Man of Steel

Millions die, offscreen
★★★
☆☆
Released: 
2013
Director: 
Zack Snyder
Starring: 
Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner
The Setup: 
Reboot of Superman in a Dark Knight tone.
Discussion: 

Well, after Star Trek and After Earth, this was my next movie to obsess about, and I got into quite a tear of reading bad reviews (I was only interested in the bad ones), of which there were a good quantity. But it turns out that the bad reviews, in large part, were wrong (about what they chose to complain about), but that this thing raises a lot of troubling questions about why we want to see such detailed renditions of Hiroshima-level destruction, and why it's "fun" and "awesome" to ponder the death of millions, all without seeing a single dead body.

The movie begins with Kal-El's birth, then Russell Crowe as Jor-El is telling "the council" about how the planet is going to implode because of fracking, when Michael Shannon as General Zod comes in and stages a coup. Jor-El is captured, but he, like everyone in movies nowadays, is trained in martial arts, and escapes to visit the set of The Matrix, where he steals a skull that supposedly contains the DNA of everyone on Krypton. He dissolves it with a lemongrass herbal infusion into his infant son, Mom says a tearful goodbye and they launch the baby toward Earth. Then Zod comes in and kills Jor-El, then their coup is quashed, then they're sent to the phantom zone (encased in dildoes), and ONE minute later, Krypton is destroyed. Quite a major series of events to occur over the space of an hour, no? They sure pack a lot into one day on Krypton.

Now, a whole thread of this movie is how they're trying to distinguish it from previous Superman films, which might have cheesy elements, and God knows we can NOT appreciate the story or structure of a film if we have to tolerate even one cheesy special effect. They're also trying to get away from the mopey Superman of the last, failed reboot, Superman Returns, which was a giant bummer. But it is still seen that Superman MUST be alienated and angst-ridden, and that trying to make something of him being virtuous, as they did in the Richard Donner films, is OUT of the question. We also don't want to get bogged down in all that yokey childhood-in-Kansas stuff, so we jump right into adult Clark Kent being a drifter, and just have numerous flashbacks to his childhood. In the first, he suddenly gets his X-Ray vision and is freaked out, the first thing out of his mouth when his mother comes to school being "The world's too big, Mom!"

Soon after, Clark saves the lives of about 25 children in a school bus accident, but surprisingly, this is a BAD thing. The mother of one of the kids comes over to ma and pa Kent, but it's unclear what her complaint is. She'd have rathered that her son die? Then pops, played by Kevin Costner, tells him he has to hide his abilities, even if it means letting people die, and shows him that he's an alien. He gives him a special key that will receive a lot of play throughout the film and--geez, put that thing on a keychain or something! We're just lucky it didn't fall out of anyone's pocket when they were getting thrown through a building.

Meanwhile Amy Adams as Lois Lane is tracking this mysterious drifter who keeps saving people, which leads her to the discovery of an 18,000-year-old ship from Krypton. The wheres and whys of this ship continue to elude me, but Clark goes in, pops in the key, and--Hello, Halo-Dad! He gets a brand-new Russell Crowe to explain everything to him, via Kryptonian PowerPoint. One detail I liked is that the PowerPoint pays homage to the spiky ship baby Supes took to Earth in the Donner film. Clark flies the ship to the arctic, where I think he should do a better job of hiding it, gets his suit, learns to fly, and all that good stuff. Critics who complain that no one smiles until the end of the film obviously misses Clark's big smile upon learning to fly.

SPOILERS > > >
More flashbacks, more trauma. First we learn that Clark is supposedly reading Plato at 12. That was a good one, something that could have only been imagined by a person who has never read Plato. Then there was a giga-tornado--in the view of this film, life is just a series of intensely meaningful conversations sandwiched between massive catastrophes--and Clark could have easily saved his father (who sacrificed his life for the family dog!), but Dad said no. I get the point, but I'm not sure it works emotionally. Come on, Dad--REALLY? Then... well, I'm sure there was another trauma, but I can't remember what it was. Anyway, soon enough Zod and pals come to Earth.

I really liked Michael Shannon in the role. He was genuinely weird, which made him seem bizarre and otherworldly, and he's not afraid (and Snyder et al was not afraid to let him) go a hundred miles over the top. He wants the codex, which is the skull-thing, and aims to recreate Krypton on Earth. Not a bad plan, as supervillain plans go. Along the way we have mankind adjusting to the reality of aliens and we have cause to note that this movie is much more sci-fi than one might have expected. A comics lover of mine expressed the difference between DC and Marvel, which makes DC more difficult to adapt as films, is that DC's villains are usually bizarre and otherworldly. Well, this film just goes for it, and in the same way that Nolan made Batman "serious" by making it not a superhero movie, but a vigilante movie, this one is not so much a superhero movie as an alien sci-fi movie.

And now into the climaxes. First we have the destruction of downtown Smallville. The product placements in this movie are outrageous (I believe it actually is on record as having the most of any film thus far), and this sequence is stuffed with them. Superman fights Zod's henchfolks, smashing up several buildings in the process and having a super-fistfight in a suspiciously deserted IHOP, which was kind of cool. Only you do start to feel like... if all these people are invincible, the point of all this is...? The henchfolks vanish after this scene, but... are they defeated? How? I saw it yesterday and I can't say I really remember.

Then the big climax in Metropolis. I say "big" climax but, they're all kind of the same, from the very beginning of the movie. In fact, I had heard that this movie had so much mayhem that I actually started to write down my estimates of quiet parts to mega action parts, although I gave it up after a while. I would guess that about 40 minutes out of the 240 minutes are quiet parts where humans talk. The rest is mayhem and destruction, but in the last 40 minutes it really gets a bit insane. This movie's idea of going bigger and showing more is to show: bigger and more detailed mass destruction. So you see about 15-20 skyscrapers destroyed and fall over. Whole city blacks are leveled in a second. By the end, we are left with a landscape that looks like Hiroshima.

I think the word for it is obscene. I can ask why someone would want to see something like this, but I get it, I don't mind a little mass destruction. The question is: should we really show it to them? Here we have real 9/11 imagery, things we ACTUALLY saw in the videos from 9/11, like people running down a city street as a gray ash cloud expands in the street behind them and--is that awesome? That's question one. Question two is: Millions, perhaps even a billion people die in this movie. And yet we don't see a single dead body. The one person trapped under a fallen skyscraper is totally FINE, not a scratch. Then someone says "He saved us!" and everyone acts like everything is okay, and the last scene is at the Daily Planet--which obviously would not still be standing and certainly not operating after what just happened, and... what does that mean? You can say that people understand that "it's just a movie," but then why do we need to borrow things from reality--mass killings--to lend seriousness to our movies? It's always a head-scratcher to me when people react with SHOCK that a school or movie theater or mall or workplace shooter "doesn't respect the value of human life," when almost none of the entertainment in our culture shows any respect for human life. In fact, almost all the entertainment around us thinks that killing is PRETTY FUCKIN' AWESOME.

Which brings us to the very end, in which Superman is "forced" to snap Zod's neck. Why he can suddenly snap Zod's neck is not explained, although those familiar with Superman know that one defining trait of Superman [formerly] is that he does not kill. Of course, it would have had a lot more (or some) impact here if we had been told at some point during this movie that Superman does not kill, and even then... surely there are any number of ways this story could have gone without endings his way, but... what is it with that Christopher Nolan? The Dark Knight Rises cloaked itself in a lot of Occupy Wall Street drapery only to finally make a statement that martial law is exactly what's needed, and this one ends with a statement that even someone who is supposed to represent adherence to virtue--even the ONE person among all who is supposed to represent adherence to virtue--has to come to the point where he kills. Interesting moral. And let's not forget that this is within his first two days of being Superman! Maybe he and Snyder should bring the ever-present Christ imagery to the fore next time and make that blockbuster in which they present Christ as an Unstoppable!!! Killing!!! Machine!!! It could be a "dark" take on the character.
< < < SPOILERS END

My friend reported that another acquaintance had seen it, and it made him feel sad afterward, and that reminded me that I, too, felt a little sad afterward. "Awesome" as everything here may be, it's quite a grim little world presented here, where we have to understand that millions of people might die, but that's just the way things are, and everything will continue just as before (so long as you aren't among those unlucky, offscreen millions). Makes it a bit ironic that for all the talk in the film of Superman being a savior and the S symbolizing hope, one walks out of the film feeling like humanity really is doomed. One of the moments from the 1978 film that was tiny but was mentioned in several reviews of this film is the moment where Superman saves a cat from a tree. There are no such moments here, and in fact there is almost no coverage of Superman actually helping people. I guess he's helping people by ensuring that only millions, not billions die? There is no sequence where Superman directly helps people on a human scale, and his reward for the closest thing--saving the school bus--is treated as a huge problem.

I re-watched the 1978 Superman as an adult, and was tremendously impressed by the intelligence brought to it, and how they managed to, rather than deny or distract from Superman's virtue, make that the primary thing. They cast him against the New York of the 70s, a society seen as debauched in a way we've given up on even worrying about, and made him different and attractive precisely because of his virtue. Then, toward the end, his virtue is used against him when he has to let Lois die because he promised another to save her mother, and he cannot break a promise. So they found a way to make the attributes of the character work, which is clever, as opposed to denying his character to make him "edgy" and appeal to 14-25 year old teen boys here and in China, India, and the rest of the international market.

So it may be awesome, but it is also another milestone on the road to the apocalypse. The overriding imperative, clear in every frame, is to make money and start a franchise that can dovetail into a Justice League movie so Warners can have a stable similar to Marvel's. Too bad they had to depict the loss of millions of lives in order to legitimate their film. But, if that's what it takes? One wonders what's left for them to do in the next film--perhaps destroy a continent? Maybe that's what it'll take to appropriate some "seriousness" to the enterprise. Maybe it's not worth getting worked up over, and pointless, but truer words were never spoken that this is not, definitely not, your father's Superman.

Should you watch it: 

You will if you want to.