WARNING: The following contains MAN OF STEEL spoilers, as well as way too much personal information about me…
I’ve seen MAN OF STEEL twice in two days and have been trying to write a review of it since the first viewing. No one asked me to review it, but I love the character and have very, very strong feelings about the way this movie represents him. Over 2,000 words into my first review, I realized it’d just gone off the rails. I started again and ended up at almost 4,000 words. It was a rambling summary with my own interjections and opinions here and there. I’m not a movie reviewer, really, though I used to do it all the time. I started wondering if I’d lost it or something, but it might be that I just can’t review this movie. I’m too close to Superman. Granted, a lot of people love the character as much or more than me and were able to write reviews (wise and talented people such as Mark Waid and Adam P. Knave). I know what they did and should be capable of doing that… yet I have finally accepted that can’t. Whatever I start typing just ends up being a summary with some pointless observations thrown in. My nearly 6,000 words of attempted review fall flat and are, for the most part, oddly impersonal.
This is bizarre, because my love of the character of Superman is very personal. My first memories are of Christopher Reeve as the character and of myself running around in Superman Underoos with an “S” spit curl my mom had to help me get right. I’ve always loved Superman for as long as I can remember, and he’s just as important to me now as he’s ever been. I feel like I need him. I need someone, even a fictional character, who I believe not only knows what the right thing to do is, but has the power to do it. As a kid, he felt like my personal hero.
I was raised Christian, but, for some reason, this comic book character in blue tights and a red cape made me feel a security I never got from Sunday school. There’s always talk of Superman being interpreted as a Christ-like figure, despite being created partly as a Moses allegory by couple of Jewish kids named Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. The character, over the years, has been reinterpreted as almost a reaction to questions of why God doesn’t just step in and help us out. It’s oversimplified, and the character is primarily for entertainment, but he really meant a lot to me growing up. I feel like we’re born with our own senses of morality, of right and wrong, and that we shouldn’t need to be told to help people instead of hurt them… but it helps to have some good examples.
And Superman using all his amazing powers to help regular people like me meant so much to a young child who always felt kind of frightened and a little overwhelmed by life and everything I was taught about what comes after — both the good and the bad. I knew he wasn’t real, but knowing that a character like that could exist meant so much, and it still does.
I realize that fictional characters; especially ones that have been around as long as Superman and are owned by corporations instead of the creators are open to interpretation. Changes in the mythology don’t bother me, and, in fact, MAN OF STEEL makes some good ones. The world and history of Krypton is expanded in ways that make for very fun cinema. The central relationship between Lois Lane and Clark Kent is fundamentally changed in a very smart way. Most of it, frankly, delights me. There is a lot of good in this movie I can’t seem to legitimately review.
There are great performances, starting with a perfectly cast Henry Cavill as Kal-El/Clark Kent (pointedly not named Superman in the credits or, of course, in the movie’s title). Everyone is committed to his or her roles, in front of and behind the camera. The design and feel of the movie is appropriately epic and, while not as light on its feet and fun as many of the best Superman stories, still earnest and full of the humanity and caring.
It is, for the majority of its running time, a very well done and well thought-out version of this character I love. For the first two-thirds it’s the best I could’ve hoped for from a blockbuster movie in this day and age. Superman is finally a modern feeling character, and the movie is filled with interesting actors and big ideas. My heart didn’t swell as I’d expected it to, and I didn’t get as misty eyed or teary as I’d feared I would watching a movie with my friends, but it felt good and right.
Then it takes a turn from which it cannot recover. Lots of people are talking about it, and for good reason. The amount of wanton destruction in violence in this movie, even though it’s digital and bloodless, is out of control. It goes from being exciting and gripping in the Smallville battle to just over-the-top in the worst ways in the destruction of Metropolis, first from Kryptonian ships, and then from a brutal one-on-one fight between Superman and General Zod. And all the while, this version of Superman is more concerned with using his fists than he is with saving the lives of all the superpowerless humans caught in the excruciating disaster porn insanity.
Everyone wanted more action in this than the last time the character was on the big screen in SUPERMAN RETURNS. The demand for Superman to use his power in a more visceral way via big punches in fights was heard by the filmmakers, and they overcompensated. What happens in this movie is just insane and ultimately numbing. Near the end, everyone I talked to agreed that the fight just went on for too long. There was too much destruction. CG allows filmmakers to do almost anything they can imagine with a budget like MAN OF STEEL has, but sometimes more isn’t better, it’s just more.
The ultimate solution to this battle is a moment I still feel traumatized by, as silly as that might seem to people who don’t cling to this type of fiction the way I always have and probably always will. My hero since childhood, a character that, to me, stands for everything I aspire and usually fail to be, snaps the villain’s neck.
Yes, the filmmakers put him in what they thought was an impossible position. He had to do it to save people directly in front of him (never mind all the forgotten about and ignored thousands who had to have died in the type of fight that just took place in a huge city). They showed him struggle and plead with Zod. In the end they tried to show that, though he had no choice, he felt horrible about it, crying into Lois’s arms.
It’s a horrifically out of character moment. The fact that most folks I talked to after watching the movie weren’t that bothered by it shows that the Superman I love just isn’t the character he now is to the audience at large. That was a goofy, boring throwback to many of them. This version is what’s more palatable now. This character who is a good man, but not as good as the Superman I pretended to be when I was a little boy. That Superman would’ve found a way to do what’s right, to save the day, without resorting to murder. And that’s what it is, no matter how poignant the end of the scene, no matter how justified the filmmakers try to make it. They made the ultimate superhero, the ultimate symbol of hope and justice, a killer.
And that’s not what I want from my hero. All the good the movie does, and there is so much good in it, is ultimately negated to me by the ridiculous violent climax and disturbing resolution. The final scene, introducing glasses-wearing Clark Kent most of us remember, with the smart twist that intrepid reporter Lois Lane isn’t fooled by glasses but still plays along is stylishly directed, entertainingly written, and wonderfully acted. But it doesn’t wash away the bitter taste left over by the scenes of brutality that are just out-of-place in a Superman movie — at least the type I want to see.
It breaks my heart that this movie is, to my mind, inappropriate for someone the same age as I was when I fell in love with Superman via movies. I’m not suggesting that Superman stories have to be for little kids; they absolutely don’t. They can be sophisticated and thought-provoking and harrowing and exciting — and still be all-ages. All-ages doesn’t mean for kids. It means for everyone, regardless of age. That’s what Superman should be, and that’s where this movie ultimately fails.
The fact that murder, no matter how justified in the moment as scripted, makes a hero more modern and relatable is troubling. The “S” stands for hope, but, in the end, this new movie version of Superman does not.