I hate Man of Steel so much that I tried to write this review three times before rage quitting. This is my fourth attempt.
Like Superman Returns, Man of Steel is a response to the two Richard Donner Superman movies. But where Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns was both a sequel and slavish homage to Superman I and II, Zack Snyder and David Goyer’s Man of Steel is a cynical retelling that hits the major plot points of the two movies, from the destruction of Krypton to the invasion of General Zod, but strips out all of the fun, color, and emotion. As the title suggests, Man of Steel is a cold machine of a summer blockbuster, so lacking in empathy that the final act is a brutal emotional assault on the audience.
Honestly, it is hard for me to list all the things I hate about Man of Steel, but in many ways it comes down the decision to make Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) a deeply distrustful person, so terrified of humanity’s possible response to the existence of super-beings that Clark hides his powers for thirty three years, only saving people if he happens upon them while they are in mortal danger. That’s not the character I know, not the character I love.
SPOILERS BEYOND THIS POINT.
The Superman I love believes in people and trusts people, and he actively likes people. They are literally his friends, co-workers and lovers. This belief in other people leads Superman to preserve life above everything else and trust that there is good in even the worst of people. Man of Steel Superman, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to like anyone. He does not have a single recognizably human interaction in the whole film, only portentous dialogue about what his role in life is supposed to be. The closest he comes to genuine affection is with his mother, Ma Kent (Diane Lane) and even there, the scenes are more about Superman coming to terms with his powers and responsibilities than they are about a loving relationship. Superman has no reason to like anyone, and we are never given a reason to like him.
A subplot of the film is that Zod, Jor-El, and other Kryptonians are programmed from birth for certain roles, but Clark Kent has free will. And yet Clark displays not the slightest bit of free will. Clark does whatever a pseudo-father figure tells him to do. Clark hides his powers because Pa Kent (Kevin Costner) tells him to. Clark puts on the Superman suit because the hectoring ghost of Jor-El (Russell Crowe) tells him to. Clark reveals himself to the world because General Zod (Michael Shannon) forces him to. Clark is basically robot, emotionlessly executing a series of programs. This cold obedience leads to the two worst moments of the film, moments so antithetical to my understanding of the character that I have a hard time believing anyone thought they were good ideas.
The first is when Clark lets a tornado kill Pa Kent rather than reveal himself. The film makes it clear that it’s what Pa wants, that Pa does not want to burden humanity with the truth that an alien demi-god lives among them. It’s the worst version of Pa Kent’s death I have ever seen. In Superman I, Pa dies of a heart attack, something beyond Superman’s power to prevent. Here, young Clark could easily save his father, but chooses to let someone die out of obedience and distrust of humanity. I don’t want a fearful, servile Superman, I want a fearless, independent Superman who cares more about saving lives than he does his own safety.
Even more egregious is the end, where Zod says Superman has to kill Zod to stop him, and so Superman SNAPS ZOD’S NECK. It might sound fanboyish to insist that “SUPERMAN DOES NOT KILL,” but SUPERMAN DOES NOT KILL! It’s part of his appeal, that he sees the best in everyone, and therefore has mercy for everyone. Even within the context of the film, killing Zod is clearly a failure, leading to Clark crying in Lois’s arms. And yeah, that’s great that Superman feels bad about doing the wrong thing, but I’d rather he do the right thing! Again, instead of being brave and clever and trusting, Superman is fearful and panicked and predictable.
You can argue that this Superman doesn’t trust humanity, and this Superman kills when he has to, but if that’s the case, then I HATE this Superman, and I hate this film. Even while saying this isn’t the Superman you know, the film relies on the residual affection the audience has for the character from other versions because there’s certainly no reason to like the Clark that’s in this movie. The film is as hollow as its lead character, relying on emotional shortcuts rather than actual storytelling. Why do Lois and Clark fall in love? Because Lois and Clark always fall in love. Why does the military start trusting Superman? Because people always trust Superman.
Additionally, Man of Steel explicitly makes the case that Superman is the second coming of Jesus Christ (apparently, screenwriter David Goyer got the memo that Man of Steel needed more punching than Superman Returns, but missed the memo about needing less Jesus). Superman is 33 when he turns himself over the Caesarian-General Zod, he sits in front of stain-glass image of Jesus to ask who he is supposed be, and then his ghostly father tell him he can “save them all” before Superman takes a Jesus on the cross pose in space. But the comparison to Jesus is just as unearned as comparisons to likable versions of Superman, because Jesus actually did stuff before his crucifixion. Jesus spent years as a teacher, rabbi, philosopher, healer, caterer and carpenter. Jesus is also infinitely merciful, preferring to sacrifice himself rather than fight the Romans. He certainly didn’t snap Caesar’s neck.
Even worse than relying on comparisons to Jesus, the film relies on the trauma of 9/11 for emotional weight at the climax. Snyder meticulously recreates images of planes (or spaceships) crashing into buildings while panicked New Yorkers flee for their lives. Watching millions die while Superman focuses on fighting is sickening. Absolutely sickening.
What makes Man of Steel disappointing, rather than just plain awful, is that it had such potential to be good. Zack Snyder has matured as a director, able to capture small quiet moments as well as the spectacular chaos of superhuman battle. There’s an interesting twist where Lois Lane effortlessly uncovers Superman’s secret identity before she ever really meets Clark Kent. And most of all, the cast is stellar, especially Amy Adams as Lois Lane. She captures Lois’s fearless determination and infinite curiosity perfectly. And the cast is full of great actors,—Laurence Fishburne, Christopher Melonie, Richard Schiff, Henry Lennix—all turning in interesting performances. Even Henry Cavill, who looks amazing as Superman (especially shirtless, bearded Superman who is also on fire) has the potential to be a fantastic Superman and an even better Clark Kent, assuming he was given an actually empathetic character to play. The cast is so good that, as much as I hate this movie—HATE THIS MOVIE—I might still see the sequel, assuming David Goyer doesn’t write the script.
I hate Man of Steel. Superman is an inspirational character, someone who by his example makes other people better, and this version inspires no one. If you want to read a great version of Superman, there are a ton of great comic books, All Star Superman, Superman: For All Seasons, John Byrne’s Man of Steel, Superman: Birthright, countless more, all featuring a recognizable human being, blessed with superpowers, who tries to make the world a better place. If you demand a great Superman movie, I recommend The Iron Giant.