The Two-Penny Review: Man of Steel


Let’s get this out of the way: I’m a pretty big Superman fan. Not crazy obsessive collector-mania level, but I definitely have solidly connected with the concept of the strange visitor from another planet ever since I can remember. My first comic book starred the Last Son of Krypton (and the Radio Shack Whiz Kids!). I definitely rocked the red-and-blue Underoos, and likely not just under my clothing. As time went on, I not only collected more and more Superman comics, but also read books about both the character and his creators I devoured every filmed adaptation of the character that came along, starting with the George Reeves TV series (in reruns), the Christopher Reeve movies, Lois & Clark, and yes, even Smallville (for all 10 painful seasons, which I mostly watched within a few years on DVD). And as anyone who’s seen me in the warmer months (or as we call them here in Las Vegas, “most months”) can attest, yes, I have a tattoo of Clark Kent morphing into Superman, snagged from the cover of one issue of Superman: Birthright, a comic book series that came out about 10 years ago written by Mark Waid and drawn by Leinil Francis Yu.

It’s appropriate that I mention Birthright, because a good chunk of the plot for Man of Steel, the latest big-screen take on Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s iconic creation, is drawn (whether by coincidence or design) from that series. I guess it’s a good time for me to note that SPOILERS BE AHEAD, so if you haven’t seen Man of Steel yet but plan to, you may want to come back later. Birthright both expanded upon and somewhat deviated from the John Byrne-penned “new” status quo established in 1986’s Man of Steel miniseries, which modernized Superman for the 1980s. That modernization was actually based a lot on the Richard Donner Superman movie (aesthetically), and directly informed the Lois & Clark series. It recast generic “evil scientist” Lex Luthor as an all-powerful and corrupt titan of industry, Lois Lane as a strong, independent woman no longer chasing Superman or his secret identity, Clark Kent as a less-bumbling and more confident person (Byrne did away with the idea of “Clark is the mask” thing, making him his own rich character), and aside from a bunch of other peripheral stuff, established one very important, unprecedented notion: that Superman was conceived on Krypton, but “born” on Earth. None of this “on my planet” or “my people” stuff — Clark Kent was as all-human (ignoring the godlike powers) as he was all-American.

Anyway, back to Birthright: Waid kind of fills in the gaps in Byrne’s origin story, showing us what Clark did in between his time at university and his emergence in Metropolis in his late 20s as both Superman and as a reporter for the Daily Planet, but Birthright also expands and modernizes the origin even further while backtracking a bit. It takes us across the world to Africa, to establish Clark as a global citizen. Luthor is still a ruthless businessman, but now he’s also a scientific genius. Elements of the Smallville TV show were incorporated, such as Luthor having spent time in Clark’s hometown as a teen and somewhat befriending Clark, as well as de-aging the Kent parents. But aside from those aspects and a few other superficial elements, Waid maintained the focus on Clark Kent being a complex, engaging character, one who is discovering himself, his powers, his alien heritage and making a lot of mistakes along the way.

As I mentioned, there is a lot of influence from Birthright in the new Zack Snyder (director)-Christopher Nolan (producer) Man of Steel film. The depiction of Jor-El and Lara sending off the baby Kal-El to save him from the doomed planet Krypton. The globetrotting Clark Kent using his powers for good in secret. The alien invasion timed with his reveal to the world, causing humanity to at first fear and mistrust him (in the comic, it was faked by Luthor; in the film, it was real). Superman having to overcome Kryptonite/Krypton-like atmosphere poisoning to save the day. There are also glaring influences from Byrne, Grant Morrison, even Frank Miller. But there’s a freshness, a willingness to try some new things, such as the sci-fi fantasy take on Krypton, with its mixture of techno-organic machinery and dragon-like creatures. At first that was jarring, but in retrospect, it makes sense to create a contrast to the very grounded Earth the filmmakers painstakingly establish once Kal-El is rocketed to our yellow sun-bathing world.

And once on Earth, I enjoyed Man of Steel very much. I was down with Clark the wandering outsider, trying to keep his head down even when forced to use his super-abilities — and I thought Henry Cavill was great both in and out of costume. He was the first actor to give Superman a very physical presence, and he killed it in some of the more close-up emotional moments. I enjoyed Amy Adams as globe-trotting, Pulitzer-winning journalist Lois Lane, and thought her slow-build connection with Clark worked a lot better than some other interpretations (nods to Waid and Byrne on that point). The rest of the supporting cast was solid as well, especially Kevin Costner, although I kinda feel like he wasn’t acting so much as just playing himself, which worked here. Michael Shannon as the film’s ostensible antagonist, General Zod — despite seeming raves from everyone else — felt at first a bit stiff and uncomfortable in the role of a renegade alien military leader (especially with his distinctive new England accent), but he did seem to ease into the scene-chewing once coming to Earth to terrorize the planet.

That, however, is where the film lost me — and if the popular consensus around the Interwebs is to be believed — it lost everyone else (including Anthony Quinn of the Independent). In the third act, we saw a mostly CGI-enabled rehash of the big final fight scenes of every action movie from recent memory: The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Transformers: Revenge of Michael Bay’s Hair, The Avengers…shall I go on? It was like at this point Nolan said “all right, Zack, I’ve led you to the water, all you have to do is drink,” and instead, he just started kicking and thrashing about, splashing the water everywhere. Everyone got wet, sure, but it didn’t satiate anyone’s thirst. (Did I mangle that metaphor enough for you?) That, and the wanton destruction: Basically, Metropolis gets LEVELED. We’re talking 9/11 times a hundred. The world gets saved, Important Supporting Cast gets saved, Superman becomes the Friendly Trusted Alien, great … but he still let Metropolis get RUINED. That — and this is big comic fan gripe number two — is compounded with the fact that Superman is forced to kill Zod to end all the suffering. Superman killing someone? No way, right?

Here’s the thing: 1. On its own, Man of Steel is a well-made, fairly engaging science-fiction adventure movie. If you knew nothing about Superman, or you were a casual fan who knew him only the same way we all know Mickey Mouse, the Beatles and Jesus, then you probably enjoyed the film immensely. As a summer action movie with some gravitas to it (especially if you like heavy Judeo-Christian allegory), it’s pretty good. 2. Even if you ARE a “Big Blue Boy Scout” Superman fanboy who believes in the always-righteous, always upbeat, Christopher Reeve/All-Star Superman version of the now 75-year-old character, I think the film works well enough within its own internal logic that you might be able to enjoy it, because after the fact — with some additional thinking — those last violent scenes and choices made sense to me … if you can follow my thinking:

First, the reckless endangerment of Metropolis’ citizens: It might not have happened. As someone else pointed out, we never see — aside from a few Daily Planet staffers — all the people being buried beneath the rubble of the skyscrapers being torn asunder by CGI Superman and CGI Zod. After the giant terraforming machine first starts f*cking up the city, for all we know, the Armed Forces or police or Lex Luthor’s private security robots or whatever could have evacuated the city. And only the bold but not very self-preserving Daily Planet staff stuck around to, I dunno, report on stuff or whatever. BUT. Even if thousands of people were getting killed left and right in the service of the planet’s greater good, let’s remember that in the world the film has built for us, this is essentially Superman’s rookie mission. He’s only been in the costume for a day. Prior to this, he’s only performed minor feats of heroics (examples of which were shown in the film). He doesn’t know what the protocol for dealing with a supervillain is. Remember, the first time he fought the Kryptonians, he had the Army with him – they did a lot of the clearing out of townsfolk and dealing with logistics in Smallville while Superman just did all he could, physically, to stop Zod’s people (and for those who say he didn’t use his brain: Um, he did. He didn’t accidentally smash open Zod’s helmet; he knew it would cause the bad guy to suffer from sensory overload). So, in Metropolis, it’s really still his first rodeo (just the second ride, or whatever they do in rodeos), and he’s just doing whatever he can to put Zod down again. Maybe he did try to lead the battle away from the dense city and Zod kept throwing him back — the action moves too fast to really tell, and that IS a problem I had with that sequence.

Secondly, and this will tie back into the first point: The scene where Superman snaps Zod’s neck to save a few scant humans actually works. It works because it does so many things to both define the protagonist and to force his growth. It a) shows that he will not sacrifice the people of his adopted planet just to preserve his last link to his Kryptonian heritage, b) shows how tormented he was over that decision — a “Khan!” moment that I think Cavill executed nicely, and c) reinforces the notion that life IS precious to Superman, so long as he is ABLE to preserve it. There was a great storyline in the late 1980s Superman comics where Supes is forced to kill Zod and his cronies after they lay waste to an alternate Earth, and he’s so guilty, he exiles himself from Earth into outer space. It allowed him to discover a lot of things about himself, come to terms with what he did, and develop a sound reasoning for his “no kill” policy. [EDIT: Looks like I’m right: That was Snyder’s intention.] And that’s exactly what his forced decision to kill Zod in Man of Steel does. His character grows, he learns, and — here we come back to point one — he also won’t likely approach another battle the way he did with Zod and his forces. He’s seen the devastating potential of his own actions. Again, all of this makes sense within the context of the film, and if it failed, it failed because the message was too subtle, lost beneath the shock-and-awe approach to the climactic battles.

So … yeah, I’d like to see Cavill, Adams, Fishburne and the rest return for a second film, where our hero has established his presence, put down roots, learned some essential lessons, and maybe we can take a slightly less schizophrenic approach to exploring the world in which they all exist. And I like the tense relationship between Superman and the U.S. government established at the end of the film. It makes perfect sense. What, you think if the NSA is interested in YOUR phone calls, they wouldn’t be interested in keeping track of an indestructible alien who is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound?

1 Comment

  1. Dan O. June 18, 2013 12:36 am 

    Can’t say I’m really happy the way the movie turned out, but at least I was pleased. Good review PJ.