How unjust it is that a sequel to Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel was announced even before its premiere, while Superman Returns, Bryan Singer’s 2006 effort, spawned none in the years which followed its release.
The failure of Returns is largely mythical, despite fans’ recollection of it as a flop prompting DC’s reboot, as Ang Lee’s dismal Hulk prompted one several years before. While its grosses were modest rather than spectacular, the film made only slightly less than Batman Begins – viewed now as one of the great comic book films, whose sequels broke box office records and no doubt landed Nolan a production role on Man of Steel. On release, too, Singer’s film impressed most of its critics, and holds very respectable ratings at Metacritic (72%) and Rotten Tomatoes (75%). As it turned out, it was Man of Steel which reminded me of watching Hulk, a feat I’m sure no current production hopes to accomplish.
Plenty of substandard comic book films have passed through over the years, from Hulk to Fantastic Four, Green Lantern to Ghost Rider. These weren’t good films, but neither were they terrible films: if they were bad, it was only by dint of not being very good. Man of Steel, on its own terms, is an actively terrible film – muddled, humourless, shallow, unfaithful – toward which I felt not just indifferent or unimpressed, but actually angry. The instant I left the cinema, I determined to write down everything that’s wrong with it. You’ll understand, then, that this is going to be a long post. (If it’s any consolation, it’ll still be substantially shorter than the impassioned, 17,000 word all-caps rant at Film Crit Hulk.)
Perhaps most frustratingly of all, many supremely talented people were involved somehow or other in this film’s production – from Nolan to Kevin Costner, Amy Adams to Hans Zimmer, whose score squelches immemorably along for most of the film, though not without its moments of greatness. (Still, I challenge you to hum his main theme ten minutes after you’ve first seen the film.) It’s hard to know, though I’ll try to dissect as best I can, what went so wrong – and harder still to know where to start, for the problems are legion and many.
In no particular order though, let’s consider some of the glaringest plot flaws.
[Major spoilers, I warn you, from here on out.]
Why does the black hole hovering daintily above Metropolis spontaneously vanish at the right time, and not continue swallowing the city? (Black holes, by the way, are formed by collapsing suns. They are usually much, much larger than this.)
Why don’t Zod and his followers, on retrieving their species’ genes, just terraform an uninhabited planet rather than Earth? Why terraform Earth at all, in fact, when its current atmosphere gives them superpowers?
Why do Krypton’s leaders, faced with impending planetary doom, evacuate only their world’s most dangerous criminals, bizarrely staying put themselves? Doesn’t it occur to them the planet’s destruction will free the prisoners?
Why is a working simulation of Jor-El, up to date with Krypton’s collapse and his son’s history, on a scout ship from millennia ago – equipped, no less, with a form-fitting bodysuit perfectly tailored to Kal-El’s adult physique? Why, when this Jor-El takes control of Zod’s ship to free Lois and Kal-El, doesn’t he programme it to self-destruct or fly into the sun? (Lord only knows what HowItShouldHaveEnded will do with this film.)
Speaking of the Kryptonians: given the scope of their terraforming science, why weren’t they able to fix their planet in the first place? And why does Faora, part of a clearly scientifically advanced society, think natural selection favours ruthlessness and individualism? Come on – this was debunked in The Selfish Gene.
Speaking of Lois, apparently a successful professional journalist, why does she leak her story to obscure conspiracy hacks when Perry White refuses to print it, rather than pitch it to another paper? If she wanted plausible deniability of authorship, why try to print it in the Planet at all? And how does she deduce Kal-El’s identity in a matter of onscreen minutes, simply by asking around? Surely Clark, having sacrificed his father’s life for anonymity and wandered off-the-grid around the world in the years since, would have been more careful?
When bodies fall through the air by the dozen in Metropolis, why does Superman only try to save Lois? Why doesn’t he care about everyone else? Actually, why does this Superman demolish building after building full of people, only to flinch when Zod threatens a family of four – and at killing Zod himself? (And why is he strong enough to break Zod’s neck, but not to break his ribs or inflict bruises in the preceding battle? Either their powers cancel each other out, or each is equally invulnerable to the other, but both can’t be true.)
Plot flaws alone don’t kill a film, by any means; while much discussed, for example, those of The Dark Knight Rises didn’t detract from its good reception. But the holes in Man of Steel are so many and so deep, the makers of Prometheus must feel imperilled. (Don’t worry, though. They’re getting a sequel too.)
These incoherencies, moreover, point to the flaws of David S. Goyer’s script, never fully possessed of its characters. Until Zod’s spine is snapped, the Kryptonians appear immune to each other’s attacks, making any battle between them a guarantee of extended devastation: surely, especially after witnessing this in Smallville – infernos, collapsing power plants and all – the first instinct of Colonel Hardy, or anyone(not least Kal-El himself) tasked with protecting the civilian population, would be to avoid the cataclysmic, city-destroying showdown of the film’s third act? Had the military characters had been written at all thoughtfully, they would have demanded Superman lead Zod and his forces away from Metropolis, to battle him in the desert or above the ocean.
Goyer’s charactering of Superman himself, as evidenced by his indifference to tumbling skyscrapers, lacks even internal consistency. He is the supposedly counter-dynastic heir to a heroic father, wearing his family’s emblem on his chest; the anti-militarist figure embodying U.S. individualism and the American way; the nameless pilgrim travelling the world to hide his superhuman powers, who nonetheless uses them at every opportunity; the noble, serene Christ-figure symbolising hope and optimism, who pummels enemies with hurricane force for insulting his mother. As to the latter, a violent Superman has comic book precedents, but one can’t help feeling producers overcompensated for the controversial punchlessness of Superman Returns. In a film which aspires to rugged realism, it’s a trap to make Superman himself a fist-slinger. A gallant, straight-backed hero figure – like Christopher Reeve’s Superman, a moral rudder in a storm – is if anything more welcome in a dog-eat-dog present day setting, as The Avengers so clearly understood with its out-of-his-time Captain America. When buildings fall and cities burn, Superman should care. To quote the Film Crit Hulk review,
WE DON’T NEED SUPERMAN TO PUNCH THINGS, OR TEACH US TO OVERCOME OUR ENEMIES, OR UNLEASH THE CARNAGE OF DESTRUCTION. THOSE THINGS WE KNOW HOW TO DO JUST FINE… WE NEED SUPERMAN TO BE ABLE TO DO THOSE THINGS AND YET NOT DO THEM BECAUSE IT IS RIGHT. WE NEED A SUPERMAN THAT IS MORE DEFINED BY MUNDANE HEROISMS THAT MAKE UP OUR EVERYDAY LIVES. THE COURAGE TO GET UP AND GO TO WORK EVERY DAY. THE COURAGE TO PAY OUR BILLS ON TIME. THE COURAGE TO GIVE PEOPLE A TINY INKLING OF BUREAUCRATIC KINDNESS. THE COURAGE TO BE RESPONSIBLE FOR OTHER HUMAN BEINGS. THE COURAGE TO DO THE HARD THING, WHEN THE EASIER OPTION IS AVAILABLE. THE COURAGE TO BE PEOPLE WHO TELL THE TRUTH WHEN IT IS EASIER TO LIE. THE COURAGE TO BE PEOPLE WHO GIVE WHEN IT IS PREFERABLE TO KEEP FOR OUR OWN. THE COURAGE TO BE OPEN TO GROWTH AND HUMILITY IN THE FACE OF US NOT BEING “BADASS” ENOUGH. THAT’S REAL COURAGE, WHEREAS NOTIONS OF REVENGE AND ANIMOSITY ARE OF LITTLE VALUE IN OUR EVERY DAY LIVES. AND THESE THINGS ARE REAL… THEY ARE MUNDANE… THEY ARE WITHIN OUR GRASP, BUT THEY NEED THAT INSPIRATION MORE THAN ANYTHING TO MAKE THEM REAL. WE NEED A SUPERMAN TO SHOW US WHY THESE THINGS MATTER. WE NEED A SUPERMAN TO SHOW US WHY WE SHOULDN’T PUNCH THINGS.
And why did Lois Lane, for her part, have nothing to say so much of the time, despite being a professional commentator? As the alien ship descended upon Superman at the army base, I hung on a Whedonesque quip from Amy Adams, but as with the later truck-in-the-living-room scene, no punchline came – and as the daughter of one general, a fact stressed in her dialogue at one point, surely she’d have words for Zod, another? (A waste, too, that they never had a one-on-one face off. How much more interesting would that have been than the incongruously lurid dream sequence where Cavill’s Kal-El is out-presenced by a pile of skulls?) For all the 9/11 imagery in the film’s climax and its pretensions of real-world grit, it never makes good on its potential subtext of militarism and occupation, due largely to a Ms. Lane who fails in spite of herself to articulate anything.
Say what you like about the casting of Kate Bosworth, but the scripting of Lois in Returns was arguably one of the film’s best features. This was a woman whose journalistic thinking was foregrounded, even one who’d snatched a Pulitzer for a column entitled ‘Why the world doesn’t need Superman’ – who, even while authoring a contrary piece by the film’s conclusion, has moved on from him in her romantic life. He, moreover, actually accepts this, making no attempt to steal her back and respecting, by the time the credits roll, her choice of a new partner. In a film with a retro aesthetic, that’s a pretty progressive gender politic. Certainly, it easily beats that of Man of Steel, where Lois, her journalism restricted to reporting what the viewer already knows, kisses Superman for no apparent reason once he saves her life, and where Jor-El’s wife Lara, whose death seems to be her only role in the plot, loses all will to survive when her husband is killed. (Seriously, though: why are women in films overcome with desire for any man who prevents their death? Isn’t this a pretty problematic trope, the logical conclusion of Nice Guy culture, where women dispense love in exchange for benevolence?)
In a film which seems preoccupied via jolting, ever-intrusive flashbacks with the theme of Superman’s humanity, it’s the Kryptonian elements which dominate the story from its first scenes, their swooping alien lizard-birds as derivative of Avatar as the later kamikaze runs and terraforming Genesis device are of Independence Day and Star Trek II. Unfortunately, while front and centre in the plot, these are its least inviting parts – how much do we honestly care about the details of Kryptonian reproduction or what Jor-El did with his civilisation’s codex? (Why does he even preserve it, anyway, after determining Krypton’s society has met its natural end? I’m sorry. This belongs in the list above.) Michael Shannon’s General Zod is sadly no exception, a dull and pedestrian villain, not least when compared with Terence Stamp’s icy BDSM ruler, for whom the phrase ‘imperial leather’ could serve as a byline; it’s one of the Man of Steel’s ironies that as determinedly uncampy as the film sets out to be, Shannon’s character does nothing even faintly as antagonistic, menacing or downright nasty as when Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor attempts to drown Superman in his pool, Kryptonite necklace weighing him down, or Kevin Spacey’s stabs him in the side, tossing him into the ocean below. This Zod is as disjointed as his enemies, stabbing Jor-El with a concealed blade and clear, cold-blooded intent, then later claiming this wholly avoidable, deliberate act haunts him – and his dullness, like so much here, expresses the filmmakers’ misguided aesthetic.
The moment I saw production photographs from Man of Steel, Henry Cavill in costume, my hackles were raised. Superman’s literal depantsing suggested an approach to the source material where elements deemed dated, campy or ridiculous were going to be excised, as they were from the Nolanised Batman. But Superman doesn’t suit this approach, as Batman did. Attempting to apply it was a fool’s errand, because Superman, at root, is dated, campy and at least faintly ridiculous, the spandex superhero of underwear-as-outerwear, laser eyes and shiny-green-rock death. To cut the daft parts leaves almost nothing left – or at least, it leaves the joyless, hollow rehearsal that is Man of Steel, aiming for grit but achieving only grime. The trick is to contextualise the campiness so that it works, as did the Reeve films, and here I include Returns among them. Yes, as a love letter to the mythos it was more romantic than Serious-with-a-capital-‘S’, but on its own self-set terms it mostly works. (I still defy fans not to shiver at its teaser trailer.) Singer’s film has meaning, pace and poise; Snyder’s has none of them, and is a film in which little actually means anything.
As Richard Lawson writes at the Atlantic Wire, the director ‘spends so much time grasping for profundity’ with grandiose imagery and allusion, ‘trying to create a towering mood, that he doesn’t actually tell us a story’. Christian imagery abounds – Clark’s conversation with the priest, Kal-El’s crucifixion-pose above the Earth, his father’s salvific (if false) statement, ‘You can save all of them’ – but what does it actually symbolise? In Superman Returns, there’s a point to the Jesus comparisons: Superman is stabbed in the side, falls to Earth in the shape of a cross and rises from his apparent death because in this, a deeply melancholy film, he’s a hero who suffers for the world he saves – abandoned by Lois, forgotten by humanity, beaten, tortured and left to die by Luthor. The religious tropes make sense because there’s a logic to them largely absent from Man of Steel, and the same is true outside its godly moments.
The point in any adaptation when Clark first dons the cape and tights, stepping into his Superman persona, is a crucial moment of becoming – either as an embrace of his alien heritage, a vow to save humanity as he failed to save his father or the first step in a quest of moral leadership, it ought to mean something. In Man of Steel, as far as I can tell, Clark simply finds an outfit on a hanger and puts it on: there seems no clear reason he then makes his first flight, as there later is in Zod’s case, where levitation comes as a symbol of rapid adaptation to Earth’s atmosphere and soldierly prowess. Taught by his mother to focus his Kryptonian senses, as Zod learns to focus his in order to fly, why isn’t Clark takeoff-capable before he meets Jor-El? What this transformation symptomatises is completely unaddressed, and therefore so is the whole business of being Superman, beyond vague suggestions about hope and freedom. Past films have used Lois, especially Margot Kidder’s incarnation, as a lens through which to ask what Superman really embodies – but because the character is so underused here, the meaning of the Man of Steel persona, as opposed to that of Clark Kent, is equally lost.
Nowhere is this lack of depth more evident than in the Metropolis showdown, as tower blocks come crashing down and satellites are smashed. So much pure spectacle is on show here, and so little soul, that the single room of hostages in The Avengers feels more important than the citywide devastation as Kal-El and Zod duke it out. Beyond Laurence Fishburne’s Perry White, conveniently character-shielded, and a single Planet worker trapped under rumble who appeared to have been created for that sole purpose, no one we know or care about is threatened by the Nagasaki-esque destruction; where Joss Whedon showed us the fear-lined faces of the Chitauri’s hostages or the scrambling of the city police, Snyder only shows us the bird’s eye view.
I’m sure that, if I went on, I could write my own 17,000 words on the faults of Man of Steel: it’s a flapping, squawking turkey of a film. Yet as it stands, sequel in the works, the film has already grossed two and a half times what Returns, a far superior film, managed, so it seems we’ll have plenty of time to keep up our complaints and hope the sequel’s an improvement. All this success, frankly, is enough to make me believe a turkey can fly.