Man of Steel
came out this weekend to a relatively divisive reaction. The film didn't do a lot for me, but rather than tearing it apart - as that's not what we're here to do at Good Bad Taste - we're going to gently take the film apart to see what makes it tick.
The film didn't resonate with me based on two major failings, the first dramatic, the second thematic. We're going to split this piece into two major sections, the first looking at why the action in the film fails to excite, the second looking at this particular iteration of the Superman icon, and what it says about our culture. The first component is going to be relatively spoiler free, so feel free to read without fear. The second section is based almost entirely around a single large spoiler moment from the end of the film, so if spoilers are something that matter to you, feel free to stop at the subheading.
Well, let's get talking about
Man of Steel
. Let's talk destruction.
Action vs. Spectacle, Awe vs. Exhilaration
There's been a lot of talk about the climax of this film. Some people are saying it's the most impressive superhero battle of all time, while others claim that it's little more than a repetitive slugfest. How can there be such a division of opinion? Who's right?
Honestly? Both of them.
Man of Steel's main dramatic problem in the climax - a problem that is present through much of Snyder's work - is that he embraces contextless spectacle at the cost of genuine action and excitement.
What is the difference?
Spectacle and action are processed completely differently in an audience. Spectacle causes feelings of awe, an intellectual response to something huge and impressive. Action is processed in the gut. It's exciting and visceral. It takes an audience's breath away.
Simply put: Fireworks are spectacle; a roller coaster is action.
In the best action films, spectacle is there hand-in-hand with action. It provides scale for the relatable excitement. Jurassic Park slows down to a halt for a moment of spectacle the first time the characters are introduced to the dinosaurs. At the beginning of the T-Rex attack, Spielberg again slows down for a moment of spectacle, a sense of scale, as the steady footsteps slowly reveal the size of the T-Rex.
Then, we are thrust into an action scene, now contextualized by the moments of scale. The characters are put into scenes of relatable danger again and again with clear goals and outcomes. It's one of the most iconic action scenes of all time because of the balance of spectacle and action.
Snyder never makes that important switch. We never are taken from the impressed role of an observer to a visceral part of the fight itself. There is no entry point for us to put ourselves in any of the characters' shoes, so the battle emotionally falls flat.
The key to great action is audience relatability. We fear for John McClane leaping off the Nakatomi Tower because even the character fears for his safety, and the danger is put into the relatable terms of a fear of heights. The audience is put into McClane's shoes - or bare feet, as it were, another key point of audience relatability - so when he succeeds we feel his exhilaration.
In Man of Steel, we watch as Superman and General Zod - or the various other personality-free Kryptonians he does battle with - punch each other back and forth. Buildings are leveled, people are endangered, but the hero and villain just keep punching each other without any sense that either character is winning or losing. In fact, we aren't even sure what winning or losing would consist of. They seem to shake off being hit through a skyscraper; they return from devastating injuries; every piece of the fight is identical in scale to the last, so there is never a moment of fear or identification for the audience. Intellectually, it's all very impressive; emotionally, it never quite hits.
Now, this idea of relatability - particularly in terms of action - is a challenge that is inherent to the character of Superman. His power-set is so far beyond our own, that it is nearly impossible to put yourself in his shoes. It's hard to know what hurts him and why.
Crafting legitimately exciting action around Superman is a challenge, but not one that is insurmountable. In fact, the solution is built right into the character.
To Superman - as he is generally portrayed - civilian casualties are as big of a loss as his own death. He cares more about others than he does himself, and it is that desire to protect everyone that is his greatest weakness and the character's greatest strength.
Because Zod and Superman are completely physically evenly matched, there is no inherent drama to watching them fight. It's anyone's game, and without clear indications of who is winning or losing, it's like watching a basketball game where nobody is keeping score.
But, if the Kryptonians were to take advantage of Superman's care for civilians - the movie almost embraces this at the very end, but we'll discuss that in the second half - it puts him at a disadvantage; it gives him something to overcome, and it gives the audience someone to identify with - the civilians in danger.
Superman Returns has a lot of the same dramatic problems in regards to its action scenes. But there is one scene from the movie that is considered the high-point of the film - the plane rescue that reintroduces us to his character.
The falling plane gives Superman a ticking clock to race against, and gives the audience a definite image of what failure looks like. Lois Lane's presence on the plane provides an audience surrogate with a character we are familiar with. He first attempts to grab the plane's wing, before it snaps off, an early example of a defined goal and setback that mimics the roller coaster experience for the viewer. When he finally overtakes the plane and settles on a course of action - pushing against the cone - the film throws in an added consequence of failure through the inclusion of a packed baseball field about to be crushed by the falling plane. It is here at the height of emotional tension, that the film falls back onto a moment of spectacle as the pressure Superman exerts on the nose ripples through the metal of the plane and bursts the windows. The plane lands, and the tension is broken with a moment of levity, completing the audience's ride in a positive place.
The battles in Man of Steel never bring in the audience in these ways. A compelling action scene is broken up into a series of micro-goals and either successes or setbacks. The audience has to be given context and an ever-changing list things to hope for or against. It's these moments of character success or failure that fuel the feelings of excitement.
Snyder instead trades in the language of spectacle, explaining the division of opinion of the success of the action scenes. The action in the film is seen, not felt, but the images are indeed impressive and are oftentimes destructively, disturbingly beautiful.
A viewer's mileage will come from how they respond to the impressiveness of spectacle or the excitement of action.
The best films trade in both, but a movie can easily skate by through executing one or the other particularly well. This film does spectacle on a scale that is not often seen, explaining its popularity among some. I personally prefer to experience films rather than passively watch, so the scenes in the film left me cold.
With a little more concern or care about the structure and language of action and pairing it with the successful spectacle, this film could easily have contained not only one of the most impressive action scenes of all time, it could have also had one of the most exciting. Unfortunately, they'll have to settle for just one.
The Man of Tomorrow as Interpreted by the Men of Today
Let's talk about that ending.
The film's climactic battle ends with Superman breaking Zod's neck. He does it to save lives; he does it with great anguish, but he still does it.
When I first saw the film, I fell in line with comic-book writer Mark Waid, writer of Superman: Birthright, one of the comics that the movie takes many of its cues from. On Twitter and on his personal blog, he said that the ending of the film "broke his heart." Again and again he argues, Superman does not kill. It seems like such an obvious rule and one that should be impossible to ignore.
But after thinking about this movie for several days, I realized that's a false statement.
Superman is a fictional character, no matter how real he feels. He does whatever we make him do. If Superman kills in Man of Steel, Superman kills.
So the question we should be asking is not "Does Superman kill?" The question is "What does it say about us that we have a Superman that kills."
Simply put, the only reason Superman kills Zod in this movie is because the filmmaker's wanted him to kill someone on screen. There is no other explanation. You don't spend that amount of money on a film, spend that much time with a script without thinking these kinds of decisions through. They didn't write an action scene and then decide the only way out was through murder. They wrote, filmed and edited the scene with the intention of showing us that single moment.
Now this isn't the first time Superman has killed. In fact, this is the third time Superman has killed General Zod in various media, including Superman 2 - ignoring a deleted scene of Zod, Non and Ursa being arrested in the arctic - and a controversial comic story from the '80s.
Some context for those who aren't huge Superman comic buffs.
In 1986, writer/artist John Byrne, then known for his run as co-plotter and artist on Uncanny X-Men with Chris Claremont, was given the opportunity to reboot Superman from scratch, redoing his origin, reintroducing his major enemies and defining the character that the top brass at DC comics felt had gotten stale.
A lot of the elements of this reboot would stick - and much of it was ported over to television's Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman - including the character largely identifying as the human Clark Kent instead of the Kryptonian Kal-El.
Near the end of his run on the titles, Byrne wrote a story where Superman confronts General Zod who has committed genocide. After defeating Zod, Superman condemns him and the other Kryptonian criminals to an execution and murders them all in cold blood with Krpytonite.
Now, that's a lot darker and a lot more brutal than what happens in Man of Steel, where he regretfully kills Zod to protect innocent civilians.
So why does it work better than the ending of Man of Steel?
Because it's not the ending.
It all comes back to a difference in media. Superhero comic book stories are inherently never finished - an ever-evolving second act. There are micro-goals and setbacks just as in an action scene, but the end of every issue is just a momentary pause before the next beat.
Superman killing the Kryptonian criminals in the comics wasn't treated as a victory. It was a loss. Superman, so distraught over his actions, decides if he is willing to kill to protect Earth, he can no longer be our guardian, and he flies off to explore outer space. He eventually returns to Earth, but not before vowing that he will never take another life again.
In the comics, the killing blow is used as a theatrical climax - think back to your Shakespeare studies - as the halfway point in a character's arc, the moment, the single decision that changes his fate and leads directly into the falling action and resolution.
In the film, it's used as the resolution to the falling action. There is a problem; Superman kills Zod; problem is solved. Now, even if the filmmakers want to explore what this does to the character in future sequels, it still ignores the simple truth that a film - unlike a comic book - is a self-contained story with self-contained character and thematic evolution.
So what does Superman killing Zod mean? Even if they explore it in a future film, what does it mean for Man of Steel?
To the character of Superman, moral failure is a bigger loss than a physical failure. At the end of Man of Steel, by choosing to take Zod's life - even if it's reasonable, even if it's further explored in a future film - Superman loses. There is no happy ending.
Now, technically speaking, that's fine. Not every movie has to have a happy ending. But what are the filmmaker's trying to say with Superman's loss?
It seems they are saying that there is no place in the world for Superman.
Look at the scene of the World Builder destroying Metropolis. The Kryptonians use a machine that literally levels a huge amount of a populated city, and Snyder repeatedly intentionally borrows the indelible imagery of 9/11 to hammer home the catastrophe.
He does this while Superman is on the other side of the world.
Why reflect this insurmountable tragedy if you plan on denying the audience a moment of relief - of joy - as Superman intervenes? Either Snyder is deaf to how an audience will respond to his stylistic choices, or, even more disturbing, he wants to remind us that in life, there is no Superman.
The film constantly comes back to the idea that Clark's father felt the world wasn't ready to see what he could do. He felt the world would reject him. Throughout the rest of the film, Superman does everything he can to prove his father wrong. He acts in a way so that the world has no choice but to trust him. The symbol on his chest stands for "hope," and it is the character's hope that he will find a place for himself in the world by helping others.
At the end of the film, though, Jonathan Kent was right. Superman was wrong to hope. The government still doesn't trust him, and they pass up an opportunity to show that the general populace trusts him for a joke about how hot he is.
That thematic evolution reflects a sincere cynicism on the part of the filmmakers. A cynicism that takes the form of a Superman who can't always save the day, who can't always make the right choice, who will not always be there for us.
The symbol on his chest may stand for hope, but the film itself has none.
I'll admit, I'm not the target audience for this film. Time and again, the filmmakers stated that they needed to update the character to make him relevant for our time.
I never thought he stopped. I don't think optimism and hope are so old-fashioned to be irrelevant. I think there's inherent drama in a character who struggles to do the right thing in an imperfect world - who represents who we could be if we stopped for a moment to help others when the opportunity arose - who has a desire to save everyone, but not the physical capacity to do so.
Maybe they're right. Maybe this is the Superman people want to see. If so, what does that say about Superman? What does that say about us?