Hollywood churns out a thousand films a year. However, very few films have the influence and clout to divide audiences intro strict love and hate camps. These films transcend staring at a screen for 2 hours in an air-conditioned, darkened room, and become something more. They resonate with individuals on a more personal level and make us realize why we love films in the first place. Most films that spark such intense crowd scrutiny and participation are often based on beloved properties with a substantial following – a cult of sorts – which over the years has itself become an authority on the subject. Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Batman, Star Wars, and Star Trek are such pop culture staples.
Then there’s Superman.
Everyone and their mother – and probably grandmother- have heard of the S-Man. They’ve seen the ‘S’ logo, they know he flies, they know he’s Super. And he’s that rare comicbook superhero alongside Spiderman and Batman who was a household name even before the 2000s boom of comicbook movies (after which Marvel and DC heroes became mainstream and cool again). 95% of film goers did not care or even know about the likes of Wolverine, the X-Men, Hellboy, Constantine, Deadpool, Daredevil, Thor, Iron Man, Spawn, and dozens others two decades ago. But Superman, everyone’s always known about. So a Superman movie is bound to get people talking. He transcends the comicbook or action film niche, and is truly the Biggest Superhero of them All (sorry, Rajnikant). That being said…
I know, I know.
Many people felt let down – even repulsed – by the reboot. The new beginning. The start of the DC cinematic universe. The Man of Steel. “What a bummer, a disappointment”, they said. Some movie buffs, some casual cinema-goers. A lot of long-time fans. On the flip side, many people loved it too. Some action junkies. Some casual cinema-goers. Some long-time fans. But in this case, the Haters outnumbered the Supporters, and the overall feeler about the movie – the aftertaste which settles in once a film / book / show / event is a month old – is of disappointment, and bleakness for the future of the franchise.
The most common negatives associated with the film are that it had too much destruction and death; that it was too dark; not faithful to the real Superman, or his spirit; some said the ending was too un-Supermanish, and almost everyone said it lacked joy.
I want to make a case of why all that may be true for a lot of people, but…there’s light at the end of the tunnel. I’m here to state why I loved Man of Steel and why everyone needs to give this another viewing and another chance. It did have its problems – lack of humor, generally heavy and intense from start to end, massive devastation – and I’m not saying it’s one of those rare perfect comicbook movies alongside The Dark Knight, X-Men 2, Spiderman 2, and The Avengers. But, I will say that it’s a damn great Superman movie with more pros than cons.
The first time I experienced it, I knew I had loved it. I hadn’t been able to absorb it all in, but the epicness of it all had left a wide smirk on my face. It delivered what you look for in a Superman origin tale; A mild mannered, nice guy from a farm who was the strongest man in the world but was cool with it? Check. Krypton and Earth and both sets of parents well covered? Check. Flight, fights, a strong villain and lots of smashing? Check and check.
Then I started hearing the backlash and I figured there was that chance that my favoring the movie was biased and only because of my unbending passion for all things comicbooky. After an insightful debate with my bestie (you know who you are), I realized it had left a bad taste in many people’s mouths. And I decided to not share my positive take until I had seen it again – this time objectively and more critically.
Going in the second time, I was thinking “this will be fun…it’s Superman and action-packed, but it’s a bit dark and joyless and 2.5 hours is a lot” but once I was in, I forgot that I had seen this before and just immersed myself in. To my own surprise, I loved it even more this time around. Here is why I think it works wonderfully well.
1. THE ORIGIN: It’s Super, man!
“You will give the people an ideal to strive towards. 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.” Jor El
First of the bat, let’s make this clear: this is a Superman origin tale. It is supposed to tell us where the character comes from, what drives his motives and actions, what shapes his behavior, and what we can expect to follow. To expect it to be as good as The Avengers (which was a ‘team origin’ film but with all major characters established over many years) or The Dark Knight (a latter episode in the life of Batman after his origin was established in Batman Begins) is unfair. Also, origin films are always tricky – there’s only so much you can do in an origin film because doing too much (Green Lantern, Prince of Persia), or too little (Superman Returns, Daredevil) can instantly sink you.
Also, all origins have to go through some loops, especially for any film which has a rabid fanbase – in this case, the original home base (Krypton), the adopted home (Earth), the elders who shape our hero’s character (Jor & Kara, Ma & Pa), the love interest (Lois Lane), and the final part of the puzzle– the first main baddie, who will push our hero to the point where he will make a decision which will define him for the rest of his life (General Zod).
But background establishment aside, what is the film REALLY about? In a nutshell, to me, the film is about defining who Superman is, why he matters, and what it means for the world (in this case, the DC Cinematic Universe) to have him around. And this is not at all an easy task. In this digital age with Xboxes and MMPORPGs and dime-a-dozen CGI action movies, can he stand out anymore? In the time for anti-heroes, with their mystery, angst, secrets, dark past, dubious morals, anti-establishment personas, what can Big Blue bring to the table? The only way to ensure he stood out was to tell it how it is. To keep it real.
DC had to establish why this character is the most beloved superhero in the world; because he will always do the right thing. Not because he has to, but because he should. That’s why he’s been around since the 1930’s – because fads have not affected him or jaded him. Hundreds of others have come and gone, but he stuck around. He’s had his slumps, and haters, but the great thing is DC always kept his character consistent: a Good Man with Great Power. This same tone is thankfully maintained in the film; the continuous mention of his immense power which can change the world, his future role as Earth’s protector, and him being the Last Stand when it came to anyone messing with the planet set the tone for not only the alien invasion later in the story, but also for the future set of films.
A great thing is how the film is equal parts Kal El and Clark Kent. How his parents (both biological and adopted) shaped him into the myth everyone knows and loves. How everything that defines Superman’s character – modesty, humility, control, grace, courage – are not attributes of his superpowers, but his upbringing at a farm by two loving parents. Clark is that shy cousin of yours who doesn’t talk too much, and might bore you at times, but he’s always around when you need him.
Talking about the story, a great origin is one which isn’t about just the past, but also about the future. It talks about what fans already know about the characters – the larger story arcs, the myths, the drama – and sews it into its characters in a foreboding, reverent manner. Case in point: STAR TREK (2009) and BATMAN BEGINS (2005). Both re-introduced the characters quite well, but the bigger achievement was making the story larger than the present. These films went beyond the action, the story, or even the characters. These films were about Legacy. They hammered loud and clear how and who these young individuals would become, of the great adventures these characters would witness in the future and how it all begins here. I think there is no better way of thanking the fans for their decades of commitment than this tipping-of-the-hat to everything that has gone before, and everything that will happen again. I think this continuous mention of the past, present, and future is what makes this origin as good as the other two.
2. THE MAN AND HIS TWO WORLDS
“Make a better world than ours, Kal.” Lara Lor-Van
In Henry Cavill we have a Clark Kent who looks like a farm boy – naïve, earnest, reserved – and a Superman / Kal El who is confident, powerful, and quite take-charge. Notice how his voice and demeanor changes whenever he is in his Superman costume and has to ‘play the part’, including his first contact with the US Army. Most people complained about how he never got to have any fun in the movie as Clark Kent at the Daily Planet. This one had a lot of Kal and Krypton backstory to cover – I’m sure that’s how the sequel will start off so we should be getting a good dose of that soon too.
Also to succeed, any good film needs one more thing with a good lead: a good heart. MoS has that in spades. A heartless film is very easy to single out nowadays – sorry, After Earth and Lone Ranger– but Snyder ensures we know that the filmmakers take Superman as seriously as the fans, and they don’t let up on this at any point. Snyder is often criticized for making intense, cinematic, but humorless films (300, Watchmen, Dawn of the Dead) but one thing he always has down a 100% is his heroes. Leonidus in 300, Rorshach in Watchmen, Baby Doll in Sucker Punch, and now Kal in Superman – all believe in their cause almost to a fault and this gives them a life of their own. Snyder’s heroes are all grand, heroic, larger-than-life, and this is exactly what Superman needed.
The other key cast players are just as good. I think amongst all the complaints against MoS, the one you won’t hear is casting. WB got every one spot on; from Cavil’s physique and his do-gooder, earnest demeanor, to Michael Shannon’s intense, fanatic Zod whose only goal is the survival of his people; from Russell Crowe’s memorable portrayal of Jor El as a classy, intelligent scientist and Superman’s father, to Kevin Costner’s take on Pa Kent as a wise, weary, good hearted farmer who is more perceptive than he seems and has always known what miracles his son will perform once ‘the world is ready for him’; to Diane Lane’s understated, doting mother who is as strong as her son; to Amy Adams’ feisty, go-getter Lois Lane who isn’t a bimbo bombshell but a strong, independent woman and how Superman’s girlfriend should be. Even the supporting players – Chris Meloni as Colonel Hardy, a tough-as-nails army man initially wary of Superman’s motives , and Andte Traue as Faora, Zod’s leading lieutenant who believes in his cause more than her life, are engaging on screen and never look like they are phoning in their performances. Standouts are definitely the two Dads for me – both the most crucial in shaping Kal as a person.
The one gripe in casting some people had was Lois – I do believe Amy Adams is a great fit because having someone with knockout, supermodel looks would naturally overshadow the wit, intelligence, and girl-next-door appeal of Lois. She is too nosey and yes, happens to be everywhere in every scene, which makes her less likable than, say, Pepper Potts, but she should grow on all of us. Most importantly, the chemistry between the two leads gets better as the movie progresses, to the point that the final re-introduction between Lois and Clark at the daily planet brings a giddy smile to my face.
3. THE ACTION: BANG, POW, BOOM!
“I was bred to be a warrior, Kal. Trained my entire life to master my senses. Where did you train? ON A FARM?” General Zod
Like most of you fine people, since I was a wee toddler, I’ve dreamt of seeing Superman in action on the big screen. Like in the comics. Like in the amazingly-realized Justice League animated series and films, and even the 80s and 90s solo cartoon series. Did I get that after the emo snorefest that was SUPERMAN RETURNS and the cutesy but quite dated earlier Superman films? Nopes. Did I get it in Man of Steel? Hell yeah.
The action here is balls to the walls, just like we dreamt it. Super-sonic flights. Powerful take-offs. Explosions. Rolling for yards and yards after a super-punch. Flying punches. Wall smashes. Car throwing. Going through multiple walls. Smashing buildings. Punches into space. Tearing a building in half with eye lasers. Oh, and still standing tall. What more boom could anyone want from a Superman film, that too an origin?
But putting aside my love for Brute Superman showing everyone why he shouldn’t be messed with, my biggest complaint with the film after the first viewing too was the massive, uncalled for destruction in the movie, and how much of it Superman could have avoided. This was my biggest bane and why I needed to go back for a second closer look. In fact, here’s a super-entertaining infographic developed just to highlight the amount of damage done to Metropolis in the film.
But… surprisingly enough, upon my 2nd viewing, I realized how Superman cannot be singled out or held responsible for most of this carnage. Why? Note in which sequences we have the most damage, and how much of it is Kal’s fault himself:
During Smallville’s destruction is on the hands of the Army and Faora and the giant Kryptonion, Superman is just part of the equation and what causes the most harm is the missile strikes and the two Kryptonians going ape-shit on Supes and the airplanes. The most controversial devastation – the unneeded annihilation of Metropolis at the end too is 80 percent due to the World Engine, and 20% due to the Zod/Kal fight towards the end. The fight too takes place after this part of the city has mostly been leveled due to the Phantom Drives colliding and creating the mini-black hole (again, not Superman’s doing and unavoidable given this was how they took out Zod’s forces). So the damage was immense; but putting it on just Superman’s carelessness is unfair. You can blame the filmmakers for being irresponsible, but at no point outside of the final fight with Zod does it seem like Superman himself is feeding off the destruction and chaos.
Yes, I agree that Superman should have taken the fight to an unoccupied territory or rampaged through less buildings, and yes, the destruction at the end is on par if not more than the finale of The Avengers and Transformers 3. But again, this is a film about the most powerful superhero of them all and it had to end with a bang. Why he’s in a League of his own (pun intended) is exactly because he can fight off world-threatening maniacs and villains on his own, just like a superteam. And let’s face it: if aliens were to attack the Earth and set up two World Engines to terraform the planet, there would be some massive-level destruction, at least in the city where they’re set up.
To sum up, I am against glorified, stylized violence in any form and a lot of the destruction here was bloated and unneeded; but that doesn’t make this film a bad one, and neither does it make Superman the man less faithful to his earlier incarnations. It is just a chink in a very good film’s armor.
Which brings us to one final major gripe against the film…
4. THE CHOICE: EARTH OR KRYPTON
“You’re not just anyone. One day, you’re going to have to make a choice. You have to decide what kind of man you want to grow up to be. Whoever that man is, good character or bad, it’s going to change the world.” Jonathan Kent
I know what Superman stands for. The Right Thing. I’m well aware and fully support his One Rule; thou shall not kill (just like Batman, or Spiderman). They might be more flexible with it at points, and he is supposed to be the best of them, hence he should NEVER kill.
But…whether we talk about Doomsday, Brainiac, Metallo, or many other villains from the Superman comics, there have been times, and there will always be times, when a hero will have no choice but to break this rule. If it’s one life for another, then in a way, doesn’t the Right Thing become ensuring the safety of the innocent over those who mean them harm? This is definitely a grey area, and it’s not right or commendable, but it’s how it has to be done.
Secondly, this is where this version of Superman was defined, where his origin was truly completed; Kal is given a choice between Earth and Krypton – one or the other, not both. And throughout the film he goes through flashbacks and experiences which are telling him that one day, he will have to define his territory, his motherland. Will it be Earth? Will he own up to becoming its protector as both Jor El and Pa Kent had prophesized, or will he abandon his adopted home for his birth one? This is where it comes full circle – he chooses Earth by saving the humans, and says goodbye to Krypton by killing off the last Kryptonion he knew. This is his closure; this is where Kal becomes Earth’s Clark Kent, and hence Superman. This is an extreme measure he was forced to take, and his remorse is shown immediately afterwards when he falls to his knees and cries out of anger, guilt, and helplessness. Had the execution not been followed up by this shot of how Superman has been affected by it, then we’d have a case of murder in cold blood. This however is a classic comicbook supervillain death; a hero does what he has to do, and then he has to live with this hard decision forever.
Finally and building on the previous point, the death of Zod at the hands of Superman is not a finished storyline as yet, and neither is the destruction of Krypton. These are issues which will be addressed in the sequel, and will shape not only Superman’s image in the public eyes, but will also affect how the future DC Universe deals with crime, punishment, and vigilante justice. That makes this shock ending a neat little surprise, which tells us that shit does hit the fan in this world but not without consequences. This is a darker, more mature universe than the Marvel one in many ways. Which brings us to my penultimate point in defense of my favorite Superman film.
5. THE COMPETITION
“My father believed that if the world found out who I really was, they’d reject me… out of fear. He was convinced that the world wasn’t ready. What do you think?” Clark Kent
Superman vs Thor. Batman vs Captain America. Wonder Woman vs Miss Marvel. Flash vs Spiderman. Green Lantern vs Iron Man. Lobo vs Wolverine. Justice League vs The Avengers. The epic, never-ending rivalry between DC and Marvel is something fans can discuss and debate for hours. Which is the better universe? Which has the better stories? The better heroes?
I avidly follow both universes, but on the whole, I’ve always been a stronger Marvelite. I love DC, especially Supes, Batman, Flash, and their Vertigo lines, but that wraps up their greatest titles. Marvel has more compelling and fun characters which I have followed more strongly over the years. No one is as captivating or trailblazing as Superman or Batman, but the variety at Marvel is what makes me give it a slight edge.
That being said, the biggest difference between the two for me has always been how Marvel has a more fun universe with lots of crossovers and lighter stories; DC is more epic is scope, has bigger, darker, grander storylines, and can be termed more adult-friendly. Given this decades old trend, naturally the DC Cinematic Universe should be darker too. Superman, Batman, and hence MoS, had to be darker in tone than say, the iron Man and Spiderman trilogies. l feel it had to differentiate itself from the Marvel movies, just like in the comics. These are two distinct universes, and I love both for their strengths. DC should stick to theirs.
Also, talking about competition, another point is expectations and quality of comicbook films in the past decade. Had MoS come out a decade ago, it would be the most favorite film of the year for most comicbook lovers. It’s only because now we live in a lucky age where every summer is filled with at least three major comicbook movies dishing it out, and we have seen the likes of The Dark Knight, The Avengers, the Spiderman movies, the X-Men series, and so much more that now we scrutinize and compare every movie to what has followed before. Another interesting thing is how the earlier Superman movies were very children-friendly, and happy-go-lucky. Fans of the earlier Christopher Reeve series hence were expecting a softer, less-action heavy film and they did not get that at all.
The dislike for the score and theme also suffers from competition: “it’s not as good as the 1978 theme”. That is a masterpiece, I agree. But take this for it is; it’s supposed to be new, and different. It’s modern, strong, and grand. I’ve seen the film only twice but it has stuck in my head and I love it now. It builds up throughout the film, with subtle queues when Clark’s young, gaining momentum as he becomes Superman, and eventually organically blending into the major scenes.
So, on the whole, MoS is not as good as TDK or The Avengers. But that doesn’t mean it had to be; very few movies will be as good. As a standalone film, barring competition and what has come out in the previous years, is it an overall good Superman movie? Yes. The best I’d say. So I think timing, expectations, and the Marvel versus DC universes put a lot of pressure on this one singular origin film, which was supposed to only kick off the universe, not be its masterpiece. That masterpiece is coming, give it time. Which brings us to my final point, fellow fans.
6. THE FUTURE: WORLD’S FINEST
“Hi. Lois Lane. Welcome to The Planet.” Lois Lane
“Glad to be here, Lois”. Clark Kent
We have been acquainted; now let the games begin. Keep in mind Batman Begins, followed by The Dark Knight; Spiderman followed by Spiderman 2. Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor leading to The Avengers. This was just one part of the puzzle; let DC show you more of their universe.
Just remember, this is just the beginning. Towards the end of the film, Clark puts on his glasses, walks into the Daily Planet and is introduced to the team and then Lois Lane. She looks at him, smiles, and quips, “welcome to the Planet, Clark”. Clark replies, “Glad to be here”. For me, this was as exhilarating and goosebumpy a closing scene as the Batman Begins ending, where Batman meets Gordon atop a building next to the Bat Signal, and Gordon hands him over a bunch of playing cards with ‘Joker’ and some blood on them, and Batman says “I’ll look into it”. We know at this point that the origin is out of the way, and now, we can finally get to the actual adventures of our hero. Same with Star Trek’s ending, when the ominous, classic ‘these are the adventures of the USS Enterprise’ monologue comes in, whetting our appetite for not so much what has happened, but what is yet to come.
So relax. It’s the origin. I’m sure Snyder and David S. Goyer – who wrote both this and Batman Begins – have a Dark Knight up their sleeve for the sequel, and this was where they tell you who our hero is.
Oh. Hold on. That’s actually literal now. At the just-concluded San Diego ComicCon 2013, Snyder broke the biggest news of the event when he and Henry Lennix officially announced that Batman will be joining Superman in his next adventure on-screen. Fans worldwide went batshit crazy (pun intended), and my anticipation of summer 2015 doubled yet again. We are in for an epic, epic summer with THE WORLDS FINEST, THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, and STAR WARS EPISODE VII.
So DC knows what they’re doing. They have some big plans. This was just the beginning, and it was damn fine. Check out Man of Steel again; in time, just like me, you will join him in the sun too.