All you need to know about the new Man of Steel movie is in the clip above, wherein Kevin Smith describes his efforts writing a screenplay for the fifth Superman movie and the directives laid down by producer Jon Peters. Among other things, Peters suggested Sean Penn for the Superman roles. “He’s got the eyes of a violent, caged animal, of a fucking killer.”
Smith replied, incredulously: “Dude, it’s Superman.”
I do not actually know how much input or control Peters had over the script for Man of Steel. He’s listed as Executive Producer, which can mean hands-on-every-day involvement or that he once introduced Christopher Nolan to Zack Snyder at a party. No idea. But the Superman portrayed in Snyder’s Man of Steel is very much in tune with what Peters asked for almost 20 years ago.
Yeah, there are going to be spoilers now.
There is a lot in Man of Steel I liked. The actors chosen all did excellent jobs, and Cavil nailed it. Amy Adams portrayed a (finally) competent, intelligent Lois. Michael Shannon chewed the scenery nicely on two different planets, Russell Crowe made a perfectly serviceable Jor-El, and Kevin Costner and Diane Lane handled their adoptive parent roles nicely. The effects were amazing; this is the first time I really feel like I saw a Superman-level fight portrayed outside of a comic book.
And I like many of the choices that were made. Having Lois track down Clark changes their dynamic permanently, and that dumps a big part of their history, but it also removes the “how good a reporter could she be, honestly” question that’s plagued her for most of their 75 years together. I liked the focus on Clark’s wandering. There were a lot of excellent scenes, there.
There’s also a lot of stupidity, of course. Exposure to yellow sun radiation gives you jumping and hit-things-hard powers, but you don’t get the hearing and magic-eyeballs until you suck in some Earth air? Why wasn’t Lois instantly crushed by Kryptonian gravity on their ship? And if they don’t need the gravity, why Krypton-form the Earth to be denser? For that matter, why Krypton-form the Earth at all? “Wow, we’re like gods here! Let’s change the atmosphere and increase the gravity so we’re not anymore!” Almost as silly as a 33-year-old guy with no journalism background getting a job as an intern at a metropolitan newspaper, although for all I know all the other employees got killed off in the final battle. Hard to tell, the city seems remarkably cleaned up at the end.
But ultimately I left the movie stunned and saddened, for two reasons: Pa Kent’s idiotic self-sacrifice, and the neck-snapping.
The most important message the Kents ever instilled in Clark through most of his incarnations was to be kind. To help people. Yeah, don’t get caught if you can avoid it, but don’t stand aside if you can make a difference. Be good.
When I saw in the commercials the scene where a shaken Clark asks if he should have let those kids die and Pa Costner says, “Maybe,” I was thrilled. That was a multi-layered Pa and I was eager to see where they’d go with it, even though I was sure he’d follow it in the movie with “No, of course not. But be more careful, son,” or some such. But nope! This Pa is willing to let innocent people die so his son isn’t inconvenienced. In nearly every scene with Pa Kent, he’s instilling the virtues of “don’t help anybody,” a lovely sentiment that should be on Christmas cards.
And in his final scene, which was so contrived as to be laughable, Pa’s final lesson is that it’s better for Clark to let his father die than for Clark to jog over and rescue a dog. If there’s a better way to make sure that this Superman will always mentally hesitate a bit before saving anyone, I can’t think of it.
As for the ending. Mark Waid, comic writer whose classic “Birthright” series is considered one of the best Superman stories — several elements of which are in Man of Steel — said it better than I could and I urge you to read his thoughts. After long minutes of an admittedly amazingly-done fight scene, Superman acts to save some people threatened directly by Zod by snapping Zod’s neck. He kills the guy.
And this is where they lost me.
As Waid explained, he could even have lived with this scene if they’d worked harder to earn it. Shown Superman fighting desperately to save — or, really, to even notice — people during the fight, build up to the final scene. But no, instead we get endless disaster porn that ends with the two of them locked together, Zod in a headlock but using his heat vision to (slowly) threaten a family. Obviously Superman had no choice!
(Except for pushing the direction Zod was pulling and slamming them both into the ground. Or using his own heat vision to blast the floor beneath them, or the ceiling above them. Or letting go of Zod and putting his own body in the way. Or, I don’t know, putting his freaking hand over Zod’s eyes. Nope, straight-up murder was the only way!)
There are a lot of fans defending this scene, some of them saying it was the best part of the movie. He clearly anguished over it, they say, and this makes Superman more relatable, less Boy-Scoutish, less campy, more believable. He had no choice! What should he have done? Superman has killed before!
Let me address that last one first. Superman has killed before, in a badly-done story by John Byrne where Superman kills Zod and two others with kryptonite. I didn’t like that story, either. And at least after he did, Superman had a nervous breakdown. He didn’t go bantering with a general, dropkicking drones and winking at Lois.
And yes, it appears that Superman let an depowered Zod and his cohorts plummet to their deaths in Superman II. Again, I hated that scene. And Donner didn’t intend it; he shot a scene where the Kryptonians are handed over to the authorities later, which was removed after a new director was put in charge. (You can see it here.) Note my title, I did specify “Donner’s Superman.”
I’m not arguing that how I think of Superman is the only way he can be. Superman has been written and portrayed a lot of different ways in his 75-year history. But this one makes me sad.
That moment, the moment where all is lost and there is only one apparent choice open to him, that’s the moment in the movie where Clark truly becomes Superman. Flying around doesn’t do it, punching really hard doesn’t do it. What separates Superman from all other superheroes is how he handles situations exactly like this. It defines him.
This should have been the moment when Superman transcends the situation. When he outthinks his opponent, uses something besides brute strength, sacrifices himself if necessary, doesg something none of us (or Zod) expect, refuses to accept a no-win scenario. This should have been the moment to make all of us watching feel triumphant, inspired.
This Superman, Snyder’s Superman, Goyer and Nolan’s Superman, Jon Peters’ Superman, this guy does the expedient thing and anguishes a moment or two before moving on with his life.
Dude, it’s Superman.
Donner’s Superman, flawed as hell though he certainly was, wouldn’t have done it.
Man of Steel may work for you. It certainly did for a lot of people, and I wouldn’t tell anyone not to enjoy it and see it again, although a lot of the defenses I’m reading make me just as sad as the movie’s ending. But it doesn’t work for me because despite being hammered over and over with Jesus Clark’s destiny as a symbol of hope, he never does anything to make us hopeful.