Due to some sort of editorial oversight that I can't explain, Comics Bulletin never really reviewed Man of Steel when it was in theaters. I mean, we're a comics site! What the hell? I touched on it shortly during my roundup of the Summer's Biggest Sci-fi Films, and found it wanting, so here's a more in-depth look at the film.
While the attempt to treat Superman realistically is a noble one, writer David S. Goyer (who developed the story with Batman mastermind Christopher Nolan) and director Zack Snyder so totally mishandle the emotional core of who and what Superman is, this may as well be about any one of the countless Superman variants that populate the comics world. When paranoia, fear, and angst are the central tenets of your narrative approach, then you've gotten off on the wrong foot and in this case, the film never recovers.
And while Man of Steel looks amazing — seriously, this is a gorgeous film with an astounding amount of work going into making both Superman's life on Earth as realistic as possible, but also into making every single aspect of Krypton breathe with detail and history — there's hardly a single plot point in the film that develops organically from any characters' personalities and beliefs. Nearly every single plot point in the film is Snyder and Goyer sitting back and saying "wouldn't this look cool?"
At its heart, Man of Steel is a cynical and depressing glimpse into the minds of the filmmakers involved rather than an exploration of Superman in the modern world, and just makes me wonder what could have been if the creative process had been handled by someone who actually cared about the material.
The performances are effective for what the script gives the actors to do. Amy Adams is plucky and charming as Lois Lane, spending part of the film as an almost believable investigative reporter and the other as an adorable plot device. Henry Cavill does his best to emote (although he seems to only have three expressions: Who Farted?, Goofy Grin, and I'm Gonna Hurt You!, with his erotic confusion after kissing Lois being a strange mixture of all three). Michael Shannon commits to the role of General Zod, but can't seem to find a believable emotional core from which to ground the clichés and inanities Goyer has him spouting.
Kevin Costner and Russell Crowe play dueling horrible dads Jonathan Kent and Jor-El (with Crowe also playing the impossibly all-access AI version of Superdad as well), while Clark's two ineffectual moms are played by Diane Lane and Ayelet Zurer as Martha Kent and Lara Lor-Van — both of whom are criminally underused. Why, it was almost as though Goyer and Snyder didn't know what to do with female characters — or at least with mothers.
I could only imagine the moment, never seen, when Jor-El tells his wife that he transferred his own mind into an AI to send along with their son on his cosmic journey so he can watch over him as he grows up and guide him during hard times, and then stumbles about to find a reason why he didn't send her along as well. I guess boys don't need their mothers around unless they need the motivation to beat up the bad guy.
We don't want to make him a pansy, so leave the child-rearing to the men, ladies.
You know, the men who on one hand encode a baby's genetics with his entire race's genome without ever giving him the information or technology needed to access or understand it, and on another tells him that in order to protect his own secrets he should sometimes let busloads of children die. Yeah, why would Clark/Kal need any mothering with these two around?
The film is so totally tone-deaf that the filmmakers think it is appropriate that Lois and Clark share their first passionate kiss amongst the rubble and devastation of a Metropolis that not only just suffered billions in property damage but also literally just lost thousands of innocent lives. In fact, that dust that's covering the survivors? You realize that there's people ash in that stuff, right? How romantic!
And a quick dialogue note: Nobody ever said it's all downhill after the first kiss. Nobody. If Goyer thinks that's an actual saying, then it's probably something that's been said to him and he thinks other people are told that as well.
As for the controversial final moments, where — SPOILER ALERT! — Superman murders Zod, people seem to miss the reason that this is actually controversial. It's not that Superman has never killed (he has). It's not that this is an unearned emotional turning point for the character (it's earned). It's not that he had a better choice (he didn't).
The reason this ending is controversial is that there's no inherent reason for it, other than Goyer and Snyder decided that it would be cool for Superman to be put into the situation where he had to kill Zod. And not just kill him, but murder him with his bare hands. The murder at the end of the film was a creative choice by two emotionally stunted adults who think that killing thousands of people makes a story dramatic and then the murder of one more makes the hero tragic.
This is what two childmen think is necessary to make Superman relevant to today's world. This is what two childmen think is drama and heroism. This is what two childmen think is good storytelling.
What it really is, however, is a fundamental lack of imagination and a failure of creativity. But boy isn't Superman sexy, now? Especially when he's stealing clothes! Wow!
Superman deserves more than this.
Hell, with this version of Superman — in the totally incongruous final moments where everything is magically fixed and Metropolis is whole again — when Clark Kent gets a job at the Daily Planet, he's apparently doing so with faked credentials. He never went to college. He never got a journalism degree. In order to pander to
what they think the audience is going to need as a palate cleanser after choking through the bile of their extended tour of paranoia, mass-murder, and fear, Goyer and Snyder give us a Superman who lies on his resume to get a job.
Bravo, gentlemen. Bravo. Now bring on Superman vs. Batman! You can't fuck that one up!
Man of Steel arrives on home video in a number of packaging combinations (depending on what you want and where you buy), but we're taking a look at the Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD Ultraviolet release, which includes the DVD and a 2-disc set of Blu-rays and retails for $35.99 but can be pre-ordered at Amazon for $19.99. It is on sale Tuesday, November 12.
The film looks amazing with its AVC encoded 1080p transfer and despite my misgivings about the content of the film, Snyder is without a doubt totally in control of the look of the film. The blending of CGI — and there's a lot of it — is some of the best I've seen, whether it's the harsh landscapes of Krypton, the interiors of Kryptonian spaceships, or the devastation of Metropolis, not a single detail was overlooked. The audio is an astounding DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix that goes from booming violence to quiet contemplation on a dime. It can be overwhelming at times, but that is exactly what the filmmakers were going for: sensory overload.
Strong Characters, Legendary Roles (25:59): Instead of looking at the history of the character, which it appears to be about to do, this feature instead serves as a 26 minute justification for the changes made to the Superman mythology for this new feature film. In fact, the historical discussion only really touches on the Death of Superman
bullshit phenomenon from the 90s (apparently that was Geoff Johns' most vivid Superman memory), and Goyer's infatuation with John Byrne's Man of Steel reboot in the 80s. When Superman creators Siegel and Shuster are mentioned at all, it's by Production Designer Alex McDowell of all people, and he attributes the creation of the iconic hero to fears of Nazis and World War II.
I enjoy some of writer David S. Goyer's work, don't get me wrong; but his justifications for what they do to Superman in this film are downright insulting to the history of the character. He provides no more insight into the iconography of Superman than I could if I had 2 minutes to prepare a talk on the character, and don't get me started on Zack Snyder's contribution.
All Out Action (26:02): At first I thought this was just an extra-long commercial for the tastelessly named Gym Jones physical training facility, but that's actually only just over a third of this feature. If you like watching pretty people work out, then it should keep you entertained. If you can make it through that — and its accompanying motivational workout clichés — you then get not quite as much time spent looking at the stunt coordination, which is actually very interesting. Then the final five or so minutes give special attention to the spectacular Battle of Smallville.
Krypton Decoded (6:42): Hosted by the teenaged Clark Kent, Dylan Sprayberry, this feature looks at the visual effects for the film with Visual Effects Supervisor John "DJ" Desjardin. Get ready for some goofy jokes, clowning around, and a few brief snippets of interesting design discussion.
Superman 75th Anniversary Animated Short (2:03): My favorite thing included here. John Williams' classic Superman theme shows up here and drives home just how missed it was. In fact, here it is:
New Zealand: Home to Middle Earth (6:35): My first reaction to this was a simple WTF? This brief "Making of The Hobbit" feature is also a commercial inviting tourists to come visit New Zealand. Apparently this was part of the deal Warner Bros. made with New Zealand in order to promote filmmaking opportunities in the country and to get better tax incentives. It's weird, but NZ does look nice. Go visit and see the real Hobbiton!
Journey of Discovery: Creating Man of Steel (2:54:05): The second disc of features is the most baffling thing I've ever come across reviewing home video releases. Rather than include a feature that looks at all aspects of the production, from the initial design concepts to the final realization on-screen, we are instead presented with the ENTIRE FUCKING FILM AGAIN. This time, with interruptions throughout, giving us awkward banter between actors and filmmakers, video clips that are usually actually included in the other features, production art, and behind-the-scenes footage. And it's all sectioned up in multiple image windows, making it virtually impossible to concentrate on any one aspect of the production.
I honestly had no intention of watching this film again, so I guess whoever designed this monstrosity wins. I was forced to watch Man of Steel one more time just to get these little glimpses into the filmmaking process. Honestly, there is some good stuff in here, but there's absolutely no reason I should have to wade through the entire two and a half hour film (now three hours with all the clips) again just to get a few glimmers of creative insight. I felt especially sorry for Michael Shannon, who seemed to be incredibly uncomfortable being forced into the role of cheerleader for the film.
Planet Krypton (17:18): In another stunningly odd choice, rather than a look at the production design for the extended Krypton sequence that opens the film, Planet Krypton is a History Channel-style "documentary" purporting to have intercepted and interpreted data from the Kryptonian ships in the film, giving us a look at the "real" history and culture of Krypton. This is mind-bogglingly stupid.
To sum up: This movie is beautiful to look at but will hurt your brain with its stupidity and hurt your soul with its cynicism. The Blu-ray transfer is immaculate. The extras miss the mark most of the time, but there are glimmers of interesting tidbits scattered here and there throughout. You just have to dig for them. I honestly can't say they make the overall experience any better.
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor/editor for Comics Bulletin. His first nove
l, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is available at Amazon US & UK, along with his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation (US & UK). He recently contributed the 1989 chapter to The American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1980s (US & UK) and has kicked off Comics Bulletin Books with Mondo Marvel Volumes One (US & UK) and Two (US & UK). Paul is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy.