There are three great cinematic mysteries that keep me up at night. Three unanswered questions that keep running on a loop in my head like that 90’s pop song you can’t stop hearing (I’m talking to you Barbie Girl by Aqua). These are, in no particular order, (1) In Jaws 4 The Revenge why does the family, believing a great white shark is out to get them, move to the Bahamas (a warm water island) instead of say the land-locked state of Indiana? (2) In Casablanca why is Captain Renault portrayed as a womanizer when clearly he is gayer than any three Cher impersonators combined? And (3) Why, in this modern era of superhero summer tent pole films have they not been able to make a decent Superman movie?
With Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel, my list is now down to two. Not because he made a good Superman movie but rather because in failing to, he provided all the reasons why it is simply not possible to.
Man of Steel is what is now referred to as a “clean reboot”. This movie, like most of today’s movie going audience, moves forward pretending like Bryan singer’s 2006 Superman returns never existed. In MOS, we have the ubiquitous origins story – Krypton is about to explode, a baby is born, he’s put on a rocket ship destined for Earth, you know the rest. The difference is in MOS, Jor-el (Russel Crowe) steals something called a “codec” which will allow any Krypton survivors to repopulate a new planet. Turns out Kal-El (superbaby) is a bit of a miracle birth, the first natural birth on Krypton in generations. General Zod (Brilliantly played by Boardwalk Empire’s Michael Shannon) is sent to a space prison of sorts but not before he vows to find the son of Jor-El and destroy him. So to recap. A benevolent father sent his only son, the product of a miracle birth, to be earth’s salvation while a force of ultimate evil tries to stop him. Maybe this isn’t a clean reboot after all?
We then see a grown up Clark Kent living a nomadic life, drifting from job to job, using his superpowers when he has to. The most interesting part of the movie comes in the stretch where through flashbacks we see Clark Kent as a boy struggling with his new found powers. He wants to use them to help people but his adoptive father Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) does all he can to dissuade him. Jonathan argues that the world is not ready for someone so special like Clark and he fears that he will either be exploited by the government or treated like a circus freak by the media. Watching young Clark struggle with wanting to help in crisis situations while not going against Jonathan’s wishes is the part of the movie that gave me hope I was finally going to get a great Superman movie.
I was mistaken.
What happens after this point is heavy on plot and short on story. Zod and his hench-people arrive on earth and demand that they turn over the son of Jor-el. Clark turns himself over to the authorities and allows himself to be turned over to Zod. Perhaps the strangest and cheapest device in this movie is the ghost of Jor-el who appears as a “consiciousness” and can communicate to people and manipulate objects magically in the living world. This is where Man of Steel really started to lose me. It relies too heavily on Jor-El giving his son the answers. When Superman is in his deepest jeopardy, it is the ghost of Jor-el who gets him out of it. In fact the solution to the climax is provided not by the protagonist, but rather by phantom Jor-el and Lois Lane (Amy Adams). This struck me as way too much Deus ex Machina for me to stomach.
The latter portion of the movie is Superman and Zod engaged in an orgy of CGI fight and flight. They throw each other through buildings, into tanker trucks, destroying most of Smallville’s key infrastructure all the while getting nary a scratch on one and another. A minute or two of this can be visually stimulating. 10-15 minutes of it leaves you wanting to shout at the screen “WHAT IS THE POINT?!?! YOU’RE NOT EVEN HURTING EACH OTHER”.
And this is the ultimate reason it is impossible to do a decent Superman movie these days. When he has a human villain, he can physically overpower him so it becomes difficult to maintain any sense of jeopardy. When the villain is one or more of his Kryptonian equals, there is too much emphasis put of elaborate CGI fight scenes that don’t lend themselves to any real sense of jeopardy or suspense. In the greatest Superman movie ever made, 1981’s Superman II, when Superman realizes he cannot physically overpower Zod and the others, he outsmarts them by luring them into a brilliantly devised trap that neither his enemies nor the audience can see coming. There is a moment when we are genuinely fearful that Superman has surrendered himself to them. This is the kind of suspense that -can only be created by a well-crafted story. All the CGI in the world can’t replicate what that does for the audience’s enjoyment of the movie.
Man of Steel fails because devoid of all of the CGI pyrotechnics, there isn’t really any story to speak of. Superhero movies are great when they deal with the alter ego dealing with the weight and responsibility of the masked hero. Think of Spiderman and “With great power comes great responsibility”. Or go back again to Superman II. In that movie, Clark Kent was wrestling with whether he wanted to be Superman anymore. He toyed with putting his own needs before the needs of the world. When these movies work, the ultimate victory is not the victory over the villain but rather the victory over his own inner doubts and fears. That is story and it is the element that is sorely missing from Man of Steel.
Would I recommend seeing this movie? I’ll say this. Seeing this movie in the hopes of enjoying a great superhero story makes about as much sense as fleeing to tropical waters if you’re hoping to avoid a vengeful shark attack.
Need I say more?