Review: Man of Steel

I went into Man of Steel a little apprehensive. A lot of people I knew said they loved it, but a lot of the critics, apparently, hated it. But now that I’ve seen it, you can put me down firmly in the “loved it” column.

The big complaint about Man of Steel seems to be that it was mostly set-piece battles… so let me speak up in defense of set-piece battles. Actually, I am annoyed by the current trends in Hollywood in this regard: these days, it seems like if a film has any action at all, the film is required to make every action scene as over the top as possible.

Thus, we get travesties like Peter Jackson’s Hobbit, where what was a series of brief skirmishes with goblins in the source material gets turned into a ridiculous superhero-esque chase through a conspicuously non-OSHA compliant mine. Or Man of Steel director Zack Snyder’s previous film adaptation of Watchmen which inexplicably gives the main characters brick-breaking super-strength (which I complained about here).

This does not, however, mean that over the top setpieces can’t be done well–and with Superman, being true to the source material practically requires it, unless you’re doing a call-back to the very earliest years of the Superman comics. Consider that according to Wikipedia, John Byrne’s version of the character could be knocked out, but not killed, by a 50 megaton nuclear explosion, and this was considered a powering down of the character compared to the 60s/70s version.

In particular, while I loved Christopher Reeve’s acting in the Richard Donner films, they fell painfully short in terms of special effects. In those films, Superman’s speed is so fast he can use it to travel backwards in time, but the fight scenes with General Zod and his henchmen happen at regular speed. Not so in Man of Steel. The fight scenes look… well, about what you’d logically expect them to look like, given the people involved, up to and including routine use of super-speed.

Oh, and did I mention the decision to use Zod rather than Lex Luthor as the main villain was a good one? Making an ordinary human able to challenge Superman and have it make any sense at all is really hard. Having Superman be challenged by other Kryptonians, especially when they outnumber him, is much more straightforward.

I still expect Luthor to show up in future films, especially if the brief shots of Lexcorp logos are any indication, but we can expect the Snyder-verse Luthor to come armed with knowledge of Superman and Kryptonians in general derived from watching them duke it out in this first film, making him a much more credible threat in the sequel.

I do have one minor complaint about the film’s action sequences: there was definitely a sense that lots of people were dying at the hands of the evil Kryptonians, to the point that at times it felt like the final showdown in Alan Moore’s Miracleman. But at other times, it felt like the film was falling into a bit of a sort of violence-realism uncanny valley out of the need to keep the PG-13 rating.

In general, one odd thing I’ve noticed about recent PG-13 action movies these days is they tend to be very stingy with actually showing character deaths, but vehicles whose occupants clearly haven’t ejected or anything can be destroyed in a shockingly casual manner. So lots of people die, but only ones who are in vehicles.

This tendency is largely in force in Man of Steel. The military gets involved in fighting the Kryptonians, and plenty of vehicles are destroyed, but I’m honestly not sure there was a single death in any of the face to face confrontations between humans and Kryptonians.

It was especially jarring in one scene where Zod’s henchwoman-in-chief, Faora, takes out a group of human soldiers with a series of lightning-fast punches. Given how easily Kryptonians are shown demolishing any inanimate object in their path, I almost expected her fist to go straight through them, but there was not a drop of blood that I could see, and it was unclear whether they were intended to be dead or knocked out.

Perhaps in an attempt to keep the violence from being too bloodless, there was one zoomed-out shot of a Kryptonian killing a pilot in a very messy way, but that didn’t stop the overall feel from being mostly one of bloodless carnage. I’m not suggesting the film should have gone R-rated, but it needed a few more gore discretion shots or a fight where we only see a little bit of the aftermath, or something.

A creative director probably could have found a lot of other solutions to this problem. Star Wars: A New Hope, for example, is a freakin’ PG movie but it doesn’t feel like it’s pulling punches on the violence. Among other things there’s a (brief) shot of the charred corpses of Luke’s aunt and uncle after the stormtroopers are through with them and the screaming faces of X-wing pilots just before they’re engulfed in flame. (Really, why do modern movies never show us the faces of doomed vehicle occupants?)

Though I’ve spent some time on this issue, it’s not a fatal flaw; in a sense it’s a problem that probably most modern superhero movies have. It does stand out more, though, since Snyder obviously seemed to be going for a more realistic approach to the violence.

There’s a lot more I could say about this movie, but I’ll leave it there, emphasizing that finally doing Superman fight scenes mostly-right is a really big deal.

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