Man of Steel (2013)

Posted on April 30, 2014

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Here is a quick refresher on Superman:

Before the planet Krypton died/exploded/whatever, its leading scientist, Jor-El (Russel Crowe) launched his son, Kal-El, in an escape rocket. That rocket crashed in Kansas, near Smallville, where the infant was found by Ma (Diane Lane) & Pa (Kevin Costner) Kent (later named Martha and Jonathan). They name the infant they find Clark.

Earth’s yellow sun and lower gravity allow Kal-El/Clark to develop superpowers. Martha and Jonathan raise Kal-El to be Clark, and to hide his abilities from other people. In the comics, it’s usually because they want him to have a “normal” life.

At some point, Clark leaves Kansas. In some versions, he travels to an isolated location north of the Arctic circle with a piece of Kryptonian technology. That artifact allows him to build his Fortress of Solitude. There, a recording of Jor-El educates Clark in his heritage and on Kryptonian super science. In other versions, he goes to college in addition to, or before, building the Fortress.

Clark travels to Metropolis (AKA, Chicago) where he becomes a reporter for the Daily Planet. As a reporter, he learns about various crimes and disasters. As Superman, he works to defend us and our world from those crimes and disasters.

Short Version

No story is perfect, but this one had holes I could march an armored division through, with band.

 

(Very) Long Version

I wanted to start by saying something nice, but then I realized I couldn’t. If you have to tell your story in a nonlinear fashion because the audience is already familiar with the story, DON’T TELL IT. Seriously – I recapped Superman’s life story from memory. Very, very few people in the United States need to see Superman’s origin story again. Those who don’t know the origin should be able to pick up the character, context, and conflict pretty quickly from any halfway decent script.

Allow me now to point out some plot holes. Yes, I am going to give spoilers and ruin the movie for you. Yes, seriously. These plot holes are like realizing that Indiana Jones made no difference at all in Raiders of the Lost Ark. If he hadn’t been there, the Nazis still would have taken the ark to an island, opened it, and gotten their faces melted off. Ruined Raiders for you? Get ready for me to do the same thing to Man of Steel.

On Krypton, Jor-El and General Zod (Michael Shannon) are at war over how to save the Kryptonian race. The result is that Zod and his officers are sentenced to The Forbidden Zone, until Krypton’s explosion frees them. The reasons for their fight are not clear in the movie, but they create a gigantic plot hole that never gets any smaller.

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There is a minor issue related to how Clark got to Earth. In 1938 (when Superman first appeared in Action Comics), radar had not yet been invented. This movie never addresses how NORAD missed Kal-El’s spaceship. The Smallville TV show did a better job of dealing with that than this multimillion dollar ($225 million, estimated) movie.

In this movie, the Kents train Clark to keep his powers secret out of fear that someone will take him away for study. To me, this seemed like a sensible update to the story. We don’t live in the 1930s anymore. In our modern world, where people of all political stripes distrust their governments, the Kents’ decision seems rational. However, the logical result of this is that Clark/Kal-El is completely unprepared to become Superman.

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In this movie, Clark (Henry Cavill) leaves Kansas and travels the world. He does dangerous jobs alongside humans. When something goes wrong, he uses his power to save people via brute force. Then he leaves, adopts a new identity, and finds work someplace else. He lives very humbly, and walks away from fights any locals pick with him.

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The only thing this does for the story is give Lois Lane (Amy Adams) an excuse to know how to find Clark Kent when Zod and his army show up.

Here’s where the plot becomes more hole than cloth.

When Zod shows up, he somehow knows the trajectory of Kal-El’s rocket. He knows Kal-El is on Earth. There’s no reason for him to know that. It’s a huge coincidence. In storytelling, you get to have one of those – except this movie has more than one. It’s a huge coincidence that Lois Lane has already found and talked to Kal-El.

The movie makes no attempt to show us how the rest of the world reacts to Zod’s request that we turn over the alien refugee living among us. We just get the United States, where, again coincidentally, Clark Kent lives.

Zod makes not threats. He sets no deadline. Yet no one takes the time to ask questions. Why did one Kryptonian show up before all the others? Nobody asks. Zod implies he wants Kal out of brotherly affection and racial (or planetary) loyalty. Yet no one on Earth questions this. Zod does not use his rank, or demonstrate any threat, yet we are instantly terrified.

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Then, and this is where things really get dumb, Zod wants Kal because somehow Jor-El encoded the entire genome of Krypon in Kal’s cells. Zod wants to decode those cells and create a new Krypton. His “world ship” even has the power and technology to terraform Earth into another Krypton.

Why is that dumb? Nonsense technobabble masquerading as science aside, it’s dumb because there’s no reason for it. It’s a problem that solves itself.

Zod has a starship that can take him anywhere. He can re-shape any planet in a habitable zone to meet his needs. He doesn’t have to kill Kal-El to get the information that he needs. He can just politely ask Superman for some skin samples and fly away.

Instead, he picks a fight with Superman.

Zod comes across as a psychotic douche-nozzle, I grant you, but he’s also acting to save the Kryptonian people. Superman, who by that point has been programmed by his father’s teachings not to trust Zod, is trying to defend Earth.

This should be the stuff of great drama. Two powerful characters, both of whom have understandable viewpoints, in conflict with each other.

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Except none of it matters.

I love Amy Adams. She’s talented and I have seen movies that I might otherwise have skipped just because she was in the movie. I love Laurence Fishburne (who plays Daily Planet editor, Perry White). I’m preprogrammed to like characters like Lana Lang (Jadin Gould) and Jimmy Olsen from a lifetime of reading Superman stories.

That said, there’s not a single human being to care about. We don’t spend enough time with anyone to develop an attachment. That sucks, because that’s why we should care about Superman saving the world. Saving the whole world is just spectacle. Saving people we care about is primal. That’s what gets hearts racing.

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On the other hand, Zod’s mission to find a home for himself and his people is primal and resonates. That makes Superman look like a whiny brat.

That said, there is no reason for Zod to destroy the Earth.

I grant you, this is probably because he’s pissed at Jor-El for the whole Forbidden Zone thing, but the movie does not tell us that. It needs to. It would be better if it showed us instead of telling, but a few lines of dialogue as Zod moves from persuading Kal-El to killing him would be nice, especially if it linked back to some additional dialogue between Zod and Jor-El.

So Superman is defending the Earth for no good reason that we can see, except that his dad (Jor-El) told him to be a symbol of hope. For who? For the people of Earth? The humans who actually raised him taught him to be afraid of those people. Those people have shit on him his whole life. Why is he defending us? Story fail.

Zod is trying to destroy the Earth for no explicitly stated or demonstrated reason. We can infer that his ship, which he salvaged from wreckage left after Krypton blew up (that’s some tough stuff, let me tell you), can’t go any further. We can infer that he wants to destroy Earth for harboring Kal-El, because he hates Jor-El so much that he wants to kill Jor-El’s son. But this is the climactic confrontation of the film. We shouldn’t be guessing.

A story is about a character in a context with a conflict. The climax of the story should lead logically from character’s preceding attempts to resolve the conflict. This doesn’t.

Which brings us to what many people disliked about Man of Steel: The slobberknocker between Superman and the forces of Krypton.

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I wish the filmmakers had understood that previous versions of the Superman story have him spring full-grown into the world, like Athena from Zeus’ forehead. Once he gets his education from Jor-El, he’s not Superboy, he’s Superman. This movie represents his first outing as a superhero, and that’s a shock to all of us who grew up with the Superman story. He sucks as a symbol of hope and as a superhero. He should be actively avoiding fights in populated areas.

There is no reason to fight Zod in New York. None. Aside from the fact that there’s no reason for them to fight at all, the terraforming machine isn’t over the city. It’s over the ocean. Why not fight there? Superman, who is supposed to be very intelligent, could easily lead Zod away, but instead he is directly responsible for the deaths of thousands, if not millions, of New Yorkers.

Yeah, yeah, visual spectacle, blah, blah.

The problem is, Zack Snyder makes beautiful but empty movies (300, Sucker Punch, and even Watchmen). He does not understand how to build up emotional involvement with an audience. He does not understand how to write suspenseful action sequences. He knows visual spectacle. That’s not enough.

And thus a beloved, iconic, super hero lays waste to one of the greatest cities in the world and kills millions of the people he’s supposed to be protecting.

Of course comic book fans got pissed off! Like it or not, their word-of-mouth slowed ticket sales. In four months, the movie barely turned a profit. If DC Comics wasn’t determined to have franchises the way Marvel does, there would not be a sequel. At least, not with Snyder at the helm.

BTW, DC – the secret to a great franchise is context. Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, and Captain America make great movies in part because they’re all related to each other via the Avengers. If you can’t have Batman, Superman, and the Green Lantern all speaking to each other, then you lose.

Which brings me to the final thing about the movie that pissed me off: Superman smashing a US military drone and dropping it in front of General Swanwick’s car (Swanwick is played by Harry Lennix, who is an excellent actor with a ton of credits behind him).

First off, Super-jerk, that car was moving. You gave him no room to stop. You risked a human being’s life in a fit of pique. You’re on a time-out. Go back to your Fortress of Solitude and stay there until you grow up.

Second, I really wanted to hear Swanwick rip Superman a new one. When Superman accuses the general of following him to find his hide-out, I wanted to hear Lennix, as Swanwick, say something like, “Your hide-out? You think this is about you? Son, you destroyed a city. You killed millions of people. You, not Zod. Not to mention whoever else may be chasing you through space. You are a threat to our planetary security. If we had a way to make you leave, we would use it. So get used to being followed. Get used to drones and everything else we can invent. Because until you prove differently, you are an enemy of humanity.”

Because after Jor-El telling Superman to be a light in the darkness, to be a symbol of hope to everyone on Earth, that evaluation should crush Superman. It should force him to re-evaluate everything about his life and his mission.

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Conclusion

There are two main reasons to dislike this movie.

First, for my fellow comic book fans, because it doesn’t understand the changes it makes to the Superman story, or how to build a new story from those changes.

Second, for everyone else, because it’s empty spectacle. We wanted something like the Christopher Reeve movie from 1978, where he was raised to have compassion and where he falls in love with Lois Lane at first sight. Instead we get a beautiful movie stocked with terrific actors struggling to bring life to a dumb story full of plot holes.

 

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Posted in: Movies