Thankfully, this is not Jon Peters’ Superman movie. Unfortunately, because of all the planning and dealing and development-helling Peters was involved in from the previous attempt at a Superman sequel, he had to be paid a seven-digit fee just to make him go away. Hopefully, this is the last time we’ll have to mention him and his giant spiders.
So whose ideas are we getting instead of Peters’s? Well, they brought on “visionary” director Zack Snyder — the guy who directed 300 and Watchmen (and Sucker Punch, a peculiar film which, he admits, was intented to “sucker punch” its own fans). But then, on the other hand, the producer is Christopher Nolan, the director of the Batman Begins trilogy. And from what the trailers told us to expect, the result would be very much in a Nolanesque style.
Nolan tends to get a lot more respect than Snyder, but I cannot forget that only one of his three Batman films was actually good.
Nonetheless, it’s hard to imagine two auteurs more different than Nolan and Snyder, within the same genre. Nolan is all about being real and dirty and believable and human and natural-looking and down-to-earth and convincing and verité. In other words, the opposite of a comic-bookish sensibility. Snyder, on the other hand, is all about bold flashy images, strong visual imagination, and style — he’s a painter of moving images in the mold of a Burton or Gilliam... if, that is, those men were stripped of their true artistry, and hitched their creativity with shapes and colors to storytelling at a Michael Bay level.
Given those clashing approaches, who will win? Will Nolan’s somber grit drown Snyder’s sense of color and movement, leaving us with a flying character too drab to recognize as Superman? Will it be the other way around, with Snyder turning the film into a triumph of style over substance? Will they find a way to work to both of their best strengths, anchoring the flair of Snyder in a world that feels real? Or will the combination manage to combine the weaknesses of both? And will ignorant suits make them put in cute talking-animal sidekicks designed to sell toys?
Well, the feared dumbnesses are thankfully absent, but still, any hope of seeing a synergy of the best aspects of the Snyderic and Nolanian visions turns out to be futile, though there are some promising moments in the early going. They show a long sequence of Clark Kent wandering alone in places like Alaska, in the days before he goes public as a superhero. It’s very Nolan. (And a bit Bryan Singer.) This is interspersed with lots of flashbacks to his childhood with the Kents, and also with the story of his parents on Krypton. The latter bit is the film’s most bravura piece of imagination, and it’s very Snyder. And he’s to be commended for giving a vision of the society of Krypton which (at first blush) seems rich enough for a whole fantasy film to be set there.
Unfortunately, this film’s Krypton not only doesn’t hold up all that well once you start thinking about it... it’s also fucking gray. There’s damn near no color! Apparently a core part of Krypton’s supertechnology is some kind of active nano-paste that can assume any desired shape, and it looks like the designers took literally the slang term “gray goo” for this hypothetical substance. They can make three dimensional objects of any shape appear in the middle of a room in order to illustrate a business presentation, but they can’t give those shapes any color.
And when Superman finally puts on the red and blue to become Superman, he’s got about the most colorless version of the costume yet. It makes Brandon Routh’s dingy suit look comic booky. They try to make up for it by having the S emblem catch the light in shiny iridescent ways, but sorry, fail. And the blue parts are streaky, in a way all too unfortunately reminiscent of Ryan Reynolds’ Green Lantern costume.
The new actor in the suit, Henry Cavill, is far beefier than Brandon Routh, or even Christopher Reeve, but in that suit, you hardly see it. He’s so condomed up that even though the muscles are real, they look fake. The suit looks more like some kind of protective aerospace wrapping, unaccountably missing its gloves and helmet, than it looks like any kind of clothing that an invulnerable person would wear for freedom of movement. Looks like it would be pretty impossible to either hide under normal clothes or tuck away somewhere compact when not in use, and even for Superman it looks like a real pain to have to unwrap when he needs to go to the bathroom.
Worst of all, it has subtle but distinct fake muscle patterns of exactly the sort that Snyder mocked (ineffectually) in his version of Watchmen... even though it’s on an actor whose real muscles are better than the fake ones. This is by far the lamest Superman costume ever put on the big screen — in fact, I’d call it one of the most misconceived heroic outfits I’ve ever seen in any live-action medium. It’s awful. I honestly prefer the CGI stripes on Ryan Reynolds’ Green Lantern. And I suspect that the blame for this one might be Nolan’s. Or at least, his de-comicbooked Batman costume choices inspired it.
And casting an actor that muscled-up just begs the question of where that build could have come from. How on Earth (literally) could Superman ever have a workout routine? Though we’re accustomed to it from the comics, a build like that is completely illogical for Superman to have, especially when he’s just starting out with saving the world, and isn’t accustomed to juggling asteroids or whatever. A Routh-like skinny superman actually makes a lot more sense, and a moderate Reeve-like physique would at least avoid the awkward obvious question.
Then, about an hour in, the main plot finally gets moving. And now the movie’s real problems start.
For starters, they’re rehashing Superman II, with the bad guy being General Zod, backed up by other Kryptonian goons. Now Superman Returns may have recycled some aspects of Lex Luthor’s scheme from the original Superman, but it did otherwise tell an original story.... This one tries to do likewise, recasting Zod from an opportunistic crook into a patriotic authoritarian, who tries to seize power over Krypton in a coup when he believes the government is failing the people. His basic conflict with Superman is that he wants to save the Kryptonian race, but he doesn’t care if he does it at the expense of Earth’s humanity. So he’s not just a thug; you have every reason to believe that he’ll pursue his goal with fanatic devotion. So far, this is not a bad direction to take things.
That is, if you thought it was a good idea in the first place to make an all-new completely imagined reboot which turns out to be nothing but a remake of a story everyone’s already seen! Faugh. If you were going to make the Superman story all new, why not make it all new?!? And if you treat the audience as already knowing and recognizing what powers and abilities Superman is supposed to have, why are you retelling the origin story at such length?? Even the Spider-Man reboot had some dim recognition that there was some need to skip quickly over the parts that the audience already knew all about.
In the latest James Bond movie, Skyfall, there’s a moment where the new modern James Bond pulls an old superspy car out of storage, and it’s the exact car that Sean Connery used fifty years ago in Dr. No. Which is mighty cool for Bond fans, but makes no damn sense, as that earlier Bond never existed in this storyline. Snyder and company make exactly the same sorts of mistakes here. And while James Bond can get away with that shit because he’s just that cool, this version of Superman is not. (Even Brandon Routh had more coolth, and that is a low bar.) Here’s an example: Right at the end of the film, there’s a flashback to Clark Kent as a kid putting a red towel on his back and striking a comic book pose with his fists at his waist. But in this storyline, the red cape he wears is a Kryptonian fashion, and has no basis in any Earthly comic book tradition! So there is no reason for any kid to strike that pose with a cape on. He’s doing this pose out of complete randomness. It makes no more sense in-story than if he were to put a cheese grater in his back pocket and stand on one foot with a finger up his nose.
There are little inconsistencies and contradictions like that all through the movie. They all contribute to the larger problem that I mentioned above: throughout the film, the audience is expected to already know about Superman’s story and powers — the heat vision and x-ray vision and super hearing, the fortress of solitude and all the rest, and yet everything he does is presented as something utterly new that the Earth had never seen or imagined before. This same contradiction underlies the clash I already mentioned, between the movie trying to be a completely fresh reboot, and trying to be a straight-up remake of Superman II from 1980. It really doesn’t work to try to do both at once.
And this illustrates the essence of Snyder’s shortcomings as an auteur, I’d say. He’s full of ideas that might make sense or seem cool in a local context, but he never manages to think through whether those ideas work with the film as a whole. So you end up with a movie experience that’s awkward and self-contradictory, and in terms of artistic meaning, it becomes hollow, because it has no clear idea from one segment to the next of what it’s saying.
This same failing accounts, I think, for the moments when Superman’s behavior is jarringly out of character. I recall about four such moments. Some of them could make sense in story terms, if Supes later had to look back and say to himself, “Now that I’m a public hero, I have to hold myself to a higher standard, and never do anything that lame again”... but no, this movie never deals with it and allows his moments of poor behavior to stand as valid examples of the man he still is. And some of that behavior is both awful and stupid: for instance, during the Alaska segment a trucker acts obnoxious, and Supes wrecks the guy’s truck for it. This not only is completely unjustifiable by any reasonable ethics, since the trucker didn’t hurt anyone, but it’s also a completely moronic choice for someone who’s supposed to be keeping his powers secret and unnoticed. It’s completely childish, and if Superman is going to be a big hero, we certainly ought to see some substantial character growth between point A and point B. But there isn’t any.
The worst instance of Snyder’s knack for moments that are only cool out of context comes in the scene where young Clark loses his adoptive father, Jonathan Kent. It’s a memorable visual in service of a moment that, in overall story terms, is just hair-pullingly preposterous and insanely wrong.
Another example comes when Zod confronts Superman and explains his plan to save Krypton. This is a key moment in developing the plot, in which the two characters see that they cannot compromise, but must fight to the end. And it takes place in a vision — a hallucination! This allows for cool dreamlike visuals, but how are we supposed to think they actually communicated?? Again, Snyder chose style over substance — something that gave the visual he wanted over something that supported the story.
Once we get past that first hour, there’s a big fight between Superman and Zod’s soldiers, leading into the movie’s climax. This battle is both the best and the worst part of the film. On the one hand, as action spectacle, it’s fairly breathtaking. It’s one of the most terrific pieces of super-fighting ever filmed... though that doesn’t mean it’s anywhere near as much fun to watch as the battle in The Avengers. The amount of mayhem that’s created when a being as powerful as Superman is getting his ass kicked, is certainly something to see. On the other hand, this is when we see his worst departure from character, because at no point during this fight does he make even the slightest effort to move the battle away from vulnerable civilian populations. He’s perfectly content to have the super-brawl smash through the heart of a city, tearing it up like Godzilla! The loss of life has got to be catastrophic... but this is something that the movie never acknowledges in any way. They apparently just want the smashing to look badass. And in such a context, that is pretty near unforgivable.
Even without the character lapse, though, the scene comes off as cold and distant, and somehow fails entirely to get me to identify with or root for the guy who’s fighting to save us. And to add insult to injury, these battle scenes are heavily polluted with product placements, to the point where it’s completely obvious and distracting. And even the colorful product logos somehow fail to alleviate an overall sense of pervasive grayness.
This battle is followed by a climax in which everybody has to try to stop a giant world-destroying machine. The entire section, though it may sound tremendous on paper, is forgettable and boring. Here, the pervasive dusty grayness finally has a point: it’s supposed to look like 9/11. But as happens so often with Snyder, form does not equal function, and attempting to add weight or meaning by visual means fails to connect. It probably would have helped if there’d been some damn contrast with the scenes preceding it, instead of having the gray horror retroactively blight the whole story before it, all the way back to Krypton. And this deliberate invocation makes the carelessness of civilian consequences doubly unforgivable.
After that chore is out of the way, Superman and Zod finally face off one on one, with a conclusion that’s supposed to be emotionally powerful but which, for me, seemed forced and phony, and just added to the bad taste left in my mouth by their previous missteps in handling Superman’s character. Not only is there even more careless civilian-smashing than before, it’s this scene which which clarifies the movie’s overall message, to the extent that it has one: namely that sometimes you just have to sink to the enemy’s level. And the means they use to justify this choice are utterly fake and unconvincing.
To top off all these complaints about this sequence of battles... none of it was necessary. The conflict between Zod and Kal-El could have easily been settled in a way beneficial to all sides, with a bit of compromise. There was no need for it to be any kind of battle to the death! And of the two, Zod is the more selfless. I’ve heard it argued that he’s the hero and Supes is the villain. That’s the only reason they ruled out compromise: to justify Zod still being the bad guy.
The problem may lie with Snyder. There's a rumor that he may be something of an Objectivist — a fan of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of anti-altruism. If that’s true, it would make some sense that he doesn’t quite grasp the huu-mann concepts of heroism and sacrifice. Some of the dialogue between Supes and the Kents is a debate of, more or less, how objectivist he should be. In other versions of Superman, it’s the Kents’ upbringing which imbues him with the strong values he stands by in later life, but in this version, any values he finds are in spite of them, not because of them. He does choose to care and help... yet as presented by Snyder, he never comes across as a caring person.
For the music, Hans Zimmer turns in another dull lazy score. But at least I find it better than his Bat-scores in one way — it uses more modernistic styles and more unexpected tone colors. It’s sometimes reminiscent of his Inception soundtrack — the one score of his that I like. Unfortunately, this change of style hurts as much as it helps, since it just increases the movie’s sense of distance and coldness, forming yet another barrier (on top of all the others) between the audience and the protagonist; one more thing undermining our ability to root for him as the hero. But on the other hand, when he keeps it simple he at least manages to create a basic theme for Superman which has some uplifting qualities to it — a tone notably absent from anything else in the film. When Zimmer is doing the rising two-note motifs of that theme in a quiet and understated way, I kind of like it... but then as soon as he tries to amp it up for some action, he ruins it. The main thing he does to try to make it exciting is to just add the drum section from a football halftime show.
What about the acting? I have nothing to say. Snyder has crafted a movie where acting doesn’t matter. The cast is full of names and talents, and none of them make the slightest difference. Even Lois Lane, a major character in the story, comes across as a nonentity, and all the other regular characters, such as Perry White, just feel extraneous and unnecessary. At the worst end, Jonathan Kent is so illogically written that no actor on this Earth could possibly make sense of the character. I don’t think you can blame any of the actors. Their craft simply isn’t relevant to the viewing experience. Henry Cavill in the lead is in the same boat as anyone else; he seems to do perfectly okay, but it makes so little difference that it’s hard to even form an opinion. (He makes a bit of a funny-looking Superman, but he does bear a facial resemblance to one previous Superman actor: not Reeve or Routh, but Tom Welling from the Smallville TV show.) And I’m a fan of Amy Adams, but this Lois Lane could have been played by anyone else and it would have made no difference.One reason the acting doesn’t matter is because Snyder goes out of his way to avoid having his Superman talk to people. His Supes is there to look good, not to be good. He’s always set apart, always aloof... like an Ayn Rand protagonist. He cares about people, but only abstractly. Richard Donner constantly showed Reeve’s Superman performing small acts of kindness. Snyder seems baffled by the idea of kindness. The whole theme of Donner’s original movie was about cynics — even Lois — doubting that Superman’s corny old-fashioned decency is sustainable in the face of rottenness, and Supes proving every time that it is. This movie does not agree, and does not see why we should care about the question.
Finally, I want to say something about the overuse of handheld cameras. They first started becoming cool again with the Dogme 95 movement, I suppose, and then their look was popularized in a science fiction context by the TV show Firefly, in which Joss Whedon used all handheld cameras among the scruffy heroes, but not among their slick enemies, as a way of emphasizing their rough and improvised way of life. This shaky-cam-in-space trope was then picked up by the Battlestar Galactica remake series, which used it to give a new and different look to outer space battles which in the past had always been photographed as smoothly and slickly as possible. It was a very distinctive style. But then the handheld camera style was picked up by The Bourne Identity and its sequels, and it became the bane of action movies everywhere, one of the most overused movie fads that’s occurred in my lifetime. For people sensitive to motion sickness, it can make otherwise good films unwatchable, and for the rest of us, it just makes everything important more difficult to see.
Man of Steel is shot with handheld shaky-cam throughout. It no longer serves any artistic purpose. It’s simply the style that’s in. I think people have come to accept it on some level as looking “more realistic” because it mimics the look of footage shot by amateurs who have cameras out at real news events, as opposed to the slick look that we now automatically associate with fictional experiences. But at this point, the abuse of this “real” look for unreal purposes is so overdone that pretty soon it’s not going to work anymore, and at that point, we’ll look back on movies like this one and wonder what the hell the cameramen were thinking, because the shaky cameras will look every bit as annoyingly artificial as all those glaring light flares in J.J. Abrams’ fucked-up Star Trek reboot.
It’s the shaky-cam, just as much as the dusty gray pall which covers everything we see, that ruins any ability to enjoy the big super-fights.
This movie makes an honest effort to step out of past expectations and come up with something new and surprising, just as Superman Returns did. In some ways, both can claim success, on paper... but honestly, in the end, both completely fail to claim any of the Superman mythos as their own, and the departures they make are probably going to be remembered as nothing more than failed experiments. But there is one key difference: the Brandon Routh film may have given us less than we wanted, but it wasn’t offensive — it didn’t make a mockery of superheroism. Asking us to admire a manly hero who never seems human except maybe at the times when he’s acting like an irresponsible child... that’s rather intolerable.
In the end, the people who made this movie simply did not understand Superman. The core of a Superman story is not whether he can defeat the baddies, because he’s so OP that this is almost never in doubt. The suspense in a Superman story is whether he can find a way to save everyone without sinking to the baddies’ level. This movie never makes it clear that he was ever above their level! It doesn’t seem to grasp that what distinguishes heroes from villains is more than just which team the audience is being told to root for. The whole point of Superman is that though he could preemptively murder Lex Luthor at any time, he absolutely never will. But with this film’s Superman, you can’t positively say anything that you know he will or won’t do.
In sum... this movie is rich and engaging and interesting and gives an audience plenty to talk about, but none of that makes it a good film, or even an enjoyable one. It is, overall, a quite disappointing failure — the kind that’s not just boring, but actively infuriating. And ya know, it’s really hard to imagine how this story could possibly lead smoothly into any sequel that people would want to see. It’s even more closed-off than the sequel-less Routh version was.
And yet, here comes the sequel: a Batman-Superman meetup, they promise, which is rumored to also include the first appearance of Wonder Woman. Given what a poor grounds for a sequel both this and the final Batman film are, my hopes for that teamup are riding very, very low.