One of the very best Superman comics, Superman: Red Son, explores what might have happened if Superman had landed in Soviet Ukraine instead of the American Bible Belt. Man of Steel follows a similar line of thought: what would happen if Superman had landed on a planet where all the inhabitants had bones growing through their brains?
The film begins on Superman’s home planet of Caucasia just as he is being born. His mother is lying on a table while Javert circles her like a semi-concussed vulture. Caucasian medicine is so extremely advanced that floating robots can create 3D representations of the unborn child in the womb, but not so advanced that they’ve made childbirth a painless experience. But Javert doesn’t have time for all this birthing crap, he has to go to the High Council of Caucasians to deliver some exposition. It turns out that the Caucasians were running out of natural resources to power their lifestyles. Instead of turning off some lights — or any of the thirty billion gizmos that they seem to have inexplicably left on — they decided to mine the core of Caucasia.
Fools! The Grand High Wizards on the Caucasian Chalk Circle didn’t listen to Javert when he explained that this would cause the planet to explode, and now the planet is exploding. Javert has decided that it is impossible to evacuate even a single person from the planet before the planet explodes, but has come to ask for the Codex — a McGuffin over which everybody will fight for the rest of the film. The Codex — claims Javert, Caucasia’s Chief Expositor — is needed in order to let the Caucasian race rise again. Or something.
No time for explanations, General Zod has started attacking the High Council of Caucasians… though nobody is sure why. Something about Zod wanting to enact some kind of eugenics programme? Javert and Zod do not like each other, but they clearly have some kind of shared history together (because they say as much).
After a bunch of bright lights, Javert escapes on the back of one of those flying dragon things from Avatar (h/t James for that reference). Stupid Caucasian flying spaceships (probably powered by the same resources mined from the core of the planet…?) are unable to catch up with Javert, who has sufficient time to steal the Codex from some sort of Matrix-inspired birthing room and make it back to his brightly lit, energy-inefficient citadel of a home. Javert knew all along that Caucasia was dying, so he began making a spaceship that would be large enough to transport his newborn son to a faraway planet but would not be large enough to carry anybody else. The film spends a lot of time trying to convince us that this was somehow for a noble cause.
The film never convinces the audience that Javert has acted rationally here. The set up is so bafflingly stupid that it renders everything that follows an incoherent mess. Part of the problem is that it is unclear what ideas are in play. Javert thinks that stuffing up the environment should be punishable by death? Don’t other people get a say in whether or not they want to die just because the planet is stuffed? Was everybody on the planet equally culpable for the decision to mine the core of the planet?
Zod seems to be motivated by a desire to establish a programme of eugenics. He tells Javert that some ‘bloodlines’ are responsible for the current state of affairs and that those bloodlines should be cut off. What we don’t realise until five minutes later is that their society already has a system of eugenics. In order to get the ‘Codex’, Javert swims through a tank of foetus. Each baby is bred to serve a particular function in this planet: some are bred to be scientists, others are bred to be soldiers — all are bred white. That’s what makes Javert’s son different: Superman was a natural birth and not a vat baby.
Javert’s rebuttal of Zod’s point is a stock standard one: ‘Who gets to decide which bloodlines remain?’ Perhaps we would be inclined to accept this argument if it weren’t for the fact that Javert’s entire plan involves everybody on the planet dying a horrible planet-exploding death… except his own son.
This therefore creates an uncomfortable problem: Javert wants everybody on the planet to die (except for his own son) while Zod is fighting for the continued existence of his race. Why wouldn’t we want to be on Zod’s side? Why has the bloodless sociopathic scientist unilaterally decided that everybody must die? Go out fighting. Go out Team Zod.
Somewhere on Caucasia, a person must asking: ‘Why don’t we just leave the planet? Oh, that’s right… Javert doesn’t think we should. He must be right; he’s a scientist. Zod wants us to live, but he’s just a soldier.’
As Javert’s son rockets away from Caucasia carrying the Codex with him, Zod murders Javert. Zod and his followers are punished: they will be cast off the exploding planet. You can see the disappointment in Zod’s eyes. ‘But I want to die in the planetary fireball!’ he seems to plead with his pudgy, out-of-focus eyes.
So where does that leave Superman? Speeding away from his native planet, he lands on a planet almost identical to Earth except everybody has symptoms of foetal alcohol syndrome. He is raised by a pair of halfwits who seem mostly confused about how to connect emotionally with their confused son. The film presents it as something like puberty: your body is changing, Clark; you can do impressive things with your body now, Clark; you shouldn’t expose yourself in public like that, Clark. But Kevin Costner seems utterly incapable of even pretending that he likes Clark. Young Superman saves a bus full of school children; he couldn’t just leave them to die when he could prevent it. But this means exposing his abilities in public, and this makes Clark feel like a complete outsider. Costner goes to comfort him: ‘You should have let them die, Clark.’
… Goodo? Thanks, dad?
The people in Clark’s town are similarly confused about their priorities. One of the classmate’s mother has come to talk to Clark’s human parents about what happened. Honest to Jove, she seems upset that her halfwitted ranga kid was spared a watery death.
As Javert never bothered to ponder, ‘How will my son come to understand who he is when he’s old enough? Should I record a message for him in this spacecraft?’ Clark has a miserable childhood of loneliness and identity confusion. He doesn’t understand why he’s different. He doesn’t understand why his biological parents abandoned him. He doesn’t understand the extent of his powers.
And it makes for some utterly miserable viewing.
Everything is so terribly dreary in Clark’s childhood. The mopey child becomes a mopey young adult. Worse, Clark just seems to be angry at the world around him. As a child, he’s bullied. He can’t lash out with his anger, so he breaks a fence. As an adult, a guy in the pub tries to pick a fight with him, so Clark walks outside and trashes the guy’s truck.
This isn’t a Superman anybody wants to know.
After a lot of faffing about, Zod discovers that Clark is on Earth. This discovery kicks off the main event of the film: Zod wants to terraform Earth and revive the Caucasian race. Clark thinks that’s a bad idea.
One does wonder why Zod has chosen Earth. Two planets occupy the circumstellar habitable zone in our solar system, and one of them is not Earth.
Frankly, the inhabitants of Earth are so shockingly stupid that I began to hope Zod would succeed. There is not a single act performed by a human that isn’t somehow unfathomably irrational. Lois Lane is embedded with a military science expedition where she sees a UFO. The military decides that they won’t interrogate her or make her sign a confidentiality agreement or whatever. They just send her on her way so she can publish all kinds of crazy stories on the Internet. Meanwhile, Zod attacks two places on Earth, but none of the humans in the immediate area take the initiative to evacuate themselves. They just hang around and wait for things to fall on them. When Zod’s followers come to Earth to fight with Superman, the military decides that it will shoot ineffectively at the belligerents. When that doesn’t work, they shoot at them some more.
Lots of punching happens and then — spoilers — Superman sufficiently punches Zod until Zod stops being a threat.
The plot is garbage and makes utterly no sense. Just about every single person is miscast in this and the acting is woeful. All of that would be forgivable if the film were at least visually exciting. Instead, we are treated to a faded blue film with CGI graphics that set off my uncanny valley phobia a few times. I have games on the Nintendo 64 with better graphics. There are YouTube clips edited with Lightworks that have more visually awesome graphics.
There is one exception to my comment about everybody being miscast and a terrible actor:
Antje Traue plays one of Zod’s supporters. Unlike Zod, she is a competent and intimidating threat. The only reason she isn’t leader of the military on her home planet is because, unlike Zod, she wasn’t born a guy.
Traue does an excellent job of managing the atrocious script that she’s been given. At one point, she explains to Superman that the reason she’s going to win in the fight is because she represents evolution while Superman represents morality. It’s a cringe worthy speech, yet Traue at least makes it sound menacing. If more pop-atheists delivered their mumbo-jumbo eliminativist nonsense the same way Traue delivers her lines, I’d be less inclined to mock them as happily as I do.
If this had been a battle between Superman and Traue, it would have made more sense. Traue is utterly single-minded in her pursuit of her goal: the survival of her race. In every scene, you see that determination. All other considerations are secondary, even her own personal desire for self preservation. Unfortunately, this brutality of vision is sometimes hidden by a creepy clear mask:
Michael Shannon as Zod is not nearly as menacing. Zod doesn’t ring true like Traue does. He just looks gormless and impotent, and he can never quite articulate what he’s hoping to achieve. It’s impossible to take him seriously as a threat because he has no presence. Terrence Stamp dressed in tights was more menacing than Michael Shannon. There’s not a lot to praise about Smallville, but at least Callum Blue was intimidating as Zod:
Importantly, because the ship carrying the infant Superman leaves before the information of Javert’s murder, Superman never identifies Zod as the man who killed his father. As such, there’s no personal connection for Superman to battle Zod. Superman is battling Zod because he’s a bad guy, not because Zod is the guy who killed his biological father. There’s no emotional turmoil for Superman to navigate which is a surprise given how mopey and miserable Superman was at the start of the film. Superman reacts to everything with similar levels of passivity. Zod represents the last link for Superman to reconnect with his native culture, yet Superman shows no interest in it. Superman will finish what his father started: the destruction of his race, culture, and history.
The list of ways in which Smallville was superior to Man of Steel keeps going. Costner, as mentioned, is fantastically bland and it’s impossible to work out precisely why he is so achromatic. Most of his dialogue, mysteriously enough, sounds like it’s been lifted from Smallville, and yet John Schneider (of The Dukes of Hazard Fame) managed to pull it off far more convincingly:
Amy Adams is similarly lost in this film. Part of the problem is that she comes across as a complete dingus. Where Smallville‘s Erica Durance portrayed a character that was headstrong and formidable, Amy Adams appears to do ‘brave’ things because she’s too stupid to work out how stupid her actions are. She’s warned that going out onto the ice shelf at night is dangerous, but she does it anyway because… she sees somebody else walking onto the ice shelf? The other characters appear to respond to her in the same way. Out of all the humans on the planet, she has the single most experience with the alien technology. She’s even been given a lesson on how to use the technology from the digital ghost of Javert. So when the alien technology fails to work in the way expected, the male scientist who has never seen alien technology fiddles around with it to make it work.
Race and gender are once again problematic in this film. Superman comes from an all-white planet to a world where the head of the media and the head of the military are both African American. Neither of those African American leaders are magical white guys and, as such, they are demonstrated to be insufficient for the tasks at hand. The final speech between the general and Superman reinforces this idea: anybody can be an American so long as they are white, male, and powerful. The only woman worth noting in the film is Traue. Superman’s mother loses most of her relevance as soon as her duty as incubator and birthatrix is over. Superman’s human mother exists only so the bad guys have somebody to attack (even when her husband dies, the memory of him is more influential over Clark’s development as a man than she is). And Lois Lane is an imbecile.
This is a horrible film with horrible dialogue, a horrible plot, and a horrible message. It’s ugly both visually, philosophically, and culturally. It’s mopey and miserable. This is a film for people who are blind and deaf.
- The Lessons of “Man of Steel” (tommurrow.wordpress.com)
- Man of Steal (thewritesnark.com)
- Man of Steel Review (Spoiler warning) (splitbreakfracture.wordpress.com)
- Man of Steel (bsidebeat.wordpress.com)
- Review: Man of Steel: Grittier, Louder, Flashier – But Ultimately Hollow (tmrzoo.com)
- Film Review – Man of Steel (daliennation.wordpress.com)