"Man of Steel" Analysis and Review - With Spoilers[Date: June 20, 2013]
By Scotty V
An analysis and review of "Man of Steel" by Scotty V.
So I've been sitting here the last few days trying to figure out what I should write about Man of Steel, knowing that whatever it was, seemingly about half the fan-base and general movie-goers would disagree with me. One problem, of course, is that unlike other opinions, mine is from the position of defense. Almost all my life I've felt the need to defend Superman from those who would cut him down or call him uninteresting. I've already written a spoiler-free review from a place of great satisfaction for the Superman Homepage and now I shall endeavor to defend my position.
Typing this, playing games, or surfing the web, I sit here at my desk surrounded by Superman. Four of the new Man of Steel posters adorn the wall above me, while three shelves, meant for printers and faxes and telephones, are covered with various Superman statues, action figures and miscellaneous collectibles related to the character. My desk is situated in my living room. This comes as a surprise to most people, simply because, as an adult, most people can't imagine having a fictional character as such a major part of their lives.
Almost daily I'm called Superman by one or more people because I wear Superman shirts pretty much exclusively. Everyone knows I love the character and what he stands for. Because of this, I often hear things like "you were going to like Man of Steel no matter what," or "your opinion is biased because it means so much to you." Since I was a toddler, way back in 1978, dinner napkin round my neck as a makeshift cape, and awaiting in a darkened theater for the hero to appear in Richard Donner's original film, Superman has been ingrained on my DNA, like a catalogue of hope from another planet.
This however, is why my feelings, critiques and ultimately integrity of truth in this report are so valuable though. For most of my life I have been involved with this character. I've seen various incarnations, changes in suits, personality, power sets, girlfriends. I've seen the Kents both alive and dead, I've seen a Clark Kent who doesn't work for the Daily Planet and I've seen one killed by a rampaging monster set on destroying the world. There have been stories I've loved and arcs I've not cared for, but through it all, I've awaited the next adventure with great anticipation.
Man of Steel is that next adventure, and as I've stated previously, it is everything I've waited for my whole life. While there are things that have been altered from what people expect, everything people are looking for in emotion, character and depth is there. Some critics and fans have convinced themselves those things aren't there or aren't there enough and I find that unfortunate for both them and the franchise. There is one major point in the film that has had the effect of tearing the fan-base apart and courted heated debates everywhere you turn.
The film opens on Krypton, a beautifully realized living planet, complete with wildlife, advanced technology and a troubled populace that is on the verge of war before the planet's inevitable destruction. I've heard people claim that the planet survives. It doesn't. Krypton's destruction is everything you'd expect from the mythos and more. We're presented with a Jor-El and Lara that are more in depth than any previous incarnation and we meet a Zod whose motives actually make sense and can be understood. The planet is dying, because an out-dated form of government has continuously made decisions that led to its destruction. Zod attempts a coup far too late, and Jor-El must fight against imprisonment from his former friend in order to save his son.
When Kal-El's ship does arrive on Earth, we immediately switch in time and we are with a grown up Clark on a fishing boat deep at sea. This is one point of contention for fans and critics alike. While we don't get the traditional "growing up in Kansas" story, we are instead treated to flashbacks where we see many of Clark's encounters and experiences. In these cut scenes from Clark's past, we learn that Martha and Jonathan are a vital part of Clark's growth and understanding of his powers and also the root of his humanity. Further, when this reboot was announced, people complained we had no need for another origin story and hoped that we would simply start an adventure with Superman without a lot of background.
Jonathan has been criticized as being cold and "not the Jonathan we know." I would argue that, as this is a new interpretation in a new world, we are seeing a Jonathan Kent that is a product of that world rather than one who is uncaring or unaffected by the plight of others. He is a farmer who believes in helping people through providing food but also knows that should people find out about his super-son: "everything will change." To that end, Jonathan is even willing to sacrifice his own life to protect Clark's secret.
It seems that people are unwilling to accept a Clark that would allow his father to die, or that it's absurd that someone with Clark's power wouldn't have saved his dad, even if it was his dad's final wish for his son not to save him. The thing is, Clark didn't intend for Jonathan to die. There wasn't necessarily a reason for Clark or Jon to expect that the elder Kent would die by going back during a tornado to save the family dog. That being said though, Jonathan knew it would be far more risky to Clark and Martha should Clark be seen using his abilities in front of so many people on the scene. So, he made the fatherly decision to risk his own safety instead. Clark in turn, chose to honor his father's wish, though it clearly anguished him to do so.
When Jonathan holds up his hand signaling for Clark to stay with his mother rather than risk being seen saving Jonathan, it is one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the film. I think one major thing people have trouble understanding is that scenes like this are meant to be conflicting and emotional. You're supposed to be unhappy about them. I have hoped for years that for once we'd see both parents live far into Clark's career as Superman. I would have preferred that be the case, though this is much more dramatic than previous versions of Jonathan's death. There is so much more character in this version of the Kents, flashback or not, than in one where they aren't much more than foster parents who happen to find a baby.
I have heard complaints that Clark hasn't much of a story in Man of Steel, or that there is no Clark or that Clark isn't given much to do. I find this critique as absurd as another I'll address later. This film, after Krypton, is all about Clark and his growth. There is no character in the film that carries more emotional heft, depth or grows as much as Clark during the course of the story. Every look, every decision, every moment of exhilaration or despair is something more we learn about Clark. Clark is shown as a man of determination. From the very start of his story we see him tracking down something he's clearly been searching out for some time. One reviewer called it "convenient" that a Lois story Clark happened to be working on led him to the scout ship but that isn't what happened at all. Clark had been working on the fishing vessel because he was tracking down the ship, he didn't simply happen upon it by chance!
I've also heard countless times that Clark wouldn't, or shouldn't steal or destroy someone else's property. First of all, in the scene where Clark takes some clothing after his have been burned off during a rescue, I'd say he's forgiven due to, you know, the rescue. Second, he's a half naked man trying to protect his identity in yet another new town. When he destroys "Lobo's" truck out of anger, I think it's far better than if he had given the guy what he truly deserved, which, by the way, he does do in Superman II, yet no one seemed to have a problem with it. In that film, Clark goes back to a diner where a guy had beaten him up earlier simply for revenge. Does it feel great and did the guy deserve it? Absolutely. Same here. The difference is that in one version, Clark goes back and causes bodily harm to someone who has no chance of even fighting back, and in the other Clark turns the other cheek and destroys a truck instead.
Lois is also given immense growth and depth in the film. She is shown as a strong, impetuous, aggressive, career oriented woman who will stop at nothing, not even military injunction, to get her story. I've been told Lois should never say, "What if I have to tinkle" or "if we're finished measuring dicks" and I couldn't disagree more. Both of these bits of dialogue expand on Lois' character. They show her as both playful and formidable. You try and stop Lois Lane from getting into some compound, following a lead or showing you up. Go ahead.
Lois is also shown as a caring, compassionate, appreciative friend who goes to great lengths to protect Clark once he tells her his reasons for hiding. She's let in on the secret pretty early, and while that's a pretty big change from what you'd expect, it also adds massive history to her future relationship with Superman. I've always been an advocate of the Lois who is very interested in Superman but eventually falls for Clark Kent because he's a swell guy. However, in this version of the story, it would be very difficult to buy that this Lois couldn't see past the disguise. I'm a fan for life and I realize it's just something you have to accept about Clark Kent, but I'm completely cool with Lois being part of his story from before he dons the uniform.
The uniform is another large point of contention for a number of reasons. First, there are no red trunks. If you want to stop reading now and boycott everything Superman from now until the next reboot, I'll understand. The suit is also an homage to Clark's Kryptonian heritage and he gets it from a very solid looking hologram of Jor-El on the scout ship he "happened to find." This is another change to what some consider canon. However, it's also another part of the history of Superman that's differed from telling to telling. I personally love how it's the same suit design that Jor himself wore under his over-armor on Krypton. You didn't notice? You'll have to check for it when you go back and see it again. Jor-El is definitely wearing it, believe me. Just like you heard the names Kelex and Kelor when the El's were talking to their robots, you'll see the suit too if you look. I only hope they establish a Fortress in the sequel and that the robots are there as well. People have wondered how, if the scout ship has been on Earth for thousands of years, the uniform was there for Clark. I surmise that the Jor-El intelligence had it replicated when Clark arrived, though some have clung to the idea that the suit has been there all these years and belonged to an ancestor of the House of El.
It's no secret that when Zod and friends arrive somewhere around halfway through the film the action really amps up. Many have suggested that this is where what little story and character exist in the film stop. I contend that every scene Clark is in oozes with character. There are also secondary characters like Colonel Hardy and even the soldiers who have no lines but decide to lower their weapons after Superman has shown himself an ally. These are moments that make the heart soar and inspire hope, which is exactly what the story of Superman should do.
Lois and Martha's story also continues, even when battle starts. Martha shows steely resolve even when threatened with bodily harm and Lois immediately springs into action on Zod's ship, trying to help a weakened Clark. Another complaint I've heard is that Lois isn't much more than a damsel in distress. I can hardly answer that other than to say I'm not sure what movie those people were watching. Lois in this version is the first person to discover alien life on Earth, travels in a spacecraft, fires weapons and is essential to saving the world. Damsel in distress indeed. While she does need rescue a few times, she also rescues Superman as well, and requires rescue because she's busy being, you know, heroic.
Other than Jonathan's death, the biggest secondary complaint is that Superman isn't too interested in being Superman in this movie. Again, I couldn't disagree more. When Zod and crew demand that Clark turn himself over and threaten to cause "consequences" to this world if he does not, Clark immediately knows he must consider it. Most would simply remain indignant, knowing they hadn't done anything wrong and have no intention to serve themselves up for any reason. Not Clark. His first thought is to immediately turn himself in because, well, he's Superman. Later, when Zod's Black Zero gravity weapon is destroying Metropolis, Clark volunteers to go to the Indian Ocean to fight a World Engine that is going to change the atmosphere of the Earth to be more like Krypton. Superman knows this will likely affect him negatively, but he also knows it must be done in order to stop the invasion, so he goes. We might ask: why doesn't Superman first fly through the Black Zero so the gravity beam doesn't level more of the city? The answer is that there is a plan to stop the entire invasion and banish twenty or more Kryptonians to a place where they can cause no further damage. This is a war to stop the end of the world. It may be unfortunate, but some people are almost certainly killed during the invasion. Superman does everything he can to limit continuing casualties.
This includes a decision that the character makes, even when everything about it makes him personally feel broken. It's the same as it was when Jonathan asked Clark to let him go in order to protect his secret so the world and his mother could stay relatively normal. When Clark is forced to take Zod's life in order to save, not only a family in immediate, urgent danger, but the entire world if Zod should get loose, it clearly tears him apart. Firstly, after Superman's plan works and all the Kryptonians, save Zod, are sent back into the Phantom Zone so they can't cause any further destruction, Zod brings the fight to Superman. It's not like Clark has much time to react, or plan, or take the fight somewhere safer, he's been pretty busy saving the world; so when Zod attacks him he really has no choice but to try to stop the madman as quickly as he can.
While it can't be easy fighting a super-soldier with the same powers as you whose been trained to kill in defense of Krypton since he was manufactured as a defender of all things Kryptonian, Superman knows he must do it. The battle takes place in a clearly evacuated portion of the city because Zod's gravity beam had been active for hours before being destroyed. People are shown leaving the buildings and running away from the Black Zero and it only makes sense that they'd exit the area, "feet don't fail me now" style. Wouldn't you? Sure, there are a few people shown to be lookiloos, but there always will be in this type of situation.
Though during the fight, Zod throws Superman through buildings, Superman is often shown as trying to limit destruction. Not that it's always in his power to do so, as Zod is just as powerful and, during the fight, even gains his heat vision. Zod's heat vision destroys another seemingly empty building and the fight goes on. We soon learn that Zod, having been trained to acclimate to any surrounding quicker than others, having been bred to do so, in fact, has mastered his new super-senses and can even fly. Zod has a great line about Clark having learned "on a farm" but Clark keeps fighting his seemingly superior foe. When it finally comes to a point where Clark has the upper hand, Zod makes it clear he will keep fighting until dead, which will ultimately lead to much greater death and destruction on Earth. To prove his point, Zod activates his heat vision, intent on killing a family in a Grand Central-like station who, along with a handful of other people, haven't yet managed to evacuate but perhaps were looking to hide underground, as Superman begs the General to stop. When Zod will not comply with Clark's pleas, and it's evident they've fought to a point where neither can fly away nor break free from the other, Clark does the only thing he can do and he twists the General's head away from the helpless family which breaks Zod's neck and ends the battle.
I've seen the film three times now, and while still conflicted over the writing decision to have it end this way, I get choked up every time I see it. Clark is clearly heavily anguished by this event and, though it was his only choice for any number of reasons, he is completely tormented at having been forced to do it and we are tormented right along with him. It is an extremely powerful, emotional and tensely executed scene and it works on every level it's meant to. We feel both relieved that it's over and also saddened that our hero was made to do it. Clark didn't actually violate his morality, though he feels like he did, because there was nothing he could have done given the situation. Even if he had planned an execution and then carried it out, which he didn't do, there was really no other option anyway. There's no way to negate Zod's powers, no apparent way to get him back into the Zone, no prison that can hold him and no way to stop him from continuing to kill and destroy in perpetuity. More importantly in that moment, there was an immediacy to the situation. I'm also torn because I really want children to love and be excited by Superman, but I'm not entirely certain children should see this film. The Avengers was rife with death and destruction and this type of violence and kids still seem to love that film, so who knows. Speaking of The Avengers, why was no one up in arms about the destruction in that film? I ask because that's the newest complaint, that the violence and destruction was gratuitous and "too much like 9/11." I understand the idea behind the complaint, though it is an end of the world scenario and it's also fictitious. There have been hundreds of simulated movie destruction scenes, including planes and buildings falling since 2001 and yet this film is being questioned for it?
I'm convinced that Superman will be given a hard time till the end of time through every iteration whether he has red shorts or not. In The Avengers, there are six main heroes, plus scores of S.H.I.E.L.D. Agents that are able to split off and do different tasks, including having the less powerful ones herd people for evac while in Man of Steel, there is only ONE Superman who must somehow stop a herd of other Kryptonians. In the Richard Donner/Lester films, Superman was inspiring and heroic, but he also seemingly killed Zod and friends, (though a deleted scene that most people have never viewed does show police arriving at the Fortress after the Kryptonians have fallen into what look like endless pits). In Superman IV, Superman deposits Nuclear Man into a reactor to finish him off. On Smallville, Clark made decisions that led to people dying over and over again, while also being directly and knowingly responsible for his father's death and regularly beat up normal human beings. These versions were either loved for their lightheartedness, made fun of for being cheesy or hated for being "not Superman." Man of Steel is having some similar reactions.
Believe it or not, I've heard "there were some cheesy lines that really ruined it for me" referring to the Lois and Clark kiss scene at the end of the film. To me, these two characters have already had such a powerful history in this film that a kiss here after such stressful events makes perfect sense. There's also just the right amount of humor for stress relief when the tension gets high, even though we've all heard there's "no fun" and "no humor" in the film. "It's not my Superman" has been a fan-favorite argument as well. I can even understand the sentiment, as it comes from a passionate desire to never see Superman forced to kill, though it makes perfect sense and isn't unprecedented.
Heck, in the comics the Zod and friends from a pocket universe destroyed that universe's Earth, killing its entire population and vowed to do the same to this Earth. Superman, in order to stop them from keeping their promise, removed their powers. Then, even though they were powerless, he executed them with Kryptonite, because he could never be sure they wouldn't someday fulfill their word. Superman later exiled himself from Earth because he felt so badly about it, but nevertheless, he did it. Even if he'd planned an execution like that in this film, which he didn't do, he's not exactly rife with options as I've already mentioned. More urgent though, was the immediacy of the situation right at that moment anyway. In Man of Steel he must make this sacrifice of himself in order to save the planet and it is moving and sad and emotional and all the things it is meant to be.
For those who enjoyed it, or wished they'd enjoyed it more I say this: surrender to your desire to see it again. If you don't feel a particular desire because either you were let down or didn't care for it, surrender to the possibility that upon subsequent viewings you may start to see some of what you thought was missing but was really there all along. If you're at all like me, the hype and excitement of finally getting an awesome Superman film may have dampened the experience. Now that the almost unexplainable fervor has died down, I think people may be able to absorb the reboot that much more clearly.
Though it's possible your opinion will not change, I would love to see all of you suffer the consequences of the joy that comes from "getting" this film when it does. It is not the completely idealistic, somewhat silly and corny Superman of the 70s and 80s films. Sadly, if that's only what you were after it will probably never fulfill your desire. What it is though, is an action/adventure film driven by hopeful, inspiring characters that we've known for ages with a slight twist for the modern generation. You may be scared of certain changes because you can't control them, but that doesn't mean this film has to be your enemy.