Spoilers ahead for those who haven't read everything else written about this movie. And this is going to be a sort of rambling stream-of-consciousness sort of thing. So if halfway through you think it is inscrutable, feel free to bail.
In 2003, The Matrix Revolutions came out and I was there. While I was completely disappointed with the movie, the climax scene has Neo fighting Agent Smith in a city ... flying, punching, and smashing their way through a brutal brawl. At the time I said to myself that I had just seen the template for a future Superman movie.
It turns out I was prophetic.
Three days ago, I saw Man of Steel, a movie which culminated with the hero and villain fighting in a city ... flying, punching and smashing their way through a brutal brawl. But more on that later.
Like many, I have been looking forward to Man of Steel since I heard it was being made. I was optimistic given that writer David Goyer wrote the critically acclaimed Dark Knight movies and Zack Snyder brought a visceral feel to 300. In the same fashion, I was wary because I thought some parts of Dark Knight Returns and Dark Knight Rises felt off. I thought the Dark Knight Returns went on too long with too many 'climaxes', so many that by the time James Gordon Jr. is being threatened by Two-Face I no longer had energy to care. And I saw the flaws in Snyder's style in Watchmen and Sucker Punch. Man of Steel was the very definition of cautious optimism ... and it was founded.
Because there are parts of Man of Steel I very much like. And there are parts that feel so wrong that I don't know if I can recommend it. It is the problem with Superman ... he is supposed to be above us and inspire us. But it is hard to look that long at the sun. We want to make Superman more like us, bring him down to our level, to make him interpretable to us. When, in fact, we should be trying to understand him.
The film starts on Krypton where the world has become sterile and stale. Children are born in pods that look suspiciously like the battery towers of the Matrix. Those newborns are made via a scientific mix of Kryptonian DNA. The babies are programmed with their lot in life. They know what they will be (I suppose what guild they will belong to) immediately. Kal, on the other hand, is a 'naturally born' baby, the first in centuries. Already there is a specialness about him, something new and vital. General Zod tries to unseat the existing government and Jor steals the Kryptonian Genome, imbues Kal with its knowledge and sends Kal on his way.
But this scene, as it unfolded, felt too long and complicated. The information about the Genome Codex and the state of Krypton was conveyed. But I also have to digest scenes of the military fighting Zod's men. We see Jor-El flying a winged horse-thing. And we see Jor-El and Zod engage in a fistfight that Jor-El wins! Kal is rocketed away and Zod kills Jor-El. It is some time later that Zod is imprisoned with his men in the Phantom Zone and the planet explodes.
I didn't need to see 'Action Hero' Jor-El flying through a battle and throwing punches. I certainly didn't need to see Zod kill him. And by delaying the destruction of Krypton, we lose the famous scene of the planet crumbling around Jor-El and Lara as they make their decision to rocket Kal to Earth.
The next hour of the movie is really the high point of the movie for me. We see Clark struggling to find his place on Earth, trying to lose himself in menial jobs and hiding his powers until he must reveal them to save people from danger.
In flashbacks, we see how troubled his life in Smallville was. He is constantly picked on by the other children. And Pa tells him to hide his powers until the time is right, until the world is ready to look up to something. But he is loved but the Kents and accepted. Even the death of Pa, being swept up in a tornado while telling Clark to stay back and not reveal his powers, worked for me. It showed the depths of Pa's convictions. It showed Clark how personal sacrifice needs to happen sometimes to save people.
In the end, Clark discovers his origins when he enters a Kryptonian ship which crashed on Earth 18,000 years earlier. A key from his rocket opens up Jor-El AI which explains everything. Jor-El (and his AI 'ghost) has a way bigger role in this movie than I anticipated, popping up and having a crucial role in saving the day.
Meanwhile, Lois, played tremendously by Amy Adams, shows just how good an investigative reporter she is, witnessing Clark in the spaceship and tracking her leads all the way back to Smallville. Adams is perfect for Lois ... smart, tough, and determined ... inserting herself into the story.
Of course, Zod arrives, looking for the Kryptonian Codex and Superman has to reveal himself. The scenes that follow where Superman talks to Ma, talks to a Smallville priest, turns himself into the military and talks to Lois work too. There is a sort of 'aw shucks' innocence to Henry Cavill's Clark, a guy who is unsure just what he is supposed to be, just what he is supposed to do, yet understanding he needs to go public and become a hero.
But once these scenes are over, what is left is a long brawl between Clark and the Phantom Zone villains. And this is where the problem lies. I know I am echoing Mark Waid's recent review but frankly I would think that Superman would be trying as hard to protect us as he be interested in fighting.
The first fight scene takes place down Smallville's main street. With people scurrying around, Superman engages Zod's troops, fighting in enclosed spaces like an IHOP filled with patrons. I can think of a million explanations for Superman to take the fight somewhere else. But he doesn't.
After destroying Zod's plans to turn Earth into New Krypton, after Lois helps zap Zod's troops back to the Zone, we have the second long fight scene ... an absolutely gratuitous violent melee that levels most of Metropolis. We see Superman and Zod throwing each other through buildings, rippling through skyscrapers, tossing cars at each other. And all while we see citizens in the background running for cover. The damage Superman and Zod do to the city easily must have killed hundreds of thousands if not millions of people.
Where was the scene we have all witnessed in comics. Superman flying into the villain, bear hugging him, and taking him somewhere deserted. That could have been done here. Heck, we could have simply been told that a portion of the city was evacuated. Instead we see Superman more intent on fighting than saving, literally bringing the city down onto the heads of its people.
And then, to make matters worse, Superman ends up killing Zod.
So much for having the people of Earth being inspired, of seeing someone we can look up to.
Superman recklessly brings a city down around him and kills his opponent. Sure, we see he immediately regrets it. But still ... Superman kills someone.
Yes, the effects are incredible and the fight scene is slickly done. Yes, it shows just what the destruction would be if two super-beings fought in a city. But, this is Superman. And Superman simply doesn't kill. Nor does he bring down a city on top of its citizens, most likely killing them indirectly.
On top of that, I felt that whole scene felt like the end of Dark Knight Returns again. The climax of the movie should be the return of the villains to the Zone. Surely there must have been a way in the script to put in the fight scene between Superman and Zod earlier, have him fling Zod back to his troops and then send them on there way to the Phantom Zone.Instead it comes later and ends with Superman executing someone.
There was only one part of the movie that gave me goose bumps. While Zod and Superman fight, Superman blasts the 'birthing towers' that Zod has found, very physically putting Krypton behind him and embracing Earth as his home. When Kal screams 'Krypton had her chance' while heat visioning the place, I was on the edge of my seat. It is a great moment.
( Aside: There was a lot about Superman Returns I did not like. A lot. But the scenes where he saves the plane and the scene at the end when he risks his life to hoist the growing K-riddled land mass into the sun gave me goose bumps. That's two goose bump scenes to one.)
I know I am glossing over the good parts a lot, the solid middle hour plus of the movie. This was good story-telling. And it was great to Superman push himself to the limits. But the character building and evolving relationship between Lois and Superman, between Superman and the people of Earth, was sort of forgotten after the loud ending. It is hard for me to dwell on the good things when there was (at least for me) such a major misstep at the end.
I do wonder if people not so tied to the mystique of Superman will like the movie more.
Overall grade: C
PS: This also gives me great pause when thinking about Supergirl appearing in the second movie. I can imagine them making her a hard-line Kryptonian, questioning Clark's decisions, and turning her into the villain. Hopefully, if she appears in a movie, it is as a hero.