I like Zack Snyder and that feels wrong.
I like his movies quite a bit actually. I hate Sucker Punch, sure, but that’s almost impossible to like. Watchmen is brilliant. 300 is fun. He teamed up with James Gunn for an interesting Dawn of the Dead redo. Legend of the Guardians is pretty though I’m not sure how much credit he deserves for it. And I love the next two films I’m about to analyze.
It feels wrong though. It feels wrong because Snyder isn’t a likable person. He’s an arrogant filmmaker who makes aggressive films. His version of Watchmen lacks any nuance and that’s his most mature work. And he’s fanned the flames of his cult horribly, He hasn’t told them to be quiet and maybe stop leaving profane messages on posts about Sesame Street. He’s proud of it.
So as I go through this set of reviews, I want it stressed I have very complex feelings about Snyder. I’m not in the cult. I’m not a virulent opponent. I’m sort of somewhere in between.
But that’s not where I am on Man of Steel. Not at all.
Saying as a Superman fan that I think Man of Steel is a brilliant take on the character feels vaguely heretical. It’s such a lambasted take on the character within the fanbase. It’s the dark, moody, bleak take that fans largely reject for being such. It’s definitely counter to a lot of versions. But it’s very much my view of the character. Because even though there’s a lot of dark around him, the version of Clark Kent we see is a noble, salt of the earth Kansas native struggling with a world not as clear cut as he is.
I hate that I have to start this piece from this place at all, I stress. I deeply love this film and my actual reaction to it is so clean cut. So I’m going to start from there instead. Yeah there’s controversy and I’ll address it all. But I’m starting with my reaction.
As I said, this is my Superman. This is a beautiful film about wrestling with being an outsider yet also not. It’s about wrestling with who you are. Clark Kent in this film is fighting between the Kansas farm boy and the demigod Kal-El. It’s hardly a new debate and this isn’t the best version I’ve seen—Superman Smashes the Klan takes that—but it’s a fine one. Man of Steel is entirely about that fulcrum and it’s one that it handles beautifully.
The movie is able to handle that tricky relationship as well as it does thanks to several smart decisions. The best is easily the way the film jumps in time initially. We get the fall of Krypton, as masterfully handled as it’s ever been with Russell Crowe at his very finest. Then the film jumps between a searching Clark and his childhood. The result is a tone of the mental uncertainty the character is facing. We’re very aware of how Clark feels.
Then there’s the setting. Until we get to Metropolis at the end, we are mostly at the margins. The film takes place heavily in either Smallville or in the mountains or on Krypton. We’re in a world that feels alien even when it’s ours and in the increasingly high scope superhero genre, that distance is oddly effective. We’re not on safe terrain.
I have to pause to praise the cinematography too. Amir Mokri did a stunning job with some lush images that also feel very real. There’s a nice use of muted colors throughout giving the film an uncertain feel that makes the bold of the red and blue of Superman pop. The world is uneven but he’s clear and shines. It’s a feast for the eyes.
But all that’s aesthetics. Plenty of films have great aesthetics and are dreadful, I say glaring at The Rise of Skywalker. A film can look perfect and have nothing under the hood. And that’s not the case here. The film looks great, is paced great, and has that killer Hans Zimmer theme. But it’s more.
As I keep saying, the film is about the debate within and it’s deeper than even if Clark Kent is a man or an alien. It’s about the idea of good as a choice. We will be picking up this thread in the second part when I get to this film’s sequel but I’ll say I think it’s very well played here.
The reason I think it’s well played is I think the movie is honest enough to say it’s never actually a debate for Clark. Even when he’s trying to act in his self interest, hiding in the woods, he can’t help but do the right thing. I’ve seen people call the way he treats the trucker, destroying his truck, as an act of petty revenge out of character. I see that as classic golden age Superman, angered by abusive people and forcing them to see their deeds. That’s the character. Every act he does in this movie is like that.
The movie also works by inadvertently tapping an interesting idea. It plays Clark Kent as at least somewhat neurodivergent, an idea noted by @Kenman_RiderW in a fantastic thread. He’s overstimulated. He’s frustrated because his beliefs don’t match the world. He challenges his parents with his ideas. He doesn’t fit. Many autistic people have felt like aliens and characters like Mr. Spock provide us with some of our best representation. Add Superman to that list.
I love too how the movie plays the Lois/Clark relationship. This is a very different take from what we’ve had on film. Unlike the standoffish relationship in the Donner films or the I’m not sure they talked connection in Superman Returns, there’s a real bond here that’s instant. She helps him figure out his path. It’s a mature love story and I like that. I haven’t noted that Henry Cavill is perfect but let me use this moment to note he is. So is Amy Adams.
And that’s the thing that I love the most about this film. This is a film about emotion and about connection. Clark is driven by his ties to people and his deep empathy. He wants to do good. He wants to rise and become a great man not for himself but for what it can do for the world. It is a movie that bleeds feeling and I love it for that.
In a just world I could stop here. I’ve written over a thousand words on a film I love. That’s enough. I can walk away. I would be fine. But sadly there’s a lot that has to be addressed in terms of controversy. I wish I didn’t have to but I do.
So much of the criticism of Man of Steel is about the destruction. This is a movie that ends with two superpowered beings tearing apart a city during their battle. The film includes some of the most epic superhero battles ever. And yeah it’s pretty clear there’s a lot of collateral damage.
I’ll be the unpopular one. Yes there is. And it’s really cool to see. Look, the previous Superman films have had almost ridiculously held back battles. Superman hasn’t gotten to be SUPERMAN! This gave us the all out warfare we wanted. And frankly I don’t think the film is blind to the effects. The movie depicts a city under intense siege and it doesn’t look like fun. Also we have an entire film to cover next time about the aftermath of this one.
Then there’s Zod’s death. People argue Superman shouldn’t kill. I would agree in theory but that’s not how this situation worked. There was an imminent threat. He acted to stop it. And I know the movie knows this was a difficult choice because his immediate instinct is to double over sobbing. Superman breaks down crying because he had to kill his enemy. That’s the character nailed. What a powerful moment.
As for the ideas that Jonathan Kent expresses, that it’s better to hide who you are? Well, bear with me on this. Yes, the critics are right that he expresses terrible ideas. Him dying rather than allowing his son to express who he was was a bad move. But here’s where I land. Jonathan Kent is wrong in the film and we’re supposed to see that. He represents conservative ideas. He means extremely well and he’s painted as a good man but he’s wrong. It’s extremely common that good men are indeed wrong in ways. That’s what this depicts so well.
As for the Snyder touches, well I think he does his job fantastically. He obviously means this movie. He’s well known as an Ayn Rand acolyte and look, we have to acknowledge the superhero genre isn’t entirely different from her ideas with stories of great men. Snyder has a good eye and has a distinctive flair that shines throughout. I might marginally prefer Watchmen but this is close.
This is a darker, more cynical Superman film and I don’t disagree with that but I respect it deeply as a depiction of such. It handles updating the character to a bleaker world fantastically. It’s very well calibrated and deeply moving.
Do I have complaints about it? Yes. Michael Shannon is a bit one note as Zod and his followers are just punching bags. I do think the film is a bit long. And yes even though I love the battles, they could be trimmed just a tad. But these are minor.
Man of Steel hit me in the heart. It’s a Superman film for my era. I love this film. It won’t be as clear cut from here on as we’ve got a complicated one I love anyway next time. But this was a great film.