A painfully inept film, full of dialogue and plot points that any professional writer should have rejected without hesitation
Seven years ago, I felt like the only person in the world who liked Superman Returns. Over time, my feelings have softened considerably, but my childlike affection for the idea of Superman was enough to blind me to the film’s flaws initially.
There isn’t enough nostalgia in the world to make Man of Steel seem good.
This is a painfully inept film, full of dialogue and plot points that any professional writer should have rejected without hesitation. I will eschew writing a conventional plot summary here, in part because I will ultimately address most of it, and in part because I just don’t want to. Instead, it’s more fun to analyze the myriad of ways in which the movie fails. We’ll start with the wide-angle lens and then get smaller.
On the macro level, Man of Steel’s structure, which repeatedly stifles anything resembling forward momentum, should have been corrected several drafts ago. The opening Krypton sequence should have lasted 5-10 minutes, not 30. Furthermore, you shouldn’t still be having flashbacks more than halfway through your movie—especially when your preamble took half an hour—and especially when the preamble’s events get repeated as exposition again later (from a freaking ghost, but we’ll get to that). It feels like the inciting incident occurs at the two-hour mark here.
And finally, the villain’s plot shouldn’t have been as convoluted as seemingly every villain’s plot in action movies nowadays. Climaxes today are dictated by such absurd schemes that the audience can’t possibly follow exactly what’s going on and be invested in them. Compare with a real movie—like, say, Die Hard—and note that, at its core, a villain’s plot should be simple and clear.
However, such confusion over much of the story does not dilute the clarity of the plot holes, and this combination of bewilderment and anger will produce a growing feeling of vague nausea within the viewer. Such holes include: Zod’s punishment on Krypton being one that actually saves his life (I’m still laughing over this); Lois getting onto Zod’s ship at a critical moment, for reasons passing understanding; and Superman breaking Zod’s neck, despite the latter’s equal strength. What’s particularly frustrating is that many of these—in particular Zod’s punishment and subsequent freedom—could have been smoothed over with the most minor of script alterations.
Then there’s that Russell Crowe business. Crowe, as Superman’s father, acquits himself just fine, of course; but let’s just say that credibility doesn’t appreciate a ghost playing a central, Deus-ex-machina-esque role in a story that already pushes its ‘suspension of disbelief’ luck with the whole ‘Superman’s powers’ thing.
With the macro-level view out of the way…let’s narrow the lens a bit and examine scenes. There are just so many laughably bad scenes here, full of clichés and devoid of realism and emotion, constantly jarring you out of the experience. One reason is the dialogue—we’ll get to that. Another reason is the annoying tendency of crazy things to happen with utterly no build-up. For example, Superman is on that ship for about 15 seconds before that oil rig fire. The movie doesn’t even get out of its own way long enough to provide the chance for drama. Other ineffectual moments include the ‘tough guy at the bar’ scene, most Lois/Superman exchanges, that “Can’t I just keep pretending I’m your son” conversation, et al. But nothing tops the tornado, where Clark’s father waves him away from saving him just before a twister takes his life—just a horrific, melodramatic, and nonsensical moment.
And with that out of the way…we can now eviscerate the low-hanging fruit—the dialogue. I can’t remember too many major mainstream releases with worse dialogue since Pearl Harbor. A nice tone is set when a grade-school Clark tells his mother, through a door, and completely unprovoked, “The world’s too big, Mom.” She replies, “Then make it smaller,” and I was already ready to leave. I can’t think of a single moment when a conversation included subtext or irony or a character didn’t say precisely what he meant; one might say the resulting dialogue is ‘peppered’ with cliches, but only if that pepper is being dispensed with a wheelbarrow. (Zod’s is particularly offensive; poor Michael Shannon.)
Why nobody decided to throw two weeks’ pay at a competent dialogue writer for a final script polish, I’ll never understand; but then again, it’s not like studios should care if audience members laugh (for the wrong reasons) at your movie, right? During the climactic fight, Superman actually says, “You’re a monster, Zod; and I’m going to stop you.” Rather than resembling human speech, this sounds like a writer’s notes in an outline, like entries on a beat sheet: Zod is a monster. Superman will stop him. Boy will kiss girl at end.
Even aside from individual lines of dialogue, so many script decisions seem to have come from someone with no understanding of basic filmmaking tenets; Perry White gets about 30 seconds of screen time, and then is framed, dramatically, running away from the carnage at the end, as though the film mistakenly thought he was a character we cared about. (Even worse is devoting critical late scenes to saving an intern whom we’d barely met. God, this movie.)
What all of this does, on the whole, is prevent the film from ever hitting any real emotional notes. Furthermore, it bizarrely excludes certain moments that should be obvious in a Superman movie—for example, never seeing Supe thwart any minor crimes and befuddle small-time crooks (which Returns handled with a nice, efficient montage) makes the film even more generic than it already was.
The movie does blow a few potential chances. I liked the idea of showing Superman’s prodigious sensory input as a negative, at least until he learned to control it; unfortunately, that led to “The world’s too big, Mom.” Similarly, it was neat that Zod hadn’t learned to control these powers on Earth the way Superman had; but then nothing really came of that. I’m fine with axing the ruse of Lois being fooled by Clark’s disguise; but that doesn’t make their romance feel any more real. Brandon Routh flying Kate Bosworth over Metropolis at night (in Returns) wasn’t groundbreaking, but it provided more of a connection than there is here.
Given all this, when we hit the inevitably overdone, uber-CGI, excessive-action climax, we’re bored senseless. I could sense it in the audience I saw this with, and I couldn’t blame them. It truly is Disaster Porn, the numbness of it being further tarnished by our bewilderment over Superman allowing the death of so many innocent people as collateral damage. The first hour of this film, seemingly, is exposition, and the last hour, seemingly, is a bunch of buildings collapsing and thousands of faceless people being slaughtered in an orgy of violence. In between, the film somehow finds room for plenty of embarrassing moments and no genuine ones.