This took me a while to finish; I wouldn’t be surprised to find Man of Steel out of theaters already. But I figure since I’ve already written it, I might as well post it.
Man of Steel is a flawed movie. That’s inescapable. You can’t watch the movie without coming to that conclusion. But a lot of movies are flawed. If you look close enough, every movie is flawed. What, then, do I mean by saying it’s flawed?
I mean that the writing wrecks this movie beyond repair. But I’ll get around to that in a moment. First, I’m going to talk about the things I like about it. And there are plenty of those.
The casting is flawless, from leading man Henry Cavill (who’s a Wheel of Time fan, of course) to Laurence Fishburne as Perry White. I don’t remember even once looking at a character and thinking, “Really? They chose that actor?” Almost always—Christopher Meloni as Colonel Hardy in particular—I was immediately behind the choice.
The performances that follow are just as good. Cavill is perhaps more convincing as Kal-El than any other I’ve seen; Michael Shannon is ruthless and compelling as Zod; Amy Adams is solid as Lois Lane; Russell Crowe sells the part of proto-Superman Jor-El, and Diane Lane deepens the part of Ma Kent.
The sole exceptions are the children version of Clark Kent, who were both terrible.
Another strength is the decision not to weaken Lois Lane. She’s more capable for much of the movie than Superman is himself; she helps to solve more problems than he does, even if it does lead to her needing Supes to rescue her.
The effects are awesome. In particular, I love Superman’s first flight. I would have enjoyed the movie if it had been two and a half hours of that scene. Other effects I liked are the Dragonball Z-level destruction in the fight scenes, the incredible opening sequence, and Faora’s fights—against human opponents in particular. During these moments, I feel hope that Superman may get the movie he deserves one day.
This isn’t that movie. Here’s why:
There’s no character depth in this movie, no character growth. No, I’ll go further. There are no characters in this movie. There are only vehicles for exposition.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, exposition is the part of a story that presents information to the reader. Whether the information is factual or a revelation of internal conflict, it is critical to the story that the reader has this information. Everyone who writes anything worth writing uses exposition. The way the exposition is handled is one of the main things The Avengers gets absolutely right. It’s hard to do it well, though, and easy to do it badly.
It’s not easy to do it as badly as Man of Steel does.
(Here’s some information about dialogue. Exposition is a large part of what people need to learn to do correctly. http://www.writingexcuses.com/tag/dialog/)
One of the more obvious examples of the problem is what Superman says to one villain right before the fight begins. He actually says these words, mind you. “You’re a monster, and I will stop you.” No clever twist on this 1930s comic book line. No humor, no little nod that this was an unoriginal line. No “sorry we couldn’t think of a better one”. They treat it like gold. Even a fool wouldn’t think it is.
Let me repeat this: Cavill’s performance is spot-on for 99.9% of the movie. But he can’t make this line convincing, top of his form as he is.
On the rare occasion that the characters aren’t spoon-feeding me information, they were giving me lines that produced this exact reaction:
Granted, there is an exception to this. One exception. About halfway through, when Clark Kent returns to Ma Kent after learning his origins. This scene, 4 or 5 minutes long, has maybe 10 lines. This allows the performances to breathe, and it pays off. Both Cavill and Diane Lane give a depth and reality to their character that they aren’t allowed to before or after that point.
An oasis in the desert of horrible writing.
The plot is…serviceable. Were it lying beneath better dialogue, it would run from beginning to end with few spots truly stretching suspension of disbelief. It is never as weak as the exposition or (lack of) characterization would make it out to be. The worst part of the plot is the need for flashbacks.
And my god, the flashbacks.
Not only are the little Clarks wooden, but the characterizations are bizarro versions of themselves (and not in the good way); no one has sensible motivations, and all of it feels like it’s there because it has to be there, even when no one wants it.
Now it’s time for the smaller issues I had with the movie. These range from things I would have spent pages picking on had the overall writing been better, to problems I probably wouldn’t have even noticed.
Spoilers beyond this point.
Pa Kent is given a nonsensical Uncle Ben. That is, he dies for no other reason than to hammer home the lesson he was trying to teach. Literally, he stands there and lets himself die when he doesn’t have to. Unlike Uncle Ben, though, Kent is teaching a terrible lesson; essentially, “Don’t be Superman, Superman.” It goes against Clark’s entire childhood, his entire set of morals.
Speaking of people who just stood there and let bad things happen, Superman doesn’t have to kill Zod. Essentially, Supes has Zod in a headlock, and Zod decides to cut down the family in front of them with his heat vision. Not only could the family have simply moved out of the way, but Supes could have lifted Zod up, or flown them both the heck out of town.
In fact, Superman never intentionally draws the villains away from civilian-populated, “target rich” environments. Not once does he think of the destruction that will rain down on the city and act accordingly. Never does he balance the battle against the villains with saving individuals that the battle puts in harm’s way. He doesn’t do anything heroic in the third act aside from defeating the villains, and never does anything clever at all.
I wanted to put this up to his inexperience. I mean, he’s a twenty-something still trying to discover himself, trying to explore his powers, his origins, come to terms with who and what he is. He makes mistakes. He’s stupid. But he’s young. What else should we expect?
Huh? What’s that? He’s supposed to be 33? Really? 33? Wow. Well, all I can say to that is, WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?!
I know what they were thinking. They wanted to turn him into Space Jesus. Anakin Skywalker, eat your heart out. I’m not going into details as to the many ways they did this, but I will point you to the trailer for the movie, the now-infamous crucifix pose. That’s just the beginning.
The question is, why are all these Space Jesus people such terrible heroes?
That brings me to another point. The depiction of Superman is always just slightly off. It was like the writers had never watched one of the dozen animated series’ he’s in, let alone read the comics. Every depiction of Superman that I love shows him to be clever, to wield a dry wit, to have a slight Hollywood-esque aura around him. It’s like nothing ever can or will go wrong while he’s present. He projects strength. He always does the right thing. These things define Superman for me. Making him less capable to fit the plot might very well be necessary, but making him less him isn’t.
The tone of the entire movie is darker than it needs to be. A conservative estimate of the deaths in the movie is in the tens of thousands; I’ve heard the numbers as high as a couple million. Many of them don't need to die. Many of them shouldn’t die.
Finally, in the last flashback of the movie, Clark tells Ma Kent that he wishes Jonathan (Pa) Kent had seen him become a hero. Ma states that Pa did see Clark this way, because they both had always believed that he was destined to do great things. As the scene fades into that last flashback, you have about ten seconds to think: “wow, that’s actually a pretty great note to end on.” Then a child Clark is running around with a shirt pinned to him like a cape. His arms are outstretched, “flying”. Then the scene ends with him standing in the classic fists-on-hips superhero pose. That’s all fine and good, and actually kind of cute. But then you remember that all those superhero tropes were built from Superman, and he must thus be pretending to be a future version of himself.
That’s about it. I won’t go into the armor designs, which everyone agrees are ridiculous, or the kiss at the end, which everyone knows is forced, or the shaky cam, which everyone already hates. The music, composed by Hans Zimmer, is entirely forgettable, but never distracting. The directing by Zack Snyder is heavily stylized, slick and proficient, but is neither a strength or a weakness to the film.
The funny thing is, I know Iron Man 3 is much better, objectively. But I’m far less attached to Supes, and therefore far less conflicted about the movie. As awful as the dialogue is, as inept as the character development is, as unnecessarily bleak as the tone is, I enjoyed this film in a popcorn-movie sort of way, almost as much as I did Iron Man 3.
Man of Steel, you get a 6 out of 10 from me.
The movie’s biggest mistake? Writer David S. Goyer. He’s done some fine work elsewhere, but this movie kills any good faith I had in him.
Tell me what you thought of the movie. Did you like something I trashed? Did you notice a problem I didn’t mention? Put it in the comments, and we can discuss them.