Sunday, 6 March 2016

Why I love Zack Snyder's Man of Steel

Man of Steel seems to be one of those polarising films that fans either love or hate. I loved it. Really LOVED it. What I'd like to do here is explain why I loved it so much, discuss some common criticisms of the film that seem to be quite prevalent online, and argue why I personally think they're bobbins.

The Cast

Henry Cavill is the best actor to play Superman since Christopher Reeve. Throughout the film, whenever he's interacting with anyone who isn't an adversary, Cavill radiates honesty and calm. You can totally believe that the people of Earth would trust him and feel safe with him, even though he's their first contact with alien life and they've seen first hand exactly how powerful he is. As well as this aura of calm and safety, Cavill conveys very subtly that he's the most powerful thing on the planet but he's in complete control of that strength. This is apparent not just in scenes specifically designed to convey this, such as the bit where he casually snaps his handcuffs in the interrogation room, but also in the way he stands and walks, particularly when he's in costume. It's a testament to his acting ability that in a film where he carries himself with a stoic strength for most of the time, he's also able to successfully and believably convey childlike glee when flying for the first time, uncontrollable rage after Zod threatens his mother, and of course utter despair at the conclusion of his battle with Zod.

Just as Cavill is the best Superman since Reeve, Amy Adams is the best Lois Lane since Margot Kidder. Adams' performance is beautifully subtle and toned down, which I imagine is no mean feat when you're playing a woman with zero tolerance for bullshit who's able to hold her own quite comfortably against a pissed off boss and military leaders both human and alien. Like Cavill she conveys a quiet strength, but one that allows people to underestimate her and walk straight into lines like:
"Look, let's get one thing straight, guys, okay? The only reason I'm here is because we're on Canadian soil and the appellate court overruled your injunction to keep me away. So, if we're done measuring dicks, can you have your people show me what you found?"
The chemistry between Henry Cavill and Amy Adams is a high point of the film for me. Like their individual performances, Cavill and Adams' interaction as Lois and Clark is a lot more dialled down and subtle than in previous versions of their story, but they're so good that a few flirty looks across the table of an interrogation room speak volumes. When they eventually share a kiss towards the end of the film this subtlety pays off and two hours of pent up passion is released. They're practically trembling as they kiss. Adams has a way of looking at Cavill that makes you believe she really knows this man she's just met, as she delivers beautiful lines such as "The only way you could disappear for good is to stop helping people altogether, and I sense that's not an option for you."

Michael Shannon's General Zod looks and acts like a Jack Kirby character come to life. Just like Cavill he's a huge, immovable wall of power all the way through the film. Unlike Cavill he's gloriously over the top, contrasting beautifully with Cavill's subtlety. Despite his wonderful scenery chewing ("I WILL FIND HIM!"), he also has moments of subtlety, particularly the regret he displays on his face on the two occasions in the film where he's forced to put an end to Jor-El. With a few facial expressions Shannon conveys the deep respect Zod has for Jor-El, and his sorrow at the necessity of killing him. It's the only time in the whole film that Zod expresses anything resembling compassion or doubt and Shannon keeps it low key enough so as not to take away from the relentless, unstoppable threat that Zod represents.

Like Shannon, Russell Crowe is over the top. He's locked firmly in noble-elder-actor-mode, but it's utterly appropriate for the part he's playing. Zod and Jor-El are playing out a grand space opera on a distant, doomed, planet. They need to be larger than life and as ostentatious as the CGI and lavish costumes that surround them. The subtler performances come later, when we reach Earth.

Kevin Costner gives a particularly nuanced Earth based performance for a particularly important character, Jonathan Kent. Costner has some difficult ideas to convey and he does it perfectly. One much maligned scene sees Jonathan chastising his young son for saving a bus load of kids. When asked by Clark if he should have let them die, Jonathan replies (to much fanboy anger) "Maybe." In my opinion Costner successfully conveys that these are not the words of a callous, selfish man but rather a man who is deeply afraid for his beloved son's safety and well being. As he utters that controversial word, "Maybe", his face tells us everything - he feels guilty for even saying it, but he lives in a world with no frame of reference for what his son can do and he doesn't know how to keep him safe. He doesn't have all the answers, he just wants to protect his son. As he later tells Clark, he and his wife are "doing the best we can and making this up as we go along." Costner's face tells us this long before that line is uttered.

Unique among superhero films

Given that we're not exactly starved of superhero films these days Man of Steel needed to stand out. This was arguably more true of Man of Steel than any other superhero franchise, since it would be attempting to escape the shadow of director Richard Donner and actor Christopher Reeve's iconic take on the character. Man of Steel's predecessor, Superman Returns reveled in the iconography of the Reeve films, and is generally considered a failure (although that's a discussion for another day). I imagine then that being as unique and distinctive as possible was a priority for Zack Snyder and his Warner Bros. bosses. In this respect they succeeded admirably. Man of Steel looks and feels like a version of Superman and his universe that we've never seen before.

Krypton is a large part of this. It looks truly alien. We're clearly looking at a futuristic, technologically advanced society, with lasers and spaceships etc, but the people wear grand robes and birdcage-like headdresses and their technology looks like pin art toys. When Jor-El tells his son the history of Krypton he does so using what looks like metallic propaganda posters mixed with a giant orrery. Krypton looks futuristic and archaic at the same time, like an advanced society who are too stuck in their ways to advance further.

On Earth we see a world with no frame of reference for superheroes whatsoever. In other superhero films, and other Superman films, putting on a cape and saving people seems like the logical choice for anyone who suddenly finds themselves with superpowers. Iron Man for example, ends with Tony Stark joking at a press conference that he's not a superhero, and everyone there knows exactly what he's talking about. In Captain America: The First Avenger, Cap is sold to the public as a hero through propaganda films and he's happily accepted by them. Indeed, if you woke up tomorrow in our "real" world with super powers, no doubt you'd briefly consider popping on some tights and punching a mugger. But the world of Man of Steel is a world where Action Comics #1 was never published. When people see a flying guy in a cape, they don't think "saviour!" they think "AAARGH! AN ALIEN! KILL IT WITH FIRE!" Cavill's Superman is his world's first ever superhero, and that's something we've truly never seen before.

The muted colour tones of the film also help it to stand out from other superhero movies. You may feel that such a visual style is inappropriate for the character, but I feel that it fits the tone of the story it's telling perfectly. It contributes to the cold, archaic look of Krypton. It also gives the scenes set on Earth the feeling of a metaphorical storm brewing. This storm could be the destruction rained down by Zod and his soldiers, or it could be the huge sea change for humanity brought about by Superman revealing himself.

This feeling of something huge brewing is also conveyed by Hans Zimmer's soundtrack. Scenes such as the ones between Zod and Jor-El at the start of the film are driven by Zimmer's music, gradually building up in the background towards something grand and terrible. Zimmer's beautiful and triumphant main theme is also worth a mention, as it manages to be just as iconic as John Williams' Superman theme, while remaining totally unique.

The film also finds new ways of telling the oft-told legend of Superman. The film begins not with Krypton's destruction but with Superman's birth, something we've never seen on screen before. We see more of Krypton than we ever have before and Jor-El is killed before the planet's destruction, leaving Lara to face the planet's doom alone. Before baby Kal-El's rocket lands we skip past the well trodden ground of his upbringing in Smallville (although we flash back to it later) to scenes of Clark Kent roaming America, searching for his place in life. Here we see echoes of Philip Wylie's novel, Gladiator, a book that is thought to have influenced Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster when they created Superman. Wylie's hero wanders the Earth all his life without finding a purpose for his great powers. Clark on the other hand is lucky enough to find his destiny. Nevertheless, it's great to see Gladiator's possible influence reflected onscreen for a change.

The film also includes a plethora of nods and references to Superman comic books. Scenes and dialogue from such books as John Byrne's Man of Steel (1986), Mark Waid's Birthright (2003), Geoff Johns' Secret Origin (2008), and even Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns (1986) are recreated on screen. Seeing such specific references to the source material is growing less and less unique among superhero movies, but it's certainly unique among Superman movies. Rather than being just self indulgent Easter Eggs, these scenes contribute to the beauty and iconic feel of the film.

Disaster Porn

One of the main complaints from fans & critics leveled towards Man of Steel has been regarding the level of destruction suffered by Smallville and Metropolis. Terri Schwartz on Zap2It described the destruction as a "big gaffe", adding "it seems somewhat surprising that a superhero who strives so hard to protect humans would be so careless about destroying a major city" and "the movie offered no resolution for how Metropolis would hope to recover." Comic book artist Ty Tempeton said "The orgy of death that is the last twenty minutes sickened me." One of the most passionate complaints about the destruction came from comic book writer and massive Superman fan, Mark Waid;
"Superman (makes) absolutely no effort to take the fight, like, ONE BLOCK AWAY INTO A CORNFIELD INSTEAD OF ON MAIN STREET. Still, saving people here and there, but certainly never going out of his way to do so, and mostly just trying not to get his ass kicked.... And then we got to The Battle of Metropolis, and I truly, genuinely started to feel nauseous at all the Disaster Porn. Minute after minute after endless minute of Some Giant Machine laying so much waste to Metropolis that it’s inconceivable that we weren't watching millions of people die in every single shot. And what’s Superman doing while all this is going on? He’s halfway around the world, fighting an identical machine but with no one around to be directly threatened, so it’s only slightly less noticeable that thousands of innocents per second are dying gruesomely on his watch. Seriously, back in Metropolis, entire skyscrapers are toppling in slo-mo and the city is a smoking, gray ruin for miles in every direction…but, you know, Superman buys the humans enough time to sacrifice many, many of their own lives to bomb the Giant Machine themselves and even makes it back to Metropolis in time to catch Lois from falling (again), so…yay?"
These are, for the most part, not complaints that I share. When people have argued that Superman is boring because he's too powerful fans generally argue that rather than answer this by scaling down Superman's powers, writers should dial up the threat he's facing. That's exactly what this film did. There's no doubt about how powerful Superman is in this film, but the bad guy's are even more powerful. There's more of them, they've got his powers and they're trained soldiers. Once the filmmakers made the decision to have Superman face a threat of such magnitude they had to allow that decision to guide the story down it's destined path. In order to emphasise that this was the fight of Superman's life, despite his great power, then I would argue that this gigantic level of destruction was necessary.

So why didn't Superman save more people? Why didn't he attempt to move the fight away from populated areas? Well Waid himself said it, he was "mostly trying not to get his ass kicked." How can the audience be convinced that the threat to Superman is real when he's got time to nip off and put out a bunch of fires, or even, as Waid put it "use his heat vision on the fly to disintegrate deadly falling debris after a sonic boom." To portray Superman as anything less than completely on the ropes would have been dishonest to the story that the filmmakers chose to tell. This is also true of Superman's decision to kill Zod at the end. After setting up Zod as such a humongous, ruthless, relentless menace throughout the film, to have him sent to the Phantom Zone, or locked in a super-prison would have felt dishonest to the story they were telling and couldn't have been anything other than an anti-climax.

Man of Steel screen writer David Goyer has also argued that the story that they had chosen to tell made the ending necessary.
"That exists entirely separately from what fans should or shouldn’t think of that character. You have to do what’s right for the story. In that instance, this was a Superman who had only been Superman for like, a week. He wasn’t Superman as we think of him in the DC Comics…or even in a world that conceived of Superman existing. He’d only flown for the first time a few days before that. He’d never fought anyone that had super powers before. And so he’s going up against a guy who’s not only super-powered, but has been training since birth to use those super powers, who exists as a superhuman killing machine, who has stated, ‘I will never stop until I destroy all of humanity.’ If you take Superman out of it, what’s the right way to tell that story? I think the right way to tell that story is if you take this powered alien who says, ‘You can have your race back, but you have to kill your adopted race,’ the moral, horrible situation to be in is to actually be forced to kill, not wanting to, the only other person from your race. Take Superman aside, I think that’s the right way to tell that story."

I can't help but admire the filmmaker's decision to be guided by the story they were telling rather than outside notions of how the character should behave. I do however, agree with Schwartz when she argues "the movie offered no resolution for how Metropolis would hope to recover." I understand that maybe from a pacing point of view the film had to end soon after the climax of Superman and Zod's battle. But after such massive destruction I felt that the film needed to demonstrate it's consequences. A quick scene of Superman and the people of Metropolis working together to rebuild, or perhaps TV pundits discussing the death toll and whether or not Superman is a hero or a menace would have gone a long way. I understand that these consequences are being touched upon in the sequel, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, but a film must ultimately stand on its own merits. As it is, the battle is followed by a fairly comical scene between Superman and an army general, and Clark Kent's arrival at the Daily Planet building, which is intact and full of staff carrying on as normal. To brush over the consequences of such destruction is just as dishonest as it would have been if the filmmakers had chosen to undermine the threat of Zod by having Superman fly him out of harm's way, or imprison him at the end.

Yes, but is it Superman?

Many fans and comics creators have accused the film of featuring an inauthentic version of Superman. For example, Marvel writer Dan Slott has argued on Twitter that the version of Superman we see in Man of Steel is "not Superman. That's an Elseworlds. Superman inspires. It's who he is down to his core." He's also argued that the tone of the movie is wrong and that Man of Steel's Superman is "dark/grim/joyless" and that a truly authentic Superman should be similar in tone to the recent Supergirl TV series. I've argued before that I find such a dogmatic, almost religious view of characters such as Superman unnecessary, inappropriate, and potentially creatively limiting. It's actually quite worrying that such a famous comics creator has such a narrow, limiting view of one of comics' most prominent characters. But I would also argue with Slott's assertion that the Superman we see in Man of Steel is uninspiring, joyless, or hopeless, and that he goes against the "core" of the character.

Ask anybody, what does Superman stand for? They'll no doubt answer "Truth, justice, and the American way." The American way is generally considered to mean "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness...the idea that upward mobility is achievable by any American through hard work." These principles, particularly liberty, are running through the film like words through a stick of rock.

The people of Krypton are shown to have their fate decided at birth. They are born and bred to fill a specific role in society and have no choice in the matter. But Jor-El asks "What if a child dreamed of becoming something other than what society had intended? What if a child aspired to something greater?" By sending their child to Earth Jor-El and Lara have made their son free to find his own way, a freedom denied to them but available to the people of Earth, particularly the United States of America. Superman is even shown being free to search for his own destiny, in the Gladiator inspired scenes depicting his wanderings. Zod on the other hand is trapped in his role. As Zod puts it himself:
"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!"
The threat to Earth posed by Zod is one that has been directly created by Krypton's archaic, restrictive society. Earth's saviour, Superman has been created by Jor-El's dreams of liberty, his dreams of "the American Way."

Liberty and free will is something that is never taken from humanity by Superman's presence, or by his actions. During the battle the people of Earth are just as integral a factor in Zod's defeat as Superman. Lois Lane discovers the means of stopping the world engine and Colonel Hardy and Professor Hamilton sacrifice their lives to carry out the plan. Rather than shown to be cowering, or running for their lives in the background, the citizens of Metropolis are helping each other. Specifically Perry White and Steve Lombard, almost die attempting to rescue Jenny Olsen. When the rescue attempt becomes hopeless they are willing to die rather than leave Jenny to meet her fate alone. Jonathan Kent and Clark himself fear that humanity will reject Clark if he reveals himself, but humanity rewards Clark's "leap of faith" in them by returning that faith towards him. Superman has always been about hope for humankind, and here we see the very best of humanity coming to the forefront during Earth's darkest hour. It's very inspiring stuff, but in a very different way to most superhero films, where humanity usually plays the part of passive witnesses to the heroes' greatness.

Jonathan Kent's death is a very important scene in regards to the film's attitude towards liberty. His demise is often derided as unnecessary; "Why didn't Clark use his powers to save him?" etc. In my view, Jonathan is willing to sacrifice his life to protect his son and Clark respects Jonathan's wishes. Clark does not undermine Jonathan's free will, at great personal cost to himself . If you disagree with this choice, well fine. But consider this. Every single version of Superman (comics, TV, film) makes this decision every time they/he puts on their/his costume. Superman could end war and poverty and famine by flying around the world, overthrowing governments, toppling dictators, and generally taking over the world. He doesn't, because he respects humanity's free will. People inevitably die because of his inaction, and I imagine it hurts Superman deeply to think of this. But were he to deny the people of Earth their freedom then he would be no better than Zod, and exactly the kind of threat Batman believes him to be in the sequel. In Man of Steel, Jonathan Kent taught Clark this lesson with his death.

Superman Returns caused some controversy when Perry White spoke the line "Does he still stand for truth, justice, all that stuff", almost as if the film was embarrassed to have Superman standing for the "American Way". There's no escaping the "American Way" in Man of Steel, the value of humanity's liberty is written throughout the very fabric of the film, and it's one of the reasons I love it.

Of course, there's there's the question of whether Superman's decision to kill Zod marks him out as an inauthentic vision, or as Slott put it an "Elseworld". Personally, I too believe that, generally speaking Superman shouldn’t kill. Greg Rucka’s Ruin arc in Adventures of Superman #625-648 (2004-2006) puts forward the case for this view better than anything else I've ever read. But, in this case I believe the story required this particular action and the important thing for me is that it wasn't presented as a case of the hero taking the easy way out. This was a case of the hero being forced to do the one thing he never wanted to do in order to save lives. It wasn't about anger, or punishment, or vengeance, it was about saving lives. And that made all the difference to me. If you believe that Superman should always be able to find an alternative to killing then fair enough, but I'm flexible if the story is right, and in this case I believe it was.


As far as I'm concerned Man of Steel is an amazing movie with a stellar cast that gives us a vision of Superman and his Universe that's genuinely new and unique. Quite a feat with a 75 year old icon. I also feel that it is a vision of Superman that, despite the destruction it depicts, is just as bright, hopeful, inspiring, and authentic as any version of Superman we've seen before. I eagerly await the sequel.


  1. Well, okay...

    What the hell else can I say now, considering you've said it all so perfectly?

    I seek out articles by people that see this film the way I do. I'm happy to add you to that list.

    Maybe you've read this one, too:

    And just for interest's sake, you might wanna read this: y-dingus-and-superman-should-whomp-his-1718062457

    Here's something interesting:

    It mentions Miracleman, something I was wondering if you'd read.

    Anyway, thanks for the article! I hope it wont be problematic posting all these links.

    Kind Regards


  2. Thanks for the links, I'll definitely check them out, and thanks for the kind words.

    If you're interested I've written aboutf Miracleman before here:

    And I discuss it on my podcast here:

    I also discuss Man of Steel in this episode.

    Thanks for commenting. ☺