Saturday, June 15, 2013

A Review of "Man of Steel" From a 1960s Comic Book Fan's Point of View

I write these reviews not for the casual fan, but for the comic book enthusiasts who probably have seen all the previous movies and want to know not just how good this movie may be but how it stacks up to the previous editions of the characters, including the ones in the comics.
I write these first paragraphs a few days before Man of Steel opens to express my expectations for the movie. I have seen all of Superman’s live-action movies, from his first two serials in the 1940s, “Superman vs. The Mole Men” which served as the pilot of the TV show in 1951, to the five Christopher Reeve movies (if you include Superman II The Donner Edition) and the awful Superman Returns (where he is a stalkerr.

I have viewed so many of the live-action (and animated) Kryptonian sequences explaining how and why Superman came to Earth in both the movies and the TV shows, including Lois and Clark and Smallville. I loved so much of the 1978 movie: the casting, the story, the effects and the attitude. I guess I could have done without the Otis character and would have preferred a stronger Lois Lane, but I would give that movie 3.5 stars out of 4. I know now that for the theatrical release of Superman II, they fired the director, Richard Donner, who had shot more than half of it concurrently with Superman, and made the second movie sillier with less impact. I gave that 2.5 stars. Just a few years ago, Warner’s released “Superman II The Donner Edition,” a wonderful 3.5 star movie that continues in tone and substance where the first one left off.

Superman I and II display Kal-El’s Kryptonian origins, the Phantom Zone and General Zod. Are we going to get anything new in “Man of Steel? Will there be any originality in “Man of Steel?”

“This is no fantasy... no careless product of wild imagination” are Jor-El’s first words in the 1978 movie and you can see that this is where the Man of Steel wants to be. And, as a comic book fan, it surprised me and succeeds.

 I have to adjust to the fact that there will always be a new Superman. He will no longer fight for “truth, justice and the American way.” Thank God, I will always find my Superman in the DVD’s of the TV show, the Blue-Rays of the Reeve movies and in those old comic books.

On a comic book scale of one to four stars, I give this movie 1.5 stars. For people not interested in comics, it’s probably closer to a 1. This is a very different Superman, devoid of bright colors, humor and joy, which is replaced by action, violence and without insightful dialogue. The movie is dark - even the skies are cloudy throughout the movie.

This is certainly not the Krypton of 1978. Instead it is a darker work. Not just Superman’s father, Jor-El, knows that the planet will blow up, the entire population knows. In his earlier incarnations, Jor-El (here played by Russell Crowe) argued with the elders of Krypton. Now his main antagonist is General Zod, played superbly and creepily by Michael Shannon.

To be honest, I would not have minded if a Superman movie opened with a rocket landing on Earth, dispensing with all of the Krypton Krap.  Now the TV shows and movies keep giving us a longer and longer backstory. Once again Jor-El interacts with his son as if he (Jor-El)were still alive. Death in comic book movies is no longer fatal.

I did find that the 1980 Superman II movie did influence this production in several ways. In both movies, General Zod and his crew survive Krypton’s explosion by being placed into the Phantom Zone. Jor El has a long afterlife, being able to talk to his son long after he (Jor-El) dies. In Superman II, a woman named Ursa and a big guy called Non are Zod’s allies and they fight Superman in Metropolis. Here, Faoura-Ul (AntjeTraue) and a masked nameless guy have basically the same role. Kevin Costner as Pa Kent tells young Clark, as Glenn Ford did, “You were put here for a reason.”  However, here Clark Kent has a harder time finding that reason.

Here and in the TV show Smallville, Lois does NOT meet Clark for the first time at the Daily Planet as she had in virtually every other version.

The movie intends on building a new foundation for ongoing stories and does it best to get in the major plot points and introduce the characters. Here, for me, is one of the biggest failure of the 2.5 hour movie. Characters, including Perry White (Laurence Fishburne), Colonel Nathan Hardy (Christopher Meloni), Lana Lang and Pete Ross are not given enough screen time or decent dialogue to develop their characters. Their characters are basically replaceable and not integral to the story.  I understand many people complained that in “Superman Returns” there was not enough action. Here the fight scenes go on forever and there is too much of that.

Henry Cavill plays his super straight, humorless character well. He looks like Superman and in some scenes, he looks like Christopher Reeve. The character is played too straight, too insecure for me. Amy Adams is just always good. She quickly becomes Superman’s protector and partner and it doesn’t take her 50 years to catch onto his identity. But there is no humor, no color anywhere, as if they were copying the tone of the previous Batman series. I wish more...or any... of Lois' quirky personality came through. The same can be said for the perfectly cast General Zod, Michael Shannon. Better dialogue would have helped. I enjoyed it when he explains his motivations for trying to kill all life on Earth.

The movie totally loses me in two scenes.  In a major flaw of the movie, Pa Kent tells Clark that he might have to let people die rather than reveal his identity. This is not the Pa Kent I knew, or wanted to know, and a major shift in the character.My Pa Kent would have always thought life, children's lives, were more important than a secret identity. My Superman cared about life more than anything.

And Superman let's his father die, not just to rescue a dog, but to keep his identity a secret. Again, this is just not my Superman, my man of steel.  Mine would have found a way to save his father under any circumstances. The movie totally loses me at this point.  I did not care for or about this Superman.

The John Williams score of the first movie (and adapted for the next few) was wonderful. It was at times dramatic, at times poetic, and gave us the perfect theme, the perfect opening march to the movie. Not so here. The music by Hans Zimmer was just loud and constant. I really wanted to shut it off at points. It’s true that he had no opening sequences, or for that matter slower sequences, like John Williams did, but he had opportunities that he missed.

I This movie was primarily shot with a bumpy hand held camera and not in 3D. The 3D was added later. showing. But once again the sound was overwhelmingly loud.

Small Spoilers

There was no Superboy in this Smallville, Kansas. We know it is Smallville because of the signs on the buses, water towers and Sears store. In flashbacks that featured Pa Kent (Kevin Costner) and Ma Kent (Diane Lane) we see the growth of the alien boy into the  man of steel. There a few changes here too. Ma Kent does not make his costume; it is given to him by Jor-El. And,

There is now a “Marvelazation” of the DC characters. While this started on Smallville, it gets deeper here. On Smallville, Pa Kent dies, Clark thinks, because of something he unintentionally does. And Clark, like Peter Parker after the death of his uncle, is tormented by it. Here, in a ridiculous and unneeded scene, Clark does something INTENTIONALLY that causes the death of Pa Kent. The whole set up of that sequence makes NO sense whatsoever.

There was a Marvel Comics, Spider-Man influence in In Batman Begins also. Young Bruce feels guilt about the death of his parents because they left the theater because of him and then were killed by a burglar.

As the super-beings destroy the city, the crowds appear and disappear on a regular basis. We know in New York that it took 13 years to rebuild the World Trade center. Here, the damage is far more extensive, but I bet it will be repaired by the next movie.  There were a few trucks that had "Lexcorp" signs on them, but there was no sign of Luther in the movie.

As the buildings collapse, thousands of people must have died. We saw what that looked like on September 11, 2001. Here there are no bodies, no injuries, and we are relieved when just one young girl is rescued. 

This is not my Superman. But he’ll have to do until the next one comes along.

June 19th Update: Major Spoiler Alert:

Screenwriter David S.  Goyer discusses the end of "Man of Steel"

One of the lessons that Chris and I learned from Batman was that if you're going to revitalize an iconic figure like that, you have to be prepared to slay some sacred cows and you have to be prepared to weather the slings and arrows of some people. You have to respect the canon, but constantly question the canon. If you don't reinvent these characters -- and they are constantly being reinvented in the comic books -- then they become stagnant and they cease being relevant. We were feeling -- and I think a lot of people were feeling -- that Superman was ceasing to be relevant.

Killing Zod was a big thing and that was something that Chris Nolan originally said there's no way you can do this. That was a change. Originally, Zod got sucked into the Phantom Zone along with the others. I just felt it was unsatisfying and so did Zack. We started questioning and talked to some of the people at DC Comics and said, "Do you think there's ever a way that Superman would kill someone." At first they said, "No way. No way." We said, "But what if he didn't have a choice?" Originally, Chris didn't even want to let us try to write it. Zack and I said, "We think we can figure out a way that you'll buy it." I came up with this idea of the heat vision and these people about to die. I wrote the scene and I gave it to Chris and he said, "OK, you convinced me. I buy it."

I think it makes some people feel uncomfortable; other people say, "Right on." That was the point. Hopefully what we've done with the end of the film is we've gotten people -- the mainstream audience, not the geek audience -- to question [the character]. Hopefully we've redefined Superman.


  1. Great review, Barry! I agree with just about all you wrote.

    But for me, the biggest flaw I found, was...


    ...when Superman KILLED Zod! I literally gasped out loud, "No! He can't do that!", to my wife's chagrin and a few disapproving looks from the people seated near me.

    This action totally changes a basic part of the character. Unless that is the way Superman is portrayed in the comics nowadays (and I don't read them, so I don't know), I'm stunned that DC allowed it.

    Ken Q

  2. As another older fan, I agree with all your comments on Man of Steel. For me, Krypton is the major problem here. Not only do they devote too much time to it, but their history with space travel seems like a huge flaw that's not explained by "so we gave it up" !?! They have a big-ass ship to send into the Phantom Zone but no ships for survivors? I've also become more and more fed-up with the cold and sterile Krypton that started with the first movie. I want to see the crystal mountains and animals and stuff from the Weisinger era. The Krypton of the last several years is just a shit-hole planet, better off blown up.
    Best thing about this movie was no Lex Luthor. I bet we won't be as lucky in the sequel.

  3. ***SPOILER ALERT***

    Ken, I agree that this changes the character. I mention that in the review, that he is no longer the Superman I knew. But the Superman of the 1940s DID kill a few people, he just stopped doing that after the Comics Code.

    But they cleverly set it up. If Superman didn’t stop Zod, Zod would have killed all those innocent people. They gave Superman no choice. I wrote, “you see, my Superman never would have done what Henry Cavill’s Superman does at the end of this movie…”

    This is not my Superman. It isn’t. Ken our Superman left us a long time ago.

    JohnJ: Did you notice the signs on trucks that said “Lexcorp

    1. Just a tiny correction, Barry.

      Superman, and all other DC characters, stopped killing in 1940 after the instituted their own in-house code in the wake of Sterling North's scathing article against comics. The Comics Code came along a decade and a half later.

      And I think Superman did have a choice other than killing Zod. Assuming they were evenly matched physically, and it seems that they were, he could have applied a Kryptonian-style choke hold or knocked him unconscious. It wasn't necessary for him to go all Jack Bauer on Zod.

  4. Thanks Ken! Well, I think they wanted us to see that he was not our "father's Superman." Kryptonian-style choke hold? How about a Vulcan neck pinch!

  5. All Superman had to do was put his hand over Zod's eyes and the people would have been saved. He had two hands free to snap his neck, he could have covered his eye. BIG PLOT MISTAKE! I too shrieked in the theatre, WHAT?!? NOT MY SUPERMAN!

  6. Adam,

    A silly reality is that if they didn't want Superman to actual kill Zod, there were a thousand made up ways they could have done it. I think they were trying to show us that this Superman could be pushed only so far.

    Also, when Pa Kent said that maybe the students should have died rather than reveal Clark's secret, they went over the edge for me. That's not my Pa Kent either.

  7. Completely true, I find myself defending all of these points to people who loved the movie. Simply not enough purists out there who know the true makeup of these characters.

  8. One of the things that made these characters superheroes to me was their decency and their respect for human life. I don't think were going Much of this in the ongoing Superman and Batman movies This does not make me happy. It's not my definition of what a superhero was.

  9. I'm told people cheered that ending. I've read multiple reviews about how the most moving part of the film was the death of Jonathan Kent. I just shake my head. I think all of us traditionalists could come up with dozens of creative ways that a man with those kinds of powers could have saved the day without killing anyone. Oh, and what about all that property destruction? Are we supposed to believe every one of those buildings and the streets below them were empty? Seriously? Let's face it, there were a lot more casualties in the picture than just Zod, even if no one seemed to notice.

  10. Steve, you know I agree with every single thing you said. The concept of buildings being smashed down one after another and no one getting hurt is just unbelievable. But this is not the hero that I grew up with. This superman I grew up with was an ideal as well as a fictional character. It is someone parents wanted their children to emulate. Not this guy.

  11. Agree about the Marvel/Spider-Man influence in both MOS and Batman Begins. Both movies gave their heroes a guilt motivation. A hero with deep psychological "issues" probably seems very sophisticated to the film makers. I remember a 1970's story where Superman visited an alternate Earth and met a super-hero named Captain Thunder, a pastiche of the original ("Shazam") Captain Marvel. The Captain said that he fought crime and helped people "for no other reason than because it was right." At the end, Clark reflected on how he liked that idea. Unfortunately, such concepts are outmoded in today's grimdark comics and movies.

  12. The climax is an example of how modern movies are effects-driven. CGI technology allows scenes of mass destruction. That is, they wrecked the city simply because they could.

  13. ...I thinkthat - SPOILER _ MOS's Big Blue's killing of General Zod (Who , BTW , I rather like looking like " the king of the the penkers' squat metheads " !!!!!!!!! ) was reasonably set up and , furthermore , had a comics parallel more recent than the 1938-39 " Captain Cleveland " (as I call him) less nice Superman's occasional killings - The situation had it that equally matched Kryptonians Kal and Zod were fighting each other to the death , Zod having shown his extreme seriousness already . ( Oh , and has been pointed out , REALLY , untold thousands?? of people would have been killed in the mass property destruction of Metropolis . And , yeah , 10+ years after 9-11 , much of the former WTC isn't rebuilt and , in London , I believe there were still non-cleared or -rebuilt examples of Blitz damage well into the Seventies . )
    It was Zod or Kal , and Kal - though it should not be done - had , so to speak , to do it anyway .
    I saw Kal as affected by his - Yes , having to , essentially . - kill at the end of the film . Perhaps the sequel will follow up on his guilt feeling .
    ( With this , in the film's version of things , he is killing the last remnant of Krypton , Zod and his own past , now commiting himself to his life on Earth and being Earth's protector . )
    I , pretty much , grew up on the Mort-era Superman too , but I am not quite as obsessed with sticking to it forever , and that's years after the comic abandoned it - And , remember , the Superman who was probably the most popular of all time was the FORTIES Superman , whom IIRC spent much time fighting routine smugglers and extortionists/thugs , though he may have had super-powers was essentially Earth-bound , and (especially in the radio series) adventured with not-quite-" teenage "ish kids - So , if you wish to emulat " when Superman was the most popular he EVER was " , well...( The 40s Superman in the comic strip and radio versions had a running thing of stopping murderous murderous lynch mobs ( Though all-Caucasian both in the lynchers and in the intended lynchees . ) , incientally , which was consious on the creators' side .

  14. ...I meant " punkers' squat meth-heads " in my description of the movie Zod's appearance .
    No tats or pierceings , but , since he was in the Kryptonian Army , after all...........