Thursday, June 27

Man of Steel (2013)

Directed by Zack Snyder

All right, I've now seen Man of Steel for a second time, a few days after the first, after I'd had time to let things sink in and had thought of things to look for and pay attention to in a second viewing, and had a further week thereafter to reflect on it. The result is the longest blog post I've ever written on any single subject short of my monthly round-up of thirty or so DC Comics titles.

I want to lead off by saying my basic assessment, which I kind of soft-pedaled in my “First Impressions” post (link) in case I changed my mind, is that this movie is awesome. I was not at all disappointed in it as I feared I might be. In fact, I think I enjoyed it even more the second go'round, which is a really good feeling given how long I've been looking forward to it with a mixture of hope and dread born of my love for the character pitted against recognition of Hollywood's ability to completely miss the mark. As usual, this is not going to be some kind of carefully considered “review,” but more of a “Randomly Rambling” commentary on the things I liked, some things I didn't like so much – there were most definitely some – and so forth. Inevitably, there will be some repeating of points I made in the “First Impressions” post, but here I intend to develop them quite a bit more.

Although I'm not setting out to summarize the story, per se, do I really need to warn of Spoilers Ahead...?

I'm assuming pretty much everyone reading this has seen Man of Steel and knows the overall plot. It seems that the modern template for super-hero movies renders it almost imperative that the hero's origin and at least his first opponent be inseparably linked, and that is of course the case here. I guess distilling a much longer episodic narrative down to a movie-length story makes that approach all but inevitable in order to give the story more immediate punch. I can live with it, and at least the origin is out of the way now. And, given that virtual imperative, obviously the opponent for this first story had to be either General Zod or Brainiac. At least it's not Lex Luthor in some kind of real estate scheme.... Part of me wishes they had gone the Brainiac route, simply because we've seen Zod on the big screen already, but oh well. It does have the advantage that so soon after finally discovering his own origins Superman must go up against opponents as powerful as himself, what are implicitly the only other survivors of his race, and make the ultimate choice between his native world and his adopted world. Maybe I'm wrong, but that's probably more emotionally engaging than fighting a giant alien robot with an ant-farm collection....

As to the two main players, Henry Cavill as Superman and Michael Shannon as Zod, what can I say? I'm sure this post will be peppered with praise for both, so suffice it to say here that I thought they were absolutely both spot on. In fact, whether or not I specifically call out the various actors by name as I proceed, in my opinion all associated with this movie delivered magnificently.

As I see it, the movie comprises three main “acts”: 1) Krypton; 2) Clark Kent; and 3) Superman vs. Zod. In a very general sense, that division will inform my commentary, at least as far as the order of things I discuss, although I'm likely at any time to bring up anything from start to finish as seems necessary to illustrate my points.

Among many other things in this movie, I really liked that first act, what I called in my “First Impressions” post “the most fully developed treatment of a 'realistic' yet very alien Krypton, as well as Jor-El and Lara, that I think has ever been seen in live action,” in fact in just about any medium other than the comics. Blending elements of many different visions from over the years, but mainly what I would call John Byrne's super-science-fictional, almost “post-human” world seen through a monochromatic art deco lens, Man of Steel's Krypton had a very authentic feel to it, and unlike the sterile, antiseptic ice-world depicted in 1978's Superman: The Movie, it looked very much alive – even if on the verge of death – with its own developed flora and fauna. I loved the view of the dinosaur-like creatures with which the movie practically opened, even as baby Kal-El is making his entrance to the doomed planet. The magnificent vista across the planetscape, which included a view of a shattered moon that has to be an homage to Krypton's destroyed moon Wegthor (link). What exactly was the point of Jor-El flying around on a four-winged pterodactyl-like flying horse I'm not sure, but it looked grand. I thought the “metallic holograms” that seemed to replace video screens of all kinds was interesting, although there is where I first became conscious of an aspect of Man of Steel's Krypton that I didn't care so much for, the lack of color and overall dreariness. What color there was, however, sometimes seemed shifted toward the red end of the spectrum, which leads me to think that this was the filmmakers' attempt to depict life under the dim ember of a dying red sun. And since that aesthetic carried through to the muted, darker colors of Superman's costume itself, at least it's consistent, and contributes to the feel that this is a depiction of an alien world.

Jor-El and Lara – from their first appearance on-screen, they are unlike any depiction I've ever seen. Jor-El has usually been the focus of the Krypton part of Superman's origin story, the Kryptonian super-scientist who discovered the planet's impending doom and ran up against the entrenched and disbelieving mandarins of the Science Council, then defied them to save his son by launching him off into space, is marvellously played here by Russell Crowe, as well as given a larger part in the movie, yes, as a hologram, but as a much more proactive hologram than ever before. Heck, even during the extended Krypton sequence, he comes across virtually as an action hero! Lara has usually gotten short shrift, but not so much here – she is the one who apparently has weeded through the millennia-old stellar records collected by Krypton's defunct colonization program and found what looks to be a suitable world. Ayelet Zurer does a fantastic job from start to finish showing the turmoil of emotions this woman is going through, torn between two imperatives of a mother's love, both born of a need to protect her child.

As much as I loved this sequence, I do have a few relatively minor quibbles about it and later parts of the movie specifically rooted in it. Some have to do with internal consistency more so than plot-holes. First of all, how did Jor-El know that there would be a crashed colony ship on Earth at all, and that it would still be able to read the “flash drive” he stowed in Kal-El's capsule, generate his hologram, and seemingly synthesize his Kryptonian long-johns? Here, I'm depending on the excellent prequel graphic novel initially opened just to purchasers of tickets for the Walmart-sponsored early screening, but which has inevitably appeared on the Internet for all to read (link), but since it's written by David Goyer and Zach Snyder I figure it's pretty canonical for this film! There it's indicated that “Sol-III” was not the planned destination for that ancient ship. Second, since all the other “holographic” technology associated with Krypton was monochromatic drab, how come Jor-El came through in living color? Similarly, since native Kryptonian fashion, specifically what I'm tongue-in-cheek calling “long-johns” here, was similarly monochromatic, how come the suit Jor-El provided for Kal-El comes through in what are relatively speaking spectacular primary colors. (Only relatively speaking!) In its abandoning its ancient colonization program, and virtually all space travel (for which no real explanation is given, and it should have been – a line of Jor-El's exposition could have linked it to the difficulty that even Kal-El had in adapting to planetary environments other than Krypton's), there is a sense that modern Krypton has lost a great deal of its former glory, probably even a great deal of its former knowledge and technology, and perhaps that explains both, but that's just my interpretation. Thirdly, I would think that the Council would consider Lara to be just as much a criminal as Jor-El for conspiring to steal the genetic Codex (why did it look like an australopithicus skull?) which was, after all, “Krypton's future”? Implicitly without it there were no genetic maps for future Kryptonians to be born, so they would see Jor-El and Lara's theft and sending it off into space as genocide against their own race! It seems to me that she would not have been sitting there with the Council passing judgment on Zod.

I also don't see what the purpose was in having Zod kill Jor-El, beyond giving Zod that later bit about it haunting him every day afterward. Beyond that it just seemed like a cheap attempt to up the ante between Zod and Kal-El that was wasn't even really followed up on. “You killed my father” – “Yes I did...” – and then it goes unmentioned. But more than that, to my mind, it robbed us of the iconic scene of Jor-El and Lara holding each other in those final moments as Krypton explodes, comforting each other as they died with the knowledge that their son nevertheless has a chance at life, which I think every telling of the story in any medium has kept until now. Not that the scene of Lara facing the holocaust alone (well, with the Aritificial Intelligences Kelex and Kelor flanking her) was not powerful in itself – it was.

Moving on – as does the movie – from Kal-El's ship landing in Kansas to what I would call the second major act of the movie, we see a now-adult Clark Kent as an anonymous drifter, travelling the world, trying to figure out his place in it while simultaneously helping others when the need arises. I thought that structure, during this part similar to the early parts of Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins, worked marvelously, dropping us right into Clark's life during the period when he felt the most lost, but also giving us glimpses of critical events in his childhood in flashback. We meet his earthly parents, who are again brought to life by fine actors – Diane Lane for Martha and Kevin Costner for Jonathan. Both get their great moments. Standing out for me in the case of the former, besides her tender care for the child Clark who is being overwhelmed by his developing sensory abilities, are her feistiness (telling Zod to “Go to hell”) and her humor (“Nice suit, son”). There's also the feeling that she brought to the scene when Clark shows up ebullient that he has “met” his “real father” and knows where he comes from – happy for him, but it's a bittersweet sort of happiness that I'm sure only an adoptive parent can understand.

I was worried about how Jonathan Kent was going to be played in this movie ever since the first trailer came out last year which had him responding to Clark (after the school bus incident) that “Perhaps [he should have let the other kids die].” It still sounds odd coming from Jonathan's mouth, but in the larger context of the movie and the scene as more fully played out, emphasizing Jonathan's fears that Clark would be taken away from himself and Martha, it's not so jarring. And even though by the movie's implied chronology that scene would be taking place some time around 1990,* leading some commentators to judge it anachronistic for a pre-9/11 world, I don't agree. It seems to me that a growing degree of distrust and fear of “black helicopters” and “men-in-black” over the past thirty years or so makes such caution very realistic at any time. Moreover, it fits with the broader portrayal of Jonathan as wanting to shield Clark from being revealed to the world “too early,” his recognition that Clark revealing himself would “change the world.” I agree that Jonathan never really articulates when he would think the time would be “right,” but that's not unrealistic either. How could he know ahead of time?, and I think he was just trying to raise Clark the best he could and hope that he/they would recognize that time when it came. He couldn't know that he would not be there.

Which of course brings us to what I consider to be the emotional heart of the movie, Jonathan's death in a Kansas tornado – a tragically timely portrayal given recent events such as Moore, Oklahoma. I must admit it's something I didn't see coming, and thought right up to the end that this would be Clark's first real “coming-out” and perhaps the catalyst for him leaving Smallville, but as it played out it worked perfectly, having even been foreshadowed by Jonathan's earlier words that Clark's abilities were bigger than any of them or any of the people around them. He backed those words up with his own life. I've seen criticism that Jonathan essentially committed suicide, which I do not agree with – there's a big difference between self-sacrifice and suicide – and that what could be a better reason for Clark revealing himself than saving his own father? I think that Jonathan instinctively knew that the appropriate time would be something that affected not just those close to Clark but the whole world, which is of course what ultimately happened. And its immediate build-up – Clark's petulant (seventeen-year-old-ish?*) “Why am I listening to you anyway? – You're not my father” – makes the scene just that much more powerful, with Clark's rebellion being immediately followed by his act of trust in Jonathan's judgment and sacrifice to keep their secret. Absolutely heartbreaking – for the audience no less than the characters, since I don't think anybody in the theatre who hadn't been spoiled for what happened really expected Clark not to try to save Jonathan anyway. And consider that Jonathan has just had a heartrending demonstration that his son was not mature enough to handle whatever responsibilities would immediately fall on him with his revelation. Henry Cavill's acting in that scene was superb, making you feel the agony he felt in that moment.

Back in the movie's “present,” Clark hears of a mysterious “anomaly” that's been discovered in the frozen north, and makes his way there, although I didn't catch anything in the movie itself making that oddity obviously connected to him. Chalk it up to one of those story-telling coincidences that seem to populate Christopher Nolan movies. Serendipitously, Lois Lane has made her way there as well, refreshingly played here by Amy Adams as a smart, go-getter reporter. Yes, Superman has to save her, more than once in this film, but she never comes across as a damsel-in-distress or even recklessly putting herself in danger solely to get Superman's attention or somehow trap him into revealing his identity. (Her precariously following him along the ice-cliff is neither of those, obviously, but rather plays to a movie-making trope that is in no way specific to this character – that the characters take risks no sane person would dream of.) In fact, the Superman-Lois Lane-Clark Kent relationship is turned on its ear with her tracking Clark and ultimately finding him before he ever goes public, and consistently calling him “Clark” long before she abortively dubs him “Supe – ” (We later learn, via a short exchange containing the two sole utterances of that name in this movie, that “That's what everyone is calling him.” Perhaps Lois did file a story off-screen along the way and thus retain the honor of naming him.) I do have a little bit of a problem, however, in that it seems that the idea of Superman ever successfully constructing the “secret identity” as mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent is blown from the beginning, despite the final scene of the film, both because of Lois' constant reference to him as “Clark” and because it seems to me that she led the Smallville police right to where he was at the Kent Farm after the Battle of Smallville. In any case, her using good, old-fashioned investigative reporting to track him down in the first place seems to suggest that it wouldn't be that hard for the US government to figure out, as she did, that the Kents raised him and therefore that he is Clark Kent. Without the expense of that (trashed) surveillance drone satellite.... Of course, many commentators lament the loss of the Superman-Lois-Clark triangle which was so much part of the mythos for so long, and I can understand that, but that element really has not been part of the comics themselves for about two decades. It was in 1991 that Clark revealed his identity to her (Action Comics #662), and thereafter she was a ally in keeping the secret – for most of the next twenty years, from 1996 (Superman: The Wedding Album) as his wife. I always liked the Clark-Lois marriage, and miss it very much in the post-2011 “New 52” DC Comics. Lois discovering Clark's identity at the outset, as here, not only eliminates the ridiculous idea that this Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter would not see through his disguise but it also makes her a more active partner in maintaining the cover from the very beginning and in the future. That dynamic is gained, and for my part I approve, assuming they take advantage of it in future movies, whether or not as husband and wife. I've seen some commentators disagree, but I thought that Henry Cavill and Amy Adams played their parts well and with obvious chemistry, especially in the cemetery scene where Clark recounts what has to be the most traumatic memory of his life, all the way to that last scene where Lois welcomes a certain bespectacled new reporter “to the Planet.”

Ultimately, of course, the “anomaly” Kryptonian scout ship is where Clark discovers the answers he's been looking for all his life, and pretty quickly we get what is the most spectacular, uplifting, and inspiring part of the movie, reflected in the obvious joy on his face. Okay, I guess I'm a bit shallow, but I ate up the sequence where Clark learns to fly – although what made him realize that full-on flight was even a possibility as opposed to just jumping really high and far, I'm not really clear on. There's so much that I liked about the special effects here and throughout that I'm sure I could go on and on. I'll just mention some random bits here. I liked how he had to work for it at the beginning, but as he gained experience he eventually ended up just floating gracefully, which I think is most effective during the fight scenes when, instead of bothering to push himself off the ground after being clobbered he would just essentially levitate back up and into the fray. From a pseudo-scientific perspective, I liked how you could see sort of a “spill-over” effect of Clark manipulating his personal gravitational field as he's about to launch, most memorably in the sequence which has been in most of the trailers, crouched there in the ice with his fist planted on the surface.
And although the costume is obviously not traditional (I'll leave it at that, although two years into the “New 52” I've pretty much gotten over the loss of the red shorts, and do like this movie version of the “shortsless” costume better than the comics version – while liking the digital-first Smallville Season 11 version better than either...), the full billowing of the cape in particular looks just like an Alex Ross painting brought to life. (That other scene from the trailers and the end of the movie, of the boy Clark playing with the dog, wearing a tied-on red cape and striking the fists-on-hips “Superman” pose to the pride of Jonathan and Martha, heartwarming as it was, did not make a lick of sense, however. What was his inspiration in a world that does not yet have a Superman? – Flash Gordon? In any case, it jerked me right out of the suspension of disbelief that a movie like this depends upon.)

But, as we learn later, Clark's using the \S/-flash-drive to access the scout ship's computer activated a signal that brought Zod and his fellow “Phantom Zone” prisoners to Earth – looking for him and the Kryptonian genetic Codex. The theme of trust is sort of turned on its head as Clark agonizes over the decision that he has to make, per Zod's ultimatum – can he trust humanity? – which is symbolically played out in a Catholic Church below a stained glass window depicting Christ's Agony in the Garden. Here is probably the most explicit example in the movie of the common allegorical equation of the last son of Krypton with the Son of God. I have elsewhere mentioned my sometime unease with a temptation to overplay the Christological elements of the Superman mythos. They are unquestionably present, however, and clearly brought to the fore in this portrayal. A Facebook friend of mine, Barry Ottey, summed it up pretty comprehensively in an email which he graciously gave me permission to plunder for this blog post:

From the “Father-from-beyond-the-sky” who sends to Earth his only-begotten son, to his demi-god-like powers and abilities, to his death at the hands of Doomsday (and subsequent “resurrection” – even though it's attributed to his body going into a sort of “suspended animation healing mode” where his life-signs were virtually undetectable), Superman's story has been filled with ... Christ-like parallels. This film depicted them far more ably than any of the predecessors. Jor-El's comment that Kal “will be a god...” to the Earthlings among whom he will dwell. That scene where Kal surrenders, and then allows himself to be led away in handcuffs …. Surely the soldiers bound Jesus' hands, before bringing Him before there masters. And just as Kal-El admits (or, rather, acknowledges Lois's statement of fact), … he could snap the cuffs like paper, at any time – “... but it makes them (the humans) feel more secure...”
Then, there was the conversation in the church, with the priest – with Kal-El shown against the backdrop of a huge stained glass window bearing the depiction of Christ in Gethsemane. Both Christ (in Gethsemane) and Kal-El are in the midst of a deep emotional struggle. Surrender, or fight? In the end, both choose surrender, the illogical choice and yet so very much the right one. …

There's the scene when Kal is first put in custody, where the humans claim they need to make certain that he isn't carrying any sort of alien microbial infestations. Kal replies that he's been on earth for 33 years, and never seen any problems with that sort of thing. [According to tradition,] Christ was 33 at the time of His crucifixion ….

That last point, which initially struck me as a bit of overkill, is indeed the clincher that the Christological parallels are intentionally emphasized and meant to be “in your face” in this movie, because Superman's more traditional “age” (when specified for an essentially ageless character who is in reality 75 years old this year) has almost always been more like thirty (more specifically 29) with a current push by DC Comics to make its super-heroes younger and “more hip.”

The pronunciation in this movie (“kæl el” vs. “koll el”) would somewhat obscure the point, but even Superman's Kryptonian name Kal-El can be construed as the Hebrew for “Voice of God” ( קוֹל אֵל “qol el) (Thanks, Barry!). Although I don't believe that the son of Jor-El actually gained a name until the 1950s (Superman #113, May 1957), and it was not bestowed upon him by the two Jewish lads from Cleveland who created him in the first place, the writer of that later story, Bill Finger, was himself Jewish. Perhaps it was merely a pleasing pair of syllables creating a name according to the pattern already established for Kryptonian males that could also mean "Voice of God"; and perhaps it is coincidence that “Voice of God” is so semantically similar to “Word of God” ....

Superman:  For Tomorrow
Definitely not coincidence is that the name of the priest with whom Clark discusses his quandary is given by the Internet Movie Database as “Father Leone,” the name of a major character in Brian Azzarello's “For Tomorrow” story arc (Superman #204-215 from 2004 and 2005), who similarly discusses matters of great import with the Man of Steel in the setting of a church.

At the risk of making a mountain out of a mole-hill regarding a simple turn of phrase, I do feel compelled to reiterate here that I cringed even the second time seeing the movie (after innumerable times seeing the trailer) where Jor-El tells Lara that Kal-El “will be a god” to the people of Earth. “Like a god” would seem to me to get the point he was making across just as well, without verging on sacrilege. Especially given the indisputable Christological imagery pervading the movie, I just think that would have been a better choice. As spoken, that remains my least favorite line of the film.

Of course, Clark does surrender himself – not to Zod but rather to humanity, choosing to trust – and we transition into the “last act” of the movie, the longest, the conflict between Superman and Zod, which itself had three major movements – the Battle of Smallville, the Battle of Metropolis, and the one-on-one Duel between Superman and Zod. Here is where the majority of the criticism falls, both among mainstream critics and the comics community, which is very polarized over this movie. (Mainstream audiences, however, seem to be liking it overall, according it a 82% positive rating as opposed to the 56% “rotten” assessment given by the mainstream critics, per Rotten Tomatoes (link); I wish there were a similar rating-aggretator for specifically comics fans, although my impression is that it would be closer to the mainstream critics' rating or somewhere in the 50-50 range.)

In my original “First Impressions” post, I wrote: “If I would put forth an immediate criticism of the movie, it's that the full-on, relentless fighting that is basically the back half of the movie is downright mind-numbing. … I was more stunned than anything else by the end of the two hours plus.” But that was expanding on my statement that “most definitely one of the strengths of this movie compared to any other Superman portrayal in the past is a real sense of the horrific devastation that would be caused by such super-beings engaged in all-out, knock-down drag-out battle. It's almost overwhelming.” I stand by that assessment. It almost certainly went on too long, but I do not believe it was pointless. It gives the audience some sense of the harsh reality that would be life in a world with living weapons of mass destruction. It is, in my opinion, a valuable corrective even to comics fans such as myself who almost routinely witness such destruction, albeit in the static images of the comics medium which inevitably robs them of impact. On the theatre screen, in high-definition motion pictures, it is stunningly in your face.

Some commentators object that Superman would not allow such carnage as is seen, or at least implied, here, but reading them I almost wonder if they saw the same movie that I did. It was apparent to me, besides the fact that he was basically learning how to use his powers as he went along in what was his first confrontation against beings who were as powerful as himself plus being warriors bred and trained for their role, that he was not in control of the battlefield for much of the conflict. Critics have charged that Superman would take the conflict away from populated areas – when he could gain the upper hand he did exactly that, in several instances, even taking Zod into space. Especially Zod in the climactic battle was intent on inflicting the maximum damage on Kal-El's adopted world and people, and promptly took the fight back into the heart of Metropolis. Granted, the focus was almost always on the combatants, leading some to criticize that the human toll is virtually ignored in favor of the property damage. There may be truth to that, but I do remember seeing people rising into the air and being slammed back to earth due to the gravitational disruptions of the World Engine and there was plenty of implied death in the leveled center of the city. Would lingering focus on those violent deaths with explicit imagery have improved the film and made it more acceptable? – I doubt it, and it would doubtless have compelled an R-rating which would not be in Warner Brothers' interest.

It's not actually in the portrayal itself that I think this film goes somewhat awry. Where I think the movie-makers most grotesquely drop the ball is in the aftermath, with virtually no acknowledgment that the DC Universe's counterpart to New York City has just been virtually leveled, with casualties beyond anything short of a nuclear bomb, a point that is also made by Chuck Watson of WTC Hazards Research (link), whose associated Kinetic Analysis Corporation calculated the potential costs of the Battle of Metropolis – presented in “in-universe” form as an editorial by Perry White (link). There we learn that a “real-world” best estimate of the human cost is “truly horrific: 129 thousand known killed, nearly a million injured, and over a quarter of a million still missing” as of a few days after the event, with an “astronomical” financial toll comprising direct physical damage of over $750 Billion and economic impact of hundreds of billions more bringing the total costs into the trillions of dollars. And yet (implicitly) only a few days after the event it looks like “business as usual” at the Daily Planet. (We are assured in that same faux  and uncanonical to the movie  editorial that “Fortunately the Daily Planet Building suffered only superficial damage” … although it sure doesn't look "superficial" to me in the picture above!)

But the scale of the violence is not the only object of condemnation in the final act of Man of Steel. Particularly divisive among comics fans is the end of Superman and Zod's battle. Mark Waid is a widely respected comic book writer and by just-as-wide consensus the world's foremost living expert on Superman. His early-2000s miniseries Superman: Birthright, moreover, provided certain themes and imagery to the creators of this movie (see my recent blog entry – link). His Thrillbent blog entry (link) expresses many fans' serious objection to the very idea that Superman would kill. His arguments carry weight, without any doubt, and yet I disagree. There is specific precedent, from Superman #22 (October 1988), a couple of years into John Byrne's post-Crisis on Infinite Earths reboot that created the “modern” incarnation of Superman that would prevail until 2011. There the Man of Steel faces virtually the same situation as is posited in this movie, albeit on a larger scale – an alternate-universe Zod and his followers' genocidal mass murder of the inhabitants of an that universe's Earth, followed by the jeering promise that they will “find a way to get to your reality. And … destroy you and your world!” There are differences, of course – in Byrne's version the Phantom Zone villains have rendered that alternate Earth an airless, lifeless, barren wasteland, committing a crime compared to which “the Holocaust pales in comparison,” motivated not by a misguided objective of remaking the Earth into a New Krypton but rather by pure, sadistic evil; moreover, Superman has already subdued and stripped them of their powers using that universe's Gold Kryptonite before he coldly acts as “judge, jury, and executioner.” It makes for a powerful, and, yes, controversial conclusion to John Byrne's magnificent run on the character. In Man of Steel, the situation is, on the other hand, built on the very characterization of Zod as a genetically-engineered soldier bred and trained to one sole purpose, fighting for Krypton but now bereft of his very purpose in being, swearing vengeance that Kal-El had to understand would be carried out unless he were killed. Again, remember that Superman is new at this, learning as he goes, having to make a decision then and there, with immediate consequences for the civilians right there in Grand Central Station. Bear in mind that Zod could have just shifted his eyes in those final moments – Superman had him in a head-lock, yes, but he could not keep him from moving his eyes. Zod was dragging it out, tacitly begging Superman to put him out of his now-meaningless existence. He had made Superman's choice clear earlier, stating that there was only one way for this to end, with Kal-El or himself dead, and although in just about any other context such a declaration would almost certainly constitute braggadocio, with Zod's power – and with his demonstrably learning how to use it very quickly – in this case it was quite literally the case. And then, as when Clark held back and let Jonathan die, you can see the raw emotion on his face, in his posture – he hates what he has had to do. Which leads to the beautiful scene of Lois comforting him as he almost sobs his grief for the last surviving member of his race, whom he has just had to kill.

It is a powerful ending, one which continues two weeks after the film's American debut to inspire hot debate (link). For my part, I understand and respect those who dislike the portrayal of Superman in Man of Steel, but I do object when some of them put forth their opinions as if they have some monopoly on understanding the character and state categorically that “Superman would not do that!” There are as many – probably more – versions of Superman as there are writers who have worked on him multiplied by the number of readers who have read him over 75 years. There is, after multiple incarnations, no pure archetype. Even Siegel and Shuster's chamption of the people evolved – and indeed killed villains with abandon in the earliest published stories. Each of us, I dare say, has an “archetypal” view of “Superman” that takes bits and pieces from various incarnations and synthesizes them into their own personal vision. Ultimately, any version that maintains the most basic elements of the mythos, as perhaps most eloquently expressed on p. 1 of Grant Morrison's All-Star Superman –
to which I would add “CHAMPION OF JUSTICE” and specify the most basic imagery of a costume of blue and red, muted or no, including the \S/-shield and cape – is as valid as any other. But given the myriad variations that are possible within those parameters, it is definitely impossible to create a story that will be pleasing to all.

Obviously the film could not end with the death of Zod and Superman's anguish, however, but perhaps inevitably the subsequent scenes weaken that scene's impact, most unfortunately the lack of any in-story acknowledgment of the virtually unimaginable trauma that Metropolis, Smallville, and indeed the world has just experienced – in addition to Clark himself. Those things must be addressed in the inevitable sequel.

Before I discuss that sequel, however, there are a few more comments that I want to make, random notes in no particular order that I accrued that did not make their way into the overlong discussion above:

  • Did anyone else notice how, as Superman strained upward in the midst of the second World Engine's gravity beam over the Indian Ocean, Henry Cavill briefly looked the spitting image of Christopher Reeve?
  • Despite my problem with the seeming light-hearted nature of the last scene in the Daily Planet, introducing bespectacled Clark Kent, it did give us one of the best lines in the movie, Lois Lane's belated pun “Welcome to the Planet!
  • Similarly, I loved Superman's assurance to the general, “I grew up in Kansas. I'm about as American as you can get” – which was all the more meaningful as the scriptwriter David Goyer also penned the infamous and controversial backup to Action Comics #900 (June 2011) wherein Superman renounces his American citizenship.
  • In a personal aside, it was gratifying to see Clark watching one of my almae matres Louisiana Tech University (LTU) facing off against Kansas University (KU) on TV just before the Kryptonians made their appearance.
  • There were a couple of controversial casting choices. Frankly, a black Perry White was never an issue for me. The introduction (apparently) of a female “Jimmy Olsen” as the intern Jenny, did initially rub me the wrong way when I heard of it, but a little thought made me realize that in truth, “Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen” hasn't really been a significant part of storytelling since at least 1985, so what difference does it make? I thought that both worked perfectly fine in the movie as presented. I do hope Perry at least gets a more significant role in the sequel. I thought Laurence Fishbourne did a fine job – Does he know how to do a less than fine job? And the young lady who played Jenny “Olsen” (technically not billed as such in the credits, perhaps a reaction to the reaction the idea of a female “Jimmy” garnered) grew on me through the film.
  • The music: I admit I was a bit worried that Hans Zimmer would be scoring Man of Steel. I'm only familiar with him from the Dark Knight trilogy, and while the style heard there works very well for Batman, I couldn't imagine it fitting Superman. I need not have been concerned, and in fact I find the music for Man of Steel suitably more majestic.
  • It's de rigueur, I suppose, but the prominence of the product placement got to be as much an annoyance within the movie as some of the ridiculous television tie-in commercials have been in recent weeks. I'm told Sears actually hypes themselves now as “featured in Man of Steel” – ?!
  • LexCorp and the brief appearance of Wayne Industries (the satellite that Superman and Zod destroyed in their duel), on the other hand, were really cool Easter Eggs.
As to the future, what would I like to see? Well, one problem I consider these type of blockbuster franchise series to inevitably run up against is the perceived need by subsequent outings to outdo what went before – make the sequels each bigger and more spectacular, which all too often manifests as increasingly ridiculous overkill that overwhelms any story and character development. With the scale of the violence in Man of Steel, the movie-makers seem to have created themselves a real quandary. If I were them, I would not even try for the special effects-laden spectacle but would go for something more substantial and plot-driven as a story. Definitely do not go the interstellar invasion route again at least until the rumored Justice League movie. Deal with what is so wanting in the final minutes of Man of Steel, the implications of the events that the world has just experienced, concentrating on mankind's reaction to the revelation of such a super-being living in its midst. In that story, the perfect groundwork has already been laid for the introduction of the villain whom most people associate with Superman – Lex Luthor. The faux-editorial by Perry White referenced above, although not produced by anyone associated with the movie, points the obvious way, alluding to quick (and doubtless corrupt) contracts LexCorp has already secured in the massive rebuilding effort. We saw LexCorp Tower hit during the final battle, as well as several LexCorp tankers. In the modern incarnation of Superman, Luthor owns a great deal of Metropolitan real estate – he considers the city to be his – which was absolutely trashed. There lies the way to a compelling characterization for Luthor (one not unfamiliar to comics fandom, but one less familiar to the audience at large) – the multi-billionnaire industrialist and pretend philanthropist of whom could be made another sympathetic, understandable opponent, whose paranoia at the alien among them could resonate with the audience and make them think. Yes, the movie can – must – have action, but it really ought to be driven by Luthor's efforts to deal with Superman, put humanity first, and show Superman to be a dangerous alien. I would suggest the old standbys Metallo and Bizarro (a failed attempt at creating a clone which he controls). Luthor himself could ultimately be a human Zod, and must be shown to have a wide following. There is a danger of going the darker “Marvel Comics” route rather than the generally (less so of late, but still) brighter DC route, so care must be taken to keep a balance, but distrust is very much part of our post-9/11 world and is not inappropriate as long as it is not overdone and that trust of Superman wins out.

Against this could be the absolutely necessary story of Clark dealing with his feelings regarding what he had to do, showing the consequences for himself and for the world's view of him, but ultimately the focus should be on his vow never to go so far again, no matter how deserving Luthor might be.

And all that is without dealing with the Clark-Lois issue. Criticism has included a perceived lack of chemistry between the two on-screen, which I personally disagree with, but it's obviously an issue. I don't know exactly how you create such chemistry if indeed it is not present, but it is really essential to the story (well, at least my version of Superman ;-) ). Given the precariousness of the dual identity that he has constructed at this point, emphasis must be on showing her an active ally in keeping the secret, somehow making it clear that he could not pull it off without her.

Those are just my thoughts, both on Man of Steel itself and where to go from here. To sum up, Man of Steel is not a perfect movie – is there such a thing? – but for me it is a very satisfying portrayal of a hero whom I have loved all my life, a not at all disappointing culmination to years of waiting. I loved it. And I look forward eagerly to seeing more.

Cheers! – and Thanks for reading!
* * *

* Time-line: Jonathan's tombstone dates his death to 1997. Superman tells Dr. Hamilton that he's been on Earth for 33 years. Assuming this movie is supposed to be taking place in 2013, that would put his birth and arrival on Earth in 1980. A friend argues that we should imagine the movie's “present” to be when production began, ca. 2011, which would make Clark more like nineteen in 1997, and such rebellion as he demonstrates more likely than from a seventeen-year-old. I don't agree with that reasoning (I have a seventeen-year-old son), but I do like the coincidence (?) that such a dating scheme would make Kal-El's birth and the destruction of Krypton happen in 1978 … the year Superman: The Movie came out. (35 years … I'm feeling very old right now.)


  1. Great observations. And thanks for linking to my post on Superman's links to Christ at Brilliant Disguises. You have a very cool site.

  2. By the way, would you be interested in reviewing a novel? You can reply at Thanks!

  3. Thanks for your kind words, William, and thanks for dropping by. I only just became aware of your site last week. As to reviewing a novel, no promises as to when I might get to it with my book acquisition rate easily outpacing my reading speed, but drop me a line at the email on my profile and tell me more.