2010s, 3/4, DCEU, Fantasy, Review, Zack Snyder

Man of Steel

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#3 in my ranking of the DCEU franchise.

There’s something big and ambitious and earnest about Zach Snyder’s take on Superman that I find really admirable. Not everything in this movie works, but the mythic scope and embrace of the idea of gods coming to fight it out on Earth is handled with such weight and energy that I get swept up in the spectacle every time.

Snyder took the well-worn story of Superman’s origins and recast it rather dramatically in a couple of different directions. The first is aesthetics. Krypton looks browner and weirder than we’d seen it in film before. There are giant monsters and an embrace of weird science fiction visuals in how Krypton’s technology works. There’s also an embrace of a handheld camera that evokes independent filmmaking, especially in smaller moments. I remember when the first trailer dropped and people were saying that it almost looked like a Terrence Malick movie. Sort of (there’s too much of an embrace of lens flares), but it certainly provides an interesting contrast with the epic visuals, giving it an inherently grounded feel while dealing with a rather zany story of supermen and terraforming machines.

The second different direction largely focuses on John Kent, Superman’s adoptive father from Kansas. The movie decides that it wants to explain Clark Kent’s hiding of his power out of fear and a question of trust. The closest this movie comes to a strong theme is this idea of building trust in the face of something new. It pops up from time to time and gets mildly explored, but the film is much more of a character driven exercise in its first half and a plot driven one in its second. The first half is about Clark Kent’s lifelong quest to find a way to belong while having incredible powers no one else has and protecting himself from what he imagines to be a paranoid and violent reaction to his presence should it become widely known. Still, he can’t help but try and make the world better around him, so he saves kids from a bus crash despite his father’s insistence that it might have been better to let them die rather than risk revealing himself, and he rescues some oil rig workers despite coming away with nothing and needing to move on to another life again.

The irony is, of course, that he’s so strong that mankind could probably never hurt him, so the fear is less about his personal safety and more about the unpredictable results of his reveal. What happens after he finally figures out who he is and where he’s from when he finds a long lost Kryptonian ship? It’s his announcement to the universe that he is there, and Zod shows up. Zod, Krypton’s general who tried to lead a coup in the planet’s final decadent and collapsing moments and was punished in the Phantom Zone, comes back with the objective of rebuilding Krypton. Superman’s actions on Earth bring Zod there. Driven to insanity, he wants to terraform Earth into a new Krypton, no matter the living denizens, and exact his revenge on Superman’s father at the same time (with some extra stuff about a genetic codex imbued in Superman’s genetics put there by his father). This plot doesn’t really develop until the second half of the film, which I have no problem with.

The problem is really with Zod himself. I like the idea of Zod more than the execution. Michael Shannon is stilted as the dedicated antagonist, and his dialogue is often the most unnatural sounding of any of the principals. This is probably be design, giving him a different cadence from the rest of the characters to imply a different culture, but it comes off as stilted rather than elegantly natural. Part of that is the dialogue as written, and part of that is Shannon himself who haltingly moves through every line. Still, I love his plan and the epic fight that breaks out.

The terraforming of Earth as a threat provides room for some incredible destruction. I know some people have problems with the scale of destruction throughout the movie, but I love it. This is a fight between gods. On the one side are a group of malevolent warriors who think of nothing of the lives they endanger. On the other is a greenhorn hero who is suddenly faced with a fight he can’t handle on his own.

The fight that erupts in Smallville is a favorite. It starts with Superman attacking Zod directly after they threaten his mother in order to find the craft that Superman came to Earth in. It turns into a two on one beat down as Superman tries to fight off two Kryptonians. The US military gets involved and starts firing at both sides, and Superman ends up gaining the first trust from the official governing bodies on the planet through his actions. It’s the fight over the terraforming machines that really stands out, though. The leveling of Metropolis has a scale and terrifying feel to it that I love. The gravity field that pushes down on the buildings, leveling them to dust, while Zod crashes the Kryptonian ship into buildings, toppling them over, is quite a sight. The fist fight that breaks out between Zod and Superman in the sky is less impressive, and the final moment where Zod is going to kill a random little family is poorly set up, though the idea of Superman having to take the solution to an extreme to ensure Earth’s safety is an interesting one in general.

I love the ambition of the film. It’s desire to reach beyond mere spectacle and enter into something of mythic scale is quite well handled. I also like Superman’s challenge in finding how to make himself known to the world, and it ultimately comes out of necessity and to make up for his own contribution to the violence being visited upon Earth. It’s rough, though. Zod is poorly written and delivered. I think the stuff from Clark Kent’s childhood in Smallville might have worked better as a sustained sequence instead of snippets going back and forth. Overall, the movie feels like the product from a promising first draft screenplay that needed another couple of passes, but I still really like what I got.

Rating:3/4

12 thoughts on “Man of Steel”

  1. I have a number of problems with the film. I won’t detail them all here, except

    1-I really hate that snap-zoom camera move that Snyder employs throughout, as if this is a sporting event, and

    2-the film needed a line of dialogue from Zod, something along the lines of “You could adapt to this world, Kal-El, because you came here as an infant, not fully formed. If we stay here on this planet we’ll all be dead in six months.” Something to counter the argument that Zod should have landed quietly on an island somewhere and trained an army of supermen.

    That said, for such a dour film, it does have one really good joke.

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    1. For number 2, Zod does say that his people would be in pain for years if they didn’t terraform the planet at one point. I think it’s right around the start of the Smallville fight.

      And your use of the word dour is interesting because it’s the same word I use to describe my problems with Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. Considering Man of Steel in the same light, I wonder if its the more spectacle driven nature of the Superman movie, or that I find the questions driving Clark’s journey to be more interesting than Maximus’ simpler revenge tale.

      And it probably does have more lighter moments to help counter-balance the weighty stuff.

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      1. I guess it would depend on what Zod meant by “pain” and how many years–they seemed to adjust to it fairly quickly. And for someone of Zod’s nature, I would think being able to conquer a world of slaves and crush any possible resistance would be a pretty pleasing prospect.

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      2. His stated goal was the preservation of Krypton. Conquering other races wasn’t what he was bred to do. So, he finds a planet in the Goldilocks Zone that houses his race’s codex of genetic information, and the guy’s insane. Perfect place to set up shop and make a new Krypton.

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  2. Maximus was more compelling than clark (yes john logan could have trimmed a half hour easy) the original superman and the sequel were so iconic, that zach snyder should be consumed by ferrets, imho.

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  3. Hated this movie.
    Zach Synder is a very good visual director and he has managed to very faithfully transfer stories from the comics medium to film (300 and Watchmen). But he needs a strong script to go from and the script is what fails this movie.

    It fails to ‘get’ Superman and what makes him worth of pride and emulation. This is the whiny emo version of Superman and I hated all of it. Cavil looks the part, I’ll give him that. But I really, really disliked the interpretation of Superman here.

    Batman V. Superman is worse. But that’s not saying much.

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    1. That lack of fidelity to the tone and image of Superman does seem to be at the core of a lot of complaints about the film. I just don’t really share it as a concern, essentially taking this as just a new adventure with a new character. My big comic fascination as a kid was Batman. I never really got into any other comic series.

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      1. I’m not a huge Superman fan, I always found him boring, but I respect the character he was. The version of Superman from the Justice League animated series is about perfect.

        Taking a hero and humble, good man and turning him into…that. It’s ugly and bad.

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