So much has been written online and in print about Man of Steel in the week since it opened, that I’m hesitant to add anything at this point (though I don’t intend to let that stop me). Despite the massive pre-release buildup, I didn’t anticipate the film would be the subject of quite this much attention, and even controversy.
I was definitely amped up to see it (despite my reservations about Zack Snyder as director), and did so on opening day in IMAX 3D at a 9:15 am showing. Even for someone as absurdly obsessed with films as I am, 9:15 in the morning seems like an odd time to be in a movie theater. But there I was, bright and early, mainly because the AMC theater chain in NYC offers discounted ticket prices for shows that start before 12 noon, and also because I wanted to see it on the IMAX screen.
I was less enthusiastic about seeing it in 3D, but that was part of the package. In the previous six weeks I’d already seen Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness on this same IMAX screen, also in 3D. None of these films, to my eye, gained much by being in 3D. They were shot flat and converted to 3D after the fact. I try to avoid these conversion jobs as much as possible, since the results can be problematic. I have nothing against 3D per se, as long as the film was conceived for 3D and shot that way. So far the best uses of this format that come to mind have been James Cameron’s Avatar (2009), the animated Coraline (2009), and Pina (2011), Wim Wenders’ great impressionistic dance film about choreographer Pina Bausch . Even during the 1950s 3D craze, which mostly showcased gimmicky effects, there were standouts, such as House of Wax (1953), Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), and Inferno (1953), which was more of an immersive experience, though in the last reel they seemed to realize this was a 3D movie, and stuff started flying out of the screen. But regardless of how it was shot, seeing a film in 3D is like wearing sunglasses indoors. There’s always a loss of brightness to one degree or another, which is unfortunate.
Earlier I mentioned my reservations about Zack Snyder. I had some apprehensions when I first heard he would be directing Man of Steel. I’d liked Dawn of the Dead (2004), his remake of George Romero’s zombie epic, even though it lacked the original’s social commentary and satire of American consumer society. But it was good, fast, and really rocked. Snyder’s next film, 300 (2006), was a CGI sword and sandal blood fest that looked and felt like a video game, and was quite ridiculous. His next film, Watchmen (2009), was a major disappointment, when you think of what it might have been. I’d liked the graphic novel it was based on, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons in 1986-87, and had hopes for a film version. Efforts to adapt it had been made over the years, with Terry Gilliam set to direct at one point. He would have the perfect director for this, but finally decided it would be impossible to cover properly in a two and a half hour feature film. He was right. Snyder’s version is an incoherent visual overload that only hints at the originality and complexity of the source material. I have not seen Sucker Punch, which he made in 2011, but by all accounts it’s more of the same.
Which brings us to Man of Steel. Superman is perhaps the iconic American superhero of the 20th Century, standing for “truth, justice, and the American way.” He’s also the ultimate immigrant (“strange visitor from another planet”). It feels like Superman has always been with us, though his journey on film, after Christopher Reeve’s debut in 1978, has been problematic. Superman was created in 1933 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, high school students in Cleveland, Ohio. Superman helped create the superhero genre itself, first appearing in Action Comics #1 in June, 1938. This is considered the Holy Grail of comics, a copy of which sold for $1 million dollars in 2010. By the way, an excellent novel inspired by the lives and work of Siegel and Shuster is Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, published in 2000. I totally fell in love with this book and can’t recommend it enough.
From 1941 to 1943, Max and Dave Fleischer created seventeen animated shorts that helped to define Superman, and much of what they did carried over to the Adventures of Superman television series with George Reeves that aired from 1952 to 1958. Reeves was the first Superman for my generation in the 50s, but when I later saw the Fleischer cartoons, I realized how much had been derived from them. Superman didn’t fly until the Fleischer cartoons. Up to that point in the comics, he only leaped “tall buildings in a single bound.” Here’s one of the Fleischer shorts, “The Mechanical Monsters.” If you’ve never seen any of these, strap yourself in, because they’re pretty amazing. This one, in particular, is an eye-opener. It foreshadows transformer robots, which I’d thought were created by the Japanese and Hasbro in the 1980s, and subsequently turned into a series of soul-crushing Michael Bay films. It’s hard to imagine that someone in Japan hadn’t seen and been inspired by this cartoon.
I seem to be circling around Man of Steel without actually getting into it. There’s so much Superman history that’s gone before that’s it’s hard not to be distracted. Okay, since this film, like all “blockbusters,” is as much, if not more, about dollars and cents than anything else, let’s get that out of the way first. Man of Steel reportedly cost Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures a staggering $225 million to make, with a global marketing cost of $150 million. But don’t be too concerned for these people, because even before its release, Man of Steel had already recovered $170 million for marketing rights from companies such as Wal-Mart, Kellogg’s, Nokia, Converse, Gillette, and toy makers such as Mattel, Fisher Price, and Lego. As the Tribeca Film website says, “Man of Steel is more of a marketable product than a cinematic work.” Of course, this applies to most of these “tentpole” pictures. On top of that, the film grossed $125 million on its opening weekend, which is the biggest June opening ever, as well as the second best debut of the year after Iron Man 3, which took in $174 on its first weekend.
But is the movie any good? In the final analysis, I don’t think it is. It’s both too much and too little. Current CGI technology allows filmmakers to put just about anything (and as much of it as possible) as they can imagine up on the screen. It might be hard now to remember just how stunning CGI was in a film like James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991). We’re so used to it that it’s become sort of ho-hum. The structure of most of these effects-driven films is to present bigger and bigger action set-pieces, one after the other, with as little down time as possible in between. That’s why last year’s The Avengers (the third-highest grossing film of all time so far), written and directed by Joss Whedon, seems like such an anomaly. As impressive and often thrilling as the action sequences were, what I enjoyed most were the frequent scenes of the superhero team just standing around bickering and sniping at each other. This felt authentic and recognizable, and made the film itself feel more real because of it. Whedon has a rather unique sensibility, an ability to bring genres to life in quirky ways we haven’t seen before. He cares about the human factor. Vampires and demons may have been what first drew me to Whedon’s great television series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but the ordinary problems of its very relatable characters are what kept me there for seven years. Man of Steel could have used some of this approach.
The first part of Man of Steel is essentially an origin story, with enough twists and turns to make it feel new (yet familiar), while still following the basic outline of Superman’s beginnings. I get it that the filmmakers wanted to bring Superman into the present world, to bring him up to date. This makes sense. After all, DC Comics has rebooted their entire superhero universe a number of times over the years.
Man of Steel opens with a lengthy and rather disorienting prologue on the planet Krypton, which ends when Jor-El (Russell Crowe) sends his only son Kal-El (the future Clark Kent/Superman) into space towards Earth, just before Krypton explodes, but not before Jor-El has had a fatal showdown with General Zod (Michael Shannon), leader of a coup to take over the soon-to-not-exist Krypton. Zod is after a mysterious “Codex” that Jor-El has stolen and put in the rocket with Kal-El. Zod defeats Jor-El, but his coup fails before he can stop Kal-El’s rocket. He and his two lieutenants are banished to the Phantom Zone, but we can be sure they’ll be back, since we’ve already seen a version of this in the second Christopher Reeve film, Superman II (1980), when Terrence Stamp was a somewhat more nuanced Zod. It this sounds convoluted, it is, and there’s a lot more of it (Jor-El riding on the back of some sort of winged reptile while making his escape after lifting the Codex, for example), and only vaguely comprehensible.
Once on Earth, Man of Steel immediately puts a spin on the traditional origin narrative by jumping ahead 30 years or so to find the now fully grown Clark (Henry Cavill) working on a fishing trawler in the Arctic. The film periodically flashes back to different stages of his boyhood in Smallville, where his father, Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner), has strongly cautioned Clark to never reveal his powers, for fear of how the public (and authorities) would react.
Clark’s “years in the wilderness” is one of several religious (specifically Christian) allusions. Jor-El (who has god-like powers compared to the people of Earth) sends his only son to earth. In the present day of the film, Clark is 33 years of age. The holographic/artificial intelligence presence of Jor-El tells Clark that he can save the world. There’s a scene where Clark goes to a church to see one of his boyhood friends, now a priest. Clark sits in a pew with an image of a kneeling Christ wearing red robes in a stained glass panel in the background. And there are at least two scenes where Clark is in a crucifixion pose.
If you think I’m forcing these connections, I read just yesterday that Warner Bros. had hired a “Christian-focused firm Grace Hill Media to promote Man of Steel to faith-based groups by inviting them to early screenings and creating trailers that highlight the film’s religious themes. They also enlisted Craig Detweiler, a Pepperdine University professor… to create a Superman-centric sermon outline for pastors titled ‘Jesus: the Original Superhero.'” I know this is just more marketing, so I probably shouldn’t be surprised.
When Clark reveals his powers and appears as Superman in the suit (though he’s never called that in the film; the name Superman is said only twice, as I recall), there’s no period of adjustment and acclimation for either Clark or the public to his status. Instead he’s immediately tasked with saving the entire planet from Zod’s plan to convert Earth into a new Krypton, which will unfortunately kill the rest of us in the process.
The film is well cast in the major parts, but since little or nothing anyone says or does seems remotely real, I couldn’t get too involved with these characters. Henry Cavill certainly looks the part as Superman, and he does a good job. Russell Crowe brings a bit of his Gladiator vibe to Jor-El, and gets quite a bit of screen time, even after death. Kevin Costner is a standout as Clark’s adoptive father, Jonathan. The film would have benefited from more scenes of them together. Lois Lane is a major player in this version, but her role is decidedly different from what we’ve seen before. Amy Adams does well in the part, but the character doesn’t have much resonance. The wild card here is Michael Shannon as General Zod. He’s an actor best known for terrific, intensely committed performances in smaller independent films, such as the anxiously strung-out Bug (2006), Revolutionary Road (2008), Boardwalk Empire (HBO 2010-12), The Iceman (2012), and especially two films written and directed by Jeff Nichols, Shotgun Stories (2007) and Take Shelter (2011). He tends to play tightly-wrapped characters, frequently with barely contained violence just under the surface, threatening to erupt. He’s quite good at this, and that intensity probably helped get him cast as Zod, a big part in a huge film that will definitely raise his profile. His Zod is constantly in full glowering mode, eyes popping, cranked up and threatening to blow his gaskets at any moment. The performance is extreme, obvious, and a little silly, but appropriate for the film.
Superman first faces off with Zod and his troops in Smallville, and finally in the seemingly endless climax in Metropolis. For all their super powers, which Zod realizes he also has on Earth, it still comes down to a slugfest. What’s new with Man of Steel is that when Superman hits Zod, or vice versa, they get punched through several city blocks of buildings, causing a stunning amount of damage. This is an impressive effect the first couple of times you see it, but it gets old fast after the next dozen or so. Man of Steel has a PG-13 rating, so all of the damage is to property. But watching it, especially in the Metropolis scenes, where buildings are repeatedly collapsing in a way uncomfortably reminiscent of 9/11, you know that thousands of people are being injured and killed. You see people running, with maybe a scratch or two, but that’s about it. I have a fairly high tolerance to violence in films and television, but this is a lie, an exhausting cartoon. A private company, Watson Technical Consulting, which obviously has too much time on its hands, estimated that 129,000 people would have been killed in Metropolis, with over 250,000 gone missing, and nearly a million injured overall. The physical damage to Metropolis would be at least $700 billion. In the process of trying to save the world, Superman destroys half the city. I don’t think you’d want this guy to hang around.
Here are two trailers for Man of Steel that will give you an idea of what the film is like. The second trailer begins on a more lyrical note, but they both end up in the same place.
The main problem, it seems to me, is with the script. Films that don’t work almost always fail on the script level. A good script can usually survive deficient filmmaking; but it’s next to impossible to make a good film out of a bad script. It goes beyond that for me. Ironically enough, for a film that sucked up this much money, talent, time, and effort, it’s not that entertaining. All I remember about Hans Zimmer’s music is that it was very loud, and that visually the film is not memorable for the most part, despite all the CGI design. The sequence where the newly suited-up Superman is getting the hang of his flying abilities is close to thrilling, but not much else is. Finally, one of the worst things about Man of Steel is the last scene, set in The Daily Planet. It’s clever and cute, I suppose, but when you think about it, makes no sense whatsoever given everything that’s gone before. And what about that Codex? – Ted Hicks