You can learn a lot about our culture by how we treat our comic book movies. That’s a funny sentence to say, but in terms of cinema, it’s the nerds’ world, we’re all just living in it. From the campy heyday of the Adam West Batman to the childlike wonderment of Richard Donner’s Superman to the breezy cool of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, comic book movies have had more ebb and flow than, well, comic books. Just as we get “the hero we deserve” (to quote The Dark Knight), so too do we get the comic book films we deserve.
Long after the nostalgia for Donner’s Superman films and the indifference for Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns reboot wore off, Zack Snyder (he of comic adaptations 300 and Watchmen) finally took a go at creating the definitive Son of Krypton saga. The results? A healthy if modest (if $668 million can be modest) box office intake, the keys to jumpstarting the DC cinematic universe, and a whole lot of mixed reviews. Those reviews came straight out of the gate from professional critics but took longer to gestate from the internet crowd, who took a few weeks before shrugging their shoulders or turning their backs altogether. Call it The Dark Knight Rises effect, where a beloved property receives rapturous reception until it doesn’t.
If Marvel has found great success making adaptations of their beloved heroes, DC is taking more risks making interpretations. After the success of Christopher Nolan’s version of Batman, Warner Brothers has fully committed to the idea of the superhero auteur. And whether one likes it or not, Snyder is just that, having delivered a contemporary, visceral, often violent, and conflicting superhero science fiction film.
The oddest virtue of Man of Steel is its commitment to the alienness of its premise. The opening on Planet Krypton is like a Prog Rock album cover come to life complete with flying dragons, phallic shaped spaceships, H.R. Giger inspired cervical interiors, and enough exposition to cause whiplash. It’s ten sci-fi movies crammed into twenty gloriously bombastic minutes. We then head straight into an opening action scene with our orphaned hero, only to then flashback to his troubled childhood. Once the movie settles into its groove, the conflicting emotions keep coming for the audience. Young Clark saves a busload of his schoolmates, but his overprotective father weighs the risk of exposing his powers versus letting them drown. Superman rescues Lois from annihilation then the two kiss among the smoking rubble of Metropolis. Superman battles General Zod to a stalemate and snaps his neck to prevent further collateral damage. That’s not even getting into the film’s wanton destruction, which posits the reality if two super beings duked it out in a metropolitan cityscape. Superman the boyscout this is not.
In fact, the sheet magnitude of the film–from alien politics to globetrotting coming of age saga to end of the world struggle–is enough to wonder if there’s any spectacle left for future sequels. Given its attention to visual detail, there might be hope yet. Take the climactic battle between Superman and Zod. What starts at dusk gradually transitions to nightfall, as the two titans trade punches in a pink twilight as the lights of the skyscrapers begin to flicker on like terrestrial stars. It’s an element you would never see in a current Marvel movie, whose studio grip seems to make all of their cinematographers shoot at the peak hours of daytime. Marvel’s early serious foray into the film game, 1998’s Blade, employed an arsenal of color contrasts and tonalities, a telling sign of the studio’s recent growing distrust in auteurist touches. Snyder has always been good with details. His Dawn of the Dead remake pulled a similar visual trick at the end when the survivors flee the zombie hordes at the blue break of day. The entirety of 300 was an exercise in “can we make a movie look like a sun-dipped slab of concrete?”
But visual tricks do not a movie make. For all of Man of Steel‘s precise attention to aesthetics, it’s story can be patchy with flashbacks impeding narrative momentum and action consisting almost entirely of momentum. It’s build up and build up and build up, and the cumulative effect can be quite exhausting. It’s a compelling endurance test for the superhero faithful, who for years demanded that their costumed crime fighters fly faster, punch harder, and scowl grittier. Watch Man of Steel in fifteen minute chunks on broadcast television or off youtube and the arresting of that intensity creates a clarity in its scenes, like perfect little snippets of what Superman represents. Here is Superman saving Lois from plummeting to Earth. Here is Clark bonding with his mother. Here is Superman battling a nanobot tentacle monster.
Perhaps that is why the film is incessantly hounded as a failure. It brims with ideas and visual designs to an overwhelming degree that it passes over the beats of its genre. In the same vein that Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy treated iconography as almost passé, Man of Steel barely has time to mention that Lois works in Metropolis or that Clark grew up in Smallville. Look elsewhere for cutesy name dropping, metatextual references, or even end credits cut scenes (producer Christopher Nolan was falsely attributed to having vetoed such a move). Call it taking itself too seriously or call it a utilitarian way to approach a story with 75 years of baggage. At the very least, it’s an approach to treat a comic book movie a little less like a walking advertisement for plush toys and action figures.
In its own way, Man of Steel’s kindred spirit is Ang Lee’s Hulk, 2003’s endlessly reviled and reevaluated blockbuster therapy session. Mixing overtones of Greek mythology with the spirit of comic pop art, Hulk took what its fans would recognize and filtered it through a cinematic prism that evoked everything from the classic literature of Frankenstein to the dark fairy tale of Beauty and the Beast to the golden age cinema of King Kong. It too was a feast of images cerebral, silly, and unforgettable (Hulk sprinting through the desert and lifting off into the California sky has rarely been matched).
Man of Steel does offer some small moments amid the bombast. The intimate opening focusing (in and out of) baby Kal’s birth. Clark and Lois holding hands against a vast blue sky just before the Kryptonians land. A nice beat where a devastated Clark hugs Lois after dispatching Zod. The driving force behind most of these isn’t Snyder but Hans Zimmer, whose musical score creates a soundscape that is percussive, relentless, and ethereal. His opening ostinato (strummed with an electric guitar) is reprised multiple times throughout the film in much the way his two note bat flapping sound gave The Dark Knight Trilogy its aural depth. But even that is backed by an otherworldly drone, which can only best be described as the sound of the cosmos. Listen here.
If his theme’s aren’t quite as golly-gee-willikers classic as John Williams, it is only to reflect our ambiguous times. As an alien being, Superman is treated with skepticism first and wonderment second. Maybe that is just our human nature in these cynical times. But Zack Snyder, a capital “A” American director with just a smidge more progressive overtones than his other action contemporaries (cough, Michael Bay, cough) allows his fetishization for Americana to pay off with a character as indelible as Superman. Dreamy shots of a sun dappled farmhouse. Military tanks and Humvees outmatched by a floating alien God. An IHOP being trashed by warring Kryptonians. Most of this is rendered in a handheld, cinema vérité style, which, when applied to such a legendary figure, generates more than its fair share of cognitive dissonance. It’s a gamble that, coupled with a high contrast, high film grain aesthetic, is alienating, for lack of a better pun. This is no shiny Marvel toy.
Perhaps more than any other character, Superman is one that everyone feels like they own. When iconoclasm meets narcissism in a society as image saturated as ours, the levels of entitlement can be mind numbing. Recall the countless think pieces after Man of Steel‘s release arguing how the film could have been improved. “How Man of Steel Should Have Been.” “5 Ways ‘Man of Steel’ Could Have Been So Much Better.” “3 Ways Man of Steel Should Have Been Different.” And that’s just from a cursory Google search. There’s a fascinating compulsion for pundits and critics and “authorities” to play armchair writer and director in a way that’s less constructive than reductive to film criticism, as if movies are wish fulfillment pieces of fan fiction. It’s treating a movie–a piece of art comprised of multiple collaborators and often agendas–like you would a 28 page monthly issue. Don’t like it, just toss it across the room and make your own comic out of crayon. There’s very little reflection over the movie we received.
Fortunately, Warner Brothers decided not to throw the Kryptonian baby out with the space pod. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice will be the real litmus test for this type of style. Until then, we’re forced to reflect if Man of Steel‘s differences made it an interesting film in the ever expanding superhero experiment. Was it the be-all-end-all of the genre? Not quite. But 2013, when it was released, was a year of flawed yet evocative films. Prisoners strained the pulp of a Law & Order episode into atmospheric, allegorical nectar. Oblivion couched its derivative hero’s quest for truth into a wistful, small scale epic. The Wolverine treated a franchise character as if he had wandered into a 70’s Japanese crime thriller and produced something resembling an actual functioning piece of cinema with pacing and structure. Even Elysium had shots of far off cityscapes and grimy pieces of tech that conjured a whole livable world that you could imagine new stories in.
Comic book movies, just like any other genre, have neither an obligation to be “the greatest of all time” nor a palatable Saturday afternoon time waster. And the more relevant these heroes become, the less beholden they should be to the tastes of the masses and comic faithful. Make Superman kill and see what happens. Make Batman give up his cape and find some peace. Make Hulk sit in the dirt and ponder his hulkness. Make them bask in arresting images, over the top moments, silly miscalculations, or curious details. They can fail as entertainment and succeed as advertisement or vice versa. They can make you dream, pause, yawn, groan, or shrug. And that still makes them valuable. Just don’t make them search for shiny crystals from movie to movie and call it a story.
Is Man of Steel compelling or is it a failure? Why should it be either? Can’t it be messy? And glorious? And goofy? And sublime? Can’t it be something you accidentally think about and something you forget a few weeks later. Why is its value contained in the totality of its 146 minute running time? Maybe you hum a few lines of Zimmer’s score while doing dishes. Maybe you step outside at dusk and recall Superman knocking Zod around. Maybe it inspires you to get into shape or makes you stay on your butt and keep flipping comic pages. Maybe one movie doesn’t redefine a genre and maybe it doesn’t give you cancer either. Maybe comic book movies nowadays are just echoes of things we’ve learned in cinema and things we can’t help keep repeating. Maybe if we stop forcing comic book movies to be great, we can enjoy them as those shadows of flames on the wall Plato warned us about. Once the lights go up in the theater and we go out into the sun, sometimes we think we feel warm and sometimes we think we’ve been burned.