Note: Please do not proceed if you have yet to see Man of Steel.
In a very similar vain to how I responded to the Rex Reed fiasco earlier, I wanted to wait until the Man of Steel banter ran its course before chiming in. I will, more often than not, forgo a bit of traffic for clarity. In a certain regard my discussion is more about the discussion than my reaction to the debatable points in the film, but I will touch upon those too.
However, before I get to that very specifically allow me to couch my commentary by telling you where I’m coming from. As I chronicled painstakingly in parts one and two of Hero Whipped (and to a lesser extent in further additions), I was a comics reader as a kid, left and returned but was never a superhero guy until my return. Having said that, even since my return there are only a few individuals or teams, usually obscure, that I consider myself to be well-versed in. Therefore, I am not coming at this talking point from a perspective of extreme Superman fandom.
I believe when I was younger I likely saw pieces, if not all of, the Christopher Reeve versions but that’s about all I can claim. The last attempt to revitalize the franchise was one I skipped. The parts of Man of Steel that I enjoyed were good enough that I liked it in spite of my major reservations regarding many sections of the film.
Character vs. Film: The Fan Argument
The main tenet that I will state here is that a lot of the comments that I saw in my twitter feed seemed to be arguing mixed points. Namely the film was getting slammed for what the character was doing. The climactic battle with Zod is problematic due to its length, repetitiveness and the fact that there are cutaways to pieces of less consequence where better story edits existed.
However, I cannot knock the mere fact that there is collateral damage in the battle. That has happened in myriad action, sci-fi and superhero films depending on how you want to pigeonhole Man of Steel. However, the fact that it exists is not what I’m reacting to. It’s how the destruction is portrayed that’s problematic.
The first aspect of a detrimental nature is the amount and the incessant nature of the destruction. However, I have no issue with this film deciding that Clark’s inexperience and Johnny Come-Lately status to this battle will impact how it occurs. I also fully understand and appreciate that the destruction of Metropolis, in part, is a small price in dramatic context when compared to what Zod intends to do with the world.
However, while Goyer and Snyder have since broken the silence and discussed the controversy, future plans of a series don’t absolve the sins of an installment much in the same way knowledge of a book doesn’t forgive the shortcomings of a film version thereof. What I was missing from all this was either the film caring about the impact of all these buildings and cars being crushed with people in them. And based on the way he was drawn I believe that Clark does care, and we’ll see that along with his guilt in the sequel, it was not evident in this film until the moment where he just can’t take it anymore and ends Zod rather than seeing someone else victimized.
I’m fine with his attitude in the one exchange with the military. This is not discordant to the posture many superheroes take. They act based on principal, not political agenda. They will assist the common good, but will not be pawns. The police in Gotham have a signal to summon Batman, but Batman does not seek permission from the Gotham PD to act. Superman doesn’t want to be a pawn of the military; I love that scene.
Similarly, the epilogue wherein Clark joins the Daily Planet is a great set-up and capper for the film. To me the film’s highlights are Clark’s humanity and progression. His doubts about how to deal with his gifts, to understand where he came from, who he is and how the world will deal with that are what hold the film together. His regrets about how this battle happened and the decisions made will play into the next one surely, but there was none of that here. In a number of ways Man of Steel is combining certain coming-of-age tropes in the flashbacks and also chosen one tropes from many sci-fi tales, and it mixes them beautifully. What the climactic sequence lacks are what the film gave us throughout: thought, understanding of consequence and introspection.
Suddenly, we were thrust into random destruction anew that was not elevated either by the stakes or how either character responded to it.
Is there something specific about this post-9/11 world that made these images seem so jarring that caused so many to jump on this point in unison as the glaring issue in the film, or is it just a combination of Superman, the original superhero and American icon, with these images that is so jarring?
I personally will admit that apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic films wherein there’s some extraterrestrial source of destruction, or some outlandish cause, has less impact for me and holds less interest than ever before. New York, and or its comic book clones in the DC Universe Metropolis and Gotham, have not been exempt from cinematic disaster since then.
So I think the character has something to do with it, but there’s also a lack of examination of impact that’s my biggest pet peeve. Mind you that Spielberg‘s War of the Worlds deals with a lot of these old hat items, places its ground zero in New York and was released post-9/11 and is very effective part of the reason is the survival aspect. Aside from the workers at the Daily Planet there’s not much in the way of attempted escapes, and due to ratings concerns, none of the buildings being damaged are shown to have visible victims. Their literary ghost status makes it a more haunting tale, but a colder one.
Does one sacrificial lamb that we can see change this perception? Maybe, that is if we got to see Clark get distracted by it before ending the fight. I get the adrenaline and focus arguments that can be made, but that’s exactly the issue with protracting the fight so long. The longer it goes on the more the audience gets to wonder about things that aren’t happening or being shown because what is being shown is fairly redundant.
Part of why Man of Steel has gotten pounced on is because films featuring superheroes have had the bar raised in the past several years. In fact, part of that raising of the bar was done by gentlemen involved in this film, writer David S. Goyer and Producer Christopher Nolan first and foremost. One of those films is Iron Man 3 as it does have a strength where Man of Steel has a weakness. Tony Stark starts to show signs of PTSD in light of the events in The Avengers where he had to escort a nuke through a wormhole and save New York.
It was actually a plot element I was surprised by because its precisely the kind of thing you’ve come to expect superheroes to shake off. The fact that Tony doesn’t makes the film that much more interesting and it makes sense when you realize that Tony is closer to a guy in a suit compared to some heroes endowed with certain gifts as birthright.
So coming off a hero that shaken by an experience he had, and just having come through the most recent Batman trilogy, and there’s hardly a more haunted hero than Batman; it’s not a wonder we expected some kind of response from Superman, especially when the film showed his sensitivity and caring prior. I do believe that not unlike Batman Begins, Man of Steel could be a stepping stone, and if Warner Brothers and DC play their cards right, and don’t rush; they could build differently and eventually to a Justice League film, however, that doesn’t mean there weren’t missteps here.