Man of Steel
2013| dir: Zack Snyder | 143 m
Sometimes, things in life have a way of working out, but not without a little dedication and investment. Nearly a decade ago, I began tracking every movie I watched, and although I was reluctant to give the films a proper rating, I did so anyway. Just before DC released Man of Steel, I created an account on IMDb (then shortly afterward on Letterboxd) and started tracking these films, giving them a basic rating – which is, and maybe always has been, a gut-reaction number I assign the film twenty-four hours after seeing it – and went on my merry way. Seeing my watch history of Man of Steel makes me curious if it was one of the first films that spurred me to record the films I watch and realize my long-thought-of goal to analyze any particular movie to see if it gets better, or worse, with time. This was a project that I had played around with before, but I was able to fully realize it with the tracking capabilities of Letterboxd. Indeed, I can click on Man of Steel and see that it’s been logged (i.e., watched) three times since June of 2013:
June 25, 2013: 3.5 / 5
December 1, 2013: 2.5 / 5
June 11, 2014: 3 / 5
Within twelve months, I experienced a ride on a slow-moving roller coaster of mediocrity in terms of my feelings for Man of Steel, but I ended my run at a lower tier than my first viewing. What went wrong?
For context, I was never a significant fan of Superman; in my comic collecting heyday, Spider-Man was my jam, and DC Comics were often left behind. I would only ever really pay attention if there was a big event happening or there was enough money in the budget (thank you, Dad) to dabble into another universe. Being a collector, it was difficult to avoid the Death of Superman event, one that seemed so impossible yet so exciting as a misguided youth who was happy to see a changing of an old, boring superhero that I never gave proper thought or attention to. Indeed, I recall being in grade eight and being asked a question in a school assignment about what events I was looking forward to, and much to the dismay of my teacher and the disregard for the intent of the project, I answered “the Death of Superman,” which must have, in some way, looked at least a little sadistic in my teacher's eyes, although she couldn't have known the full extent of my hatred for the timeless hero. I only ever bought some of the sealed comics in the storyline, and quickly parted with the series before they brought in the Reign of Supermen story arc. To this day, I could not tell you why I had so much disdain in Superman aside from perhaps some misguided, arrogant way of trying to “be cool” by taking an unpopular stance.
My undeserved animosity for The Last Son of Krypton did not last long and was eventually forgotten (as I fully embraced the world of Batman), but I can’t help but feel like that initial hatred carried over to influence my opinion of Zack Snyder’s version of Superman. Going into Man of Steel, I found myself again touting an arrogant viewpoint of what a proper Superman story is, or should be, which is distressing considering how very few Superman stories I had actually read and my lousy history with the character. By the time Man of Steel rolled around, my opinion of Superman should have been much higher, as I enjoyed the animated series (including Justice League) and all ten seasons of television series Smallville, and I experienced some fond nostalgia for the Christopher Reeve version of Superman with the release of Superman Returns just a few years before Man of Steel was released. I had seen all the Superman movies before, in my youth, but they were dismissed in part due to the comical, absurdist nature of some scenes and plotlines. The only one I would revisit and generally regard as being a good “superhero” movie (for whatever that’s worth in this day and age) is the first outing, but I would always laugh at some of the powers they gave him during that adventure, including the ability to turn back time by spinning the Earth backwards. Looking back, it's easy to see now that I never truly considered those movies “true” Superman stories either, but more as examples of Hollywood bungling things up for comic book fans.
The most significant point of contention that I had with Man of Steel was probably the ending, which involves Superman killing General Zod. I enjoyed the film at first, clearly, but must have let the fan-base and my misguided youthful views get a hold of me, as I lowered the film’s rating. A curious third viewing a few months later in 2014 was perhaps the first sign of rehabilitation as I increased the star rating but still considered the movie mediocre with an asterisk. The second most significant disagreement I had with the film was the death of Clark Kent’s father, Jonathan Kent. None of it made sense at the time, and maybe I was blinded that that Smallville series, wherein Clark was more of a speedster than anything else, being able to save the day in the blink of the eye: surely he could go save his father in a fraction of a second, so why wouldn’t he do so here? Combine those two negative interpretations of the character, and mix it in a vat of Clark moping around like a sad sack and it becomes clearer why myself – and others – would feel that this film was a disappointment.
It was time to watch the film again, and I was enthralled from beginning to end.
Everything about this movie just seemed to click with me on this viewing; you know how after a long time (many years, if not decades) revisiting a film is like seeing it for the very first time? Well, that’s how this viewing of Man of Steel felt to me. Even though it’s only been a couple of years, I felt as though I was experiencing the film for the first time. Maybe it was coming in with a fresh perspective: maybe it was the further development of the DCEU built in the shadow of the MCU, or maybe it was a certain combination of maturity and life experience that I was missing before. Either way, I was surprised to discover a newfound respect for the film.
This is not the Superman, or Clark Kent, that I had really come to know through my exposure to other series, either in comic, movie, or television form. His father dying in the way he did made absolute sense. Here’s a Clark that’s been encouraged to suppress his powers, to not stand out while at the same time being told that the decision to reveal himself to the world will be his own, yet heavily encouraged not to do so for personal reasons. He's allowed time to pursue his own self, as he wanders the globe looking for answers; haven’t we all dreamed of doing this ourselves?
There seems to be a collective piece of wool pulled over our eyes as many are ardent to believe that our favourite heroes don’t kill, yet it doesn’t take much research to learn that this simply isn’t true. Granted, it’s always a last resort, and Man of Steel depicts just that: Michael Shannon’s ferocious General Zod is a thoroughly convincing threat and stops at nothing to achieve his goals. He won’t relent, something that Superman takes great pain in recognizing, and I do believe it comes across well on screen. Sure, this is a “darker” interpretation than we’re used to – as signaled by the film’s muted colours – but also a more grounded and relatable world where the bad guys do, in fact, die.
Man of Steel will always be a bit of an anomaly within context of the cinematic superhero landscape of the 2010s. It came shortly after Nolan’s groundbreaking Dark Knight trilogy, which served as a major influence on what we expect out of a DC superhero film (indeed, Christopher Nolan had a hand in writing this film), but also within the shadow of the behemoth that is the MCU. While not in “full force” in 2013, it would play strongly into follow-up films: Batman V Superman all but introducing the future Justice League felt like a stretch at the time, and I can’t help but wonder what kind of trilogy Superman would have received with Zack Snyder had there not been so much pressure to “do the Marvel thing.”
Superman is a timeless hero, and will be reimagined countless more times across many different media; I feel as though Man of Steel – while coming out at a later stage in my life – is my generation’s Superman, and maybe a few others as well. Reeve’s Superman always felt a bit distant to me, and my education in comics took place in a post-Dark Knight Returns world where we simply just did not get a Superman film that fit. I won’t dismiss Superman Returns : while I understood what it was going for as being a follow-up to the original Superman film series, it was lost on modern audiences who were all ready to move on.
Over the past seven years since Man of Steel’s release, I’ve gained a new appreciation for not only the film, but the character as well, with a few graphic novels joining the collection. I’m happy I was misguided in my youth, as I can now learn from my turbulent, erroneous attitude and properly appreciate and enjoy the different interpretations of this beloved character.