In spite of the many reservations I had, I allowed myself to go into Man of Steel with an open mind. In spite of the fact that I thought Zack Snyder was a terrible choice to direct a Superman movie, and that hiring the duo that revitalized Batman (David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan) to write Superman – thematically Batman’s polar opposite – also seemed like a bad idea, I let my hopes rise because some of the recent commercials looked cool.
Those hopes were dashed around the one-hour mark when I realized the movie was going to fail to find a pace. Poorly edited, the tone of the movie will wildly go from a scene of two people having a simple conversation to people yelling and explosions exploding in very little time. Poorly written, the dialogue is a collection of military mumbo-jumbo and generic inspirational phrases (“You were destined for greatness.” “I believe in you, Movie Protagonist.” “You know what they always say, [insert a saying no one ever uses].”). Poorly directed, the acting is mostly too straightforward to be memorable and the shakiness of the camerawork is too distracting (I wanted to throw the footage into After Effects to stabilize it).
There is very little character development. Scenes meant to have emotional weight crumble when you realize that we barely know these characters. For example, when Jonathan Kent is swallowed up by a tornado, it’s at first heartbreaking to see Clark’s reaction as he watches his adoptive father die. But we’ve seen them onscreen for so little, there’s not a strong enough bond between them to warrant the emotional reaction. It doesn’t help that Pa Kent’s end is brought on himself when he goes back to free the family dog from their car. I have a dog. I love my dog. But that’s how he went out?
All of the emphasis in the advertising is placed on Clark’s fights with General Zod, and rightfully so. His plan to terraform Earth takes up the second half of the film, and his climactic fight with Superman is a stunning display of computer showmanship. A real joy to guess just how many computers it took to render all of the debris and glass and falling girders free from the burden of worrying if there’s anyone actually in the buildings Zod destroys (Metropolis in general doesn’t have many extras populating it).
At least Zack Snyder refrains from his traditional slow-motion. I gotta’ give him props for that, if for no other reason that it exposes that yes, even without his more gimmicky filmmaking techniques, he’s still not a good director. But David Goyer’s screenplay deserves equal criticism. It’s thin and explores no new aspects of the character that haven’t been explored in other mediums several years ago. Superman in the film has little personality, and the most interesting thing done with his character is when he commits genocide, but it’s brushed under the rug and never mentioned again.
This comes just seven years after Superman Returns, a movie America collectively shrugged at and went, “Eh.” Twenty years earlier, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace smeared theatres. And until trailers for Man of Steel showed Superman punching the hell out of people in black suits, most people were writing the movie off as WB’s obligatory attempt to catch up to Marvel.
This all begs the question: why the fuck is it so hard to make a good Superman movie? Why do people like Bryan Singer, David Goyer, Zack Snyder, and the producers of Superman III and IV keep getting attached to make the Man of Steel into movies? At one point during the 90’s, Tim Burton was attached, and his version was as fucking weird as you’d expect it to be. In the early 00’s, names attached to Superman included Brett Ratner and McFuckingG.
Why? Fucking why?
There have been great writers that have worked on Superman, in the comics and on television. I love Kurt Busiek’s Superman: Secret Identity, Mark Millar’s Superman: Red Son, and Bruce Timm’s Superman: The Animated Series. The restrictions of television ended up defeating the early-nineties show Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, but I loved creator Deborah Joy LeVine’s take on Superman.
There’s good Superman work out there. Read Alan Moore’s Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? John Byrne’s Man of Steel. Mark Waid’s Kingdom Come.
I know a lot of people criticize Superman for being boring, both because he’s often portrayed as a goody two-shoes boy scout and because he’s very powerful. He flies around in bright primary colors and wears underwear over his pants. Yeah, he’s goofy. But you’d think once you’ve filtered out those people, you’d be left with the people that buy into it. The folks that go, “I know it’s crazy, but I’m going to stick with it because I like the idea of Superman.” These folks never seem to be the ones that get to make the movies, at least not without warping the character by turning him into an absentee father/stalker/Chris Reeve impersonator.
You can see how frustrating it is for me, because I know the character can be great. He can be interesting. He can be relatable. Written correctly, the line “You will be an inspiration” can actually be accurate without sounding cheesy (I lied; it’ll always sound cheesy) if Superman is a character that isn’t written as a pre-destined good guy. He’s every good deed and decent human being – the ones the feel-good pieces on morning TV are about – rolled up into a cape and tights. If you buy that he has the most boring origin of any superhero ever invented – he was raised properly by loving parents – then you can buy that he’ll always do the right thing. Suddenly it makes sense that he’s the ultimate good guy. And you’re incredibly thankful that it’s him with the power to leap tall buildings and outrun speeding bullets.
We have our Punishers and Batmen. We have tons of Iron Men. We have Watchmen and Hancock. We have the antiheroes and morally-conflicted superheroes down pat and in abundance. Let Superman be the opposite. And then find good director to take a good script and make that.
You can call up any of the people I’ve gushed about already. They get it.