We now have had a first look at director Zack Snyder’s Batman, and as of this weekend, his Superman, above, from the 2016 release Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Beginning with its wordy, clunky title, SvBDoJ has the cards stacked against it, if Snyder’s Man of Steel is any indication. Man of Steel proved a cast of distinguished character actors can’t save a movie from a bad idea and bad direction. We know Ben Affleck, the new Batman, can be very good, and we all hope Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, Jason Momoa as Aquaman, Ray Fisher as Cyborg, and Jeremy Irons as Alfred can save this film, or at least give us some fun scenes to pass the time. But fans should demand more from DC Entertainment.
It starts with Snyder. It’s difficult to list all the reasons Man of Steel was such a horrible superhero movie. But we can sure try. Maybe Snyder will review what he did with Man of Steel and realize that superhero movies can do so much better. We can hope. The elements of a good superhero flick? Heart and gravity. Heroism and compassion. Passion and perseverance. Man of Steel had none of this. Even the poorly miscast Ryan Reynolds’ vehicle Green Lantern ran circles around Man of Steel. It can’t be that hard to make a good movie for the DC Comics universe. If Snyder is going to do better with the first big budget Justice League movie, he must learn from his mistakes with Man of Steel.
So let’s get it all out in the open, why Man of Steel is on my worst movies list, and should be on yours, too.
According to Snyder’s portrayal in Man of Steel, Superman is a coward. His human dad, played by Kevin Costner, is the hero, saving his dog from a truck with a looming tornado in the Kent home state of Kansas. Superman could save his dad–he has an excruciatingly long period of time to act. Yet he doesn’t–it’s somehow more important to keep the big secret of his alien super powers from these very few, already distracted people nearby. It’s more important than his dad’s life. So he simply watches him die. It’s absurd. It’s unforgivable. And this giant, poor choice by the show’s creators makes Henry Cavill’s hero unlikeable, even pitiful, from that moment on. Is this the story of Superman? In an effort to make Superman flawed and dark and gritty like Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, the heroic superhero of superheroes loses his basic essence.
How could anyone make a movie this bad–make so many poor judgments, that leave viewers leaving the movie depressed and angry? Did anyone related to this film grow up reading Superman comic books? I had pretty low expectations for this one–so low that I figured something about the film would impress me. But it only disappointed. How can we expect any better with Batman v Superman?
Compare the characterizations in Man of Steel to Richard Donner’s Superman and Superman 2. It’s a comparison that must be made when you try to make a Superman movie focusing on Zod. The Krypton scene with Marlon Brando was stunning in its peaceful, dreadful calmness. Man of Steel fills its Krypton sequence with one giant explosion and shouting match after another, includes an artifact called a codex that is somehow important but not explained, as well as other details that were included with no explanation–presumably other than to identify this as an alien world. The creators made a film that requires viewers to already know the Superman story–kids whose first introduction to Superman is Man of Steel will no doubt leave with plenty of questions.
You might argue that this was the same mistake made in Star Trek Into Darkness, by remaking the Khan story. I think the difference is that the same story was told in the new remake–Khan’s drive for revenge was the same, whether or not you may have liked or disliked the casting decisions for the film. Man of Steel completely obliterates what makes Superman tick and replaces him with a poor substitute. Contrast this with CW’s Arrow TV series, also significantly reimagining more than seven decades of mythology, yet it managed to do it while maintaining Green Arrow Oliver Queen’s essential motivations. Man of Steel doesn’t achieve the same success– it just falls flat.
Then there is General Zod. Where is any nuanced performance? Michael Shannon has demonstrated his ability to look angry and yell, but where is any characterization? Compare this Zod to Superman and Superman II’s Zod performed by Terence Stamp and… there’s simply no comparison. Stamp’s Zod is quiet and calm in his villainy. He is frightening in his reserved, God-like actions. Shannon’s Zod is just another phoned-in superhero bad guy. Boring.
Kevin Costner was wasted here. He brought gravitas to the film along with Russell Crowe, but his character’s treatment was an insult to Clark Kent’s kindly influential father of past incarnations. Why make him act like a jerk? And Crowe’s dialogue was inexcusable, with every utterance a speech that mimicked Mel Gibson’s war cry in Braveheart. Again, no nuance, everything loud, obnoxious and over the top. The state of Kansas, where Superman was raised on Earth, looked nothing like Kansas, but more like some 1920s Amish community, complete with mom played by the usually lovely Diane Lane in wardrobe no one anywhere wears in the 21st century. The scene where he gleefully tells his adoptive mother that he “found his parents” was embarrassing and painful–how could a guy his age be that unfeeling? And he’s surprised at his mother’s reaction–only an uncaring kid would react this way. Is that the stuff of a superman in any universe?
Couple that with lines like “Greenhorn, fetch me my binoculars” and you wonder if anyone who would write such a line was from this century, too.
Man of Steel is also beyond dramatic–it’s melodrama. Frothy, self-absorbed, arrogant. This isn’t the Superman of the comic books. It isn’t up to the standards we should demand from superhero movies and cements the status of Marvel as the definitive source of comic book-inspired films. Who would have thought ten years ago that Tony Stark and Steve Rogers could play to audiences better than Superman? DC Entertainment doesn’t have it all wrong, however. If DC could only learn from the creators of their Arrow TV series, take some of the storytelling from those writers and adapt it for film audiences, instead of spending millions on bizarre alien costumes that no culture on any world would ever wear, and replace explosions and actions with truly inspiring characterizations.
Is some of the problem with casting? You can’t blame the big name actors for bad dialogue. But Henry Cavill as either Clark Kent or Superman just didn’t even make sense on paper. And where Amy Adams has the potential to perform any kind of character, the definitional strong-minded Lois Lane ends up as a throwaway love interest here. Why bother including Lois Lane if you’re not going to make use of the character in the story? It seems more like someone had a checklist of items they needed to include to be able to call this a Superman flick, and they went through the items one by one and stuffed them in whether they furthered the story or not.
There is an attempt in the opening Krypton sequence to show a world almost inspired by the late Michael Turner’s Krypton of Superman/Batman comic book fame. A different movie just about Krypton focusing on this planet might have been something worth pursuing, but this effort with its inexplicable flying tigers and strange, gooey, underwater life and technology that included warbly liquid chromium microphones that warned Jor-El to “watch out behind you”? Blech.
The nail in the coffin is the choice to allow Amy Adams’s Lois Lane to know about Superman’s cloaked identity as Clark Kent nearly immediately in their relationship. One of the best parts of watching or reading Superman stories that include Lois is seeing Clark try to keep the secret from her. In this reboot, Snyder chose to snuff away the possibility of moviegoers seeing his take on the biggest reveal in comic book culture. He just wiped it away.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice has a lot to make up for if DC Entertainment hopes to ever compete with Marvel Studios. Another bleak superhero movie is not going to do it. We won’t know for another year. It’s due in theaters in May 2016.