I have, at some time in my life, seen all of the original four Christopher Reeves’ Superman films. However, I have never revisited them. That is to say, although I have seen all of them, I have probably seen none of them since the inception of the VCR, when I watched them as a young lad with my father. Even at a young age I remember enjoying the first two and not so much the latter two.
I’m not so sure how well the films really hold up, especially considering the strides made in special effects, and I am perfectly happy allowing my diminished memories of them not be ruined by a second viewing three decades later in order to prove or disprove the notion. Regardless, I have been given the impression that the first two are the standards by which Superman films will forever be measured.
Now that technology is all growed up, surely we can create a better Superman movie, right? One that doesn’t rely on ropes and pulleys and green screens and city models. I mean, sure, Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns has already come and gone. A solid but unremarkable entry in to the series marred by a noticeable lack of action and an inordinately lengthy run time, met with many unenthused “mehs” and forgotten about quickly and quietly.
But we’ve learned from those mistakes, yeah? We’ve learned about making superhero movies with better dialogue and effects, with richer characters and better pacing. Christopher Nolan has shown us the way, and his involvement along with David Goyer’s has to be a positive.
Man of Steel opens on a dying Krypton. In the first few minutes we are assailed by numerous plot points. Superman (referred to in the movie either as Kal-El or Clark Kent, but referred to by me as Superman) is born, and then we quickly cut to a scene where Supes’ dad, Jor-El (Russel Crowe), is arguing with Krypton’s council. Krypton is dying due to…over usage of limited resources? Some manner of population control? “Degenerative bloodlines?” Who the hell knows. What’s important is that the military leader on Krypton, Zod (Michael Shannon), thinks they should conquer a nearby planet and Jor-El believes they can live peaceably with another civilization, should they put forth the effort to find a suitable one.
So Jor-El fights Zod, escapes from his grasp, and ships Superman off to Earth. Zod eventually catches up to and kills Jor-El. Somehow, Zod and his band of military ne’er do wells are captured, although we are not privy to how this happens or how long it takes. Then, in the first of many completely inane plotting points, the Krypton council decides to ship them to the “Phantom Zone.” They killed a number of Kryptonians, plotted a coup, and their punishment is to be shipped off of a planet that literally explodes the very next scene. Ah, a wise choice.
I think, at this point, most of us know the story of Superman and one pro of the film is they don’t spend a whole lot of time rehashing Clark Kent’s (Henry Cavill) discovery of his powers. They are told in brief, surprisingly human, flashbacks. They manage to give the feel of him discovering his powers over time in an organic manner rather than just deciding one day to, say, lift a car off a dying man.
After an unknown number of years, Zod and his group of lackeys, fresh from escaping the Phantom Zone, eventually hunt down Superman on Earth. In another plot point I never understood, they hunted him down because, before his death, Jor-El imbued Superman with the DNA “codex” of the Kryptonian people. I have no idea what this means. If you’re a Kryptonian you just have the sex with another Kryptonian and you create a Kryptonian, right? Or does it have something to do with the population control and the “degenerative bloodlines?” Again…it’s hard to say and doesn’t really seem to matter. It’s mostly just the reason Zod has to invade Earth and kill Superman.
Zod lands his ship in Metropolis which, rightfully so, creates a bit of commotion. He demands Superman be brought to him. Superman goes to surrender himself and is taken in to Zod’s ship, along with Lois Lane (Amy Adams)…a bit more on that later.
Lois escapes with the help of the ghost of Jor-El…more on that later…then Superman follows suit, saving Lois from a tumbling escape pod just before it crashes to the ground. What follows is a pretty reasonable action sequence between Superman and the Kryptonians. I found myself enjoying the film well enough up to this point, even if I didn’t understand why, when you throw a Kryptonian in to a train car, it explodes like a bomb.
Superman defeats a couple of the Kryptonians, and they retreat. This is one and a half hours in to the film. A reasonable length. Had the curtain dropped at this point I would have walked away saying the film felt half-baked and was unfulfilling. Lucky for me the movie is another hour long, so that I could walk away saying it was a festering pile of dog feces.
I can overlook a lot of crap in a film, especially a comic book-based action film. I can overlook that Amy Adams is miscast and wooden. I can overlook that Lois Lane is unnecessarily shoed in to every single scene she appears in. I can overlook exploding trains that shouldn’t explode. I can overlook Superman saving two soldiers, Lois Lane TWICE, and a random family in a museum, all JUST IN THE NICK OF TIME.
Here are some things I can’t overlook.
After Zod runs away with his tail between his legs, he decides to unleash the “World Engine” on the Earth. The World Engine. The ultra-dramatic shot of Michael Shannon forcing the line “Release the World Engine” up from his larynx is one of the most embarrassing scenes I have been privy to, especially considering I was just touting him as an actor who was overlooked for an Academy Award Nomination for his role in Take Shelter.
shot of a military compound. General Swanwick (Harry Lennix), looking pensively at some sort of computerized satellite feed projecting on a big screen, asks “What did they just hit us with?” In the span of ten seconds, TEN SECONDS, Dr. Emil Hamilton, who I am assuming is some sort of military scientist, replies, “Oh my lord, they’re terraforming the Earth!” How in the hell did he decipher that?
Now, a quick flashback.
When Superman originally finds the ship he crashed in he finds a small, two inch rod, shaped like the Superman emblem. This is a “command key,” and, apparently, when you put it in any random orifice in any ship, it brings forth the consciousness of Jor-El. And not just, like, a semblance of him. He walks and talks and makes decisions and espouses his opinion. During the scene in which Lois Lane escapes from Zod’s ship, he not only helps her escape, but actually tells Lois Lane how to defeat Zod. This is both the most pathetic and literal interpretation of Deus Ex Machina I have ever bared witness to.
Back to the current plot strand.
Lois Lane….yes, reporter form the Daily Planet…convinces both Superman AND THE MILITARY, that she…a reporter from the Daily Planet…knows how to stop Zod. And here it is: Superman’s old ship is powered by a “Phantom Drive.” Zod’s ship is powered by a “Phantom Drive.” If they crash Superman’s ship in to Zod’s ship, it will create a black hole which will suck the Kryptonians back in. So why do colliding Phantom Drives cause black holes? I don’t know. Where will it suck them “back” to? I don’t know. Why will the black hole not suck up all of Metropolis? I don’t know. But just like that they all agree this is the best course of action because Lois Lane claims a dead alien told her so.
The plan is two-fold. Superman is going to go ahead and destroy the World Engine and, in the meanwhile, the military are going to load up his old ship in a giant bomber and crash it in to Zod’s ship. And, of course, Lois Lane is going to go with them on this extremely dangerous military mission to destroy aliens. Because, you know, she’s a reporter. From the Daily Planet.
As Superman approaches the World Engine, two tentacles spring forth from its carapace in defense. Sigh. Yes, you read that correctly. We are now treated to an action sequence where Superman battles CGI tentacles for what seems like an eternity. Eventually, he defeats the tentacles (I can’t believe I had to write that sentence) and destroys the World Engine, just as the other group crash the two Phantom Drives together, creating a black hole that kills all the soldiers, the military scientist, and all the Kryptonians, but in spite of any semblance of logic, shoots Lois Lane AWAY FROM IT.
We then cut to a shot of Superman looking up in to the black hole and he sees Lois Lane falling away from it. Meanwhile, from where he is standing, on the ground, there is debris getting sucked in to the black hole. So…let me get this correct. The debris which weighs more than Lois Lane and is further away is getting sucked in to the black hole, but she is falling away from it. And just to add a cherry on top, Superman flies in, grabs her, and then can barely fly away from its gravitational pull. Lois Lane must be, like, really dense. She must have some sort of condition. Like, mercury for blood or something.
To top it all off the film is poorly written and flatly directed. There is not one moment of humor throughout. The film only even takes one shot at humor. One. Here’s how it goes. At the very end Superman confronts General Swanwick about trying to spy on him with satellites. After the confrontation he flies off, leaving Swanwick and an unnamed female soldier standing there, looking after him. The female soldier is grinning broadly and when Swanwick asks why she tries, quite unsuccessfully I might add, to act shy and flustered, and answers “I think he’s kind of hot.” What, are you kidding me? You have to be kidding me. Jesus tap dancing Christ somebody leave something on the editing room floor!
It just felt like a bunch of studio execs sat around saying, “Hey, remember when Bryan Singer tried to reboot Superman? And the main complaint was that it was boring? Let’s put some action in this one!” But the action sequences aren’t well choreographed. They feel like they’re thrown in because superhero movies need action sequences, with no real idea of how to orchestrate them.
Zack Snyder, whose eye-catching 300 now seems like an eon ago, interjects no energy in to the proceedings. As a matter of fact, I would argue the direction actually defuses what little energy there may have been. With the exception of the flashback scenes, which I felt to be the most fully realized parts of the film, everything seems to have the color drained from it, with filters of blue and sepia removing all traces of warmth. Look, I know Nolan wrote and produced, but Superman isn’t Batman, and this film should be colorful instead of muted.
I haven’t seen Superman Returns since the theater. I remember walking out thinking it was really boring, but at least it looked good and was well cast. When I got done with Man of Steel, I think I was literally sitting in my basement shaking my head. How did everything go so wrong? I went from marginally enjoying the first half of this film to hating it. I felt like I was watching some old, sub-par episode of Star Trek. Command keys, phantom drives, world engines, ghosts, terraforming, black holes, codexes filled with the DNA of dead Kryptonians fused to the living cells of Superman. One of the main action sequences revolving around a battle against CGI tentacles? Really?
Although I can’t recommend this film, I did like Cavill’s casting as Superman. He’s handsome and muscular and when his hair is coifed just so he looks as much like Superman as any actor to ever play the part. But knowing that the next film is set to be directed by Snyder yet again, with Goyer writing and a freshly cast Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne, I can’t help but wonder how DC always seems to get it wrong, and Marvel always seems to get it right…just like when I grew up reading comics in the 90s.