Last Saturday, I rewatched Man of Steel, because why not. And it turned out to be a more enjoyable film on the second viewing, partly because I knew what to expect and was thus able to think more about the filmmakers' intentions—to reverse-engineer the storytelling, so to speak.
It's not a perfect movie. It's probably not even a great movie, as far as such things go, but I have to give producer Christopher "Dark Knight" Nolan and director Zack "300" Snyder credit for their audacity: they did not, in fact, make a Superman movie. They made a science fiction movie which leads to Superman. And they did a pretty good job of setting up what I hope will be a halfway decent movie series.
First, let me acknowledge all the bad stuff:
- Yes, there was excessive and senseless destruction of property (and loss of innocent lives).
- Yes, Zod talks too much, and most of it is ham-fisted exposition.
- Yes, the gratuitous callbacks to Superman II are distracting.
- There are too many flashbacks.
- There's not enough humor.
- And yes, the movie is about 20 minutes too long, mostly at the end.
Now let's talk about the good stuff. In roughly chronological order:
- Weird-science Krypton!
- That smash cut from spaceship to fishing trawler is genius, and you could only do it in a Superman-origin movie.
- Clark's first X-ray visions.
- "You are my son."
- Lois Lane, the smartest person in the room.
- Learning to fly in the Arctic.
- "The truth about you is beautiful."
- The whole surrender sequence.
- Emergency Holographic Jor-El.
- Clark not giving up intercut with Perry not leaving.
- "Welcome to The Planet." (Or, as I prefer: "Welcome to the planet.")
That, by the way, was a perfect ending line for the whole damn movie. Because it's a prequel, you guys. (Even the music signals a prologue: we never get an actual fanfare, but we get a slow build toward something.) As my friend Tom says, this title character is not Superman yet; this Clark Kent has never even considered becoming a caped crusader. The movie is about why Clark becomes Superman. And its thesis revolves around what, for me, are the two most resonant things about the Superman character: anger and choice.
Man of Steel cribs quite a bit from the Superman: Birthright books. There's no Lex Luthor in the movie, but there is an alien invasion of Metropolis, and Clark is first introduced to the audience during his "angry young man" years. He's immature, inexperienced, and struggling to find his place in a world where he can't really be himself. As we saw in Frozen, it's not enough to have amazing superpowers; you have to know when and how to use them—and you have to control them even when you're angry.
We all have powers we're not using. We all have abilities that we can push to the limit when we want to, or when we feel we need to. We can run faster when we're threatened or chased; we can think harder when there are great rewards or dire consequences on the line. And we also choose whether to use a particular skill or talent for fun, for making money, or not at all.
Some people complain that Superman isn't an interesting protagonist because he's too powerful. But for me, that's one of the most interesting things about him—he's not a hero because he's compelled by some inner demons or past trauma or external pressure. He's practically invulnerable; he can do whatever the hell he wants. (Which, by the way, is the question explored in the classic Red Son and the intriguing Irredeemable: what if Superman went bad?)
I have a temper. I've put my foot through a door and my hand through a plate glass window (I still have the scar). I've kicked in a minivan door. I once made another kid piss blood after a schoolyard fight (I didn't see it, but he told me about it the next day, and I felt terrible). In a very real sense, I have—as the saying goes—used my powers for evil. But I've learned from my youthful indiscretions.
And so does Clark Kent. As Superman, he chooses to fight "a never-ending battle for truth and justice"—and he is driven to that choice by his anger.
Those two motivations collide in that train station at the end of Man of Steel, during Clark's final confrontation with Zod. I hope the filmmakers address that in the next movie, even if it's just one line of dialogue. I hope that they intentionally set up that defining moment to explain why Superman doesn't kill people. (Linked image from Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, the brilliant "imaginary tale" which wrapped up DC's Superman titles before the 1987 reboot.)
I have anger issues. I recognize that, and I'm working on it. Meanwhile, I do my best to avoid being a dick.