A funny thing happened this summer. A new Zack Snyder film landed, though this one had immensely more favorable pre-release buzz than any of the director’s previous efforts. The trailers all landed with considerably positive feedback, and everything about the film seemed just right. The first wave of early reviews hit, and nearly all of them were raves. Then, suddenly, the critical tide shifted, and outright pans started hitting with equal fervent measure. It was as if people had seen two completely different films, down to scenes being interpreted in vastly different ways, and the divide over the film became more and more like a great chasm with each passing moment. You’d be forgiven for thinking this was a debate over the Affordable Care Act, but no. That film was Man of Steel.
So what exactly about the film elicited so much passion on both sides? It certainly lacked any of Snyder’s previous visual trademarks, such as the “speed-up, slow-mo, zoom” technique he’d been overusing for years, replaced this time by a tad overuse of the digital snap zoom popularized by Firefly. Perhaps it was the way the script played with chronology, forgoing a traditional superhero origin structure in favor of various flashbacks as they related to the events of the film at hand. Or perhaps it was the third act in all of its wanton displays of architectural demolition and supposed citizen body count. More likely, it’s a bit of everything, though the lack of any real middle ground is fascinating.
Let’s begin with the story, which, to this writer’s opinion, is a powerful and thrilling tale about aliens and Kevin Costner’s feelings on his son being Superman. Conceived by David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan during the writing stages of The Dark Knight Rises, the story of Man of Steel attempts to make Superman relevant to the modern age again, eschewing the traditional adventure narrative of the Richard Donner film, or the morose navel-gazing of Bryan Singer’s 2006 reboot, and instead aiming to at once examine Kal-El’s place in the world. The film mostly succeeds on all fronts, crafting a rich and thoughtful character study of a man going through a real identity crisis, unsure of which world he truly belongs to, if any. While not exactly subtle in a few key scenes, particularly those pesky flashbacks that may or may not have drawn the ire of others, the script gives Superman a much needed emotional context for the superb visual language and iconography Snyder is able to define him through.
Speaking of which, remember how I said the film abandons the morose navel gazing of the Bryan Singer film? That would seem at odds with the story I just described, but Synder and Goyer keep the film from veering into far too solemn territory that was the point of contention for many. There’s a moment towards the mid-point of the film, where Kal-El dons the iconic cape and costume for the first time and embarks on his first flight. It’s a moment of pure, unfiltered joy, both for the audience and the man who has spent his life viewing his extraordinary powers as a secret curse, where he can finally embrace all that he has to offer to the world and literally soar.
But enough of all that, lets get down to brass tacks, shall we. The main point of contention the critics of the film leveled at Man of Steel seemed to be aimed squarely at the third act, which involves an extended sequence in which General Zod nearly destroys Metropolis, and by extension, the earth, while attempting to terraform it into a new Krypton, followed by another sequence in which Superman and Zod do battle in the sky, once again nearly leveling the city.
The main critique of this scene seems to be that Superman allows for far too much wanton destruction to happen in his wake, and that it should be inferred that thousands of civilian lives were lost while he didn’t even blink an eye. I’d agree that there was likely some collateral damage, and the way in which the scene displays building after building being destroyed gets a tad excessive, but I’d absolutely contend against the notion that Superman doesn’t care. This is a young, inexperienced Superman, one who, lest we conveniently forget, spends the first two hours of the film doing nothing other than saving people. So I have a hard time believing that Goyer, Snyder, and Nolan would abandon all that at the end, particularly when backing Superman into a corner where his only way to save a small group of people from being vaporized by Zod is to kill him.
Ah yes, the infamous neck-snapping scene. As Zod prepares to murder innocent civilians with his heat beam eye blast, he offers Superman an ultimatum: kill him or watch these people die. It’s a no-win scenario for Kal-El, who begs Zod to stop and not force him into this position, to which Zod just replies “Never.” Superman is forced to kill Zod, and thus the last Kryptonian in existence. Zod won. He took away the freedom of choice that Jor-El fought so hard to give his son, and forced him to go against everything he stood for. It’s an incredibly powerful decision that will haunt Superman for some time, and to me, the defining moment that elevates the film above just standard superhero cinema, showing that it has a lot more on its mind.
I realize I’m not going to change everyone’s mind here, certainly not with the way this particular film has been discussed. But hopefully I’ve offered up some food for thought that will at least help some reconsider this film.