Man of Steel – Can’t We Do Better?

Editor’s note: This post contains spoilers. In accordance with the blog’s spoiler policy, it is a reader’s responsibility to avoid spoilers, not mine. 

I don’t watch enough movies to make writing about them a regular thing, but I love all things Superman. The latest attempt to resurrect him on the big screen left me so conflicted that the only way I could sort out my thoughts was to put them to monitor.

This is supposed to be the reboot of at least two new Superman movies. There have been five previous, plus multiple television shows and cartoons. The Superman S is one of the most recognizable symbols on Earth. Can we please be done with the origin story and the wandering Clark Kent? Movie goers of every age know that Superman is from planet Krypton. Why spend so much time in a new franchise showing the story all over again? That’s time that could be devoted to setting up a new story that can last for several movies. Suppose this and the sequel clock in at five hours, they will have spent 20 percent of that time rehashing old material. The same goes with Clark’s struggle to grow into his destiny. There can be a Superman story without Jonathan and Martha Kent and without Krypton. That would truly re-imagine Superman on the big screen.

Too much of the rest of the movie is just plain stupid. Actually, it’s worse than stupid. It’s damn near plagiarism. Krypton’s birth pods are a blatant copy of The Matrix. The oil rig fire where we first see Clark is obviously intended to be the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

It gets worse.

Jonathan Kent sends people under a highway overpass to escape a tornado.  This is the WORST thing you can do! No responsible father in tornado alley would ever tell his wife and son to hide under an overpass. I don’t know what would be more unsettling: The brains behind the movie not knowing this is terrible advice or them knowing but deciding to do it anyway. It ruined what should have been the emotional payoff to Clark’s relationship with his father. Kevin Costner did his best to save it, but you can’t rescue something this bad.

Combine that with the incredible stupidity that washes over the human race when Superman is around. How many times do they need to see a flying woman in alien body armor get shot at before they learn that shooting at her won’t do a damn bit of good? We know bullets don’t hurt Superman, we know they won’t hurt other Kryptonians either. Guess what? You probably can’t shoot down a Kryptonian spaceship with your little missiles either. Re-imagine a movie without showing this nonsense.

The moment I gave up on this movie? That convinced me these movie makers don’t have the creative brains to make Superman anew? When they re-enacted Independence Day. You were given America’s favorite superhero. DO BETTER THAN RIPPING OFF A 90s ALIEN INVASION MOVIE. HOW FRICKING TERRIBLE AT STORYTELLING ARE YOU THAT YOU PILFER A SCENE FROM RANDY FLIPPING QUADE?!?

Then, to cap it off, after destroying Metropolis and sending its mindless citizens into rote movie panic, Superman kills General Zod by…breaking his neck. Yep, that’s right. Hollywood’s favorite method of murdering unsuspecting security guards is how Superman kills his enemy, who survived being thrown into and thru all types of solid structures. Why didn’t Clark break his neck sooner? Surely he could have done it and spared half of Metroplis. Did he reach some heightened level of strength that allowed him to overpower Zod’s neck? Was Zod weakened by the fight? Was Clark? Then why didn’t he break Clark’s neck?

I bought into your flying man in a blue suit so I’m willing to let a little bit go, but I’m sorry. Man of Steel asks us to let too much slip by.

What makes this so frustrating is that the movie had a lot of really good parts that show it could have been so much better. It eschews Clark Kent the reporter until the final scene, sparing us from having to endure another actor trying to replicate Christopher Reeve’s charm. Although Henry Cavil’s alternate look was not at all convincing, it shows that the producers have at least some sense of how to tell a Superman story differently.

Hand-in-hand with that change is the way it treats Superman’s great secret: It doesn’t dominate the movie. In fact they are quite reckless with it. Showing how unprotected his identity is (possibly foreshadowing the sequel?), the movie tracks Lois as she follows his trail thru eyewitnesses and contemporaries all the way to Martha Kent’s front door. Later she brings the cops to the Kent’s home. That would have been unheard of in past retellings when Clark’s identity was a major part of the story. We also then have Lois knowing Clark’s secret from the beginning. This is again good and evidence that there is at least some sliver of capability here.

Other bits that I could appreciate were smaller. The special effect that had Faora-Ul popping from position to position in fight scenes showed super speed better than I think it has ever appeared in a Superman movie. Why some of that creativity didn’t work its way into the other effects, who knows. And where was Non?

I liked that Lara-El had a stronger role. Jor-El trusted her with key parts of their escape plan for Kal. There’s nothing in Superman mythology that says she can only be a crying mom. The scene where she gives birth was really good at showing the painful anguish that she couldn’t have possibly known she was in store for, there hadn’t been a live birth on Krypton in centuries. If Man of Steel was a television show, I would be intrigued by the prospect of stories that involve Lara.

Young Clark’s scene in his classroom where his super powers become too much for him to bear is exactly how you’d expect a youngster to react. Jonathan and Clark talking after he lifts his sinking school bus out of a river digs into the moral dilemma of a father balancing his desire to protect his son with his humanity. His answer to Clark asking him if he was just supposed to let his classmates die to protect his secret elicited the only answer it could: “Maybe.” As much as I would prefer such background to be left out, it is still well done.

There’s also no Kryptonite, no Jimmy Olsen and no Lex Luthor (yet). All three are integral parts of Superman lore but leaving them out shows it is possible to conceive a Superman story without the comic book pillars.

As I was letting these thoughts sink in I decided to re-watch Superman Returns. I came to revile that movie as much as everyone else did, but I gained a new appreciation for it in light of Man of Steel. Returns had the John Williams score and recycled scenes with Marlon Brando to make it feel like more of a sanctioned reboot than Man of Steel. Returns’ story even picked up roughly five years after the Reeve movies left off.

What I realized about Returns is what bothered me about Man of Steel. Returns embraced and rejoiced in the inherent cheesiness that comes in a comic book movie. I’m not going to make apologies for its story, but I will defend that it never tried to be anything more than a comic book movie. Can we say the same about Man of Steel?

I don’t believe we can. The excessive attempts to destroy Zod’s army and pathetic copycat moments would land much better in a movie that accepted its place. Instead, I think Man of Steel tried to shoehorn them into its attempt at a Batman style modern superhero epic. As is almost always the case, a mishmash of styles ends up as a mess that leaves you regretful for what could have been.

That’s exactly how I feel about Man of Steel.

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