By Angelica Chong (14A01B) and Kylie Wong (14A01B)
There is no such thing as a perfect Superman movie. Hell, there’s no such thing as a perfect movie, period. But throw some character archetypes and plot tropes together and something good just might come out of it. It’s a little trickier when you’re dealing with Superman.
To rephrase Sylvia Plath, ‘if you expect nothing, you’re never disappointed’. Well, it’s true – but this is Superman we’re talking about, with the iconic blue spandex and red cape, the righteous arm of justice thrust forward in flight, the disturbingly disproportionate shoulder-to-hip ratio. To say the movie was overhyped would be an understatement.
So perhaps Man of Steel was already crippled from the start, but it could still have been a good movie. Snyder chose to tackle the origin story, which was a brave move on his part – and it paid off for the first half of the movie. The scenes of a dying Krypton were beautifully shot and managed to capture some of the intricacies of its alien technology and culture without being overly expository. Also, there was a cool dragon.
We watch Clark grow up with his human family, slowly learning about his powers and coming to terms with the fact that he’s different. The flashbacks to Clark’s childhood were poignant and the scenes with Jonathan Kent filled with a quiet love. Honestly, I thought we were actually Getting Somewhere.
We weren’t. As the movie progressed, lack of character development, gaping plot-holes, and gratuitous fight scenes weren’t the biggest problems; the movie simply staggered – and collapsed – under the weight of Superman’s legacy, and consequently, it’s very apparent inability to uphold it.
JJ Abrams once said, “I love movies that are big and unabashedly a huge fan of big pop mass appeal movies. I love being in a theatre packed with people and everyone gasping at the same time and having that communal experience. The reason you go to the movies is to feel bigger and stronger and happier.” This rings true not just for all superhero movies, but for Superman in particular – he’s the one to beat. So why was it that when I stumbled out of the movie theatre, 143 minutes later, I felt anything but bigger and stronger and happier? Isn’t that what Superman was supposed to make you feel?
Let’s put aside plot contrivances and ludicrous deus ex machinas–
- When the Kryptonian high council very short-sightedly sends their political enemies into a black hole, the safest place they can possibly be, right before their planet implodes,
- Sub-Commander “oops-let-me-just-throw-Lois-Lane-into-a-room-with-a-conveniently-placed-master-control-panel” Faora,
- And the numerous times Clark Kent somehow manages to get things to go his way (access to a highly secure military site, a job as a reporter even though all his previous jobs were manual labor) because, let’s face it, he’s ridiculously handsome
–and focus instead on the man himself: Kal-el; Clark Kent; Superman.
It’s easy to mischaracterize Superman. He’s not edgy and broody like Batman, he’s not flashy and charismatic like Iron Man, and he’s definitely not a perpetually angry giant green scientist. What he is, as director Zack Snyder of 300 fame so ham-fistedly told us, is a god. He is elevated as a messiah god-king in the movie, not just by his parents, who send him off to Earth with his cells full of Kryptonian genetic material (as if he’s some sort of living breathing Noah’s Ark) but also by his foster parents and those who witness his miracles. This could have been excellently pulled off: the Other, coming to our world because his planet was literally destroyed, protecting humans not because he’s stronger or better, but because he is one of us – and becoming a living myth in the process. It ties in perfectly with Clark Kent’s own existential crisis about his family and his home and what it truly means to be human.
But, alas, this movie was directed by Zack Snyder, who has the subtlety of a wrecking ball.
So instead we get an uncomfortably framed religiously zealous worship on one side, Jesus pose in space and all, and the thick-headed ‘shoot first, questions later’ modus operandi of the American Army on the other. Meanwhile, Henry Cavill looks amazingly sculpted in the skin-tight suit, but unfortunately doesn’t contribute much else to the movie. Lois Lane starts off promising, as a no-nonsense, highly competent journalist – as she should be – and then plummets (literally). Again. And again.
Character development is hard – fine. But surely Hollywood has action done to a science? Apparently not. I only have two questions: firstly, why is the same fight scene (Superman throws bad guys around, bad guys throw Superman around, buildings and cities are wrecked, etc. etc.) repeated ad nauseam? Secondly, how many times has New York City been ripped to pieces by angry aliens with scary-looking energy beams? The answer to both questions, I’m afraid, is: enough to make me fall asleep during one of what must have been the noisiest battle scenes in movie history. (There were explosions, everything went to pieces; I didn’t miss anything.)
The biggest problem with Man of Steel though, was that it had no heart. And that is what Superman essentially is – heart, the human spirit, humanity. Superman is not Bruce Wayne is not a Spartan warrior. It seems like Snyder and Nolan got so caught up with what they could do that they missed what had to be done. The new Superman movie didn’t need scene after scene of aliens destroying Kansas, it didn’t need a dramatic death-by-hurricane for Clark’s father, and it sure as hell didn’t need this Superman to completely undermine one of his core values by violently snapping Zod’s neck.
There is a tendency these days to over-complicate superhero movies. Superheroes are seen as childish and simple. Directors feel the need to spice things up by throwing more punches around or stylizing characters into the Darkest Timeline versions of themselves. Even the name ‘Superman’ is hardly uttered on the movie; only once significantly by a soldier that shrugs and says ‘that’s what everyone’s calling him’, as if the idea of calling Superman, Superman was something that didn’t fit in with what the New Age superhero should be. So we may get a grittier, ‘cooler’ version of Superman, but it’s not any more authentic. By creating so much spectacle and flash, the essential mythos of Superman has gone missing. Every piece of Superman media has at least attempted to posit the question of what it means to be human, and where Kal-el the alien immigrant fits into Clark Kent, Kansas boy. In the case of Man of Steel, Snyder and Nolan have come up empty.