Man of Steel: Entertaining despite somewhat poor structure and casually mass-murdering “hero”.
The film opens with a sliiightly overlong backstory scene on Krypton, setting the tone right off the bat: this is a science fiction film, plain and simple. It’s about an alien race whose war is brought to Earth with terrible consequences for humanity. Viewers might note that this summary evokes Michael Bay’s Transformers films, and much of the later action (unfortunately) will continue this comparison.
But back to the opening: it stands up fairly well, reminiscent of Terminator’s future-war scenes in that it gives a tantalizing glimpse of an entirely different world than the one our film takes place in. As I said, it gets a bit too long - specifically we could have done without Jor-El retrieving the “Codex”, a four-minute underwater scene which could have been replaced by a single line of dialogue, since this “Codex” isn’t brought up until nearly the third act of the film. It’s worth noting, however, that Russel Crowe gives what I consider the only watchable performance of his career.
His low-key (or, let’s face it, phoned-in) performance works well here because it stands in contrast to the chaos around him and echoes the fairly subdued intensity of Michael Shannon’s absolutely fantastic General Zod. Both performances manage to be emotive and passionate, and yet still reflect the idea that Kryptonians are somewhat less vital and energetic than humans.
As we all know, our time on Krypton must come to an end, and we move on to Kent farm, where-
Wait, nope. We’re…on a boat. Fishing. And now bearded, adult Clark Kent is saving some people…and NOW we’re flashing back to his childhood, and we settle into the pattern that will repeat throughout the middle stretch of the film.
One of my primary objections to this film is NOT the flashback structure, which serves the film well…until the FOURTH TIME we flash back to Jonathan Kent giving exactly the same speech to young Clark. The flashbacks could have stopped after the first three or so, and not only would the film’s narrative have flowed FAR better, we could also have been spared one of the truly absurd aspects of this film: the final scene featuring Jonathan Kent.
In every flashback, Jonathan Kent has exactly one purpose: he repeats, ENDLESSLY, that his son must NEVER REVEAL HIS POWERS. Doesn’t matter how many lives are at stake, doesn’t matter what good might be done; Jonathan Kent cares nothing about any life but that of his adopted son. Okay, that’s hardly a heroic ideal, but it’s reasonable. The problem is this point is hammered home half a dozen times, long after the movie should have moved on.
But then the film goes from merely repetitive to idiotically melodramatic (spoilers ahoy!) when Jonathan Kent literally ORDERS HIS SON TO WATCH HIM DIE HORRIBLY in order to preserve the secret. It’s unpleasant, it’s insulting, and it’s absolutely unnecessary, not to mention nonsensical.
The flashbacks continue throughout the entire film - long after they’ve stopped adding anything to it. If they had come and gone, I would have enjoyed their new twist on telling the origin story - as it stands, it feels like the filmmakers were under some sort of bizarre contractual obligation to include Kevin Costner every twenty minutes.
So plot happens, including some good performances by Cavill and the unsurprisingly brilliant Michael Shannon. Overall, the film’s only real weakness in the middle portion is the constant disruption of the flashbacks, which are so obtrusive as to actively hinder the audience’s connection with the Clark Kent character. He’s likable enough outside the suit, (although his bad teeth are a dead giveaway of his British birthplace), but his strong & silent approach, coupled with the continuous presence of Russel Crowe’s Jor-El and the adorable (if 10-years too old) Amy Adams’ Lois Lane and a host of excellent character actors just left me feeling like I had watched a 3-hour Superman movie without really getting to know the Man of Steel very well.
The standout element is of course, Michael Shannon’s Zod, who is measured, nuanced, and incredibly menacing. His entrance is chilling, and his implacable but earnest performance elevates the film in every scene where he appears.
A few other missteps occur - almost in the same vein as the relentless flashbacks, Jor-El’s holographic duplicate gets far too much screentime. His obligatory exposition to Clark at a Fortress-of-Solitude-esque location is very well done, and quite visually interesting to boot. His final scene, where he matches wits with Zod again is also excellent…it’s the fact that he was shoehorned into another scene in the middle of the second act which felt excessive. Don’t get me wrong - the scene itself is quite engaging, with some funny dialogue and a quick inspirational send-off for his son, but combined with his other appearances, it ends up inflating the role to greater prominence than that of Superman himself.
The final act begins with the first few battles of Superman vs Zod’s Kryptonian invaders, and here we get into my most serious problem with this film - Superman’s conduct.
There’s a famous (among comic-book nerds) speech from the end of the Justice League cartoon, called the “World of Cardboard” speech. In it, Superman talks about how difficult it is for him to avoid collateral damage and civilian death when fighting on Earth due to his incredible speed and strength, likening it to living in a world made of cardboard.
Apparently, someone needs to give Zack Snyder this speech, because this Superman has a truly horrifying, completely reckless disregard for the lives of those around him, and nothing but callous indifference to the suffering of others.
It begins when a villainous Kryptonian (mild spoilers) threatens Ma Kent at their farmhouse outside the small town of Smallville, Kansas. Superman, enraged that the enemy is picking on his momma, tackles his opponent (a female Kryptonian warrior played with delicious malevolence by Antje Traue) AWAY from the uninhabited cornfields and DIRECTLY INTO THE HEART OF THE TOWN - flying at supersonic speeds RIGHT THROUGH A GAS STATION, WHICH THEN EXPLODES.
Every customer and clerk inside? MURDERED by Clark Kent. The family in the car parked outside? MURDERED by Clark Kent. Every other Smallville resident killed in the ensuing no-holds-barred grudge match that nearly levels the town? Killed because Clark Kent brought the fight to them. Call him Captain Murder, because Superman he ain’t.
After this fight ends, Clark, without a moment’s pause for the gallons of blood already on his hands, rushes off to begin the final battle. As one might expect in this Michael-Bay-era of summer blockbusters, this fight drags out interminably. Endless scenes of destruction and death on a Biblical scale. Pointless, drawn-out scenes where Lois Lane’s co-workers, who have appeared for all of two minutes in the film prior, must desperately try and hopelessly fail to help each other survive this apocalypse until Superman’s heroics on the other side of the world save them. I was hard-pressed to care, since we had just watched thousands of nameless innocents die only seconds earlier, and Clark’s own bodycount is surely in the triple digits at least.
So “Superman” (named in the most ineffectual, offhanded throwaway line in the film - a terrible waste of what could have been a buoyant, inspiring moment) finally returns to Metropolis to fight his Kryptonian Brethren, who are defeated…but not General Zod. So this endless fight CONTINUES as the two duke it out one-on-one in the HEART OF METROPOLIS (take the fight somewhere uninhabited? Avoid civilian casualties? Bah! This is Clark Kent, Murderer of Steel!). Due to what I must assume is poor editing, we’re treated to quite a few reaction shots of people simply standing around in the streets, as though surprised by the sudden commotion…even though the Kryptonian ship has already LEVELED a third of the city.
The good news about this inexplicable bystander apathy is that it manages to swell the Super Butcher’s already impressive kill count as he casually smashes through buildings, flings Zod through other buildings, and generally ignores the consequences of his superpowered antics.
And you know what? This wouldn’t bother me if they had included ONE SINGLE SECOND, one SOLITARY MOMENT where Kal-El showed even the most perfunctory concern for the people of the city he lays waste. If we showed him save one single soul from falling debris or if he at least tried to divert the fight away from the city, I might have been able to let it go.
Instead, he only has eyes for Zod as the two merrily push over buildings, visibly crushing crowds of victims below. Does Superdick pause to mourn the thousands that died by his already blood-soaked hands? Nope - there’s more punching to do! Let’s hurl Zod through an occupied office building! I’m sure it won’t kill anyone IMPORTANT.
Now I am, at heart, more of a Marvel guy than a DC guy. I don’t mind heroes who kill - I believe that sometimes, lethal force is necessary in order to preserve the lives of the innocent. However, that DOESN’T mean I like to watch so-called “heroes” casually murder people through gross negligence. It doesn’t mean I want to watch a hero cause tens of millions of dollars in property damage and NOT EVEN STICK AROUND TO HELP CLEAN UP.
In The Avengers, the majority of damage was done by the alien invaders, and the only member of the team who could contribute much to the reconstruction would be Iron Man…and frankly, his previous film had established that Stark’s work maintaining global peace would probably be a better use of his time during this crisis than working as a glorified piece of construction equipment - since, unlike Superman, Iron Man’s super-strength and flight are limited to the point where he would be little more effective than, say, an ordinary crane.
In Man of Steel, not only is Superman directly responsible for the deaths of dozens onscreen and presumably HUNDREDS if not THOUSANDS MORE, he also does his best to match Zod for wanton destruction of property.
And again, I’d like to point out: not ONCE, in the ENTIRE BATTLE, does he stop for even a SECOND to help anyone. He never even THINKS about trying to do anything except punch the bad guy as the bodies pile up in the streets (see note below in the “For REAL spoilers!” section). He behaves without any sense of responsibility, and is apparently never held accountable for his actions. In THIS universe, I would vote for Lex Luthor for President any day, because this Man of Steel is a goddamn menace.
For REAL spoilers:
Now, those who have seen the film will point out that, in a one crucial scene, after forty-five minutes of mudering hundreds of bystanders himself, he does intervene to save one family near the end. But his method of “helping them” is a brutal execution (the only JUSTIFIED killing he commits) and a few minutes of terrifying screaming. He doesn’t try to get them out of the collapsing building, doesn’t check for injuries. He can’t be bothered to spare them even a kind word.
And that makes sense! It would have been completely out of character for this rampaging psychotic to show any interest in someone’s well-being besides his own.
End Fro Realz Spoilerth.
All in all I give the film a 5 out of 10. Watchable and even at times exciting, but hampered by unnecessary inclusions and the endless fight scenes which give you more than enough time to start noticing the reckless, MURDEROUS irresponsibility of the protagonist.
The Bad Science of the Chronically Offended, Or “Tropes Vs Women”.
In high school, I had a friend named Brandon. He was a giant of a man, even at sixteen - a foot taller than everyone else, with a massive build to match.
He was black, and his favorite joke was taking anything that happened to him and exclaiming, with mock-indignity, “It’s because I’m black, isn’t it?!”
If, for example, we all got pizza from the cafeteria, and his slice had one fewer pepperoni than all the others - he would declare “See? The BLACK MAN doesn’t DESERVE three pepperoni, huh?” But if he had one more pepperoni, he would announce “Oh, I see - give the scary black man an extra pepperoni to keep him QUIET, huh?” He would sometimes bring it up apropos of nothing - looking at the white plastic silverware, he’d jokingly say “See? Never any BLACK plastic forks! Racists!”
The reason this was funny then, and remains funny now, is because it mocks those people who are so obsessed with being offended that they can find anything offensive, and those people who can use that in order to further their own agenda.
People like Anita Sarkeesian.
Good science works as follows: you examine a set of data, then you draw a conclusion.
Manipulative rhetoric, on the other hand, involves choosing a conclusion and then picking facts that support it, and ignoring or deliberately misrepresenting those facts which don’t support it.
This strategy is why Tropes Vs Women makes me angry.
A point-by-point refutation would take up a lot of time, and plenty of people are already doing that. I’m more interested in the basic problem: if you want to, you can portray nearly anything as sexism.
It’s very clever. Every example she uses is wrong. But you can’t argue against it - you refute one point, and her defenders ask, “Well, what about this other point?” And when you refute that, they say “Well, you might find flaw with those specific examples, but there are so many others!” The trick, of course, is that ALL of the examples are misrepresented. But if you list enough of them, you create the illusion of a body of proof.
Anita Sarkeesian (like many other feminists) exploits simple facts to support fallacious conclusions. Fact: Not all characters are emotionally and physically perfect, and immune to all harm and danger. Fact: well-written characters tend to be flawed and human. Fact: the role of a hero is to rescue other characters who are in danger. Fact: some characters are women. It’s a reasonable conclusion, then, that there will be female characters who are flawed, human, and vulnerable, some of whom will be in danger.
What’s completely UNreasonable is to draw the conclusion that this is part of some wide-ranging conspiracy to oppress women.
Violence against innocent people is a bad thing. In fiction, good people fight against bad things. Because sometimes the bad things in fiction happen to women, Anita Sarkeesian claims the entire industry is not only sexist, but somehow encouraging violence against women.
This is LUNACY. It’s the worst kind of manipulative BS. It’s a more ridiculous made-up example of discrimination than anything my friend Brandon ever came up with.
And I wish I could laugh. But it causes good writers, like Anthony Burch of Borderlands 2, who writes his characters without a trace of sexism, to feel as though they’ve somehow sinned against women when they put a female character in need of rescue - even when the character doing the rescuing is ALSO female, and even when a male character needed rescuing only minutes earlier.
This specific example wasn’t the one used by Sarkeesian - her example was even more idiotic. My point is that without her even attacking that aspect, upon learning that his work was mentioned, Burch immediately declared feeling guilty about the above “damsel” situation. It’s a damn shame when a good writer is made to feel guilty about good writing by a petty wannabe-celebrity with an agenda.
Guess what, Mr Burch? You wrote a good story, and used the classic narrative device of putting a character, who was previously established as very powerful, at the mercy of the antagonist in order to increase the perceived threat of that antagonist and emphasize the player’s own effectiveness. You raised the stakes by taking the biggest badass in the game and saying “See? Even THIS badass can’t beat Jack. Now YOU go beat him!” We had also developed an attachment to and investment in that character, by giving her good dialogue and a well-rounded character.
That’s not sexism, that’s classic writing. The gender of the “damsel” doesn’t matter. Rescuing characters from bad situations is what heroes do. Lilith wasn’t some random piece of ass, she wasn’t portrayed as some sort of “reward” for success. Would Ms. Sarkeesian demand that women never be put at a disadvantage in fiction?
The answer is that of course she wouldn’t - not unless it got her more publicity. Because she’s not doing science - she’s rabble-rousing. Like Bill O’Reilly, she spews ridiculous nonsense because she knows she can twist the facts to push people’s buttons.
Other people can discredit (and have discredited) her examples - my point is that we should stop looking for ways to portray things as being “offensive”, and trust our own feelings. We should look at the context of the examples that people like Anita Sarkeesian provide.
She’s not some all-knowing arbiter of sexism. She’s a clever commentator with a deliberate bias and a clear agenda. Being featured on her show doesn’t mean you did something wrong, it just means that she’s decided to make you one of the victims of her witch hunt.
But of course, you can’t argue against Anita Sarkeesian. That would be sexist.