Part of the great things about movies is each individual’s subjective reaction to the work of art. Of course, there’s never a true consensus. There are people who think Citizen Kane is boring and much more prefer being pulverized with the images of Michael Bay’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. I may disagree and feel they’re wrong, but the subjectivity of a mass art form like the cinema means I can’t definitively say they’re wrong. (They’re still wrong, though.) No film of recent memory has been as divisive as Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. There’s just something about Zack Snyder’s interpretation of Superman that makes passions runs riot.
You could fill a room with like-minded geeks that have been friends for decades. Just ask for opinions about Man of Steel and those long-standing relationships will be rendered moot: “It’s not that bad.” “It’s not that good.” “It’s GREAT!” “You’re crazy!” “I’ll fucking kill you!”
From my point of view, Man of Steel is a bad movie. It is one of these wondrous abominations of cinema, a deeply flawed film that feels like a singular work from its auteur. Zack Snyder’s attempt to bring Superman into the 21st Century tries so hard to replicate the dark edges that Christopher Nolan brought to Batman. The resulting film is a thematic mess, one that can’t make up its mind about what themes it’s trying to explore. More than anything, Man of Steel invokes passionate responses because it does something that no story about Superman should – it makes the audience question his heroism. Snyder strips Superman of the hope and optimism that character had come to represent for over 75 years and across all forms of mass media.
The opening 20 minutes for Man of Steel might just be the geekiest stuff ever committed to celluloid. These early scenes on the dying planet of Krypton is like spending 20 minutes within a Yes album cover. As Superman’s father Jor-El, Russell Crowe rides a dragon and is chased by the zealous forces of General Zod (Michael Shannon). No matter how crazy and committed to this lunacy Zack Snyder is, it also establishes a number of the problems that will run throughout the film. Jor-El steals a thing called the codex, which carries the genetic codes of Kryptonians, and embeds it within the blood of his newborn son Kal-El before jettisoning the child to Earth. The entire concept of the codex is vague and makes little sense. It operates as the MacGuffin for much of Man of Steel until it’s revealed that the codex is within Superman, thus rendering the hero a MacGuffin in his own story. Before Krypton meets its eventual demise, Jor-El is killed by Zod, who is then exiled to the Phantom Zone along with his acolytes in dildo spaceships.
Flashforward 33 years and Clark Kent (Henry Cavil) is working odd jobs – we see him working on a fishing boat, as a busboy in trucker bar, and working as an independent contractor on a top secret government project. Through flashbacks, we learn that this Clark Kent has been taught to by his father Jonathan (Kevin Costner) to suppress his superpowers for fear of how society would react to an all-powerful being. With a few exceptions, moments of heroism are relatively few. Jonathan Kent so feared how society would react to Clark that he even sacrifices himself instead of allow Clark to use his powers to save him.
This could’ve been an emotionally and thematically resonant moment within Man of Steel except the script by David S. Goyer (from a story by Goyer and Jonathan Nolan) does nothing with these elements. From the first moments that Clark puts on the costume of Superman, he’s accepted by society. The military only briefly detains him and then works alongside him when Zod and his goons come to Earth. There’s never an effort to make the sacrifice of Jonathan Kent mean anything, because the rest of Man of Steel asserts that there’s no issue in Superman revealing himself. Of course, this line of criticism seems to be a central point to the upcoming Batman v Superman, but leaving important aspects of the story for the eventual sequel is poor storytelling.
Even if we avoid the big moral question that surrounds Man of Steel – Does Superman kill? – it’s still unavoidable to question the Last Son of Krypton’s attempts of heroism at the seemingly never-ending climactic battle. During the battle in Smallville, Superman is filled with rage towards Zod, grabbing the villainous Kryptonian and crashing into a gas station which subsequently explodes. As the gas station burns, Superman stands over Zod gloating about his ability to live comfortably within Earth’s atmosphere – never once does Superman use his powers to extinguish the blaze that he caused. During this entire fight in Smallville, Superman does nothing to minimize damage or save civilians from the carnage, aside from smugly telling a handful of people to hide in a storefront which is quickly destroyed.
Once the battle finds its way to Metropolis, the story bewilderingly calls for Superman to travel to the Indian Ocean to destroy Zod’s terraforming device. Once Superman has destroyed the world engine (ugh), he travels back to a practically leveled Metropolis. Amid the ruins of the smoldering city, Superman kisses Lois Lane (Amy Adams). As if this moment of romance wasn’t tone deaf enough, a lone survivor covered in dust and surrounded by devastation proclaims, “He saved us.” Finally, Zod and Superman have that final battle, which starts amidst the rubble before moving into the areas of Metropolis that haven’t been leveled yet. Time and again, whether in Smallville or Metropolis, Superman does nothing to mitigate the damage his brawls have caused, nor does he show anything but a passive interest in even attempting to save the lives of innocent civilians.
There is one area that Man of Steel excels unlike any other superhero film; product placement. The film reportedly had over 100 endorsement deals and is purely shameless in exhibiting them all. We see Clark Kent enjoying a cold Budweiser. Martha Kent (Diane Lane) works at Sears, and is even wearing her Sears uniform when she first meets Lois Lane. If you’ve ever wanted to see Superman fight his enemies at a 7-11 gas station, an IHOP, or a Sears, Man of Steel is the movie for you. Other product placements are bit more subtle, like the inclusion of Nokia phones. Despite all the brand advertising, I do feel sorry for the glasses company that paid to have a tie-in with Clark Kent’s glasses, which are only featured at the very end of the movie.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect within Man of Steel is Zack Snyder’s insistence on painting Superman as Jesus. It starts when it transports to Clark Kent being 33 years of age, the most commonly believed age of Jesus at the time of his death and resurrection. Multiple times, Superman poses as if he’s on the cross. At one point, Superman even consults a Catholic priest for guidance, the stained glass visage of Jesus right over his shoulder. But none of this is actually relevant to the character. Created in 1938 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two Jewish men from New York, Superman was always a variation of Moses, not Jesus. He’s a guide, not a savior. This mistake proves that Zack Snyder started Man of Steel with a fundamental misunderstanding of the character, everything that follows descends from this error.
Much like Michael Bay, Zack Snyder is an incredibly talented filmmaker with an eye for some truly astounding shots. But also like Bay, Snyder has trouble telling a strong story. There are so many inconsistencies and baffling decisions in Man of Steel that its strong visuals are just window dressing for a flimsy doll house. Man of Steel embraces certain aspects of comic book fun and runs from others – at no point does anyone call him Superman. This is a film that has no clue what to do with Lois Lane (I mean, why is she called aboard Zod’s ship or fly with the military as they attempt to destroy the world engine over Metropolis?) Nobody knew upon its release three years ago that Man of Steel would be the founding document of the DC Extended Universe. It’s a shaky foundation for a series of films to be built upon. But the numerous criticisms hurled upon Man of Steel were obviously heard by Snyder, whose follow up Batman v Superman seems to be made in reaction to the critiques. No matter the quality of the future entries in the DCEU, it all starts with Man of Steel. Even if Batman v Superman drives a wedge between fandom, it’ll have a hard time replicating the divisiveness of Man of Steel.