Those who’ve spoken to me about Man of Steel have, thus far, heard my general dismissal of the film: It’s got strong performances and an action-heavy, bloated third act that undermines the rest of the film, but none of that matters because it’s a viable franchise-starter. Here, I’d like to go into more detail, in part in response to an editorial post a friend recently shared with me.
If you don’t feel like reading the editorial in question you should probably stop reading here, because my response to it is much longer than the article itself. In brief, its author, Zainab Akhtar, says that, despite the fact that he has not seen the film in question, he knows it’s bad because it “lose[s] all essence of what [Superman] is about, what he epitomises, and what defines him” and fails as a result. It’s an argument about character that the author looks to Max Landis–writer of the brilliant found-footage quasi-superhero film Chronicle—to bolster, I think unsuccessfully.
Landis’s critique–he’s actually seen the film–is quite good. He argues a version of what I’ve been saying to those who’ve asked for weeks: that the film’s third act undermines its first. For Akhtar, and, to a lesser degree Landis himself, this problem arises because the movie and its makers don’t “get” Superman. They don’t understand him as a character.
This is where I disagree, because character is the one thing that consistently works in the movie, and it flies in the face of what Landis in his video rightly points out does not work: the whole back half of the film (a.k.a. Goyer and Snyder have a destructive joygasm).This is a movie that gets Superman, but has no idea how to tell a story where that character makes sense.
Supes was, I felt, very believable as the hero I love. He’s not the version of that hero I’d prefer–that is, he’s not Grant Morisson’s hero-of-the-people–but he is absolutely an adult among children, a benevolent God among hurting and confused people. Cavill is very good, in a way that’s actually a lot more grounded and feels a lot less like a performance than Reeves/Routh’s Superman. There, I always got the sense that the hokey, corn-fed philosophy of the Midwest was a smokescreen, a winking trick Superman was playing on us earthling rubes. Here, I really do think that Superman’s ethics is buyable. The film is about him choosing between two competing ethics: on the one hand, you have Pa Kent’s willingness to sacrifice self and Jor-El’s insistence on agency and choice and, on the other, Zod and Krypton’s fascistic belief that might makes right.
Major spoilers follow below, so be advised.
Superman consistently chooses the former over the latter, and that makes lines like Cavill’s “It’s not an S. On my planet, it means hope,” or “You’ll never control me, but we can be friends” believable when Reeves/Routh’s “I’m always around” or “I never lie, Lois” sound completely hollow. In Man of Steel, Superman goes on a journey from being a confused kid to being an actual messiah figure, someone who we can believe is going to show us the way because not because Jor-El has told us so in a God-like Brando voiceover, but because we’ve seen him make the choices we couldn’t. We’ve seen him rise above abandonment, deception, and adversity to come into incredible power that he wants to use to make us better. In Chronicle, Landis’s brilliant film, we saw what that narrative does to a lesser man as it makes that film’s protagonist into a monster. In Man of Steel, it makes Clark Kent into a hero.
What’s disappointing–perhaps fatally so–about the film isn’t that it fails to “get” Superman as a character. On the contrary, it gets him very well, but it throws everything it’s successfully gotten out the window in order to fit a sloppy action scene or three into its third act.
Imagine a version of this film that changed nothing except that third act. Cut the middle action sequence, the one in which Metropolis gets torn to shreds, and instead have Superman go directly from Smallville–a fight he gets into to save his mother, but that gets out of control in, I felt, a visually arresting but believable way. It is, after all, Superman’s first outing–to Zod crashing into a public place to kill a family. I’m with Landis: Superman is totally within his rights to kill Zod because Zod, unlike human villains, should know better and is, power-wise, Superman’s equal. Drop all that Metroposplosion stuff, and that scene has some real drama that grows directly from Superman’s character arc: Zod, representative of Kal’s Kryptonian heritage, threatens the world–and family–he has adopted and sworn to protect, and Superman chooses to protect the helpless at any cost. It’s all there; choice, power, self-sacrifice, even an immigrant experience metaphor.
Stick Metroposplosions back in, and it all falls apart. Superman chooses to save the family, but he does so after a ridiculous battle with a mind-blowing implied body count. It undermines everything the movie does.
But it doesn’t do so because the movie doesn’t “get” Superman. It does so because Snyder and Goyer don’t understand how plot and character should work together.
It’s an important distinction, because the former, if established firmly enough–as, I maintain, it is–can carry a franchise in a way that the latter can’t. Plots come and go with directors, writers, pencillers, or animators. The character of Superman can endure, and that character is certainly the centerpiece of Man of Steel. So the movie has real problems, but, because the problems are plot- and not character-related, there is hope that they can be overcome in the future, should a more skilled writer/director take the helm.
Of course, that’s unlikely given that Warner Bros. doesn’t know beans about working with its properties, but, in that case, we can at least be pleased with Hans Zimmer’s amazing score, which covers over a multitude of wrongs.