Man of Steel (2013) Review

Let me dispense with a few preliminary facts before I begin this review in earnest, lest Man of Steel‘s merits are wholly submerged in the invective I intend to heap on this ghastly affair.

First, Henry Cavill is a respectable Superman. Despite the utter lack of depth, insight, interest, or humanity written for the character, the actor acquits himself of the role just fine.

Second, Amy Adams is still one of the most beautiful and gifted actresses in North America and, despite spending half the film falling from sheer heights, she is a superlative Lois Lane.

Third, Zack Snyder films CG really well. I wouldn’t personally put him in charge of directing anything in three dimensions, but he frames pretend explosions with aplomb.

Fourth, at least we didn’t spend the first ten minutes of the film watching Russell Crowe ride a CG dragonfly. Oh wait. Yes we did. I’m sorry, I headed into the bad parts without warning you…

If you’re reading simply to ascertain whether I enjoyed this film or not, you can stop now and use the twelve dollars you would have spent on a ticket to buy yourself a nice meal or two gallons of gas. Your call.

Getting into the plot of this film might slow the momentum of my obloquy but probably no more than having to find more synonyms for that word – plus I’m still angry that I paid money to see this dog’s breakfast and so was prevented from walking out in the final hour of the film even after I had completely ceased caring – so plot you shall have.

Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) spends 33 years feeling very lonely. Then bad guys from his home planet Krypton come to kill everybody on Earth for absolutely no goddamn reason. And then they all fight for about an hour. I’ll put it another way: Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Pa Kent (Kevin Costner) spend 90 minutes telling us that one day Superman will be really important and really special. And then that happens. (See, they didn’t know we were watching a movie about Superman and we knew that was going to happen anyway; thus making the first half of this movie moot, uninteresting, repetitive, and trite.)

Superman is the oldest superhero in America. So Man of Steel had literally a greater wealth of tales to draw from than any comic book film to date. The storied potential goes even further back than that, to Phillip Wylie’s 1930 book Gladiator, which inspired Siegel and Schuster to create their Action Comics hero. And screenwriter David S. Goyer did indeed draw from that book for the first scene of the adult Superman (in the book, protagonist Hugo Danner saves a man from a shark, not ten men from petroleum as Clark Kent does, but I’m on to you, Mr. Goyer). And so it is with equal or greater disappointment that I ask of this film, as I did with 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine, why skew so far from the source material if the product is so profoundly underwhelming?

I admit that Superman is not the most glamorous or interesting of heroes. He is nigh-invulnerable, after all. At least that’s what I thought, before I read Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman, a work of such heartfelt creativity that the author transforms an unwieldy protagonist into a character of fun and adventure in a mere twelve issues. Morrison did that with one pen and one great artist (Frank Quitely). Meanwhile, Zack Snyder had hundreds of millions of dollars at his disposal and churned out something thoroughly disposable.

Man of Steel is not fun. Its action scenes are filmed well enough, but after a while it’s really just the same thing over and over again: super strong people throwing human beings through buildings, or throwing each other through buildings. At first it’s spectacular. And then your brain starts asking you if you’re going to eat a sandwich soon because it’s hungry and this story isn’t going anywhere.

Christopher Nolan was brought on to produce this flick with the intent of bringing the same grounded direction to Superman that he brought to Batman. Yes, the Dark Knight series raked in a ton of money, but a realistic and gritty Batman works. I hate to say this, but a realistic Superman is never going to fly. Superman is a protagonist of god-like power and the only way to make that interesting is to make him interesting, make his world bright and fun, ditch the self-serious tone and give us a charming comic book hero. Batman is not supposed to be charming. Batman can be a bit of a fascist. There’s a reason Christopher Reeve was beloved by millions, and it has nothing to do with red underwear.

There is no charm here. Everything that has to do with Krypton is absurd (both their cartoon zoology and their 100,000-year-old fashion choices) and the Jesus imagery is so heavy-handed it makes Superman Returns look subtle. How many years does Clark spend as a carpenter – I mean, itinerant laborer – before he begins to work his miracles? General Zod’s ultimate plan in this film is to terraform the planet immediately, kill everybody, forget how to act, and remake Krypton – even when his people can be harmed by no one but the peaceful Superman (a peaceful Superman with no compunctions to killing a dude). Simply sitting down to chat with Earth would have saved everybody a lot of grief.

Perhaps my greatest objection to this film is my abiding objection to any film, in that it attempts to pass off a script written by a toddler to grown up consumers. And because this is a big budget summer Superman film, Man of Steel will make its hundreds of millions of dollars back and Hollywood will think we want more of this tripe. We are not a discerning enough consumer base to say, wait, stop, this is hardcore nonsense you’re barking at us.

The dialogue in this film is so moist it gave me an ear infection. If you don’t believe me, do this exercise when you go see the film:

  • Count all the times someone tells Clark he’s important or destined to change the world.
  • Count all the times General Zod screams something.
  • Count all the times someone says they’re scared of aliens.

Once you’ve marked all those instances, let me know what you have left. Spoiler alert: It’s not a good movie.

Based on the character “Superman” created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster

Man of Steel (2013)
PG-13
Directed by Zack Snyder
Warner Bros. Pictures
143 Minutes

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6 Comments on Man of Steel (2013) Review

  1. I still haven’t seen this movie. I’ll probably buckle eventually, but in the meantime: if people continue to insist that Superman is Jesus, why didn’t they take a page out of the best Jesus movie ever made? In The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson didn’t dick around telling us Jesus’ origin, because it’s a story everyone already knows. He got straight to the good stuff: I propose a film called the Passion of Superman, which glosses over all the origin stuff and is simply Doomsday beating Superman up, as violently as possible, for two hours. They both die, and at the end, we see Superman walking out of his “tomb.” It would help really get the message across that Superman died for US.

  2. SPOILER ALERTS!

    SPOILER ALERTS!

    Well, I’ll admit that the movie suffered from some nasty editing problems. The first half of the movie felt like a Superman clip show than an actual film, and Zack Snyder has ‘never’ been a good director of actors (those “deep” scenes with young Clark Kent were painful to watch). I thought this was Michael Shannon’s worst performance by a mile, especially after just seeing him drop the mic in The Iceman, though he had some good line deliveries in this movie….here and there. I felt there were some great moments interspersed through David S. Goyer’s attempt to sabotage Superman (I recently read a review calling Goyer a “franchise freeloader” compared to the writing output of the Nolan Brother’s work in the Batman movies and I wholeheartedly agree). The Christ metaphors have always been in Superman. Goyer admits himself that they were in the comics from the start, but film-makers should never have their actors raise their arms symbolically. EVER. AGAIN. PLEASE. When has this ever worked aside from a humorous context or if you’re actually playing Jesus?

    Despite all these problems, I saw where Zack and Chris were going for with this movie and I thought there were some strong moments that really delivered on this “dark, realistic, gritty” approach to Superman. I thought Kevin Costner, despite some of the lines he was given, did a great job. Some people have been complaining that the movie is inert, soulless, and a bit lacking in emotion, but I thought the whole tornado sequence was very convincing. When a single piano note is enough to jar your attention to what is going on amidst all the GCI chaos, I think you’ve done your job well. You noted the main gripe among fans, that being Superman is peaceful but kills a dude. I thought it was the best part of the whole movie! We’re given a 2+ hour movie about an alien that is lost amongst a species he really doesn’t fit in with, and the first person Kal El ever kills is someone of his own kind. There’s clearly some humanity in this entire scene where Supes doesn’t want Zod to vaporize that family, but he has no choice but to kill the only other Kryptonian left, thus truly making Superman the last son of Krypton. It’s some pretty fucked up ethics aftermath, but we see the anguish he has afterwards. Was there ‘any’ indication prior to this scene about Superman being thrilled or delighted to see members of his own kind? No. Would it have made sense to have this written in there (looking at you Goyer)? Sure. Would it have made the last moment more powerful and emotionally significant? Totally. I wish they did, but I’m glad we at least had this moment and maybe one or two others, depending on your enjoyment of sentimentality (I’m a sucker for children pretending to be the very heroes they will one day become as they conveniently wear red capes, but that’s just me) to at least see Zack Snyder’s template of the Superman movie he set out to make.

    I got to see Superman finally ‘punch something!’
    Through fifteen buildings!
    Multiple times!
    The shameless philistine in me had a ball! 😀

    • Michael- Thanks for reading.

      I totally agree that the first part is basically a clip show but I couldn’t disagree more that Kevin Costner gave a good performance. I don’t really think it’s his fault; the acting in this film is so universally bad it’s almost like everyone just threw up their arms and said, yeah, okay, let’s just get this over with… Costner looked like he’d just been awoken from a nap he had every intention of returning to in every scene he was in. And Michael Shannon, oi…shame, shame, shame.

      As for the Christ parallels, I honestly think it’s the weakest kind of storytelling. Siegel and Schuster were Jewish kids from New York who saw Superman as a people’s hero, a fighter for the working class and everyman. He was a fun, pulpy character who didn’t mind getting a little mischievous when the occasion called for it.

      And while Kal-El does kill Zod in most media and does feel bad about it, there was really no more conflict there than a big scream from our hero. I know that that’s pretty much all we can expect from Snyder, but that’s precisely why he was the wrong director for this project.

      The shameless philistine in me also enjoyed seeing people get punched through buildings, but so much alien nonsense precedes the Supes/Zod fight that by the time the two of them got down to fighting I was beyond bored. They played up the “alien” element so much that half the time I felt like I was watching an Independence Day remake; the terraformer machine was interesting, but that thing just got me thinking of the Stark Trek remake; not a good sign when your ‘brand-new-take-on-superman’ rips off sci-fi ephemera.

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