after soundtrack, like he’s trying to summon something dark and terrible from the depths of sunken R’lyeh, and yet I have a weakness for his stuff. Some of what he’s arranged for Man of Steel sounds almost like him trying to essay a Mass Effect soundtrack. It’s stirring music to write to, and I bought a copy of the soundtrack shortly after I got home from the movie.
3. The Kryptonian criminals! Michael Shannon doesn’t have much to do except play a bug-eyed screamer, yet he does it with real nuance and screen presence. This Zod is faintly tragic, quite distinct from Terence Stamp’s megalomaniacal smoothie, and generally fun to watch in action, a real antagonist’s antagonist. I quite enjoyed Antje Traue as Faora-Ul, Superman’s primary physical opponent for much of the film, who also works a series of cliches but works them so well. Last but not least, compliments to the designers of the Kryptonian battle armor in all of its baroquely bad-ass aesthetic joy. Take a goddamn hint, book cover artists… neck to toe coverage! Almost as though Faora were, you know, some kind of competent warrior, valued by her comrades, who expected and needed the same kind of functional armor they did. Huh!
It’s also an interesting if not exactly subtle casting choice to have the genetically-engineered, caste-bound Kryptonian renegades (and would-be genocides) played by white actors, and have the chief authority of their human opposition be a black man (Harry Lennix, incidentally, the guy who stole the show as Aaron the Moor in Julie Taymor’s Titus of fond memory).
4. The “dream” conversation between Zod and Kal-El. Another scene with all the thematic subtlety of a sledgehammer, but dammit, if you’re going to be obvious and chew the scenery, then let’s see some teeth marks. This bit did not disappoint me.
5. Amy Adams as Lois Lane! This turned out to be a pretty inspired choice, I think. A sensible and fairly realistic portrayal of a woman in her late 30s (though come on… Lois Lane is a veteran field journalist, not someone who’d totter around on heels the height of the Space Needle when a crisis is unfolding around her). Adams’ intrinsic adorableness and vulnerability are a fantastic counterpoint to her character’s insatiable curiosity, determination, and courage. I also think it’s easy to overlook her superb work projecting humanity while surrounded by actors whose body language is that of total, unconscious dominance and arrogance. You can chalk some of their effectiveness up to her skill at providing a visual and emotional foil for them.
5a. Lois’ escape from the Kryptonian spaceship, aided by Jor-El’s computer personality. Great stuff. They didn’t even damselize her until the very end, which is what passes for restraint in this sort of thing.
6. Russell Crowe was quite good as Jor-El; less portentous and cheesy than Marlon Brando in the role. Wise, dignified, and restrained. Fairly quiet for a Crowe character, actually. Henry Cavill didn’t get to work a very great emotive range as Kal/Clark/Superman, but he was physically superb for the role and adequately dynamic. Still a little too broody and disconnected for my taste, but nowhere near as emo as the Brandon Routh version from 2006’s Superman Shambles Aimlessly.
7. The general shape of the plot. Frankly, I was delighted to see a Superman reboot that didn’t involve Supes beating up movie muggers or facing down minigun-armed bank robbers or the same old useless boring shit that doesn’t actually scare anyone or make any interesting points about our world. I was pleased to see the science-fictional bent of the trailers and despite all the ways they screwed it up in the final product, I’m still impressed that they tried to run with this angle (Superman is an unnerving alien, and he is forced to protect us against even more unnerving aliens, in a story that is as much about First Contact as it is about comic books).
THEY WILL STUMBLE, THEY WILL FALL (The Not-Good Parts)
1. It’s really amazing how little re-writing it would have taken to clean up the nonsensical Krypton backstory and make it internally consistent. So, the Kryptonians have colonized the stars over the course of 100,000+ years but can’t escape planetary doom as their “natural resources are exhausted.” What? How? What resources are we talking about here, that they couldn’t fetch at will from millions of star systems? They have an extremely robust and portable technology (note the scoutship that spends 20,000 years on ice without a hitch) and spaceships just sitting around like unwanted Christmas ornaments, but they can’t use this stuff to evacuate population or gather more resources? Furthermore, if they can’t muster the energy to move their own silly asses out of the way of the oncoming Planetary BBQ and Magma-Fest, why are they bothering to pack criminals up and ship them off to the Phantom Zone? This seems akin to capturing pickpockets on the Titanic and exiling them in their own lifeboat while the ship is already sinking.
Although there is a (slight) narrative thread about how the Kryptonians have bred themselves into unhealthy rigidity, this is never taken far enough to suggest that they, as a culture, are so bereft of vitality that they would placidly welcome the end. Since they seem to know it’s coming but neither fight against it nor philosophically embrace it, all the inherent tragedy of the death of Krypton leaks away into anticlimax. How can the audience be expected to care about these stuffy buttwads if they don’t care about themselves?
2. Speaking of inconsistency, Kryptonian biology is dribbled around the court of the movie like a basketball. Kryptonians fresh from space, sealed away from Earth’s “nourishing atmosphere” are shown to be effortless physical equals of Superman, who’s been basking in our yellow-sun radiation and nourishing atmosphere for three decades. Exposure to a natural Kryptonian atmosphere drops Supes in his tracks and robs him of his powers, yet this guy can fly in the vacuum of space without trouble. I don’t expect this stuff to have anything more than a long-distance relationship with the Laws of Thermodynamics, I just expect it to have some internal rules, which can then be applied to generate tension or up the stakes… sigh. Tension, stakes. Pearls, swine. I sometimes wonder why I bother expressing surprise at the narrative incompetence of mega-blockbusters. When “eh, who gives a shit” will rake in a billion dollars globally, why worry about aiming for even “reasonably competent?”
3. This film is two hours and twenty minutes long, and nine hours of that is fight scenes. They are, in the main, full of visual energy and some of the best crumbling/exploding/kerblammoing things I have ever seen, but loaves and fishes do they drag the fuck on forever. The first time a Kryptonian flies through three brick walls is exciting; the eighty-sixth time is dreary overkill. The fight scenes look good, but there’s so little ultimate creativity to them… Superman, having established to the audience’s satisfaction that punching his opponents into buildings won’t even slow them down, punches them into more buildings. And then more buildings. And then some more buildings, when he’s not getting punched into buildings himself.
4. The powers of Kryptonians are most interesting to see when they can be placed within an earthly frame of reference. Superman getting tinkled on by 30mm cannon fire, Faora-Ul shrugging off a Hellfire missile, someone being set on fire… these hazards are at least a wee bit diverting because we can mentally measure the effect of them against our own mortal bodies. Watching Superman fight something like a CGI robotic tentacle or a blue beam of mysterious gravitic force is so much less interesting, because we know in the end Superman will be exactly as strong as he needs to be to defeat the tentacle or the blue beam. The “struggle” will last precisely as long as the director and the army of computer animators want it to last, and again, no tension means that the audience’s sense of involvement takes a nap.
5. The binary stupidity of the choices Pa Kent presents to young Clark is flatly insulting. Hey, idiots, the third option you’re not discussing along with “Save people from horrible deaths” and “just quietly let them die” is “maybe try not to let yourself be SEEN using your powers, numbskull!” Like, uh, maybe after pushing the bus out of the river you could have avoided sitting there gawping at the witnesses, Clark. And maybe instead of letting the redheaded kid see you doing your submarine act, you could have just grabbed him and heaved him ashore before positioning yourself to look like you’d fallen out of the bus. I’m not saying Clark should have known better at that age; he’d done no hero-ing to that point, and some shock on his part would be forgivable. My objection is to Pa Kent’s feeble, inhumane Monday-morning quarterbacking of the situation, simply because the people responsible for the story are trying to set up a completely artificial dichotomy to rule Clark’s character arc.
Don’t even get me really started about the tornado death scene… good god, the presumption and witlessness of the writing. Clark, you didn’t let Pa Kent die to show that you trusted him, you let him die because YOU FAILED AT SUPER-SPEED. That tornado would be a threat somewhere south of kitten breath to Clark, and we’re expected to believe that he couldn’t simply approach it at a plausible human speed and run back in a few seconds? We’re expected to believe that Superman wouldn’t make the decision to save his dad from this childishly uncomplicated situation? Wrong answer, dillweeds. Wrong answer.
6. Because, because, because… Superman is not about his powers. Superman’s powers are the opposite of interesting. He’s a tiny god. In his modern and canonical incarnation, he’s effectively invincible except when plot devices temporarily rob him of invincibility, and of course we know he’s going to become invincible again in a short while, so even that has limited dramatic shelf life. He’s stronger than fire, stronger than missiles, stronger than brick walls, stronger than giant tentacles and blue energy beams, stronger than other Kryptonians. Superman’s powers boil down to a gigantic, omnipresent I WIN button. Therefore, the only really interesting thing about Superman is the decisions he makes, or is forced to make. Superman isn’t Superman because he’s bulletproof; he’s Superman because he’d try to take a bullet for someone else even if he didn’t have any powers. Even if he knew he didn’t have them. Superman genuinely cares, and Man of Steel errs most painfully by half-assing this.
This film’s action sequences are pervaded by a strange inhumanity. U.S. military personnel blithely unload airstrike after airstrike into the center of an populated American town, without so much as a peep of protest, without so much as a raised eyebrow for the welfare of the hundreds of people hiding there, and while I am no cheerleader for much of the shit we’ve pulled on a global scale, neither can I swallow the idea that blasting craters in an American town would be just another day at the office for these folks. Remember, this is the first engagement we’re shown between human and Kryptonian forces, and no all-pervading sense of urgency has been provided to explain why it’s essential to alpha-strike the place so immediately. I have to wonder what sort of creator could be so detached, so jaded, as to treat the unleashing of explosive death in an American small town as being essentially meaningless and self-justifying? I don’t think it should be meaningless anywhere, be it Afghanistan or Arkansas, and I call it just plain lazy writing/directing.
Superman himself compounds this by inexplicably failing to try and move the fight elsewhere, to lure or trick or taunt or carry (or plead, because you’re damn right Superman would plead if that’s what it took to save lives) the Kryptonian renegades out of a populated zone, when open areas are available just a few hundred yards away in multiple directions. Again, wrong answer. An indifferent Superman is no Superman at all. The movie treats as sub-footnotes all the people Superman would be most desperate to protect, even in the heat and confusion of battle. It’s nice that he catches a guy who falls out of a helicopter, but that would never be enough… not for Superman.
7. There was a bit in the 2005 Doctor Who episode “The Parting of the Ways” (bear with me here) where it became plain for all eternity that Russell T. Davies had a weak grasp of the concept of narrative escalation. The Dalek battle fleet bombarded the planet Earth so devastatingly that the outlines of the continents visibly changed while the people in orbit watched. That’s just not bloody survivable by anyone anywhere, a situation in which the continents run like glass and the coastlines shift hundreds of miles in a few seconds! So it made the Doctor’s subsequent “conundrum” about whether or not to use his jiggery-pokery suicide device to wipe out the Daleks “along with every living thing on Earth” look rather silly. Uh, Nine, not to put it too harshly, but what life on Earth? The ship just sailed, man. Daleks took care of it for you. Who’s left for the audience to care about besides you?
That’s what I flashed back to during the final sixteen hours of Man of Steel, when block after block after block of downtown Metropolis is pulverized into dust by General Zod’s Gravitic Plot Contrivance and skyscraper after skyscraper tumbles and… then more flattening and more tumbling, and more flattening and more tumbling, and the disaster porn goes on so long and becomes so awful and widespread and inconceivable (this isn’t 9/11-scale carnage, surely it’s into Hiroshima or Nagasaki territory) that my ability to give a toss finally snapped like inexpertly-pulled taffy. Oh, Superman flies halfway around the world just in time to save Lois from falling out of a plane, of course, but fat lot of good that does everyone else who died aboard it and the tens of thousands of Metropolitans obviously pancaked in the wreckage of their buildings. We’re supposed to not feel numbed by this? We’re supposed to do something other than giggle when one of the Daily Planet staffers cries out, “He saved us!” while stumbling into an ash-gray wasteland where half a city used to be? Who had any chance to inform you that the whole world was at stake, ma’am? What’s there for you to see except the vast corpse-filled hole in front of you?
Too much smashing. Not enough saving. Too little attention paid to the actual people living in this world for me to spark my Give-a-Shitter back to life.
8. The Academy Award for Giving Laurence Fishburne Nothing to Work With goes to… this movie!
9. Seriously, what kind of complete mental defective uses a grenade launcher to launch fragmentation grenades inside the cargo bay of a C-17 against a target eight feet away? And how did they live to do it over and over again? And while we’re at it, what sort of monkeynuts with half a melted popsicle for a brain would send ground troops to pit small arms against targets that had just laughed off rockets and 30mm cannon fire?
10. The version of the film we saw was missing an important scene! I’m not sure if it was an editing mishap or a defective copy of the film, but a rough transcript of the deleted part runs like this:
ZOD: Okay, let’s fire up the World Engine and turn Earth into Krypton II: Once More With Feeling.
FAORA-UL: Uh, wait a minute, sir. So, we’ve got this planet with an empowering yellow sun, and although we’ll be sick and uncomfortable for an initial few hours, once we get the hang of breathing the atmosphere, we’ll all basically turn into gods, right? More like gods than we are now, even.
FAORA-UL: Okay. Why don’t we just leave the atmosphere intact and kill all the humans at our leisure once we’ve turned into gods? And then keep the magic super-air, like, forever?
JAX-UR: Yeah, boss, I think she’s on to something here. We’re not saying we can’t knock some buildings down and repaint the place. But I’d sure like to try a hit of that sweet magic super-air.
ZOD: Oh, I really just want to fire up the World Engine! Even SAYING it is fun! Say it with me! WORLD ENGINE! WORLD ENGINE SEXY! WORLD ENGINE NUMBER ONE!
FAORA-UL: Look, I know we’ve been calling you ‘General’ for years now, but I feel compelled to ask… what exactly were you a general OF, back on Krypton? The Surgeon General, maybe?
ZOD: WORLD ENGINE!
FAORA-UL: The Postmaster General?
ZOD: MY PLAN IS FLAWLESS AND VERY PICTURESQUE.
FAORA-UL: Except that Kal-El is, uh, literally the one single dude on the whole planet that poses any threat to us, and here we are just sort of backing off from him while we talk about landing our sole, solitary World Engine somewhere he can fly to and punch it.
JAX-UR: He does punch things. You’ll recall you’ve been one of those things.
ZOD: I will now make my supreme pouty face until you launch the World Engine!
FAORA-UL: Seriously, were you the fucking General Counsel at a Kryptonian law firm or what?