You couldn’t escape it the past month, could you? Like gravity, you couldn’t help but allow it to influence your life, be it in newspaper reviews, bus shelter advertisements, television commercials, internet appraisals, packaged toys on a Walmart shelf, or the ubiquitous movie theatre posters.
Man of Steel, the movie, was everywhere. And everyone had an opinion on it.
For some, it might have been enough promotion to drive them off-planet. Others soaked it up like bright rays of light from our yellow sun. And, like the promotion, the movie itself polarized an audience into two distinct camps: those that really enjoyed it and those that downright hated it.
One common thread that both parties shared, however, was that, surprisingly, neither really asked to see it.
With a lacklustre sense of enthusiasm surrounding Superman Returns in 2006, Warner Brothers was forced to restart a franchise no one really wanted to see restarted. In fact, other than the studio, not many were in a rush to see a man in a red ape and tights on screen. We were tired of it and we were, all of us, truthfully, more than a little hung up on bats and cowls, iron armour and avenging heroes. Old fashioned truth and justice? We didn’t need that on the menu right now. Action, world-shaking threats, and a sense of realism mixed with fantasy were what we needed to keep our attention (if not our money).
Superman Returns, for all of its heart and melancholy reminiscence of the adored 1978 Richard Donner Superman film, didn’t give us any of that. It left us blank-faced and unmoved by a distinct lack of action. It felt as a sort of (two-hour) prelude to what could be a great Superman film – even if there was wholesale miscasting (apart from Brandon Routh as the titular hero, who was great). Andy Burns, Editor-In-Chief of this site, once –upon-a-time wrote a must-read and very telling Op-Ed piece on the film, which you can find here.
Just over a week ago, we here at Biff Bam Pop! hung out in one of our online PopCasts! and talked Man of Steel: its perceived successes as well as its supposed failings. That enthusiastic discussion included Andy Burns alongside Associate Editor Glenn Walker, contributing writer and 1980’s comic book historian Jason Shayer, yours truly, and special guest, Michael Moreci, writer of the Hoax Hunters monthly comic book series, ReincarNATE graphic novel and Superman fan. You can watch it (or watch it again) right here or directly below:
It must be said that Man of Steel gave audiences what they were craving for ever since Superman Returns – and it gave it to them in heaping shovelfuls: action, viable threats, more action, destruction, even more action and the use of godly super powers. For heavens’ sake, Superman punches here! Punches! And he uses his super heat vision! Amazing!
Under director Zach Snyder, Man of Steel starts with the natural birth of Kal-El on the planet Krypton, a scientific and cold place where the natal upbringing of offspring occurs within test tubes nannied by machines. This is truly a science fiction film that borrows as much from the writings of Edgar Rice Burroughs as it does John Bryne’s revered Man of Steel mini-series from the mid 1980’s. It’s something that we haven’t seen in a Superman film before: technology, machinery, science, politics, history, Kryptonian-on-Kryptonian violence, and an otherworldly landscape full of strange creatures and beasts. It’s awe-inspiring to behold and kindles the flames of imagination like the golden and silver age of comics did for young children everywhere during the twentieth century – all the while retaining twenty-first century sensibilities and proclivities.
The flashback sequences of Clark Kent’s upbringing are some of the stronger aspects of Man of Steel. The scenes that incorporate young Clark with his mother and father played both affectionately and movingly by Diane Lane and Kevin Costner are some of the best in the near two and a half hours of film footage. I wish that some of these interactions were longer, that director Snyder stayed with them for a beat or two more. It would have allowed audiences to take a breath through what quickly becomes relentless and uncompromising action while adding more emotional resonance to the characters themselves.
It’s interesting that in many ways, the story of Clark Kent goes against the normal tropes of boy-becomes-hero and his father-figure-espousing-human-ideals. Instead, it’s a more real sense of soul-searching that one has, perhaps after finishing college or university.
Clark, after the anguishing death of Pa Kent (a death that could have been prevented if only he used his super powers to the chagrin of his world-mistrusting father) goes walkabout. For a time, he’s a sort of grizzly bear tree-hugger, working anonymously on a deep-sea fishing trolley or at a truck stop diner, performing anonymous heroics or hitchhiking rides between obscure places. An isolated Clark Kent is trying to find himself, without a father figure to aid him. There’s no “with great power comes great responsibility” turn of phrase here. There’s no real philosophical mantra handed down to a young Clark to guide him. There’s only the remembrance of his dead father and the character attributes that guided him as a child, the most telling of which, for all the good Pa Kent taught, is mistrust.
Clark Kent needs to find his own way. He needs to learn in his own way and in his own time.
Despite the sense of loneliness, the on-screen relationship between Superman (Henry Cavill) and Lois Lane (Amy Adams) works brilliantly. This is something that is thankfully rectified from Superman Returns. Lois, here, is a strong and likeable character that stands on her own. She’s an investigative reporter that actually works hard to get her stories. Once again, the scenes between these two characters are compelling, but too short in length.
Taken as a whole, this is really the main flaw in Man of Steel. Those quiet moments between actors, those instances where personality and character are built, are too quickly rushed. They’re here, and there is some emotional resonance, but the audience is moved too hurriedly through them. It’s almost as if Snyder (and script writer David Goyer) are saying “we know you didn’t get enough action in Superman Returns, so we’re going to give it to you now to make up for that mistake”.
Take a breath, gentlemen. Your actors, and your audience, want you to. The movie would be stronger for it.
The villains of the film are a credible threat. This isn’t last century’s somewhat bumbling Lex Luthor looking for a little land to call his own, nor is it the bent-on-revenge Lex Luthor of Superman Returns who woos old ladies on their deathbeds and still pines for rocky real estate off the shores of Metropolis. Here we have General Zod (played with wonderfully intimidating delivery by Michael Shannon) and his entourage of anarchists, looking to claim a home of their own. It’s an interesting comparison to how their Kryptonian cousin, Clark Kent/Kal-El claims America as his home. “I grew up in Kansas,” he lovingly and disarmingly tells an army officer at the end of the film.
German actress Antje Traue plays the villain Faora, Zod’s right hand, with delicious aplomb. Her menace, her single-mindedness and, to this writer’s captivation, her remarkable beauty, steals every scene she’s in. We want to see more Faora, especially after she warns Superman that “for every human you save, we will kill a million more.” This is the kind of threat Superman needed: one that could take his best punch and mete out a harder, more vicious blow. And yet, it’s Faora’s match against the human Colonel Hardy (played brilliantly by Christopher Meloni) that lends a more real sense of gravitas to Man of Steel. Despite how the Kyrptonian anarchists think and feel, Hardy shows us that the human race is a proud, dignified and worthy one.
For all the action, all the super-powers that moviegoers cried out for after Superman Returns, many have argued that Man of Steel goes too far. I won’t dismiss that notion in this column. It’s a valid argument. At this time, it’s not a spoiler to say that the city of Metropolis is absolutely devastated in this film and that, even off-camera, the death toll must number in the hundreds of thousands. Man of Steel brought the fight all right. And Superman mistakenly brought it to downtown Metropolis. That said, for a man who had to hold back his super powers all his life, Superman finally gets to see what they might do if used to their fullest extent. And it is indeed vicious.
But this is a first film in a story that will see sequels. Superman is learning. And there must be repercussions for what has occurred on the earth in Man of Steel. The ending sequence, one of the more moving in the film is a promise to theatregoers that this is indeed occurring. The flashback to Pa Kent seeing his young son as the hero he will one day become and the final montage of a grown Clark Kent maturely choosing his role in society assures us of this.
Man of Steel is meant to open up the DC Universe to the possibility of other comic book characters starring in other movies and it will do that. LexCorp, the business that soon-to-be-arch villain Lex Luthor governs, is seen in the film, as is WayneTech, one of Bruce Wayne’s many business holdings. Comic book fans should note that Star Labs is mentioned, the organization whose technology creates the character known as Cyborg. And, inside the Krptonian ship that is colloquially known as the Fortress of Solitude, there’s seen a series of pod chambers with skeletons in them. One is opened – and empty. Could there be another super-powered “cousin” of Kal-El living on earth, secretly under the guise of a human name?
A sequel to Man of Steel is already assured. A reboot of Batman is not far behind, nor is the idea of a Justice League movie. Wonder Woman, the Flash and Green Lantern are other names you can expect to see on theatre marquees soon.
I thoroughly enjoyed Man of Steel. Its vision of Superman is one I can get behind: one that is more prone to human mistakes than the character we regularly put on a pedestal. Don’t get me wrong, Superman needs to be put on that pedestal, he needs to be a character that we look up to, that we aspire towards. But I’m happy in the thought that I may get to watch him climb that tall pedestal before triumphantly standing atop it.
It will mean more.
Movie-going audiences flocked to the theatre wanting to see Man of Steel. Garnering over $416 million in ticket sales globally (as of this writing), it’s safe to say that the majority enjoyed it. The fact that it has fandom as divided as currently witnessed by the plethora of articles, blog musings, tweets and posts in both the “for” and “against” side an argument proves something important: that Man of Steel, above all else, was affecting. It made people think about what Superman, and all of his inherent characteristics including truth, justice, trust and hope means to them.
Most importantly, however, for the film lovers and the pop-culture enthusiasts; for the casual fans and the devotees with deep held beliefs; for the internet badgers and the curious onlookers; for every one of us, Man of Steel proved that Superman still matters. Time and circumstance hasn’t changed his relevancy or his ability to elicit our better human intents – even if they might only be in thought and not always in action.
It might not have been the Man of Steel we all asked for, but it was the Superman we all needed to see right now.
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