Man of Steel ★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

I hadn't been to a drive-in since I went to see Hulk with my friends a decade ago. That whole night was a debacle and one of the most dissatisfying viewing experiences of my entire life. I don't blame the drive-in for what went wrong, though, so when my friend enthused about going to see Man of Steel at the Georgetown Twin Drive-In - where I hadn't previously gone to see a movie - I was game.

I'd managed to avoid spoilers or even much information at all about the film. I did know that comic book colorist Kieran Smith was pretty upset at the indifference in the film's depiction of carnage but I had to actually see it for myself to know what was actually shown, and how it was shown. Having seen it, I agree with her entirely.

There are two microcosms in Man of Steel. The thesis of the film can be found in the death of Jonathan Kent. I was personally thrilled when I learned they had cast Kevin Costner in the role. Costner is a conservative, but he's also compassionate, fair-minded and driven by the kind of values and idealism that Jonathan Kent has.

For instance, there was the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2009. Costner was involved with one attempt to use an innovative new device to help with the clean-up. Other celebs lent their star power to fundraisers, of course, but Costner was there to try to do something new. I admire that about it, and those are the traits that showed in his performance as Jonathan Kent in Man of Steel.

In the death scene, Jonathan helps lead a group of people in traffic to safety when a tornado forms on the highway. He's killed rescuing the family dog from the truck, insisting that Clark not reveal his powers in an effort to save him. It's a scene about risking oneself to save a life - particularly, a life of a lower order. We are to Superman as the dog was to Jonathan Kent, which is actually kind of troubling if you follow that through to its paternalistic conclusion. It's about the value of life.

It's also about the value of sacrifice, as Jonathan declines to let Clark save him in order to help keep Clark's powers quiet. Obviously, that's a lesson that Clark didn't take to heart because he kept performing conspicuous feats of heroism after the tornado, but we get the meaning behind it. (Though, really, it was a tornado. Clark could have just run into it at normal speed and rescued Jonathan under its cover and passed it off as a "miracle".)

The other microcosm of the film that showcases everything that's wrong with it is the fight in Smallville with Faora. For one thing, the IHOP is so omnipresent that it's distracting and laughable. Product placement can actually help create a sense of realism in a film, but it can also make a movie feel like a glorified commercial advertisement and that's what Man of Steel felt like. Poor Pete Ross. In the comics, he's done well for himself. Here, he's a cashier at an IHOP. Maybe he's a shift manager? I'm not knocking IHOP; it's honest work. But clearly Pete Ross works there because IHOP padded the film's budget and not because it suited the character's arc at all.

The fight itself between Superman and Faora (and her goon) is devoid of any weight whatsoever. It isn't even a movie fight. It's video game footage. The camera work, the moves, the pacing and blocking of the fight is all straight out of Mortal Kombat. I kept expecting to see a display of Superman's life energy. I could practically feel a game controller in my hand. I guess after Man of Steel we can no longer complain that there hasn't been a decent Superman video game. It's a shame none of us gets to actually play it.

It isn't just the fight itself that feels more game than movie. It's the complete lack of regard for any of the destruction caused by the fight. At no point does Superman even look to see if there are people in the buildings being trashed. He makes no effort to safeguard anyone. It's as though those buildings are all completely emptied background for the fight. We know there are people inside the buildings, though, if only because at the onset of the fight, Superman told people to go into them.

Last year, when I saw Marvel's The Avengers, I teased about Captain America bothering to try to save a handful of people in the middle of Manhattan being destroyed. It seemed like an exercise in futility. I take it back. Maybe it wasn't the most tactically sound way for Cap to spend his efforts but it reminds us who he is and what his values are. He could save those people, so he did. Superman should share those values, never writing off casualties as something that couldn't be helped in the course of trying to save more people.

Instead, we get a Superman who trashes whole buildings in the course of fighting Faora and her goon, and later General Zod in Metropolis, where the carnage is much greater. Whole skyscrapers fall. We're meant to be staggered by the scale of destruction, but we're apparently only supposed to be horrified at the sight of buildings being leveled and not to think about how many human lives are represented by each of those buildings. It's a juvenile's cherry-picking that doesn't track with the reality of the world in which the audience lives.

My cousin just graduated high school at the beginning of this month. I asked her if she recalled the September 11th attacks. She was six at the time. She doesn't remember that day at all, much less our pre-9/11 culture. Her entire generation has grown up in the shadow of that awful day, mindful of the legacy of that day. Skyscrapers aren't majestic achievements in architecture. They're targets, full of hundreds of people who probably could not all safely evacuate in the event of an emergency.

We see Perry White lead people out of the Daily Planet offices, and I guess we're meant to assume that everyone in all of Metropolis safely got out of all the buildings being destroyed. Except, we know that isn't feasible. Buzzfeed recently estimated the death toll in Metropolis at 129,000 with twice as many injuries.

Even if we restrict our views of Superman to just the version of the character on display in Man of Steel, he should be bothered by that. He should have been using his X-ray vision to see whether people were in harm's way or if they had escaped. He should have tried to save some people himself or at the very least, spied where people needed a few minutes to complete their evacuation and diverted the fight elsewhere.

For that matter, the Kryptonians should have exploited his sense of protectionism and targeted people just to bait him. That doesn't even cross their minds because apparently, even though Zod is committed to the genocide of all humanity, he's not so evil that he would target a specific group of trapped people just to antagonize Superman? It doesn't track with what we're told of this Zod.

I'm not generally into the whole "How [Movie] Should Have Ended" thing, but here's how Man of Steel should have ended:

ZOD: I am programmed to preserve our species and our culture! I will do anything for that!

SUPERMAN: Aha! Well, now I'm the only Kryptonian left alive. Ergo, you must protect me!

ZOD: DAMMIT.

Next scene: Zod washes Superman's truck, a la Biff at the end of Back to the Future.

THE END

Instead of using Captain Kirk-like trickery to confound Zod, though, Superman and Zod just keep laying waste to buildings until finally we see actual people in harm's way and Superman snaps Zod's neck. Which itself doesn't even necessarily make sense because, duh, Superman can *fly*. Why not just move Zod away from people? The answer, of course, is that the story wants Superman to kill Zod.

And that's really the biggest problem with Man of Steel: it's 100% perfunctory. Each scene gives us just what we need so that we have that information going into the next scene. Some of the specific scenes themselves are actually pretty well done, but the film is not greater than the sum of its parts. We zip along from one scene to the next, and we're in such a rush to get to the video gaming section that we never really connect with anyone.

I hate to say it, but they did a better job establishing in Michael Bay's Transformers movies why Optimus Prime and the Autobots fight to defend humanity than they did here explaining why Superman does it. Bay also did a better job reminding us that there are people inside buildings, especially with Transformers: Dark of the Moon. When you've been more caught up in fighting than narrative than Michael Effing Bay, you've probably forgotten an important part of storytelling.

I did like the cast quite a bit. Henry Cavill felt right as Superman, with the glaring exception of the aforementioned neglect of the thousands of people caught in the crossfire.

I loved Amy Adams as Lois Lane. Some have complained about her introduction in the film, but that actually felt right to me. That's my Lois, inserting herself however she can into a situation because that's where her journalism has taken her. Far less effective was Zod arbitrarily requiring her to come aboard his ship, which only happens because the story needs Lois there. Again, we're back to the perfunctory nature of the narrative, only giving us exactly what we have to have for the next scene rather than giving us the next scene because that's where the previous one takes us.

I also liked that Lois worked out that Clark is Superman. That's never been done, but it works. It was kind of a bold decision to make, but I felt that it was handled nicely. That's my Lois, doing the legwork to track down what she wants to know.

Ultimately, Man of Steel is too negligent about important things to be fully satisfying but it has just enough about it that works that it's exciting to think of the possibilities for the next screen adventure for Superman. I just hope that next time around, Superman views humanity as actual people and not as an abstract call of duty. I don't want a paternalistic Superman. I want one who views us as Natalie Reed suggests. I've Storified her tweets here:

"The Superman I love is the shining beacon of hope and genuine compassion and morality, doing the right thing even when it's hard, inspring..

...everyone around him to be the best person they can be, grounded and centered in his upbringing, wanting EVERYONE to feel as safe and...

...fulfilled as he is, champion of the oppressed, power for those w/o power, sticks up for the little guy, fights slumlords and abusive...

...husbands and strike-breakers and corrupt businessmen, and where is POWER is never really the point (his best challenges are MORAL or...

...INTELLECTUAL challenges) but instead it's about how he's the ONE GUY who has the strength of character to use that power to help people.

And his ONLY flaw is that he can be a bit naive, gullible, TOO-trusting, TOO-optimistic, TOO-compassionate.

But, in the end, he never ever lets us down. He's the Grown-Up who's there for all the scared kids in us, comforting us and telling us...

...that it'll be alright, they'll fight the monster under the bed if it tries to cause trouble. And unlike real Grown-Ups, he always live...

...up to his promises. Even if what he's promised us is IMPOSSIBLE, he'll STILL keep the promise, STILL won't let us down.

That's my Superman. Doesn't need an edge. Doesn't need revitalization. Doesn't need to be headstrong or brazen or uncertain."

I agree with Natalie 100% on that. That's the Superman I know and want to see. I see hints of that Superman in Man of Steel, but I see a lot more paternalism and emphasis on Superman being mankind's messiah because that's his calling than I see him as Natalie's promise-keeping grown-up there to check for monsters under the bed.

How Man of Steel Entered My Flickchart

Man of Steel > The Savages (2007) --> #758
I have more qualms with Man of Steel, but the elements that work were really nice and I love Superman enough to pick it here. Laura Linney was great in The Savages though!

Man of Steel < The Good Girl --> #758
Man of Steel is a mixed bag, whereas The Good Girl is solid from start to finish. Engaging, interesting and rich with characters; what I had hoped Man of Steel would be.

Man of Steel < Superman and the Mole Men --> #758
Superman showdown! I'm going with Superman and the Mole Men here. I want my Superman to be the guy who stands up to a xenophobic mob, not the guy who levels half a city without regards to any of the people caught in the crossfire.

Man of Steel > Zardoz --> #663
Zardoz is interesting and fun (and weird with a beard!), whereas Man of Steel is mostly a nihilistic video game masquerading as a movie. Still, I found just enough recognizable Superman in it to pick it here.

Man of Steel > The Natural --> #616
I really need to revisit The Natural. For now, Man of Steel has the edge for being fresh on my mind and that's good enough to carry the day here.

Man of Steel > Tales from the Script --> #592
I appreciate that Tales from the Script gives us a frank look at the craft of writing and it's the more interesting of these two films...but I love Superman and there's just enough right about Man of Steel that I'm picking it here.

Man of Steel < Sleepless in Seattle --> #592
Man of Steel has some nice ideas, but they're buried in the rubble along with thousands of unseen Metropolitans. Going with the irresistible chemistry of Hanks & Ryan here.

Man of Steel > Gremlins --> #585
Gremlins was part of my childhood and I always got a kick out of its playful darkness. Man of Steel is appallingly thoughtless about being destructive but there are just enough things that I like that I'm picking it here.

Man of Steel > Four Rooms --> #582
Though I really liked the anthological structure of Four Rooms, I responded favorably to just enough parts of Man of Steel that it gets the nod here.

Man of Steel > Destino --> #581
Destino has in spades what Man of Steel lacks: Heart, personality and imagination. Still, I love Superman and there were just enough elements of Man of Steel to satisfy me that I'm picking it over the Disney/Dali short.

Man of Steel < Sleepless in Seattle --> #581
Yep, I'm sure of it. Hanks & Ryan > Superman casually leveling half a city.

Man of Steel entered my Flickchart at #581/1516