A Strange Review: Man of Steel

Man-of-SteelThere’s a moment in this film when Kansas farmer Jonathan Kent, caught in the path of a tornado, shoots a look at his adopted son, Clark, who could easily save him from certain doom. Just as Clark is about to do what only a super man can do, and thus expose his otherworldly origins to a terrified crowd unaware that a creature from another planet is standing in their midst, the elder Kent raises his hand—not so much to say “Stop,” but rather, “Not now. Later.”

That was lump-in-the-throat time. For Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) has spent Clark’s entire life teaching him to wait, not to exploit his strange and confounding powers, not to fight back when taunted, to turn the other cheek, because the damage he is capable of inflicting is incalculable and would betray too much too soon to a people unprepared to be in the presence of real power. (“You fear me because you cannot control me,” Superman tells an Army general. “And you never will.”) Jonathan is convinced that Clark was brought to Earth for a larger purpose: not to strike back at bullies, or even to play supercop. What that purpose is would reveal itself in time. But Clark is growing impatient.

I was strangely moved by Man of Steel, this science-fiction re-imagining of the Superman origin story. Of course, our tale begins on Krypton, which is as doomed as old media. “Artificial reproduction control” and the exhaustion of natural resources has left Krypton vulnerable to the forces of decay, and Jor-El (Russell Crowe), a scientist, and his wife (Ayelet Zurer), having defied convention by reproducing naturally, decide that the only hope for Krypton is their newborn son. Just as General Zod (Michael Shannon) launches a military coup, determined to bring all “parliamentary” debate about public policy to an end and make the hard (read lethal) decisions necessary to save Krypton, Jor-El launches Kal-El into space. To earth the Kryptonian baby goes, bearing the hope of both his parents and his people, as well as a mysterious “codex” that Zod believes is the key to Krypton’s survival.

Zod’s rebellion is put down, and he and his cohorts are launched into a phantom zone to serve out a sentence for treason. But Krypton is not long for the universe, and soon vaporizes like the conscience of the New York Times.

Cut to a strapping young man by the name of Clark Kent trying to find his way in the world. Floating from job to job, trying to fit in, trying not to be found out as some kind of extraterrestrial freak, he eventually coincides with Lois Lane (Amy Adams), who, as a reporter for The Daily Planet, is investigating some strange ship-like machine lodged in ice at the top of the world. The crystal palace, of course, is Kal-El/Clark’s homing device, where Jor-El’s “consciousness” appears and reveals Clark’s true identity and the story of his people. Clark finally learns his purpose: “You will give the people an ideal to strive towards,” Jor-El tells him. “They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.” In short, Superman is to ensure that earthlings never become enthralled to utilitarian calculations, He will model for them their inner potential. Superman, in short, is our only hope against all manner of determinisms: genetic, political, technological.

But Zod is to be heard from again. Once Krypton had gone kablooey, he and his morbid band of radicals were freed from their bondage. In hot pursuit of Jor-El’s “codex,” which Zod is convinced holds the key to the “resurrection of Kyrpton and its people,” the general lands on Earth and informs its inhabitants that they are harboring a stranger from another planet who must surrender within 24 hours or else the third planet from the sun will look like Carrot Top’s movie career.

What to do, what to do. There isn’t much moral ambiguity in Man of Steel, but there sure are a lot of dilemmas. It unashamedly waves the banner of truth, justice, and the American way, but no matter what choice Kal-El/Clark/Superman makes, a lot of people stand to die. Trying to decide whether to hand himself over to Zod, whom he knows not to trust, or stay and fight for Earth, whose people he’s having a hard time learning to trust, he seeks the advice of a minister. Sitting in a church pew with a stained glass image of Christ in Gethsemane over his shoulder, Clark agonizes over his fate. And what does the minister say? “What does your gut tell you?” Right. A very American minister, he. No other otherworldly advice does he offer. I mean, Clark may be from Krypton, but he was raised by Kansans, and his earth Mom (Diane Lane) has that cross around her neck. SOME talk of another kind of savior must have reached earshot in his 30-plus years…

Nevertheless, one could say that Clark does the Christ-like thing and allows himself to be handed over to the authorities, a prisoner who can summon, if not angels, sufficient muscle to escape his bonds at will. But allowing himself to be manhandled is a necessary part of his plan to save humanity from a fate worse than death—namely Zod.

Man of Steel strives to be more than just a fun summer shoot-em-down; it’s the story of two destinies: one of a warrior bred for one thing, to save his people, whatever the cost; the other of a king among mortals, born for one thing—to save everyone, or at least everyone who trusts that he is for them and not against them, and this at the cost of only himself.

While I found myself captivated by this flick, it’s far from perfect, and its reach may be just beyond its grasp. The science talk is laughably daft, with blather about “black holes” and “singularities” that will leave real scientists giggling uncontrollably. Director Zach Snyder’s spaceship chases and mass destruction can be overwhelming at times (however well-realized), but the supporting cast, mainly the wonderment that is Amy Adams, play their roles with their souls written on their faces such that even brief interactions between them and Superman immediately reignites the more down-to-earth concerns, restoring a sense of human urgency that keeps this film moving at a very fast clip.

And the final showdown between Superman and Zod is, to say the very least, underwhelming. (I was admittedly left going, “Really? That–wha? Hah? After ALL THAT? He just–wha?”)

Lawrence Fishburne, a favorite of mine, is underutilized as Perry White, perhaps necessarily so. I hope we see more of him in the next iteration. Kevin Costner plays the human dad with just the right dollops of Midwestern stoicism and Christian empathy.

But British actor Henry Cavill steals the Man of Steel. A more human, and American, Kryptonian we could not have asked for.

When all is said and done, I’d tamper down the enthusiasm for the Christian signposts that decorate the script. Yes, there is a lot of Western Unioning about self-sacrifice, etc. And there is the ever-present theme of adoption, bringing “the other” into the family, echoing our adoption into the family of God. And, as it turns out, Superman bears within his breast a new race, a new “Adam,” as it were. One could also throw in a Markan messianic secret (but what superhero doesn’t have a secret?). But keep in mind that there is never any mention of God, or what possible purpose God might have in all this. (OK, OK, it’s a comic book about space aliens and laser beams and planet building. But the writers started it…)

There is a grin-worthy moment, however, one that will warm the cockles of every Bible Belting evangelical. One of Zod’s warriors tells Superman that the Man of Steel has developed “morality,” which is a weakness, whereas Zod and his people have evolved beyond good and evil. “And evolution always wins.” Except, of course, when it doesn’t. Cue rousing theme music.

Why my enthusiasm for Man of Steel? Because it transcends the typical summer superhero movie, in that it isn’t just about Superman. When Zod and his army, attempting to draw out the Man of Steel and find that damn codex, are breaking up “a great metropolis” (read New York City), it plays unsettlingly like 9/11 and the response of rescue workers and ordinary citizens. Perry White and a Daily Planet reporter risk their lives to save a colleague trapped beneath rubble—because every life counts, and what gives our life meaning, at least in this film’s philosophizing, is the extent to which we aid our neighbor in time of need. Yes, individuals matter, but we are not aloneMan of Steel is a potent reminder that the call to heroism can come at any time to anyone.

And just as important: Man of Steel brings home the message that Superman isn’t great because he has X-ray vision and flies like an eagle and can withstand bullets. He’s great because of the old-fashioned values he learned from his adoptive parents on a farm in Kansas. He’s our hero not because he’s strong but because he’s good. And that goodness is manifested in a certain humility, a restraint, a sense of limits even when it would be so easy to pull out all the stops. It’s knowing how to use power. This message, admittedly, sits uneasily with the one Jor-El delivers, a sort of extraterrestrial “Your Best Life Now” spiel. It’s a flaw in the script, and bespeaks the overreaching I mentioned before. But maybe, just maybe, it’s a tension between that earthy, anti-utopian Kansas wisdom and what a creature from another planet knows is still possible. The question is, will Clark Kent/Superman remember the true story of Krypton: a cautionary tale about refusing to acknowledge limits by ruthlessly rejiggering nature—whether by controlling reproduction through technology to concoct a more “useful” race; or by exploiting resources rather than cultivating, tilling, and stewarding them. The Kent family, five generations of farmers, didn’t exploit nature, like the Kryptonians did. They learned to nourish and be nourished by it. When you outrage nature because you think you’re above it, you outrage nature’s God, who will quickly show you who the true author of life is.

Now tell me, when was the last time you went to a blockbuster popcorn-muncher and were left even thinking about these things? (That the screenplay was cowritten by Christopher “Dark Knight” Nolan may be one reason it has so much dense matter on its mind.)

So wave the flag, cheer for the good guys, and remember: that reporter for The Daily Planet is NOT Superman. How do I know?

He’s wearing glasses. Do you think Superman needs glasses?

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11 thoughts on “A Strange Review: Man of Steel

    • It was ill-timed, I will grant you. Hint at the attraction, sure — but wait, for goodness sake…

  1. I guess this is almost a SPOILER but not really.

    DON’T READ THIS aiejafidshflakehfuihdlsf adsf ejfdfadsf jlka sjdfl kadjf j43 klrjasdjfl adsfkl asdf
    fjasdfjadsfjoei I was likewise a little miffed by the end of the Superman/Zod battle. My first reaction was, “why is he so upset about it after perhaps hundreds of thousands of other innocent people have been brutally killed either directly or indirectly, and perhaps not a few of them owing to Superman’s own actions (for example, why battle in the middle of a town street…)” Honestly I thought it was just silly. asldkjfeioje39898adf laskdjfklasdfjlkdsjflkf ajlkd fjads flajdsflkja f
    a dslfkjadl skfjeoiajds flkadjf alksfdj alksdfj alkdsf

    Next, I thought the high points of the film were the depictions of Clark Kent, not of Superman (particularly the childhood scenes).

    And for the millionth time, can we quit sending a small handful of infantry out to do battle with invincible super-villains???????? I appreciate the involvement of the military, but where are the big guns? Can’t Superman lure the bad guys into a field so we can actually nuke them or something?
    The battle scenes were simply unoriginal. (and endlessly long, repetitive, and bland).

    I also thought the 9/11 rehash was poorly done. There was a lack of humanity to it. What, like 3 people were affected by it?

    “There is a grin-worthy moment, however, one that will warm the cockles of every Bible Belting evangelical. One of Zod’s warriors tells Superman that the Man of Steel has developed “morality,” which is a weakness, whereas Zod and his people have evolved beyond good and evil. “And evolution always wins.” Except, of course, when it doesn’t. Cue rousing theme music.”
    I kind of cringed at that scene. It didn’t even make sense. Was she implying that all Kryptonians were amoral, or that Zod’s race only had become amoral? It was so ham-fisted. It didn’t even fit in that fight scene, because at the time all they were doing was beating each other up, and destroying buildings and maybe hurting a lot of townspeople. Morality has nothing to do with who can punch harder.

    But it wasn’t a terrible movie :D
    Fortunately, my home theater finally decided to offer an IMAX showing WITHOUT 3D. I hope they continue offering IMAX 2D (when 3D is available), because 3D is a complete waste of resources and money. I hope in the coming years we will learn to reject 3D as a gimmick.

    • When you get past the idea that this is a film about a guy from another planet who flies around in his pajamas and who no one recognizes the minute he dons glasses, “silly” becomes a relative thing. As for the evolution bit, I think it related to both Zod’s original eugenics plan but also the final showdown between Zod and Superman. That scene only makes sense if Superman was holding back all this time, not wanting to do what he finally did. It’s still anticlimactic, but I’d like to think there was something more going on than the fact that the writers had run out of ideas.

  2. You know what I liked? When US Colonel Whatsisface crawls out of the crashed chopper to face Alien Subcommander Whatsername, and empties his whole magazine at her, stares at her in disbelief, pulls out his sidearm, empties THAT at her, stares in disbelief, and THEN? What does he do? Give up and die? HECK NO. Like a real American warrior, he pulls out his KNIFE, raises it into a combat stance, knowing full well this is totally futile against this superhuman chick, and lunges at her ANYWAY. Superman then saves him, but it was cool anyway.

    • I liked Meloni’s character, but in that scene I couldn’t help but think of Sean Connery’s line in The Untouchables…

  3. Based on the low Rotten Tomatoes reviews, I was going to give this a pass, but your review and the film’s relatively high cinemascore (A-) changed my mind. I liked the first 1.5 hours, kind of hated the last hour. I assume it was an hour, felt like forever. Whenever it was that Zod showed up on earth and the showdown began. There must have been an hour’s worth of explosions – in the farm fields, the small towns, Manhattan, etc. The good will I’d had for the movie up to that point evaporated and I just wanted it to be over.

    I thought the General Zod character was a good idea, none too successfully executed. That is, if I understood what they were going for, they were creating a villain who could conceivably be considered as being motivated by good – he wants to save Krypton, that’s not bad, in itself. (I’m not familiar enough with the comics to know how true to them this characterization is.)

    What really bugged me, though, was that they managed to make Michael Shannon (Gen. Zod) boring. This should be an impossible feat and they shouldn’t be proud they achieved it. He shows up on earth to kidnap/kill Superman, but stops for a good three minutes to provide exposition about the destruction of Krypton – and we watched that backstory in Act I and Clark heard about it in the fortress of solitude – so, why do we need this? But, more importantly, what villain worth his salt comes to do bodily harm – but first, a history lesson! (Okay, a lot of H’wood movies, come to think of it, but it still kills the drama.)

    I wish they’d chopped off about 15 minutes worth of the final fight and expanded Act II where the Man of Steel is introduced to the public, the Army arrests him, etc. To my mind, this was under-written – just a scene or two – and the movie would have benefited from more time exploring the impact of the public and the powers that be learning of Superman’s existence and showing his character as he responded.

    Plus, the invulnerability of Superman (and Zod) has its liabilities. When the two were duking it out (SPOILER, I GUESS) 50 floors high – crashing into skyscrapers and then ricocheting off and smashing onto other buildings, you knew neither of them would be stopped, so, to quote Hillary, WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE? None. Please, just get to the point.

    I did like the first 1.5 hours – liked the setup on Krypton, like the way Superman’s early life on earth was presented. I agree, we admire Superman and are on his side because he’s good, not powerful, and I loved that the script made that so clear.

    I’ll take your word for it on Amy Adams, who I think is a good actress, but I have my reservations about Henry Cavill. He’s super-humanly (sorry) good looking but from time to time he’d get this sort of nerdy/ironic expression on his face, like he was trying to figure out some quantum physics problem and, gee, don’t these non-superhuman folks ask the silliest questions or doesn’t Gen. Zod present a an abstractly interesting question about space/time…to me, it drained the impact of some of the scenes. Some director should tell him not to furrow his brow…he looks dorky and un-superhuman.

    Given what you’ve written about your father here and other places, I’m not surprised that you were “strangely moved” by this move, in particular, some of the father/son moments.

  4. Pingback: Thumbs up for “Man of Steel”

  5. maidrya: I agree with your critique of Cavill’s expressions. It wasn’t exactly *bad*, but it was a little off/out of place for Superman. He reminded me of Spock too much.

    ZZ: Yep, I was similarly impressed. The thing I wished would happen was for some soldier to do SOMETHING to the villains. I’d rather see a soldier die actually inflicting wounds than to watch incredulously as the villains just sit and wait for their own demise. (The ending would qualify as the villain simply wanting to die)

  6. This article is horribly written. It jars the reader constantly with pop culture referrences like Carrot Top and then nonsensical similes about the “old media”. Rather thacoming off as a mature discussion about the movie, its plot and various other devices, it reads as pretentious claptrap.

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