I held off on watching Man of Steel right away partly because the reviews were extremely negative and it was very difficult to justify leaving my house for 2 ½ hours to go see it. Prometheus has set my standard for an objectively bad movie, as in, if you like it I have to seriously question your judgment on everything else. This movie got reviews with the same level of vitriol as Prometheus which worried me. Now I have watched it. I find myself of the same mindset I had after Star Trek and Watchmen, another Zack Snyder film. I wanted to like this movie. I like the story. I like the characters. What I don’t like is the direction. There were artistic choices made in this movie that piss me off and detract from the good parts of the movie.
This is a hard movie to judge because it is so uneven. So lets start with the positive. I like the story. I loved Superman Birthright and when the movie hews close to that, it’s at its best. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Superman works better in his awkward origin story days than in the red cape. I like the idea of this movie. This is a first contact story. Jor-El sends his son to Earth to thrive and forge his own path in a way that Kryptonians cannot. There’s a weighty moral question here I’m not sure the movie intended to raise but I’ll get to that. Lois is a likeable character in that she’s pursuing her goals. It’s only after she uncovers the truth that she’s really reduced to shrieking and fawning over this alien disguised as a conventionally attractive heterosexual male human she doesn’t know except by reputation. Zod is compelling because he’s pursuing a goal that is understandable. He is a Kryptonian warrior. He’s the leader of the Kryptonian warriors. His entire life is dedicated to service, protection, and the survival of his species. Kal-El rejects that. He rejects it completely, without so much as a second thought. He is agonized when he finally kills Zod, but he seems to get over it pretty quickly. It doesn’t even come close to approaching the despair felt by the Doctor after the (first) death of the Master. It’s not like he seemed to try very hard to make amends with Zod’s other followers. Kal-El spends so much of his life working towards uncovering his true name and his heritage but he completely, utterly rejects that heritage when it claims a right to propagate itself. Can Earthlings and Kryptonians co-exist? Not on Superman’s watch.
At some point I started getting into the negative there so let’s have it out. First, the product placement. My God. Product Placement is one of those things that once you start noticing it, you can’t stop noticing it. And…wow. Another thing, maybe nitpicky, is Zod’s followers. Zod seems to come to Earth with a number of minions. Far more than the two helpers in Superman 2. Zod has an army. And he’s got an army of yellow sun empowered Supermen. But he never uses them. He sends two flunkies against Kal-El when he could send ten. Just keep your spaceship in orbit while ten trained soldiers rip Kal-El apart for his precious genetic material. Instead he relies on his random ass T-1000 tentacles to safeguard half his plan. And while I’m at it, they make a point of saying this is the cream of the crop as far as the Kryptonian soldiers go. These are Zod’s handpicked elites. They can’t take one guy with no formal combat training? In the end, Kal-El has to and can just break Zod’s neck. Why are they punching each other? The Kryptonians keep punching each other and throwing each other through buildings. Their combat style should be geared towards holds and grappling that makes breaking a neck possible. Anything else makes no sense.
There are two other big things that I did not like about this movie. This is, in my opinion, the most violent movie I’ve ever seen. There’s barely a drop of blood, but this is an extremely violent movie. In the Avengers, there’s no war crime scene of the aliens gunning down civilians. The area of Manhattan up by Lexington and Grand Central is relatively unscathed aside from cosmetic damage. In this movie, Zod basically levels multiple city blocks. Then when he and Superman have their big fight scene, they destroy buildings left and right with scarcely a mind for collateral damage. Superman acts concerned when Zod is about to heat vision some people at the end, but five minutes earlier they tore through a building without a second thought.
The second is a subtle thread that is always present in this movie. And its so subtle I’m not sure it was intentional because it really makes it hard to accept Superman as a hero. One of recurring things in this movie is humanity’s trust in Superman. Jonathan Kent says that people will be scared of what they don’t understand. A part of Superman’s journey, in keeping with this being a first contact story, is earning humanity’s trust. To which I think it’s legitimate to ask, what is the point of earning this trust? Is this trust intrinsically valuable for its own sake? Zod planned to genocide humanity to rebuild his homeworld. Kal-El wants humanity’s trust, but he doesn’t seem to need it. Jor-El believes his son will be a god on Earth. At the end of the movie, Superman says that he is Earth’s guardian whether they like it or not. Chances are, they don’t because he just leveled a quarter of Earth’s greatest city. There were other colonies Zod could’ve gone to, but he needed the genetic history of Krypton so Kal-El is responsible for why he’s on Earth and the suffering he caused. Zod does not give a fuck about humanity. Kal-El could’ve handed over the genetic material and sent Zod packing to another colony. Despite evidence to the contrary, Superman claims to have Earth’s best interest at heart, but even if he didn’t, too bad. Humanity is going to have to take his word for it. And he’s not leaving. Even if we asked. Even if we took a vote. Superman basically says, I’m here, I will dispense justice on this planet, and I am not subject to your laws or your oversight. It’s a curious juxtaposition of free will and subservience. Zod is a servant to his station. Superman has free will and by right of ability places himself above humanity. Now, of course he’s a hero, but there is a level of discomfort with him assuming that mantle that’s legitimate. It brings to mind Nick Fury’s statements in the Avengers. Yes, Thor is a hero. But he’s not the only alien out there. Humanity needs a response to the alien threat that is subject to their rule of law, or to their control since rule of law occurs in a more nationalist context. This is really well framed at the end of the movie. Superman brings down a surveillance drone and tells this military general, look you don’t get to watch me. I’m going to do what I want to do. First of all, that’s 12 million dollars of taxpayer money, asshole. Secondly, this man is a general too. He is charged with the defense of the American people. No one’s word is good enough to bet the lives of the American people. Ultimately, we want our security in the hands of someone who is responsible to the group. That’s the essential nature of the social contract and humanity doesn’t have that relationship with Superman.
One thing I thought while watching this movie is that it has the potential to completely redeem itself through a sequel. The sequel writes itself for this. Aliens came to Earth and leveled a major American city. Earth came under attack by Aliens and one of them wants to stay here and apply for a fucking Costco card? The plot is so apparent. Any sequel worth its salt would have to deal with the massive destruction Superman unleashed on Metropolis. Specifically, Lex Luthor leading the charge. This would be straight out of Birthright. I’ve said before that if you need to put Lex Luthor in Smallville to tell a story about Superman in high school, you fucked up. After Birthright, I changed my mind. Because Birthright justifies it. See, Lex Luthor is a genius. He’s somewhere between Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock and Benedict Cumberbatch’s Khan. And as a kid, he detects that an alien spacecraft landed somewhere near Smallville so he moves there to investigate. As Superman’s arch-nemesis he has to be the expectation for a sequel in a Chris Nolan style movie. There are a lot of way’s to play Lex’s various psychological problems but at its core, he cannot share being the at the top of humanity with this alien being on his planet. Any sequel worth its salt has to really call out Superman on what happened in this movie.
I didn’t like this movie because it raised an important moral question and didn’t deal with it largely because I doubt the director’s were aware of it. Superman appoints himself to a place above humanity that given the horrific violence in this movie, he has not earned aside from the fact that he can pay the iron price for it. If the inevitable sequel deals with this, the movie will redeem itself.