Roundtable: Man of Steel (2013)

This post contains spoilers regarding Man of Steel, so if you have not seen the film and wish to remain unspoiled, please read no further.

Aren: A lot has already been said about Zack Snyder’s reboot of the Superman mythos, Man of Steel. But we’re not going to let that stop us from continuing the conversation. To be honest, what’s been written so far hasn’t been that compelling. Too much of the critical conversation has centred on who Superman is to that particular writer, not enough on the choices the film made and their success (or failure) within the world Snyder and writer David S. Goyer created.

To get it going, I will simply say that I’m glad we now have a solid modern Superman film. I like the Marvel Cinematic Universe and some of the X-Men films are good, but with Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy over, and Green Lantern being a big dud a couple years ago, I was missing DC on the big screen. Superman most of all. While I don’t hate Superman Returns like many people (nor do I adore its glamorization of Christopher Reeve like others), the film didn’t really stick in my mind. It didn’t make me excited. Walking out the Scotiabank IMAX theatre after Man of Steel ended, I mentioned to Anders that I was excited for the sequel. This is always a good thing for a blockbuster movie and something a Superman movie hadn’t done in my lifetime.

Anders: I think the most impressive thing about Man of Steel is the way it truly gives us a Superman film on a grand scale. In fact, Man of Steel has more in common with films like Star Wars or Avatar than it does with most other superhero films in terms of creating a massively intricate world.

People always harken back to Superman: The Movie and the tagline, “You’ll believe a man can fly.” As much as I admire aspects of the first couple of Christopher Reeve films, I’m not sure they actually deliver on that promise; Man of Steel certainly does. At least for me it did. The sequences where Clark first practices flying are pretty fantastic, one of the moments in the film of pure joy that I think has been overlooked in the emphasis on the film’s “seriousness.” Superman’s abilities are given a suitably grand treatment so that they actually become awe-inspiring. We may quibble about whether his actions are inspiring, but his powers certainly are.

It’s not just the powers that are fully realized here, but the scale on which a being of Superman’s power could and would be able to operate. I understand the idea of choosing Zod as the villain this time out, as it gives the filmmakers the opportunity to really have Superman let loose. Man of Steel gives us the most all-out superpowered battle in cinema history (I feel confident saying that). I remember the Wachowski’s talking about how they wanted the final battle in the Matrix films to be a kind of superhero battle, with overtones of Dragonball and the kind of all out madness that comic books and animation can reach. In Man of Steel, Snyder shows us what a titanic battle between two super-powered beings could be, but manages to imbue it with enough elegance and weight to avoid tipping into cartoon territory.

Anton: I appreciate that the technology is finally capable of fully realizing Superman’s powers on-screen. I imagine that Zack Snyder had fun playing around with the heat vision, the super-speed, the flying, etc.

That said, after watching Man of Steel I felt very similar to how I did after seeing The Avengers, or more recently Iron Man 3. Fatigued. In too many of these summer blockbusters, the narrative almost stops to let the heroes and villains pummel each other and destroy a bunch of stuff for the last 45 minutes. In comparison, the final battle in The Dark Knight Rises, more driven by narrative and character development, seems almost quaint. But then people complained that ending was underwhelming.

Aren: I agree that the film is overwhelming at points. I felt exhausted coming out the theatre, worked over by the apocalyptic action and the thundering drums of Hans Zimmer. But Man of Steel has some beautiful little moments that drastically contrast to the big action, something that The Avengers certainly doesn’t have and something I’m not even sure The Dark Knight Trilogy really does either. I speak, of course, about the flashbacks.

Coming after the prologue on Krypton and Clark Kent’s intervention on the oil rig, these flashbacks give us a glimpse into the character’s formative years and the frustrations that accompany his powers and inform his present day existence. They all have to do with how his parents taught him to harness his powers and come to terms with how his existence will have a grand effect on the world. They’re more than moments of wisdom. They’re moments of beauty and affection for not only small-town Americana, but the trials and concerns of parenting. The scenes may not unequivocally support Jonathan Kent’s (Kevin Costner) opinions about how Clark should approach the world, but they show the motivation for his thinking, his concern built out of love.

My favourite of these scenes is the moment where Jonathan Kent watches his son in his red cape playing with his dog, realizing just how much of an effect he’ll have on the world. It seems to be Zack Snyder’s riff on Terrence Malick. It has a similar tenderness to the childhood scenes in The Tree of Life. Soft focus. Magic hour lighting. The simplicity of childhood standing in for some grand existential understanding. This scene moved me deeply. It captures the profound meaning and calm that parents gain from the joy and success of their kids.

Anton: Some of the editing between scenes and timelines was awkward, while other flashbacks were motivated very clearly. I think the storytelling is uneven in this respect.

Aren: I think the motivation is there, but it’s purely motivated by character. To invoke my favourite TV show for a moment, LOST perfected the art of the flashback in its first couple seasons. Whenever a character would do something particularly surprising or whenever something occurred that really cut to the heart of a character, the show would flashback to a pre-Island event that motivated that character’s later actions and paralleled the emotional arc the character seemed destined to repeat throughout their lives. In Man of Steel a similar logic exists to the flashbacks.

The first time we have a flashback, Superman is floating beneath the waves, overwhelmed sensorily by the firestorm of the burning oil rig. He is fighting for calm, and so we go back to a moment in his childhood when he was overwhelmed by his powers, by his capability to see and hear more than the average boy does. We see how his mom calmed him and taught him to control his gifts.

In another scene, Superman appears in a northern fishing village and seeks to go unnoticed. He spots a school bus and we flash back to a moment where he saved his fellow classmates from drowning in a bus. We see the immediate consequences of this action: another parent calls out the Kents regarding Clark’s powers based on the testimony of her son. Clark realizes that the world is terrified by his powers, even if they do good. We understand the emotional turmoil and confusion it causes him. This flashback explains why he is so careful to stay hidden. The same kind of motivation works for every flashback. It helps us understand the character’s motivations in each stage of the film.

These flashbacks can be a little convenient, perhaps, clearing up character details just when we need them cleared up, but I hardly think they’re awkwardly placed.

Anton: Well, I think you’ve selected the two most clearly motivated flashbacks. Changing directions though, I thought the cast was solid, especially Henry Cavill, but Amy Adams was sorely underused. I kind of think Michael Shannon has been overpraised for his one-note performance of simmering rage.

Anders: In contrast I felt that Shannon just cemented his place as one of the best American actors today, able to work in stripped down indie productions (Take Shelter), long form television storytelling (Boardwalk Empire), or here in a mega-budget blockbuster. Not many actors have that versatility.

The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent. I think most people agree that Kevin Costner’s Jonathan Kent is fantastic, but Diane Lane is also great as Martha Kent. In fact, if I have any complaint about both of their roles it is that they are underutilized in the decision to present Clark’s history in flashback. I buy Amy Adams’ Lois Lane as both a tenacious reporter and as an object of Clark’s fascination. She’s one of the few actresses who can radiate both confidence and girl-next-door beauty at the same time. Also, let’s not forget Russell Crowe’s Jor-El. Crowe does a great job in some of the most difficult scenes to sell (i.e. the most fantastic and otherwordly). He would have made a great Jedi Knight in the Star Wars films. His Jor-El reminds me of Obi-Wan Kenobi, down to his spirit guidance to the characters after his death.

Yes, Shannon’s Zod is a force of rage, but at the same time I found him sympathetic enough. Was he sympathetic enough to lend real weight to the decision Superman is forced to make at the end of the film? Henry Cavill sells Kal-El’s cry of anguish at having to kill the last (known) survivor of his homeland, aside from himself. But I think my biggest complaint about the film is that Snyder and Goyer’s decision to have Superman kill Zod keeps the film from being, for me, the definitive take on the hero. I’m not angry enough that it ruins the whole film for me, since it does have precedence in earlier incarnations of the character.

For example, in John Byrne’s Superman run in the 80s Superman chooses to execute a trio of Kryptonian villains who otherwise will continue destroying universes. But the difference there was that it was a decision that came after Superman had been established in his run having a code against killing and the comic book format allows them to explore the ramifications of such an action on the hero. Perhaps the next film will explore the moral implications of a god-like being who is willing to play executioner, but for now we have to accept that it was simply a difficult decision that Superman was forced into by Zod’s power and evil. Was it a narrative slight of hand that could have been avoided?

Interestingly enough, producer Christopher Nolan was against the move. In an interview with Empire Magazine, Goyer reveals that Nolan “didn’t even want to let us try to write it and Zack and I said, ‘We think we can figure out a way that you’ll buy it.” I think Nolan was ultimately right in his initial gut instinct — he went out of his way in his Dark Knight movies to have Batman adhere to a moral code, in order to contrast him against the League of Shadows. I think that if they had saved Zod for a future installment it might have had more legitimacy as a key character moment for Superman. But apparently Snyder expects us to take away from the trauma of the moment that Superman will never kill again. However, I’m not sure the film earns that take away.

Anton: Does it matter that Superman kills the villain when he’s basically levelled Metropolis’s core? How many thousands die during the final smash-up? For me, the significance of Superman’s final moral dilemma in the film is not only overshadowed by the previous unheeded carnage, but it’s also underwhelming because Superman’s rule against killing is only implicitly understood by knowing audience members.

Anders: Yes, at times this film, as do most films with characters with long histories as I explained in my Star Trek Into Darkness review, lapses into our collective memories of the characters in order to shortcut actual development.

I also understand your revulsion to the scale of the destruction, and implicit death, caused in the Zod vs. Superman battle, but at the same time, as I mentioned earlier, here is a threat that actually requires Superman’s Herculean power. And the truth is that a battle between two being on that scale would be hugely destructive. There is perhaps a missed opportunity to explore the fact that Superman would rarely get to unleash that kind of power. It’s something that was briefly explored in the Justice League: Unlimited Darkseid episode where Superman gives his speech about a “world of cardboard.” Anton: I understand that these are special circumstances, but Superman should have at least addressed the carnage, or expressed some regret for it.

Aren: I do think there are some interesting implications in all this carnage and disaster that Snyder and Goyer can explore in the sequel. They would do well to use Lex Luthor to voice these concerns that many viewers are having. Openly address Superman’s shortcomings in the sequel and have his nemesis use it against him. But enough of my theorizing about the sequel.

An interesting and under-discussed aspect of Man of Steel is how sci-fi it is. The prologue, which takes place entirely on Krypton with Jor-El as the hero of the story, is a sci-fi adventure film. It seemed to be appropriately operatic and did a good job of establishing Krypton as a living world (near death, of course), which was essential considering how much Kryptonian politics comes in to play in the later acts of the film.

Goyer explained that he wanted to focus on Superman’s alien origin this time. He wanted to dig deep into the idea that the moment Superman announces himself to the world, he will have drastically changed humanity’s significance in the universe. While every superhero film is operating in the science fiction genre to varying degrees, Man of Steel seems to dive head-first into sci-fi, and I applaud it for doing so. While the film could possibly be faulted for being too serious, Snyder and Goyer do a good job of making the sci-fi elements fit well with the rest of the story. The Kryptonian operatics don’t distract from the realistic portrayal. Luckily we were spared any tonal awkwardness that results from combining a cosmic storyline with a more conventional hero tale, ala Green Lantern.

Anton: I also want to add that even though I dislike aspects of the film, I do not adore the Christopher Reeve versions. As far as I’m concerned, all the existing Superman movies have aspects I like, and aspects I dislike, to varying degrees.

Man of Steel also demonstrates that superheroes are no longer “crime-fighters.” Apparently terrorists and extraterrestrials are the only baddies a superhero (apart from Batman) should deal with. Perhaps it’s part of the tendency to amplify stakes in contemporary entertainment. A mystery about murder, let alone a robbery, does not interest us. We want to see serial killers. Superman stopping a mugging seems trivial. But does this diminish the idea of the superhero as an ideal of the individual acting for good? What sort of example does the Man of Steel set for us, when the only thing he does publically is fight off an alien invasion?

Lastly, although the final scene made me smile, I’m also sad that it appears Lois already knows Clark Kent’s secret identity, so we’ll miss out on all that fun. (Anyone who says that Lois not recognizing Superman behind the glasses is simply too fake or silly doesn’t understand what a narrative convention is.) Plus, we’re talking about a man flying around in red underwear. Or we used to be, I guess.

Aren: We may understand narrative conventions, Anton, but the whole glasses masking Superman’s identity to a woman that knows him as well as Lois does is one of those corny elements that people who dislike Superman point to again and again as being ridiculous. I disagree, but Snyder clearly was catering to this contemporary belief that Superman is often too lame to be cool.

I just want to touch a bit upon the written criticism of Man of Steel. I’m fine with everyone having their own take on Superman. If some people see Christopher Reeve’s corny Superman as the definitive take on the character, that’s fine. I personally love the Max Fleischer cartoons of the early 40s. If some people can’t stomach the serious tone of Man of Steel, that’s also fine. We all have our preferences.

However, what I can’t stomach is critical hypocrisy. In 2006 Superman Returns came out to fairly positive reviews and a decent box office haul. However, opinion on the film quickly soured and people were quick to denounce it as boring and corny. They asked where the super action was. They asked for a new take on the character that seemed relevant nowadays and wasn’t beholden to Christopher Reeve’s work. They wanted something new.

Fast-forward to 2013 and Man of Steel comes out. If it is one thing, it is a new take on the character. It isn’t beholden to the old films. It is action heavy. And what do many critics do? They complain that it’s too action heavy, that it lacks any of the corny charm of the character. Basically, whatever they disliked about Superman Returns is what they complained was lacking from Man of Steel. This just seems lazy and knowingly dishonest criticism.

Is it too much to ask for a critic to approach a film with an open mind?

Anders: I get where you’re coming from. I really liked the film, but I think that with a property like Superman it's impossible to come to it on its own. Many of my complaints with the film are grounded in what I see as missed opportunities, elements that came across as insufficiently fleshed out, and less so a desire to tell a director how he should have directed the film. In fact, that kind of criticism drains filmgoing of one of its key joys, the joy of surprise. For all its perceived faults, Man of Steel surprised me by offering a unique take on the character.

Aren: Yeah, I understand you. I just wish more critics were upfront about their biases. Approach the film the filmmaker made, not the film you would have made. Don’t review the hype, review the movie as it exists on the screen.

It’s fine to dislike Man of Steel. It’s fine to dislike any movie. Just don’t be a jerk about it.

Man of Steel (2013, USA)

Directed by Zack Snyder; written by David S. Goyer, based off a story by Goyer and Christopher Nolan, based off the character created by Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel; starring Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, and Russell Crowe.