Man of Steel is a post-9/11, first contact, Jesus allegory first and a Super Hero movie second. In fact, much of the “super” comes from the orgy of destruction that shamelessly evoke 9/11 footage, rather than the ideals that make Superman super.
It is also a structurally uneven film. It has a run time of 143 minutes, and most of that runtime is devoted to its prologue and first act. Its second act seems to be subsumed by both the first and third act, for reasons I will get into. Man of Steel begins with a 20 minute prologue on a dying Krypton, in possibly the movie’s most visually imaginative segment. Interestingly enough, the prologue exists as a 3 act narrative in its own right. Even then, what we learn here is mentioned again in an info-dump later in the movie, rendering it a dazzling, but unnecessary 20 minutes.
Beginning with the sounds of labour, the film depicts Superman’s natural birth, something noted as being an oddity on Krypton, and thus begins the first of a number of parallels between Superman and Jesus. Kal-el is the first natural birth on Krypton in “centuries”, as Krypton as fallen to relying on genetically engineering its citizens to fall into specific roles in society. The people of Krypton have allowed themselves to succumb to cultural and technological stagnation. A once proud race with a thriving space program, resulting in a fledgling extra-planetary colonisation program, instead shifted to isolationism and rule under an ineffectual ruling class.
Jor-el, a preeminent scientist, warns the ruling class of the impending dangers of their rampant tampering with Krypton’s core, another political message for this age, which is promptly ignored by the ruling class, and the rest of the movie. Thus begins the movie’s trend of introducing a talking point and then promptly dropping it in favour of action. And what action there is! Zod leads a coup in an attempt to save the people of Krypton and so begins a dazzling display of futuristic violence. Energy weapons are fired at foot soldiers, explosions literally white out the screen, and ships are blown out of the sky.
Ultimately, Kal is launched towards earth, Jor is murdered by Zod, Zod’s coup is quelled, and Zod and his forces are banished to the phantom zone. Krypton is promptly engulfed in flames and the movie shifts focus to Kal-el, now known by his human name, Clark Kent, and we enter the film’s first act.
Clark, already an adult, is drifting between odd jobs, wandering the Earth for want of a place to stay where he will not be discovered. However, he continually goes out of his way to have his secret identity blown, forcing him to move to the next place. It is in this moment of the film where Clark’s selflessness is best realised. He is a man who can’t help but serve people, even if it puts him at risk.
Why does Clark care about people knowing about his superhuman skill set? We find out through flashbacks, a story telling device used to flesh out Clark’s character and give the audience an understanding of the upbringing that made him the man he is today. It is slightly reminiscent of Batman Begins, however, there are a number more flashbacks in Man of Steel, and a good handful of them serve to hammer home the same point, that Pa Kent doesn’t think humans are ready for Superman, that they cannot be trusted with knowledge that turns their world views on their head, and that Clark should let people die until the world is ready for him. This final point is driven home in two separate flashbacks:
Clark pushes a school bus out of a river, only to have Pa Kent confront him after the mother of one of the children on the school bus grills the Kents on Clark’s seemingly divine existence. “What should I have done, let them die?” cries Clark, to which Pa Kent replies “Maybe…” SPOILERS: The Kents are confronted by a tornado while out for a drive. Pa Kent is left behind and refuses to let Clark expose himself and is killed while a distraught Clark stands beside his adoptive mother, internalising a mistrust for his alien heritage.
The remainder of the flashbacks deal with Clark coming to terms with his developing superpowers and the bullying he is subjected to by his classmates. I found they were handled better than the majority of pre-Superman Clark’s development. They have a sense of genuine warmth about them. The Kents are presented as genuinely caring surrogate parents, and the connection between the young Clarks (all played brilliantly by young actors of differing age) and the Kents sets the groundwork for the kind of man Superman ideally would be. The non-flashback pre-Superman segments felt more like the film was going down through a checklist of things to set up prior to the conflict, and presented few character moments. The few moments of Clark saving people as an adult almost felt like they were included to excuse the Superman-Clark’s seeming lack of regard for endangered humans later in the film (more on that later).
However, the flashbacks are not without their problems. They spill into the second act, making it seem like the first act is spilling into the second. We’re still being exposed to exposition when we should be exposed to the conflict of the narrative, and it slows the film down. This causes the majority of the film’s action to be shifted toward the last 40 minutes (more on that later).
There are moments in the first and second act that betray a genuine degree of care and subtlety in Man of Steel. A flashback shows a young Clark reading the works of Plato, a visual nod to his scientist heritage. The introduction of Zod to the world was an incredibly effective scene with a palpable sense of dread. It was a pivotal point in the film, one where it stopped being a drama about a stranger in a strange land, and started being a tense first contact film with a genuine sense of unease. Electronics shut down across the world and Televisions and monitors display a distorted vissage superimposed with the words “YOU ARE NOT ALONE”.
Zod is back, and he’s traced Kal/Clark to Earth. He wants Clark back because he believes Clark to be in the possession of a magical skull that will help rebuild the Kryptonian race. Upon being denied, Zod chooses to threaten Ma Kent in the hopes she will know where the magic skull is. It is at this moment the film’s quality starts to slip. Clark, as Superman, intervenes, knocking Zod out of the way, through a silo and across numerous corn fields, shouting “You think you can threaten my mother!?” while punching Zod repeatedly in the face. However, rather than taking the fight to the corn fields where collateral damage could be minimised, Superman continues to punch Zod right into a service station, creating an explosion that heralds the destruction of Smallville. That’s right, Superman brings the fight to a population centre rather than taking it away from one. Zod, whose damaged headgear leaves him exposed to the elements, makes a retreat while his fellow Kryptonians begin to beat Superman to a pulp. The military gets involved, resulting in massive property damage and loss of civilian and military lives, while the Kryptonians get away with nary a scratch to show for it.
Clark pays a visit to his Mother’s house after Smallville is destroyed to check if she is okay. She tells him that she is fine and only her property has been damaged. “Things can be replaced,” she reassures him. “People can’t,” he replies, showing a concern for his mother he did not afford to the citizens of Smallville.
I’ve read that the film makers intended to “realistically” depict the aftermath of a fight between superbeings. It played out more like they were attempting to out disaster a disaster movie and the carnage took more from the film than it added. This is a Superman movie where Superman actively endangers lives for the sake of spectacle, rather than go out of his way to act as a protector of mankind. This is a Superman movie where a Kryptonian turns a human into a cloud of blood in the name of gritty realism. It is a Superman movie that completely undermines its own mythology building, claiming Clark to be an ubermensch of uncompromising morals for humanity to strive for with one hand, while presenting him as a selfish, petulant man, who only begrudgingly saves people caught in the crossfire, and even then, only Lois Lane or servicemen, while mindlessly applying his fists to every problem he comes across in the hopes he can pummel them into oblivion.
After some exposition, the film then moves into its final 20-odd minute action sequence in which a good portion of Metropolis is wiped off the face of the earth. Zod begins teraforming Earth to make it more like Krypton, locates an ancient Kryptonian scout ship (a remnant from Krypton’s colonisation program) that will help him repopulate the new Krypton with the bloodlines he deems worthy, and all hell breaks loose. This is the section of the film that truly resembles a disaster movie. Buildings fall to the ground, people are flung through the air before being crushed back into the ground, the military is slaughtered, and we are given a number of street level perspective shots that strongly resemble footage of the collapse of the World Trade Center in a way I have not seen in a film since Cloverfield.
I shall now discuss why I was more comfortable with the 9/11-ising of Cloverfield than Man of Steel. J. J. Abrams sought with Cloverfield to create America’s answer to Godzilla. The original Godzilla was a grim movie that drew from Japan’s experiences with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Godzilla was a walking nuclear menace terrorising Tokyo, and the film spoke to its Japanese audience in a way most monster movies would fail to do so. It was a brutal, Japanese reflection on a brutal, Japanese experience, and it is this subtext that lends the film its power.
Cloverfield, meanwhile captured the terror of an unexpected attack on US soil. Its handheld aesthetic worked simultaneously as a clever reinvention of the monster film and a reminiscence of the chaos captured in similar, home video recordings of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The momentary cuts between the action and a previously recorded fling between two of its primary characters served as a contrast between the horror of an attack by an unknown force and everyday life as documented by the same lens. Cloverfield was more than just monster movie set in America, it was the American monster movie, the American Godzilla. Cloverfield was a film that explored a dark part of contemporary American history through the medium of Giant Monster movies. It made the film a more effective experience than it otherwise would have been. It was an American movie about an American tragedy in much the same way Godzilla was a Japanese movie about a Japanese tragedy, and it is a much more intelligent movie than most give it credit for. This would not have been possible without the entire film being a found footage film aiming for its particular aesthetic.
Man of Steel, on the other hand, begins as a science fantasy film, morphs into a drama, and finally rests on disaster film that casts off any prior developments. It is a film that preaches about the moral worth of a single character, then casts his character aside in favour of devastation.
That is not to say I do not like grim, gritty, or dark films. I did love The Dark Knight, though that was a film singularly devoted to being as harrowing a film as possible within its established universe and the PG-13 rating. The Dark Knight was a film that was committed to its exploration of the consequences of the actions of Batman on the city, the crime lords that operate within the city, and the law. Man of Steel is a film that does not commit to one particular set of ideas, and suffers for it. If it had been, from the beginning, a radical reinvention of the Superman mythos such that it was more about the devastation caused by his actions, I could have bought into it. If it had continued being about a man who was raised, by both his fathers, to be the best he could be in order to inspire people to strive for their best, then I would have bought into it. If it had been an epic about the fall of a once proud civilisation on an alien planet, I would have bought into it.
I mentioned before that there are a number of allusions to Clark being a Jesus like figure in the film. It is the film’s attempt to paint Clark as someone beyond human, and morally superior to us in every way. Here are some examples:
Clark is portrayed as a wanderer performing miracles for strangers. A mother of a child he saved makes explicit reference to him and his actions as Providence. In a moment of doubt, he is framed in a shot in a church with a painting of Jesus praying at Gethsemane. His age is revealed to be 33. At one point he leaves a space ship and returns to Earth. He leaves the ship by adopting a posture like that of a crucified person.
This characterisation would have been more potent had the film’s action sequences not contradicted it.
So, what’s so bad about an action scene set in a city involving an invading alien force? The Avengers did much the same, did it not? It had a massively destructive final conflict, no? I have seen this argument around the place. Let us explore it. The Avengers and Man of Steel are two different beasts. The Avengers has a couple of things that Man of Steel does not:
1) The Avengers has levity 2) The Avengers has a focus on characters and their interactions.
The Avengers balanced its darker moments with wonder and humour. Man of Steel was left wanting in both respects. It isn’t like The Avengers wasn’t dark at all. The movie definitely had its darker moments. The difference is that The Avengers used its darkness in service of characters. This is probably where The Avengers would benefit from the fact it’s about The Avengers, plural. It had characters with which to bounce conflict back and forth between. The movie was about broken people learning to set aside their egos and band together against a greater threat. This was a theme that carried through to the end of the movie, including a post credits scene where the gang are enjoying a meal at a restaurant together. I have said before that I appreciate movies more if they have a consistent tone. What I mean by this is that if you look at a film as a whole, there are no moments that clash drastically with others in terms of its tone. I am not saying that a lighthearted movie need remain lighthearted for the entirety of its running time, just that its more serious moments be woven seamlessly into the film as a whole. This is an area where The Avengers excels over Man of Steel.
In counterpoint to the argument that The Avengers does much the same as Man of Steel, the movie goes out of its way to show the Avengers going out of their way to aid civilians. Hell, Iron Man basically saves the entire city by diverting a nuke away from it. The camera does not linger lovingly over the destruction, it focuses on its characters and their actions. The resultant tone is one of suspense and excitement.
Man of Steel starts with a city and ends with a literal crater. Superman himself is responsible for the damage/destruction of at least 3 buildings, and the fight remains in the city, save for one attempt at Superman taking the fight to space (props there, I guess?). Civilians are not shown being aided by Superman. He does not catch anyone falling from great heights, save Lois Lane (whose role in the movie is little more than plot device), and the one lull in the action has Superman and Lois landing and kissing in the centre of a crater, surrounded by rubble, with ash raining from the sky. For a movie that wanted to depict the cost of superbeings fighting each other, it did a lot to avoid having its characters react to the cost. It feels disingenuous to bill the main character of your film as someone who would give his all to protect humanity, only to have him not react to the disgusting loss of life around him, except for when it threatens his personal interests (Ma Kent and Lois Lane).
I would say the most interesting thing about the movie is Zod’s characterisation. He is a being literally engineered to be as ruthless as possible for the greater good of his people. “Every action I take, no matter how violent or cruel, is for the good of my people,” a broken Zod says to an uncaring Superman. In a way he is the most sympathetic character in the film. He cannot help but act a particular way because he was not built to behave differently, and dammit, he is desperately trying to save his nearly extinct race. He makes for an interesting villain in an otherwise uninteresting movie.
So yeah, on the whole, Man of Steel, not all that good a movie.