Man of Steel
The Man of Steel turns Superman into an unthinking, self-absorbed monster (full spoilers)
Warning: This review assumes you've seen the film, and contains massive spoilers.
I took my son to see the Man of Steel last weekend, and I walked out of the movie disturbed by what we had just seen. My son loved it, of course, because men flew and everything blew up real good, but the more I thought about how the story was laid out, the more offensive the whole thing seemed.
Superman saves people. It’s what he does. His powers allow him to live up to certain ideals of behavior and responsibility, and the character has always stood for a symbol of what we could be, what we should aspire to. People say that Superman is a Jesus-like figure, and the films love to play with that imagery, but the idea of a secular Superman is much more appealing; his lesson is that we must be kind, merciful, and helpful to those over which we have power.
Look at how Superman is “revealed” to the world in the previous films. He outs himself by acts of heroism. By using his powers for good. Look at the faces of the people as he flies to save Lois, and then uses his strength to catch the helicopter. This is a hero, a man using his powers for good. He reveals himself in a positive, wondrous act. Superman Returns shows the return of the hero when he saves a group of reporters, including Lois Lane, who are stuck in a space craft that’s crashing. He appears, and he does something good. He takes action when he reveals himself.
The Man of Steel flips this on its head, and it nearly ruins the entire movie.
Forced into the open
The Man of Steel does a few things right as a movie, and some of the visuals are spectacular. I was a big fan of Kevin Costner’s portrayal as the elder Kent, and how he died sent a powerful message to young Clark, even if the visual of being swallowed by the storm was a little much. Clark Kent wrestling with his powers, and deciding how and when to use them, is a great theme that the movie ultimately fumbles.
The only reason Superman reveals himself to the world is that General Zod forces his hand. He doesn’t introduce himself to the planet by saving anyone, or a heroic act. He doesn’t explain himself to Lois Lane in a rooftop interview where they playfully flirt. Instead, he’s treated like an interstellar fugitive, someone whose family used Earth as a place to hide out, with disastrous results. Zod comes to Earth because Superman was there, and the planet is more or less a battlefield for a war between two alien forces.
And everything is destroyed. A truck is thrown through the Kent home. Smallville is more or less destroyed. Metropolis is leveled. The property damage has to be in the billions, and it’s likely that hundreds of thousands of people die in the battle between Superman and Zod. At one point Superman hops over a truck that is thrown at him, allows it to hit the building behind him and explode. Why not, I don't know, use your super strength and catch the vehicle? Superman is totally nonchalant about the human cost of his own actions, which is the polar opposite of what the character should be.
There is no attempt to move the conflict to a safe place. There is no thought to the people who live in the buildings that fall, or who may be inside the buildings that Superman and Zod throw each other through. There are no scenes where Superman takes a quick break to save someone, or to even hint at the fact that he gives a shit about the astounding loss of life that’s happening around him. The importance of human life and property is nearly zero in this film, we are merely a backdrop in this new battle between Kryptonians.
Even the Avengers, perhaps the go-to film to show the real-world cost of battles between heroes and other-worldly creatures, spares a scene to make sure we understand that Captain America cares about the city and the people in it.
This is what a heroes do; they care about the people, the least among us. Superman becomes an unfeeling monster the second the battle begins, and it’s not until the very end where he seems to understand or care about what happened. The Man of Steel shows Superman as both unthinking and self-absorbed.
Think of the news stories that are going to follow Superman for the rest of his life in this universe. He came to Earth to hide out from Zod, or at least that's the way it appears, was flushed out when Zod came to collect the last hope for their people, and the ensuing battle destroyed a town, a city, and caused the deaths of untold innocent bystanders. The karmic debt is insane, and it instantly turns Superman's presence on Earth into a negative for the rest of us. Superman saved a few people in the movie, but the overall message is that the safety of the people of Earth was of no concern to these aliens.
If Superman cared about the people of this planet in the way he does in every other take on the character, he would have flown to Mars, or left the solar system entirely, the second Zod demanded his surrender. The threat would have been removed, or at least the fight would have been taken to a location where fewer lives were at stake.
Everyone in this film acted selfishly. By hiding the codex with his son and then hiding his son on Earth, Jor-El basically put a giant target on our planet. Thanks, bro.
Superman didn't come to Earth to save us, and he didn't reveal himself by saving anyone. He showed himself to us because he was forced to, and the movie boils down to a battle between the military of a dead planet and a refugee. Earth is an afterthought, not a focus.
Superman, in the comics and the films, is a force for good, someone who makes the planet better because of who he is, what he does, and what he represents. In Man of Steel, our planet would have been saved if he had simply not shown up. He's the product of a broken, decadent experiment in eugenics who fights his battles among us in the most destructive way possible. Superman isn't an ideal, and he's not a hero that walks among us; he's just an alien who brings destruction to our doorstep.
Odd and ends
- Is it ever explained why Zod wanted to see Lois Lane in the ship? This scene moves the plot along, and allows ghost-man Jor-El to give her information that Superman needs later, but there didn't seem to be an attempt to explain why she needed to be on the ship from Zod's point of view, even though he explicitly invites her.
- Lois Lane, by the way, is pretty great. It doesn't make a ton of sense that's she's helping on military flights and somehow gets to wherever she needs to be for the plot, but she kicks ass and is never seen as a weak character. She does things, and doesn't just wait to be saved or to get that all-important kiss.
- Terrible product placement, but you have to make that budget back somehow.
- The movie was very well cast, and all the actors did a great job trying to get something of worth out of that script. A ton of talented people trying to rise about the material.
- Do we have to have a scene where 9-11 is referenced in the disaster imagery during the final scenes where a city is destroyed in every action movie from now on? It happened in the Avengers, it happened in the Transformers filmed, and it's beginning to feel dated. It's time to find some new visual language to show that the stakes are high, and a lot of people are dying. This is starting to look, and feel, like exploitation.