‘Man of Steel’: Good For Seizures, Not Much Else
Let me break down my major issues for everyone who’s interested.
Man of Steel did not suffer from the things that usually make me froth at the mouth. The women weren’t at all hypersexualized (and while it didn’t pass The Bechdel Test, this is a story about Clark Kent/Kal-El, so I didn’t for a second expect that it would); there wasn’t evidence of glaring racism (in fact, two positions of power in the human brigade are occupied by men of color, so that was actually a step in the right direction); and at its inception (DUNNNNNNNNNN) was actually a story that I found myself intrigued by.
My interest, of course, waned after the first forty-five minutes. Roughly. I wasn’t running a stopwatch in the theater.
I was invested in the story of Krypton. It was a good story, an interesting one, complete with the bleak dystopia-esque view of a future beyond our solar system that I’m sure we’re slowly staggering toward ourselves. (That feeling is further validated by the knowledge that 50 Shades of Grey has been given a release date next fall. For the love of all things unholy—) The crumbling society has its inherent issues of corruption and has, in fact, brought its destruction upon itself, which makes this culture of super-human beings more interesting than they would be otherwise. They clearly have a very serious failing: despite an evolutionary advantage, they’re moronic enough to mine for energy in their planet’s core, thereby killing their own world. I think that’s the definition of irony, folks.
Jor-El still has some redeeming character traits, though, and even General Zod is a top lad in his own way. They’re both just trying to save their people. It’s been decided (probably long ago) by the writers that Jor-El’s plan to launch his infant son into space with the genetic code for their entire civilization and then die an honorable death by stabbing is better than General Zod’s plan, though, which makes the latter the villain of the piece. Jor-El has all those bolstering character traits of honor and loyalty and self-sacrifice which, of course, lets him off the hook for his teensy treasonous act of stealing the Codex. Zod is not so lucky, because apparently deposing your corrupt idiotic leaders by killing them is frowned upon by Kryptonians. It’s the clink for you, sir.
This whole story is told with enough bright flashes of light and screeching sounds of battle to set off even the most epileptic-prone. The wide-scale destruction of Krypton, though, is at least sort of pushed into the background, and the more personal elements are up front: the birth of Jor-El’s son, the insurrection started by Zod, Lara’s grief over saying goodbye to her son so soon. It’s not exactly a good story, but it’s mediocre. This alien populace is relatable to us because of their inherent failings, which are all up in your face at the beginning. Again, not good. Not subtle. But mediocre bordering entertaining, sure. I was entertained.
The problem begins when you realize that this was all set-up to set-up. After all, we haven’t even gotten to the meat and potatoes of Man of Steel yet. That was just the salad, and I haven’t quite moved on from the blue cheese dressing yet, thanks—but now you’re telling me that they’re all dead, and I have to get re-attached to the actual protagonist of this movie? That turnip-headed little twerp last seen crying his way into outer space? I don’t care about him. You spent the time and energy getting me to be invested in Jor-El, Lara, and Zod—and planting a hell of a Chekov’s Gun (“You believe your son is safe? I will find him!”)—and now you want me to patiently twiddle my thumbs through your exposition on Clark Kent’s evolving character?
That exposition, by the way, was inherently faulty. We’re focused not on Clark’s or Kal-El’s or whatever the fuck you want to call him’s personality, but on his genetic superiority. The story of his childhood is told through the freakshow that is an alien among us—through incidents that have garnered the attention of his town. The rescue of the bus; the freakout in grade school; the refusal to fight bullies; and the perpetual whining through it all—Clark Kent does not get a personality. He gets the evolutionary advantage. If he was among Kryptonians, this wouldn’t be quite so dull; they would have been able to leave out all the stuff about how he’s stronger and faster and etcetera, etcetera, and focused on the stuff that makes him a little more human (and thus, a little more relatable to us): the ways that he fails.
Instead, he spends a load of time being set up as a social outcast, and that appears to be the bulk of his personality. Let me tell you, kids, if I’d been told before watching this that Clark Kent would choose to save humanity approximately an hour and fifteen minutes into this film, I would not have believed you. If I was him, I would’ve let y’all die. Humans have been nothing but inhospitable to him, with the notable exception of his adopted parents and dog. I completely understand why he spends all his adult years chasing down the answer to his heritage, because no one on Earth wanted him around. He’s just freak to them.
After the incident with an old spaceship belonging to his near-extinct people, figuring out all the deets on where he hails from with help from the technological ghost of his father, and meeting Lois Lane, there’s this whole piece where Lois goes through enormous effort to track him down again. His childhood story is capped in the graveyard where his father is buried, where he tells Lois how the old man died.
Let me interject with an important meteorlogical note: I lived in Wisconsin for nine years. I have seen a tornado up-close and personal. And the scene where Clark’s father dies—you know, the one with the tornado—is about the most ridiculous thing I have ever seen. That is not how tornadoes work. I get that they were going for—no, I’m not actually sure what they were going for, but what I got out of it was a death scene that had me nearly in giggles, because of the following:
- The instant Clark and his father were shown arguing in the car, it was very obvious that one, if not both, of his parents were about to die. My money was on his father, of course, since he bore the brunt of the argument. It’s a really obvious, overused trope: the ungrateful child starts a fight with their wise elder, a fight which is interrupted by a fatal case of death, and the child is then left to grieve and fester in their guilt. Yawn.
- The instant the tornado came down, I knew we were going to have problems. Yes, you can run from a tornado. Depending on which way the thing’s traveling, you might even manage to get out of its way. Running for the overpass is a good idea, too. If you’re out in the open on a freeway, the ditches to the side and the overpasses are the best chance you’ve got. Once it’s that close to you, though? You aren’t capable of running anymore. From a mile down the highway I saw a tornado pick up and throw an eighteen-wheeler like a football, and the two were not even in physical contact. The winds that form a tornado are compact, but only in comparison to, say, a hurricane. Within a certain proximity, you’re going to get tossed around a bit.
- There was no logical reason why Jonathan Kent should have been the one to go back and free their dog. Clark is younger, stronger, and faster, even without being an alien, and odds are even if something went wrong, he’d survive. Yes, Jonathan is trying to protect his son’s secret—but this was an incredibly contrived way to show that.
- There was no logical reason why Clark shouldn’t have run back for his father when it was clear that he was going to die otherwise. Yes, this is the man who has asked Clark again and again to keep the silence, but it was obvious—even though the storytelling was shitty—that Clark loved his dad. (For this, I draw on Supernatural as a prime example: despite being drilled repeatedly, his entire life, to kill Azazel on sight at any chance he got, Dean could not pull the trigger when John was being possessed by the demon. I think something similar applies here.)
- When a tornado is bearing down on you, you don’t get the chance to smile enigmatically and wave for your son to stay put. You also aren’t given the ability to continue standing on your own two feet while it swirls menacingly only two feet away. The wind clouds do not swallow you dramatically, they pick you up in a torrent of rage and fury and swirl you around like so many socks in a dryer. Maybe you come down with a hard knock to the head and a new chance at life, or maybe your heart fails you in a moment of absolute terror. But one thing is for sure: you don’t get to fade back into a swirling vortex with a calm look on your face. That is bullshit.
Not much exposition later, we come to the climax of the piece, which lasts an uncomfortable amount of time. Like, really uncomfortable. Dark Knight Rises was long. It was especially long because I saw the 3:45AM showing after one hour of sleep and the kind of caffeine high that makes your eyes go crossed. But the finale of Man of Steel felt even long than that, a kind of special hell for act threes that started when Lois and Clark get turfed off Zod’s spacecraft and doesn’t end for—I don’t know the exact minute count, because again, not running a stopwatch, but it was excruciating.
There is something inherently alienating about this kind of massive CG destruction. Character foundation for this story was already shaky to start with, but it all gets thrown out the window when the screen is dominated by Metropolis getting blown up in minute stages. The process could last for hours, and—
No, sorry, I’ve got to diverge on the point of Metropolis, which I realize is a problem not just with Man of Steel but with the DC/Superman universe in a broader and older sense. Metropolis was actually one of the earliest science-fiction films, a German thing in the 1920s, about a city of the same name that was built on the foundation of oppressed workers (sound familiar?) and gave riches, wealth, and quality of life to the limited few (*cough*). Metropolis is a big fuckin’ deal for sci-fi; it’s the R.U.R. of film (Rossum’s Universal Robots, by the way, was a very short Czech play which coined the word “robot”, and everyone should read it because it’s very important, etcetera). Allusions like this one can lend incredible legitimacy to contemporary work. Dollhouse did it with R.U.R., slipping in the name “Rossum” with an effortlessness that made me squeal in delight, but “Metropolis” doesn’t do it for me. It screams comic-book gimick, loud and clear, especially when paired with town names like “Smallville.” It feels like lazy writing. Unimaginative, dull writing.
Back to the mass destruction: it’s pretty. It’s big. The CG is good. It’s not the visual I have a problem with. It’s the absence of all the people.
Sure, they’re screaming and running. The staff of the Daily Planet is heroically standing their ground and then hurriedly evacuating. But aside from them—and they’re really side characters, people we’ve had bare glimpses of and only scant lines of dialog—we’ve got nobody on the ground to identify with. I have never felt so disconnected from this kind of carnage on screen. There was nothing to tie me to the terror that I should have felt, by proxy, at the annihilation of not just the city, but the impending doom of Earth. They went too big, and they lost the personal element along the way—the human element. That’s the only thing that ties us to fiction, folks. You lose that, you lose everything.
There were humans involved in this big, exhausting showdown, of course. Most of them, though, were only there to run or be frightened or die. (“A good death is its own reward,” some military leader who didn’t have enough exposition for me to remember his identity tells the female Kryptonian who kicks a lot of ass but who suffers from the same exposition problem as the military leader.) They were also there to only finish the job when Superman passed on the go-ahead, which means that the head military POC is ultimately taking orders from a white dude with blue eyes again, and his hands are kind of tied because Kal-El is actually genetically superior to him. I take it back—there is actually something inherently racist about this story. I just couldn’t put my finger on it earlier.
I thought it was at least over, though, when Superman again saves Lois Lane from certain death and the big curtains-closing kiss happens, but no; Zod is still alive, and the way they deal with him is to continue pulverizing the jagged remains of Metropolis by repeatedly sprinting/flying at one another. Also, monologing and capes. The first served to make the villain, who already seems absolutely over-the-top due to his thirsty quest for revenge, seem even more ridiculous, and the second makes our evolutionary hero look like an idiot. (The Incredibles was right—capes are a disaster waiting to happen.)
Not to mention that Superman cries over the death of four solitary people when Zod laser-eyes them, but apparently the inevitable thousands who died in the siege of Metropolis were moot because he didn’t stare into their faces personally. Our champion, ladies and gentlemen, is unfortunately inconsistent.
A few other points that didn’t fit coherently in the above:
- I can’t take anyone—baddie or otherwise—who moves like Albert Wesker seriously. Go ahead, play Resident Evil 5 and then rewatch Man of Steel. You’ll laugh your ass off every time a Kryptonian does their funny run-dodge thing.
- Come to think of it, there is something inherently sexist about Man of Steel, too. Lois Lane is a smart, savvy individual who figures out Superman’s origin with good old-fashioned journalism, but he inevitably has to save her from certain death three times during the course of the movie. Once, maybe, I could have handled. But three.
- We got no exposition at all on how the gravity-stomping world-builder was affecting the people in Asia, despite the fact that that bohemouth of a machine landed right in the South Indian ocean. We got a lot of Americans running and screaming, but no other cultures get to run away from the violence. Representation. We have a serious problem with representation. All we saw in that hemisphere was Superman beating the shit out of a machine, and sometimes the machine beating the shit out of him.