Hot But Dull

I really wanted Man of Steel to be fun movie. And at times, it was. It was worth the matinee price.

The superhero battle sequences are fun, if a bit silly, and the no-red-undies-on-the-outside, hex-mesh-fabric Superman outfit is an improvement over past iterations. Henry Cavill, I am assured by multiple female sources, is more than a little bit hot, so Superman is also super-good-looking. Michael Shannon as the bad guy is believable and fun. The opening sequence on a dying Krypton is just long enough and has just enough science fiction elements to be interesting, and it ends before it gets to be too much.

The controversial end of the climactic battle posed no issues for me. It didn’t seem like there was any real alternative for the character; the question is why the writers set it up that way. But there were some real problems.

Normally, I like it when an action movie is loud and ‘splodey. When I think a movie has become too loud and too ‘splodey, well, it’s too loud and too ‘splodey. Man of Steel is too loud and too ‘splodey.

At 143 minutes, the movie could have been a good thirty minutes shorter without cutting out anything of importance whatsoever. Maybe as much as 45 minutes shorter. A movie should be the length it needs to be to tell its story. This movie didn’t have that much story to tell, so it didn’t need to be as long as it was. The story and film editors needed to be given a stronger hand and instructions to pull out the character story in less than two hours while leaving in sufficient spectacle to keep the audience thrilled. I’ve got to think they could have done this in less than two and a half hours.

The movie went over the top with A-list celebrities in small-to-middling roles, to the point that seeing so many of them in so many different roles became distracting. I never quite was able to set aside Russell Crowe or Diane Lane or Laurence Fishburne or Christopher Meloni, and see the characters they were playing instead of the actors playing them. The only A-lister I was able to set aside off-screen persona for was Amy Adams, delivering a flinty Lois Lane.

Could the writers and the FX crew have beat up on Metropolis just a little bit less? If they had, it might have been more effective. One or two large buildings in a big city being destroyed is terrifying and horrible. But dozens of them going down because of what amounts to a super-fistfight stopped being awful and started being silly. About a quarter of the way through the climactic fight, I found myself so jaded by the fact that building after building was being brought down by the superhero battle that I was wondering about the effects all of this was going to have on the reinsurance market.

Superman is portrayed in comic books as being super-smart on top  of being super-studley. We’re shown this in the movie because as a child Clark Kent is shown reading Plato for recreation. But as an adult he seems to demonstrate only above average intelligence and has surprisingly little dialogue to deliver in which he might say something smart. A movie can convey intelligence superficially (by illustrating a character reading a book without pictures, or wearing glasses) or it can convey intelligence by illustrating the intelligent character putting clues together faster than the characters he’s interacting with. Superman goes superficial. And for a guy who’s also supposed to be super-moral and super-empathetic, he says some pretty thoughtless things to his adoptive parents (granted, one was during his late teens, and adolescents do behave that way — apparently even if they have super powers).

But most of all, Superman was dull. The writers tried to make him conflicted, struggling with inner demons and a search for personal identity. But I was more interested in Jonathan Kent than his young son, and even less interested in that son as he grew up. The adult Clark Kent is supposed to make a transition from being a secretive loner, trying to conceal his differences from an outside world he feared to instead step out of the shadows and assuming responsibility appropriate to his abilities. Mr. Cavill might have been trying to convey that sort of inner struggle, but I didn’t get much of it from his facial expressions or body language. There was one scene set in a church where he showed some emotional depth but that was swamped by a very heavy-handed bit of set staging.

Mainly Mr. Cavill stood around looking hot, which is perfectly okay for (most of) the ladies and some of the gents, but I had a hard time doing much caring about the character. That’s probably not Mr. Cavill’s fault and maybe it isn’t even the writer’s fault. Superman is a god amongst men. If regular people are rated on a steep bell curved scale ranging from three to eighteen in various categories, he’s in the twenties across the board and invulnerable to boot. What do you do with that? Vulnerability drives conflict and it’s conflict that makes a story interesting.

If I seem to be harshing all over the movie, that’s because I wanted it to be so good so badly. Superman is the top superhero out there, and I don’t know that there’s a boy out there, and probably a lot of girls, who hasn’t dreamed of being Superman or having his powers. Maybe there’s just no story that can possibly live up to that.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.


  1. A partial listing from IMDB:

    Superman (1948)
    Superman and the Mole-Men (1951)
    Adventures of Superman (1952) (TV Series)
    The New Adventures of Superman (1966) (TV Series)
    Superman (1975) (TV Movie)
    Superman (1978)
    Superman II (1980)
    Superman III (1983)
    Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)
    Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993) (TV Series)
    Smallville (2001) (TV Series)
    Superman Returns (2006)
    Superman: Requiem (2011)

    And yet somehow this one wasn’t fresh and original.

  2. We saw it last night, and our take was that it was just fine, but would have been much better if the battle/fight scenes would have been cut at least in half. We got bored by the “big things being crushed” after the first 20 minutes of watching it happen over and over.

  3. Superman is portrayed in comic books as being super-smart on top of being super-studley.

    Really? I thought they portrayed him as a journalist.

  4. Good review, Burt. I agree, especially about the massive destruction of Metropolis. I couldn’t help but think, “How many dead now? And now another building down?” I was disturbed by Clark and Lois kissing in the midst of what must have been hundreds of thousands dead.

    I did like the Krypton stuff at the beginning quite a bit. I’d have liked a whole movie just about that.

  5. What do you do with that? Invulnerability drives conflict and it’s conflict that makes a story interesting.

    In the best stories that I’ve seen, it’s the fact that Superman is, at his core, “just” Clark Kent that drives the conflict. Sure, he and General Zod are physically evenly matched… but it’s Clark Kent’s fundamental *HUMANITY* that gives Superman an edge.

    Other good stories involve how Superman’s powers, as awesome as they are, are limited. So stories that portray Superman as still not being able to do everything can work but how he still has to deal with the expectations that everyone else has. Stories that explore how Superman’s the superhero that kids say “Man, I wish I was him!” and that grownups say “Man, I’m so glad I’m not him”.

    The problem is that Superman is such a rough character to write. It’s just too easy to put him up against a bad guy who can be beaten by a hard enough hit.

    • I should have written “Vulnerability drives conflict.” Invulnerability takes all the edge out of what would otherwise be conflict. I’ve edited the OP to reflect my intention.

      My worry for a new Superman franchise is that after you’re done with Zod, you need something else of equivalent might to challenge good ol’ Supes. Even super-smart Lex Luthor typically has to get himself some Kryptonite, and thus render Superman vulnerable, in order to even have a chance.

      • I started scripting a story about Lex Luthor outsmarting Superman.

        I thought it was pretty good.

    • What I always liked was how, in the best Batman stories, we wonder whether the costume is Batman or the costume is Bruce Wayne.

      And in a discussion over that, someone pointed out how the best Superman stories were the ones where Clark Kent and Superman were the same person, it’s just that one had superpowers and the other didn’t.

  6. We enjoyed it right up to the big fight at the end. Like others here and elsewhere all I could think about was the thousands of people probably killed in the battle. It was insane.

    I really thought the opening sequence was pretty cool with giving a little more backstory on Jor-El and Zod.

  7. I generally like action, when there’s anything behind it. In this movie there wasn’t, and the action sequences bored me. The opening sequences on Krypton were too long, and left too much unclear (they have ships, so why can’t someone other than Kal-El be evacuated? Further, it sounded like Zod also realized the planet was collapsing and wanted to evacuate some people, but only people of his selection, which Jor-El objected to. But isn’t that still better than everyone dying? And wasn’t Jor-El doing exactly the same thing by deciding “only my son gets to live, everyone else has to stay here and die”?) Jor-El and Zod just felt like actors with “Good Guy” and “Bad Guy” labels on them, and no characterization beyond that.

    Similar problems with how they told Superman’s story. The themes weren’t shown; the movie instead settled for outright stating them (hope! heavyhanded Christian symbolism), but not doing anything to back up those statements. Each of the flashbacks to Clark’s childhood were supposed to convey something about him, but they didn’t come together to form a nuanced portrait; they just seemed like disjointed scenes used by the filmmakers to tell us “these are the themes of the character’s development” without actually developing the character.

    Any film with Superman in it needs to centre around some kind of moral struggle, and this one didn’t. It just centred around technobabble and explosions and super-fights. It felt like Superman by Roland Emmerich.

    I liked Lois being awesome (her portrayal in the old Donner movies grates on me), but that’s about the only positive thing I have to say about the movie.

    • Jor-El and Zod just felt like actors with “Good Guy” and “Bad Guy” labels on them, and no characterization beyond that.

      No kidding. The current government of Krypton had resulted in a planet _a few weeks from explosion_. And remember, this wasn’t a natural disaster…they did this to themselves.

      It’s frankly hard to imagine how Zod would be worse. The government literally allowed the destruction of the world, ignored it while it was happening, and then refused to do anything to save anyone. I think Zod’s coup is actually _justified_ at that point.

      And then the government returns to power and captures Zod…and they actually care more about punishing criminals than the fact the world is ending. (And what a weird-ass punishment. You are hereby sentenced to be in a different dimension when our world explodes in a few weeks! May God have mercy on your soul.)

      They could have, _instead_, packed the Phantom drive ship(1) with those birthing chambers and then sent it off to make a new Krypton. Yes, Jor-El stole the matrix things…but, uh, people still have genetic material. It wouldn’t be ideal, but you could spend the few weeks before the end of the world having everyone donate theirs!

      Why is Zod the bad guy again? Because he wants to do things the way Krypton’s done it forever, with birthing chambers instead of natural birth? Because he’s apparently a little prejudice about genetics and his idea of ‘the best’ bloodlines is probably a little screwy?

      All well and good, but perhaps the social commentary is being focused on a little too much _as the planet blows up_. Perhaps Zod should just be allowed to, you know, actually make sure Kryptonians exist, and then _later_ we can have an insightful look at their shortcomings.

      The only real problem with Zod is that they handed him the idiot ball to get him to try to make New Krypton on _Earth_. Why the hell was he trying to do that? They have a terraformer! Use Mars or Venus or one of those dozens of other worlds you visited while gathering tech (You know, those worlds _already_ terraformed for Kryptonians?), you idiot. You now have a glowing baby tree ship _and_ a terraformer ship _and_ Clark would gladly provide the DNA if you would do it _anywhere except Earth_.

      Or, hell, just raise them on Earth, like Clark suggested. (2) I loved the excuse ‘Oh, but our people would have had years of not breathing right.’ What a whiny little ass.

      1) Considering that Krypton spread out an empire in the stars, it appears that hyperdrive tech was well known, and that the Phantom zone tech was just a side effect of that they kept around. There’s no way on earth Zod’s people (Who, remember, are genetically programmed to the soldiers, not scientists) could have _invented_ hyperdrive. They just took something that was 95% already a hyperdrive and jerry-rigged it to be one.

      2) I actually thought that _this_ was going to be the conflict…Zod wanting to basically hijack Earth by creating thousands and thousands of ‘Supermen’, which would actually suck pretty hard for human beings, especially as Kryptons are unkillable and, depending on the continuity, actually immortal. What happens when they join the military, or take over a country? You can’t have humans and Kryptons _Really_ live side by side.

      But, no, that conflict, which would have been a nice expansion of _Clark’s_ worry that humans would react oddly to knowledge he exists, was not the conflict. Instead, Zod was just going to kill everyone first.

      • Oh, and, yes, it’s possible that the baby tree ship didn’t have a hyperdrive, that the colonization ships spread slowly.

        And? Stick that ship in earth orbit, or, heck, Pluto orbit to make sure humans can’t mess with it, and use the other ship as a ferry for the babies to some terraformed planet somewhere else. Or just carefully move the birthing chambers to the other ship. Or terraform a planet it _can_ reach, like Mars. Or whatever.

        There’s a dozen different solution that did not involve having to fight the _only_ guy who has all the genetic info you need without messing up the _sole_ planet he cares about.

      • I think tucked into all of these apparent incongruities and stupidities about the end of Krypton is a rather profound point about “human” nature and the evolution of human social structures. That, in the face of the destruction of their planet, Zod was worried about pure bloodlines while the leadership was worried about making sure that societal rules and laws were enforced.

        “Krypton had its chance” Superman says (or something like that). It was too late to save, and not because of the state of the planet. Krypton built what I reckon to be extraordinary social structures. Maximum efficiency. No versatility. Nobody could think outside of their particular box. That strikes me as a sort of natural conclusion to the sort of society that they had constructed.

  8. Dana Stevens in her review for Slate wondered whether today’s society could handle a superhero as good and wholesome as Superman and further speculated that this was the angstification of Supreman to make him more ironic.

    She probably has a point about the Superman mythos. A Superman movie needs to be directed with a light touch like Richard Donner’s Superman.

    • Superman’s wholesome goodness isn’t really appropriate for this day and age. Most people want their superheroes to be badass and being badass seems to require an edge that classic Superman did not have. Superman is one of the strongest heroes but he is also unassuming. You feel safe around him, if you aren’t a bad guy. His appearance is assuring, it calms people down. You always know that Superman is going to do the right thing. Thats why he can’t really be badass despite all his awesome strength.

      Batman isn’t as powerful as Superman but he is more badass because he radiates danger. Nobody probably really feels safe around him even if you are somebody he’s trying to protect. Batman is not a reassuring or calming presence.

      • Superman is timeless. He goes beyond the day and age.

        • How mystical but ultimately wrong. Every work gets reinterpreted to fit the day and age when they are read. Nothing is immune to it.

  9. Re Superman’s intelligence. I think that Superman is so incredibly powerful that he doesn’t really need to use his intelligence as much as Batman or Spider-Man since he can pummel through nearly all foes. The other thing is that film is such an inherently visual media, especially movies with a lot of special effects, that its hard to depict intelligence. Sherlock Holmes was supposed to be one of the most intelligent characters of all time but the recent movies with Guy Ritchie turned him into an action hero of sorts. Its not like Sherlock Holmes in the books was a weakling but it was easier to convey his intelligence in writing. The best adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes version was probably the one with Jeremy Brett but that was at the expense of action. That isn’t acceptable in whats supposed to be a fun movie, so Holmes had to become more of an action hero.

    • And yet we have tons of fantastic, financially-successful movies with few or no action scenes, where characters use their wits and charm to overcome the problems they face. An action heavy Superman movie is just the filmmakers being cowards–and since superman action scenes aren’t actually interesting, they’re shooting themselves in the foot because of it.

      • The action-free movies are in a particular genre that really doesn’t include superheroes. The general public expects and wants action scenes in superhero movies.

  10. “If regular people are rated on a steep bell curved scale ranging from three to eighteen in various categories, he’s in the twenties across the board and invulnerable to boot. What do you do with that? Vulnerability drives conflict and it’s conflict that makes a story interesting.”

    I haven’t seen the film. In fact, I haven’t seen a single Superman film… or watched a Superman show or read a Superman comic. Part of this is because I’m just not big into comic books and super heroes. But I’ve seen and enjoyed the recent Batman and Iron Man films and always had at least a passing interest in the X-Men.

    But Superman never had any interest for me because, as I understand him, he never had any edge. I’m just not interested in the super-do-gooder trope. It’s overly simplistic and frankly not all that engaging.

    • Watch “Superman vs. The Elite”. You should be able to pick it up pretty much anywhere comic-themed videos can be found.

      It talks about this.

      • It is a “Superman” movie? Or a movie about Superman? If that makes sense.

        • It manages to be both. Well, minus the origin story.

          The opening is of Clark Kent watching a Superman cartoon that is cheesy as heck. Cartoon Superman catches some bank robbers and says “Crime Does Not Pay!” and smiles a gleaming smile. Lois herself calls it cheesy. Superman says “but it’s an important message…”

          Anyway, that’s where the story starts.

          Along the way, there are discussions of violence, justice, and the death penalty. If you’ve got a night where Mayo will not go to sleep, there are worse videos to watch while rocking.

          • I’ll look into it.

            By the way… spoken like a true father. Did that vasectomy take? Also, I have to send you my pitch for a new superhero movie… perhaps even a Superman movie.

Comments are closed.