Editor’s note: This “Man of Steel” review is written by one of the biggest Superman fans in Northeast Mississippi, Derek Russell. He’s the creator and host of a Superman-related podcast, and he’s written for DC Comics.
by Derek Russell
“…I love those who do not first seek a reason beyond the stars for going down and being sacrifices, but sacrifice themselves to the earth, that the earth of the Superman may hereafter arrive…” – Friedrich Nietzsche
We live in an age where opinions are worth the very breath they are spoken on, or the taps on a keyboard they are thrust out with. It is a weighty-world that brings about entitlement, brooding, suffrage, and disappointment. Of all the reviews I’ve heard or read about “Man of Steel” one factor rings true. Entitlement.
People believe that their opinion is the one that should be reconciled with and adhered to. People are loud. People are boisterous. People think they have it all figured out at face value and people need no further convincing or settlement when it comes to their opinions.
I am not here today to thrust mine upon anyone. I have been asked, ad nauseam, for my thoughts on the latest Superman film. I have yet to totally form them, and I am not sure that I ever will. My thoughts are my own and of all the reviews I’ve read and heard…I have yet to agree with anyone for, or against, the cause. So these thoughts that I have formed so far are my own. Not influenced by others, not succumbed to by those before me and will not be adapted by those after.
Superman has, and always will be, a punching bag. He’s the go-to “trite.”
He is, and forever will be, the most powerful superhero and iconic legend, and for some people that is just too much. They say he’s too powerful. Which means, too boring. They say you can’t write Superman well, which means that the Superman they’re reading isn’t for them.
Superman isn’t for everyone. He’s the greatest American hero (no, not that one…) and he is always for the people. But that doesn’t mean the people are always for him. It’s been that way since the 1930’s and unfortunately it’s still the same in the 2010’s. We can cast Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man and excuse huge plot holes and poor writing based purely on his charm and charisma and “fun.” We make Batman dark and interesting and compelling and totally look over the fact that the last film in the most recent trilogy of the franchise was one of the worst written things on Earth.
But when news of a Superman film arrives, people jump on the hate-wagon and ride straight into Metropolis.
Superman is not “fun.” Those are “their” words. Not mine. To me, Superman can’t get more fun. There’s history. There’s knowledge…there is so much rich background to Kal-El that makes him such a deep character and people dismiss it. Krypton. Jor-El. Science. Hope.
So, Superman isn’t for you. That’s fine. Pickles aren’t for me, so I totally get it. We don’t have to agree.
Bottom line is, if you walk into a Superman film and already hate the character and disrespect the history therein, then your opinion is doomed to fail when it comes to being unbiased. On the same level, you would expect mine to be totally biased FOR the cause…and two weeks ago I would have told you that was the case. I bought the toys, the books, the soundtrack…I was already biased because my favorite thing on Earth, my favorite character and franchise, were back in theaters after seven years. Yes. I was going to be totally biased.
But something happened.
Somewhere on Krypton, after the birth of Kal-El and the roaring of the Rondor beasts but before the damnation of General Zod and his followers of Rao…I stopped being a Superman fan. I became an independent viewer. Engrossed, and nostalgic, but totally impartial and nonpartisan to the events unfolding before me on the screen.
I’m young. I do not feel young, but I am told that I am. I was -7 years old when Superman the Movie came out. That’s negative-seven. Do the math.
By those numbers I was only 2 when “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” was in theaters.
So other than “Superman Returns,” I have never seen a Superman film in theaters.
I can remember renting the VHS tapes of those first four films over and over and over again on the weekends of my youth. I knew everything about them (and still do)…except how to be unbiased. When you’re a kid watching “Superman III,”you aren’t thinking, “My God, this is the most ridiculous thing ever. And there’s Richard Pryor.” You’re thinking, “Oh no, it’s bad Superman fighting Clark Kent!” I was engrossed. And growing up has only turned a blind eye to those films and their faults.
Yes, Virginia Woolf, the original Superman Quadrilogy (including the holy covenants of parts I & II) have faults. But we’ll get to that.
Needless to say, I guess I’m somewhat of a Superman apologist. My favorite television show for 10 years was “Smallville,” a quirky origin tale of Clark Kent’s raising and journey to becoming Earth’s greatest protector. “Smallville” had its faults as well, Kryptonite Freak of the Weeks notwithstanding. “Smallville” was always meant to be fun and achieved that, ultimately culminating into Clark embracing his destiny and saving the world as Superman in the final episode.
I say all that to say, I’m not good at being unbiased at Superman. Superman and I have known each other my entire life. There’s plenty of stuff I don’t like in the franchise (hello, New 52 comics) but not all Superman things are for all Superman fans.
With that in mind I was going full force into the marketing machine that was “Man of Steel,” and was ready for something I knew I would love unashamedly and without any hesitation.
Until I got in the theater. And everything changed. As Moss from The IT Crowd would say, “Every value I’ve ever held is being questioned, and I’m loving it.”
“Man of Steel” presents a new origin story for Clark Kent and Superman; one that, for the first major time on screen, forges out from the Richard Donner universe of the films and “Smallville” and creates its own destiny. Which, to the layman, basically means “no more crystals.” I was lucky enough to see the new film a day early, part of the Walmart premiere night fiasco that resulted in a ten-minute TV spot before the film that had some guy screaming in a sold out show to get on with the movie. Oh. That guy was me. I might have been a little anxious. But, you get my point. I hope.
As I said, we get to Krypton and my sensibilities as a Superman are stripped from me and I become something different. I don’t know Superman. Never heard of him. It’s as if this was 1938 and I had just picked up an issue of Action Comics #1 for the first time to see a man in a red cape lifting a car. It wasn’t my intention to become a fan all over again but somehow it was happening. I forgot words like Krypton, Jor-El, Zod, Phantom Zone…they became new to my vocabulary and I found myself mouthing the words off my lips as if they were new to my mouth. To my mind. I was with a group of about eight, and I could feel all of them simultaneously glance over at me, hoping to see some expression from my eyes. My mouth hanging open. Drool. An aneurysm. Something. I’m not sure the faces I made but if I’d been 8 years old in 1938, flipping feverishly through the crisp pages of a new Action Comics #1, I feel I would have been making the same face I did in the dimly lit theater last Thursday night.
I teared up. Several times. Kal-El being sent away. Lara’s pain. Jonathan’s death. Superman’s first flight. Martha’s reflection on seeing a young Clark playing before she and Jonathan. The movie played out. Fully. Mostly as I had imagined it would with little surprises. But I couldn’t help to not be engrossed emotionally. I was physically drained by the time the credits began to roll. I felt as if I had run a marathon but it seemed as the film I’d waited seven years for was over too soon. And as the lights faded up, I felt my friends all turn to look at me…expecting to see a dumb grin plastered on my face…that sadly, wasn’t there. I felt some more tears but mostly, I was just exhausted.
One friend shook me a little, “What’d you think?” she asked. I remember hearing words, but was silent. Again, she nudged, “What’s wrong? Didn’t you like it?” I stuttered. “I’m…not…I need to see it again…”
My friends seemed to be stunned. Disappointed in a reaction they were not getting from me. Surely they’d all placed bets on how stupid I would be acting once the film finally came to a close. Would he jump in his seat? Be on the floor in the fetal position? Or would we turn to find his seat empty and him already in the lobby, lining up for the 10 p.m. showing?
I just sat there. Everyone left the theater. I remained through the credits, knowing there was nothing wait for in the end, but letting the drums do their work in the haunting score. They pressed on, as did I. I emerged with questions and fears and readied myself for the midnight showing.
Through dinner, I was continually asked what I thought. My phone rang, several times. Text messages. Tweets. People knew how ready I was and for some weird reason, wanted me to weigh in. It all became too much. “I loved it! DIDN’T YOU LOVE IT?!” I was just silent. I grew tired of being asked and turned my phone off as I entered the theater for round two, early Friday morning
Round two did not help. Same fears. Same questions. Same confused look on my face. By that point, I was doubly emotionally and physically drained from this two and a half hour epic of a film. I needed sleep.
And now, a week later, I’m still being asked, as Clark proposed to Lois in the cemetery, “What do you think?”
Was it the hype? Were my expectations lofty? Or was I finding too many people clinging to my beliefs to form their own that made it all the more difficult to try and put pen to paper to find mine?
I am finding it difficult to share. I have been afraid that If I began pouring my feelings of the movie out, I’d suddenly throw my hand over my open mouth and find myself at the dreaded realization that…I was unhappy.
I’ve kept every bit of it bottled up inside since.
But here we go.
Let’s start with what everyone else seems to have problems with.
1) Superman “murders” General Zod.
You know what? Go back and watch “Superman II.” Right now. I’ll wait.
Superman kills General Zod. A mortal General Zod, at that. And he smiles about it, to boot.
“We” were all kids and he threw a cellophane \S/ at Non and nobody seemed to question these things back then. But let me say it again. Superman killed Zod in the Fortress of Solitude, by throwing him off an ice cliff. And Lois killed Ursa as well.
Now, “Derek,” you may say, “that didn’t happen in the Richard Donner version. They go to jail.”
Very true, and while I adhere to that belief and enjoy the recently unearthed Donner version to the original sequel, that’s not what was in theaters and that’s not what the majority of people saw. Most people remember that movie the way it originally ended.
So, to suddenly have a problem with it now doesn’t really fly. But I get the arguments, and I validate them.
Superman doesn’t kill.
And though I have rationalized, in my mind, that a rookie Superman, a Superman day one on the job struggled with and mourned his decision…it was still difficult to watch and has haunted me these past few days. I don’t blame Superman for what he did. He felt helpless. And while I’m used to my Superman saying, “There’s always a way…” this Superman has yet to discover that. Perhaps this is what shapes him to it but, I think that’s where my problems with this film come into play.
Jor-El. Jor-El was against the way Krypton was headed. He had a natural-born child with his wife, one free to forge his own destiny. One that would be the Last Son of their planet as Krypton was doomed…Jor-El wanted his son to do what he pleased and not be bred for an occupation as he and his peers had been.
But then, Jor-El meets Kal. And tells him what he’s supposed to do. Basically, I don’t believe in predetermination but this is your destiny, Kal-El. And moments later, Clark emerges. In his true Kryptonian garb, he has thrown off the shackles of not knowing who he was or where he came from, and embraced his heritage and his father’s wishes. And he just takes off, believing the world is now ready for him.
Don’t get me wrong. Powerful scene. POWERFUL. I just feel like there are stepping stones skipped. And I know it’s a film and we can’t spend thirteen years in the Fortress of Solitude learning trial after trial and nobody wants hear constant Jor-El lectures but…to put it simply, Superman wasn’t ready because Clark wasn’t ready to be Superman yet. The passion was there. The love for Earth and its inhabitants and the strive to do good. But I feel as if Clark was a little bit too much like I was going into this film…he meets his father and nothing else mattered. He’s found himself. His home. His people. He knows who he is and he thinks that’s enough…and it isn’t. Not for anyone.
So, when Zod shows up and the destruction begins, Superman does the only thing he thinks he knows how to do. React. Defend. Fight. In the past, Clark has saved and turned to run – obeying his Earthly father’s wishes to keep that side of himself a secret, which ultimately lead to Jonathan’s death. Clark decides to stand proud in front of the world and defend the problems that he brought to Earth. It’s a noble thing, and one he does well with the aid of the intrepid Lois Lane and the ghost of his biological father.
Superman was left with no options, which is a Superman that scares me. I was scared of Superman at the end of this film. It broke my heart to watch him hold Zod back and ultimately make a decision that truly forged him for all time. We witnessed WHY Superman has a rule about killing. Because the one thing Clark was always afraid of, the one thing that he hated was that he felt he was truly alone and had nobody. Suddenly he finds all these Kryptonian brothers and sisters that make him no longer an outcast…and he has to dispose of them. Superman didn’t just snap Zod’s neck. He snapped the proverbial neck of Krypton and his ties to it. His cries over Zod’s corpse weren’t just one of murder for an individual, but a race. A home. He mourned for his past and its future. He was never more alone than he was in that moment. And I’m so glad Lois was there to hold him in it.
Our new Superman was flawed. Optionless. Scared. He reacted. It made him more human. And in that moment I both totally bought and loved that decision, while loathing and being mortified at it at the same time.
It was basically “Yes. You had to do it, Clark. We forgive you” and “You just made me want to never wear another \S/ on my shirt again” all in the same moment. Emotionally and physically drained. The myriad of feelings were cascading and there was no way to turn them off. I could not unsee what had happened and I felt as if I had become an accomplice to it. It hurt. It was the wrong thing, for the right reason versus the right thing, for the wrong one. It had to be done, but that didn’t mean it was easy to do or witness. Superman has to have a reason to be Earth’s protector. And he found it in that moment.
2.) Zod Destroys Everything and Superman Doesn’t Care
There’s a ton of destruction in the movie. There’s a ton of destruction in any action/sci-fi film. It happens.
It’s a little harder to survey here because, it is Superman. He’s supposed to be our savior. So knowing that thousands died during this film is a bit hard to accept because he’s always the one to take the fight elsewhere. Out of the streets of Smallville. Away from the population of Metropolis.
Now we could, again, rely on saying he’s a rookie. It’s day one. He was doing the best he could. But that’s not good enough for some people. There are deaths to own up to and though Superman didn’t throw the switch, he didn’t really turn it off either. Zod throws down in the middle of Metropolis, where the city’s name basically tells you how many people are probably there, and Superman flies halfway around the world to battle the World Engine where…nobody is. “But, the army couldn’t have battled the World Engine.” They had to be the ones to crash Kal El’s rocket into Black Zero (Zod’s vessel.)
I don’t like this argument that much. Buildings topple in “The Avengers,” but they’re quick with a quip or one-liner and the fans throw their fists in the air and cheer along…while God knows how many dead bodies are being buried by the destruction. Because, by all means, let’s look the other way if there’s a joke that will make us cheer all the louder.
If you really watch “Man of Steel”, and I mean REALLY watch those scenes, especially the ones between Superman and Zod in combat, you see people die. You can’t not see it. Bricks and mortar fall and people are trampled by it. It’s all there. And Superman goes right on punching. Doing the only thing he knows how to do, fight. Defend. And he’s so occupied by that he doesn’t really go on the offense…and that brings me back to my greatest Superman age-old line I always go to. Superman cannot do everything. He can’t. He can’t be everywhere at once. He can’t be saving a village from a volcano and have you yell at him because you weren’t there to keep that tree from falling on your daughter. That’s not how he works.
Zod’s people being sucked into the black hole made him an even greater foe. One with force. He was no longer a military man: he was cold blooded and ruthless and he was doing anything he could to exact his vengeance on Superman. That included taking the city down with him. You can’t fix in a second what it only takes a second to destroy. Again, I think this is the story that shows why Superman is so quick to take the battle elsewhere next time. To have options. Options he didn’t allow himself to have in his first outing as Superman.
So while I totally agree with both of these arguments, I am able to see both sides of the fight. The why and why not.
What I don’t agree with, are the claims that this movie “sucks” or is “dumb.”
This movie, like just about 98 percent of all films, is flawed. It’s got ups, it’s got downs. It’s a good movie. It’s a good Superman story. It’s not a *great* Superman movie.
I don’t want to repeat that line again. It hurt to type. It hurts to have sat here and looked back at the blinking cursor behind it the past three minutes. I enjoyed the film, I loved it on its merit and what they were able to do for a new generation, but I found myself feeling cheated. The guy that bought everything and probably overhyped it, also overthought it. And the sum is equal to the whole of its parts…there are scenes that I am fully in love with and adore and will defend left, right, forward, and backward…and then there are choices and decisions made that just made me think that nobody looked over the story more than a couple of times…but that does not mean it’s a bad movie. It is fun, and I will have fun the next time I watch it and the time after that and the time after that. But guess what? “Superman The Movie?” Not without its flaws. “Superman II?” We covered that. “Superman Returns?”…let’s not go there. I can spend hours and hours defending that movie but, not today. Every big franchise film is going to have its ups and downs. There were flaws in “The Dark Knight” just like there were in “Batman Returns” just like there were in “Batman Begins.” It happens. They are not excluded from it. So saying “Man of Steel” isn’t the perfect Superman film isn’t a bad thing folks, because the other five weren’t either. And that’s okay.
The film’s cast is superb. All of them. Henry Cavill and Amy Adams were outstanding and I can’t wait for sequels and more stories in this universe based on their chemistry alone. I adored Lois’ journey in the movie just as much as I did Clark’s. Michael Shannon put out a great performance, not terribly menacing but uncomfortable enough to make me fear for what he was capable of. Had this been the film I watched when I was a child, instead of “Superman II,” I would have been afraid of this Zod. Both sets of parents were extremely chosen for the right reasons (Ayelet Zurer had maybe less than fifteen lines but was so powerful and one of my favorite portrayals in the film)
The score was fascinating, uplifting, devastating and intricate. I didn’t find the special effects to be weak or un-entertaining and the overall message was one I think we can all relate to: hope. And there’s a lot of little things that I adored that would take a whole different review to entail but, sufficed to say, the new story had to start somewhere, and this was as good a place as we are going to find right now. It’s great universe material for sequels, and then some. I found myself always being the Superman fan just dying for that shirt rip and \S/ reveal, to being that Clark Kent fan just dying for those glasses to come out of the pocket and to be placed on the nose. To me, it was just as powerful because, lest we forget, Superman is the person. Superman is not the secret. Clark Kent is the secret. Kent is the disguise.
This is what I have had to learn and remind myself in the past week, it’s okay to have walked away from this movie and not be completely fulfilled. It has strong merits, and strong flaws. But ultimately, doesn’t every story? Isn’t that the difference between right and wrong? The battle for good and evil? So, focus on the good. We rely on merits to overcompensate for the flaws and be the shining example. And that’s what Superman is, the shining example.
Man of Steel – 4/5