I have not watched a single Snyderverse movie. Superhero fatigue hit me many moons ago… about the same time I started culturally appropriating phrases. I haven’t seen most Marvel movies or TV shows after Captain America: Winter Soldier either. Spider-Man and Batman are the only superheroes who tempt me and only if they are in stand-alone films.
Superman never tripped my trigger. I have nothing against the character. He’s an icon, perhaps the icon when it comes to comic books. Superman has been the star of classic movies. He’s been the star of classic comics. As for me, my favorite Superman movie and story is Superman III. I’m not even being ironic. I eat that movie up with a fork in both hands. Richard Pryor skiing off a skyscraper and making fake Kryptonite by guessing at the final ingredient. Annette O’Toole in Smallville. Pamela Stephenson a secret genius. Robert Vaughn hamming it up. Evil Superman flicking peanuts in a bar and battling his better half in a junkyard. And that nasty supercomputer turning that poor woman into a cyborg is nightmare fuel.
Yet, there comes a time when a person must grow outside their zone or stagnate in their rut. So, the day has finally arrived. I will dip my toe into the Synderverse. Spoilers will abound since I am ten years late to the party. First up…
Man Of Steel
The movie starts by making me think it’s Batman ’89. A camera zips around the inside of a stone emblem. Since Man of Steel and Batman ’89 are both DC films, it is more homage than plagiarism. A homage is respectful copying. Plagiarism is sneaky copying.
Man of Steel opens on a woman’s anguished face. It turns out to be Superman’s mom giving birth to him. This brings up an important question. What would happen if Supergirl gave birth? Would she have any pain? I think she’d shoot the kid out like a spitball. A doctor would set up a net 100 yards away. They could borrow one from a circus that has a human cannonball.
Krypton appears to have animals that came from the latest iteration of Skull Island. Its people also wear outfits that look like they came from Giger’s Dune. The planet must have a robust import/export system. They also have something called a Codex that sounds McGuffin-y. Maybe they imported that from the 1986 Transformers universe.
Michael Shannon shows up, and it’s clear he’s cooking with something special. He’s got a swaggering psycho machismo about him that makes me want to start goosestepping. I don’t even care what his ideology is; with that kind of charisma, it has to be reasonable and practical. Russell Crowe, who plays Superman’s father, disagrees.
Russell Crow beats up some Harkonnens and takes off on his dragon. He goes for a swim in the Matrix universe to grab an ape skull, hops back on his dragon and crash-lands it. Déjà vu strikes me. Where have I seen a person crash-land a dragon before? Fire and Ice, maybe? No matter. Russell then shoots baby Superman into space; Shannon kills him with a Robocop spike; and Krypton explodes like it ate Taco Bell; but not before Russell beams the ape skull into baby Superman’s chest.
Rereading that paragraph makes it sound like I typed it while having a stroke. But, no, that’s what happened. So far, Man of Steel is coming off a bit excessive. I prefer the Superman ’78 version of all of this. Krypton in the Donner version looked like an alien place, and those reflective jumpsuits were aces. The planet in Man of Steel looks like a hodgepodge of other movies smashed together.
Man Of Creel
We get our first look at a grown-up Superman on Earth. He looks a lot like Henry Cavill and works on a crab boat. He appears to be roaming the earth like the 1970s Incredible Hulk. Cavill takes off his shirt to let us get a look at the fruits of his vitamin regimen. He rescues a bunch of drillers from a burning oil rig and takes a dip in the ocean, where he happens upon a flashback.
The flashback gives us backstory on Superman as a kid. He is at that age where he starts to notice that girls are different under their clothes…and their skin…and their muscles. His X-ray vision is out of control as he has trouble dealing with heightened senses in a deafening world. Fortunately, Superman’s adoptive mother, Diane Lane, is there to teach him how to master his domain.
Kevin Coster plays Superman’s adoptive father. Costner is always there to give young Superman sage advice, like how he maybe should have let his classmates die in a bus crash, so as not to reveal himself to a world that isn’t ready for him. Good job, movie. This is an interesting idea to explore. If someone like Superman actually appeared on Earth, it would be crazy. Mass hysteria. Dogs and cats living together. Gender roles reversed. Twitter mobs. Riots. Economic upheaval. Secular religious zealotry. On second thought, I guess not much would change. Regardless, Superman can’t help but Simon Birch that bus no matter the potential fallout. He is a hero, after all.
Post-flashback, Superman continues to vagabond around. He runs into Ian Tracey, who was Adian Quinn’s buddy in 1987’s Stakeout. Tracey still looks about the same. Maybe he is an alien from another planet. Eventually, Superman hears that something weird was discovered in the Arctic. Perhaps, it is the answer he has been searching for his whole life. He must vagabond his way there. Amy Adam is in the Arctic, too. She plays Lois Lane. She is there to write a story about the weird thing found under the ice, which turns out to be a scout ship from Krypton that landed there a long time ago, probably before Clint Eastwood starred in his first movie even.
All of this is solid (except for Lois imitating the idiots who tried to pet an alien cobra in Prometheus). The idea of Superman wandering the Earth makes sense. Like any person that age, he would try to figure out his place in the world, and he happens to not be from this world. Likewise, Superman probably wouldn’t feel the pressure of needing to earn money or get on with life. I don’t know a lot about Superman, but he seems practically immortal, and if he needed money, he could just X-ray vision scratch-off lottery tickets.
So far, Man of Steel is quite restrained for a Snyder movie. Not a lot of his cinematic fetishes come through onscreen. No CGI abs, schoolgirl outfits, or excessive slow motion. My only real issue is the movie could just as well be in black and white. No vibrancy exists to any of its imagery. It would be nice to see some colors. Superman should look like a golden-age comic. As things currently stand, Man of Steel looks like ashes in Henry Cavill’s mouth.
Man Of Feel
While the movie waits for the inevitable reappearance of Zod, we get more Superman character development. He learns to fly. Snyder did a solid job getting power behind these actions. Cavill isn’t floating on wires. He is breaking the sound barrier and landing with impact.
We also get to see the death of Costner. While rewatching the 1978 Superman recently, I was amazed how much pathos they got out of the death of Glenn Ford, seeing as he and Jeff East had pretty much zero screen time together. The setting had a lot to do with it. The shots of Kansas border on fairy tale, and death intruding into that world feels unfair. This is further set up because Clark’s life is unfair. He has the power to do nearly anything, but he has to restrain himself.
The father’s death in Man of Steel is amped up to eleven, but so is the stupidity. I’m pretty sure if a father had a choice between going into the teeth of a tornado to save a dog or staying with his wife and superpowered, angsty son, he’d let the dog fly to Oz. Bad job, movie.
Eventually, Zod and company arrive on Earth, drawn by the activation of the scout ship. Superman is given the choice to join his people or side with the Earthlings. This is an interesting situation ripe for drama. Man Of Steel didn’t quite nail it down, however. Superman should probably side with Zod for a time, happy that he finally found his place in the universe. Then he sees how Zod is versus how his Earth parents raised him and rebels. You know, like Batman Begins.
Throughout all this, allusions to Jesus are made, but it is a thin comparison. Jesus arrived on earth as the Messiah, was rejected by the chosen people for daring to be about saving them from sin rather than the Romans, was crucified, and by this sacrifice reconciled the world to God. Man of Steel merely sits in front of a stained-glass window with Jesus on it and strikes a crucifixion pose while exiting Zod’s Martian war machine. We don’t even get a “Judas” or “Gethsemane” moment. Although, I think Superman dies in one of the subsequent Synderverse films, so maybe Man of Steel is the equivalent of Jesus early ministry, and we will get to the other stuff later. For now, Superman seems more Moses than Jesus.
On the positive side, throughout all of this Russell Crowe’s AI presence interacts with Superman, Lois and Zod. This works pretty well. These scenes have a feeling of mystery to them, as it is unclear just how real this AI presence is exactly. It comes off as more ghost than machine.
Man Of Zeal
All of this brings us to the conflict part of the film where Superman fights Zod and friends. The CGI is a bit fuzzy, but it was 2013, after all (and it is probably still better than The Flash). Overall, the fighting is a highpoint. The power of the participants is shown as they pummel each other, tear up the town, throw locomotives and knock A-10s out of the air with their bare hands. For a brief, distant moment, Man of Steel borders on The Boys as an A-10 pilot is vaporized by a punch.
The bulk of the first battle is between Superman and two of Zod’s underlings. This trio mirrors the three villains of Superman II, played by Terence Stamp, Sarah Douglas, and Jack O’Halloran. Superman II did a much better job on the behemoth of the group, played by Jack O’Halloran. Even though he was mute, viewers get a real sense of character from him. The behemoth in Man of Steel is simply a behemoth in a mask. No lines. No real character at all other than being big.
The comparison between Terence Stamp’s Zod and Michael Shannon’s Zod is apples and oranges. Both of them do a fine job. The female villain comes off better in Superman II, however, because Douglas was given room to shine. Nevertheless, Antje Traue does great work in Man of Steel. I didn’t realize she was the same actress from Pandorum. Traue doesn’t fall into the trap of portraying a stronk woman (like Adams somewhat does as Lois). Rather, Traue plays her character more like Robert Patrick’s T-1000. Being strong is irrelevant to her. She is genetically engineered beyond self-consciousness. She only cares about killing opponents. I would have liked to see more of her in the film.
As the movie reaches its climax, Zod sets up a gigantic gravity pile driver that starts leveling Metropolis. Fundamentally, it’s similar to the “blue laser in the sky” so many superhero films use for the finale, but it had an undeniable cool factor. Great sound design, too. Superman stops the pile driver, and with it, he destroys all of Zod’s purpose in life. Zod’s response is to go psycho-killer and develop the aspiration of killing every human being on the planet.
All of this makes sense and is great character work. Zod’s motivation is logical, and he isn’t overly humanized to the point of being made a softy. This brings us to a point that, I believe, was controversial to true-blue Superman fans. Superman is supposed to be a no-kill character (kind of; he has done it before in the comics according to Google), but he kills Zod real good.
Overall, it didn’t bother me. Zod was clearly out of control, and I’m not a big enough Superman fan to notice if Man of Steel broke lore the way Superman broke Zod’s neck.
Man Of Deal
Man of Steel is a decent movie. It basically ditched the nuances of Superman and Superman II for grittiness. Nothing wrong with exploring that route in a Superman movie, and the Christopher Nolan angle probably kept things from going too far off track. Nolan produced and had a hand in developing the story. Man of Steel is certainly not the best Superman movie (Superman III, kids!), but I ended up invested in what was happening. A couple of moments even stuck with me, like the apocalyptic vision Superman has where he sinks into a pile of human skulls.
My biggest gripe is still probably the look of the film. I can understand the rationale behind Whedon’s color adjustment to Justice League. Not saying it was the right rationale, but the desire for more color in a Superman film is not unreasonable. Wait…does this mean I have to watch the Whedon and Synder versions of Justice League? Man, I hope that’s not the deal.
For now, let’s take it one step at a time. You got to believe a man can walk before he can fly.
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