Man of Steel, Heart of Lead

Article written by:
Marco Sumayao
Author: Marco SumayaoWebsite:
Marco has been accused of being a Cylon one too many times. There is no concrete proof that he isn't. He currently spends his free time in the brig occasionally reading comics, writing about them, and writing stories. Or sleeping. Mostly sleeping.


I got up at 9:30AM on the day of the Castle Geek block screening of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, arrived at the office at 10:30AM, and proceeded to nap a chunk of the early afternoon away during a rain-soaked van ride to Trinoma. The train back to Makati was surprisingly comfy (aside from a spot of ninja flatulence), and I got to Glorietta with plenty of time to spare before the 6:55PM screening.

By the time the movie was over, I was exhausted.

This poster foreshadows the amount of brooding in this film. See what I did there?

Man of Steel is an enjoyable, but emotionally taxing film, qualities that are as much the product of Zack Snyder’s direction as they are of Christopher Nolan’s and David S. Goyer’s story. Snyder, for his part, overindulges himself on the movie’s many action scenes, making the final 45 minutes about as tiring as Transformers 3’s second half. Nolan and Goyer, on the other hand, crafted a tale that brought little – if any – levity to the film’s pace.

The co-writers tried to extend the success of their Dark Knight trilogy towards Batman’s conceptual antithesis, emphasizing plausibility to suspend the viewers’ disbelief. In many respects, it works: nearly everything, from the S symbol to Zod’s motivations to Clark working at the Daily Planet, is contextualized with believable enough motivations. What hurts the film, however, is its cold, sober examination of how we as a society have changed since Richard Donner’s Superman.

Gone are the days when we’d gaze in awe at a speeding object overhead, exclaiming with childlike enthusiasm what it could be. Instead, we fear it. Our jaws drop as expletives verbalize the shock reverberating in our minds. We take our cameras out and capture it on video, and then we take it online in search of explanations to assuage our paranoia; it isn’t a bird, nor is it a plane – whatever it is, I just want to know if it’ll make life worse for me.

Looks like a silver banana with wings to me.

Framed as a first contact story, Man of Steel is as much a superhero flick as it is an examination of xenophobia. On the one hand, it rightfully prepares humanity (as much as it could, anyway) from the threat presented by Zod, but at the same time, it’s what prevents Superman from immediate action. The latter effect is what creates some of the film’s thematic problems.

Jonathan Kent, played beautifully by Kevin Costner, tells a young Clark that people are afraid of what they don’t understand, causing him to refrain from using his powers despite having saved lives with them. That restraint, while generally practiced for good, leads to one of the film’s more powerful tragedies. By the time the movie reaches its climax, it seems as though Superman ignores all that advice as he puts on one of the most spectacular beatdowns on film.

What finally convinces him to let go of his hindrances? The promise of greatness? Vengeance? Blind faith? As it turns out, all of the above. Man of Steel, for all its visual merits, gets lost in its conceptual complexity. Themes of nature vs. nurture, xenophobia and trust, loyalty, the value of life and the necessity of death, identity, duty vs. honor, population control, and even a bit of ecological awareness muddle the narrative, making us wonder what the film wants us to take away. Unlike Nolan’s and Goyer’s work on Batman Begins, which virtually beat its audience upside the head with the concept of conquering fear, “Superman Begins” loses its focus because of its ambition. It tries to say too much, and because of this, the movie lacks a heart.

Super-alcohol tolerance sucks when you're trying to drink your super-feelings away.

Zack Snyder has always been good at adjusting to the script he’s been given, from Dawn of the Dead to Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole. He’s done a magnificent job of merging his own vision with Nolan’s and Goyer’s – in Man of Steel, for instance, he forgoes his love affair with slow motion because we are meant to see this as our first contact with an impossibly powerful force, and as such must witness Superman at full speed. He takes full advantage of this opportunity to create powerful images, such as the childhood cape scene first seen in the trailers, and his stunning, intense interpretation of “Kneel before Zod”. Unfortunately, he appears to be unable to draw equally fantastic performances from his cast – which might be a consequence of a weak script.

Superman’s appeal and lasting charm on film comes from the duality of personalities Kal El and Clark Kent, and while Henry Cavill appears to be a man worthy of the cape and glasses, we hardly get to see him shine as Clark. Some of the finest points of his performance come in the fleeting screen time he shares with Diane Lane’s poignant Martha Kent, leaving the viewer a little wanting in terms of the character’s likeability. Instead, we get heavy-handed Christ parallels, a way-too-easy comparison that directors and writers seem infatuated with.

"I bet they don't ask Jesus to do anything!"

Amy Adams looks positively bored as Lois Lane, except when she’s not speaking any lines – “I’m a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter!” doesn’t do her portrayal any favors, but her moments of silence speak volumes. Her romance with Superman is dodgy at best, as the film hardly gives any time for emotions to develop convincingly. Was this a shortcoming on behalf of the script, or was Snyder simply focused too much on the action? That’s a question that will likely be answered in the sequel.

Michael Shannon, as terrifying as he is as General Zod, opens the movie with only two modes: “smoldering rage” and “screaming monkey” – a waste of a much-improved character design and backstory. He picks it up in time for the film’s second half, however, but his work is overshadowed by the heaping tons of collateral damage in the wake of the final battle. When he gives his speech about duty and purpose, you finally get the sense that this man was a general bred and trained to serve in the Kryptonian military.

He wears the disco bathrobe when he's off-duty.

Each performance is unfortunately saddled by the Nolan-Goyer tandem’s penchant for dour, dreary characters. Nolan’s characters, in particular, tend to have broodiness as their primary trait. The Dark Knight’s Bruce Wayne, Memento’s Leonard, The Prestige’s Robert Angier, and Inception’s Cobb are all very somber individuals, and this version of Superman is no different. In fact, if Cavill didn’t have the foresight to smile every now and then, he’d have been as wooden a character as other critics claim him to be. The film is heavy, a mood that Hans Zimmer’s scoring carries perfectly.

So is the movie good? To be honest, I’m not quite sure; I find myself flip-flopping between a 6/10 and a 9/10 rating, so it’s pretty much hit-or-miss depending on the viewer. There’s a lot of really, really good points in it, but it feels as though they could have picked a more compatible writing team – especially after Nolan expressed having difficulties with the character. Then again, we’ve been given a Superman who’s not quite sure about himself just yet, and a script that’s not quite sure about its message. For a movie about someone who transcends his extraterrestrial identity to represent the very best of humanity, ambiguity doesn’t sit right.

By the way, Gaeta’s still Gaeta.

"It appears to be a reference, sir. For nerds."


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