4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch

“People are afraid of what they don’t understand” — Man of Steel

While Superman Returns was a disappointment to Warner Bros., the Batman trilogy directed by Christopher Nolan was a huge success. Meanwhile, across the metaphorical aisle, Marvel’s cinematic universe was taking the world by storm, and Warner thought they should be able to do something similar.

So in 2013, they kicked off their own cinematic universe, leading off with the guy in red and blue who started it all in 1938, working off a script by the two guys (David S. Goyer and Nolan) who wrote those successful Bat-films.

Initially, the sequel to Superman Returns was also to be called Man of Steel, but ultimately Warner Bros. decided to consign that movie to the cornfield and start all over again. Particularly since that movie was so tethered to the 1978 and 1980 Super-films, they decided to start afresh so they could build up what is now generally referred to as the DC Extended Universe.

To that end, they consulted with several comics writers, among them Mark Waid (whose Superman: Birthright was mined for the movie) and Geoff Johns (whose Superman: Secret Origin was also mined). Amusingly, the script that Goyer and Nolan did based on conversations the two had about how to introduce Superman to a modern audience were predicated on Superman being the only superhero, in opposition to the cinematic universe it became the vanguard of.

Fresh off his adaptations of 300 and Watchmen, Zack Snyder was tapped to direct. For the first time, a non-American played the title role, with Brit Henry Cavill cast. He also went so far as to go through a brutal training regimen—no CGI or enhancements, and the Superman suit wasn’t padded. In addition, Amy Adams—who twice before read for the role of Lois Lane, for Superman Returns, and also for one of the development-hell Super-films that never got made—finally got the part, while two previous Robin Hoods—Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner—play Superman’s biological (Jor-El) and adopted (Jonathan Kent) fathers, respectively. Michael Shannon plays General Zod, with Antje Traue as Faora-Ul. (Amusingly, Gal Gadot was originally cast as Faora, but had to drop out due to being pregnant. Gadot will, of course, return as Wonder Woman in the sequel to this film.) Rounding out the cast are Diane Lane as Martha Kent, Ayelet Zurer as Lara Lor-Van, Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, Rebecca Buller as Jenny Jurwich, Michael Kelly as Steve Lombard (a Daily Planet reporter who had never been portrayed in live-action before), Christopher Meloni as Colonel Hardy, Harry Lennix as General Swanwick, Richard Schiff as Dr. Emil Hamilton (a scientist who is a longtime Superman supporting character in the comics; a S.T.A.R. Labs employee in four-color form, he’s established as being with DARPA in this movie), Christina Wren as Captain Farris, Carla Gugino as the voice of Kryptonian A.I.s, and Dylan Sprayberry and Cooper Timberline as the younger iterations of Clark Kent. In addition, several Canadian actors appear in this who also appeared in Smallville (which, like parts of Man of Steel, filmed in Vancouver), among them Alessandro Juliani, Ian Tracey, David Paetkau, Mike Dopud, Mackenzie Grey, Chad Krowchuk, Tahmoh Penikett, David Lewis, and Carmen Lavigne. (Adams also appeared in an episode of Smallville as the Kryptonite-infested villain-of-the-week in the first-season episode “Craving.”)

Cavill, Adams, Lane, Fishburne, Costner, Buller, Lennix, Wren, and Gugino will all return in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.

 

“It’s not an ‘S’—on my world, it means ‘hope’.”

Man of Steel
Written by Christopher Nolan & David S. Goyer
Directed by Zack Snyder
Produced by Charles Roven and Christopher Nolan and Emma Thomas and Deborah Snyder
Original release date: June 10, 2013

Screenshot: Warner Bros.

On the planet Krypton, Lara Lor-Van gives birth, aided by her husband, the child’s father Jor-El. It’s the first natural birth on Krypton in centuries. Jor-El later speaks to the Kryptonian ruling council saying that the planet is doomed. Their harvesting the planetary core as an energy source has proven disastrous. Jor-El’s solution is to return to Krypton’s colonial days, to go to the outposts they established on other worlds before becoming home-bound, as it were.

Before the argument can continue, General Zod, the military leader of Krypton, starts a coup. Jor-El manages to escape Zod’s custody and go to the birthing creche, where new Kryptonian children are genetically engineered. He steals the codex, which contains the entirety of Krytpon’s genetic code and infuses that into the cells of his infant son Kal-El.

Zod’s forces attack the El home and Jor-El delays Zod while Lara prepares Kal for his journey. They’ve refitted a Phantom Zone conveyer into a starship that will send Kal to Earth. That planet’s atmosphere will supercharge his cells and his abilities, making him super-strong and with enhanced senses. Lara also leaves a jump drive with the House of El symbol (which means “hope,” but which is shaped very much like the letter “S”) in the ship.

Zod kills Jor-El and orders Kal’s ship destroyed, but at that point, the council’s forces have won the day, and the ship Zod ordered to destroy Kal’s ship is blown up. Zod and his people are taken into custody and sentenced to the Phantom Zone for murder and treason.

Krypton explodes shortly thereafter.

Cut to thirty-three years later. A bearded Clark Kent is working as a deckhand on a fishing boat in the Arctic Ocean. They respond to a distress call at an oil rig, and Kent manages to rescue the oil workers and keep the rig from collapsing long enough for the workers to be evacuated.

His boat job burned, Kent shaves and goes to work at a bar, where a trucker harasses the server. Kent threatens to throw the trucker out, but when the trucker pushes back, the server herself tells Kent not to bother. So instead, Kent trashes the guy’s truck.

We get flashbacks to Kent’s childhood, seeing how he had trouble adjusting to the onset of his X-ray vision and super-hearing, leading the other kids to taunt him as some kind of freak. When the school bus has a blowout on a bridge and careens over the side into the water, Kent uses his strength to rescue the bus and everyone inside, including pulling Pete Ross out of the water. Ross at this point goes from taunting Kent to being his best friend, but Ross’s mother is freaked out and thinks he’s some kind of angelic creature. Jonathan Kent reinforces his stern belief that Kent needs to hide his powers because humanity isn’t ready for it yet. He also finally shows Kent the starship that crashed on their farm when he was an infant.

When he was a teenager, a tornado hit. As people hide under an overpass (which was believed to be safe in the 1990s when this flashback takes place, though its efficacy as a hideout was proven false by 1999), the Kents see a woman and their dog still trapped, and Jonathan refuses to let Kent use his powers to save them, instead going in himself, and then sacrificing his own life rather than let Kent expose his powers to the public. Because, of course, it’s far better to leave your wife and kid with the trauma of watching you die on purpose.

Thirty-three-year-old Kent’s presence in the Arctic is finally explained when Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane shows up at a military base camp that’s been set up on the ice. The camp is on Canadian soil but run by the U.S. military—which is why Lane’s been allowed to report on their finding. The Canadians have no problem with her being there, and the U.S. Army is only there at the Canadians’ whim, so she gets to report on the big-ass thing they’ve found under the ice.

It’s actually a Kryptonian scout ship. Kent is drawn to it and investigates, while Lane breaks curfew and goes out on her own at night to take pictures.

Kent sees a port that’s the same size as the charm he wears around his neck—in truth, the jump drive Lara left in the ship with him—and he inserts it into the port. A holographic re-creation of Jor-El appears and tells him about his past.

Lane sets off the ship’s security, and Kent has to rescue her. She gets to see his powers up close. Kent also winds up with an outfit that looks exactly like the bodysuit Kryptonians wear under their battle armor, but with parts of it colored blue and red instead of the matte black that it was on Krypton. He also gets a red cape—a later flashback reveals that Kent used to play with his dog while wearing one—and, so caparisoned in a version of his Dad’s underwear, goes off to experiment with his powers, which Jor-El has told him is greater than he realizes. He figures out how to leap great distances and eventually fly.

For her part, Lane wants to find out who this super-strong dude is. Her boss, Perry White, refuses to run her story without corroboration—the U.S. Army’s official position is that there was no alien ship and no alien. Lane gives the story to Woodbern, an Internet journalist she has no respect for, and then tracks the various urban legends about the super-powered guy. She talks to the boat crew, the oil rig workers, the trucker, and more, tracing the stories all the way back to Smallville, Kansas.

Kent himself confronts her, telling her about his father’s sacrifice of his own life to preserve his secret. Lane’s response is not to say that that just proved his father was an idiot, and instead decides to drop the story. White suspends her for leaking the story to Woodbern.

Zod’s ship shows up in orbit of Earth, and Zod himself sends a message to the people of Earth that one of his fellow aliens is living among them and that there will be dire consequences if they don’t give him up to his forces. Woodbern goes on TV and says that Lane knows the guy personally, which puts Lane in the FBI’s crosshairs.

Kent then puts on his Dad’s colored onesie and his cape and surrenders himself to the U.S. military. He pointedly surrenders to humanity rather than Zod, and will do whatever they say. He also makes it clear that he can escape any time, but he’s choosing to be cooperative. (He also insists that he be interviewed by Lane.)

General Swanwick is inclined to turn him over to Zod, which Kent agrees to. Zod’s second-in-command, Faora-Ul, approaches Swanwick and takes custody of Kal-El, and also insists that Lane accompany her to Zod’s ship. Colonel Hardy is not happy about turning over a human, but Lane volunteers. She’s given a breathing apparatus and they go on board, Kent slipping Lane his Kryptonian jump drive for no reason that the script bothers to explain.

Kent collapses within the Kryptonian atmosphere of the ship—he can breathe, but he’s weakened. Zod informs him that the destruction of Krypton freed him and his people from the Phantom Zone. They were able to convert the Phantom Zone conveyer into a stardrive the same way Jor-El did with Kal-El’s ship. They travelled to the various Kryptonian outposts only to find them empty and filled with Kryptonian corpses. Without support from the homeworld, they all died. Zod’s people scavenge equipment, including a World Engine that can terraform a world into becoming Krypton-like. But they need the codex, and assume Jor-El put it on the ship with Kal-El. So they came to Earth to get it.

Meanwhile, Lane is imprisoned in a room that just happens to have a port the right size for the Kryptonian jump drive. She inserts it, and the hologram of Jor-El appears before her. He is able to download himself into the ship’s computer and take over various functions. He breaks Lane out and shows her how to convert the stardrive back into a Phantom Zone conveyer, thus sending all of Zod’s people back to the Zone.

He gets her out in an escape pod, and also is able to alter the atmospherics so that Kal-El can once again become Superman, and he breaks out, rescuing Lane from her pod, which was damaged by one of Zod’s people.

Zod argues with Jor-El’s hologram about his plans, which are to use the World Engine and the codex (once he finds the latter) to rebuild Krypton on Earth. Zod is able to purge Jor-El from the ship’s computers, and he then heads to Smallville. He threatens Martha’s life to learn the location of the ship, and then Faora searches it only to find no codex. Kal-El then attacks Zod, so furious at his mother being threatened that he proceeds to have an epic battle with Zod, Faora, and another Kryptonian that pretty much destroys Smallville. Hardy orders his people to fire on all three aliens, but by the time the fight ends, Hardy is on board with the notion that Kent is on their side.

However, Zod’s creepy scientist discovers that Jor-El encoded the codex in Kal-El’s cells, and said scientist now has a blood sample. Zod releases the World Engine, setting half of it up in the Indian Ocean with the other half in Metropolis. Dr. Emil Hamilton of DARPA recognizes that they’re terraforming the world.

Kent, Lane, and Hardy come to Swanwick with Jor-El’s plan. Kent flies to the Indian Ocean to trash the World Engine there, while Hardy, Lane, and Hamilton will take a helicopter into Metropolis to drop Kal-El’s modified ship onto Zod’s, which will send them all to the Phantom Zone.

The first part works fine, as Kent trashes the World Engine in Asia. However, the Metropolis part goes badly, as the jump drive won’t go all the way in for some reason. Eventually, Hamilton figures out that the panel needs to be rotated a bit, at which point Jor-El’s program starts to run. However, by this time Faora has boarded the plane and attacked everyone on board. Lane falls out the hatch right before the plane explodes, killing Faora, Hamilton, and Hardy, but also sending all of Zod’s people on his ship to the Phantom Zone.

Kent arrives in time to save Lane, and then he attacks Zod (who wasn’t on the ship when it was sent to the Zone), during which they make sure to trash pretty much every structure in the city. Buildings collapse left and right, and the city is a smoking, dusty ruin.

Finally, Zod lands in a train station, and starts using his heat vision on people. Kent holds Zod’s head steady as long as he can, but Zod is determined to kill a family, so Kent snaps Zod’s neck—turning it in the same direction that the family Zod was threatening was standing, so they probably got fried anyhow. Why the family didn’t run away (they had plenty of chances) and why Kent didn’t just fly into the stratosphere with Zod is left as an exercise for the viewer.

The world having been saved, Swanwick tries to track Superman, but he trashes the drone sent after him. Superman insists that he’s on their side—he was raised in Kansas, that’s as American as it gets—and he’ll always be there to help. Swanwick has to accept that.

Kent gets a job as a stringer at the Daily Planet, er, somehow. Lane pretends not to know who he is and welcomes him to the Planet. Or the planet. Depending on how you look at it. (How and when the Planet offices were reconstructed so perfectly is never mentioned.)

 

“The alien, sir—that’s what they’re calling him: Superman”

Screenshot: Warner Bros.

Zack Snyder directed an interesting movie about an alien who saves the Earth from his fellow aliens who want to destroy the planet and make it over in their own image.

The problem is, the alien in question is Jor-El, and the execution of his plan is mostly carried out by a U.S. Army colonel, a newspaper reporter, and a scientist, two of whom sacrifice their lives. Superman is reduced to a supporting role in his own movie. And that’s mostly because this film shows, at best, a complete and total lack of understanding or, at worst, a deliberate trashing of the character of Superman. (Tellingly, the word “Superman” is only spoken twice in the entire film.)

This is the 118th film I’ve reviewed in this feature since I started it in August 2017. I’ve watched good movies, bad movies, great movies. I’ve watched embarrassments and noble failures, I’ve watched fun romps and good efforts. I’ve watched films that unrecognizably warped the source material and I’ve watched films that perfectly nailed it. Many were fun to watch, and the few that weren’t were still fun to write about.

However, none of the prior 117 films managed to make me angry.

That streak is broken with this one, and I can point to the exact moment when I got so pissed off I almost walked out of the theatre in 2013 and yelled at my television in 2019.

It’s after thirteen-year-old Kent has saved a bus full of people and is now being called a freak. And we get this dialogue exchange, which belongs precisely nowhere in a Superman story:

Clark: “What was I supposed to do? Just let them die?”

Jonathan: “Maybe.”

No. No no no no no no no.

The whole point of Superman is that he is the ideal hero. He always saves lives, he does not take them.

But this movie reboots Supes for a 21st-century audience by utterly assassinating, not just the title character, but his adopted father as well. Instead of a role model for the greatest hero in the world, Jonathan Kent is instead a paranoid idiot and a borderline sociopath. He considers letting a bus full of children die to possibly be a viable alternative to his son revealing his powers. He considers committing suicide to definitely be a viable alternative to his son revealing his powers. And instead of a hero who considers the preservation of life to be the most important thing, Superman trashes his hometown as well as Metropolis in two brutal battles, his only regard for the innocent lives being endangered is once urging people to get inside in Smallville (not exactly a help, given that it’s probably more dangerous inside than outside in that particular situation), culminating in his killing his opponent because he’s not bright enough to remember that he can fly.

Nolan, Goyer, and Snyder were charged with doing a Superman movie, and instead did a Dr. Manhattan movie. Worse, they did it badly. The structure of this film is a disaster, with an endless opening on Krypton that is presented with no context, and then cuts to a grown-up Clark Kent on a boat with no explanation, no indication of what’s going on. And then we get a Kent who is ignorant of his background, and has to be told about it by Jor-El—thus providing Kent/Kal-El with information the viewer already has.

Snyder et al make the same mistake with this movie that Ang Lee made with Hulk in 2003: making it more a story about the main character’s father than about the main character. The title character’s journey is cut off at the knees by wasting the early part of the movie on Daddy and waiting for the son to catch up to where the viewer already is. This would’ve worked much better starting with Kent on the boat and doing the flashbacks to his childhood, and then presenting the Krypton part when Jor-El tells Kal-El about it.

As it is, the arrival of Zod’s ship and the horror-movie message that Zod sends to the people of Earth where he hides his face and reveals that there’s an alien among them is completely ineffective because we already know all about Zod. It’s supposed to be creepy and suspenseful, but we already know the truth, so it’s muted. It would’ve worked much better as our first exposure to him and to Krypton.

Snyder’s predilection for draining the color out of everything gets its most obvious workout here. The entire planet of Krypton is rendered in black and white (not really, but it may as well be, as the cinematographic color palette consists only of black, white, gray, and brown), and Earth is only marginally better. And the destruction is appalling and widespread.

The only saving grace of the film is the acting. On those vanishingly rare occasions when he’s allowed to actually play the character of Superman (the oil rig rescue, his surrender to the Army), Henry Cavill does extremely well. Amy Adams is a good Lois Lane—I have to admit that I really love the fact that she figures out that Superman is Clark Kent before she even meets him, one of the few changes from the comics I approve of. Diane Lane is an excellent Martha, and Kevin Costner does the best he can with the despicable part he’s been saddled with. Harry Lennix, Christopher Meloni, and Richard Schiff are all fine in undercooked supporting roles. (Schiff in particular is wasted as Hamilton, who mostly stands around and provides the occasional bit of scientific exposition.) Laurence Fishburne is even more undercooked as Perry White, though at least he survives the movie (not that he fares any better in the next one). Russell Crowe is a strong lead character, which is only frustrating insofar as he’s supposed to be a supporting character in Superman’s story.

The best acting job in the film is, unsurprisingly, from Michael Shannon, who is never not amazing. I first saw him in what was arguably his breakout role, as disgraced Treasury Agent Nelson van Alden on Boardwalk Empire, and I made it a point after that to seek him out in other things. He’s a phenomenal Zod, improving on Terence Stamp’s mustache-twirling turn in Superman II to bring depth and gravitas to the general. His evil has purpose, his anger a legitimate (if awful) source. Best of all is that he and Crowe sell the friendship between Zod and Jor-El that is sundered by their opposing philosophies.

This is actually a decent science fiction movie about an alien invasion. As a Superman movie, it’s an embarrassment.

 

The 2016 sequel would bring Batman and Wonder Woman into the mythos, thus establishing DC’s long-time “trinity” of heroes, so next week we’ll take a look at Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Keith R.A. DeCandido will be at Planet Comic-Con in Kansas City this weekend. He’ll be spending most of his time at the Bard’s Tower booth, so come by and say hi, and buy lots of copies of his books, especially his new releases A Furnace Sealed (debuting a new urban fantasy series) and Mermaid Precinct (the latest in his fantasy police procedure series). Also at the Tower will be fellow authors Mercedes Lackey, Dan Wells, Larry Dixon, Brian Lee Durfee, and Mario Acevedo.

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