Some Thoughts on “Man of Steel”

I finally saw Man of Steel a few nights back. It was about what I expected; usually my feeling for this sort of movie is that I judge it pretty leniently while totally seeing the point of view of those who hated it. I can see why someone might find a film like this charmless or leaden or bombastic, but enough of my childhood love for superheroes still lingers that I can’t quite dismiss it. My semi-random thoughts:

  • It’s probably impossible to shoehorn into one movie the Krypton backstory, Clark’s childhood and youth, his wandering years, his transformation into Superman, and the battle for Earth against Team Zod. At least one of them has got to go (hence Superman and Superman II). You’ve got two-and-a-half hours to tell your story — that is precious real estate, man. Don’t spend five minutes with Superman engaging in a CGI chessefest fight with the tentacles of the world-engine, don’t plug in a rushed flashback of his father dying nonsensically in a tornado or another one of Clark redundantly refusing to fight a batch of bullies, and don’t spend a whole chunk of that real estate with a needless sequence of Superman and Lois captive on the enemy vessel. And absolutely don’t spend time on this whole Codex thing; don’t even use the word Codex.
  • The first half of the movie feels awfully choppy and half-baked. There’s probably a million blogposts and articles out there diagnosing how to fix it, but to my mind it would’ve been best to have the first forty-five minutes following Lois as she tracks down this mysterious super-powered do-gooder, with a flashback to each actual event springing naturally from her interview with each witness. You might have to leave out the whole Krypton sequence at the start but that was a bit of a hash anyway. It’s hard for me to judge how elegantly the 1978 Superman did it, because it’s so integral to my sense of the movies (I was seven years old when I saw it in the theater), but the whole pre-cape-and-tights hour of the ’78 version feels perfect to me in its pacing and emphasis.
  • One of the few moments that just felt right in the first half of this movie is Lois following Clark up onto and into the ice when he’s investigating the spacecraft. Man-of-Steel-Trailer-Kryptonian-ShipThat should have been the climax of that first act following Lois, with Clark always on the periphery: both she and Clark finding what they’ve been looking for and finally meeting. Unfortunately, in the actual version, we’ve literally met this woman five minutes earlier. Amy Adams can make a character instantly sympathetic but the script, directing, and editing should’ve helped her out a bit.
  • Meanwhile, pretty much everyone has complained about the wholesale destruction in Smallville and Metropolis in the movie’s second half — specifically, the fact that Superman isn’t making much of an effort to protect civilians. But I felt like this was when the movie started to find its feet. They make it clear that Clark has basically never even thrown a punch in his life; suddenly he has to take on a bunch of superpowered überwarriors in hand-to-hand combat. He’s got a full plate just staying alive and in the fight. There’s a bit of resonance here with his (human) father telling him “there’s more at stake here than our lives or the lives of those around us” — to put it brutally, a certain level of collateral damage is acceptable if you’re trying to neutralize a larger threat to Earth as a whole.
  • But on the other hand, Zack Snyder has never struck me as someone who’s skillfully planting those kinds of subtle thematic call-backs in his movies. And on the other other hand, ugh — once superhero movies start making the case for “acceptable collateral damage” we’re probably knee-deep in an ugly worldview that’s a little too close to what our post-WW2 imperial foreign policy has curdled into.
  • The comics-fandom fuss about Superman killing Zod seems weird. Basically, Supes kills Zod to prevent him from killing a handful of innocent people, realizing that he’ll never be able to stop him as long as he’s alive. Then he roars with despair at what he’s done. But back in Superman II, he throws Zod and his cronies into an icy chasm after they’ve lost their superpowers — in other words, once they’re safely neutralized, and after Superman brutally crushes Zod’s hand. Then Reeve and Kidder sort of wriggle their eyebrows and smirk about it. I mean, come on, which is worse?
  • Solid actors all around — Laurence Fishburne really sells the moment when he decides to stay with the intern trapped in the rubble. I found that quite moving, especially in conjunction with Superman destroying the world-engine. It felt like one of the few moments in the film that worked exactly the way it was intended to, despite the silly tentacle fight immediately preceding it.
  • Henry Cavill is so handsome he edges into uncanny valley territory. The guy looks like a Muppet. Good casting choice though, I love the last look he gives the bully in the bar, sort of a baffled “man, I will never figure out why humans are such aggressive little shits sometimes.”
  • Dr. Emil Hamilton needed to take on a comic relief role here. I usually hate the schematic feel of the comic relief role, and overall I liked the serious tone of the movie — it felt less po-faced than I had expected based on reviews. But they still really needed someone commenting on the ludicrous stuff going on in order to defuse its ludicrousness. Richard Schiff is great but we really needed Jonah Hill saying “I can’t believe you just said ‘it’s supposed to go in all the way'” and “Am I the only one getting a kinky catsuit vibe off that Kryptonian chick?”

    man-of-steel-07

    Ich bin deine Huckleberry.

  • Speaking of which: I thought Antje Traue did a great job, and boy does she have a lovely German name. I almost wish my name were “Antje Traue.” But Ursa from Superman II profoundly stirred the libido of 7-year-old me and will always remain my favorite Kryptonian lady psychopath.
  • Some special effects that struck me as particularly neato-burrito: the cleanly columnar pillars of fire shooting up at Krypton’s destruction; the cars and debris floating up and then thudding back down around the ship in Metropolis; those cars then later instantaneously pancaking on the ground.
  • It’s a personal thing but I’m always bugged when the question of language is glossed over. All the Kryptonians are fluent in English, even Jor-El’s ghost. How does that happen?
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