Man of Steel annoys me. Sorry. I've been meaning to write this one for a while and I figured it was time to stop stewing about it, since I keep watching on HBO anyway.
Producer Christopher Nolan and director Zack Snyder are so intent on illuminating the difficulties of becoming Superman that they completely de-emphasize Superman himself. Even the name itself only comes up once. As Lois Lane says playfully about the symbol on his suit, "it's just an S."
I loved Nolan's reboot of Batman, as a companion to the wonderful, campy old TV series and movie ("Some days you just can't get rid of a bomb!"), and the comic-book like attempts by Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher. Nolan was right. It sucked to be Bruce Wayne. Rich kid in a city of destitute poverty and crime, sees his parents murdered before his eyes. The pain and childhood anger fuel Batman's fight against injustice. Through training he develops knowledge and skills (and yes, a wry sense of humor). Ultimately, though, he is still vulnerable as Bruce Wayne - the man - despite the power of of his Symbol. Like Marvel's Iron Man, he's just a rich guy in a really cool suit.
I also enjoyed Tobey Maguire and Sam Raimi's Spiderman. Well, the first two at least. The guilt and angst-ridden orphan teenager Peter Parker never really leaves Spiderman. He's not quite like Bruce Wayne, who, like Tony Stark in the other universe, has wealth and resources beyond our wildest dreams. Spiderman always seems more vulnerable than other heroes, because he doesn't have all the stuff. Peter Parker is just a kid who got bitten by a Spider and can do all sorts of special things, but he still has to live a regular human life. Go to school, get a job. Grow up. That regular life that the rest of us have to live.
I appreciate the depth that Man of Steel attempts to find by addressing Superman from this more grounded (pun intended) point of view, I really do. I understood, watching, that there are significant questions to be asked, besides "What is it like to be ABLE TO FLY??!!" Questions like "What is it like to be so different from everyone around you? What is like to find out you are an orphan, literally from a different world, but have no idea why? What is it like to have to hide your true self, possibly at the expense of others? How do you control your anger when you are capable of enormous destruction?
The most successful sequence of the entire film occurs very early on. In my favorite scene, Clark is a greenhorn on a crab fishing boat that assists in rescuing workers from a doomed, burning oil rig. He disappears in the blink of an eye from behind his own captain and reappears on the oil rig, shirt on fire, surrounded but untouched by the flames. The workers are incredulous but have no time to question. Clark holds the upper portions of the rig long enough for a rescue helicopter to take off, and then he disappears as it collapses around him. It is clear to us that he is testing the boundaries of his powers, trying to remain hidden but help where he can. The companion scene is a flashback to his childhood, and we see young Clark flee his classroom to hide in a closet at school as his powers start to become apparent. The world is too loud, he can suddenly see through things and people, and his eyes radiate destructive heat.
These scenes are shown together, before Clark finds the Kryptonian ship and therefore before he knows anything about his origins. They underscore the fear and uncertainty as an outsider - an alien - that he still carries with him as a young man, despite his growing understanding of his abilities. This Clark Kent acquires powers as he grows, but he doesn't know why. He feels overwhelmed, insulated, afraid to lose control and afraid to show his abilities. He is unsure of his place in the world, and is desperate to understand. All the fears of male childhood, puberty, and young adulthood gone haywire. Yes, I realize for the first time, it must have been incredibly difficult to grow up as Clark Kent. But... That doesn't mean it's "just an S."
I'm not going to delve deeply into the true Superman mythology. I don't know enough of it. Quentin Tarantino's Bill does a much better job anyway. But there are three scenes that embody what it is to be Superman, at least to me. The first is that oil rig rescue. It's as if young Clark is actually the Richard Kimball of the 1950s The Fugitive, or Bruce Banner, moving from place to place until he has no choice but to reveal his abilities in order to help someone, and then move on. I actually would have been happy with a whole prequel of this sort, a kind of Superman Begins, in which the story ends with him learning who he is and then taking off, literally. Which leads me to the obligatory, expected, but still awesome first flight scene. Although kind of cheesy, the Jor-El voieover narration lends even a little more grandeur. Kal-El's discovery of flight in this version shows him as he is beginning to understand the meaning of his heritage and the true scope and potential meaning of his powers. It's almost as good as this.
The third of these scenes is chronologically placed between the other two, and serves as Clark's introduction to Lois Lane. (Aside - I like that they flipped the script a little for this version of Lois Lane, scrappy, hardened, but ultimately seduced by the idea that there is something, or someone, for her to believe in. I enjoyed that she discovered Clark. I liked the idea that she was in on the closing scene deception at the Daily Planet. Amy Adams seems too smart to have fallen for the old glasses trick anyway. I did mind the whole leak-the-world-changing-story-to-the-disreputable-blogger plotline, though. This Lois would have been too smart for that, and would have hunted down the same leads she ended up hunting down to find Clark anyway.) This scene, where Clark first meets Lois in the buried Kryptonian ship, underscores in nearly regular human terms both what it is to be Superman and what my biggest problem with the film is. Clark has just "met" Jor-El, and for the first time has some clue who he is and what he is meant to be. Lois is understandably freaking out, seeing how she's been mortally wounded by a hovering robotic sentinel from a 20,000-year old alien spaceship. He is clearly attracted to her, and she to him, despite her grave peril. He calms her with "I can do things that other people can't" - what a line! - then proceeds to cauterize her wound and save her life.
See, being Superman, it's really kind of cool. Clark, because he was raised in Kansas instead of Krypton, knows just how kind of cool it is. Snyder and Nolan try so hard to take away the cool and replace it with angst, that they create too many obstacles for me to have to overcome.
In this version, Clark has not just one, but two fathers die to protect him. Having Jonathan Kent die in a generational tornado on a Kansas road was just bludgeoning the point home. In the Christopher Reeve version of Superman, a heart attack fells Jonathan and prompts young Clark to wonder what the purpose of his powers are. This Jonathan literally sacrifices himself for Clark's secret while Clark watches. It's completely unnecessary. Clark could have easily run out and saved him, or lay down on the ground with him, and no one would have been the wiser. Everyone in Kansas in this millennium knows that tornado effects can be completely random. No teenage son with those kind of powers would just let his father die and his mother become a widow. There was no reason to kill Jonathan this way, other than to heap guilt on young Clark for us.
His birth father actually dies twice for him, first physically and then digitally. Jor-El is a frustrating portrayal. The throwaway explanation of why he sent Kal-El alone to earth is particularly ridiculous. "We couldn't, Kal. No matter how much we wanted to, no matter how much we loved you. Your mother Lara and I were a product of the failures of our world as much as Zod was. We were tied to its fate." What?! It's a sci-fi movie. There are 8 million unquestionable ways to explain it specifically. How about "the capsule could only support one life for the length of the journey...", or "the capsule had to be small enough to elude detection by the air defenses," or "all Kryptonians have a genetic code that is traceable by the council, but you did not because you were natural-born"? Those three off the top of my head that are way better than what was used.
On the subject of tracing, why is it that Jor-El goes to the lengths he does to protect Kal, is able to create a personified digital consciousness that is even capable of interacting with Lois Lane via the computers on a 20,000 year old ship, but he doesn't include the code to disable the tracking beacon that he surely would have known would be activated by his son, and is the mechanism by which Zod finds him? It's another illogical contrivance (as bad as that sentence!) to allow Zod to arrive on Earth before Clark has fully become Superman.
Zod of The Two Finales. In the first finale, Zod unleashes a "World Machine" to recreate Krypton on Earth, essentially by altering the gravitational force of the planet and in the process killing everyone and destroying everything. Why do this at this point in the Superman storyline? Are we supposed to look forward to a coming battle of droll wit and Kryptonite with Lex Luthor after watching Kal defeat three equivalent superior beings and an alien supermachine? When the World Machine is destroyed just before the next precise ten-foot increment would have crushed post-9/11-covered-in-ash Perry White and Jenny Olson, I have to admit, I had kind of had enough.
Superman is not a post-apocalyptic hero. He is a hero with the capability of preventing tragedies like 9/11 or reversing the Christmas Day Tsunami. How many hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people would have been killed by the World Machine? Were Kryptonians really just slightly more advanced destructive colonists than the aliens of Independence Day? Can there really be a Metropolis with a Daily Planet, doing business as usual, just a few weeks after the world has been subjected to apocalyptic terraforming by an alien race? Before we could answer any of those questions, though, a seemingly interminable mano-a-mano battle between Kal and Zod destroys another huge chunk of the region, undoubtedly killing thousands more bystanders, before being decided over the fate of five people huddled against a wall in the Metropolis train station.
Why couldn't that final battle have been the only finale, and been contested on a much smaller scale of destruction? Zod's quirky menace, as portrayed by Michael Shannon (BTW this, PG-13!!), only becomes truly meaningful after he escapes from the World Machine, removes his helmet to show how rapidly he has adapted to Earth's atmosphere, and monologues to Kal. He describes dispassionately how every Kryptonian has a genetically determined purpose. (His lieutenants were engineered to be sadistic psychopaths, clearly.) Finally, we understand that Zod was bred, engineered, to be a soldier, a General, and to fight for the survival of Krypton to his dying breath. Zod is incapable of choosing any other path.
It's actually all kind of interesting. Zod ultimately needs to kill Kal-El not because he is evil, but because he must obtain the Kryptonian genetic code (implanted in Kal by Jor-El) in order to fulfill his inviolable purpose. Kal will not join Zod, because it would mean the destruction of his home. Kal-El, Clark, has been given the freedom of choice by his parents, both natural and adoptive, which ultimately makes him more human (read - American) than Kryptonian. Zod believes that this makes him weak, because he is not trained or genetically programmed to make the choice to kill. Of course he is wrong, and Kal is ultimately strong enough to make the choice to kill Zod and protect his adopted home.
This just happens about 45 minutes too late. Kal's choice to kill Zod might have been a powerful dilemma for the newly-minted Man of Steel, had Zod not already killed millions of people and announced his intention to reform Earth into Krypton. (Or if he was a human enemy, say Lex Luthor.) It 's pretty much a no-brainer by the time Kal finally gets around to it, so even though it clearly affects him, it really doesn't affect us much. At that point, we need for Zod to be dead and Clark to throw on some glasses, so we can go to the bathroom.
Man of Steel has so much contrived and extraneous debris that it clouds the worthy mythology adjustment that I think Nolan and Snyder were trying to achieve. As functioning human beings, we all have to learn not just to let go of the pain of our developmental obstacles, no matter how tragic, but to incorporate those experiences into Who We Are. Peter Parker learns to be Spiderman. Bruce Wayne becomes Batman. I'm MinivanDad. Once Clark Kent discovers that he is the Man of Steel, he has to choose to become Superman. Nolan himself already showed us that the responsibility of this superhero choice, and it's consequences, are powerful enough to carry a great film. It would have been plenty here too, without having to bury Metropolis under a mountain of ash and Superman under a pile of psychoanalytical angst.