By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist June 17, 2013 at 4:34PM
When are writers and directors going to realize that endless fist fights between invincible characters simply aren’t dramatically compelling? “Man Of Steel” is especially guilty of this, given that there are roughly four characters with the abilities of Superman himself. Three of them (Supes, Faora and some CGI giant fellow) land in Smallville to do battle and the end result is simply violence, with a complete lack of progression to the narrative. Granted, this scene gives Antje Traue’s swagger-licious Faora some action beats in a film that, like all superhero pictures, is light on a female presence, but aside from that, it only establishes what we already know: Kryptonians are pretty nasty brawlers. By the end, Zod’s plan has been deep-sixed, and his only reaction is to lash out like a cornered animal, leading to a scrap that results in the further demolition of an already Hiroshima’d Metropolis, with two unstoppable characters figuring it will be THIS or THAT punch that finally stems the tide. Superman’s got heat vision, x-ray vision, flight, and smarts, but clearly he’s never found a situation he can’t fly straight into, fists extended like a Kryptonian battering ram. And Hollywood, yes, the falling skyscrapers are off-putting once we’re forced to consider the death toll, but have you realized this: the more CGI lets us see the destroyed skyline of a major city, the less interesting it gets? Yes, the endless brutality is discomforting, but it’s mostly just boring; maybe we need some fresh ideas for those big action climaxes, no?
The Brutal Collateral Damage
Let’s face it, the destruction of Metropolis is callous and brutal and like we said, we’re not the only ones to complain about it. Perhaps the biggest missed opportunity is to acknowledge the 9/11 style damage in the last act and have Superman react to it instead of being the primary cause of it. Imagine a world where we have a hero like Superman on a day like that. The fact that this scene so obviously recalls the realistic horrors of that day without giving us the catharsis of the hero to respond to it is the biggest missed opportunity. Destruction and mayhem hover over all these scenes like troubling, rotting death, but Superman seems to be too busy busting Zod’s skull to notice. The evoking of 9/11 in these scenes is therefore shallow and hollow, the tragedy being abused for this superhero film, but never seeming at all earned. There’s little to no humanization in it whatsoever except for the scene of Perry White helping his assistant out of rubble. Disturbing and disconcerting to say the least.
Michael Shannon is one of our great actors, able to arouse great nuance out of a steely glare and a short story worth of sentiment in a single line. So it’s unfortunate that he would be saddled with this role, a far cry from the aristocratic snobbiness of Terrence Stamp’s classic creation in the earlier films. Instead, Shannon is given a score of yelling speeches that only increase in number as the film persists: here’s an actor of hidden corners and unexpected gestures, forced to compete with computer effects and repetitive violence just to be heard. It’s safe to say the blockbuster formula doesn’t suit Shannon, and it results in a villain that seems to believe destruction is the best cause of action. Are we to believe that there are absolutely NO other planets the Kryptonians can colonize with their “World Engine”? And that Zod simply can’t appeal to his shared background with Kal-El in coaxing the Codex from the Man of Steel, possibly to take it to another planet or galaxy? You wonder why an Oscar-nominated actor like Michael Shannon is hired for a role best suited for a stubborn bruiser like Kevin Nash or Dave Bautista, casting that would better suit the primitive nature of this film’s central conflict.
Little Sense Of Discovery
For a reboot that inventively rebooted and reconsidered Superman’s origin, Clark Kent’s life on Earth and thrust the franchise firmly into the 21st century with greater stakes, and deep emotional underpinnings, it’s curious that the superhero’s pure sense of discovery and awe is mostly left out of the film. While we do get a cursory scene of Superman learning how to fly, for the most part, his powers are treated as a burden before he comes suited up. And that’s fine. But was there no moment as a kid when he realized the extent of his strength? Or even as a grown man, has he ever surprised himself by the sheer strength he has? Even Goyer and Nolan’s Batman do-over spent more time on Bruce Wayne fumbling around in “Batman Begins” and in subsequent films, having a bit of fun playing with Lucius’ latest toys. Here, Superman flies into outer space, holds up entire oilrigs, bends Mack trucks for fun like it’s all in a day’s work. He never seems at all surprised about how strong he is, but most crucially, never feels truly threatened as a result. Thus, even when he is getting thrown around Smallville, there is never any question that he will come out on top and that gives “Man Of Steel” very little sense of tension.
The take on Superman on “Man of Steel” is fresh and great, and that’s why the movie is more of a disappointment than a disaster. At no point during the film’s running time did we lose total sight of the film it could have been. but it seemed like about 50% of the film’s dialogue was either exposition or the character’s spelling out how they were feeling and really could’ve used another pass by another writer (like Nolan, who rewrote Goyer’s “Batman Begins” screenplay and relegated him to “Story By” on the two other Bat-films to follow). Exposition is a huge problem that makes the movie clunky over all. From groaning lines like “I’m a Pulitzer Prize winning writer!” to "There's only one way this ends, either I die or you will!," as much of the story and set up of “Man of Steel” is great, the almost annotated delivery of dialogue is just a little painful and first draft-y.
The Final Scene
Ok, you’ve spent two and half hours boldly deconstructing the hallowed origin of Superman, Clark Kent, Lois Lane, Pa Kent, etc. and what do you do for a finale? Cave comfortably into the most obvious character myth imaginable. C’mon, Clark’s not a journalist in “Man Of Steel,” he’s been an offshore worker, a manual labor blue-collar type of guy. He clearly didn’t go to university and that’s fine because all of that texture is elemental to the type of Superman story that Goyer, Nolan and Snyder chose to tell. But the end of “Man Of Steel,” with Clark joining the Daily Planet just seems incredibly contrived, winky and played for pure fan service. Forget that part that he has no credentials for journalism, suspend your disbelief -- but are we to believe the government is looking everywhere for this guy and he’s just going to pop up on the staff of one of country's biggest newspapers, out in the open? Something tells us the NSA is gonna figure out who Clark is pretty damn fast. That and the fact that it just seems silly. So Lois Lane can now pretend she doesn’t know him and they can surreptitiously flirt in the office? What is this “Superman II”? We thought you guys were boldly world building here and were going to be something different moving forward. What the end of “Man Of Steel” conveys is to the audience is: “Ok, you know how we’ve fucked with the origin story thus far and changed everything? Well, thanks for being super patient. Back to our regularly scheduled program now.” It’s incredibly disappointing -- especially after a scene with a drone that’s been following Superman and feels very contemporary. And it points to a potential comfortable laziness in the sequels where Superman can just be the Superman we all love and know, rather than this fairly unique and new one we were presented with up front. Simply, this ending just feels incoherent in tone with what came before it.
Much of the movie pivots on how the world will react to Superman's appearance. Pa Kent (Kevin Costner) suggests that people aren't ready for his power and pleads with Clark to keep his specialness a secret; Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) thinks that news of a classified alien visitor will cause a mass panic; Superman's biological father (Russell Crowe) is all for him becoming the hero the world so desperately needs – even giving him his nifty, sparkly suit. But once Superman is revealed to the public, through some very conspicuous displays of his power and innate punching abilities, we never get to see how people react. There are no "citizens of Smallville/Metropolis" reaction shots, no news clips suggesting how the everyday person is dealing with this mind-blowing revelation (plus, didn't Zod's social media throw down kind of spoil things for the Big S's arrival?) It's bafflingly abandoned. For a movie to obsessively work over this thematic concern and then do absolutely nothing with it is the kind of fiendish plot worthy of a super-villain (though to be completely fair, Goyer did say this would be addressed to some degree in future films).
Miscellaneous “Worst” Stuff:
Everyone’s mentioned the dumb CGI zooms and they’re not terrible per se at first, but it's the one “visual gag” of the film (since Snyder seemed to dial back the use of every other one of his tricks like speed ramping, thank god) and it’s a trick that the director employs over and over again, to the point of annoyance. Product placement is pretty damn rampant too from Sears, IHOP, 7-11 and more. We’d argue some of it is simply endemic to the heartland of America where much of these sequences take place (Kansas), but it’s one thing when James Bond has a cool watch and it’s quite another when you stage entire fight sequences in front of several brands rather blatantly.
Your thoughts? Clearly audiences went out in droves to see “Man Of Steel” and the media narrative thus far is that audiences love it and that critics hate it. Hopefully we’ve at least shown the conversation is more complex than that. What did you love about “Man of Steel”? What kind of threw you or felt off? What didn’t you like and what elements of the film did you downright hate? To dig in to the additional idea: where does “Man of Steel” go from here? Discuss and weigh in with your thoughts below. - Kevin Jagernauth, Rodrigo Perez, Drew Taylor, Gabe Toro, Cory Everett,