Anyone who’s familiar with my writing knows that I am not a fan of comic book movies and that I lament the way digital technology has reduced one of the greatest pleasures of my youth (Hollywood summer blockbusters) to endlessly repetitive computer generated images of robots and aliens throwing each other around in generic fictional environments. Still, I was unprepared for how awful the latest Superman reboot is. Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel is one of the most structurally inept, logically incomprehensible, and tonally repugnant films I’ve seen in a long time. I never thought I’d see a movie that would make Bryan Singer’s lame 2006 reimagined sequel Superman Returns look good, but this movie does. It makes even Richard Lester’s ill-conceived 1983 comical sequel Superman III with Richard Pryor look halfway decent.
The problems with Man of Steel begin at the conceptual level. Screenwriters Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer have taken the identical approach with Superman as they did with Batman in their Dark Knight trilogy. Man of Steel is essentially the same film as Batman Begins (2005)—a bleak, dark, and astoundingly self-serious origin story focusing on the existential crisis of its comic book hero. I thought Batman Begins was a lousy movie, but at least I can understand how this approach was appropriate to the ethos and mythology of the Batman character—he is called the Dark Knight after all. Superman, though, is an opposite archetype, and what worked for one character does not work for the other. What’s worse is that by interpreting this material in this same stark and quasi-introspective fashion, the writers completely miss the opportunity to do something new and original. Thus, no artistic justification remains for making this film—only a financial one.
While I am admittedly not the intended audience for this picture because I don’t really care about comic books, I still maintain that a good film is a good film, and a bad one is a bad one. Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) with Christopher Reeve is one of my favorite movies because it is both a spectacular entertainment as well as an innovative, beautifully conceived, and exceptionally well-crafted picture. Similarly, though I had no special interest in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman nor Jon Favreau’s 2008 Iron Man, I enjoyed those movies because they were empirically good summer popcorn pictures. But I just can’t fathom why people seem to be flocking to Man of Steel in droves. Perhaps today’s audiences have so much prior knowledge about this type of picture—from knowing its source material inside and out, to acquiring a near studio-memo-level understanding of the ins and outs of development and production through fan sites, blogs, conventions, and podcasts—that actually seeing the film becomes a barely necessary final step in a much longer process of enjoyment. Perhaps my desire to know nothing about a film before I see it is robbing me of the pleasure I’m supposed to get from a movie like this one. But all the available advance work doesn’t excuse the filmmakers from actually having to tell a coherent story.
The Superman narrative is part of American culture. In a nutshell, it is about an alien from a dying world, sent to Earth as a baby and raised as a human in the Kansas heartland. He grows up to embody American ideals in a totally pure and uncorrupted way via his duel identity as a mild-mannered reporter for a major metropolitan newspaper and an indestructible man of virtually unlimited abilities. He dresses in a tight-fitting blue outfit with red underwear on the outside, a flowing cape, and a big letter “S” on his chest.
It is a difficult story to tell seriously, which is one of the reasons the 1978 film is so astonishing. What that movie gets so perfectly is the tone. Richard Donner’s film doesn’t take itself very seriously—comic books like this one are not great literature and shouldn’t be treated as such—but it does take the character completely seriously without even a hint of irony or tongue-in-cheek self-mockery visible in Christopher Reeves’ performance. We are able to embrace Superman as a kind of idealized version of ourselves, but we also get to enjoy the supporting characters that are much more like us in reality. In fact, as grand and intriguing as the first 45 minutes of the 1978 Superman are, the actual story doesn’t really start until Superman turns 33, moves to Metropolis, and begins to fly around saving people. That story, with all its exciting action, diabolical villains, and amusing banter with love interest Lois Lane, is what the comic books, radio serials, and TV shows are all about—and those tales of his crime-fighting adventures as a mature superhero are where all the fun of the premise lies.
But in Man of Steel, Nolan and Goyer focus only on the first part of the story—the origin story—and therefore we don’t ever get to the fun part. Like Batman Begins, Man of Steel is a long, dreary, unpleasant set-up for a potentially good movie that might follow, rather than a good movie in and of itself. Of course, the film would feel less like a promissory note if it actually accomplished what it sets out to do, which is to flesh out and humanize the first part of the Superman myth. Nolan and Goyer clearly want to explore Superman’s human side: how he overcame the tortured adolescence he must have had, being the only one of his kind on a foreign planet, and how he came to integrate the two sides of his conflicted persona. The trouble is they have not created a single scene that explores any of these points. Henry Cavil, who stars as the Man of Steel, gets to play a grand total of four emotions: brooding, cocky, helpless, and tormented. We never see him learn anything for himself. We just watch him get lectured to by his numerous father figures—talk about a script that tells rather than shows. The 1978 film spends less than 30 minutes on the events depicted in this film, but we get a far richer understanding of the inner life of the character—and we get this understanding from what is actually up on screen.
There is no director in the world that could have made a decent film from this screenplay, but Zach Snyder’s approach adds layers of unpleasantness to the proceedings. Directors like Snyder are to cinema what steroids are to baseball; they artificially pump up the players and events to such an extent that the endless series of “incredible feats” blend into each other and begin to matter less and less. Snyder, like Nolan with The Dark Knight films, insisted on shooting this picture on film rather than digitally. It is hard to fathom why, since every frame of the movie seems to have been fed through a computer and digitally augmented. Although many consider Snyder a virtuoso visualist, this movie looks the same as almost every other 3D big movie realized this year. The opening scenes on the planet Krypton look especially generic and feel like The Matrix meets Game of Thrones, especially when Jor-El (Russell Crowe) rides his flying dragon down to the underwater garden where all the Kryptonion babies are grown from seedpods. Oh yes, there are dragons in this version of Superman. Why? I guess all fantasy material these days has to have dragons. Dragons are in. Still, they only detract from the credibility of this picture. I’m surprised there aren’t zombies in this version of Superman too. (Well, I guess Russell Crowe’s Jor-El is like a zombie for most of this film, when he droningly lectures Superman and several other characters from beyond the grave). These lectures by the dead, but not quite dead, image of Jor-El, are laden with spelled-out explanations and exposition-heavy pontifications, added to which are ultra-convenient plot points.
Each moviestar cast in this picture could have been perfect in their given roles, but none of these players are given anything to play. There are only about eight actual scenes in the movie. Everything else is either an actor giving an impassioned, self-aware monologue or a relentless digital action sequence in which the characters throw each other through countless buildings, vehicles, and aircraft, causing tremendous unseen collateral damage, without getting a scratch themselves. In fact, we see Superman inadvertently kill hundreds of innocent people in this movie and only intentionally save one or two, which makes no sense at all.
But the film isn’t supposed to be believable—it is just supposed to be fun, right? Well, where is the fun in this movie? Even though I’m not a fan of pictures like The Avengers or Star Trek Into Darkness, I understand why so many others find them enjoyable. These movies aim to be fun and are, a little, at least some of the time. Man of Steel aims to be dark and depressing. Normally when a film based on a comic book like Superman tries to be dark and depressing, it comes off as pretentious or ridiculous, but this movie is too empty to be either. It is simply tedious and off-putting. Nothing in this movie means anything: not the emotions, not the violence, and certainly not any of the death and destruction that is depicted. By the end, when we finally do get the set-up for the next film (which will undoubtedly feature Superman in his alter ego of Clark Kent, the Daily Planet reporter), the planet Earth has been through such an armageddon that whatever remained of society would be in utter chaos. At the very least it would not be business as usual at the Daily Planet after the entire city and much of the planet is decimated. But it seems we are meant to forget about everything that happened in this film by the time of its conclusion. Nothing that happened in the movie seems to matter to the characters by the end; how does that make for a meaningful origin story? The promise of better things to come in Man of Steel II is certainly insufficient in terms of coaxing me to return for more of this cinematic punishment. I will be skipping the next films in this series.
Post Script: After writing my reviews, I often read what others have written about a specific film. In this case, I was pleased to discover that, despite the favorable box office numbers, most fans and critics don’t like this movie much more than I do. This link is to one review I found especially funny. It breaks down the film beat by beat and exposes how absurd each plot point is. Of course, many fantasy films can be mocked in this way, but I think this review provides a good working demonstration of a point that I’m often harping on: sci-fi and fantasy films must create their own internal rules and logic and then stick to them in order to work. This blogger points out how Nolan, Goyer, and Snyder fail supremely at this most basic level of storytelling.