There are many movies and television shows I haven't seen, books and comics I haven't read, and audio dramas I haven't listened to. In the sector of comics that I have read, the least superhero I've read of is Superman. I've read Luthor and Superman: Secret Origin, and Superman for All Seasons and Superman: Birthright are on my list, but I can't honestly profess to be a huge Superman fan. I saw the sadly terrible Superman Returns, but I haven't seen the original Superman film series, the first two of which my buddy Nate thinks are the best superhero films ever made. I haven't even seen the awful monstrosity that is Smallville, though I've read the Comics Alliance commentaries on both the Superman films and Smallville to know a thing or two about those works. Thusly, I went into Man of Steel fairly fresh, not having much to compare it to, and not having huge expectations or preconceptions of what I should see on the big screen. But I knew and know enough to know that this isn't the best we could have gotten.
For those of you who don't know Superman's origin story, this film portrays Superman's origin, with Jor-El (Russel Crowe) sending his son, Kal-El, to Earth to escape the impending destruction of their home planet of Krypton. Kal-El is brought up on Earth by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, respectively) as Clark Kent (Henry Cavill). Clark's powers, activated by his Kryptonian physiology under our yellow sun, manifest in his childhood years, which are show via flashbacks which punctuate Clark's journey around the world, doing good where he can. Meanwhile, Intrepid Reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) begins investigating this mysterious do-gooder after encountering Clark at the crash site of a Kryptonian ship in the Arctic while on assignment (the laughably implausible explanation for her being able to be there is detailed in this post over at Law and the Multiverse). Unfortunately, she isn't the only one looking for Clark, as the Kryptonian revolutionary leader General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his troops have arrived at Earth, seeking to claim Superman who he believes has a genetic codex which will allow him to revive the Kryptonian race. Will Clark be able to defeat General Zod? Will Lois get her story? Will the military brass stop behaving like massive unprintable things to Clark, known to some as "Superman"?
Okay, let's get a few things straight. There are some things, a lot of things, that this movie gets right. Firstly, the movie has some impressive visuals, bolstered by top grade cinematography. Everything from the scenes on Krypton to Clark flying around Metropolis has a great look to it. The logical extension of this point is that the action is good and shot well, and while it is, I'll elaborate on my issues with the action later.
Secondly, there's also some great emotion in this movie. The scene from the trailer where Clark says, "The world is too big, mom," and she replies with, "Then make it small" is sold very well in the actual movie, where the whole thing is on display. Cavill also plays a great Superman, acting with the standard noble, friendly, but serious air of our favorite Paragon of Virtue (more on that in a minute). However, I'm sorry to say that he doesn't get the chance to play "Clark Kent," in that he doesn't adopt the mild mannered reporter persona until the very end of the film. If he did, I have no doubt there would have been a plethora of comparisons to Christopher Reeve, but I won't make those comparisons here because I have yet to see the original Superman films. As for the other actors, Russel Crowe is phenomenal as Jor-El, as is Amy Adams as Lois Lane, and Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent. Even Laurence Fishburne as Perry White is great, though his characterization is something I'll tackle later, along with that of others. But if anyone steals the show, however, it's Antje Traue as Faora-Ul, General Zod's number two. She's a total badbutt who absolutely wipes the floor with Superman, and excellently delivers some great lines. She's menacing, well acted, and really, really cool.
However, that's where the good ends. Let us proceed to the bad. My chief complaint with this movie is that there is just too much action and too much stuff blowing up. It batters your senses in a way that Green Lantern could only dream of. This movie is awash in explosions and violence, climaxing in a battle which wrecks Metropolis in a hemorrhaging spectacle which is undoubtedly a gross overuse of CGI. Smallville itself all but gets blown to bits, for Pete's sake! Even Jor-El gets in on the action, engaging in a fist fight with Zod. This scene in particular was way out of left field for me two reasons; first, Jor-El isn't a warrior, he's a scientist, and what with Krypton's apparent custom that every child's role in society is selected for them, why would Jor-El know how to fight if he was logically never a soldier? Did he enroll at the local dojo and learn how to be a badbutt? Just... why?
Another thing that doesn't make sense is Zod's plan. His goal is to use the Kryptonian world building machine to make Earth into a brand new Krypton, which would wipe out humanity. But instead of doing that, once they have Superman in custody, why don't they just back track to one of the worlds previously used by the Kryptonians, use the world building machine on one of those worlds and then use the codex to revive the Kryptonian race? I suppose one could argue that Zod wanted to control a world with a yellow sun that granted Kryptonians fantastic powers, but he clearly didn't know about that until he was in the middle of his plan, and even if he did, he could have avoided a lot of conflict by using the world building machine on, say, Mars, and colonize the new Kryptonian race there. (Knowing Zod, he would probably start a war of conquest against Earth anyway, but that's just even more hypothetical nonsense.)
Other complaints of mine involve characterization. Lois Lane may be well acted, but I don't think this is a very good version of her. Sure, she's an Intrepid Reporter, but she lacks that feisty streak, that tough-as-nails edge that Lois in the comics has. She was more like your average damsel in distress here. Her boss, Perry White, has a different problem. He's supposed to be a journalist, but rejects Lois' first article on Superman because he doesn't believe it would be well received by the public. Granted, that's probably true, but like I said, Perry White is a journalist. He of all people should believe that the people have a right to know. And then there's Jonathan Kent. He gets written out of the script pretty early, but it's done in a way that flies in the face of an important faucet of Superman's character in the comics. For exactly why, I refer you to Chris Sims' spoiler-filled review over at comicsalliance.com. Also, exactly why did they replace Jimmy Olsen with a random "Jenny." And where's General Sam Lane? He could easily have been worked into the script, and the filmmakers might even make it work it to their advantage by giving a plausible explanation of Lois' being able to go to that crash site which was cordoned off by the military.
Superman's characterization also gets a somewhat short stick. In this movie, we see Superman steal someone's clothes, take a swig of beer, and then does something which I will not reveal because it is such a major spoiler, but if you've seen the movie, you know what I'm talking about. Jeremy Jahns argues in his reviews that it was the only thing Superman could do in that situation, and that Supes felt really bad about it, but I say again, why? Why make a story where Superman does this thing which is the antithesis to his character in the comics? Why make movie Superman do the thing which (pre-New 52, of course) Superman promised himself that if he did this he would hang up his cape and retire? Again, just... why?
My final problem is with Michael Shannon's General Zod. Sure, the guy sells the idea of a menacing, heartless villain, but he's just not particularly memorable. What with the aforementioned spotlight-stealing that Faora pulled, it's kind of hard for him to stand out among the uniformly grey suited Phantom Zone escapees. To me, he's just another evil bad guy, though to his credit, he's better than Lord Blackwood.
"But wait!" you might say, "what's your take on the whole 'Superman as Space Jesus' thing?" Personally, I understand why the creators might identify Superman as being a Christ metaphor, or even my buddy Nate's view of him as a Moses metaphor, but I share Chris Sims' opinion that Superman is his own thing, and is not meant to be identified with any Biblical figure.
On the whole, this new, "realistic" take on Superman is a loud, raucous, cynical, joyless rampage in cinema which is now being touted as the jumping off point for a World's Finest movie. This film is a decidedly second tier portrayal of Superman which improves on what some of the previous movies (*cough*Superman Returns*cough*) got wrong, but for the most part either repeats other mistakes and invents new ones. To even let a hack like Zack Snyder (director of 300 and Watchmen) near a momentous project such as this speaks volumes of how ineptly this film was handled, similar to the ineptitude with which the first three films of the Burton/Schumacher quadrilogy was handled (Batman and Robin is an underrated gem, so there). And how could it have gotten this bad with Christopher Nolan producing? On the other hand, a stronger sequel might lift it out of the muck, not entirely unlike how Batman Begins was bettered by The Dark Knight. If Lex Luthor makes an appearance (LexCorp's presence was teased multiple times throughout Man of Steel) in that movie, then I might just go see it.
...Then again, maybe not.
Image courtesy of impawards.com