I will be up front about the fact that, until recent years, I hated Superman. He always fell short of Batman in my mind. His struggles were never real enough, his story wasn’t one I cared for, even his love interest made me grit my teeth: Lois Lane never seemed to wise up so much as become more of a wisecrack. Which is why, even though I’d since let go of my hate, I was still stunned to see myself not only interested in a Superman movie but actively keeping an eye out for mention of it. Perhaps it was because of Christopher Nolan’s attachment, or my enjoyment of Zack Snyder’s past efforts (specifically Watchmen, though I’ve also a fondness for his work in 300), but I was curious. The fact that Hans Zimmer was doing the soundtrack didn’t hurt either.
So when I finally sat down yesterday with my companion to watch Man of Steel, I had reached the full point of excitement. Previously I bought the only song they released and listened to it daily. I knew one of the trailers by heart and I couldn’t wait to see what they had done.
When I walked out some two hours later, I was left only saying, “Hmm.”
The issues I have with this movie required me to sleep on them because I couldn’t quite name the problems. Visually, this was stunning. From Krypton’s sharp orange explosions and steely scientific wonders to Kansas’ softer browns and greenery to Metropolis’ black and edgy towers, this was an absolutely gorgeous movie to look at.
What was the problem then? Was it the actors? No. Everyone stepped up to the plate and knocked it out of the park. The flow of every scene was natural, easy to listen to, and a pleasure to watch. I was extremely pleased to see the development of Superman’s biological mother, Lara Lor-Van. The growth of her character into the reminder that she was the last woman standing on Krypton is definitely one of the film’s unmistakable glory moments. Amy Adams even made Lois Lane feel human to me, a feeling I’ve had a hard time grabbing hold of for years. I can honestly say the women in this movie were outstanding. They were fully-fleshed human beings put there to anchor the movie, not just to titillate, which is a constant failure in many films, but more so in superhero flicks. Character-wise, this was a top notch film.
The script in itself was tidy with a fun, fast-paced plot. If I have a real complaint about the script at all, it’s that I felt some of the action scenes could have been cut down. As it is, it feels as if some of them were extended to let us leisurely enjoy super powered people fling each other through buildings. I’m not saying it isn’t enjoyable in itself but definitely time-consuming. The directing is subtle, the camera swooping and gliding, taking us through the world of Superman with an effortless grace. So why on earth did I walk out with a vague feeling of displeasure in my gut?
I figured it out today. There weren’t millions of issues, just one solitary problem that unraveled the whole thing for me. For all the beauty of the movie, for the talent of the actors and the smoothness of the camera, Man of Steel is missing the one element that the movie fought to be anchored around: humanity. There is a disturbing emptiness in the chest of this movie, something alien and distressingly distant from real feeling.
It’s like watching Clark Kent dress up as…well, Clark Kent but not bother to hide the cape tucked under his shirt.
Man of Steel wants you to feel that Superman is just like us. Or that he’s become like us enough that we forget who he really is. The figurative beating heart of the entire franchise is the belief that Superman is one of ours. But the problem is that he’s not. And you never ever forget that. There are stirrings of compassion for him when he is younger, I will say that much. Also, whoever did the casting for the younger Clark did an exceptional job. But the sympathy I felt was more like the squeezing heartfelt sorrow for those labeled as misfits and bullied because of it. As people began to see him as friend instead of foe, I was left with the thought that he was their alien helper that wore a face like ours, walked like us and sounded like us but in a moment, he could toss himself into the air and fly off to battle monsters.
I can accept him as that. I can accept his differences because there isn’t anything wrong with being from alien race or being anything that could be labeled as “other”. But that isn’t what the film wanted me to leave with. He is Superman yet he is relied upon because he is something else all together. And it is perhaps because of everything Man of Steel did to try and convince us otherwise that makes that fact even more obvious than it ever was before.
Without that belief in his borrowed humanity, the film unraveled for me and I’m left feeling oddly bereft, as if the potential for something as great as Batman Begins has passed us by, flying off with a great sonic boom into the horizon.
Man of Steel is now playing in theaters everywhere.
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