Man of Steel (C+)

I thought Man of Steel was OK, but not great. The bad outweighed the good. As I told my dad when he asked what I thought, "It was OK. A bit too long, the end fight was really boring, and Lois Lane was *way* underdeveloped. But entertaining."  My other summary is "Great acting, decent story, lousy script."

My recommendation? See it when it comes to Redbox.  Details and spoilers follow.

Good: Cast and acting

The cast did a really good job with what they were handed. Henry Cavill is Superman. And I grew up believing that Christopher Reeve was Superman, which is a pretty iconic image to top. But Reeve has nothing on Cavill, who brings all the right notes to all the right places. Michael Shannon, an actor I had never seen before, absolutely blew me away with the intensity and believability of his General Zod. Russell Crowe is really a very fine actor (let's just pretend Les Mis didn't happen?), and brings a terrific combination of gravitas and energy to the souped-up role of Jor-El. Kevin Costner is at his best next to a corn field.

Actually, there were a ton of my favorite TV actors in smaller roles, which rounded out the whole movie. Tahmoh Penniket (Helo from Battlestar Galactica, Paul Ballard from Dollhouse) had a small role, Alessandro Juliani (Felix Gaeta from BSG); Harry Lennix (Boyd Langton, Dollhouse) had quite a big role, Chris Meloni (Law and Order SVU) did a really good job; and Toby Ziegler, er, Richard Schiff played a nerdy scientist to perfection. Also, he's not a TV guy, but Laurence Fishburne/Morpheus showing up as Perry White? Super cool. Also tragicallly underutilized.

Bad: the action

I'd like to take just a moment to complain about Lois Lane's character. When we first see her onscreen, she's supposed to be a  gutsy, take-no-prisoners sort of Christiane Amanpour type. The problem is that she was downgraded quickly into a capable-but-distressed damsel whose primary purpose is to be flown around in Superman's beefy arms. Her dialogue is largely forgettable, except for the part where she (or somebody near her) mentioned her Pulitzer prize five times. Or ten. I lost count, actually, because they were beating me so hard over the head with it. Also, for somebody who "gets writers block without a flak jacket" (see, I remembered it because it was at the beginning!), she was surprisingly airheaded about tiny things like sub-zero temperatures and scarves, or telling someone where she was headed.

But the quality of the action scenes was my real beef. To be fair, there were a lot of punches thrown very realistically, and things went boom in quite an exhilarating fashion. But the action didn't serve the story or the characters. It wasn't there to propel anything forward; it was there on cue to keep the audience from walking away because they paid to see a superhero movie, darn it, and things go boom in superhero movies. Nothing was really at stake in the action scenes.

Here's another way to put it: Superman didn't have to do anything hard. Keep in mind, that for a guy with this much brawn at his disposal, feats of strength are not hard. With Superman, the emotional conflict is always more difficult. In the original Christopher Reeve movie, which I grew up watching, Superman has to deal with Lois Lane's death. Yes, the way he fixes it by flying backward around the earth to reverse time is completely implausible and totally deus-ex-machina, and no, of course that is not how time really works, but the point still stands: emotional things are the hard ones for Superman.

But in the main plot of Man of Steel, Superman didn't have to make any difficult emotional decisions. Granted, we see a flashback where he lets his earth-dad die rather than be revealed. That's rough. But how does that affect the fight against Zod? All of the moments that are meant to be the big-stakes events center on Super-strength up against Super-strong-adversary: fighting the alien right-hand witch; turning into the humanoid cannonball that destroys an alien spaceship; being an alien pinball in downtown Metropolis. In the grand scheme of things, the scene of his dad's death becomes a throw-away moment.

In a franchise like this, we all know you can't kill the main guy in the first movie. Come on, everybody knows it's gonna be a franchise. So any fight where Superman "might die" doesn't have any weight for us. Also, the world doesn't get destroyed in the first installment of a franchise. Not usually, anyway. However, there are no rules about killing major characters, even ones like Lois Lane. She could die and not come back. If you put her in danger, it's real danger. If you put Mrs. Kent in danger, it's very real danger. But it needs to be at the personal level, and Zach Snyder took it global.

Missed potential

There were some interesting possibilities left totally untapped. In one of the flashbacks, Clark Kent is reading Plato's Republic, which describes an ideal society as almost precisely the one developed on Krypton. Every person has a place in society, and they take their place for the good of the whole. This is the force that drives Zod - his speech right before the final battle explicitly says as much.

In contrast, Jor-El and Lara decide to have a child who will be outside such a system. While everybody on Krypton is genetically destined for their place in society (shades of Brave New World?), Kal-El will be able to choose his destiny. It's fitting that he is sent to Earth and raised in the USA, where it's a national truism that anybody can grow up to be president. It also makes sense, then, that his strength comes from the soil and air in which he was raised as well as his genetic makeup. His destiny was not predetermined, and could be influenced by the world in which he was raised.

But Superman's freedom to choose his own path was never made a real plot point. I wish it had been.

Additional note:

On a point of personal privilege, as the parlimentarians say, since this involves a Doctor Who reference. There was a really obvious theme that was under-developed, the one I'm calling the "Last of the Time Lords" problem. Clark Kent spent his childhood wondering why he was so out of place, and his young adulthood longing to know about his origins. When he found the scout ship (a mobile Fortress of Solitude was a nice touch!), he was excited to have found his father. When Zod shows up, he is meeting the last possible remnant of his own kind. Killing Zod means killing the last of his people. If he takes his stand with Earth, he will be the last living member of the Kryptonian race, which is an incredibly heavy burden to bear. Snyder didn't communicate the weight of that decision, or the significance of it.


There were a lot of apparently half-baked ideas, as if the filmmakers didn't know what their through-lines were going to be. I'll probably pay to see the sequel in theaters, but not on opening weekend. I'll wait to see what the reviews say next time.

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