DC’s Man of Steel is not a bad film. That needs to be said straight off the bat because everything good about this film comes with an asterisk. Henry Cavill has the look of Superman and appears to naturally slip into the role, Michael Shannon brings a much needed level of intensity to the character of General Zod, every scene is beautifully constructed and the fight scenes are incredibly fun to watch. Those are the main points for Man of Steel and undoubtedly many people will come out of the cinema having at least enjoyed the film. And while there’s much to be said for film critique, the measure of how much the casual viewer enjoys is as, if not more important.
Unfortunately, just as many people have probably left the cinema feeling dissatisfied with Man of Steel, which is understandable. As I mentioned, for every good aspect of this film there is an asterisk that weighs the film down. Whilst Henry Cavill is certainly believable as Superman, I never felt that we really got to know him. Although he is the main character, he speaks little and most of his story is told through flashbacks. I imagine that was a conscious decision because the Superman origin story is fairly well known but the flash backs do nothing to enhance the character of Kal-El. The flashbacks re-enforce the film’s themes and convoluted story. I say convoluted because, although clearly aware that everyone knows the Superman origin story, David S. Goyer and Zack Synder and Christopher Nolan and whoever else was involved, decided to change the origin. They changed the origin to give General Zod and Jor-El more motivation for their parts in the film but the problem is that the change makes no sense and leaves their motivations somewhat undefined.
In case you don’t know, or recently suffered a head injury, Superman’s origin story is pretty simple. Part of an alien race, Superman’s parents find out that their home planet, Krypton, is going to be destroyed and thus, in order to protect their newborn son, they jettison him from the planet on course to another planet with a yellow sun which sustains life, namely Earth. The child is found by an elderly couple in Smallville by the names Jonathan and Martha Kent who adopt and raise the child with the perspective that he can be a force of good in the world so long as he controls his powers. They die before he goes off to university and gets a degree in journalism.
For the film, that remains mostly the same, except that now Krypton is dying because the Kryptonians harvested the core in order to power the codex which artificially creates purpose fitted Kryptonians, Brave New World style. Kal-El is the first naturally born child on Krypton for centuries. However, this change creates plots holes that weren’t evident in the original story, such as why did the Kryptonians feel the need to start artificially creating life? They were so populous that they were expanding throughout the universe so it seems rather unnecessary. Perhaps it was a tyrannical utopia much like Brave New World but at least in Huxley’s novel the highest ranking creations were allowed to develop naturally. There is no reason given in Man of Steel to explain why Jor-El or Zod, who must have been created by the codex, are capable of exerting free will and rebelling against the state.
This alteration to the origin story underlines the motivations of Jor-El and Zod. Jor-El sends the codex off to Earth with Kal-El and claims, when he reappears as a hologram, that his son can start a new race. Perhaps he just means adopting humans as his race but it is never clear whether Jor-El is suggesting that Kal actually can breed with humanoids, despite technically being an entirely different species. Zod wants the codex himself so that he can use it to repopulate Krypton, which for some reason requires the death and destruction of all people on Earth. Apparently, there isn’t another planet with a yellow sun in the entire galaxy. Either that or Zod is just incredibly lazy, take your pick.
If you have noticed that I have barely mentioned what happens on Earth after Kal-El has arrived it is because there really isn’t that much to say. Synder provides some beautiful shots of Superman leaping and flying around America but I only wish as much care had been devoted to the pacing. It is almost twenty minutes before we even get off Krypton and get to Earth and then a lot of time is given over to Clark Kent, the outsider, wandering the Earth and flashbacks which serve to remind the audience just how unready humans are to witness a superpowered being in the flesh. Jonathan Kent believes this so much that he is willing to die rather than allow his son to use his powers to save him.
Critc Richard Roeper said that there was “very little humor or joy in this Superman story”. I agree with that statement but it isn’t about the film needing to be more light-hearted, it is about optimism and hope, ideals that Superman is meant to embody. This is what I was afraid of. DC Comics and Warner Bros. are determined for Superman to fit their grounded, dark, realistic approach to Superhero movies that they have essentially changed who the character is. You might argue that it makes him a deeper, more complex character but actually he just comes across as indecisive and pessimistic.
Currently, Man of Steel has a 56% rating on RottonTomatoes.com based on 225 reviews which suggests that most critics found the problems of this film as glaringly distracting as I did. And I didn’t even get into the terrible CGI utilised in the fight scenes that made them look like video game cutscenes from a beat ‘em up game. Or the total lack of chemistry between Cavill and Amy Adams. And despite these flaws, on the same site, 82% of the audience enjoyed the film. So, for the casual viewer, this is an enjoyable film but if you find yourself at the cinema this weekend looking for some strong characters and coherent story telling with good pacing, don’t watch Man of Steel.