There’s really only one reason to see the new Superman movie: to watch people with superhuman powers pounding the crap out of each other, flying into each other and burninating each other with heat vision. Luckily, The Man of Steel more than delivers on the super-punching front, even as it muddles through in other ways.
Minor spoilers ahead…
Seriously, the action scenes in this movie are fantastic. They’re like a virtuoso performance, a dissertation in smackdownology. Especially the final 40 minutes or so, when Superman and his fellow Kryptonians are just kicking the shit out of each other. There’s an agility and abandon to the fighting in this movie that’s really beautiful to watch, and director Zack Snyder and his crew have clearly thought a lot about the physics of how people who could fly and punch super hard would actually fight.
This is probably the first superhero movie that’s made the fight scenes feel like sweet, sweet violence, instead of something sterile and choreographed. And it’s the second movie, after The Avengers, to show big all-out fight scenes that feel like comic-book brawls translated to the screen. Or like a kid playing with action figures, brought to life. The fight scenes in this film contain several jaw-dropping moments that I hadn’t ever seen done on screen before.
If only the rest of the film showed the same amount of agility and cunning.
The Man of Steel comes from the people who made Batman Begins and Watchmen, and it very much wants to be Superman’s version of Batman Begins. In other words, a movie that anchors Superman in the real world and makes him a believable character. With one notable exception (see below), this ambition actually backfires because this movie’s approach to realism is… a bit dull. Bland, even. When these people aren’t fighting, they’re kind of anesthetized.
To their credit, writer David S. Goyer et al. have a clear story to tell, with a decent through-line and a few standout moments. They make some smart choices along the way, including a structure that shows us glimpses of Superman’s childhood interspersed with his present, helping us to understand why he’s doing what he’s doing. This is a story that would only work for Superman, not any other superheroes, and it has a pretty smart take on the Last Son of Krypton.
Unfortunately, the movie overshoots “serious” and lands on “turgid”. Most of the performances in the film are lifeless, especially star Henry Cavill, who seems to suffer from Joseph Fiennes Disease — he’s a Brit who seems kind of constipated when he tries to play an American. Amy Adams has a few moments as Lois Lane, but as soon as she’s playing opposite Cavill, she gets sucked into his high-entropy zone.
As with a lot of other recent big-budget movies, everything looks gorgeous, but Snyder lingers over every shot as if wanting to make sure we can see where the money went. There are slow shots of water droplets or laundry or spaceships.
But most of all, this film shows how the evolution of superhero movies, which has taken us to such great heights, may actually be leading to a dead end.
A potted history of superheroes on film
The era of big-budget superhero flicks started with Superman: The Movie, but it wasn’t really until a dozen years ago, with X-Men and Spider-Man, that movies about do-gooders in fancy costumes became a force to be reckoned with, creatively and financially. You can count on one hand the superhero movies prior to 2000 that were both watchable and successful.
Since 2000, two trends have pushed superhero films towards a central place in American pop culture: 1) decreasing levels of campiness, and 2) rapid improvements in visual effects. Superheroes are never going to avoid camp entirely — even Christopher Nolan’s Batman films are ultra-campy at times — but creative people have been working hard to dial it back. And meanwhile, superheroes look way less fake than they used to, and the action in particular is more believable.
These two trends reach a new height in Man of Steel — the film desperately wants to be taken seriously as an important serious film about a serious hero who is not a goofy boy scout in brightly coloured pajamas. And the action, as I mentioned above, is bloody great.
But even as Man of Steel takes those two trends to their furthest extent, this film also shows the beginnings of the inevitable downfall of the genre. There’s a limit to just how much “seriousness” and “realism” people want in their escapist fantasies about people with big capes, who can punch really hard and zoom around in mid air.
If superhero movies were once plagued by excessive silliness, Man of Steel suffers from an excess of dignity. It’s still campy, in parts — but it really strains to be taken seriously, in a way that starts feeling stuffy.
To some extent this parallels the rise of “grim and gritty” storytelling in the 1980s and 1990s in comics — except that the “grim and gritty” stuff was always about posturing and over-the-top angst, and was actually quite campy in its own way. (Just look at the way Rob Liefeld draws feet.)
What happens when you strip all campiness away from superheroes? Maybe they lose a lot of their vitality, as characters. Bear in mind that superheroes aren’t really a genre — they’re a bunch of other genres that have extra trappings stuck on. Camp is what gives superheroes a context that allows them to be called things like “Superman” or “Wonder Woman,” or to dress up like animals in public without people thinking they’re furries. There’s no non-campy way to say “I’m the best there is at what I do, but what I do isn’t very nice.”
In a non-campy Batman story, Batman would probably get shot in the face, ninja skills or no ninja skills. In a non-campy Superman story, people would freak out that there’s an alien from outer space living among us in secret. And that’s sort of the possibility Man of Steel flirts with.
If you’ve seen the trailers, you probably know that the central idea of this movie is that an alien from the planet Krypton showing up on Earth is kind of a big deal, and people would freak out if that actually happened.
Superman’s adoptive Earth parents, Ma and Pa Kent, urge him to keep his powers a secret, in the face of lots of temptations to use them. The good news is, Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, who play the Kents, are by far the best thing in the movie, and their scenes are full of emotion and energy that the rest of the film mostly lacks. They’re in a way better movie than the rest of the cast. This is especially good news, since Costner and Lane are the ones laying a lot of the thematic and emotional track that the movie has to roll along. Those two pretty much single-handedly save the film.
The only other performer in the movie who stands out as excellent is Christopher Meloni as Col. Hardy, who is on the front lines of dealing with Superman. Meloni has the most important single line of dialogue in the film, and he manages to sell it. He also gets a couple of fist-pumping “Fuck yeah” moments in the middle of the action. Also, this film does a really great job of portraying the US military in general — the jargon and the protocols feel real, and the soldiers never seem like jackasses in uniform. Michael Bay should take notes.
The process of humanity coming to terms with Superman’s alien presence would be fraught enough — but it’s complicated by the arrival of a whole bunch of other Kryptonians, led by General Zod (Michael Shannon). They want Superman, for reasons which are too complicated to go into and make almost no sense anyway. And they’re evil imperialists, who come from a world of terrible genetic engineering and ugly fashion choices.
Having the other aliens turn up before humanity really learns about Superman is a bold choice, because Superman has no chance to win our trust before we’re up to our asses in Kryptonians.
So how do the humans tell the difference between the good alien, Superman, and the evil aliens? Is there any way to decide which alien is really on our side? Here’s where the movie departs from realism, and tries to use fake seriousness and grandeur to win you over instead. A lot of these scenes are so pompous, I think you’re supposed to think that Superman wins everybody over through sheer gravitas.
(Incidentally, one major problem with this film is that Superman makes no effort whatsoever to avoid civilian casualties in those awesome fight scenes. The final battle trashes Metropolis, probably killing thousands, and Superman doesn’t seem to consider trying to relocate it to a less populated area. And earlier in the film, he goes out of his way to blow up a gas station that appears to be full of people — he steers the fight into the gas station and causes it to explode, on purpose. This makes it harder to believe that people might recognise some difference between him and the other Kryptonians.)
This is a film that tries to pursue realism through contradictory means, and winds up coming across as somewhat lumbering as a result. The whole film is shot with handheld cameras, giving it a “documentary” feel at times, but most of the actual shots are ultra-stylized and comic-booky. Hans Zimmer’s slow fanfare-laden music and all the performances say “SERIOUS DRAMA” but the actual dialogue is clunky, on the level of: “MY SOUL. THAT IS WHAT YOU HAVE TAKEN FROM ME.”
My favourite line in the movie, incidentally: “The fact that you possess a sense of morality and we do not gives us an evolutionary advantage. And history has shown that evolution always wins.” There is a lot of terrible speechifying in the film.
And the actual Kryptonians, apart from Superman… Russell Crowe is pretty good when he’s putting the smackdown on his fellow aliens, but seems frankly bored whenever he has to spout exposition. (Continuing Marlon Brando’s fine tradition of ultra-laid-back Jor-Els, I guess.) As General Zod, Michael Shannon has some kind of speech impediment and a tendency towards extreme literalism — he plays like a peevish middle manager who occasionally bugs out and loses his shit. Antje Trauje is probably the best of the bunch, because she’s playing a sexy badass.
Anyway, back to the notion of realism — this film really wants to get there, but has no idea how. And that’s probably because a realistic take on Superman would end up with people ostracizing him as a monster, and you can’t do that with Superman. This film is just smart enough to realise that, but not clever enough to find a way out other than by going stylised and trying to bludgeon us with EXTREEM SOLEMNITY. Luckily, the violence in the latter half of the film is awesome enough that you honestly don’t care about the story any more.
And the last five minutes of Man of Steel make a promise that now that all of the dull groundwork has been laid, we’re ready to have fun. There are more quips and winks in the final few scenes than in the rest of the film put together.
I walked out of Man of Steel with profoundly mixed feelings — I loved the fight scenes and all the stuff with Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, but a lot of the rest of the film left me cold. So I went back and saw it again a few days later, to try and get a better read on it. And I walked out of the second screening with… profoundly mixed feelings.
The overwhelming feeling I had after the second viewing of Man of Steel, though, was: We’re getting really, really good at making superhero movies. We’ve had a steep learning curve, and now this genre is absolutely reaching the apex of its potential, in terms of pure craftsmanship. Unfortunately, that also means the genre may be losing some of what made it distinctive and compelling in the first place. This film will probably make a billion dollars, and it kind of deserves to — but it’s also going to hasten the inevitable slow death of superhero films.