Horizon Review: Man of Steel (Or: Superman Is A Monster)

Man of Steel 02

I know I’m a bit late out of the gate with this.  The movie’s been out for more than a month now – is it even still in theatres?  Probably – but real life interferes.  If you want to think of this as an analytical essay instead of a “review”, that’s fine.  Not that I’m ever very scholarly with these things.

So to begin with my now-traditional Short Answer: I liked it.  My approval is not without reservations, but overall, I’d say spend the ten bucks.  You want to see this on the big screen.

My biggest reservation has nothing to do with the mythology, the characters, the acting or the cinematography.  It’s simply this: they got greedy.  They got greedy, and they tried to do too much with one movie again, just like they did with Green Lantern (not that that was the only – or even the biggest – problem with that piece of shit).  Chris Nolan’s Batman trilogy showed us the right way to do a superhero series:

First movie – origin story.  Establish the character’s background, abilities and weaknesses.  Explain why they took superheroing as a career choice.  This is necessary even for familiar characters like Superman and Batman; every new continuity has a slightly different history and rules.  Have the hero fight a significant villain from their mythos who doesn’t fit into either of the categories to follow.  For Batman, this was Ra’s al Ghul and The Scarecrow; for Superman, it might be…oh, I don’t know, some Kryptonite-mutated super-freak.  It worked in Smallville.  The “villain” in that case would be the Kryptonite itself.  Or maybe someone uses salvaged Kryptonian technology to create Brainiac.

Second movie – nemesis.  The Hero meets the person who will become their greatest, most persistent foe.  The Nemesis may not be the Hero’s most powerful enemy – in fact, they probably shouldn’t be (see Greatest Threat for that, below).  Instead, the Nemesis is the enemy who holds up the most perfect dark mirror to the Hero’s character.  Where Batman wants to build Gotham into a shining city on a hill, Joker just wants to burn it – and everything else – to the ground.  Where Superman believes in using his enormous power for the good of all, Lex Luthor uses his own enormous power to…obtain more power.  Because they’re such fundamental opposites, Nemeses are destined to clash again and again as long as they both shall live.

Third movie – greatest threat.  This is where you pull out all the stops for the grand, pyrotechnic finale.  Sometimes the Greatest Threat is the same as the Nemesis, but not usually.  The Nemesis is someone who comes back again and again; the Greatest Threat is someone that the hero had trouble surviving once.  For Batman, that was Bane.  For Superman, that might be Doomsday…or General Zod.

There are variations, of course.  In Thor, the hero’s nemesis was an integral part of his origin story.  In Captain America, the hero’s nemesis (who, it should be noted, doesn’t have nearly as strong a “relationship” with Our Hero as Loki or the Joker) was an integral part of the setting  as an officer in the Third Reich.  But note: neither nemesis counts as a Greatest Threat, and nemeses, by their nature, are re-usable.

What this movie did wrong is it essentially combined the first and third movie.  General Zod and his followers shouldn’t have arrived with their World Engine until the third movie.  I mean come on, how do you top that?

Perhaps even worse, in trying to do too much, the filmmakers critically underuse certain characters.  Dr. Emil Hamilton is an important character from the Superman mythos; the bare few lines and rapid exit he gets here do not do him justice.

I also didn’t like the unnecessary complications as to the source of Kryptonians’ powers on Earth.  For some years now in the comics, it’s been very simple: Kryptonians are photosynthetic.  They absorb sunlight and convert it to energy.  Under a red sun, that doesn’t do much.  Under a yellow sun, you get Superman.  Under a blue sun…something fucking impressive, I don’t know.  Power is determined by duration and intensity of exposure: it takes Clark Kent years to develop any superpowers at all, but give him enough years (or enough of a megadose) and he can resist even Kryptonite.  Of course, I can see the problems that would cause for the plot, since that would mean that Zod and his crew would be no threat to Superman for years after arriving on Earth, but that’s no excuse for complicating the basics so much.  Now it’s not just sunlight that empowers Kryptonians, but also Earth’s air (though it’s hard for them to breathe at first…how something poisonous can become empowering once you “adapt to it”, I don’t know) and lower gravity (which explains the leaping and lifting, but not the flying or the crushing).  There had to have been a better way to do it.  Perhaps the technologically advanced aliens could have come up with a way to dose themselves with yellow sunlight in a way that’s more efficient than the all-natural methods Clark was forced to use?

Anyway.  That’s enough for my complaints.  I’ll get to my compliments while I do the plot summary.  Spoilers ahead.

The movie begins, as most versions of Superman (but especially the 70’s film version that everyone is, of course, thinking of while watching this) do, on Krypton.  As usual, Superman’s biological father Jor-El is scolding the planetary ruling council.  Usually at this point in the proceedings, the Council is busily ignoring Jor-El’s evidence that Krypton is dying.  This time, they’re well aware of that fact, and are busily deflecting blame for it.    Turns out harvesting your planet’s core to deal with an energy crisis is a bad idea.  Who knew?  Oh, wait.  Jor-El did.  And warned them.  Repeatedly.

Unfortunately, that’s all they’re busy doing.  Jor-El is trying to make evacuation plans, and they’re still spinning.

About this time is when General Zod tries to pull a military coup.  To be sure that you don’t mistake him for a good guy for deposing this bunch of useless assholes, he promptly asks Jor-El to join him in evacuating a few chosen bloodlines from Krypton.

Yup.  He’s a Space Nazi.  As we’ll discover, though, that doesn’t make him all that unusual on Krypton.

Jor-El, saddened by the fact that his old friend has lost his damn mind, declines and makes a run for it.  After stopping by something that looks entirely too much like the baby-growing fields from The Matrix to be a coincidence in order to steal something called The Codex, Jor-El returns home.  Zod catches up with him quickly, but Jor-El puts on his own armor (there’s no support in the text for this, but I’m oddly certain that either Jor-El designed and built that armor himself, or it’s an El family heirloom) and acquits himself surprisingly well for a scientist fighting soldiers.  He manages to hold them off until the shuttle craft carrying little Kal-El takes off, at which point Zod stabs him to death, not least because Jor-El confesses that Kal-El was born naturally, something that Zod finds horrifying.

Seemingly minutes later, the coup collapses and Zod and his compatriots are sentenced to The Phantom Zone…which means they’re off Krypton when it implodes.

The next hour or so of film is a fairly standard Origin Story.  Clark Kent wanders the world, moving on from each potential home every time he uses his powers to help someone, taking on a new identity at each stop, having flashbacks to his youth between encounters.

Some thoughts:

Johnathan Kent is different than most depictions here.  While other versions of Johnathan have balanced a desire to protect Clark from the outside world with encouraging Clark’s heroic impulses, this Johnathan Kent is almost entirely driven by the fear that someone will come to (somehow) take Clark away.  He carries this paranoia to the point of allowing himself to die in a tornado rather than allow Clark to rescue him.  Yeah, like that’s going to curb his Good Samaritan Syndrome, jackass.

Clark’s childhood is unhappier than most versions.   His powers awaken early, and his uncontrolled super-senses cause him to have freakouts in class.  I hate to admit it, but young Clark probably would have creeped me out, too.  (But why in hell does the teacher have the entire class gathered ’round as she tries to talk Clark out of the broom closet?  That’s just asking for…well, exactly what happens.)  Of course, that doesn’t excuse the bullying, and there are several points where you wonder if the citizens of Smallville are trying to create a supervillain.

(And not just them.  That drunk trucker was cruisin’ for a bruisin’.  I’m not much of a drinking man, so can someone explain something to me?  How drunk are you when you shove a man with all your strength, he doesn’t budge – at all – and you think it’s a good idea to keep attacking him?)

Something interesting here: because Clark’s powers awaken early, he doesn’t dare get in the standard schoolyard brawls.  When he confronts Zod’s forces later on, it is literally the first time in his life that he’s thrown a punch.

Two things I really liked from this half of the movie:

1) One of the first things we see on Earth is a gruff, unpleasant fisherman tackling Clark to safety when some loose equipment starts to fall toward him.  Clark was in no danger, of course, but the fisherman didn’t know that.  In a movie about superpowered aliens fighting, it’s good to see some human heroism.

2) Shortly thereafter, Clark catches a falling oil derrick and holds it up until a rescue helicopter can escape.  He can’t fly yet, so his ability to lift is dependent on the surface he’s standing on to provide him leverage…and the platform he’s standing on (possibly softened by the heat of the oil rig fire) just can’t hold the weight.  It bends and collapses, dropping him into the sea.  A nice nod toward physics: it doesn’t matter how strong you are, you can’t hold anything if you don’t have support.

This segment ends when we arrive at a U.S. Government dig in the Arctic.  It looks like there’s something buried in the ice that just shouldn’t be there.  The military detachment in charge of security would really rather that Intrepid Reporter Lois Lane wasn’t there, but since the dig is on Canadian soil, the law is on her side.   That doesn’t mean that they have to give her a comfortable room, but it hardly matters – she immediately starts poking around outside anyway.  As she does so, she spots one of the workers heading away from the dig site.  She follows, and finds that he’s melted his way down to the object in the ice, which happens to be a Kryptonian scout ship that crashed on Earth more than 20,000 years before.

One of the things Jor-El left sent on the journey with little Kal was a Kryptonian flash drive, complete with a back-up copy of his own personality.  Clark is able to use this flash drive to take control of the ship’s systems.  The backup personality manifests as a hologram, explaining the whole Kryptonian thing to Clark and, not coincidentally, us.  One important detail: it turns out that Kryptonians – and I mean every living thing on Krypton – was grown in “Genesis Chambers” and genetically engineered to fit their role in society.  This is why Zod considered it heresy that Jor-El and his wife had an all-natural child: choosing what you want to do with your life is not the Kryptonian way…and Zod, as a warrior, was engineered to defend the Kryptonian way.

Remember that.   It’s important.

Jor-El presents Clark with his iconic uniform…which, in this continuity, is apparently a dress uniform for a Kryptonian scout or something.  Then Clark rescues Lois from the ship’s defense systems before dropping her off and flying away in the ship.

At this point, one of the other things I really like about this movie happens: Lois, being an Intrepid Reporter, follows the trail of Clark’s remarkable deeds until she tracks him back to the Kent homestead.  That’s right.  After eighty years of failing to see through a disguise made of eyeglasses, Lois Lane figures out Superman’s secret identity by herself, while he’s actively avoiding her.  Because she’s an Intrepid Reporter, Goddammit. 

Clark is able to talk her into dropping the story, but this is exactly when Zod & Co. show up, demanding that Earth surrender the Kryptonian hiding among them.  Turns out that when Clark turned on the Kryptonian scout ship, he also turned on a distress signal that told Zod where to go.  Whoops.

Clark surrenders to the American military …

Man-of-Steel

…and is interviewed by Lois Lane.  It’s here that we learn that the symbol on his chest, the El family crest, means Hope.

I wonder what Zod’s means.  Strength perhaps?  Courage?  Probably something positive, but aggressive, as befits a warrior bloodline. 

Anyway, Clark (with Lois as a hostage) is turned over to Zod’s crew.  At first, Zod tries to play reasonable, forgiving Clark’s breaches of Kryptonian etiquette and addressing him informally as “Kal”.  For a moment we’re reminded that this man was Jor-El’s friend once, and if things had turned out differently, he would probably have been “Uncle Zod”. 

All of that goes out the window when we learn Zod’s plans: in his travels, he’s found a “World Engine”, a terraforming device that the Kryptonians used to build their ancient interstellar empire.  He intends to use it to turn Earth into a new Krypton.  He doesn’t care in the least that this will genocide Earth’s current biosphere, but it’s all rather pointless unless he can get ahold of the Codex, which will give him the genetic records to use in the scout ship’s Genesis Chamber to recreate Krypton’s. 

He believes that Jor-El gave Clark the Codex, and Clark is refusing to give it.  This isn’t quite true.  Somehow, Jor-El actually encoded the Codex into Clark’s very cells.  Clark is the Codex. I don’t know if that makes his situation better or worse. 

Anyway, with the help of Jor-El’s AI “ghost”, Clark and Lois are able to escape Zod’s ship and return to Earth, where Zod is threatening to crush Martha Kent if she doesn’t turn over Clark’s ship.  This doesn’t turn out well for him.  Clark has been basking in Sol’s light for thirty-three years, and he’s used to being a Kryptonian on Earth.  He uses those advantages to deliver Zod quite a beating, and if it were a question of power, he would have won easily.  Unfortunately, Zod’s group has numbers, coordination and actual combat skill on their side (remember that part about never throwing a punch in his life?).  The battle destroys large chunks of Smallville, and Clark is hampered in his efforts by the other Kryptonians’ willingness – nay, eagerness – to put human lives in danger.   

I’m told that the filmmakers deliberately eschewed “bullet time” when making this movie.  If so, it was a wise choice; the fact that the camera can barely follow them emphasizes the Kryptonians’ blinding speed and power.  This in turn emphasizes…well, we’ll get to that.

In any case, Zod’s crew leave Clark alive, and leave to carry out their original plan.  They set up the World Engine in the Indian Ocean, park their ship over Metropolis, and set the terraforming in motion. 

Clark destroys the World Engine – which you’ll note has defenses against aerial attack.  It seems that Jor-El left some things out when he was talking about Krypton’s glorious colonial past. 

Meanwhile, Clark’s allies in the U.S. military are able to use Clark’s ship to send most of Zod’s crew back to the Phantom Zone, while Clark arrives just in time to crash the scout ship that Zod was flying to Metropolis, destroying the Genesis Chamber and irrevocably dooming Zod’s hopes to recreate Krypton. 

This is when Zod finally snaps.  He rises from the wreckage, and lets Clark (and us) know what he’s just done:

“I exist only to protect Krypton. That is the sole purpose for which I was born. And every action I take, no matter how violent or how cruel, is for the greater good of my people.  And now I have no people. My soul. That is what you have taken from me.”

General Zod doesn’t have  a choice in what he does.  He never had a choice.  He was genetically engineered, born, raised and trained (using Rao alone knows what alien education and indoctrination methods) to be a warrior for Krypton.  His coup at the beginning of the movie is the equivalent of a host of Three Laws-compliant robots taking over the world in order to protect humanity from itself.

(Or at least, certain chosen bloodlines, lest we forget the “Space Nazi” aspect.  I wonder what bloodlines he would have chosen if Jor-El had agreed?  All warriors?  Sufficiently obedient farmers?)

Could Zod and his followers have settled on Earth and served as a dozen “Supermans” who are better at keeping the peace than he is?  Could they conquer it and live as invincible war gods?  No.  Neither option served Krypton.  Could they have used the world engine on, say, Mars or the Moon?  Who knows?  It wasn’t even considered.  Warriors conquer.  Maybe if someone from the ruling caste, someone engineered for diplomacy, had survived…

Superman is usually considered to be the last survivor of Krypton, but in this movie it’s actually Zod…and that is Zod’s tragedy.  He is the final victim of a self-doomed system that he had the illusion he could save.  Maybe if Jor-El had lived, things might have been different, but Zod cannot create.  It just isn’t in him.

Much more compelling than Terence Stamp’s version, if you ask me.  That Zod was a mere psychopath.  This one has – or had – a purpose.

So, having had his purpose taken away, Zod declares that he will kill every single human while Clark watches. 

Of course, Clark isn’t having that, and the fight is on.  As they fight, knocking over skyscrapers and killing thousands with every blow, I finally realize something that never occurred to me in twenty-odd years of reading and watching Superman:

Kryptonians are monsters.

henry-cavill-superman

Terrifying, alien, unstoppable monsters with only a surface resemblance to humans. Greater monsters than Gojira, Clover, the kaiju from Pacific Rim (a particularly apt comparison, since Zod and his crew are just as much genetically-engineered war machines as the kaiju) or any other movie monster I can think of. The creatures from Alien or Independence Day or Predator or all the things that we’re supposed to think of as “alien monsters”? Hah. The Transformers! Cybertronians are giant alien warbots, but at least we can hurt them.  The only thing that can hurt a Kryptonian is another Kryptonian.   

The fact that Superman is the Kryptonian that we’re most familiar with, and he’s a nice, friendly monster who likes us kept me from seeing it for a long time. But this movie really brought that point home. Problem is, I’m not at all sure that it meant to.

Perhaps I’m too harsh.  Zod masters his remaining Kryptonian-on-Earth superpowers very quickly (he was a terrifying beast when he was climbing up that building at super-speed, but we really say “Oh, shit” when he starts flying and slips into god-of-Death mode.  Fortunately (?) his heat vision comes out in uncontrolled bursts and seems to hurt), and Clark is nowhere near his match in combat skill.  Zod is a born, bred and trained warrior; Clark was born of two scientists and raised on a farm.  It takes all of Clark’s efforts just to contain Zod, and containing Zod is the best and only way to save lives. 

Still.  It would have been nice to see him at least try to save some civilians.  In The Avengers, that was Our Heroes’ primary goal, and that made them heroes instead of…well, monsters.

So our two monsters rampage through the city, dropping buildings on the innocent every time they knock each other into one until they crash into a building that isn’t officially Grand Central Station, but who are we fooling here, and it turns out that Zod’s entire rampage was basically an elaborate Suicide By Cop.  Superman gets him into a choke hold and, rather than surrendering, Zod uses his heat vision to threaten a group of humans until Superman is forced to break his neck.

(For those who think that Superman taking a life is unprecedented in the history of the character…nope.  He’s actually killed General Zod in several continuities now.  Still, they handle it very well here.  Superman’s anguish at having to take a life deliberately is palpable.  All his power, and all he can do is scream.  He doesn’t want to be a monster, you see.)

That’s about it.  The world rebuilds, the U.S. government, quite understandably, tries to keep tabs on the alien who, with the best of intentions, helped level a good chunk of an American city, and Clark Kent joins the staff of the Daily Planet (like newspapers are actually hiring anybody these days).  And Lois Lane is not fooled for a second by a costume made of eyeglasses.  Because she’s a fucking Intrepid Reporter.  The end. 

It may seem like I’ve done a lot of complaining in this review, and that may make you wonder why I endorsed this movie way back in the first paragraph.  Two reasons:

1) OMGTHEACTIONSEQUENCES!  Gorgeous.  This movie isn’t eye candy, it’s a sumptuous feast.  That’s why you need to see it on the big screen. 

2) I actually rather like the emphasis on Superman’s alien-ness.  Mostly before, it was only Lex Luthor and similarly unpleasant characters who emphasized that, but no, really, “Clark Kent” has less relation to his “parents” than the corn in their field does.  He is.  Not. Human.  And when a movie takes a subject as familiar as Superman and makes you think of it in a new way, then it has succeeded in spite of everything.

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8 responses to “Horizon Review: Man of Steel (Or: Superman Is A Monster)

  1. Enjoyed the review. Long but worth reading. 🙂
    Especially the last paragraph. Right on.

    • Thanks. Oddly enough, that insight actually came to me while I was writing. I’ve heard it said that writing your thoughts down helps to clarify them, and it was certainly true in this case.

      BTW, in the future, you can take warning from the words “Horizon Review”. Those are going to be the long ones. I thought those were going to be the only ones when I started this, but I’ve found much use for the “Quick Thoughts On” format as well. Those are going to be a more reasonable length, without the full plot summary (usually).

  2. One does have to hike an eyebrow at the ludicrous host of extraterrestrial races with human or near-human surface features seeded across the DC & Marvel multiverses. Talk about ‘made (roughly) in the Creator(s’) image.’

    And damn right, these godlings in a world of papier-mache’ become a nightmare the moment even one (much less a strike force’s worth) of ’em decides playing nice isn’t in the agenda. The ominous tone of Krypton’s galactic spread, maladaptive deterioration & biosphere-wide homogeny well & truly set this one apart from the Donner films (or, for that matter, Superman Returns), and while grimdark ain’t everything, Supes’ opposition here are lent a vital edge lacked by the vast majority of his past celluloid obstacles.

    One minor quibble regarding that near-failed strike on the Metropolis portion of the terraformer: if the wacky flip-flopping gravity field is forcing your air-to-surface munitions off-course, stop coming in level, get some altitude, and try dive-bombing. It worked in WWII, it kept pilots mostly outta AAA trouble (if not SAMs) in both Gulf Wars, and it might’ve been less suicidal for the Air Force element here. ‘Course, unnamed fighter pilots in this genre are infamous for their Dramatic Kamikaze Complexes, but still.

    • One does have to hike an eyebrow at the ludicrous host of extraterrestrial races with human or near-human surface features seeded across the DC & Marvel multiverses. Talk about ‘made (roughly) in the Creator(s’) image.’

      I read somewhere once that people have trouble connecting with other people if they can’t see their face – that is, if they can’t see their eyes and mouth. I’m reminded of the Disney movie Atlantis, The Lost Empire, where a group of mooks where gas masks for no reason other than the fact they’re going to die, and it would ruin the happy ending if we thought of them as people.

      With that in mind, I wonder if all of these humanoid aliens are because we have trouble really connecting with a character, either as a hero or a villain, if they don’t express themselves in ways we understand. I mean, if Kryptonians looked like Star-Spawn of Cthulhu, there would be no tragedy or pathos to Zod terraforming our world. It would even be hard to think of him as evil. It would just be a monster attack. And when the big, friendly Star-Spawn in the blue and red suit flew up to stop the plan, he would be Big Friendly Monster, not One Of Us. None of this talk about him being as American as anyone because he grew up in Kansas.

      One minor quibble regarding that near-failed strike on the Metropolis portion of the terraformer: if the wacky flip-flopping gravity field is forcing your air-to-surface munitions off-course, stop coming in level, get some altitude, and try dive-bombing. It worked in WWII, it kept pilots mostly outta AAA trouble (if not SAMs) in both Gulf Wars, and it might’ve been less suicidal for the Air Force element here. ‘Course, unnamed fighter pilots in this genre are infamous for their Dramatic Kamikaze Complexes, but still.

      See this? This is why I like to consult with people who know what they’re doing. It’s very useful to have a doctor for a sister when you’re writing horror, for example.

      This is one thing that Michael Bay did very, very right with the 2007 Transformers movie, in my opinion. Rather than writing a bunch of Hollywood military guesswork, he just hired a bunch of Air Force personnel as extras, put them in the seats, and said: “Okay, do what you would actually do in this situation.” The authenticity that resulted is marvelous.

  3. Whomever put that face=connection formula to paper/pixel pretty much nailed it; I popped in District 9 the other day, and while Neil Blomkamp took pains to render most of his ‘Prawns’ more irascible and potentially threatening than the likes of E.T., some degree of basic human sympathy was nonetheless intended. So despite their chitinous, tendril-faced funk, we still have roughly hominid-proportioned skulls with semi-visible mouths, large emote-capable eye sockets, and a general build more humanoid than arthropod (barely, I grant you, but…). And I’m sure plenty of viewers still had some trouble warming up to ‘Christopher Johnson’ & Fry (or Hatchling…you get the idea).

    Waitasec: praise for a Bay film? In this case, I find myself agreeing. The CAS brought to bear on Scorponok once those airbase survivors get a phone felt accurate indeed…I’m less sanguine about what the subsequent films got up to, but that’s another story.

  4. CAS?

    And I actually like a fair number of the things Michael Bay has done, all the way back to the videos for Meat Loaf’s Bat Out Of Hell II. But then, I’m a man with a taste for cheese. I may have found memories of The Rock, or Armageddon, or Transformers (2007), but I don’t pretend they’re artistically sound in any way.

    That said, Transformers II sucked enough to make me give up on the franchise.

    • Acronym for Close Air Support, i.e. helicopter/bomber/attack aircraft strikes on direct behalf of ground troops. Apologies for the confusion.

      I try not to hold many illusions regarding my own nonexistent taste in film, though it’s bizarre how doggedly hardcore fans can cleave to their preferred brand of cheddar whilst turning their noses up at comparably offbeat related franchises (i.e. Trekkies & Warsies, Godzilla & Gamera, etc.). It’s like some sophomoric bullshit microcosm of the various mythos producers’ struggle for market majority.

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