I recommend Man of Steel if you’re already a Superman fan who will buy anything with a shiny red S stamped onto it or if you regard Michael Bay’s Transformer movies as groundbreaking marvels of cinematic artistry.
Remember that scene in the first Pirates of the Caribbean in which both Jack Sparrow and Barbossa have attained cursed-gold immortality? They keep fighting conventionally, but Barbossa acknowledges the ironic futility of the situation saying, “So what now, Jack Sparrow? Are we to be two immortals locked in an epic battle until Judgement Day and trumpets sound?” and Sparrow quips, “Or you could surrender.”
Man of Steel is basically that Pirates of the Caribbean scene extended into two and a half hours, except take out the clever writing and self-awareness and replace them with explosions and collapsing buildings.
On the advanced alien world of Krypton, the head scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) warns his superiors that Kryptonians have ravaged their planet to the point that it is literally about to collapse. But before anybody can do anything, General Zod (Michael Shannon) attempts a coup because he blames the council for ruining the planet. In his short-sighted insistence on violence, Zod prevents any solution to the problem, and Jor-El must launch his newborn son Kal-El to Earth.
From there, the movie proceeds in an interesting chronological shuffle that follows Kal-El as he spends his time learning the secret of his alien origins, facing down the evil General Zod and his cronies who have come to terraform Earth into a new Krypton, and finding as many opportunities as possible to stand heroically backlit by sunlight or fire. There’s also a sparkless romance subplot shoveled in there somewhere.
On the positive side, the movie is gorgeous. It really is. The special effects are some of the best I’ve ever seen, and the costumes and sets showcase attention to detail and artistic flair. The culture and history of Krypton are carved into cold, sculpted architecture and armor plating, and the Kryptonian ball-bearing-array render system is downright entrancing.
But apparently the producers threw so much of the budget into the visuals that they could only afford to hire a sophomore writing student from the local community college to do the script… a sophomore writing student who hadn’t yet met their basic math requirements.
The result is that the movie flashes from surprisingly potent images–like a shot of child Clark Kent wearing a cape of discarded laundry as he plays with his dog–to hollow dialogue in which characters exchange platitudes and sweeping observations in place of anything close to human interaction. There’s no real characters here; just simplistic themes butting heads.
But to make matters worse, the movie can’t seem to figure out what it’s even trying to say thematically.
In the very first scene, Jor-El is cast on the side of Nature as he and his wife deliver the first naturally born Kryptonian child in hundreds of years. Sans anesthesia, even. Then, as war breaks out and hulking metal ships blast each other out of the sky, Jor-El soars through the chaos on a living steed, further strengthening his alignment with all things natural and contrasting him with the artificiality of Krypton’s Brave New World society of infant growth chambers and social predestination. But later on, the Zod’s Dark Action Girl lieutenant (the one who fights like a video game character) repeatedly aligns herself with evolution–perhaps the ultimate Natural process. This is both thematically and factually jarring, as Dark Action Girl isn’t the product of evolution at all. She’s the genetically specialized offspring of a stagnant culture that embraced artificiality, control, and uniformity over the messy diversity of natural evolution.
It’s a film that plays to all the heavy, easy beats–right down to Russell Crowe intoning with a fatherly baritone, “You can save them all,” as Henry Cavill drifts backwards with his arms spread, nailed to an invisible cross and glowing with a solar halo. A choir sings a few bars before our savior turns and rockets Earthbound.
If thematic complaints feel like splitting hairs to you, let’s look at the other silliness going on in this movie.
Hey, super advanced alien world rulers: next time you want to imprison violent, treasonous radicals by encasing them in carbonite, packing them into space pods, and launching them into the abyss wait out eternity, maybe skip the part where you then house the space pods inside a fully functional and very expensive-looking mothership capable of holding an entire planet hostage. Just a thought.
Of course, while we’re at it, it might have been a good idea not to abandon that planetary colonialism idea so quickly. You know, since non-renewable resources are kind of… not renewable. I guess hindsight is 20/20.
But ancient alien races aren’t the only ones coming up with hairbrained ideas. Humans are just as busy. At one point, the plan to take down the evil alien mothership hovering over Metropolis is to turn it into a black hole. Yes, a black hole. The most destructive force in the universe, capable of devouring stars and holding whole galaxies in sway. Let’s make one inside our own atmosphere. I guess we’re just supposed to assume that the black hole will disappear once it’s done sucking down all the baddies and won’t, you know, spaghettify planet Earth before crushing it into singular oblivion. Nobody even raises their hand and says, “But sir, a black hole? Isn’t that kind of throwing out the baby with the bathwater… into a meat grinder?”
So logic takes a hike for Kryptonians and Humans alike, but it also seems like Science can’t figure out what it’s doing either.
Superman is so super because, Jor-El says, the young star’s radiation strengthens his bones and muscles as he grows. Except, later on, it’s apparently Earth’s atmosphere, and the effects are instantly reversed by breathing Kryptonian air. Even though Superman flies around in outer space–well outside of Earth’s atmosphere–with no issue. But all of Zor’s minions seem just as invincible as Superman, even though they’re breathing Kryptonian air. I guess they have super armor? That armor wasn’t so super for Jor-El against that steak knife Zod had, but maybe that was old super armor that didn’t have some of the more advanced armor perks. Like anti-silverware tech. And later on, Zor gets all of Superman’s abilities in a few seconds of Earth air exposure, so I guess Superman didn’t have to absorb all that radiation for so long after all. Goddamn it, Jor-El, what kind of a scientist are you?
So everybody is invincible. Except the human soldiers, of course, who never figure out that shooting these guys does absolutely nothing. But even though all the aliens are invincible, they keep fighting each other. Even though it does nothing. For hours. Through crowded streets and busy offices, leaving dismembered bodies and charred, skeletal buildings in their path. Nothing is at stake in the drawn-out fight sequences because we don’t know any of the characters’ limitations or weaknesses–if they have any.
The motivation of the main characters is to fight because they must fight because this is an action movie. The motivation of the secondary characters is to not die. Tertiary characters have the survival skills of aphids and will stand their ground firing a machine gun into a hulking alien as it marches toward them, every bullet bouncing off like so many packing peanuts.
To say this Superman plays fast and loose with human life is an understatement. If a person is held at gunpoint right in front of him, sure, he’ll do anything to bat the gun out of the assailant’s hand. Unfortunately, he might just use a denizen-packed skyscraper as the bat. I think it’s safe to say that Kal-El’s collateral death count in this movie is well into the hundred thousands as he blindly crashes through buildings and gas stations, his eyes soullessly locked on his equally immortal opponent, bystanders-be-damned.
And you might think that Krypton atmosphere is the Achilles heel of the situation, like the gold coins in Pirates of the Carribean. You’d be wrong. It could have been, but, [spoilers] it’s not. At some point, Superman just gets bored fighting and snaps some previously-indestructible necks without tapping into any preexisting weaknesses.
Yeah, that really happens. No plot setup necessary. He doesn’t even go super saiyan to do it. Just, pop.
Some may complain that I’m taking this too seriously, breaking down themes and lazy in-universe science in a superhero movie. That it’s “just” a superhero movie, after all.
First of all, that’s a bullshit position to take. It implies the idea that you should turn off your brain when you go into a movie like this and just take it, regardless of quality. Just let the spectacle tingle the most superficial nerve endings and maybe down a gram of soma to ease the experience.
Second, plot holes and bad science are completely acceptable in a movie that has other things going on in it. In a well-crafted piece of fiction, simple plot holes ruin the experience only for the most jaded pedant. If there are characters and we’re involved in their situation, we’re willing to let a lot slide. After all, the main role research and continuity play in creating fiction is to create a firm enough ground that we’re able to recognize the characters as people who experience things in a similar way that we experience things. “Oh look, these guys have to deal with gravity too. I can relate to that.”
Man of Steel isn’t a bad movie because it is a spectacle. It’s a bad movie because it’s only a spectacle.
Let me say this. Iron Man was “just” a superhero movie, but Iron Man had humor, emotional depth, well-wrought characters, spry dialogue, and a firmly constructed plot. Zack Snyder’s Watchmen adaptation rocked too, as did Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. This movie felt more like a Michael Bay production than something from these guys.
Man of Steel only has special effects going for it, and if that’s enough for you… well… it shouldn’t be enough for you.