I still haven’t quite gotten around to seeing the not-exactly-critically-beloved Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. (I’m not particularly jazzed about going, either, but I do want to check it out for myself. I like making up my own mind about shit, particularly if Batman’s going to be involved.) However, I knew I wanted to watch Man of Steel before I made my trip to the theater, so a few weeks ago I finally sat down and put it on.
Man. That long, dreary ass film did not help motivate my interest in Batman v Superman AT ALL.
I feel like all my reviews lately have been chockfull of spoilers, and I feel kind of bad about that . . . but yeah, this one’s going to have SPOILERS too. Sorry, fellow folks who are also behind on their DC superhero film viewing.
Kal-El/Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) grows up rather miserably on Earth after his birth planet, Krypton, is destroyed, eradicating almost his entire species. And despite Pa Kent’s best efforts, Clark becomes a hero when General Zod (Michael Shannon) and the Rest of The Last Kryptonians arrive on Earth, threatening to destroy the entire human race.
1. Before we started the movie, I had this lovely dream that I could write a quick little review that would only take an hour or two, tops, as if I’d ever written anything brief in my entire life. Needless to say, that dream was dashed within the first twenty minutes of the movie because boy, do I have problems with this prologue. And admittedly, some of those problems are possibly inherent to the source material, not just this particular film adaptation . . . but some of it’s definitely the film adaptation.
In fact, I have so many issues that I might as well just summarize everything that happens in the first twenty minutes so I can better discuss why I think it’s crap:
We begin our tale with Jor-El (Russell Crowe) telling the Kryptonian High Council (or whoever) that the whole planet has only a couple of weeks left to live.
The Council is basically like, “Do you expect us to evacuate the beach during tourist season?” and Jor-El’s like, “Why bother? We’re all doomed anyway.” Presumably he’s about to pitch his totally weird ‘Baby Soul Survivor Plan,’ but that’s when General Zod pops in, and he is not happy. Zod’s like, “Fuck you, Council, we’re taking over your shit,” and proceeds with all the usual rebellion/treason/murder stuff. His plan, I guess, is to escape (somehow) and use the Kryptonians genetic codex to preserve only the pureblood lines.
Unfortunately for him, though, Jor-El is emphatically not an alien Death Eater, and he’s like, “All people deserve to live, but especially my newborn son because he was born naturally THROUGH A VAGINA.” He then proceeds to do a bunch of silly action stunts so that he can steal the codex and fuse it to Kal-El’s cells, or something. I guess his plan is to boot Kal-El to a new, populated planet so that he can bow-chicka-wow-wow his people–or at least their DNA–back into existence? Which, I’ve got to say, would have probably made a much more exciting movie. Oh my God, is there a porn like this? Superman knocking on various doors wearing his cape and nothing else, and saying, “Excuse me, but I need to bang you in order save my people from extinction?” If there isn’t, SOMEONE NEEDS TO MAKE IT. (And then, for the love of God, don’t send it to me. My eyes don’t actually want to see that.)
Anyway, Jor-El and Lara successfully see Kal-El off the planet before Zod murders Jor-El. The Kryptonians manage to crush Zod’s rebellion and send him and his cronies into this blackhole prison deal. And then two weeks later, Krypton blows the hell up, taking everyone on the planet with it.
A. Let’s begin with the fact that this is a twenty-minute prologue to a story that basically everyone already knows, even non-geeks. I’m aware that this version includes certain individualistic elements (that I generally didn’t care for) but even taking that into consideration, twenty minutes? If you’re going to do that, you need to make sure those twenty minutes are both necessary and really, really interesting, neither of which was the case for me here.
B. Also (and this is, admittedly, my least significant problem), the whole prologue had a weird, almost vaguely Shakespearian feel to it that I just didn’t buy. I struggled taking it seriously, which is not the reaction you generally hope for when it comes to tragic origin stories.
C. Far more importantly, I just can’t seem to buy the total annihilation of the Kryptonian people. Cause, like, the Kryptonians seem to have a pretty advanced society. They’re capable of propagating their entire species through artificial means. They have devices which can terraform whole planets. They have prisons inside black holes. But for some reason, Jor-El is entirely convinced that they’re all doomed, that two weeks isn’t enough for anyone other than one entirely helpless newborn baby to escape? There’s only the one infant-sized escape pod on the whole planet? Even if Jor-El actually was advocating for evacuation (which, again, he totally wasn’t) and the Council was like, “Nope, no one gets to leave the planet because we’re all going to be totes fine!” I just don’t believe for a second that word wouldn’t get out, that people wouldn’t try to escape. I know you have to look past some stuff when it comes to Superman source material (glasses make you a whole new man, and all that), but I just can’t buy this.
For God’s sake, Krypton. The Enterprise managed to save thousands of Vulcans in JJ Abrams’s Star Trek, and they only had minutes. Get your shit together.
D. The whole mudblood/pureblood thing feels super random, probably because no one really ever bothers to bring it up again. It’s so inconsequential to the story that I wonder if it only exists at all to make sure we understand that Zod is the bad guy.
Cause, at first, this guy is kind of sympathetic, isn’t he? Yes, yes, killing off Council members is bad, but it is the Council’s fault that billions and billions of people are going to die in the first place, right, and while Zod’s military coup seems hilarious mistimed, I do get the general idea: he punishes and overthrows the bad rulers so that he can save as many of his people as he can. That doesn’t really sound so bad until you realize that he only wants to save, like, the noble lineage or whatever and fuck the rest.
Still, prejudiced and awful as it is . . . it does seem that Zod’s plan saves more people than Jor-El’s. Seriously, Jor-El’s plan is just awful, right?
E. Lara’s only real contribution to this story is pushing the button that sends Baby Kal-El into space. She doesn’t even get to be a Helpful Exposition Hologram. This is what I call the Martha Wayne treatment: the father is the inspiration and/or source of angst, and the mother wears pearls. (In the dozens of movies and animated movies and TV episodes and comics I’ve read, I have seen one Batman story do something interesting with Martha Wayne. One. If you’ve seen more, I’d love to hear about it!)
F. Finally–and this is just one of those IMO, pet peeve things–I feel like one of the laziest ways to describe an evil and/or dystopian future society is to have everyone be born artificially. It’s so boring and cliche. I’d love to see someone use this trope in a positive light. (Again, if you know of one, please let me know! I love recommendations, provided they aren’t given to me in as condescending of a manner as possible.)
2. So, yeah. All of that? Just the first 1/7 of the movie.
On the plus side, I really don’t have a problem with any of the acting. (Well. Okay, I did have a pretty hard time taking Michael Shannon seriously, which sucks because I know he’s supposed to be a great actor, but . . . yeah, Zod didn’t quite do it for me.) There are a lot of good-to-great actors in this cast, and it’s the material, not their performances, that really make the movie fall down hard.
Henry Cavill, for instance:
Acting-wise, he’s totally fine. I actually really enjoyed that one scene where he’s in an interrogation room, speaking evenly to the frightened and intimidated human generals. He felt a little like the Superman I’m familiar with. (Which, to be clear, is primarily the one from Justice League and Justice League Unlimited. I am not comparing this film to the Christopher Reeve movies, as I was probably about four the last time I watched them.)
It’s just that, story-wise, I’m totally bored by everything about Superman. Clark Kent is one broody motherfucker in Man of Steel, which I guess isn’t so surprising because he’s had an entirely miserable life, at least in this particular version. Admittedly, Mopey Superman is pretty weird because it’s kind of like giving us a movie about an optimistic and happy-go-lucky Bruce Wayne or, IDK, a movie where Thor’s really depressed about having to hit things with his hammer. But I’m sure there’s a way to give us a darker Superman story, one that focuses on his literal alienation from everyone around him, that is still compelling and nuanced. This is just . . . flat and dull.
It reminds me a little of the whole grimdark debate, which is unfortunate because I basically hate that debate as, inevitably, people on both sides of it get on my nerves. Really dark stories are not inherently any better or worse than really upbeat stories; it’s just a matter of how you tell them. DC’s whole film brand is Dark and Gritty, particularly in comparison to Marvel, and despite what a lot of Marvel fans will say, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. The problem comes when you mistake dark and gritty for joyless and one-note. Dark can still be funny. Dark should still be entertaining. Dark ought to have the highs, so you can better feel the falls. It’s earned consequences and depth of emotion that make dark stories great, characters doing immoral or questionably immoral things for understandable and believable reasons. When it’s just asshats acting like asshats and some angsty dude trudging around the earth for two hours, when it’s grim for grim’s sake in lieu of actually making sense . . . that’s not deep or complex or noteworthy. That’s just poor storytelling.
3. I generally enjoy Amy Adams as Lois Lane, though.
Lois and Clark’s romance doesn’t do much for me, admittedly. Their kiss at the end feels a little forced, like, I would have totally bought a ‘Holy shit, we survived!’ kiss, but I think this was supposed to be much more romantic than that. Still, Amy Adams is a great actress who I rarely get to watch, as she generally picks Oscar-bait shit that I have little interest in seeing, and I think she provides Lois a good deal of fire and zeal that I enjoyed. Some of my favorite scenes with her, actually, are on the Kryptonian spaceship with Hologram Jor-El. I was happy to see her have actual stuff to do. Also, I got a weird kick out of watching Russell Crowe doing his best Scarecrow while giving her directions. I can’t even give you a reason why I enjoyed that so much; I just did.
4. Diane Lane and Kevin Costner are perfectly fine as Superman’s parents, at least, acting wise. I haven’t seen Diane Lane in a while, and I enjoyed her performance. She didn’t really have so much to do, but she still had presence, purely by being awesome. (I continue to love this tweet about gender/age inequality in Hollywood roles. I would totally watch Diane Lane play a superhero.)
Meanwhile, I don’t know that I’d say Kevin Costner’s performance was terribly compelling, but it also wasn’t bad. Everything wrong with Pa Kent–and oh ho, are there things wrong with Pa Kent–comes straight from the script.
I knew going in that a lot of Superman fans weren’t happy with Jonathan Kent’s characterization. (And yes, that’s the last time you get his actual name. Chief Asshats like Pa Kent don’t deserve a real first name.) I knew there were some questionable ethics (or lack thereof) in play, but I imagined something a little less clear cut, like . . . well, honestly, I don’t know what I imagined, but I’ll tell you what I sure as hell wasn’t picturing: Pa Kent telling Lil’ Clark that when his school bus crashed into a lake, he maybe should’ve let roughly thirty kids drown, rather than potentially expose his big secret. Pa Kent pretty much just advocated child murder, and not just one annoying kid but the mass murder of children. Holy shit.
See, it’s little things like this that make it very hard for me to feel sorry for Pa Kent when he gets eaten by a tornado. There’s also the not insignificant fact that his death is entirely his own fault. Check this out: Angry Teen Clark and Pa Kent the Terrible are fighting in the car when a tornado comes along because, you know, Kansas. Appropriately, they run away, but unfortunately a dog needs rescue. Obviously, Clark is the proper person to retrieve sad dog, but Pa Kent goes instead, and you know what? I probably could have been okay with that, if it was played like Pa Kent instinctually thought “storming death cloud” and “my kid” and went NO, even though he knows that his kid basically can’t die. I will take a certain amount of protective parental instinct in the face of clear logic. (I’m considerably less excited about “get your mom to the overpass,” though, like Martha Kent doesn’t actually come with her own set of legs.)
But Pa Kent isn’t so much worried about the tornado hurting his boy as he is about protecting Clark’s damn secret, so much so that he needlessly sacrifices his own life to keep Clark from revealing his powers. Yeah. There he is, about to get blown into the next state, and he actually holds out his hand, all Stop in The Name of Love, to silently tell Clark that he’d rather die than potentially expose his son’s true origin. Which might have been moving in some other world where all aliens are immediately executed or sent to concentration camps or something, but that’s totally not this world. Pa Kent lets himself die because of the possibility that his son can’t convince humanity that he’s a good guy.
Jesus H. Christ. Never mind how little regard Pa Kent clearly has for his own life . . . can you even imagine what something like that would do to the kid?
Seriously. I’d rather spend the rest of my life on the run from every government on the planet than live with the fact that I could have saved my dad’s life but didn’t because he wanted to become an asshole martyr instead. Clark has to carry that guilt now until he dies. If this movie had ended with Clark eating a kryptonite bullet, Ghost Pa Kent would only have had himself to blame.
And what’s even more infuriating about all of this isn’t just that Zack Synder and David S. Goyer turned Pa Kent into a completely terrible human being, but–somehow–they still want him to be an Inspirational Mentor Figure, the reason Clark becomes a hero. Like, WHAT? People. People. You can’t have a dude kill himself to keep anyone from knowing about his son’s superhuman powers and then later have that dude’s wife say, “He always believed you were meant for greater things, and that when the day came, your shoulders would be able to bear the weight.” NOPE. Not happening. Pa Kent did not want his son to do great things. This fucker pretty much died to make sure that day would never come, and the only reason it actually did is because, you know, it’s kind of hard to make a Superman movie where no one ever becomes Superman.
Pa Kent is the worst, everybody. Think how much better off Clark Kent would’ve been if Martha Kent had raised him on her own. (Maybe in this universe, that’s just how it happened.)
5. The supporting cast in this movie is kind of ridiculous. It felt like I recognized someone roughly every there minutes: Toby from The West Wing, Morpheus from The Matrix, Roman from True Blood, Boyd from Dollhouse, Gaeta from Battlestar Galactica, Helo from Battlestar Galactica, Snow from Person of Interest, Liam from Teen Wolf, Vanessa from Daredevil, and Death from Supernatural. (If you don’t almost exclusively watch SF/F TV shows and movies, that’s Richard Schiff, Laurence Fishburne, Christopher Meloni, Harry Lennix, Alessandro Juliani, Tahmoh Penikett, Michael Kelly, Dylan Sprayberry, Ayelet Zurer, and Julian Richlings.)
There is some insanely good talent in that list. Can you imagine what this movie could have been like if the actors were given material actually worthy of their talent?
6. One of the only actors I wasn’t familiar with was Antje Traue, who played Faora-Ul.
Faora-Ul is General Zod’s right hand, and I bring her up because she’s kind of a badass. In fact, she is about 80 times more intimidating than General Zod, who–for being Krypton’s Chief Military Dude–does not strike me as a particularly great strategist. I mean, come on: Kal-El knows almost nothing about his home planet, right? Sure, he did get some very brief exposition from Hologram Jor-El in the Fortress of Solitude, but it wasn’t very in depth: all he knows about Zod, for instance, is that he led a military coup against the leaders who doomed billions of people to death. Instead of Zod coming down, all, “I’m going to destroy the only planet you’ve ever known, Clark, and kill everyone here!” why doesn’t he just try to, you know, trick him? Considering how literally alienated Clark has been this whole time, I really don’t think it would be that hard to do. He’s clearly desperate for anyone the least bit like him–if Zod had pretended to be a friend for five seconds, his evil plan might have worked.
Then again, perhaps not because I just can’t take Zod seriously. Perhaps it’s the hair. It’s too bad Faora-Ul didn’t outlive him because she has all the markings of a good Super Second Banana.
7. I feel like I should cover the events of the film chronologically with the same amount of time and care (and rage) I spent on the first twenty minutes, but I don’t really want to. For a 2 1/2 hour film, there doesn’t seem to be all that much plot involved. Clark Kent broods a lot. Lois Lane investigates. Zod threatens people. The government is suspicious of Clark but eventually works with him to take down the aliens, and Clark becomes a journalist for a major newspaper because, according to TV and movies, basically anyone who wants to become a reporter can without the slightest hint of training, education, or prior work experience.
So, I think I’ll just wrap-up this up in typical me fashion with a few random sub-notes:
7A. I will admit this: Zod’s death, which infuriated plenty of other people in the nerd fanbase, actually didn’t bother me all that much.
Well before I saw this movie, I found out that Superman killed Zod, and I wasn’t crazy about it, which may surprise the few of you who are aware of both a) my bloodlust, and b) my belief that sometimes killing the bad guy actually is the morally correct thing to do. (Clearly, I will never become a superhero, no matter what radioactive creature bites me.) Superman is a weird pick for that sort of thing, though, and people made it sound like he straight up murdered the guy in cold blood . . . which is totally cool if you’re making an Injustice: Gods Among Us movie, but–sadly–nobody is. (I desperately need to get back to the comic because it is intensely awesome.) And while I may be interested in stories where superheroes cross lines, Superman is definitely the wrong choice for straight-up murder.
That all being said, the way it was shot? It didn’t strike me as super immoral. It wasn’t like Superman killed someone who had surrendered or was otherwise defenseless. I believed that the family was in imminent danger, and that Superman felt he had no other choice in order to save them. (Actually, I believe that those people would have been dead well before Superman could have helped, since if Zod wasn’t such a loser, it might occur to him to just glance right instead of insisting on turning his head. But that’s neither here nor there.) Pivotally, I believed Superman’s anguish when he made the choice to kill. If he had been happy about it or if he’d tossed out some kind of glib one-liner, or even if he just hadn’t seemed to be particularly broken up about killing someone, I would have been angry. But I bought Cavill’s grief in the moment, so ultimately, it worked for me.
7B. So, Clark Kent finds the Fortress of Solitude through . . . heart knowledge? Seriously, I’m not sure. There must have been an actual explanation for this, but apparently I missed it somewhere between Clark broodily staring at the sea and Clark broodily staring at the sky. I’m not watching it again to figure it out.
7C. A helicopter crashes in this movie and does NOT explode. For 30 years now, movies have taught me that this is a physical impossibility, so needless to say I was quite stunned when it happened.
7D. Things go badly for a lot of people in this movie, but I might feel the worst for Richard Schiff’s character. And yeah, some of that is surely because I will always love Toby Ziegler, but there’s also the fact that this dude totally helps save the day but dies anyway when Meloni heroically sacrifices himself . . . which, as a consequence, sort of less-heroically sacrifices Schiff too, who more than likely didn’t even realize he was about to die, since he was on a different part of the plane when Meloni crashed it.
Meanwhile, Lois Lane only survives because she falls out of the plane. How often can you even say that?
7D. Finally, I kind of like the switch-up at the end where Lois already knows Clark’s secret identity when he begins work at the Daily Planet. Of course, it’s still ridiculous that no one else can figure out that he and Superman are the same person given the events of this film, but like I said, there are some things you have to take with a grain of salt when it comes to Superman stories, and that’s one I can, personally, accept.
But for a movie that’s clearly not afraid to significantly change up Superman’s origin story . . . I wish it did something much more interesting with it.
Superman: “You might want to step back a bit. Maybe a little bit more.”
Jor-El: “You’re talking about genocide.”
Zod: “Yes! And I’m arguing its merits with a ghost.”
Lois: “What’s the ‘S’ stand for?”
Superman: “It’s not an S. On my world, it means hope.”
Lois: “Well, here, it’s an ‘S’.”
Dr. Emil Hamilton: “The ship appears to have inserted itself into a lunar synchronous orbit, though I have no idea why.”
General Swanwick: “Have you tried communicating with it?”
Dr. Emil Hamilton: “Well, they haven’t responded, as of yet.”
General Swanwick: “I’m just speculating, but I think whoever is at the helm of that thing is looking to make a dramatic entrance.”
Meh. The action scenes and cinematography are all good. I have no beef with the technical filmmaking, and little with the acting, either. But the tone is dreary, the script sloppy, and the overall story is kind of screwed as a result.
Amy Adams. I’m pretty sure it’s entirely her performance, and not the script itself, that makes Lois Lane even a little bit interesting.
Letting a bunch of kids drown when you could save them without ever being in the slightest bit of danger is definitely a tough philosophical dilemma, right up there with the Trolley Problem or the Overcrowded Lifeboat.
Letting your kid watch you die when he could have saved you equals A+ parenting. That definitely won’t fuck him up at all.
In the event that your apartment building is very, very slowly burning down, do not take the time to try and escape yourself, or warn others that they should try to escape, or take down the evil landlord who doesn’t want anyone to escape because that would mean he was responsible for the fire in the first place. Instead, take that time to make a very special baby carriage, strap your newborn child inside it, and toss it from your window into another window of a different building across the street. Surely your newborn will make it because you programmed that carriage to take special care of its passenger, and–just like HAL 9000 taught us–absolutely nothing could go wrong with that. And while you and everyone else you know in the apartment building will die, you and your partner can comfort yourselves with the knowledge that at least one person survived and will grow up to procreate with people from other apartments, meaning that a piece of you and your people will always live on. Though I suspect the person from 2B will not see it the same way.