This has been a difficult film for me to review. You see, Superman has played a huge role in my life. I grew up watching the fabulous Richard Donner Superman movies (Superman I & II) and reading Superman comics (the post-Crisis John Byrne relaunch of the character). Superman, for me, represents the best of humanity and the hopes of this nation. We’re talking about an orphan child, an immigrant to American shores, an outsider looking in, a boy taken in by a “common” Midwestern couple, raised on a farm in Kansas, taught to care about his neighbors and to try to do what is right. We’re talking about a young man from Kansas who, more than anything else, wants to help those in need, wants to live up to the ideals upon which he was raised, wants to be the man his father gave everything to allow him the opportunity to be. We’re talking about an everyman (he could be you, he could be me) but this everyman has a gift which we don’t. But that gift is not flight, or strength, or invulnerability. Yes, this man has those things, but they are not his gift. His gift is his belief in us. At his core, Superman is not a superhero because he can fly. He’s a superhero because he cares more for us than for himself. He’s the firefighter who rushes into a burning building to rescue someone else’s child. He’s the IT worker who, driving home, sees a car accident and rushes to the scene to pull a stranger out of the twisted wreckage. Superman is the best of what we can be wrapped in the adolescent fantasy of an invulnerable strong man. And, historically, Superman was a character created by a teenage kid in Cleveland whose father was murdered and simply wished someone had been there to save his dad.
From the previous rambling paragraph you can probably tell that I have strong emotions for the Man of Steel. He’s the ideal I’ve tried to replicate, the character I’ve tried to pattern my life after. Not because I want to fly, or have bullets bounce off of me. That’s not Superman. Superman is a man who cares about the people around him and is willing to help. He’s the Big Blue Boy Scout. He’s the role model for young boys. If you’re very lucky, he’s a lot like your dad. Dad can’t fly, but, like Superman, Dad will do anything to keep you safe and everyday he tries to make the world a little bit better by being a decent, caring human being. You see, my Superman bypasses the geek argument of “Who is Superman: Kal-El or Clark Kent? Is he a god pretending to be shy reporter? Or is he the shy reporter who plays the part of a god when called upon?” To me, they are one and the same. Superman is a good, decent person who happens to have powers which enable him to act upon his achingly old-fashioned values.
Ok, what about the film, bozo?!?! Enough of the touchy-feely nostalgic crap, I hear you say. You see, I needed to get all of that out of the way to truly review this film.
Man of Steel has a lot to recommend.
The cast is excellent. Henry Cavill is very good. He had big shiny red boots to fill. For me and my generation Christopher Reeves IS Superman for two reasons. One: his performance is remarkable. I would place Reeves up there with Robert Downey Jr for best performance in a comic book film. No, I’m going to go further. Christopher Reeves performance in the first Superman film is perfect. It’s the best superhero performance ever. He’s humble yet strong. Masculine yet tender. He’s simply perfect. The second reason has nothing to do with acting and everything to do with the circumstances of Christopher Reeves’ life. His accident, paralysis, and eventual death were tragic, but the dignity and humanity with which he faced the final years of his life were truly heroic. The inspiration he gave to untold millions around the world cannot be underestimated. In short, Christopher Reeves was Superman, in so many ways. Cavill does not erase the memory of Reeves, but nor does he try. He simply plays the role with earnestness and dedication and hits all the right notes. Amy Adams is very good as Lois Lane, showing the toughness and strength which was so lacking in Kate Bosworth’s performance in Superman Returns. Michael Shannon is intense and appropriately menacing as Zod. Russell Crowe is, well, Russell Crowe, which he means he’s wonderful. Crowe is one of the top 5 actors working today and he steals every scene he’s in with a quiet intensity and paternal strength which he achieves though his remarkable voice and soulful eyes. Kevin Costner is very good with the material he is given (yes, note the ominous wording…).
The film looks amazing. The opening sequence on Krypton is remarkable to look at. The production design of the alien world is cinematically unique (that is to say, very different from anything I’ve seen on film, but drawn heavily from John Byrne’s artwork in the 1986 Man of Steel comic book miniseries). The movie is shot beautifully and, in many ways, reminded me of Terrence Malick: lots of avante garde hand held shots which simply follow the action. I appreciated this for two reasons: I loved how the look differed from most of the polished looking superhero films and also the hand held look brilliantly crafted nostalgia-laden images of Clark’s small town Kansas childhood. Obviously, the film has a ton of visual effects and, for the most part, they are very good. Hans Zimmer’s score was a pleasant surprise. John Williams’ Superman score is iconic. There are two things from Hollywood history which will instantly create an emotional response in any 30-something male: the last five minutes of Field of Dreams and Williams’ Superman Fanfare. That theme is hardwired into the male psyche. Zimmer, quite intelligently, does not try to recreate the brassy emotional explosion of Williams’ score and, instead, goes in another direction. Zimmer’s score is striving, building, hopeful. It never quite explodes into an overwhelming theme but it doesn’t need too. It’s quite wonderful.
So, what’s wrong with the film, you ask?
A lot, unfortunately. Well, that’s not true. Most of the film works. But the few things that don’t are so pivotal that they stand out.
Let’s begin with the Christian imagery. I have no problem with incorporating Christian iconography into Superman. The character was created by two teenage Jews and had an obviously Messianic undertone. But comic book characters have many fathers. Hundreds of writers over seven decades have added to the Superman mythos and the majority of those writers have been either Christian or raised in a Christian environment. As a result, Superman’s Messianic undertone shifted from Old Testament to New Testament. And I don’t have a problem with that. But I was surprised at the sheer volume of Christian imagery in this film. The mechanizations of the plot parallel the arrest of Christ, with a humanity playing the part of the Jews and Zod as an intergalactic Pontius Pilate. Superman, like Jesus, allows himself to be arrested and handed over to his enemy in order to sacrifice himself to save humanity. Superman is shown sitting in front of a stained-glass window portrait of Jesus. In a pivotal moment of the film, his father tells him he can “save all of them” and Superman is immediately shown floating away, with his arms outstretched, mimicking the form of Christ on the cross. And, just in case you missed all of that, Superman at one point states that he is 33 years old. I don’t object to the inclusion of Christian imagery. In fact, I enjoyed the first, oh, couple dozen allusions. But it’s simply too much. A little more subtlety would have been appreciated.
Now we move on to poor Pa Kent. I was worried about Jonathan Kent from the moment I saw the trailer and he is shown telling Clark that he should have let a school bus full of children die. What the frak?!?!?! I had hoped the scene was taken out of context but, alas, it was not. In this film, Jonathan Kent is pretty much a coward. The more I think about this particular element of the film, the angrier I become. In EVERY iteration of the Superman story, Superman learns humanity and decency from Jonathan and Martha Kent. That is not the case in this film. Jonathan Kent tells Clark to hide and be scared of humanity. People are dangerous and would hurt him if they knew who he was. And, like collateral damage, young children on a school bus should just be allowed to die. There’s a truly offensive undercurrent here. Superman’s birth father is heroic, but his adoptive father is a coward. Superman’s birth father teaches his son to “lead and inspire” humanity and that he can “save them”. Superman adoptive father wants him to be scared of people and not help them. In short, birth dads are good and adoptive dads are bad. As a man who is an adoptive dad to a little girl, allow me to say this to Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan: “FUCK YOU!” I apologize for the language, but I’m truly offended by the nature is more important than nurture argument put forth in this story (the whole DNA codex subplot furthers that argument). Jonathan Kent is the finest example of a wonderful and good adopted father in film or literature. This is a man who sacrificed everything for his son. He took in the ultimate orphan and loved him as his own and, by EXAMPLE, inspired his son to become Superman. Clark Kent is not Superman because he’s a Kryptonian god. He’s Superman because he’s trying to be the man Jonathan Kent raised him to be. And another thing: Pa Kent’s death is completely screwed up in this film. I’m not going to go into detail here so as not to completely spoil the film. But Pa Kent’s death, in the Richard Donner film, defines Superman. Here he is: an Adonis, a Hercules, a god on Earth. And here’s his father, the man who taught him all he knows, and he dies from a heart attack. And Superman learns the most important lesson of his life. He can’t save everybody. He has all the powers in the world, but he couldn’t save his own father. That’s what drives him. He wants to save everybody. He struggles to do as much as he can. He owes that to the father he couldn’t save. In this film, Jonathan Kent’s death is pretty much meaningless in the scope of things. What a waste of a fine actor like Costner.
Another criticism is the unrelenting violence of the last hour of the movie. I’m going to tread lightly here to stay at least somewhat spoiler free. I understand that Superman Returns was a dreadfully boring movie and the studio dictated that Man of Steel be action packed but the end of this film is ridiculous. Zack Snyder makes Michael Bay look like Robert Altman. It’s too much. Yes, I understand that this is a battle between super-powered Kryptonians. I get that. But at some point, as skyscrapers was crumbling into dust and thousands upon thousands of innocent bystanders were being brutally killed in what can only be described as a Superhero film’s version of September 11th, one would think that Superman would think, “Uh, maybe I should try to save some lives or move this fight away from Metropolis? Maybe it’s not worth murdering tens of thousands of people just to keep punching a guy who isn’t even being hurt by my punches?” But, no, not until the very end of nearly one hour of mayhem, does the movie show Superman caring about the people of Metropolis. This is such a fundamental violation of the character as to be inexcusable.
Oh, and whatever happened to joy in superhero films?? Oh, wait. That’s what Marvel does. DC is supposed to be dark and gritty and oh isn’t it terrible to be a superhero. I bet Chris Nolan is a lot of fun to hang out with. Dinner, followed by conversation, a couple hours of cutting, and a cocktail of antidepressants. Hey, Warner Brothers, do you want to know what a Superman film should “feel” like? Watch Captain America: The First Avenger. That’s the tone Man of Steel should have had. Steve Rogers is a good, decent man. He’s not a superhero because he took super-soldier serum. He’s a hero because he doesn’t like bullies. Simple. One sentence. And every person watching the movie understood it in their souls because we don’t like bullies either. Steve Rogers is an idealized version of us. The little guy who, when given the chance, does what we wish we could do and does it for the right reasons. Sounds a little bit like what I wrote in the first few paragraphs of this review, doesn’t it? Want to hear something sad? Captain America is the best Superman movie made since 1978.
Okay, breathe. Calm down. Make the world smaller.
I don’t hate this move. Honestly. There is a lot that I like. I love the cast. I love the look of the movie. There is a beautiful moment, seen in flashback, of young Clark running around with his dog between the clotheslines, and a red towel gets snagged on the back of his shirt. He poses with his hands on his hips, his “cape” waving in the wind. We cut to a shot of Jonathan Kent, tired but working, and he looks up and smiles as he watches his son play. That’s a beautiful moment that every parent can identify with. The score by Hans Zimmer is wonderful and uplifting.
But it’s not Superman. Superman wouldn’t play an aerial version of rock em sock em robots while buildings collapsed and thousands of people died and freaking IGNORE the INNOCENT bystanders!! Superman wasn’t raised by a sniveling coward who cared only about self-preservation and wished his son had let a school bus full of children drown!!
This film has no soul (which is ironic considering the movie’s countless allusions to Christ). It’s a two and half hour ode to video game violence and computer generated spectacle. It’s remarkably well crafted. The cast is top notch. It’s a thoroughly entertaining summer movie.
But it’s not Superman. I guess I’ll have to watch Captain America to get my Superman fix.
3 out of 5