Man of Steel – my long, intensely spoiler heavy review
June 15, 2013 § 8 Comments
I went into Man of Steel wanting to love it so badly that it actively hurt me a little. I was tense. And for almost all of the film’s run time, I did.
That’s not a small achievement – I’ve been burned on Superman movies before. After Superman II, it felt like Hollywood just completely lost touch with the character. And while Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns wasn’t terrible, making it a kind of sequel to Superman II and casting Brandon Routh to essentially be Christopher Reeve was a mistake that couldn’t be recovered from. For the past few years I’ve had to take solace in animated films because while Marvel has absolutely dominated cinematic offerings, DC has built up a pretty solid animated wing. But with Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy redefining the Caped Crusader for modern audiences, it was inevitable that he’d get the chance to do a Superman movie. And make no mistake – Zach Snyder directed Man of Steel, and his influence is felt, but the film is a Nolan movie. Bringing Goyer (the writer or co-writer of the Batman trilogy) in is a statement that this film, directed by Snyder or not, is of a piece with Nolan’s previous offerings.
And if there’s one thing Christopher Nolan loves to do, it’s wring you out. I walked out of The Dark Knight feeling like a sponge that had been squeezed for two hours. Man of Steel takes that, adds in a script that uses flashback liberally to set mood and tone, and gives us a Superman for the modern age – a Superman that incorporates elements of every single Superman who has gone before. There’s some of the original Superman’s humor and one particular scene that calls back to how the Superman of the late 30’s could be a bit capricious, there are elements of the Weisinger era (played way down, but you can’t have a Krypton with weird beasties and aerial cities and not nod at Mort Weisinger) and the late silver age, then what is today called the bronze age (when I was a kid we just called it comics) including themes and motifs that come from Byrne, from Waid, from Morrison and even Moore. And in that combination Nolan finds a way to absolutely reach into the heart of a long time Superman fan and twist.
From here on out, I am going with spoilers. You’ve been warned.See, I was fourteen or fifteen when John Byrne took over as the writer/artist on a revamped, post-Crisis on Infinite Earths Superman comic. And I’ll never forget his time on the comic.
He threw out too much stuff I loved for me to forget it. He got rid of the Weisinger Krypton, rendering it a cold and sterile machine world where all Kryptonians were born in pods, created via eugenic selection and extracted DNA – Kryptonians never mated, never even touched each other (in one scene, Lara, Kal-El’s genetic mother sees a scene of humans working on a farm and recoils in horror at the idea of touching dirt or exposing your skin to the air) and so their world had become a sterile one where new births were only initiated to maintain a steady population rate. Krypton’s death wasn’t tragic, it was a mercy killing. Byrne got rid of Superboy (which caused huge problems for the publisher as a whole later on) and stripped down just about everything he got his hand son – Superman’s powers, his villains, everything got modernized and in some cases shrunk down in scope, in scale, in a sense of wonder or grandeur. It’s the endless problem of Superman – balancing the character between being an almost fairy tale figure and keeping him relatable.
It’s been thirty years, and it’s time to accept the fact – Byrne’s legacy lives on in the modern interpretation of Superman as a character. Waid’s Birthright, which tried desperately to return silver age elements to the character, ends up as a refrain that recapitulates the basic structure of the Byrne Superman. Oddly enough, in constantly attempting over the years to bring those silver age elements back, authors like Waid or Busiek have essentially buttressed the Byrne version of the character, etching it into relief. And Man of Steel, named after the six issue limited series that launched the Byrne era, is as much inspired by Byrne’s run as Nolan’s Batman trilogy is inspired by Frank Miller’s legacy, good and bad. It would be a mistake to call this purely Byrne’s version – as I said, there are elements from the entire run of the character’s existence, and the Krypton we see on screen is a fusion of Weisinger’s and Byrne’s, with traces of the Busiek arc and the New Krypton style – but it’s time for me to get down to why Byrne’s influence is so important to this movie.
Superman kills General Zod in this film.
I admit it, when I saw this moment, it hurt me. I sat there in my seat as Zod insisted that either he would die, or Kal-El would, and his whole world with him, and I flashed back to the end of Byrne’s run and I knew. I knew what Nolan was going to do. And I seized up. You have to understand, if you’re a long term Superman fan you grew up with the Code Against Killing. Superman doesn’t kill. Superman doesn’t kill. It’s such an important taboo to the character that when Alan Moore had Superman kill Mister Mxyzptlk he does so because that act would be the end of Superman, and thus the only way his Whatever happened to the Man of Tomorrow? could end. In essence, it was so crucial to the character that he not kill that killing would kill him. So, since he was effectively clearing house on the character anyway, Byrne decided to strike down even that. In his last storyline, Byrne had Superman face off against the classic Phantom Zone villains, including General Zod. (I could explain the whole pocket universe thing, but just trust me, it was complicated.) And at the end, Zod threatened to murder everyone in the world when he got out of the Phantom Zone. He mocked Superman, saying that he’d get free, and he’d go to his world and kill everyone on it. He’d already killed an entire world full of people, what’s one more?
And so Superman executed him. This is the end of Byrne’s run on the character (I covered the effect it had on the character in this essay a few years back) and it was, and remains, a hugely controversial decision. To be fair, Goyer’s script gives a much more clear cut reason – in the movie, there’s no phantom zone projector to use to send Zod back, the other kryptonians having been sent with the destruction of Superman’s pod and their own ship’s phantom zone engine. Zod is threatening not only to kill Superman and everyone on Earth, he’s directly using his heat vision to threaten to murder local civilians and Superman had no real way to confine or hold Zod – there’s no Kryptonite in this story, and the only means to weaken a Kryptonian, exposure to his native environment (removing his powers) has been destroyed along with Zod’s ship. In essence, there is no way to stop Zod but to kill him. In the comics, Superman kills Zod because he fears what he might do, based on what he’s already done. It’s an execution. In the movie, Superman kills Zod because he can’t stop him any other way – it’s suicide by cop, as an enraged Zod sees his failure to transform Earth into a new Krypton (wiping out humanity in the process) as a failure of his life’s entire purpose. If Zod can’t make a new Krypton on the ashes of the Earth, he’d rather die.
I won’t lie. I have been thinking about this moment non-stop since I saw it. It hurt when I saw it. It took a movie I was enjoying, reveling in like a child on Christmas morning, and slammed the brakes so hard that I went through the windshield and into a wall. I remember sitting there muttering ‘no no no no no no no’ before that moment where Superman snaps Zod’s neck. I can still remember that feeling of shock, of disbelief, on seeing it happen. And when Henry Cavill’s Superman wails in shock and horror at what he’s just done, I sat there and stared in shock and horror myself.
Superman doesn’t kill.
Except that’s not really true, is it? The end of the Byrne run that begin in his Man of Steel is in death. Superman kills Zod. And I mentioned before that this movie takes from every era, and if you read the original comic book appearances of Superman, the character does things like crashes himself directly into aircraft with people in them, deliberately kills the Ultra-Humanite with a ray gun that Ultra was trying to use on him (Ultra doesn’t stay dead, but that’s hardly due to lack of effort on Superman’s part) – the Code Against Killing that feels so ingrained to the character was invented in the 50’s.
People are going to pin the decision to have Superman kill on Snyder, but I don’t think that’s fair. This feels like a Nolan move. This feels like how Nolan works, how he finds something central to the audience’s perception of a character and twists it, uses it to engage you on a deeper level. Can Superman be Superman if he kills? The title of the movie is to me a clue to where that element comes from. I’m still not decided on how this one moment affects the characterization or the film itself. It was powerful enough to almost stop my heart, metaphorically. It’s a gut check and one I’m not sure all fans of the character can accept – if your concept of Superman is purely the silver age, then no, you can’t. But I’m not sure mine is. So I’m sitting here, two days later, and I’m still wrestling with that moment and what it means, which frankly isn’t bad for a comic book movie. I sure as hell wasn’t wrestling with Avengers two days later. Iron Man 3? That movie was gone the day I saw it. This movie? This movie demands thought.
Superman doesn’t kill, except when he does.
Okay, so that’s where I am on that moment in time. It changes the tenor of the movie so completely that I can’t say if it elevates it or damages it – before that moment, though, I was basically loving the hell out of this movie. I loved weird alien Krypton with its weird alien animals and floating cities and bizarre technology. I loved Jor-El as a thinking action hero and Lara as the one who made the final decision on Kal’s fate. I liked how Shannon and Crowe played off of each other, and how you could feel that Shannon’s Dru-Zod actually desperately wanted Jor-El to side with him, how it cost him to lose that chance. The idea of Kal-El as the first natural birth in Krypton’s history and the last it would ever see was powerful. I’ve seen criticism of the Krypton scenes as being too science fiction, but frankly, Krypton has always been science fiction. My only lament was that it wasn’t even weirder. I would have loved to have seen some modernized version of a thought beast.
The film’s back and forth narrative, using flashbacks liberally, does a good job of setting up who Clark is and why he does what he does. Before the costume, he’s trapped between wanting to help and needing to keep his secret – the scenes with him as a child show the terror of a young boy who has no idea why he’s so different and gives a sense of the tension the Kents had to go through in teaching him how to be human. If I have one complaint about the film’s pacing, it’s that it can feel like an ever accelerating train rushing ever onward, ever faster – both Nolan and Snyder have a tendency to hate to let a film breathe and its really apparent here that we’re not going to get many moments to sit back and relax. The closest we get is during Lois’ search for the truth about the alien craft and her encounter with Clark, and I liked that she manages to find him all on her own – it’s a nice touch that this Lois just plain figures out who Clark Kent really is. She’s one of the world’s best reporters and we get to see that in how she alone tracks him down.
Cavill has a hell of a hard job here – he has to convey in turns vulnerability, confidence and even a little swagger at times. His Superman isn’t an aping of Christopher Reeve, and that’s an excellent thing – as much as I loved Reeve and his portrayal, it’s been over thirty years and its time to let it go. One scene in particular really did a lot to make me believe his version – when he finds Lois at his father’s grave and they talk about why he hides who he is, and we find out how Jonathan Kent died. It’s a good scene and one that works both in terms of why Lois would agree to hide his secret and in terms of why he’d be willing to go through such lengths to hide it himself. It also goes a long way to redeem Costner’s Jonathan Kent – I was livid at the idea of a Jonathan Kent who’d tell Clark he might have been better to let people die, but seeing him die to preserve his son’s secret cemented how important he thought that secret was to keep, and seeing Clark, his heart breaking but having to honor his father and prove that he is his father by allowing his death did more to show the limits of a Superman than ten speeches could have. Sometimes we can do something, but shouldn’t. Michael Shannon’s Dru-Zod is a hard man, certainly not evil by his own lights, someone born and bred to a role that no longer exists who can’t let go of what he believes to be his duty. The hints of a friendship between his Zod and Crowe’s Jor-El are very well handled, but in the end I think Shannon may lean too much on his character’s anger and not enough on his love for his people. Still, it was nice to see that while he was willing to kill Kal-El, he didn’t immediately leap to that, trying instead to recruit him. I think it’s kind of telling that Zod never even offered to spare Earth if he got the Codex. Humans simply didn’t even matter to him, they weren’t even worthy of not stepping on.
There are some flaws overall – that unrelenting pace, for instance, just won’t let any ideas breathe, and the end fight sequences are extremely heavy on the property damage. It gets distracting to keep wondering if anyone could possibly have survived in Metropolis. Clearly the end of the film implies that the Daily Planet building did – I have to wonder how. Its too bad, because the fight scenes themselves are amazing. The initial fight in Smallville between Superman, Faora and another phantom zoner (they never name the second guy, he’s just a big dude, so I called him Non) is spectacular. It’s nice to see that while the other kryptonians are as strong as he is, they don’t have his control. I also really liked how, even though the actual item of kryptonite itself isn’t in the film, the motif is kept – being exposed to a kryptonian environment weakens Superman, makes him sick and costs him his powers which is a nice thematic touch – while the first half of the film sets up that Clark is different from us, the second half emphasizes that his strength comes from Earth, that he is at his heart a human being who chooses to protect us because he is, ultimately, a son of Earth. And so being exposed to Krypton, his birth planet, actually weakens him because it is the touch of the dead world trying to reach out of its grave. “Krypton had its chance!” It’s also telling that the other kryptonians can’t handle their powers without layers to protect them from Earth – stripped of their armor and naked to the world, it causes them pain. Only Zod manages to overcome this, and even then he only does so when he’s accepted his own death – Zod only becomes a match for Kal-El when he is embodying the dead world of Krypton and trying to rejoin it in death.
In the end, I find myself spending time thinking about this movie. Is it the greatest intellectual film ever made? Of course not, it’s a movie about flying space aliens punching each other and melting things with their eyes, come on. But it manages to combine spectacle and depth, it has solid to excellent acting, it manages to be a popcorn movie and have some substance at the same time. I can’t say I loved it, although that’s because it didn’t want me to love it – what it wanted from me, it got. I don’t have a star rating for you, or a number. I will say this – in a summer full of action and spectacle, with Iron Man and Star Trek, this is the first movie I’ve seen this summer that I felt anything about afterwards.
It’s a good movie. It’s a hard movie to take, in places. People you love die. People with good intentions do horrible things. Choices cost the people who make them. This is a Superman movie that asks you big questions, and doesn’t answer them for you. I spent yesterday in shock, to be honest, and I actually hated the movie, not like a bad piece of art (because it is anything but that) but rather like a person who had wounded me inside. It took me that long to think about it, to critically weigh the experience, and I’m still weighing it. It’s worth your time.