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Why Man of Steel is Good but not Great

It’s been fascinating, over the past few weeks, reading all of the varied reactions to Man of Steel.  It has proved to be a tremendously divisive film, with some loving it and some really loathing it.  Personally, I am somewhere in between.  I had a great time seeing it in theatres for the first time (an experience enhanced not only by the crowd’s opening-weekend excitement but also by awesome Imax 3-D), and my initial review (click here) written the next day was very positive.

I stand by that review, but in the days that followed when people asked me what I thought of the film, I found myself not being quite as excited as I had expected to be.  Nothing makes me happier than seeing an awesome super-hero film, and I remember how evangelical I was about the first Iron Man (click here for my review) and about The Dark Knight (click here for my review).  As much as I enjoyed Man of Steel, I didn’t feel the same way about it as I had about those other amazing films.  The more I thought about Man of Steel, the more the problems that I mentioned towards the end of my first review seemed to impact my over-all evaluation of the film.

I still think Man of Steel is a fun, enjoyable film.  It is very good.  But it’s not great.  Here are the two main reasons why:

1.  The film does not pay off its central question.  All of the trailers culminated with Clark’s question: “My father believed that if the world found out who I really was, they’d reject me… What do you think?”  The entire first two-thirds of the film is focused on that issue.  Clark allows his father to die because he honors Pa Kent’s wishes that he not reveal his super-powers to the world.  Ultimately, Clark decides to put on that super-suit, and he reveals himself to the world in spectacular fashion, with a super-fight that wreaks havoc on Smallville and Metropolis.  At the end of Man of Steel, the whole world knows that aliens exist, and that one has been living among them.

And yet the movie doesn’t bother to tell us what anyone thinks of that!  We don’t get any indication as to the world’s reaction to those revelations.  Do they love Superman?  Do they fear him?  After the death of Zod, there is one epilogue scene before we get to the film’s (great) final scene in which Clark enters the offices of the Daily Planet.  That scene is the jokey moment in which Superman tells General Swanson to stop trying to find out “where he hangs his cape.”  That scene is not only stupid (in that very scene, Superman tells them flat out that he’s from Kansas, so how hard would it possibly be for the military to determine the Kent family connection?  Lois figures it out in two seconds) but also its jokey tone seems totally out of place right after the catastrophic destruction of Metropolis and Superman’s murder of Zod.  I hate the scene even more because it’s the only epilogue we got, whereas I really wanted to see more of the reactions of the world, or even of, say Perry White.  (Perry says at one point that he’ll never print a story about aliens on the front page of the Daily Planet.  Where was the payoff to THAT moment, in which we saw a Planet headline about Superman?  Another very surprising missed opportunity…)

All of this is exacerbated by problem #2:

1. Superman doesn’t seem to care about all the people killed by his battles with the Kryptonians.  Yes, he gets upset enough at the idea that Zod will kill that family with his eye-beams that he kills Zod.  But during the course of all of the battles that came before, from the fight in the streets of Smallville through the battle that destroys Metropolis, Superman doesn’t seem to care a hoot about all of the civilian casualties.  In Superman II, the main focus of Superman’s battle with Zod and the Kryptonians was Superman’s efforts to protect the citizens of Metropolis.  (Christopher Reeve is amazing delivering Superman’s anguished cry of “the people!” once Zod starts targeting the people of Metropolis.)  But in Man of Steel, that doesn’t come up at all!  Superman rescues one fighter pilot after his helicopter gets destroyed.  But at no point do we see Superman trying to move the fight out of a populated area.  At no point do we see him zooming through smashed buildings and skyscrapers trying to scoop up the people and save them.  At no point do we see him even seem to consider all of the catastrophic damage that is occurring all around him during the course of his super-battles.

This also exacerbates problem #1, because while the military men in Smallville see first-hand evidence that Superman is not out to kill them, the way the battle in Metropolis is staged in the film, I don’t see any way that the average person in Metropolis would know that Superman was the good guy and Zod the villain.  If there had been scenes in which the people of Metropolis saw Superman trying his hardest to save them, that would be a whole different story.  But we don’t get any of that, so it’s hard to imagine any reason for the citizens of Metropolis, and the world, to see Superman as a hero.  I wish the final few minutes of the movie had addressed this point.

Consider the end of The Avengers.  That’s not a perfect film, but it’s a great one.  After the battle of New York, there’s a short montage of news footage.  In that montage, we see glimpses of memorials for all the people killed in the battle, which is an effective way to address and sell the reality of the death-toll.  Even though the good guys won the day, lots of people died, and I think it’s critical for the film’s narrative to address that.  It’s not only an effective emotional beat, but it helps sell the reality of the story.  We also see, in that narrative, people praising the heroes (the waitress who Cap saved, etc.) and how kids are now wearing Avengers t-shirts, that sort of thing.  It’s made very clear that the people see the Avengers as heroes.  How much more effective would the ending of Man of Steel have been had we gotten a similar short moment??

There is a lot about Man of Steel that is great, and I stand by all of the praise I heaped on the film in my original review.  But because the filmmakers did not quite stick the ending, I find Man of Steel to be a very good film, but not a great one.  Which is all the more frustrating, in a way, than had the film just been bad.  It is so well-made, the super-hero spectacle is so awesome and unprecedented, and it’s so close to being great that it’s a bummer to me that it falls a little short.

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