A Defence of Man of Steel

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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.

The Script

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.

The Tone

“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).

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Oh and for the record, there is joy in this movie: Superman’s first flight. That looked pretty fun.

Zod’s Death

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.

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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.

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10 responses to “A Defence of Man of Steel

    • As to the ” not leaving Krypton issue; Jor El tells Superman that his and his wifes fate were “tied to that of Krypton’s”. As far as Krypton having a whole fleet of intersteller vehicles, we don’t know that. We DO know that their “age of expansion” ended years ago, so why keep the vehicles they don’t use? Finally, the ruling class simply displays deadly inertia in the face of disaster like every ruling class on every world (global warming, anyone?).

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  2. A comment on the tedious third act (actually, nevermind, I went on a tangent)… during the Avengers, I wasn’t *bored* watching the action sequence. Sure, the enemies were faceless goons for the most part, but it was *fun*. In MOS, I literally felt like I was just waiting for the conclusion. Sure, it was a good example of Supe’s power, but there was too much “heavy handed monologue, punch across the city and watch some buildings fall down”. I can see why some would enjoy it, but watching Supe punch dudes through a building gets old after the first few times for me.

    Also, I just want to point out that this movie did not just contain Superman as the only superhero; the dubious honour of super-powered sidekick goes to Lois Lane, who magically gained near-instantaneous teleportation that allowed her to be anywhere that advancing the plot required her to be, with little to no explanation as to how she got there or how she knew to be there. Also, the ability to just waltz through multiple levels of security just because she “knows a guy.” For real. Not even a little quip or acknowledgement of how insane it is to let a random civilian into and around military installations, just because she knows an alien who *they still think might try to blow up the planet.*

    I also disliked how heavy handed the movie felt; Avengers always maintained that level of tongue-in-cheek across the board, whereas MOS remains fairly serious and heavy-handed with a few exceptions (the dude’s truck being the funniest to me). I get that Supe would probably have his business face on most of the time, but I don’t remember anyone even cracking a joke or a sarcastic quip. To me, they aped the dark philosophical bent of the new Batman series without addressing the fact that they really, really can’t carry that with a dude who was the embodiment bein’ a swell guy. He has none of the personal tragedy of Batman, he has none of the emotional stunting of Batman, and he has none of the constant challenges of Batman. I mean, he’s an all powerful superbeing, literally the strongest in the DC universe, and raised by a pair of Kansas farmers – which, outside of some bullying, was probably pretty decent until he found out he was an alien – you’d expect a little wry humour to how he approaches things. Even the scene where he’s telling Amy Adams to back up a bit sounds stale and forced. When he’s looking through the 2-way mirror – a fairly promising situation of much mirth – he just says some heavy shit, they say some heavy shit, and boom scene over. I think I heard the audience laugh like 3 times during the course of the movie. I get that Supe is a fairly serious guy, I just feel like there were so many opportunities to lighten the mood from the pervasive feeling of “this is a serious movie. everyone is serious in it” that they either didn’t take or just failed miserably at attempting.

    Also, while Costner was good, I felt his character was way overwritten. Everytime young Clark talked to anyone about anything, they always had some super meaningful thing to say. My main gripe with the majority of the movie is that they failed to let the plot or context of the situation explain anything, and had to force-feed it through badly written, overwrought dialogue hammed up by intense music and bad editing. It felt like everyone was holding their poop in the whole movie.
    I also felt the prologue was unnecessary in terms of length. It also sets up some weird logic problems, as they never really address why they just didn’t up and leave. I mean, they indicate it might be a logistics problem, but there’s not even an attempt to try. “We’re all going to die in two weeks, we should probably leave so we don’t.” “Nah, too hard. Rather just stay here, nahmean.”
    They establish both in the prologue and throughout the movie that Krypton has a TON of ships and space flight capabilities, and they didn’t even think about using them? And it wasn’t like they set it up that they didn’t believe Jor-El, which would have at least made some more sense why they just flat out ignore him (barring the explosions underground). But even that seems like a flimsy premise. My experience with Supe’s origin was that the seismic event went off suddenly and without warning, which could explain why no one else made it out. MOS fails to not only effectively explain why no one gives a shit their planet is blowing up, but also why no one else even attempted to leave (Zod wasn’t really given a choice). That could have been explained by their codex thingy programming them to be stupid morans, I guess, but that’s extrapolation on my part.

    This is longwinded, sorry. I was really disappointed by MOS, I had low expectations going in and felt they were justified throughout the course of the movie. Michael Shannon was incredible as Zod (though I felt they wrote his dialogue with the grace of an elephant encased in lead), as were all the actors being well-cast, but there was a definite lack of chemistry between much of the characters, owing in particular to the wooden, inhuman and overwrought dialogue in much of the script. The editing could have been better to explain the Mysterious Reappearing Lane (a nitpick, but something I was significantly pissed off with while watching), other strange plot advancements and streamlining the fights.

    Again, sorry for the ranting.

    • Thanks so much for the in-depth response. You definitely had some very thoughtful and well-argued points! You actually reminded me of a problem I had while watching but later forgot about — The Krypton thing bugged me too. I was thinking to myself “Why can’t they leave the planet? They have ships for crying out loud!”. Oh well, it didn’t break the film for me, but it is kind of an odd logic hole.

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