*Man of Steel* could’ve been a classic.
Spoiler Alert. Also – this review will only make sense if you’ve actually seen the movie.
Here’s the movie I’d like to have seen – Zod and Jor-El slug it out over the codex, which Jor-El sends to earth in his son Kal. Zod is sentenced to the Phantom Zone. Krypton dies. We now follow two threads. As Zod awakes on his ship, Clark Kent is found on Earth. While Clark locks himself in a closet overwhelmed by his senses, Zod retrofits the Phantom Drives to be used in space. While Clark saves a bus full of children, Zod discovers the death that afflicts the colonial outposts of Krypton. When Clark activates the scout ship, Zod gets the distress signal. While Clark confronts Lois, Zod learns more about the people of Earth and plans his grand entrance. The threads are brought together, and we head for a showdown between these two majestic characters.
In other words, it would’ve been a great movie if Zod was given more importance – if we sympathized with him so that his death was the tragedy that Kal-El feels it to be. This movie had one of the finest, most conflicted supervillians that ever graced the screen (and a sharp contrast to the power-hungry Zod of the 1970s), and wastes him by compressing his story into a brief flashback. In the flashback were all the elements needed to make Zod an anti-villain – his resourcefulness, his regret of Jor-El’s death, and his loyalty to Krypton. Indeed, Zod could’ve been a great foil to Kal-El. One of them bred and raised to be a soldier, the other the first natural Kryptonian birth in centuries. Kal-El represents choice, while Zod represents duty. Kal-El helps those who need it. Zod is a would-be Xenocide.
Undermining potentially well-rounded villains further are the silly kick the dog scenes. When Zod tries to persuade Kal-El to join their cause, he admits that the result will be the end of humanity. For some reason, he makes this point by simulating Kal-El drowning in a sea of skulls. Faora-Ul insists that Clark Kent’s biggest flaw is that he has a sense of “morality” which can’t stand in front “evolution”. Apparently, wanting the return of Krypton isn’t enough. Villains have to be Social Darwinists.
A second big problem is the editing. Most of Clark Kent’s story is told as a flashback, which would be fine if the flashbacks followed some kind of order – his childhood first and then onwards to how he got the place his is in. Instead, we are haphazardly shown his childhood, his adolescence, his first job, then back to adolescence and so on. The movie would’ve worked much better if there was linear – telling the story in the chronological order in which events occurred. There are people who can pull off non-linear storylines – Zack Snyder isn’t one of them. Even the cuts between scenes in the main story of are random – one moment Clark Kent’s in a diner overhearing something about an “anomalous object”. Next scene, he’s helping Lois Lane with her bags at the location of this anomalous object. How about a little “transition” scene showing him applying for a job? Or was the hitchhiking scene the transition? Wasn’t it part of the flashback where Clark trashes a truck? I can’t tell. There are dozens of such examples and while it’s fine to have the audience mentally fill in details, there shouldn’t be these many. I appreciate that they wanted to keep the movie short but maybe they shouldn’t have. A good three hour movie is better than a mediocre movie that’s two and a half hours long. Perhaps the directors cut will fix some of these problems.
A third big problem is Johnathan Kent’s character. In the comics or TV series, one of the primary sources of Clark Kent’s goodness (he’s disparagingly called a “boy scout” by other superheroes) is his upbringing on a farm in rural Kansas, where Ma and Pa Kent instill a sense of morality. The Johnathan Kent of this movie is a bit of an asshole, openly telling Clark that he should’ve let a bus full of children die to avoid compromising his identity. His desire to protect his son is admirable, but where exactly does Kal-El’s sense of good and evil, and his desire to help peopel, come from? Blank. (Update: Here is an alternative take on Pa Kent’s character.)
There are two more things that I don’t like about the movie, although I realize that not everyone shares these particular reservations. Four, the silly science (“it’s coming through the RSS feeds”) and five, the trend towards all superheroes being isolated, feared, brooding, misunderstood individuals. Seriously, who’s bright idea was it to give Superman a tragic history i.e. a dead parent?
There are many things I enjoyed in the movie – the opening scenes on Krypton, Michael Shannon as Zod, and the fast-paced action scenes. Man of Steel is the best Superman movie till date, and has all the elements needed to be a great movie, but isn’t.