Edited by Adam Stumpf
Well, it’s official: Warner Bros. new Superman film, the Zack Snyder-helmed Man of Steel, is a hit. The film raked in around $125 million in North American ticket sales from Friday to Sunday, which was actually 3% higher than anticipated. However, while Man of Steel was a hit financially, it was met with a surprisingly mixed reception from critics. The film currently sits at a 56% on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, which means it has a “rotten” rating. Some of the criticisms that have been leveled against the film include: a convoluted script, a Superman who is too sullen and underwritten, too many actions scenes, and failing to deliver as a “Superman” film. More than anything, fans find this movie to be a disservice to Superman’s character. What is interesting about these complaints is the unified front displayed by both the perpetually negative superhero film critics, as well as the Superman fanboys. Now, my opinion may very well change given that I have only seen the film once, and it was only a few days ago, but as it stands right now, I really enjoyed it. I think Zack Snyder should be commended for making Superman exciting and relevant again. The film had its shortcomings, and I do feel that one further script revision wouldn’t have hurt, but I am going to do my best to defend this film against the critics. My opinions have not diverged from critical consensus like this in a long time, and I want to understand why we can’t see eye to eye on this one. My goal here is to look at four components of the film that have been taken to task by various critics and viewers, and explain why I disagree by sharing my own views about these particular aspects.
I’ll admit that the film’s script had some issues. While my Twitter feed was clogged with complaints from film buffs that I didn’t agree with, there were still things that just didn’t work for me. The prologue on Krypton, honestly, could have been done better. I don’t know if this was so much a script issue as much as me not being able to get on board with some of the wackier design decisions (Jor-El’s flying mount is from Avatar, right?), I felt like the whole sequence could have been edited down, or excised entirely. Russel Crowe was an excellent Jor-El, but I feel like all of his scenes post-prologue were more meaningful than any of the ones on Krypton.
Another idea that fell flat for me was Superman being the….well, I can’t even remember what it was called, so obviously it wasn’t important. Basically, it’s revealed that Kal-El holds the key (the catalyst?!) for Krypton’s rebirth, exactly what villain General Zod is after. Zod makes a rather chilling remark about taking it from his corpse, but the whole thing just doesn’t pan out or hold the significance that scriptwriter David S. Goyer probably wanted it to. Oh well, there seems to be some sort of lame McGuffin in every blockbuster these days. Khan’s blood anyone?
Building on the script issues, one of the main criticisms that’s flying around is the undercooked romance between Clark Kent and Lois Lane. While most reviews seem to be favourable towards both Henry Cavill and Amy Adams’s performances, the argument has come up that there simply is not enough chemistry between them. Honestly, this issue didn’t really occur to me while I was watching the movie. I definitely think it’s a valid argument, as there was not much emotional weight in any of the scenes between these two. The love plot felt a little forced, like it had to be there. As it stands though, I still think Cavill and Adams played their roles well, and there’s definitely room for the chemistry between these two to evolve in the next film.
“Joyless, sullen and grim”. These are just a few of the words that have been used to describe Snyder’s Superman reboot. There has been some backlash against the film’s tone, which many feel does not capture the earnestness and optimism usually associated with Superman. Why every movie with a superhero has to copy the tone of Marvel’s recent films is beyond me, but let’s look at this issue from a character perspective. The truth is, Superman is a really boring character most of the time. Being nigh-invincible will do that. Superman becomes truly interesting when you give him emotions and conflicts that are relatable. Hence, the central conceit of Man of Steel is that Clark is an alien, and as such is different from everyone else. He must hide his differences because if he is found out, it would “change the world” (just one of Jonathan Kent’s tidbits of wisdom, as spoken through Costner). Clark, as the outsider, as the “freak”, is an interesting conflict. As an outsider with God-like powers, he has the ability to change the world for good or evil, whichever he chooses. Even more interesting. Where does all the sullenness and grimness come in? Well, when Zod and company turn up and attempt to violently terraform Earth into New Krypton (at the expense of humanity, of course), it creates some conflict. And yes, if something like this were to really happen, it would be pretty grim. That’s usually what happens when someone attempts genocide. All in all, the destruction of Earth as we know it is actually a pretty decently-written obstacle for Superman to overcome. Why, then, is it a knock against the film that it’s so grim? Superman and his enemies showing up in our world sounds like a pretty interesting thematic framework to me. It sure beats Superman being brought down by kryptonite for the thousandth time (and hats off to Snyder for leaving that stuff out entirely).
Oh and for the record, there is joy in this movie: Superman’s first flight. That looked pretty fun.
This is probably the most baffling criticism that I’ve seen, and it probably says a lot that it comes from fanboys exclusively as far as I can tell. During the film’s climax, Superman reluctantly snaps Zod’s neck in order to prevent him from murdering an innocent family. Now, traditionally, Superman is a character who doesn’t kill, so many fans found this scene to be a complete disservice to the legacy of the character. I strongly disagree with this line of thought, if only because it’s such a major overreaction. Keep in mind that this film represents a brand new interpretation of the character (in which the writers have the right to do what they want with the character). I am not convinced that this one scene automatically makes Superman a “killer” in this universe, and therefore “not Superman”. It’s not like the decision to kill Zod was an easy one; the scene explicitly shows that Supes is heartbroken and that his action does not sit well with his conscious or sense of moral duty. It was an extreme situation that he was placed in, and he had to act quickly. To be honest though, I’ve never really understood the whole “no killing ever” rule associated with so many heroes. Batman’s anti-killing policy is absolutely a great guiding principle, but there are times where his actions are completely morally reprehensible for not taking lethal force. The Joker escapes again and again from Arkham and commits countless murders, and yet Batman still refuses to kill him. That’s not a struggle, it’s stupidity. Snyder and Goyer should be commended for having the balls to depict Superman taking a life. It’s not in bad taste, but depicted in a completely believable way.
The Third Act
The real head-scratcher for me is all the complaints about the extended action sequences, many of which are calling tedious and repetitive. Does this all stem from some sort of post-Avengers fatigue? In case you need a reminder, the entire third act of that film was basically one long extended action sequence. The only difference was that, in that film, there were no stakes involved because the enemies were personality-less punching bags who never had a real chance. In Man of Steel, Superman is fighting multiple characters who are every bit his equal in strength and ability. Sure, maybe it can be argued that The Avengers was more varied in its action given the disparate powers and abilities of its cast of characters, but for my money, Man of Steel contained the most thrilling superhero action scenes I’ve ever experienced. Granted, if you’re not really a Superman fan the whole enterprise loses its lustre pretty quickly, but I was chomping at the bit for a live action film to nail down a hero’s fighting ability for a long time, and Man of Steel is honestly the first film that has really delivered on that promise (The Hulk’s brawls in Avengers notwithstanding, but even then there could have been more of that).
The things I absolutely loved
-Russel Crowe and Kevin Costner’s performances as Jor-El and Jonathan Kent. Both actors steal their scenes, particularly Costner. Every time Costner was on screen, I was glued to his every word. It’s a shame he’s not in the film more.
-The non-linear storytelling of Clark’s upbringing. I definitely thought we would see his childhood lead up chronologically to him donning the cape, but the flashbacks were surprisingly effective.
-Antje Traue as Zod’s lieutenant Faora-Ul. She was more menacing than Zod and felt like Superman’s real adversary. Not enough praise is being directed her way.
-The battles. Finally, Superman’s powers were done justice on film. The whole time I couldn’t help thinking “Imagine what the Justice League movie will do…”
-Han Zimmer’s score, obviously. I was humming it long after the credits rolled.
I can take the poor critical reception for Man of Steel. After all, critics are typically not very kind to action-heavy blockbusters, and I can respect that. It’s not an awards contender by a long-shot, but it was an absolutely enjoyable blockbuster that finally depicted Superman and his powers with believable special effects, and a tone that wasn’t soaked in camp. Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman film may have captured the imaginations of a generation, but I’m sorry, that film just does not hold up anymore. Man of Steel has introduced Superman to a new generation, and while it didn’t capture my imagination the way that Raimi’s first Spiderman film did, it proved to me that Superman can be a compelling character on film. Zack Snyder deserves a pat on the back for this one…and the job of bringing the Justice League onto the silver screen.