Movie Review: Man of Steel (2013)
How do you begin?
That’s what I wondered as I sat in my seat at the Cinerama in downtown Seattle and the lights dimmed. I already knew something of the story from the numerous trailers and TV spots that had been released, teased out, particularly in the last six months. I also obviously knew the story of Superman. We all do. So where do you begin? With Jor-El arguing before the Kryptonian Council, as it’s traditionally done? In Smallville, with the rocket ship approaching and about to change everything, as “Smallville” did it? With Clark on the road, bearded and alone, and the rest of the story coming via flashbacks and a holographic Jor-El explaining the Kryptonian past?
Then I heard a cry and saw a face, Lara (Ayelet Zurer), in the midst of childbirth, the first natural childbirth on Krypton in hundreds of years, and had my answer.
They began as he begins.
People would freak
I liked “Man of Steel.” I’ll say that up front. But a lot of what I liked I knew going in.
I knew, for example, that Superman (Henry Cavill) would be greeted, not with cheers (as he was in 1978 during the helicopter rescue), but with shock and horror. He’d be handcuffed by the U.S. Army and led into interrogation rooms. That’s smart. If such a superpowered being did appear, particularly in a post-9/11 world, people would freak and weapons would be trained on him. Thank God the interrogation rooms we sent him to weren’t enhanced. He might’ve changed his mind about us.
I knew Clark wouldn’t be a journalist with The Daily Planet. We see him hitchhiking on the road. We see him on a fishing boat. We see him doing good deeds, costumeless, bare-chested. That’s smart, too. A mild-mannered reporter for a major metropolitan newspaper? Do such things exist anymore? Might as well make him a photographer at the Chicago Sun-Times. Might as well get him a summer job at Borders Books.
I also figured Lois Lane (Amy Adams) would figure out his secret identity, since, in one trailer, we see her greeting Martha Kent (Diane Lane) at the family farm. And since Clark isn’t at the Planet … This is good, too. In a traditional Superman story, Lois is a bit of a sap. She ignores the man who loves her (Clark) to pursue the man she loves (Superman), without realizing they’re the same man. Hell, Superman was concocted in the first place by a Clark Kent (Jerry Siegel) to stick it to the Lois Lanes of the world. That’s part of its DNA. But here Lois knows his identity before most people know he exists. She’s a true reporter. She tracks down the stories of a superpowered good samaritan all the way to Smallville and the Kent family farm. She gets her story and then doesn’t print it.
I liked all of these elements in theory and in practice. I wanted more of them, to be honest. I wanted more of Clark on the road. I wanted more of Lois’ detective work.
What surprised me, in fact, was how many familiar Superman story elements are still in the movie:
- Kal-El is sent to Earth because Krypton explodes. (Yep, I was wrong about that.)
- Zod and his associates are sent to the Phantom Zone before Krypton explodes. (Although the order is reversed: Kal-El leaves before Zod is imprisoned.)
- Clark grows up on the Kent family farm, perplexed by why he is different, until his father, Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner), shows him the rocket in a silo in the family barn when he’s 12.
- While Jonathan cautions against using his powers (because people will freak), he says, in almost the exact same words Pa Kent (Glenn Ford) used in 1978, “I have to believe that you … were sent here for a reason.”
- After his father’s death, Clark heads north to search for that reason and to discover who he is.
- He finds out who he is via a holographic image of his Kryptonian father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), who tells him the story.
Then aliens invade. Which is also the answer to how you get the mass of humanity to trust such a superpowered being. You present, at the same time, his opposite: those who wish to destroy humanity rather than save it.
The New Adventures of Jor-El
A few things about Krypton.
First, H.R. Giger should sue. Krypton may be alien, but that doesn’t give anyone the right to steal the look of “Alien” as much as this movie does.
Second, we spend way too much time there. The first half hour could be titled “The Adventures of Jor-El, Free-Thinking Scientist of Krypton.” Not only do we get Jor-El warning the Kryptonian Council about the planet’s core and going mano-a-mano with Gen. Zod (Michael Shannon), who stages a coup, but we also get him: 1) under arrest; 2) escaping arrest on the back of a giant dragonfly; 3) buzzing all over Krypton; 4) diving into the baby incubation chamber and stealing the “codex,” onto which the Kryptonian genetic code is imprinted. This last bit is way too dull and science-fictiony for me. It’s introduced, I suppose, as the reason Zod needs to pursue Kal-El across the galaxy. Zod is the keeper of the code and Jor-El hides that code aboard the spaceship sent to Earth and yadda yadda. But I’m not a fan.
I’m not a fan of the whole natural childbirth thing. Krypton is a programmed society, where everyone knows, at birth, what they are meant to do. Zod is programmed to be a warrior, Jor-El is programmed to be a scientist, etc. So why did this one couple, Jor-El and Lara, break free from these constraints to have a natural baby? I do like Zod’s reaction, though, when Jor-El explains all this to him. He screws up his face in moral disgust, as only Michael Shannon can, and shouts, “Heresy!”
Zod himself is a more interesting character here. He’s been programmed to protect Krypton at all costs. That’s why he stages the coup in the first place—because the Kryptonian Council is full of dithering idiots. That’s why he searches for a planet the remaining Kryptonians, warriors all, can inhabit, and lands on Earth. If anything, he reminds me of Michael Corleone. He’s just trying to save the family. But in doing so he destroys it.
Unfortunately, they gave Ayelet Zurer the most thankless task any actress can perform: urging us away from the story we’ve all come to see. “I can’t do it,” she says, about sending Kal-El to Earth to become Superman. “Lara, Krypton is doomed,” Jor-El tells her. “It’s his only chance.” She makes arguments. She keeps stalling. In the audience, I’m less-than-sympathetic. “Let go of the baby, lady,” I thought. “We’re due on Earth already.”
But the cutaway is smart. Kal-El’s rocket zips into our solar system, past the moon, over Smallville … and we cut to Clark in his bearded drifter stage. He’s on a fishing boat, the Debbie Sue, and the first person we see being saved is him. Nice touch. But then an oil rigger goes up and we get a bearded, shirtless Clark saving everybody. Like Hercules, the original Superman.
His childhood we get in flashback.
I know, Captain, a thousand questions…
In a October 2010 post, reacting to an Atlantic magazine article on “Five Ways to Revive the Superman franchise,” I wrote:
We're interested in him because he's all-powerful but being all-powerful is dramatically uninteresting. So we need to either push toward or pull away from his power: weaken him to create a feasible drama, or keep him as is and make his all-powerfulness the drama. I'm inclined toward the latter.
They did the latter. I knew this going in, too. One of the many good flashbacks involves Clark in school, suddenly hearing, and seeing through, everything. He looks around and sees skulls. He sees his teacher’s heart beating inside her body. He hears girls talking: “What a weirdo.” It’s up to his mom to get him to focus. “Think of my voice as an island,” she says. He does. It helps. But they don’t do enough with this. It becomes a plot point when he battles Zod, since Zod suffers the same thing—seeing and hearing everything—so it should’ve given Kal-El a tactical advantage. But he doesn’t take advantage. He just stands there and tells Zod (and us, I suppose) what’s going on.
Does Clark ever wonder why tragedy seems to follow him as Clark? A school bus he’s riding in at 12 goes off a bridge and into a deep river. A highway he’s riding on as a young man is the pathway for a tornado, which takes his father away. I’m 50 and nothing like this has ever happened to me. He gets both of these before he’s 20. Plus, since he grows up in Kansas, he becomes a fan of the Royals. We see him wearing their T-shirt. I nearly cheered. Then I did the math. If he’s 33 at the end, that means he landed in 1980 and probably became a fan around 1990, which means he’s been cheering for a sucky team his whole life. Is that why he’s champion of the oppressed? Imagine if he'd landed in New York and rooted for the Yankees. He might have chosen Zod’s side.
I like wondering about these things. That’s part of the fun. How did Clark land the gig with the U.S. Army in the Arctic outpost? With a falsified record? Way to background-check, guys. Why does the Army invite Lois Lane there? Isn’t that like inviting Seymour Hersch into Area 51? And did Clark know the thing they’d found in the ice, the 18,000-year-old alien spaceship, was related to him, or was it just a nice coincidence? You also wonder how Jor-El’s S-symbol zipdrive is still compatible with 18,000-year-old Kryptonian hardware. Microsoft doesn’t support 10-year old stuff but Krypton’s computers work through eons? And they’re the ones that died off?
Why the supersuit? Jor-El offering it makes more sense than Ma Kent sewing it together but … it still doesn’t make much sense.
Clark had never tried flying before? Man, Jonathan really held him back. That’s a poignant moment, by the way, when the tornado bears down on Jonathan and he shakes his head at Clark—no, don’t save me—and is swept away. At the same time, doesn’t it recall another poignant superhero moment? Just before this, the two are arguing in the car. “You’re not my dad,” Clark says, “you’re just some guy who found me in a field.” The superhero, in late adolescence, arguing with the father who’s not the father, just before the father dies. Where have we seen this?
Uncle Ben: I don’t mean to preach. And I know I’m not your father …
Peter Parker: Then stop pretending to be!
Why did Zod demand the presence of both Kal-El and Lois Lane? What did he hope to glean from the latter? Instead, she simply becomes the instrument of Superman’s escape.
I admit I sighed sadly when Zod first contacted everyone on Earth. I knew, for me, most of the fun stuff was over. I knew the rest would be roller-coaster ride. But I didn’t realize just how many buildings would be wrecked, either by the “world engine,” the Kryptonian device that would “terra-form” Earth into Krypton, or by Superman and Zod as they battled in Smallville and Metropolis. How many times did we need to see these two battling through CGI skyscrapers and parking garages? How much is enough for the dopey fanboys who get off on this stuff?
Even so, throughout all the battles, I was intrigued by one thing: How does one man, Superman, battle a dozen superpowered beings who are his equal? Who may be more powerful since they are trained warriors? What’s the secret to his ultimate success? How do screenwriter David S. Goyer and director Zack Snyder answer that?
Know what? I still don’t know the answer. The Kryptonian spaceship ultimately goes down because Dr. Emil Hamilton (Richard Schiff) turns the doohickey so the whatchamajig can absorb the idontknow … and boom. But why do the Kryptonians die? Aren’t they invulnerable? Or are they on the ship, which is like Krypton, where they can be killed? And how does Superman finally destroy the world engine and save the planet? He appears to just, you know, try really hard.
Is it that simple? Muscle over mind, Superman?
The ultimate question
I should add that everyone, from the Els to the Kents, are expertly cast. Among supporting roles, I particularly liked Schiff, who was always my favorite on “West Wing,” Christopher Meloni as Col. Nathan Hardy, who tackles head on what he doesn’t understand, and Larry Fishburne as Perry White, who, in a great moment, first forbids Lois to work on her “super alien” story because it’s absurd, and, on a dime, changes his mind because she gives up too quickly, and he knows that’s not Lois. I also liked the vulnerability in Dylan Sprayberry, 12-year-old Clark.
Both Shannon and Adams are good in everything, and, at the center of the story, Cavill exudes a lonely decency as Clark and a steely determination as Superman. My one caveat about casting? Lois is the love interest, which means we’re supposed to be attracted to her, and I’m not attracted to Adams. At all. Sorry. Maybe that’s just me.
Other caveats: “Man of Steel” raises interesting questions only to abandon them to spectacle. “You’re the answer, son,” Jonathan tells Clark when he’s 12. “You’re the answer to ‘Are we alone in the universe?’” This is similar to what Goyer has said: “If the world found out [Superman] existed, it would be the biggest thing that ever happened in human history.” As is, you know, the near destruction of human history.
But the movie cleans all this up quickly. Too quickly. Afterwards, everyone just goes about their business. They go back to work at the Planet, they try to take pretty girls to basketball games with ringside seats, and Perry White actually hires a new reporter, Clark Kent, who, I assume, doesn’t have a journalism degree. So why hire him? Because that’s what’s supposed to happen? And why does Clark want the job in the first place? I was hoping he wanted to be near Lois but it’s the same explanation he’s always given—so he can hear about emergencies as they happen—when, no, in the digital age there are other means. And the secret identity thing? With the glasses? Really? When half of Smallville already knows? It’s as if Goyer broke up elements of the Superman myth only to put them together neatly at the end.
But Goyer did this with “Batman Begins,” too, ending with the bat signal, etc., and then breaking it all up again, including the bat signal, in “The Dark Knight.” So maybe he’ll do the same in a Superman sequel. One can hope.
One can hope, in the next movie, it’s not business as usual in Metropolis, that there are people still freaked by what happened, and that, even as some view Superman as a god-like figure, others blame him for bringing near destruction to the planet, for bringing the Kryptonian warriors here in the first place, and search for ways to destroy him or control him. There should be a vocal element again him. The more decent he is, the more vocal they should become. He should be perplexed by this. He should always look at us and wonder whether we’re worth saving. Nothing, in the end, would make him more human.