Between the commercial success of a near-constant stream of Marvel Studios Avengers movies and the critical success of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, there are impossible expectations for Man of Steel. Expectations like reigniting the public’s love for Superman; expectations like launching a blockbuster film franchise; expectations like being any good in its own right. Zach Snyder’s Superman slug-fest has a lot to accomplish. Does it achieve any of that? Welcome to the Chat Cave.
Drew: Like many comics fans, I was incredibly excited by the teaser trailer for this movie. In spite of the trailer’s own prominent reminder that Zach Snyder directed both Watchmen and 300, it felt like this movie got Superman. Indeed, the trailer trades in Snyder’s standard embarrassing music cues and slow-motion punches for meditative statements about Superman’s power as a symbol. Between story credits by Dark Knight Trilogy scribe David S. Goyer and director Christopher Nolan, I dared hope that Man of Steel might be to Superman what The Dark Knight films were to Batman: an operatic drama that understands the defining nature of the hero.
Then I read Mark Waid’s reaction. His assertion that the film fundamentally misunderstood what makes Superman Superman didn’t bode well, but I held out hope that he was maybe just being overprotective — the movie does borrow a great deal from Birthright, after all. Perhaps Waid’s perception of what Superman is or isn’t is stricter than mine — maybe, just maybe, I could enjoy the movie anyway. Unfortunately (though not surprisingly), Waid’s assessment is spot-on. The first third is a fantastic Superman story (I’m particularly impressed with Amy Adams’ Lois Lane), but the rest forgets who Superman is, allowing him to become a distillation of who we are, rather than who we can be. It uses Superman to make us feel okay about the shitty decisions we’ve made in a post-9/11 world, where he really could (and I think should) inspire us to be better. Basically, I think The Dark Knight was a more successful Superman film, which makes no fucking sense.
Shelby: This movie was not what I expected. I’m not totally sure what it was that I expected, but this movie wasn’t it. It took me a while to figure out how I felt about it. The movie itself was gorgeous; if there’s one thing Zach Snyder can do well, it’s make visually stunning movies. I called it “destruction porn,” it’s almost overwhelming the magnitude of destruction that takes place. Adams was great as Lois; she is curious enough to get herself into trouble, but I never got the impression that she was helpless. I think having her know Clark’s identity is a smart move. If she’s supposed to be this incredible investigative journalist, there’s no way a simple pair of glasses would fool her. The friends I saw the movie with said that it was insulting to think that she wouldn’t have been able to see through such a flimsy disguise.
Drew, you say that this Superman was only a reflection of who we are instead of an inspiration to humanity to be better. You say that’s a negative, but I think that is the strength of this movie. Snyder’s Superman is a reflection of the goodness of people; the movie highlights the human side of Clark. It shows us his struggles growing up with his powers, his desire as a boy to use his power against those who would hurt him, and most importantly it shows us his journey to the realization of his responsibility to the rest of us. It could very well be that this movie gets everything about who Superman is wrong; personally, I think that focusing on the human weaknesses that Clark has to balance with his alien strength make for a far more compelling character, one I am more interested in. Maybe I’m the wrong person to ask; my apathy towards Superman is well-documented here at the non-existent Retcon Punch offices. Odds are I would much prefer a Superman story that got him more wrong than right.
Mikyzptlk: Superman is supposed to be the perfect hero, the one that others should look upon for inspiration. A big part of this is his “no-killing” rule that he’s seemed to develop throughout the years. This rule of his has seemingly been accepted by the vast majority of other DC heroes. Normally, that’s all well and good, but when Wonder Woman snapped the neck of Maxwell Lord during the build-up of Infinite Crisis, everybody lost their minds. Superman could no longer trust Wonder Woman, and it would be years before that trust was restored. Here’s the thing about that though, Wonder Woman had to kill Max Lord. The dude had literally taken over the mind of the most powerful guy on the planet. Lord even stated, flat out, that he’d never relinquish control of Superman again. Lord forced Diana’s hand in that moment, and she did something that Amazons are fairly well known for doing. She made a difficult choice, and she saved the day.
When watching Man of Steel, I let out an audible gasp when I saw Superman snap General Zod’s neck. My first thought was that it wasn’t right, that Superman would never cross that line. Or would he? Taking a life is something that no one should ever have to do, but there are times, in the world we live in, where taking a life is the only option left. When I watched that scene, I didn’t see Zod threatening a handful of tourists with his heat-vision, I saw Zod threatening to kill the entire human race. If left alive, either somehow imprisoned by Earth’s forces or even trapped in the Phantom Zone, Zod would return to decimate the planet. Superman understood this, and in that moment, he knew he had to make that awful choice. Was it right? No, and killing never is. As ugly as his decision was, I felt a legitimacy to his actions. So, as long as he doesn’t make killing a regular part of his modus operandi, I still think this Superman will be able to inspire a whole new set of heroes, on-screen and off.
Patrick: Frankly, it doesn’t bother me that this Superman would kill Zod. I’m not even convinced that this movie cares about that – the first time that question even comes up is during the final fight when Zod says “This ends one of two ways: I die or you die.” Up until that point, Clark doesn’t state his preference for non-lethal action once. If there’s a moral choice that the film is interested in, it’s whether Clark should hide from humanity, or sacrifice his anonymity to protect the Earth. That’s the point of the every flashback to Clark’s childhood, but it’s a moral dilemma that fizzles into nothing when Clark fucking chooses both – he can protect mankind and still punch down government drones that try to find out where he lives.
And that’s my major beef with this movie: it doesn’t know what message it wants to send, but it’s so fucking eager project something meaningful. There’s a moment where Superman is fighting Zod’s second-in-command, and she taunts him by saying that “history has taught us that evolution always wins” (paraphrasing). For the life of me, I can’t tell what the hell she’s talking about: which of them is supposed to be “more evolved?” Are the Kryptonians more evolved than the humans? It doesn’t make any sense, but it sure puts up the facade of profundity. And while that’s a criticism that I think can be fairly extended to all of Snyder’s films, that is pointedly not what I expect from a story penned by David Goyer and Christopher Nolan.