Minutes into the new Superman movie, Man of Steel, I saw Krypton. But only for ten minutes, during which time the film makers attempt to shoe-horn in exposition about war, politics, family, responsibility and Russell Crowe’s beard.
Then we’re off to Earth, only to switch nearly immediately to Sailor Superman saving oil riggers from a gigantic fire. He runs away, because Kevin Costner has told him that humans aren’t ready for him, same as they weren’t ready for Wyatt Earp. And he does something that won’t attract any attention – he impales a truck with telephone poles because the guy pours beer on his head, then somehow gets work on a military site investigating an ancient artefact considered top secret despite his ID barely even existing.
Incongruous? Inconsistent? Illogical? It’s Superman!
Many fans were excited when they heard that Christopher Nolan was going to produce Zak Snyder’s adaptation of the Superman story. I was not among them. I found his Batman trilogy both bombastic and lacking a good story. By Nolan’s own admission, he throws a bunch of ideas at the wall and then… well just leaves them there. Good enough, he shouts and many people agree with him.
The increasingly brooding and po-faced tone of the Batman movies seems to have infected Superman and, simply put, it’s a bad fit. Batman can be bleak because it suits his detective billing. He faces crime rings, gangsters, murderers – cold, cruel people. His rogues gallery are extremes of those types. Superman is, by nature, much more colourful. He faces galactic threats, he saves people from natural disasters, and he also fights crime. Batman is an avenger, Superman is a protector.
And here’s where the problems begin for Man of Steel. There’s clearly the intention to make a Superman Begins sort of story here. Re-establish who the character is for a modern audience and build a new franchise. At the core of Superman, throughout the character’s history, is his decency and concern for others. This facet of Superman is almost totally absent. He refrains from killing the beer dude but ruins the guy’s living by wrecking his truck, when all he needed to do was use his HUGE frame to intimidate the man. And, when his Kryptonian brethren arrive on Earth and start tearing it up, he’s completely unconcerned for human life, allowing the battle to ruin houses, businesses and the surrounding environment.
Ok, let’s say that’s part of his learning arc. He sees the damage he causes in his battle and realises that he must be thoughtful in how he uses his power. Unfortunately, the next major action sequence sees him allowing the majority of inner Metropolis to get trashed (and taking part in it). So, zero character development there.
The ending, of course, is what’s upsetting a lot of fans. For the more excitable people, Superman killing someone maybe seems a small issue. But, as others have pointed out, the decision to kill General Zod is completely undeserved and without foundation. Zod is threatening to immolate a family right in front of Superman and, showing a regard he’s been lacking while smashing the whole city to pieces, he kills the general in one of the most brutal finishes I can think of in a teens movie. It’s “justified” in the Hollywood Handbook, but curiously grubby.
I’ve seen some people defend this by asking, “How can he know that he won’t like killing until he’s tried it?” Well, I’m glad we’ve sorted that out. Personally, if I’m at the stage of wondering whether I’ll like killing, I’m probably not best qualified to be the saviour of humanity. People are too quick to use the “grim and gritty” card to erase these issues. There are bigger moral and personal questions for Superman to answer at the end of Man of Steel. Does he allow the death of the last of his race? Does he accept his birth father’s suggestion that Zod and his ilk are only what they were bred to be? Does he give in to the easy solution of killing Zod or look for a better answer?
But again and again, Man of Steel answers these questions with convenient tropes. Zod kills Clark’s Kryptonian father and threatens to kill an innocent family (who are apparently more important than the other innocents who Clark and Zod have annihilated in the preceding 30 minutes). He confirms he can’t be anything different and is beyond help. So, Clark has every opportunity to make another decision, but he opts to go for force. What I loved so much about Richard Donner’s Superman films (and even Richard Lester’s rework of the sequel to a lesser extent) was that Clark would use his brain to beat opponents just as much as his powers. He’s not just super powerful, he’s super smart.
And that’s where Man of Steel is such a disappointment. The flashbacks of Clark, scared that he’s mentally ill, that he’s a freak and then aware that he doesn’t belong are an aside. Something that has very little impact. The lessons he’s learning from Pa Kent seem to be only about protecting Clark, not the fiction of the comics where they were about using his powers responsibly because he could do serious harm left unchecked. But those moments could have been so powerful, seeing Clark initially reckless before understanding that being a saviour is more than just beating the bad guy. If they still made the choice that he kill Zod, then at least it would have been earned.
All of that ignores some really nice things in the film. First are the performances from Henry Cavill, Costner, Crowe and Diane Lane. They add much of the humanity there is in this cold, over-CGI’d spectacle. Second, although it’s emotionally empty, the ruins of Metropolis are stunning before the final battle. It’s a shame they didn’t take that moment to do something more intelligent than yet more flying and punching. Finally, there are two very impressive scenes about mid-way through. First, Pa Kent telling Clark where he came from is properly gut-wrenching stuff. Second, when Zod tells Clark how they will build the new Krypton is accompanied with some wonderfully creepy and surrealistic imagery.
I know that the Dark Knight trilogy has everyone jumping to the grim n’ gritty bandwagon, much as they did when Frank Miller wrote The Dark Knight Returns. It’s an easy way to say you’re adult without actually being a grown-up. But when you see the work that Joss Whedon did with The Avengers, he dealt with mature themes about power and responsibility in a way that made sense within its own fiction. There are real stakes for the characters in that film, and they’re delivered with much more maturity for the occasional lightness of touch displayed.