Man of Steel is a tricky movie for me to talk about. Not only is it polarizing (you either love it or hate it--there's no middle ground), but it seems to be polarizing in a such a way that the two sides literally cannot comprehend where the other is coming from. Just as it baffles me that anyone could actually enjoy Man of Steel, I know several people that are mystified that I didn't love it.
Like I said, tricky. Still, I'd like to take some time to explain why I think that Man of Steel is not only the opposite of what a Superman movie should be, but also the antithesis of what superhero movies should be about.
There are so many problematic things about Man of Steel that it is honestly a little difficult to know where to begin. Should we discuss the emotionless performances from a cast that is stellar on paper? Or the fact that Lois Lane's presence is completely superfluous to the plot? Or the fact that Zod's plan ultimately makes no sense (why would he try to turn Earth into a new Krypton when Kryptonians have flipping superpowers on Earth)? Really, though, those points are mere quibbles in the face of the film's two biggest, most crippling flaws: its tone and lack of heroics.
Quick, name the five best superhero movies of all time, and don't feel like you need to limit yourself to the modern era. All done? If you're like most people, your list probably has movies like Superman (1 and/or 2), Spider-Man or The Avengers (and if you're awesome, The Incredibles). Some may have put one or more of the Nolan Batman movies on that list too (mine has The Dark Knight at number four). Now what do all the best superhero movies (even the Nolan trilogy) have in common? They all have a good amount of super-heroics and, with the exception of the Nolan films, all have a sense of fun.
Now, some would object that of course Man of Steel has heroics! Superman defeated Zod and saved the world! Well first of all, he didn't actually save the world; Colonel Elliot Stabler and Professor Toby Ziegler did.
While Superman was wasting time punching the robo-octopus defenses to Zod's gravity-punching machine, those two were flying the Phantom Zone device to Zod's ship and fixing it when it wouldn't work. The fact that they even had to make their heroic sacrifice is also ridiculous, because there is no reason that Superman couldn't have done the deed himself. Why did it take so long to destroy the World Engine? If he was going to destroy the thing by flying into it anyway, why not just punch through it at Mach 10 right from the get-go? And was there a reason why Superman couldn't have just taken the Phantom Zone machine himself and thrown it at Zod's ship at the beginning?
But Superman did defeat Zod. In the most un-Superman-like fashion possible. Let's put aside for a moment the fact that Superman has one of the strictest "No Killing" codes in comics. Instead of dwelling on the one person Superman kills directly, let's focus on the several million people that Superman simply allows to die.
There are two big fight scenes in the movie, and I'll be the first to admit that they are visually impressive. But no matter how great the visual effects were, there's still the fact that the fights manage to level two separate population centers. Take one scene at the beginning of the final confrontation with Zod: Superman and Zod are falling through the air and crash through a parking garage. The impact is enough to collapse the garage while the hero and villain stare down. The thing to remember is that there were people in that garage.
And Superman doesn't lift a finger to help them.
It would be one thing if Zod was actively stopping him from saving people. But that isn't what happened. A building full of people collapsed onto a street filled with pedestrians and Superman didn't even try to help. And that wasn't even the first time that had happened in the movie! During the earlier fight in Smallville, the most Superman does is tell the civilians to "get inside." And then Ursa and Non (I know they had different names in the movie, but c'mon--they're Ursa and Non) punched him into the f*cking IHOP.
Superman can fly. The bad guys were specifically targeting him. Instead of flying to some place where there aren't any people (say, anywhere else in f*cking Kansas!), Superman allows countless civilians to die simply because he's too lazy to fly to Antarctica. In fact, Clark Kent saves more people before he puts on the blue pajamas than he does as Superman. As a kid and an adult Clark saves a bus full of kids, several people in the path of a tornado, a crew of oil rig workers and Lois Lane. As Superman, he saves Colonel Stabler and Lois Lane twice.
I would say that such callous disregard for human life is totally out of character for Superman, but it actually makes perfect sense given the Pa Kent presented in the movie.
The character of Pa Kent brings us to the second fatal flaw of Man of Steel: the tone. This is a movie without a sense of fun or joy. Nobody laughs, and hardly anyone smiles. Pa Kent certainly doesn't. The only emotion Kevin Costner manages to portray through his monotone is fear. Fear of the future. Fear of his son's true nature. Fear of what revealing his son's true nature could lead to. It is hard to understate how harmful (and completely out of place) his message of "Hide who you are, because the rest of the world will fear and hate you!" truly is.
Isn't that exactly the opposite of what Superman is supposed to be about? Hell, even the movie points out that Johnathan Kent has it backwards.
Except the film never follows through with that promise. Superman doesn't inspire anyone to accomplish wonders; they did so without him. If your Superman isn't inspiring, then you have failed to make a Superman movie. A bleak, colorless movie without a sense of joy might work for Nolan's Batman, but that's because it's a movie about Batman. Batman is supposed to be gloomy; Superman isn't.
Remember that list of the best superhero movies from earlier? The best superhero movies do the opposite of what we see in Man of Steel. Let's take The Avengers as an example, as they have very similar set-ups for their climaxes. In both films, alien invaders threaten a major city and the heroes must find a way to stop them. In Man of Steel, this involves the hero letting the attack go unanswered for some time, then beating up the bad guy without concern for collateral damage. The Avengers handles the situation a little differently:
Captain America knows that the Avengers are the primary targets, so their job is to keep the fight focused on them and minimize the damage. Protecting the people is the first priority until they can figure out how to stop the villain's McGuffin. You'll also notice that, even in the face of an alien invasion, Iron Man is still making quips. The stakes are high, but the tone is kept light so that we, the audience, never lose that sense of fun.
Because that's what superheroes should be about: fun. Now, that isn't to say that superheroes can't tackle serious themes, or that they can't have dark tones. Like I said, I would put The Dark Knight on my top five superhero movies list*, and two of my favorite graphic novels are Kingdom Come and Earth X. None of those is known for being particularly lighthearted. But the beauty of superheroes is that they don't and shouldn't have to be serious to be good. We are talking about stories where people in brightly-colored costumes that punch evil in the face. If you can't have fun with that, then you should reexamine your priorities.
*For the record, my list is as follows:
- The Incredibles
- The Avengers
- The Dark Knight
- Spider-Man 2