OR Joint Review - Man of Steel



Falldog: Thanks for checking out Otaku Revolution’s review of The Man of Steel. Normally we don’t do movie reviews around here (not sure that we’ve done one ever, actually) but Neon and I felt that in light of the poor critical response that we take the time to write up our commentary on the film. We both liked it. I thought it was fantastic and way better than this year’s Iron Man 3. And I’m saying that as a long time Superman fan.


And guess what! This review is filled with a fuckload of spoilers! Stop reading here if you haven’t seen the movie or don’t care.


Cognitive Dissonance

Falldog: It seems like a lot of dislike for Man of Steel stems from fond memories of the Donner films. Folks out there still picture Superman as a campy always do-gooder whose stories are fairly simplistic. Whether or not they’re aware of it they seem to be ignoring the past 30 years of development and changes that have occurred to Superman comics, the DC universe, and the superhero genre itself. Mass destruction, alien planets, Superman punching people through buildings. It’s not something new.


Neon: I think I’ll go a bit further than that. I might not make a lot of friends with this statement, but I think the Donner Superman movies are not very good at all. People often mistake them for good because Christopher Reeve was good in them. But aside from his performance as Superman, what else about those movies is legitimately good, and not in a nostalgic way? The supporting cast is average at best, the effects are terrible (and not just the flying stuff. The costume design for Zod and his lackeys in Superman II looks like a bad ice skating outfit) and it pulls some shit that would never fly today (no pun intended) – turning back time so that everyone's alive and all the damage is restored? Really?

My point is that they have lots of nostalgia value, and they got certain things right, but they are not good enough to be afforded hallowed canonical status like Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark. Bottom line – being unlike the Donner films is fine. In fact, it's more than fine. Superman Returns (or as I like to call it – Donner Returns) treated the original movies like its source material, and we all saw how that turned out.


Product Placement

Falldog: I didn’t mind the product placement in this film. In fact I apparently missed half of it. The one that really stood out to me was the Sears store in Smallville. What made it out of place was the concept that there are small town Sears hardware stores out there. It was stupid obvious but it was easy to look past it. Until recently I didn’t think of the IHOP scenes as product placement. At the time I thought it was a bit of pessimistic commentary on where the chubby kid ended up career wise. In my defense I went for a piss while Lois apparently questioned him about Superman.


Neon: Product placement is an unfortunate reality of movies, but as long as they don’t break some cardinal rules I can usually ignore it. I hate when a brand name is actually related to the plot of the movie (like Jack and Jill with Dunkin Donuts or the upcoming The Internship, which is essentially a two hour Google recruiting video) or when they shoehorn it into the dialog. Like Falldog, there were one or two moments that stood out (to me the worst one was the awkward lifting of a Nokia phone into frame), but I wouldn’t call them offensive. I like to turn that cynical part of my brain off and look at it as a touch of realism.



Falldog: The one thing that really bothered me about the movie was the shaky camera footage and snap zooms during regular dialogue scenes. When Pa Kent is talking to Clark out on the farm there’s no need for for the picture to shake around. It was incredibly annoying and took me out of the film.


Neon: I’m not sure why use of shaky cam has to be so universal in a movie that has some shaky cam in it. I actually think balancing it out with static or dolly shots helps enhance the transition between more static parts with dialogue and action sequences. It almost gives the camera work itself an emotional range.


The Musical Score

Falldog: I thought Hans Zimmer’s score for Man of Steel was superb and superbly fitting. As iconic and appropriate as John William’s work for the Donner films.


Neon: I can’t think of bigger shoes to fill than John Williams’ work on Superman. And yet, the main Zimmer theme felt very Superman without feeling very Williams. Along with Prometheus, this is one of the more memorable main musical themes that I remember from recent years.


Movie Themes

Falldog: Somehow I think folks have forgotten or completely missed what the film was about, which is surprising as it’s laid in a rather basic manner. At its most simplistic level the film is a coming of age tale for Clark Kent. Batman Begins is a similar tale for Bruce Wayne. Where Clark has to overcome insecurities and uncertainty Bruce needs to overcome emotional pain and anger.
In Man of Steel we see Clark’s interactions with various forces and how they affect him. We see his caring yet protective parents, the weight of knowing he is apart and different in the world, the confidence of his biological father, and the varying viewpoints of regular humans.

His parents want to protect him. They understand his powers but know that they have the potential to cause great harm to their son so they keep him isolated. They’re undoubtedly proud of their son and we see that pride reflected in Clark but the overwhelming sense of isolation bears down on him the most. His early adult life is spent moving from job to job as he lacks that sense of direction and inclusion we all need.

He starts to find that when he learns who he is and where he came from through the consciousness of his biological dad. That scene where he learns to fly is symbolic of him starting to come to terms with his abilities. Through those abilities we see him build confidence and understand what responsibilities they come with.

The military characters in Man of Steel represent both the willingness of common men to believe in Superman and the unwillingness of politicians and those in charge to trust him.

Together these three interactions help create a framework for Clark’s development. We see him in each of these stages while other characters and events help show the transition between these stages in Clark’s life. One of these scenes is the one where Clark goes to ask a priest for advice. At this point it seems Clark knows what he must do but the influences around him have left him conflicted. The priest simply provides that nudge in a way that also includes the audience in what’s going on. In most comic canons Superman comes to that realization himself but in a film it makes sense to spell it right out (and despite that people are still bitching and appear confused about the scene).

All of these are common themes in the Superman mythos and, I believe, layed out very simply and effectively throughout the movie. I get that I may be reading between the lines, viewing them through red and blue colored glasses. As a fan of Superman I recognize all of these elements and get how they play together.


Neon: Not much I can add to that, except that I really appreciated Clark/Superman’s imperfection in this movie. Many other Superhero franchises delve into the development of the person behind the costume, but I always felt Superman lacking in that department. It also did a good job of playing both sides of the conflict between Jonathan Kent and Jor-El’s philosophies, and also humanity’s conflict on whether or not to trust this omnipotent alien. Both Jonathan Kent and Jor-El had good reasons for their philosophies and both sacrificed their lives for what they believed in. The military leaders who distrust Superman do so understandably, but they also do not remain fixated in their opinions when confronted with new information. Even Zod’s motivation is understandable, although I wouldn’t exactly say this situation is morally ambiguous. Clearly Zod becomes obsessed with his mission to the point of losing sight of everything else, but at least he is fighting for the survival of his species as opposed to the desire to enslave humanity or receive some kind of monetary gain or secret hidden powers. In short - he’s fighting for something important.


As a Superman Movie...

Falldog: As both a comic book and Superman film Man of Steel really works. There are multiple Superman canons and a multitude of writers have given their own take on the hero. I don’t see this film as any different. What little deviations it makes are not so unique or extraordinary that it’s a slap in the face to fans (unlike Mandarin in Iron Man 3). I like that they were able to just chop out the entire “Lois thinks Clark may be Superman but knows that’s just silly” romantic comedy shlock.


Neon: I think a lot of the criticism surrounding Man of Steel relates too much to what people think Superman should be, and not enough to whether the movie does what it set out to do well or not. I do not come from a comic book background. I know Superman from the older movies as well as whatever I’ve read about the character over the years and other things like the Smallville TV show, so I didn’t really have any emotional baggage coming in. And on top of that, as Falldog said, there are multiple canons and iterations. The character has been around almost 80 years, so even if what people say is true, and this isn’t “properly” Superman, who cares? Why not try something totally different?


The Dark Tone

Falldog: Man of Steel was a diversion from Marvel’s lighthearted and witty superhero films and the Donner Superman movies most people are familiar with. As I sat through Man of Steel I was acutely aware of the lack of jokes and comedic relief. Everything was presented very straight and very seriously. At first I didn’t like it; if anything, Superman should have a better sense of humor to him, but as the film went on I grew to appreciate it. I got the impression that they wanted to differentiate themselves from the other flicks out there and try something different. I thought it worked but I can understand how others wouldn’t. Do I want the sequel to follow in these same footsteps? No. I want Batman to be the brooding one while Superman is only serious when things get serious. Luckily I think one of the last scenes of the film showed that potential.


Neon: I feel like Marvel and DC are going down two different creative paths - Marvel with its Avengers universe is doing a great job capturing the essence of movies like the original Superman and bringing them to a modern audience - campy, colorful, funny, etc. DC seems to be going down the Nolan highway with the more realistic, sober, dark, gritty tone. I actually like that it doesn’t feel like they are just copying each other but rather making two unique artistic statements. You are certainly entitled to prefer a campier, more colorful, Donner-ish Superman, but you aren't getting that here. That Superman is dead. Long live the new Superman. The "Dark" Superman, although I think the word dark doesn't appropriately describe it. It's a more sober, grittier, more realistic Superman. The word I use is "gravitas" - The emotions are raw, the impact of the final battle is readily apparent (no presto change time travel solution to fix everything here), and Superman's choices have serious and lasting consequences, which makes his choices in the film harder to make, and more important once he makes them. And regarding Falldog’s point about the sense of humor - I will say more in the next point below.


A Setup Movie

Falldog: For better or worse Man of Steel exists as a setup film so DC can continue its silver screen battle with Marvel. It’s a setup for superhero tie-ins and an eventual JLA flick. Most importantly I think it sets up perfectly for Man of Steel 2. At the very end of the film the scene with Superman and the military general has a lot going on and I think a lot of people missed it. It demonstrates both the willingness of folks to appreciate superman and the reluctance of those in power. It also gives us a glimpse of a confident hero who’ll be able to crack a smile and make little jokes going forward. More in tune with the Superman we all know and love.


Neon: I’ve said before that Superman is only in this movie for one scene - the one Falldog describes at the end of the movie. I wouldn’t even be surprised if the sequel is simply called Superman instead of Man of Steel 2. Most of the things we know about the character of Superman are established in Man of Steel. By the end of the movie he’s more confident, even to the point of wit; his philosophy has been established along with the reasons for why it was established, etc. In short - he starts out as just Clark and he becomes Superman. Not by putting on the suit. By coming to terms with what it means to be Superman.


Zod & The Ending

Falldog: As a fan I get the impact of Superman having to make that decision and his scream after. What a lot of people are missing though is that it works on several levels. The first is the obvious aspect of Superman taking a life to save others. There definitely needed to have been some setup prior regarding Superman’s reverence for life but even without there’s just the importance of dealing with Zod. Superman clearly crosses the line to put humanity first and it would seem that killing Zod would be the only way to prevent his promise to kill everyone from becoming a reality. If you look a bit deeper you’ll see that not only did Superman kill someone but he killed off the only other surviving Kryptonian. Zod in general (get it?) was very well done.


Neon: I think the scream also symbolized his frustration with the fact that it was his only remaining option. You could tell that he wanted so badly to reason with Zod because losing him meant losing Krypton (Zod even says something to this effect. “Kill me and Krypton dies forever.”). He practically begged Zod to listen to reason but he was left with no choice, and at no point did he give into anger. He killed Zod reluctantly. Very reluctantly.


The Special Effects

Falldog: The special effects and fight scenes were amazingly well done. I suppose it says something about modern high-budget films when the special effects are just a part of the backdrop and no one seems to consider them anymore.


Neon: There are a few shots and sequences in this movie that look 100% like they were shot with physical miniatures. If I turn out to be wrong I will be gigantically impressed. Particle effects in general are getting quite good, and the destruction definitely had a realistic feel to it. I also loved Kryptonian technology and the various design elements of the ships, suits, servitor robots, and such.


Metropolis Gets Fucked Up

Falldog: I walked away from that movie feeling bad for the citizens of Metropolis. A whole portion of their downtown and countless innocents got utterly decimated. Some people have been outspoken as to this being a major issue with the film. Okay, it was big and flashy and done heavier than it needed to. Come on, though - this is is a summer blockbuster superhero movie. Where were the complaints following any Roland Emmerich movie? Or The Dark Knight Rises? Scores of people die innocently in that movie or meet harm. The football players, the mayor, the cops who charge head first unarmed toward armed criminals. You think no cops died while trapped underground for months and no civilians starved? What about all the rich folks who were sentenced to death in impromptu trials?

Innocent folks die in superhero stories. Some individual incidents easily claim over a million lives. That’s part of why the universe they inhabit needs heroes. I guess people wanted a feel good movie like Avengers where somehow the civilian population of Manhattan spares injury.


Neon: In Star Trek (2009), Nero slaughters 6 billion Vulcans and kills almost everyone in Starfleet. How many people lived on Alderaan before it was obliterated? How many people worked on the Death Star? How many people died in Independence Day? Suddenly this has become a hot button topic? I think a darker Superhero movie should absolutely show the horrible results of a clash between nearly omnipotent beings. I mean, let’s face it - in The Avengers, the government was going to nuke NYC on its own accord. At least in Man of Steel it was the bad guys causing all the destruction.


Pantheon of Superhero Movies

Falldog: Where do I think Man of Steel ranks in the halls of recent DC & Marvel superhero flicks? I would put it below Avengers, Batman Begins, and maybe even the first Iron Man. It’s certainly better than the recent Iron Man 3 and The Dark Knight Rises.


Neon: Who would have dreamed 10 years ago that we’d have such an overabundance of good superhero movies that it would be hard to rank the best ones? I will need to let Man of Steel sit for a while before comparing it to something like The Avengers or the Nolan Batman movies, but I would definitely put it above the Marvel phase 1 movies (not including The Avengers itself or Iron Man, which technically is phase 0. Iron Man 2 is phase 1) and overall it certainly fits snugly in the “good” column.


Random Other Notes

Falldog: Superman vs. the claw thing on the planet engine was just silly. It would’ve worked better if Zod left some of his troops down there to protect it. It would’ve been cooler to see Superman trying to take down the ship while himself and the others all had to deal with the gasses emitted by the device. In the end it would’ve been another triumph for Superman’s drive and willpower.


Neon: I liked that humanity also saved the day. Colonel Chris Maloni crashing into the world ship was a great moment, and also symbolized a transition from distrust to trust. At first he was very suspicious of Superman, and by the end he sacrificed his life for a plan he had no idea would even work.

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