I should preface this review with the declaration that I am a massive comic book nerd. What this means, apart from the fact I can impress the laydeez by listing the entire historical line-up of the Avengers, is that I am welded to certain ideas about how super-heroes are presented, and how they act. I readily admit that some of my problems with the new Superman movie, Man of Steel, fall into finicky comic book shop guy territory. I like to tell myself that the other ones are more reasonable.
1. Why so serious?
Damn, this is a dour movie. It’s written by David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan, the same team responsible for resurrecting the Batman franchise, and they’ve approached Superman with similar grittiness and gravity. But even Batman Begins and The Dark Knight (and, I guess, the third-one- that-must-not-be-named) let Bruce Wayne make a few gags, and the Joker had a terrifying hilarity about him. Man of Steel is all saccharine morality scenes and Christ-analogies, and the few jokes that exist are forced and lame. This is a Superman that is treated with so much reverence that it saps all the fun out of the character.
2. Henry Cavill is super
There are big red boots to fill when playing the role of Superman. First, there’re the physical demands of being a perfect human specimen. Luckily for Henry Cavill, he won the genetic lottery and was born really, really good looking. My wife said it was a toss up between him and Chris Hemsworth as Thor for the title of hottest pretend super-hero. This means I will have to fight both of them, which no doubt makes them quake in their rippling, skin-tight, beautiful-person body suits.
Then there’s the acting demands. Some have said that the role requires you to play two characters: Superman and Clark Kent. This dual role was perfected by Christopher Reeve, and any actor tackling the challenge has to make the decision whether to imitate him, as Brandon Roth did admirably in Superman Returns, or go it alone. Henry Cavill’s performance as Superman has shades of Reeve, projecting strength, integrity, and a hint of arrogance, but his acting is more understated, and a lot more brooding. Unfortunately, we don’t really get to see much of his Clark Kent as disguise persona, which could have been a source of much needed levity, as it was in the Richard Donner films. Still, he can’t really be blamed for not having much to work with, so gold star for Mr Cavill. Handsome bastard.
3. Superman is callous as hell
One of the things I had the biggest problem with was how Superman seemed to give zero fucks about the thousands of people that were probably dying all around him.
Appropriately enough for a character that stars in Action Comics, there are a lot of fight scenes in this movie, and they are accompanied by a lot of destruction. Superman gets thrown through buildings and punches enemies into gas tankers and smashes General Zod blindly through a few skyscrapers. The amount of damage done to both Smallville and Metropolis is on the scale of a disaster movie. Throughout, our hero makes no attempt to move the battle away from populated areas or protect innocents, he just keeps on slugging away, completely justifying people’s fear of him as an alien weapon of mass destruction. This also robs the fight scenes of the potential tension of putting the good guy at the disadvantage of having to protect bystanders.
The movie in general suffered from an abundance of callousness. A giant anti-gravity weapon pulverises the middle of a city, but we are supposed to feel relieved that a handful of ancillary characters escape. And speaking of insensitivity, I know that many action movies of the last ten years have heavily referenced 9/11, either directly or indirectly, but the collapsing skyscrapers and clouds of ash struck me as a bit exploitative, even by Hollywood blockbuster standards.
4. Superman doesn’t do… that.
Like many hysterical fan boys, I’m not happy with the climax of the movie. Oblique reference to spoiler alert, but Superman does something that Superman isn’t supposed to do. The writers must have known that this would be controversial and alienate some of the fan base, and why they chose to go down this path is something of a mystery to me. I can only assume they felt the need to make the character grittier and more tortured for a modern audience, which is not, in my opinion, where his appeal lies. One of the cool things about Superman is that he’s powerful enough so that he can reasonably be expected to find different ways of resolving grave problems. But even if you don’t care about the existing interpretations of the character, the story does not demonstrate that this moment is justified, which is a much bigger problem.
5. In conclusion, Man of Steel wasn’t terrible. I was entertained. There were some good action scenes. It was just… Super-meh. It made me want to go watch the Richard Donner movies. In fact, I think that’s what I’ll go do.