In this SPOILER-FILLED review, I look at Zack Snyder’s reboot of the Superman legend and try to place it in the larger context of moviemaking today.
Comics fans need to stop looking for their Lord of the Rings in the mind of Christopher Nolan. I’ll come back to that idea later, but first let’s look at Zack Snyder’s grim, bloody and — most important — cold new movie, Man of Steel.
Escaping the shadow of the Richard Donner/Christopher Reeve Superman movies was no small task. Snyder and screenwriter David Goyer have done it by going back to the source material (decades of comics) and assembling a movie built from the most brutal elements Superman has to offer; specifically, the mad fascist General Zod and the “Death of Superman” storyline, which pits the classic hero against an unstoppable beast nicknamed Doomsday. The “Death” storyline, which is really just an extended battle sequence, has two major end results: Metropolis ends up in ruins, and Superman is forced to kill Doomsday. (Oh, and Superman gets killed, too.)
In case you’re waiting for a nut graf or for me to reveal whether or not I actually liked the movie, here it is: Yes. I liked it. I guess? It’s hard to say you “like” a movie that hinges on planetary genocide and features a body-count in the tens of thousands, but there’s no getting around the reality that this kind of cold — there’s that word again — mayhem is a legitimate part of the Superman canon — which means that Christopher Nolan and his creative team were absolutely, positively going to trot it out when it came time to reboot Superman. (Side note: There’s quite a bit I like about Man of Steel, and it lays some promising groundwork for future installments, even though I shudder to think of an extended, onscreen DC Universe set in the so-called “Nolanverse.” I’ll talk about that in a moment.)
There was also no getting around the reality that Nolan and his team would focus on another cold aspect of the Superman myth: His pilgrimage to the North Pole to uncover his future home, the Fortress of Solitude. In previous incarnations of the character, the Fortress has been a stronghold constructed from ancient Kryptonian tech. Here it’s a derelict spacecraft from his homeworld. Either choice is fine, but the filmmakers also choose to draw out this pilgrimage — shown in the Donner movies as a few shots of Clark hitchhiking in the arctic — and construct their movie’s first act from it.
Let me pause and add some nuance to a couple of points: One, I don’t mean to assign all authorial credit to Christopher Nolan. This is very much a Zach Snyder movie — for better or worse — but Nolan’s fingerprints are all over it. Two, when it comes to the opening scenes of Clark wandering through the far north like a modern-day Aragorn, I don’t want to give the impression that I disliked them; far from it. This was actually my favorite stuff in the movie. It actually qualifies as art.
Before everyone goes apeshit on me for calling Man of Steel a work of art, let me explain how I personally define and (try to) evaluate art. First, I ask myself “Is this art?” in a purely binary sense. Pretty much, something is art if the artist is actually trying to say something. Once I’ve established (for myself, at least) that something is art, then I consider whether it’s good art.
Does that make sense? Zach Snyder gets a lot of flak for being a bombastic, sexist fanboy. I think he is all of those things, but at the very, very least, I think he has something to say, and he tries his best to say it. To be sure, there have been thousands of words of copy written in support of the thesis that Snyder is irretrievably bad at saying those things — Google “Sucker-Punch reviews” to get a taste — but when it comes to the binary question of “Are Zach Snyder’s movies art?” I’m afraid they are. Specifically, they’re art in a way that, say, Michael Bay’s movies simply aren’t. (I’ll save an extended discussion of Bay’s movies for another time.)
So let’s talk about those opening scenes, which depict a wandering Clark bouncing from odd job to odd job and saving a few lives along the way. Intercut with these scenes are a series of striking flashbacks to Clark’s formative years in Smallville, where we get two of the movie’s best performances: Kevin Costner (channeling Joe Kinsella’s downhome decency) as Pa Kent, and Diane Lane (all grey-haired and hawkish and brittle and brassy) as a no-bullshit Ma Kent.
These scenes also features a variety of up-angle, magic-hour shots of Americana — a butterfly lighting on a clothesline, the mandatory shot of the Kent’s rusty old mailbox — as well as one remarkable sequence of natural horror: a tornado. Watching these scenes, I chuckled at the sight of Zach Snyder aping the rhythm and aesthetic of the great filmmaker Terence Malick. Let me hasten to add: I was chuckling with glee, because believe me, if we’re going to be subjected to two and half hours of brawny collateral damage masquerading as pop-myth, I’d much rather watch Snyder try to emulate a great filmmaker than watch Michael Bay shoot another extended car commercial.
In fact, let’s pause and unpack Malick’s influence on Snyder. (Side note: I have no direct evidence of this. Snyder hasn’t copped to it in an interview, so far as I know, but I’d be surprised if Malick wasn’t on his radar.) I’ve only seen three of Malick’s movies. The reclusive filmmaker made two of the best films of the 1970s, Badlands and the stunning Days of Heaven before he disappeared for a couple of decades, resurfacing in the 90s to make the gorgeously rendered but (for me) somewhat inert war movie The Thin Red Line. Later he explored the John Smith/Pocahontas story in The New World before he teamed up with Brad Pitt to make one of the best movies of the decade, The Tree of Life, a movie that puts me on my knees in joyous, elegiac awe.
First, let’s look one of the trailers for Man of Steel. This was the first trailer to drop, and the combination of those mournful piano themes with the Malick-style imagery got me really excited. This first trailer was also heavy on the Smallville/wandering Aragorn imagery, which was, again, my favorite stuff.
Compare that to the trailer for Malick’s Tree of Life:
(Side note: I don’t mean to suggest that trailers are the best representation of a movie’s tone or aesthetics. Mostly, I feel like both trailers provide a good survey of the general look and feel for these movies.)
Let’s look at more Malick and consider how while Zach Snyder may be an artist, he’s still pretty raw in his expression. This sequence from Tree of Life shows up midway through the movie, after a mother loses one of her children. Like Job, she asks the almighty why bad things happen to good people, and in response, Malick, flashes back to the beginning of time and shows the formation of galaxies, stars, planets and all life on earth.
Tree of Life is one of those movies that can support the rubric of many life-philosophies. A religious person can look at the “formation” sequence and see the majesty of god’s creation. By contrast, a non-religious person like myself sees the disconnect between the mother’s pleas and the merciless march of natural selection. It’s that kind of movie.
Anyway, I highlight the “formation” sequence from Tree of Life as prelude to a quick glance at the Krypton sequence that kicks off Man of Steel. I also enjoyed the heck out of these scenes, which show us a swashbuckling Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and a courageous Lara (Ayelet Zurer). If Snyder had really wanted to make like Terence Malick, he would have saved this sequence for the middle of his movie. After all, the movie’s largely told from Clark’s perspective, so why not withhold the origin story for the middle, when he discovers the Fortress of Solitude?
Moving on: I began this essay by saying that comics fans should stop looking for their Lord of the Rings in the mind of Christopher Nolan. To explain what I mean, I’m going to write a play.
WHY COMICS FANS SHOULD STOP LOOKING FOR THEIR LORD OF THE RINGS IN THE MIND OF CHRISTOPHER NOLAN
A play in one act, by J. Robert Poopington
The Voice of Comics Fandom, hereafter abbreviated TVOCF
A guy, hereafter GUY
GUY: Hey, The Voice of Comics Fandom. How’s it going?
TVOCF: Good. I just saw Man of Steel. It’s awesome.
GUY: Yeah, it’s pretty good, right? I loved the first act, and I really liked the casting. Zach Snyder’s got a good eye for it. Henry Cavill was solid, and Amy Adams nailed Lois.
TVOCF: Remember how bad Kate Bosworth was in Superman Returns?
GUY: Oh, yeah. Bryan Singer really botched the casting for that flick. I mean, he cast a perfect Lois — Parker Posey — but he put her in the wrong part. Plus, the whole thing was funereal in tone.
TVOCF: Tell me about it! It felt like they were trying to keep Christopher Reeve alive instead of trying to make a good Superman movie!
GUY: Agreed. But didn’t Man of Steel strike you as kind of cold to the touch, like Doc Brown’s DeLorean after it makes a temporal jump?
TVOCF: No way, man! It’s the best Superman movie ever!
GUY: Hm. OK, I’ll admit, it’s handsomely mounted, but don’t you think that by focusing on such a brutal storyline and eliminating the goofy Clark Kent persona entirely, they were left with a pretty bloodthirsty, angry, and (again) cold movie?
TVOCF: I’ll admit that it’s a bloody movie, but the “Death of Superman” storyline is a legitimate part of the mythos. Sometimes Superman has destroy half the country to stop a larger threat. In this case, that’s what we got to see.
GUY: You’ve got a good point. But didn’t the movie’s second half — one big battle sequence — kind of exhaust you after a few minutes?
TVOCF: It was pretty intense.
GUY: Tell me about it! After they dropped that Phantom-Zone-bomb-thingy onto Zod’s terraforming contraption, I thought we were done, but then we had 10 more minutes of mano-a-mano between Supes and Zod! I thought, “UGH! Aren’t they done fighting yet?!”
TVOCF: You’ve got a point, but again: That’s part of what Superman does.
GUY: Plus, I really hated how he had to kill Zod at the end, it was totally out of character for–
TVOCF: Wait! Before you go on, watch this:
GUY: Whoa. Wow. Really? Is that really how Superman II ends? Clark throws Zod into a bottomless pit, smirking like a frat boy?
TVOCF: Yeah. And some fans are bitching about how he had to kill Zod, when Zod gave him no choice. For all intents and purposes, Zod commits suicide, but he needs another Kryptonian to kill him. Although in hindsight, I’m not sure how Clark was able to snap his neck. I mean, he’d spent the afternoon punching him through skyscrapers and grain silos, but in the end, he can simply break his neck?
GUY: I guess it’s like how only a diamond can carve a diamond.
TVOCF: I suppose. But let’s get back to the reality that Superman sometimes has to fight enemies who match his might, power for power. We saw a similar storyline play out on roughly the same scale in Superman II, but in this case, Snyder was able to accurately represent the destruction of the Doomsday storyline with modern special effects techniques.
GUY: It was kind of like the Doomsday storyline, wasn’t it? I even thought Zod’s battle armor — stormtrooper by way of Fremen stillsuit — recalled the exposed skeletal system of Doomsday.
TVOCF: I can kind of see that. So why didn’t you like the movie?
GUY: I’m not saying I didn’t like it. I liked a lot of it. But I found it very cold to the touch; a grim, humorless slog. Pretty much, it felt like a Christopher Nolan comic-book movie, and the way things are going, we’re probably going to get an extended DC Universe onscreen, and it’s going to be told through the prism of Nolan’s sensibilities. And that makes me shudder.
TVOCF: Isn’t that a good thing? After all, Nolan’s the one who turned the Batman franchise into Best Picture fodder. I mean, The Dark Knight is practically the Heat of superhero movies.
GUY: You can’t be serious.
TVOCF: You didn’t like Dark Knight, either?
GUY: No, no — as with any of these movies, there are parts I like and parts I don’t. With Dark Knight, I liked its humorless (there’s that word again) commitment to presenting us an image of what the world of Batman could and would look like in our world, the real world. But on the whole, I found the movie thematically on-the-nose and pedantic as hell. A movie shouldn’t have to state its themes in explicit language over and over again.
TVOCF: So you must’ve hated The Dark Knight Rises.
GUY: Nope! I liked that one a lot better.
TVOCF: Are you kidding? Why? The Dark Knight won the only acting Oscar ever awarded to a comic-book movie!
GUY: First of all, I hate to be mean, but that was a largely honorary award given to Heath Ledger. Don’t get me wrong; I loved his take on the Joker — and as a side note, I appreciated Nolan’s experimental, performance studies, oddball take on Batman in general — but that Oscar was an award for Ledger’s legacy and his formidable body of work.
TVOCF: That still doesn’t explain why you liked TDKR better than TDK.
GUY: Well, are you ready to have your mind blown? I liked Batman Begins the best of any of the Nolan Batman movies.
TVOCF: I’m leaving.
GUY: Wait! You promised to hear me out. I still need to explain why comics fans should stop looking for their Lord of the Rings in the mind of Christopher Nolan.
TVOCF: Fine. Go ahead and tell me why Batman Begins was the best and why you hated Man of Steel.
GUY: Again, I didn’t hate Man of Steel. I liked it quite a lot. But regarding Batman Begins: I liked it the best because it was the most like a comic book. To that end, I preferred TDKR over TDK because it felt more like a comic book.
TVOCF: You’re saying TDK didn’t feel like a comic-book movie?
GUY: Not really. You compared it to Heat, and indeed — it feels a lot like Nolan trying to engage with the Batman mythos through crime drama. That’s a valid way to do it, but here’s my problem: When I watch a Nolan (or Nolan-produced) comic-book movie, I feel like he’s only willing to put something onscreen if he himself is willing to believe it.
TVOCF: What’s wrong with that?
GUY: Nothing, really. But as much as I like Nolan as a filmmaker, I feel like his movies are cold, grim, humorless, sexless slogs. Some of them are awesomely cold, grim, humorless, sexless slogs, but they’re cold, grim, humorless, sexless slogs nevertheless.
TVOCF: Hm. I think I can see where you’re going with this. When Nolan was tasked to reboot Superman, he focused only on the coldest, most brutal elements of his character?
GUY: Well, again, I don’t want to give him credit for everything, but yes, you’re right. And to be sure — some of that stuff is fantastic. I loved how Goyer and Snyder (and Nolan) focused on Clark being an alien. I loved how he had a hard time controlling his super-senses as a kid. (I also liked how that paid off later when Zod and his crew had to acclimate to their newfound powers.) Nolan, Snyder and Goyer — let’s just call ’em the NSG Triumvirate, or NSG-T — reimagined Superman’s origin as a sci-fi movie.
TVOCF: Waitagoddamminute. So when you said TDK felt more like a crime movie than a comic-book movie, you were alluding to–
GUY: –to the idea that Man of Steel feels less like a comic-book movie and more like a straight-up science-fiction movie. (Note: Another critic described Man of Steel as “more space opera than comic-book movie.” I can’t remember who, but I tip my hat to them.)
TVOCF: OK, so because I’ve completely lost track of what you love or hate — did you hate the sci-fi/first contact stuff?
GUY: Nope. Loved it. I feel like it’s a legitimate outgrowth of the Superman myth, and I also liked how they reimagined another image from Superman II — when Zod takes to the airwaves to demand the life of Kal-El.
TVOCF: Yeah, that was pretty cool, wasn’t it?
GUY: Yep. Zod’s wraithlike visage and eerily calm voice was somehow more effective than a pajamas-wearing Terence Stamp pushing aside a toupee’d Edward G. Robinson to shout into a bank of microphones.
TVOCF: Whoa. You’re not going to start hating on Terence Stamp now, are you?
GUY. No, no, no. He’s awesome, and he was all the more awesome in Superman and Superman II because he managed to be so terrifying in spite of his jammies.
TVOCF: OK, as long as we agree on that. But I still don’t understand all this Lord of the Rings talk. What do you mean?
GUY: Here’s what I mean: I may be building a straw man here — I mean, I constructed you, The Voice of Comics Fandom, out of cloth — but I feel like comics fans still crave a legitimacy and vindication that fantasy fans won through Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies.
TVOCF: Meaning what?
GUY: Meaning: That finally, we got to see fantasy treated as serious subject matter, worthy of great filmmaking, great talent — and oodles of critical acclaim. Furthermore, I’d submit that LOTR’s legitimacy has carried over into the legitimacy that Game of Thrones enjoys as a prestige series on HBO. (Incidentally, HBO has done a great job of taking pulp genre material — gangster movies, westerns, fantasy — and alchemizing it into great television.) But comic-book movies have yet to win that level of legitimacy and critical acclaim, even though they’ve completely taken over Hollywood, and for the worse, I’d say.
TVOCF: Whoa, whoa, whoa! What do you mean “for the worse”? Comic-book movies are awesome! And Man of Steel is a mature, dark and gritty take on Superman. We already got a bright and shiny Superman through the Richard Donner movies. Isn’t it time for a new vision?
GUY: Yeah, I guess. I mean, I love comic-book movies, and I think they deserve a seat at the table, but at what cost? No less than Steven Spielberg himself has predicted the coming implosion of the movie industry, and as much as I enjoy Marvel’s Avengers franchise, wouldn’t you like to also see more mid-budget movies for grown-ups in the mix? Do you have any friends in the movie business?
TVOCF: Sure. Lots of ’em.
GUY: And have any of them had a hard time getting movies made?
TVOCF: Yeah, all of them.
GUY: Same here. Talented writers and directors — all the way up to Spielberg and Steven Soderbergh — are having a hard time getting movies made or into theaters.
TVOCF: Jeez. I guess you’re right. Soderbergh had to sell his Liberace biopic Behind the Candleabra to HBO, didn’t he?
GUY: Yep. And Spielberg said that Lincoln — a slam-dunk if there ever was one — almost wound up on HBO.
TVOCF: Well, isn’t this all a reflection of a larger trend in media and media delivery? Aren’t more and more scripted projects going to find homes online, on cable, or on pay-per-view?
GUY: Yes, probably. It’s inevitable, I guess.
TVOCF: Wait, so how does the changing media landscape tie into comics fans’ obsession with winning a bunch of Oscars?
GUY: It doesn’t really. It’s just that I’d like to see more mid-budget movies getting greenlit. The big movie studios seem content to bet on a bunch of tentpoles to keep them solvent, and like Spielberg predicted, there’s every possibility that a string of those tentpoles will bomb and change the face of Hollywood as we know it. Hell, it might even be the coming onslaught of cold and bloody DC Universe movies that Man of Steel heralds.
TVOCF: You really think so?
GUY: Possibly. Remember when I said that Christopher Nolan only puts onscreen what he himself can believe in?
GUY: Let me expand on that: Regarding comic-book movies, I always make a comparison to children’s theater, which challenges theatrical artists to wear goofy costumes and convince a skeptical audience of squirming kids that they’re playing animals, witches or any number of fantastical characters.
TVOCF: Fair enough. How does that relate to comic-book movies?
GUY: Well, if you’re in a children’s theater play, it’s incumbent on everyone involved to thoroughly believe in what they’re doing. If you feel silly or otherwise look down on the material you’re playing, it won’t work. You have to believe in it.
TVOCF: Yeah, so?
GUY: Again, I feel like Nolan himself thinks that comic books are silly, and in order to engage with them as filmmaking fodder, he’s drawn to only the grimmest, coldest elements of comic-book lore. Furthermore, he only puts imagery onscreen that he himself believes in. This is only my opinion, but I think that’s the wrong way to approach comic-book movies.
TVOCF: Side note: Why do you keep hyphenating “comic-book,” you asshole?
GUY: It’s a compound modifier. I have eccentric beliefs about compound modifiers.
TVOCF: You’re also a pretentious asshole.
GUY: Maybe, but if you’ve come this far, then hear me out: Pound for pound, I prefer the Marvel Avengers franchise because the team over at Marvel seems to really like comics, and the filmmakers involved — especially Joss Whedon — only ask that their actors and creative team believe in what they’re doing. The end result is a series of movies that are warm to the touch, fun, engaging, and (here’s the kicker) just as thematically hefty and generally good as the most self-important and ponderous Nolan movie.
TVOCF: You’ve gotta be shittin’ me.
GUY: I am not shitting on you. Look at how Whedon so effectively portrayed the intimacy of male friendship with Banner and Stark in The Avengers. Look at how committed Tom Hiddleston is in Thor and The Avengers. Look at how Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespearean cred equipped him to navigate the insane court/wilderness tonal shifts required of any onscreen presentation of Thor. Look at how Whedon mined the disturbing imagery of domestic abuse to power all of the scenes between Banner and Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow) in The Avengers.
TVOCF: You make some good points. And I do like me some Marvel movies.
GUY: All I’m saying is that a comic-book movie doesn’t have to be a grim, humorless slog to be good. And as long as I brought up LOTR, think back to those movies and how wildly they varied in tone. To be sure, that’s a function of the source material, but in addition to being dark, challenging and intense, the LOTR movies are also incredibly enjoyable to watch. That was my reaction to Man of Steel: Intellectually, I appreciated that it was a legitimate take on the Superman legend, and as much as I liked some of it, I didn’t really enjoy it.
TVOCF: What, are you saying that “enjoyment” is the metric by which all “good” movies will now be judged? Don’t you like movies that challenge your expectations and perceptions?
GUY: Of course I do. But I respectfully submit that a rebooted Superman and onscreen DC universe doesn’t have to be such a grim, humorless slog.
TVOCF: But they already tried to make a rowdy movie that was 100% fun and true to the tone and look of the comics with Green Lantern, and that sucked.
GUY: Green Lantern sucked because it was miscast, overwritten, and focus-grouped to death.
TVOCF: You got me there.
Odds and Ends about Man of Steel
• It’s funny — for all their efforts to escape the shadow of the Donner/Reeve movies, Snyder and company couldn’t quite shake the influence of another Superman franchise: Smallville. The long-running CW series not only lent a lot of its look and feel to the scenes about Clark’s early years, but I also felt its aura surrounding Man of Steel’s presentation of a Clark without his glasses and a Lois Lane who figures out his secret a lot faster.
• To that end, I liked how Man of Steel inverted the usual superhero origin story. Usually an origin story ends with the hero donning the suit for the first time. Here, we dispense with that in the first 20 minutes. Instead, Man of Steel was largely an origin story for Clark Kent, and it ends with him putting on his glasses for the first time.
• I really liked the soldiers. Christopher Meloni was great, and for once, I didn’t feel like the stupendous talents of Harry Lennix were wasted. Also, as much as I bagged on the battle scenes, I found parts of them quite stirring and reminiscent of The Iliad, which was in many ways one of our first superhero stories. When Meloni’s Army colonel pulled a knife on Antje Traue’s strapping and terrifying Faora, I thought back to a scene in Homer’s poem when a hapless soldier faces off against Achilles. He knows he’s going to die, but by all the gods in heaven, he’s going to die on his feet.
• I liked the depiction of heat vision. You got the sense it was a difficult power to harness and channel. I liked how the Kryptonians rattled their heads after using it, like they were shaking off a migraine.
• I loved how all four of Clark’s parents were super. Jor-El, of course, foresees his planet’s doom, but it’s Lara who eventually faces off against Zod and carries out her husband’s plan. Pa Kent sacrifices himself for his son, and Diane Lane got to deliver one of my favorite lines in the movie when she tells Zod and his retinue to “go to hell.”
• Three cheers for Amy Adams. She made a fine Lois, and I further appreciated how the filmmakers accurately portrayed the life of a modern investigative journalist. They’re pretty much ronin armed with pens who strike out into fearsome territory to tell great stories.
• Laurence Fishburne was great. A welcome reimagining of Perry White.
• Did anyone else find it weird that the filmmakers so clearly borrowed imagery from The Matrix for the Kryptonian genesis chamber? I mean, those arachnid drones harvesting humans in pink pods were straight out of the Wachowskis’ sci-fi classic.
• Pursuant to the idea of Man of Steel as a sci-fi opus, one of my favorite scenes was when the downloaded-Matrix-mind-projection of Jor-El helped Lois bust out of Zod’s terror-ship, even though it underlined the small role and fleeting agency that women had in this movie. Click over to Matt Zoller Seitz’s review for more on this idea. To wit:
But this modernization feels retro because comes at the expense of an important and under-acknowledged part of Superman’s appeal: virtually alone among big-name superheroes, he’s a romantically and sexually mature man who seems to truly like and be comfortable around women.