How “Man of Steel” Failed Superman

DIEGO’S NOTE: I originally wrote a semi-trilogy of articles about my strong feelings on Man of Steel since everyone and their mother has an opinion on this movie. And me, with my oh-so humble and non-controversial opinions focused on nuance discussions, comprised all these articles in a single place for anybody who has the time to read a 3,000+ word piece on Superman. I had planned to write something about the Superman portrayal in BvS but literally all these same points still stand. This version just isn’t doing it for me.

If you don’t feel like reading all of this in one sitting, feel free to check the original publications below.

Cheers!

Man of Steel v. Character Empathy

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Man of Steel continues to polarize audiences everywhere. I’ve been torn every which way when it comes to this movie. There were single aspects I really liked (first flight, Cavill owning the role), with others I hated (the last 45 minutes), and everything in between. I recently had the opportunity to re-watch Man of Steel in an attempt to finalize all my thoughts on the movie. I remained objective as possible. I won’t give the time of day to comic book comparisons because this is first and foremost a movie (a mention here and there may slip in). Putting aside all previous grievances and positives, I decided to take a good hard look at what does and doesn’t work inside the context of Man of Steel.

I’m still not a fan of how the movie functions. I can firmly state my opinion that Man of Steel is not a good movie. It has good bits for certain, with some downright beautiful ideas and attempts at honoring the greatest cultural superhero icon on the planet. The positives are amplified with a repeat viewing, proving Snyder and company’s heart is in the right place. They clearly love the character and wish to share their love with the world. I’m just not sure they made the right decisions in their portrayal of the titular hero.

Regardless of any opinions on his movies, Snyder can satisfy all the most technical components of a movie with flying colors. He’s got the visual style down like few other directors. His movies look like movies. And most importantly, his movies are tonally consistent. However, this time there is a conflict in tonal fluidity when it comes to what is treated as the follow up to Nolan’s Batman trilogy and not a movie about. Snyder’s take on a Christopher Nolan aesthetic and world pretty much conflicts with everything he wants to accomplish through his Superman story.

Nolan’s writing style often involves an excess of exposition to by having characters explain every aspect of the world’s he inhabits. Some would say Nolan makes movies that are “dark and gritty” or “realistic” which is complete and utter bullshit (I talk about it a little bit here ICYMI). He makes movies that he believes in so much, we believe them as real too. Think Wachowski movies but more accessible given the current pop culture zeitgeist. There’s nothing inherently realistic or gritty about his style unless it is absolutely necessary (Batman Begins is probably his “grittiest” work to date). So how does Snyder follow suit? Grab the most perceptible ingredients of Nolan Batman movies and paint them onto a palette of Superman’s world without understanding why any of these flavors worked in the first place.

Look at the opening on Krypton, what exactly happens here? There are a dozen different ways to set the stage for the film. In a span of about 15 minutes we see: the birth of Jesus (Superman is JC in this movie btw), a plead for revival of a space program, a coup, discussion of genetic regulation via Kryptonian babies, a death of Jor-El, the escape of Kal-El, Zod and his soldiers imprisoned in the Phantom Zone, and the destruction of Krypton. That’s really a lot to process. All these developments touch on different possible themes for the rest of the movie to follow through. MoS decides to play a juggling act with each of these concepts, only for them to explode in their faces (All our faces. James Franco in Spider-Man 3 status).

The flashbacks in Batman Begins is suited to Nolan’s favored technique in telling nonlinear stories. We come to understand the pain Bruce carries from his parent’s death, how he struggles with the concept of revenge, and ultimately his reason for putting on the cape and cowl. Nobody tells Bruce he’s going to be a “Dark Knight” because that wouldn’t make sense for the character at these early stages in his life. It’s a structure that is essentially a Jenga tower of plot and character, each element working in tandem to support one another without conflicting ideologies.

MoS has characters like Jor-El constantly state Kal-El will become important; an ideal to strive towards. Then it flip-flops between the ideas by having Jonathan Kent saying Kal should hide his powers because the world isn’t ready. Both fathers are played by class A actors, able to bring weight to overly dramatic trailer dialogue. Both characters spout jargon of good ideas that conflict with each other, with neither manifesting in any way beyond mere lip-service.

After being postured to become an ideal for the people of Earth to strive towards, we never get a full understanding of why Kal will be this great symbol of hope. We’re told, not shown.Captain America: The First Avenger sorta nails everything you need to know about its inherently good hero. The first 45 minutes of TFA are among the most empathetic moments in any recent blockbuster. We come to understand who Steve Rogers is before we can understand what the symbol of Captain America means. He’s always the one willing to put himself on the line for the greater good. The First Avenger follows through on Cap’s willingness to protect people from his early training days (the grenade scene), all the way to the finale of the WW2 bits (raincheck on the dance). Most importantly, we understand WHO Steve Rogers AND what Captain America means to the world by the final act of The First Avenger. We feel the loss of the world’s first superhero in the MCU. We want him to get to that fucking dance with Peggy. As much as MoS talks the talk about these lofty ideals of Superman and his impact on the world, it never walks the walk.

Please not these complaints have had nothing to do with the character from the comics. Fuck that noise. Whether or not something relates to/fails the source material is irrelevant when a movie succeeds on every other level (ManhunterJawsThe ShiningDrive).

Okay, from here on out I basically need to break my promise to you of not touching on the source material (please forgive me, I love you) because the way Snyder handles plot elements here are exactly the same manner in which he covers thematic components in hisWatchmen adaptation. Snyder’s take Watchmen is one of the truer adaptations of the source material (practically panel for panel) without any of the nuance found in the graphic novel. What was once heavy material questioning the merit of superheroes (among like a million other things) became a traditional superhero story with some pure adoration of the source. Elements that worked on the page seem oddly noncompliant to the efforts made by Snyder and his team.

I think it’s safe to say Snyder doesn’t have an understanding of conceptualization. Choosing to adapt the source page for page doesn’t attribute meaning to the live-action version of the story. Some things don’t translate to the screen as well as others (and I don’t mean make it more realistic, for fuck’s sake). Don’t mistake it for the themes not being present in the story. They’re in the text. The only problem is none truly manifest in any meaningful way beyond face value. Same thing goes for Kal-El in this movie.

We know Kal-El is going to become Superman, so he’s heroic. Why is he heroic? Because saving people is something heroes do. But the movie never makes this clear in any form. Obviously as an audience we’re inclined to want to see people saved (especially in a Superman movie). But that is us projecting our own feelings of “Hey, people dying would totally suck in real life. They should also be saved” which is all very true, but if the movie doesn’t make it clear that this is its primary extension of the idea perpetuated onto Kal-El, doesn’t that mean we’re doing the work the movie should be doing for us? I’m not saying to turn our brains off (mostly because that’s a terrible argument). I’m saying to turn your brains on and see how Superman could be shown as the hero he’s positioned as.

Superman is an icon recognizable around the world. Maybe even on par with Jesus in terms of sheer familiarity (Snyder sure thought so). We didn’t need a vast overhaul in mythology to make him relatable through Clark Kent (also because we didn’t get to learn who his Clark identity either). We needed to be shown how he became a hero. At the very least, why he became a hero beyond our presumed empathy.

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Please also understand not every character needs an arc. The Captain America movies work so well because they pit Steve Rogers against oppressive ideals of the time he’s centered in. He is a constant good, standing against tyrannical forces. Wondering why The Winter Soldier kicks so much ass? Red, white, and blue shine a lot brighter against a morally grey backdrop. Rogers is the same character in each movie, and that’s okay. What he’s fighting for changes in every appearance but he’s an easy character to root for because he’s the classic do-gooder. Superman has the same potential of a box-office draw and audience/critical acclaim as the Captain America movies do, if not more so. The biggest idea at play with both characters are that they’re both symbols representing true justice.

Snyder loves the DC heroes. He was absolutely right in referencing them as biblical figures. He understands the staying power of superheroes and what they mean to society. I hope we can see these ideas manifest themselves better in future installments. I truly do.

Man of Steel vs. the Destruction of Metropolis

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After my last bit on Man of Steel (if you can call a thousand words “a bit”) I felt satisfied with what I had to say about my repeat viewing of the movie. I do still have more to say left over from previous viewing experiences but my previous article is kinda required reading so I don’t repeat myself too much here. We know where this is headed: the destruction of Metropolis in Man of Steel.
Simple and Clean: The destruction in Man of Steel simply doesn’t work because of how the movie (sort of) attempts to portray Superman. It doesn’t help when your movie can’t decide which inspiration of the source it wants to translate from text to screen.

As I touched on in the previous article, Man of Steel suffers the same issues as Zack Snyder’sWatchmen in that it has an unrelenting love of the source material, but no idea how to adapt it in a different medium, while vital aspects get left behind in translation. If we’re following the idea of Man of Steel using our presumed empathy to texturize Clark with characterization, shouldn’t that same presumption lead to his not causing careless destruction?

Now let’s not get crazy and think that I’m anti-violence in movies. It’s not that the action and destruction don’t belong in a superhero movie, it’s that they don’t belong in THIS superhero movie and surely don’t belong here without consequence. Action in movies need to have purpose in the context of the story being told. Action should always have consequence. So what is the consequence in relation to this version of Superman’s story?

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In the opening on Krypton, we get bombarded with a plethora of subplots and exposition. The world of Krypton seems like a science fiction wet dream with designs that would flourish if they weren’t held back by the grim gray color palette (if this entire universe is just covered in a grey filter). We spend around 15-20 minutes on this alien planet but so much of the time is an exposition dump, we don’t grow attached to any of the happenings.

The opening destruction of Krypton would have been 100x more effective if we grew to understand what this world had hoped to achieve. To be honest, it looked like it was in pretty bad shape, but we never got to see it thrive. It’s a simple error the movie can’t stop manufacturing with every explosive action sequence.

After being told through the first half of the movie that Clark will grow to be a symbol of hope for humanity to strive towards; he’ll be a god to us (Old Testament God, I guess). The movie follows up that first half with Zod’s arrival, Superman attempting to win the trust of the military, before turning into an all-out brawl for the finale (which clocks in around the final 45 minutes). And it’s a spectacular brawl! Snyder’s visual flare continues to astound as the superhero version of 9/11 unfolds before our eyes.

It’s a highly mixed signal your sending the audience with how you want us to use our assumed empathy to embrace this symbol of hope, while also using the character to enter a super powered punching contest, at the expense of an entire city. Yes, I know “Zod caused the destruction” but, again, I’m not saying it’s not necessary, it’s that the final confrontation is as tonally confused as the rest of the movie.

It’s more than just a comparison from page to film that makes the climactic destruction uneasy for me. It’s the narrative of the film that doesn’t support the destruction in a meaningful capacity, and only uses it as bells and whistles to an emotionally empty climax.

So let’s address the concerns with the destruction from a movie standpoint. I’ve already covered why characterization doesn’t really work for me in the previous post, but the main detriment of the destruction of Metropolis is the lack of responsible building in Man of Steel‘s own central conceit. The thing is, you can have mass scale destruction if you use it to compliment the story at hand. How our hero deals with such a defeat at the hands of his first nemesis is ripe for exploration. Having a hero beat down with such force is good storytelling. What’s not good storytelling is to ignore the destruction for the sake of a few off-hand jokes and a smile/fade to credits. And you don’t need to be a Superman hater to think it’s odd that Lois/Clark’s first kiss is amidst the DC Universe equivalent of 9/11’s ground zero, just as Jenny Olsen, covered in debris, says “He saved us.” Jenny, a large portion of the city is literally flattened like a pancake. He saved like 4 people. When all the rest of the destruction has already happened, there’s no reason to care about these people in particular.

I’m going to play MAJOR Diego’s Advocate here so brace yourself. Superman was right to kill Zod. From a character standpoint, if a warmongering invulnerable alien goes about trying to commit further genocide to humanity – and he very much did succeed in committing genocide, just not to the lengths he intended – it’s Superman’s job to stop him at any cost.

As far as the movie is concerned, there’s not a single line of dialogue that illustrates his conflicted feelings about wanting to avoid killing anybody. All you need is a little line of dialogue where Jor-El or anybody close to Clark says “The only way to stop Zod is to kill him” and having Clark respond with a “WHAT” look on his face. Take a moment to follow that dialogue piece with a scene of Superman pondering what it means to take a life, especially after he realizes he’s no longer the only one of his kind.

This would set a good precedent for future films where Clark no longer wishes to take a life after having to kill the last of his kind to protect humanity. Going back one more time to my previous post, we don’t know what humans mean to Clark. We don’t know what he feels about his Kryptonian origins. On humanity, there’s no purpose behind Clark’s heroism beyond just a general consensus of what is good. On his Kryptonian heritage, Clark spends the first half of the movie just floundering about until he is addressed by Jor-El’s hologram on where he came from and who he really is. There’s no greater sense of how this affects the world around him.

Since we’re talking about the action here, what is the escalation? Building momentum in action is like preparing food or having sex. You can dive right into the main course and indulge yourself, but you’ll probably be disappointed in the final outcome. It’s infinitely more gratifying if you properly build your way to the climax (so that’s mostly just relating to sex but food is just so good).

Man of Steel is so focused on the loud “BOOM” moments in the conflict, without a proper story structure to support the ideas, it becomes exhausting by the end of it.

The Dark Knight is basically the template for the DC Cinematic Universe, and I think it’s a pretty good example of how to make action influence the narrative. The entire conceit of the fight between Joker and Batman is the battle for Gotham’s soul. Joker makes Gotham, and the city as a whole, go through rigorous tests in an attempt to bring about total anarchy. The final confrontation isn’t even a physical fight between Batman and the Joker. Yeah, they duke it out in an earlier scene but the final conflict is between Gordon, Batman, and Harvey Dent and how far they each had fallen within a few days because of the Joker’s actions. When it comes down to it, The Dark Knight, one of the most revered movies of our generation, is all about a handful of characters and their conflicting ideologies on how to perfect Gotham (Joker’s vision is less than humane).

So what does the destruction in Man of Steel mean? There are some arguments that the decimation of Metropolis will be dealt with in the following movie. While that is almost certainly true, how does that help this movie here and now? The problem remains in the idea of Kal-El/Superman as a symbol of hope isn’t followed through in the finale, and like the majority of the other ideas are left up in the air.

TLDR; The destruction in Man of Steel doesn’t work because it’s a betrayal of our presumed empathy and is a disregard of the themes it attempts to portray.

Man of Steel & How It Failed Superman

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One thing we need to get out of the way: a movie should be based on its merits as a movie first and as an adaptation second. Separating the qualities of Superman from the page and previous iterations to the new screens. Just because it’s a bad adaptation doesn’t mean it’s a bad movie. The Shining and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest are failures of adaptations and are among the most respected artworks in the industry.
Got it? Good.
Here’s the disappointing part where I tell you, “I still think this is a bad movie”.
Zack Snyder is a talented visual filmmaker. If he was interested in silent films, there’s a good chance we’d be calling him a visionary in more than just marketing trailers. He can articulate elements of storytelling with a scene but when a character opens their mouth, it often contradicts what he was trying to get across to the audience.
Man of Steel hits marks of the character’s legacy with dialogue beckoning the audience to understand what an important symbol the character will be. There’s also talk of being genetically superior, the dangers a Superman would have on society, and how young Clark Kent should hide himself from that society. None of these ideas really coincide in any way besides burdening plot threads upon one another. That’s not to say there aren’t good ideas at play here. Every plot and character beat is actually a good idea but there isn’t enough interest or time to develop these ideas before moving onto the next checkpoint, which in turn usually ends up negating a previous or future point.
With the massive destruction set pieces being the primary focal points in the argument against this movie, it only makes sense to talk about why it doesn’t work for me.
When these superpowered gods try to beat the piss out of each other for the entirety of the climax, the excess of action is only part of the problem; it’s how it’s presented. When Superman tackles Zod into the streets of Smallville, the action isn’t filmed particularly well but it is the best live-action iteration of a Dragonball Z fight. Buildings come crumbling down, people are smashed into the earth, and Superman does lots of punching.
A big issue with the fight is Superman doesn’t save people. He does, but it’s an after thought. The planet is saved but in the heat of the moment, the civilians are oddly forgotten about. We see their perspective but it’s a story filled without consequence until the infamous line Jenny Olsen utters covered in rubble and ash, “He saved us” wherein Superman lands on ground zero and kisses a doe-eyed Lois Lane. This is probably the most tone-deaf portion of the movie from here on out.
Since we are ultimately relating this to comics Superman, I should note there has been plenty of destruction in every iteration of the character. The best stories use the threat of destruction as a motivator for Superman to save people or stop a villainous plot. My personal favorite Superman story is Alan Moore’s unsung masterpiece “For the Man Who Has Everything” and that story takes place entirely within the Fortress of Solitude (there’s a rad adaptation of that story inJustice League Unlimited on Netflix for those interested). Like I mentioned before, Snyder’s visuals are superb and lend themselves to a great visual destructive treat, if far too toned down on the color spectrum. What if the fight had taken place primarily in space, with Zod and his men trying to plant the World Engine on earth with Superman trying to destroy it. You don’t need the second World Engine and you don’t need a fight in Metropolis. You need the fight above Smallville and with the Kryptonians making their way to Earth. There’s your stakes. Can you imagine the image splendor of Zod and Superman fighting in the clouds above an onlooking city full of people as they await seemingly imminent doom?
The rest of the actual fisticuffs being traded in the movie fall into a pattern: Superman tackles someone into something, someone tackles him into something harder. Rinse, repeat, and switch the order. Minus the over-the-shoulder look, the sequence is nothing to write home about (it’s okay to write about it online though, I guess). No, Superman is not primarily responsible for the damage either. It shouldn’t be treated so haphazardly, but it’s not the make or break part of the movie for me. David Goyer’s script leaves the character indirectly responsible for the damage done to society. They’ll answer it in the sequel” is not an answer. In the entirety of the Smallville and Metropolis fights, Superman reacts once, maybe twice, to a destructive sequence around him. But this is more than morally murky (an odd trait given how the movie thrives on your pre-established knowledge of the character) it makes the disaster feel weightless. When the whole argument for the destruction is because it’s supposed to create stakes, we should feel those stakes being firmly planted in dirt and not tossed on top a pool of mud.
Of all the ideas Man of Steel has going for it – I’ll likely be tarred and feathered for this – the idea I’m drawn to the most is Superman killing Zod as a last resort. If there had been pre-established conversations between Superman and another character that Clark didn’t want to kill another person, let alone the last of his kind, the movie could benefit from a heartbreaking yell in the finale. I don’t agree it should happen given the context, but it’s not a far-fetched idea from the start. And at the very least there should have been exploratory dialogue on the merit of death instead of Superman talking to a priest in Kansas for some reason, or a quick transition from  Zod’s death to Superman smashing a drone in front of a General’s car after a barrage of noise for 45 minutes.
I guess that’s where it all comes down to for me. Man of Steel is a movie so in love and obsessed with the idea of Superman, it loses sight of who Superman truly is beyond mere lip service. The movie has Superman punch Zod into space, buildings are smashed, a truly spectacular flight sequence, and a menagerie of people talk about the symbol of hope he’ll become without ever showing us why. Dialogue is nothing, action is everything. Man of Steel left me with a whole lot of nothing trying to be something. You don’t get a passing grade for trying but I can certainly appreciate the endeavor.
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