Retrospection: Man of Steel

Spoilers ahead for Man of Steel oh boy watch out oh geez (the movie is like four years old and its a superhero movie you’ll be fine)

Wonder Woman comes out next week, and of all the superhero franchises out there, Warner Bros’ DCEU is one that has continuously disappointed me. In anticipation, I’m going to look back on their endeavors so far and finally get my thoughts out onto paper. I want Wonder Woman to do well, and so perhaps this little exercise will help me level my expectations. Let’s start from the beginning. Have a seat. This’ll be a long one.

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The Nolan trilogy of Batman films had finally wrapped up. I was sitting in the theater (during The Avengers, I believe) and saw the first teaser for Man of Steel. Never that big of a Superman fan, I understood the character well even though I’ve certainly read more of his books now than I had back then. I wasn’t expecting much.

The teaser trailer had me floored.

Seriously, go back and watch it again or for the first time if you’ve never seen it. I think its incredible. It’s quiet and subtle but makes just the right kind of impact. Despite my dislike for Zack Snyder’s style (even at the time), the music, the cinematography, and the dialogue were all more than enough to get me excited. The addition of Christopher Nolan as a producer was a kicker. I don’t understand how Russell Crowe’s monologue as Jor-El, which is heard during the teaser, isn’t iconic in the modern superhero genre. This teaser showcases all the qualities I wanted in a proper Superman movie. Little did I know it also hinted at flaws— many flaws that I wouldn’t notice until I was in the theater in the summer of 2013.

So Man of Steel comes out, and I see it the week after opening day. It was… fine? I had fun, but it was fine. It wasn’t great. Was it? I was very conflicted. And look, this movie isn’t new and I’m aware that there isn’t much to say about it that hasn’t been written already. So let me just sum up the general consensus:

  • It’s a little generic
  • Blue light in the sky
  • There is a silly amount of destruction in it
  • The death of Papa Kent is very contrived
  • It’s tone and aesthetic do not seem very HOPEFUL, especially considering its a Superman film

All of these points are pretty accurate, and I especially echo the latter two. These however are minor in comparison to my dilemmas with the movie, which deal more with the lasting consequences of this movie’s design. Forget Supes’ knocking down Metropolis or the contrived death of basically every dead character. This film set precedents for future DCEU movies that have not helped them in any way. Before that though, let me get to the facets of MoS that I legitimately enjoy.

Origins

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All images courtesy of Warner Bros.
Despite being a reboot of a well-known and classic character, I loved the retelling of Superman’s origin story. It may go on a little too long, but the opening scenes on Krypton display gorgeous environments and depict the very bizarre culture of it’s people. The Kryptonian world can be very strange, but I quite liked how different and refreshing it was to the overly-shiny depictions of it from the past. Again though, it could be cut a bit shorter.

Another strength of the movie comes in the form of what I maintain are very heartfelt and moving flashbacks to a young Clark Kent. We see Clark at different ages throughout the film, and each time (minus his oldest appearance during the tornado sequence) feels more sincere than the next. Clark being comforted by his mother, bullied by his peers, learning about his true parentage, and saving classmates from the bus accident are all excellent ways to shape this new iteration of Superman for the audience.

His parents raised him in paranoia; in fear of his abilities and how the world might react if they knew of his true home. This Kal-El is conflicted, afraid, and a bit more morally gray than usual, but still tries to uphold Superman’s classic values despite the film’s inconsistent characterization (more on that later). And that imagery in the thumbnail? That little boy in the cape? Come on, that has to pull on some heartstrings.

Score

Look, I worship at the altar of John Williams — but my god the music in this film is incredible. Hans Zimmer gets a lot of shit for his style, and I understand that. His style of music has become common in modern film, even in the work of other composers and especially in movie trailers. Despite all that, Zimmer’s original score for Man of Steel so perfectly exemplifies the hope and dread of a Superman story, I honestly do not understand how it doesn’t get more recognition— especially Superman’s new theme. Like that first teaser trailer, its subtle and reserved but builds to bombastic choruses that embody Superman’s sense of heroism, and the unrelenting tension during the action sequences. Its gorgeous, and one of the only aspects of the DCEU that I’m glad has carried over to other films (that Wonder Woman theme has to go, though. Don’t get me started on that hot garbage).

Now, for the design choices that I dislike. They bewilder me, and they seem to have stuck with the franchise for no apparent reason.

The Color Palette

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Before I start, let me just say up-top that this movie looks gorgeous. Lighting, composition— all of it contributes to a sense of visual consistency. Most of the shots feel like concept art coming to life. Sadly, my issue with the movie’s aesthetic comes in the form of bizarre color choices. It exhibits lots of low-saturation, high-contrast colors that look nice in the movie, but those choices don’t necessarily fit the tone and themes of a Superman story.

The colors look best in well-lit environments. The scene in the church, for example, shows off a really nice range of pastel colors and brightly-lit etched out faces in close-ups. However, even in light environments, much of the sets are made up of shades of gray, specifically in the third act. Even the scenes on Krypton, a planet with a completely alien look, is made up of predominantly dark costumes and gray architecture complimented with the occasional shade of red or blue.

Let’s look specifically at Henry Cavill’s Superman suit. It has this mesh-like texture on it that, when hit by bright light, looks very unique. Unfortunately, the colors on it are like the rest of the film: muddy, and barely saturated. With the exception of the deep red cape that seems to look decent in any light, the blues and yellows on the suit are so flat that they tend to look like a navy-black mess. The character is typically associated with good, hope, light, and blah, blah, blah. So why use an incongruous color scheme for his own visual design, let alone the visual design for the rest of the film?

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Frankly, I get it— this was supposed to be a grittier, more realistic version of Superman like Nolan’s Bat-trilogy— but is this really the right visual aesthetic for the character? Not only can it look ugly at times, but it only adds to the disconnect between the film’s visual design, and the hopeful themes the character is supposed to stand for. I don’t need the movie to be a bright rainbow of colors, I just think brighter color palette would help the movie’s great cinematography pop, and better juxtapose with the appropriate hopeful and upbeats themes.

This muddy color palette has stuck with the DCEU films ever since. Batman v Superman added a bit more richness, but replaced the shades of gray with straight-up black. The movie is so dark and high contrast that it suffers from the same problems, sometimes even amplified (since most of the movie takes place at night). As for Suicide Squad, the bright colors really only made it into the marketing, as most of that film is a beautiful shade of Manhattan-fucking-concrete. From the Wonder Woman trailers I’ve seen, they seem show a much more varied color palette and an overall nicer looking film— thank goodness.

A Misunderstanding of Superman?

This point will be repeated when I cover BvS, but this movie hints at what seems like Zack Snyder’s trouble with characterizing Superman. Throughout MoS, Superman flip-flops between being a righteous boy-scout, and being… kind of a dick? Earlier I praised this film for presenting a slightly less traditional version of the character. Instead of being raised with an overly-righteous moral compass, the Kent’s are more concerned with the effects of revealing his identity in the world, and not so much about Clark’s place in it. Jonathan Kent hints at his moral obligations in flashbacks, but those scenes more often deal with hiding Clark’s lineage instead. This, in theory, is fine.

However, Snyder goes on to frame Superman differently throughout the movie. Sometimes he seems extra conscious of protecting life on Earth, and other times he is violently crashing Zod through skyscrapers, practically cutting them in half. The destruction in the movie seems to purposefully make 9/11 parallels, but expects the audience to empathize with Clark in the end, who experiences the trauma of taking another life. Weirdly, this only comes after scenes of the massive implied loss of life. The staff of the Daily Planet is seen running from shrapnel and falling buildings, and Snyder goes as far as trapping Jenny Olsen under debris and showing us Perry White’s hopeless struggle to save her, which of course he cannot.

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We as the audience are completely aware of Superman’s classic values, and Snyder doesn’t necessarily subvert those expectations since Clark’s values and the values of his parents are only slightly adjusted. However the imagery in the film, especially in the last act, portray a different Superman— one mostly without those core values. He doesn’t even attempt to take the fight away from the city. Clark only gets progressively more desperate to win the fight and stop General Zod entirely. By the end of the movie, we are expected to view Clark as a hero, and while he may have saved the planet, he wasn’t exactly a model of heroism during the act.

All of this wanton destruction and loose characterization was justified in plenty of interviews and even in BvS for a variety of reasons: it was Clark’s first day on the job, Clark doesn’t have complete control of his powers, and so on. Sure, he did save the day, but Superman— regardless of characterization, should probably show a higher regard for human life and property. In this film, he’s not exactly the ideal center of morality that the depict him to be in the end. The next film in the DCEU only makes this characterization much, much worse.

In the end, even after a recent rewatching, my initial reactions still stand. This movie is just fine. Plain and simple, its a fine movie. Does Superman deserve better? Absolutely. The quintessential Superman movie is yet to be made (sorry Mr. Reeve, you’re great), and if BvS is any indication, I don’t think it can be made with director Zack Snyder at the helm.

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Man of Steel is just okay. It probably wasn’t the best start for an entire cinematic universe, but here we are watching Warner Bros. rush their way into a pile of Avengers money.

With that said, I still enjoy it, and that is a sentiment I cannot share for the next two films. Seriously. It gets much worse. Prepare yourself.


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