It’s unfair to compare adaptations across media. A movie should stand on its own, and even if it comes from a book, comic book, webcomic, dirty limerick, homeless guy’s subway ravings, it should stand on its own as a discrete work. A lot of the criticism of the Goyer/Snyder/Nolan joint Man of Steel, centered around its treatment of Superman. I’m throwing all that aside. I’m reviewing this movie like I don’t even know who Superman is. And I’m pretty sure that’s how the movie was made as well.
More Accurate Tagline: In the grim darkness of the present, there is only angst.
Guilty Party: There’s a lot to go around here, so I’m going to lay it on the Goyer/Snyder/Nolan triumvirate. These three are like the Three Musketeers, if D’Artagnan died after all four of them had a paint-eating contest and they were always on the way to his funeral. These three hate humor the way Rick Perry hates knowing things. Goyer and Nolan were more successful in their gritty grimdark portrayal of superheroes when they were working with an actual gritty grimdark hero in Batman, but here they try their schtick with an alien who flies around in primary-colored tights and assaults wealthy industrialists with alopecia. Goyer and Nolan, already on shaky intellectual ground, threw things to Zack Snyder, who never had a thought he didn’t immediately attempt to rape. They threw together a boring, humorless slog and called it a movie.
Synopsis: Krypton is royally fucked. The planet’s core is exploding, and no one seems to care. This is what they get when they buy their technology from the Engineers. Amongst this, scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and scientist’s wife Lara (who cares, she’s a complete non-entity) have the first natural birth in thousands of years. This is super important for the movie because… actually, it doesn’t really matter. There’s some silliness about choice, but it’s really just an excuse to re-use the “endless fields, Neo, where human beings are not born. They are grown.” Seriously, those exact CGI sets from The Matrix are recycled, except they’re put under water. I hope the Wachowskis got some royalties.
Anyway, General Zod (Michael Shannon) is really mad about this whole apocalypse thing, and starts a coup. He wants to somehow save the Codex (stored in a monkey skull in a giant pool for some reason), which is the map of the genetic material of the entire species, but only wants to save some bloodlines, which Jor-El objects to. How they plan to save anything when it’s pretty clear the planet only has one working spacecraft and it’s designed for an infant is anyone’s guess. Jor-El sticks the Codex in his son (don’t worry, he warms it up first), and Zod is arrested for treason. Then, the ruling council of Krypton tries and convicts Zod and his crew. Then they’re put in space dicks and flown up to an interdimensional prison.
…so apparently, instead of saving maybe some scientists, artists, leaders, that kind of thing, the Kryptonians decided to put their most dangerous criminals in the one lifeboat the planet has. Yeah, Kryptonians are fucking morons.
The pod containing Jor-El’s kid crashes in some farmland, but then we’re suddenly in an episode of Deadliest Catch. I don’t know either. A bearded guy we later find out is named Clark is wrestling with his humanity, his accent, and a crippling flashback addiction, not having much luck with any of them. He saves some folks on an oil rig, then steals some pants and works in a truck stop for awhile. When some guy harasses him, Clark impales the man’s semi on some logs and telephone wires because secret identities are for assholes. The flashbacks go back to his childhood when his father Jonathan Kent teaches him the most important lesson of being a hero: you should never save anyone because it might inconvenience you or your family somewhere down the line. Jonathan is a goddamn monster.
Clark hears about some weird object in the ice from a couple soldiers chatting about it at the truck stop — no, seriously, this is what happens — and suddenly he’s up on some kind of top secret Arctic military base, calling himself “Joe” and everyone’s cool with this. Lois Lane (Amy Adams), a reporter, also shows up on this military base, so at this point I’m just assuming that the armed forces in this reality communicate secrets to different branches entirely through stage whispering and highway billboards. Clark uses his laser eyes to get into the object — which turns out to be a spaceship — and he and Lois have a meet cute that involves him cauterizing her wounds with those same laser eyes. The ship is full of mummies (oh no!), but after Clark plugs in a data stick Jor-El sent to earth with him, Jor-El suddenly gets uploaded into the ship to tell Clark his origin story (oh yeah!). Clark is Kal-El of Krypton, and he was sent to earth because through a combination of solar radiation, atmosphere, and gravity, he would get superpowers. And then he could save everyone and help humanity be awesome. Jor-El is going to be pissed when he finds out Clark happened to land in a serial killer’s backyard.
Clark flies off in his new ship, leaving Lois behind. She uses her reporter magic and tracks Clark down to his hometown (which is never named in the dialogue, so I’m calling it Americatown). Weirdly, she finds Martha Kent (Diane Lane), and then Clark meets Lois at Jonathan’s grave, leading me to believe Martha must have called her son. Nope, a later scene establishes they’d never talked about Lois. Weird. Clark convinces Lois to kill the story, because his dad told him to hide.
Finally Zod and the bad guys show up. After Krypton exploded, the interdimensional prison freed them, so yeah, there was no reason not to use that as an ark and let the convicted traitors die on the planet. They modified the prison into a starship and went around the galaxy visiting old Kryptonian outposts, scavenging equipment. Zod also found the time to grow some douchebro chin pubes, but sadly he never produces a backwards-facing baseball cap to go with them. Zod reveals all this in a dream sequence, which made no sense until I hit myself in the bead with a baseball bat a couple times. Now I get it, and I’ve learned misery has a taste. Zod demands that Kal-El be turned over to him, and Clark surrenders to the military to make this happen.
In an interrogation room, Lois points out the S on his chest (It’s not an S, Clark explains, it means hope on Krypton), and suggests he be called “Super–” but then feedback cuts her off. Man, the movie did not want her to finish that thought. Wonder what that’s about?
The military turns Clark over to the Kryptonians and they also demand Lois, probably because they saw Amy Adams in the credits and figured she was important. Seriously, that’s the only reason. Lois uploads Jor-El into the ship, and then she and Clark escape. Zod and company decide to go bother Martha, and that produces a big fistfight. Clark takes out Zod rather easily by disabling his helmet, which then overloads Zod’s sensitive Kryptonian senses with the cacophony of earth. When two more Kryptonians come down to fight, I figured Clark would just disable their helmets for a quick win. Nope, instead he destroys as much of Americatown as he can with a pointless brawl. This is actually pretty good character development: we’ve already established Kryptonians are so fucking stupid they couldn’t figure out how lifeboats work, and Jonathan instilled in Clark a deep indifference to the suffering of others. Anyway, the military shows up, shoots everyone, but comes to a grudging respect for Clark.
Zod has had enough of Clark’s bullshit, and he sends a World Engine, which is a giant machine that will convert Earth into Krypton (the exact opposite of “terraforming,” which is how a scientist describes it because David Goyer, like David Lindelof, doesn’t know that words mean things). Clark deals with this, while the military goes after Zod’s ship, presently reducing Metropolis to rubble. They plan to drop a bomb made out of the pod Clark came to earth in. Oh, right around here, an embarrassed soldier refers to Clark as “Superman,” and it’s never brought up again, as the mood is sure to emphasize that this is a stupid and shameful name.
Anyway, Clark destroys the World Engine and the military takes out the ship, leaving Clark to fight Zod. He does this by guiding Zod into the sections of the city that haven’t been demolished by the ship, and then punching him into as many buildings as he can. This is a great way to show how thoroughly he learned from his dad: people should not be saved because fuck them. Eventually he corners Zod in a train station and Zod threatens to kill four people with his laser eyes. For some reason, these four really matter to Clark and he decides to kill Zod (and deal with some minor constipation at the same time). And in the most unrealistic part of the film, Clark rolls into a totally rebuilt city, and gets a job as a journalist at a newspaper.
Life-Changing Subtext: Human beings are useless and helpless insects.
Defining Quote: There are so many terrible lines in this thing, it’s tough to pick just one. I’m going to go with a line at the end of the film, after Clark has supposedly learned his lesson and accepted his role as Space Jesus. He and Lois kiss, and she says, “You know, they say it’s downhill after the first kiss,” to which he responds, “I’m pretty sure that only counts when you’re kissing a human.”
SHE’S A HUMAN, YOU INSUFFERABLE DICK.
She’s a human, just like all the people you allowed to die with nary a thought. Get the fuck off my planet, you Kryptonian paraquat.
Standout Performance: She doesn’t have much to do, but I enjoyed Antje Traue as Zod’s right hand Faora-Ul. Other than her harsh Teutonic beauty, she appeared to be the Kryptonian most comfortable with the action sequences. Even though her fight with Clark should have ended when he instantly pulled her helmet off, she did more interesting things with her powers than anyone else. And it was in an IHOP.
What’s Wrong: The movie seems to believe this Clark person is not just someone we should cheer for, but someone we should worship. The film wallows in unearned Christ imagery, first as Clark floats in the water after saving the guys on the oil rig (to be fair, Jesus has been quite clear on his love of fossil fuels), sitting in a church by some stained glass (Jesus was also known for sitting), then floating away from a ship he just punched (Jesus was also a huge fan of punching things). It’s the fundamental disconnect with what the movie believes it’s showing, and what it is actually showing.
Flash of Competence: It looks good, although Zack Snyder has fallen in love with that faux-documentary shooting style I hate. It’s like he’s cycling through all the overused cliches of directing one by one. That guy is the herpetic carbuncle on the cock of American cinema.
Best Scenes: It’s jarring when you’re watching a movie and you realize the filmmakers have an entirely different idea of what a word means than you do. In this case, “alien.” An alien is something you’re born as, yet for some reason Clark suddenly turns into an alien in the middle of class. I wonder if Goyer et al think animals spontaneously turn into other animals? Maybe they’re terrified of cats thinking they’ll become crocodiles.
I should mention my favorite scene in the movie. After a schoolbus goes over a bridge, Clark (a kid himself) saves all the kids inside. Jonathan takes the opportunity to yell at him. When Clark asks “Should I have let them die?” Jonathan’s answer is “Maybe.” No. No is the word you were looking for there, Jonathan. Letting children die is never the right answer for a hero.
While fighting in the IHOP, Faora utters a truly baffling bon mot. She tells Clark that he has morality and she and the other Kryptonians do not. First off… what the fuck person actually says this? Everyone thinks they are moral. But that’s not the truly stupid part of the line. She claims her lack of morality “gives us an evolutionary advantage. And evolution always wins.” That isn’t even close to how you use that word. You might as well put any other word there and it would make the same amount of sense. “We have a Wednesday advantage. And Wednesday always wins.” And the Lindelof Award for Using a Big Scientific Word in an Attempt to Sound Smart that Goes Horribly Awry goes to David S. Goyer.
Zod wants to use the Codex to bring Kryptonians back, and appeals to Clark on this level. It would work but for one thing: Jonathan Kent taught Clark the valuable lesson of letting children die.
Transcendent Moment: This movie undermines itself with such gleeful frequency it’s tough to pick a moment. Still, it has to be the tornado.
Jonathan, Martha, and Clark are driving along, and Clark has a “yer not my daaaad!” moment, when a tornado hits. Jonathan instantly hops out of the car and starts ordering everyone to go to the overpass. Now you might think this is the result of poor research, since someone living in Kansas would know that this is the worst place to go in the event of a tornado. But this is Jonathan Kent we’re talking about. He fucking hates people and wants as many dead as possible. Children especially. So he’s setting them up.
Then, they see a dog is trapped in a car. Jonathan is in the process of carrying a little girl to the overpass (the monster!), but hands her to Clark (so he can get a little blood on his hands and see that it feels good) to save the dog. Never mind that Clark has super speed, and there are winds and debris everywhere, so he could conceivably not show people that he is an invulnerable god. Nope. Jonathan goes himself. And when Clark wants to save him, Jonathan does this perfect passive aggressive pose, like “no… I’m fine… see… you have to let people die…”
It’s still the funniest thing I’ve ever seen in a superhero movie.
The magic of Man of Steel isn’t that it’s a shitty Superman movie — we’ve had plenty of those. It’s that it’s a shitty movie that’s ashamed to be a Superman movie. In the end, it’s a tale told by three idiots, full of sound, fury, and tornadoes.