Reign of the Supermen #484: Henry Cavill

Source: Man of Steel (2013)
Type: Film
I'm late to the party, I know. I only went to see Man of Steel this week, after all the vitriolic furor, impassioned defenses and yes, reasoned critiques of the previous couple weeks. I knew what to expect, and couldn't avoid a couple of key spoilers (AND MORE SPOILERS AHEAD), which certainly colored my experience. Is it the Superman movie I would have liked to see? Not really. Is it good on its own terms? While not without its problems, my thumb is still pointing up. Before going into my likes and dislikes, let's talk about the Henry Cavill Superman:

He looks and sounds the part, I have no problems with that, and while I'm not a fan of the pantsless uniform, it works in the context of the film's production design. Given Krypton's more fantasy-based fashions, it has the feel of some Roman Centurion's outfit, with a longer cape. We don't see a lot of Cavill's mild-mannered reporter, we do see a lot of Clark - as a Smallville resident, as a drifter, holding various jobs, etc. - I can't say I enjoy the character's anger management issues, but I accept this was meant to be a "becoming a hero" sort of story where Clark's powers have been repressed and come out in fits of rage (it doesn't happen often, but what he does to the trucks strikes me as particularly petty). He must first reject Pa Kent's view that his "coming out" would bring society to its knees (read in that what you will), and accept his destiny. Only then can he be comfortable with who he is. That's a perfectly legitimate take on the idea, and maybe that's why the movie plays coy with calling him "Superman". By the end, when he's announced he'll defend the Earth on his own terms and is declared "hot" by G.I. Jane, it's like we're now where we should be. Superman can exist in our world without him (or us) being ashamed of him. (I'm sure the sequel will do its best to prove me wrong.)

Let's address the elephant in the room: Superman kills Zod by snapping his neck. This was one of the unavoidable spoilers because it made people shout "that isn't Superman!" on the Twitter real loud. Of course, that's a fanboy reaction. The people I was with didn't realize superheroes weren't meant to kill, because guess what, they do kill in most movies. It's a weakness of films like this where villains must be dealt with definitively as opposed to comics, where villains must be kept around for return engagements. Of course, the other Phantom Zone villains were put back in storage, so why not Zod? Now, when I saw the sequence, I thought it worked for two reasons: 1) It was written as a no-win scenario (Snell tells you why it wasn't really, and yes, better writing would have avoided the dilemma entirely, but an inexperienced Superman might not see many option, especially for what to do next after the Phantom Zone warp has closed) and 2) Superman's reaction to killing was visceral. You wanted a "crying Superman"? You got one. He's never doing THAT again. I was far more ambivalent about the wholesale destruction of Smallville, to tell you the truth, but I'm getting ahead of myself...

STUFF I LIKED!
-Krypton. Trading the stupid crystal look which I so hated with a fantastic Barsoom kind of aesthetic was a big draw for me. I'd have watched a whole movie about action hero Jor-El in this kind of environment. It was grand science-fiction, borrowing elements from Byrne's sterile Krypton, while retaining a certain lusty physicality in Krypton's first couple. The idea that their technology didn't have screens that project light, but instead a kind of living metal showing things in relief was brilliant.
-Jor-El. Russell Crowe's really really really redeemed himself in my eyes over the last few years with his roles in Man with the Iron Fists, Republic of Doyle and now this (it's convincing me to watch Les Mis). His Jor-El is the one source of humor in the film, especially his "computer echo" which delightfully keeps him in the film longer than the prologue, and in a more active role than Marlon Brando's floating head. He's so badass, he steals the movie away from the star.
-One of my very favorite versions of the Superman origin story is the Bruce Timm's animated series pilot, which in many ways this steals from. It's Zod instead of Brainiac, but Superman finishing what his father began by facing a threat just as much from Krypton as he is himself works very well for me.
-The supporting cast. While the relentless action doesn't give all of them room to shine and the writing doesn't always give them their best chance, the characters meant to return are all well-played by very watchable actors. Amy Adams' Lois Lane is awesome, a real kickass go-getter. Laurence Fishburne's Perry White is a man who takes care of his people, both professionally and physically. Diane Lane's Ma Kent is earthy and supportive. Michael "Stamper" Kelly is an odd casting choice for Steve Lombard physically, but I enjoy the heck out of him. And Richard Schiff is a bonus as Emil Hamilton (does he die though?) who gets his own hero moment. So as you can see, one of the thematic threads of the film is giving Clark many human role models so he can ultimately choose to be "one of us" and not "one of them". (Zod makes that pretty easy though.)
-LexCorp gets a reference, and it would seem that, at the very least, Metropolis' destruction would justify Luthor's hatred of Superman and set him up as the city's rebuilder and jealous co-savior.
-All the action we were missing in Superman Returns! And a bit more besides (my cup runneth over). Returns was intent on not having Superman throw a punch. Not the case here, and we get a lot of super-feats, in different styles (thanks to the villains).
-Faora-Ul is a way creepier and cooler villain than Zod. Move over bacon, now for something more reptilian!
-So Superman's flight powers have a telekinetic element? Or he harnesses gravity somehow? I don't dislike it, it's interesting.
-I'm not a big fan of Zack Snyder's, but he IS an crafter of images. In 300 and Watchmen, he was way too obsessed with recreating others' images, but here gets to create his own. The movie looks gorgeous even in its muted color palette.
-That last line. Loved it. I can't believe I've never seen it or read it before (though it may exist somewhere).

STUFF I DIDN'T!

-It looks like since Marvel's cornered the market on fun superheroes who can do comedy, and Green Lantern, meant to be the same, tanked, DC is going all out on the dark, dour, humorless and pretentious superhero angle. It works for Batman, but the Nolan formula takes away from Superman and is at odds with the character AND Man of Steel's exhilarating action scenes. The next film needs more fun and cheek.
-I've always hated Kevin Costner's work with the heat of a thousand burning suns, and Man of Steel doesn't change that. His Pa Kent is lame to the extreme, and teaches young Clark that humans will fear and reject him and that with great power comes great shame, not responsibility! (!!!!) His suicide is proof of his lunacy and also the crux of my next niggle.
-The Dark Knight was all about impossible choices, and the ability of various characters to navigate those choices, sometimes finding a third option, sometimes failing miserably. They tried this with Man of Steel, but because Superman has so many options open to him, they are false choices. The Dark Knight's strength is Man of Steel's weakness. Pa Kent's death by tornado is stupid because Clark could have saved him many many times over. And we've already talked about Zod's death as a failure of the writing. The one moral dilemma that worked was whether to help recreate Krypton as per Jor-El's wishes or choose to become the Last Son of Kyrpton by choosing humanity, and even there... "Krypton had its chance" is easy to say when Zod and his cohorts are so committed to genocide.
-There is a lot of destruction in this movie, and countless lives were destroyed and lost for sure. That Superman is seldom seen trying to save anyone who didn't previously have a line is problematic. In most comic book stories, the Metropolis battle would have taken place in an abandoned construction/demolition site, and the Man of Steel would have lured the villains away from Smallville as soon as possible (way to go, U.S. military, let's bomb a small Kansas town). Of course, what's more egregious is that the Metropolis battle is pretty much the exact same sequence as the equally problematic Avengers' climax - alien invaders make buildings fall down until they are sucked into a dimensional warp! Been there, done that, Mr. Snyder.
-The PG-13 rating. I'm fine with the film going for more intense action and violence, but it gave them permission to use stronger language which really doesn't fit a superhero movie, in my opinion. And it adds absolutely nothing to the story or tone.
-What was the big hoopla with Jimmy Olsen being turned into a girl? Jenny is not credited as an Olsen, nor is she a photographer or a redhead. There's nothing to connect her to Jimmy, as if they'd let the door open for Turtle-Boy to show up later. Pointless.
-They missed a trick by not having the boat Clark works on be called the Lori Lemaris. Lana gets a nod, Lois is a strong presence in the film, where's Lori?! (My friends wanted Aquaman to swim up and save Clark while he was reenacting the start of The Bourne Identity, and yeah, some finny legs in frame would have been a cool foreshadowing of a Justice League movie, but no, that would have been FUN.)

But what did YOU think? I know everyone has an opinion on this.

29 comments:

Anonymous said...

You mentioned "Superman: The Animated Series" ... of the various Superman origin / first big challenge stories, I have yet to see any finer. Just as some say they'd like to see a movie of "Batman: Year One", I'd like to see a movie of the STAS introductory arc. Even STAS's Jor-El was the smartest one yet: not only did he have a realistic plan to save the people of Krypton (Phantom Zone / fly to earth / pop 'em out), but he also programmed the rocket so it landed gracefully on earth rather than crashing. I think he was just showing off with that last part.

snell said...

For what it's worth, until last week IMBD listed Rebecca Buller's role as "Jenny Olsen," which is where the idea came from. Now they just list "Jenny." Whether IMDB was wrong or Snyder/W changed their minds will have to wait for a commentary track.

Allow me to gripe about one more instance of shabby plot construction: the Kryptonians insist on taking Lois aboard (for no apparent reason); they lock her in a room with a computer terminal that can access the whole ships systems; she downloads Obi-Wan Jor-El into the main frame where he can override their systems--and basically he just opens and closes doors, instead of something more useful like, oh, I don't know, deactivating all the terraforming stuff or flummoxing the guidance systems or any one of 10,000 useful things. That's Arc Of Infinity level stupid :-)

Finally, I will note that having Clark kill Zod, justifiable or not, is flagrantly inconsistent with both the Jesus allegories and aspirational pep talks from Jor-El. By the standards the movie itself sets for him, Kal-El fails (unless I'm forgetting all the "Jesus snapping necks" stories from the Bible...)

LiamKav said...

One big difference with the Avenger's climax was that, in that film, the good guys were shown trying to help the civilian population. Cap tries (and succeeds) to get the police to evacuate the local populace, he saves people on several situations...

Whereas in MOS, I kept seeing Superman throw Zod into a building and thinking "well, you're probably killed at least twenty people in doing that, Clark". And it was just...so...relentless. Avengers mixed it up going from the sky, to ground level, from big bits to small bits (and granted, having a diverse cast helped that.) MOS just seemed to be smash building smash building smash builing.

The bit where Clark kissed Lois in the middle of what looked like a post-apocolyptic warzone was especially ridiculous. I kept thinking "there are trapped people! Go and save them first!" Avengers didn't make me think that, because I felt that there were people doing their best to help the civilians.

LiamKav said...

"Finally, I will note that having Clark kill Zod, justifiable or not, is flagrantly inconsistent with both the Jesus allegories ..."

There were Jesus allegories? Well, they must have been pretty subtle as I didn't notice any of them.

*cough*

Siskoid said...

Anon: His baby was in there. He probably made sure it had landing protocols FIRST.

Snell: The plot definitely doesn't stand up to scrutiny and as with most plot holes, they can be fixed with a simple line of dialog. "If Kal-El won't play ball, we'll use her as leverage. Put her in here, she can't do anything." "I'm still trying to gain control of major systems."

As for the Jesus allegory it doesn't stand up and never will because Superman is the Jewish Golem not the Christian Messiah, not matter how much they try to push it.

I think heroes are allowed to fail, and if this is designed as a first chapter, then he can learn to do better in future installments. Is it a more cynical take than the Superman we grew up with? Definitely. Is it any less legitimate? Probably not. (Personally, I'm still waiting for a Silver Age Superman movie where all he does is dick around and the last act is all revelatory flashbacks.)

Liam: Definitely. Again, how about a short sequence where Superman chooses a building based on his x-ray vision's confirmation of its evacuation? (Still not a good idea, but way better than death by thrown Zod.)

snell said...

I don't mind heroes being allowed to fail (see Spider-Man). What I do mind is that it's intellectually and creatively inconsistent with the framework they've thrown up around this movie. 4 times in the film Jor-El tells folks that Kal-El is better than others, and will lead them by example, and give them something to aspire to. And when push comes to shove, Kal doesn't. He's failed by Jor-El's parameters, which are all the movie has given us (Jesus aside). And I don't think the 5 second "crying Superman" (with ZERO explanation/follow-up) comes close to giving us the moral lesson the movie seems to believe it's teaching.

Of course, the bottom line of the movie is, while Jor-El was wrong, Pa Kent was right--if Clark doesn't go investigating his origins, Zod never comes to Earth, happy ending for everyone. Keep it in the closet, Clark, or millions die. There's your cynical take on Superman...

Siskoid said...

Thanks Snell, I knew you'd come through. :)

Anonymous said...

What to do with a bad guy like Zod. If they ever want to do an alternative take on the Phantom Zone, Superman could devise a VR program that puts the subject on another world, where they have the option to do good or ill; once they have demonstrated that choosing good (or at least indifference) is their norm, the VR simulation ends. So not a physical Phantom Zone but a mental one, and one that offers rehabilitation as well as eventual release. And much more humane than endless sensory deprivation.

The only question is what to do with criminals who refuse to rehabilitate ... or, you know, if someone trips over the power cord.

Siskoid said...

Superheroes as jailors is probably an uncomfortable area to explore.

Anyone remember Chain Gang War though?

Larry E said...

I like your idea of a Silver Age Super-dickery film. It would be a great spoof of the genre. 9 I imagine a 30-ish Fran Drescher as the annoying prying Lois. And you could still introduce JLA heroes to help Superman perpetrate his hoax "to teach her a lesson."

Siskoid said...

Snell: I knew you'd come through, buddy ;-)

Larry: Great casting. The movie would obviously be about a) the Superman Revenge Squad, b) a secret identity crisis, and c) Superman caught between Lois and Lana's attentions, wanting to marry neither.

And the puzzle's "solution" would involve both Superman robots AND Krypto.

LiamKav said...

I'm reminded of Chris Sims' comment about the Superman as Jesus allegory. He said it didn't really hold up, because as far as he was aware "Heaven didn't explode shortly after Mary gave birth".

This film down follow a long standing tradition though, which is that 99% of the population of Krypton seem to be massive arseholes. Kal-El was pretty lucky to escape, frankly.

LiamKav said...

"Liam: Definitely. Again, how about a short sequence where Superman chooses a building based on his x-ray vision's confirmation of its evacuation? (Still not a good idea, but way better than death by thrown Zod.)"

It's been a while since I've seen it (and I really don't want to) but someone mentioned to me that even in Superman Returns, there are several scenes where Superman tries as hard as possible to prevent collatoral damage while saving the day.

That's the thing about Superman. While Peter Parker struggles, and sometimes fails, Superman will always find a way. Because he's Superman. And taking that away, you risk taking away the reasons why the character has lasted almost a century. (As had been pointed out, who exactly is young Clark pretending to be when he puts that red cape on? Thor?)

notintheface said...

Snell: That's kind of like how the bad guys would always lock the A-Team up in auto garages, machine shops, or tool sheds.

That Snyder interview where he explains the reasons for the neck-snapping is particularly annoying. "His aversion to killing was unexplained." Really? What about his parents? Or his teachers? Or that Christian church you showed him going to. You know, the one that has "Thou shalt not kill" as one of the Ten Commandments? Should we really have the guy you're setting up as a Christ figure violate the biggest of the Ten Commandments?

Siskoid said...

Oh man, Snyder definitely fits the "I don't know WHAT I'm doing" George Lucas class of director.

LiamKav said...

""His aversion to killing was unexplained."

It's true, it WAS unexplained. As was his choice of beer while watching the news. Or why he chooses to style his hair that way. THESE ARE UNEXPLAINED QUESTIONS MR SNYDER!

(Strangely, when I meet people I don't tend to think "so, what IS the reason you haven't killed anyone?" I just assume that "not killing" is most people's default state. Still, I can't wait to see if Clark does some coveting of Lois's ox in the next film...)

Siskoid said...

Well it's a pretty awesome ox.

Even *I* covet it.

Anonymous said...

What you disliked weren't so important.
The movie is still very good.

I feared the worse. Finally there is not a lot of things to complaint about.

I enjoyed it! :)

notintheface said...

I keep hearing people saying the destruction in MOS was just like the destruction in Avengers. SERIOUSLY? I've watched Avengers several times and I still don't remember a huge chunk of New York City being an empty gray crater. You guys?

Siskoid said...

Maybe not the exact details, and there's more of Metropolis TO destroy looks like (what a sprawl!), but aliens attacking and destroying buildings until they are sucked in by a space warp is damn similar.

Man of Steel goes way off the reservation with it, but it's the same basic idea.

idiotbrigade said...

Kinda glad y'all chose to go see this too early for me to get there / wasn't another non-3D showing, because I went to see White House Down instead.

I think I had the better moviegoing experience that day. (Aside from dropping my popcorn before the movie started.)

Michael May said...

Look like we liked and disliked most of the same things. I was disappointed with it, but having seen it a couple of times now, I'm more comfortable with what it is, as opposed with what I wanted it to be. I was hoping for something that could top Superman: The Movie, but that was unrealistic. For all its flaws, Man of Steel is still better than any of the other Reeve films.

About the Christ comparisons: there are certainly valid parallels, but they work best when focused on the characters' inspirational qualities. As everyone's pointed out, a beat-by-beat allegory falls apart quickly, but - heavy handed and unsubtle as Man of Steel was about the parallels - I'm not sure that the movie is trying to make the case for a true allegory.

I do like the idea of Superman-as-Golem, but for that to work, wouldn't humanity need to have a larger role in creating/summoning him? Or maybe my golem lore is bad. It does all come from Paul Wegener and comics. :)

Siskoid said...

It's Golem + Moses, really.

Tristan said...

This isn't meant as some sort of attack on your criticism or anything, but I have to say that it fits a pattern I'm seeing a lot of about MoS (and remember from when Green Lantern came out). All the 'likes' are about actors, set pieces, scenery, or other small touches. The 'dislikes' tend to be where tone, plot, and characterization, all the things that actually tell the story, are covered. Again, this isn't meant as a criticism of how you wrote about it, it's not even about your write-up specifically, just a general pattern I've seen across every more-or-less positive review I've read, that tends to make me think a lot of people are forgiving things in this movie because they want to like it. Basically I find it hard to believe that many such reviewers will stand by their original impressions in five years or so, when the movie is no longer 'of the moment'.

Siskoid said...

That's an interesting observation, though in my case, my "balance" could just as well be motivated by geek-shame for liking it when my brethren were so outraged by it.

It's too early to say if I'm wearing rose-colored glasses. I don't, usually, and if I were to offer a defense of Man of Steel, I probably wouldn't have been so negative about it in the second section. I do believe a film (just like a book, play, comic, song.) can be enjoyed on different levels for different reasons. Watching Man of Steel, I was in turns excited and disappointed, to be sure, but the latter doesn't render the former moot.

I had similar feelings about Superman Returns, and in that case had less to praise. Have we gotten a good Superman movie yet? No (not even the original, I'm sorry, it's full of good moments but it's sooo campy to me). Is this one better than most? It's probably the best since the first one. Deeply flawed.

And yes, let's check back in in 5 years, we'll see where we're at!

Jeff Moore said...

I want to comment on the whole "Zod" controversy. I think taking the hard line, "Superman doesn't kill, ever!" standpoint, isn't really looking at the issue.

If backed into a corner where the only hope that Clark can perceive is the course that he chose, then he made the hard choice ... and that's a character defining moment.

That's good drama.

When someone acts against character because circumstances demand it, that's powerful stuff. Here's my problem with it, and it has nothing to do with Clark taking a life.

The pinnacle moment where Clark breaks Zod's neck, was I think, meant to be this huge character moment of sacrifice for the greater good. Like Spock's self sacrifice in the Wrath of Khan.

Taking a life, no matter how justified is something that should haunt a man like Clark forever. This is as much a self-sacrifice as Spock's as far as I am concerned. That moment could have been powerful drama.

Clark isn't sufficiently developed as a character. We don't get to understand the internal stuggle of the character because the foundation isn't there. We need to understand the value that Clark places on life, and we need to understand Zod's value as a living being.

If the film is depending on us to identify with the character simply because he is "Superman" then that Superman needs to be the character we know (and we are back to the "Superman doesn't kill ever!" arguement.) If the film wants to present us with something else, then that something else needs to be defined within the film's context.

Zod should have been a sympathetic character. He was a soldier trying to save his race. He saw himself as a hero. We should have seen some of this too. Zod's character isn't sufficiently developed.

Clark should have been shown as a heroic figure. Someone who values life and protects it above all else.

I think the film knows what it needs to do. It just doesn't seem to understand how to get there. I am not sure if that'a a problem with the script or the direction, or if it's a symptom of how these films are made and how so many different voices have a stake in the final outcome.

Zod has a few sympathetic moments ... almost. He tells us he's sympathetic at least. Clark saves some people from a fire, but it doesn't feel heroic to me. It just seems to be something that happens because Clark happens to be there. If I had super powers I would probably do the same. Not because I am heroic, but because I was there and helping out really didn't cost me anything.

Back to the Zod thing. Because the characters of Clark and Zod were not sufficiently developed or connected, the tragedy of the sacrifice is lost. All we have left is the "shock."

Unfortunately, because of the action-movie quick take editorial approach of the entire film and the exhausting endless barrage of numbing action at the end ... I am not sure even the "shock" is as powerful as it could have been. Speaking for myself, I was just happy the movie finally seemed to be wrapping up.

For me, for these reasons, the ending was an epic fail. If you take out the "Superman never kills." argument and make this about a completely new world of characters. Characters whose only existence is within the context of this movie. The ending still fails.

And that's a problem.

Siskoid said...

I think you hit it on the nail there.

Maki P said...

I have many feelings regarding this movie most of them negative (I did like the casting, however; the casting was great).
But there's this one thing I noticed, and that I imagined a consummated Doctor Who fan like you would mention: The Kryptonians digivolved into Time Lords! And it's not just their funny headdresses, their whole arrogant, isolationist attitude? Great Rassilon, I thought I was watching an 80s episode of Doctor Who (with Jor-El as the Doctor; and Zod as... not quite as the Master, but close enough)

Siskoid said...

Phantom Zone as Matrix?

 

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