Published on July 5th, 2013 | by Jordan Petersen0
REVIEW: Man of Steel
Summary: Despite some glaring flaws preventing it from reaching its full potential, the film is visually stunning and worth a watch in theaters.
Man of Steel could have been the best Superman movie ever made. And maybe it was, considering the competition. Much as I love Christopher Reeve, those movies started off hokey and got progressively worse. Superman Returns was a good effort, but cared way more about the Catholic-Christian symbolism than it did its own story, and collapsed under its own thematic weight. For the record, I liked that one, but I understand why it failed.
One of the perennial problems with Superman narratives is that so few storytellers know how to manage an invincible hero. The answer, even from the earliest comic book origins, has been Kryptonite. Returns even went so far as to confront the blue and red costumed alien with an entire island made of the stuff. Well, OK. But let’s take a moment to remember how that movie ended. If you haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil it for you, but suffice it to say that nothing turned out to matter very much.
The conventional wisdom is that invincibility isn’t dramatic. Every super hero needs a weakness (or several, or many) so that we can believe he could be defeated and killed. So Superman has been a big problem. Many writers and filmmakers have sensed the mythically substantial potential of this original super hero, but have failed to execute a story that in any way realizes it. Their solution has been to collapse the Man of Steel into a more generic hero by surrounding him with Kryptonite.
From the trailers, it appeared as though someone had finally figured out what makes Superman interesting. A Zod underling threatens, “You can’t win. For every one of them you save, we’ll kill a million.” AHA, thought I. That’s it. That’s what makes the Man of Steel a dramatic character. So what if he can’t be killed? No one was ever going to believe that. The whole point of him is that he’s invincible and omnipotent. We’ve seen over and over again that there is no limit to his strength, or his virtue, for that matter.
So give him a choice. A dilemma. Sure, you can save Lois Lane, but what if saving her means letting tens, thousands, millions of others die? What if by fighting to save humanity, you are expediting their suffering and death? What if the only solution appears to be defeat? What if to save all of humanity, you have to make the decision to destroy an entire city, or nation?
These are the questions that should drive a Superman narrative. I would argue that they are far more dramatic, and difficult, and compelling than any momentary worry that the Man of Steel himself might be vulnerable to physical peril.
And in that way, Man of Steel failed. It promised, but did not deliver. All of the elements necessary for a fresh and complicated Superman story were included, but not utilized. Instead of paying off what they set up (sort of), they defaulted on the same old boring superhero tricks every comic book movie and its mother is using these days. Oh no! New York is getting destroyed!
This wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t reduced to empty spectacle. At some point, the bare fact that all this godlike combat and destruction must be costing literally millions of lives is completely forgotten. It’s as if, in the frenzy of composing scenes in which General Zod and Clark Kent are throwing one another through skyscrapers, the filmmakers simply forgot that people would die in these sorts of situations. Lots and lots of people.
It wouldn’t have taken a lot for Mr. Kent to pause for just a moment, and face the horror of the situation. Then he could have perhaps worked to get his Kryptonian enemies away from such heavily populated arenas. You know what else? He could fail. He could fail to remove this terrible battle from the metropolis because his enemies are bent on the ravaging of human life.
Is that too dark for you, Mr. Snyder? Mr. Goyer? Mr. Nolan? Come on, guys. Since when did you leave your adulthood and sense of moral responsibility at the door? Man of Steel would have been the perfect opportunity to tell the more mature story, to travel a road audiences are ready to travel, to see more, and feel more in this era of epic saturation.
They sold the story short. Just like The Avengers, it ends up looking like Transformers. It’s embarrassing and sad. Nobody’s any better for it, and probably we’re all just a little worse off. In a post-9/11 world, there’s really no excuse for this bizarre, oblivious recklessness.
I could go on and on about this. I think it’s the most important criticism of the film. Outside of it, however, there was plenty to enjoy. Thanks to Snyder’s sense of visual style (just about the only thing the director has going for him), Steel was probably the best looking superhero movie yet. And the spectacle, for all its moral deficiency, was truly wondrous to behold.
The flashbacks were stupid. The film would have lost nothing, and ended up a lot stronger, if it had just been told linearly. We don’t need to start with Clark on a fishing boat, then jump around to fill in his “backstory.” Just put the damn scenes in order. It’s like the writers (or whoever ultimately made these decisions) are terrified of straightforward timelines. Why? Are we going to get bored if we see the Kents find the little alien baby first, then watch him grow up? Not if the scenes are interesting. For the more part, they were, but the disease of fragmented first acts defused whatever dramatic power they may have had if they’d been left in proper sequence.
Despite everything, the film is worth seeing, if only for its cultural significance. And it takes a certain kind of pretentiousness not to enjoy what Man of Steel does have to offer. Let’s just hope that someone, somewhere will pull together the resources to tell the kind of story Man of Steel could have told, but didn’t. ♦ ♦ ♦