Where 'Man of Steel' Went Wrong—and Where it Didn't
There’s not much more to say about Man of Steel that hasn’t already been said. For good or ill, this seems to be the Superman that America has chosen, and while there’s plenty to criticize about the film, it’s uncertain how much of that criticism Legendary Pictures will take to heart in light of Man of Steel’s 620-million-dollar worldwide gross. What is certain is that no movie is perfect, and if Man of Steel 2 is going to overcome the flaws of its predecessor, it’s necessary to understand what those flaws are and, just as importantly, what they are not.
Ryan Brown from The Movie Blog published a response last month to what he saw as the three most common complaints about the film. While there is some basis to each of the points he rebuts, he doesn’t delve deeply enough into each of these issues to distill their full validity. They are complaints worth addressing, but not, perhaps, for the reasons Brown thinks.
1. The director's name doesn't matter
The only problem with the direction in Man of Steel wasn’t Zack Snyder’s name; it was Zack Snyder’s direction. Dawn of the Dead, 300, and Watchmen may not be great movies, but they’re well-made ones, well-shot and edited, with a palpable style and blatant creative passion. Film is a visual medium, and Zack Snyder excels at visuals. Whether or not his visual style was appropriate for a Superman film was a matter of debate before the film’s release, but one that turned out to be largely moot as Man of Steel bears few of Snyder’s trademark techniques, most notably his use of slow motion.
The real point of contention comes from other directorial hallmarks from Snyder’s previous films that made their way into this one: over-the-top violence, more care put into crafting action than character, emphasis on spectacle over story. No one, critic or audience member, who put an ounce of care into formulating their opinion of Man of Steel holds the fact that its director previously made Sucker Punch against it. What they hold against it is its failure to avoid all of the elements that made Sucker Punch a mess of a film. They’re diluted here, more subdued and restrained, but still distractingly noticeable. The problem isn’t that Zack Snyder makes that kind of movie; it’s that that’s not the kind of a movie a Superman film should be.
2. The previous Superman films don't matter
Most people understand that Man of Steel is an original adaptation of Superman, not a remake of the classic Superman film series starring Christopher Reeve. They don’t expect it to have the same tone, to tell the story the same way, to depict the same sort of world. Brown claims that unfavorable comparisons of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel to Richard Donner’s Superman are the result of confusion over the original source material. He says that they forget that the comics came first, and that the Christopher Reeve films represent only one interpretation of them.
This may be true in a minority of cases, but for the most part, people don’t want the Donner film over again; they want a film of comparable integrity, quality, and understanding of the character. Superman and Superman II are the two most revered cinematic depictions of Superman because they are the most faithful adaptations of his character in the comics. That is the aspect of those films that people miss in Man of Steel. Not the bumbling villains, campy dialogue, slapstick comedy, and time travel, but Donner and Reeve’s understanding of Superman’s nature and unembarrassed fidelity to it. People don’t want a retread of the last franchise; the lukewarm reaction to Bryan Singer's Superman Returns proved that. What they want is a new version of the character that grasps its source material at least as fully as did the old.
3. The special effects don't matter
Finally, Brown zeroes in on criticisms of the film’s action and fight scenes. Many people have complained, he says, about the scope of the action and the overabundance of CGI, drawing unfavorable comparisons to Michael Bay’s notoriously explosion-rific Transformers movies. He protests that this is the level of destruction one would realistically expect from a battle between two Kryptonians, and that it would be unfair to tease the audience with the old “faster than a speeding bullet, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound” tagline and then not deliver, and he’s absolutely right on both counts. Except Superman didn’t leap over any buildings in this movie. He did crash through a whole lot of them, though.
Focusing on the level of spectacle completely misses the point. All this action and destruction and explosions and special effects and CGI were necessary to depict the battle between Superman and Zod, Brown argues, and while that may be true, the real point is that the battle didn’t have to be written that way to begin with. What is objectionable isn’t the action itself, but the way it is integrated into the story. If Superman had at least tried to move the battle into outer space, or the moon, or the North Pole, the destruction would have been justified. Zod could have refused to be drawn from the city, and the movie could have proceeded just as it did. But Superman didn’t try, so we can only assume that he doesn’t care. And Superman should always care.
What these three complaints, as well as a host of others, ultimately come down to is a matter of expectations and justifications. There are some conventions that Superman is expected to follow, and for good reason; without them, he wouldn’t be Superman. We can come up with all sorts of justifications for why Man of Steel failed to meet those expectations (“This is Superman before he learned how to be Superman,” “This is the only way Superman can work in the post-9/11 world,” “Superman had to kill Zod because there was no other option even though he didn’t have to be in that situation in the first place”), but in doing so we are responding to the criticisms only on a superficial level. The deeper point, the one we’re conveniently ignoring because we have no answer for it, is that the movie frequently distorts the character of Superman to accommodate its plot. And a Man of Steel shouldn't bend.