Man of Steel: a Sort-of Review

Monday, June 17, 2013  |  Comments: 16

Man of Steel Shield

Over the past week I was out of town for my father-in-law's memorial service, but I did manage to sneak away during the trip to see the Thursday Walmart early screening of Man of Steel (big shout out to the folks of Troy, Alabama, and the Continental Cinema). I didn't anticipate being in an internet black hole the whole time, but it did afford a little time to think about what I would write.

This isn't really a review. There are reviews of Man of Steel all over the place; they talk about the cinematography, the storytelling, the acting, the spectacle, the action, the directing, and on and on. As far as a review, I will say only this: go see the movie. See it in the theater. It's not the greatest movie ever made, but, it's pretty darn entertaining. Seriously, go see it. As negative as I might sound in the rest of this article, I still think the movie is very much worth seeing. (Go see it before you read this!)

=== SPOILERS! === SPOILERS! === SPOILERS! ===
From here on, I'm assuming you've seen the movie. You've been warned.

The Kryptonian Language

Kryptonian Council

Of course, the first thing I'd like to talk about is the depiction of Kryptonian in the movie (or lack thereof). This aspect really was a bit disappointing for me, I must say. After reading the following blurb, released alongside an image of one of the Kryptonian council members, I was awash with anticipation:

"KRYPTON is a beautiful, exotic, dangerous—and doomed. Its people are unprepared for the disaster that awaits their world. Only one person, Jor-El, knows what's coming. He has made arrangements for the survival of his only son.

"The art designers on Man Of Steel viewed Krypton as an ancient world with an impossibly long history. Its people have reached a post-technological state, in which even everyday objects are hundreds of years old.

"The landscapes and interiors of Krypton hint at a detailed backstory, and many surfaces covered with flowing Kryptonian inscriptions.

"The Man Of Steel crew hired a linguist to develop a Kryptonian grammar and speaking structure."

sic ... via ComicBookMovie.com...

Needless to say, I was pretty disappointed here—there is absolutely no spoken Kryptonian in the film. The Kryptonian writing depicted in the film, however, which is gorgeous, is everywhere on Krypton, but there's no way to know if there's actually a language behind it or if the filmmakers took a cue from Smallville and just threw up gibberish that "looks alien." I really hope that it isn't gibberish, but I wouldn't put it past WB/DC. Until and unless some type of language guide or primer is released, it's unlikely if we'll ever know for sure.

I have no doubt that they hired someone who knew what they were doing, at the very least, to create the writing system—as I said, there's just no way of knowing if it went much further than that. If there is an actual language behind it, then I feel really bad for the person responsible who hasn't gotten any credit (that I can find), and whose work has gone largely unused in the film and, seemingly, unappreciated by the filmmakers. Whoever you are, I applaud you!


UPDATE: Of course, just a couple of hours after publishing this article, I ran across an interview with Peter Rubin, one of the designers on Man of Steel. He had this to say regarding the language:

One of the cool things that happened was that we had started designing the Kryptonian script, and after it was well along - a really good art director and graphic designer named Kirsten Franson was working on it - it was determined that we needed to have a real language. A linguistics professor from UBC was brought in, and against everyone's expectations the two of them were able to create a working dictionary of Kryptonian script, and in record time. Everything you see written on the walls in the Council Chamber and in Jor-El's lab is actually something from the Superman comics, existing Kryptonian mythology or philosophy. David S. Goyer is a madman for that stuff. I thought I was a fan - he's a super-fan.

So that's something at least. A designer worked with an as-yet-unnamed linguist (talk about no-respect) from the University of British Columbia to create the script and a "working dictionary of Kryptonian script," which is kind of like saying "a dictionary of the alphabet," i.e., it's obvious that language is not this guy's thing.

Also, if David Goyer is such a "super-fan" then why did he stray so far from canon in so many areas? Sigh.

I'll update again if I find any more info.


In some ways I understand why the director chose to go all-English for the film; it helps keep the focus on the storytelling rather than building a world that might be a little too alien (and alienating) for the average viewer.

On the other hand, one of the stated goals of the film was to bring a realism to Superman. If you ask me, no spoken Kryptonian represents a huge missed opportunity. This film presented the perfect platform—better than any Superman film to-date, animated or live action—for introducing a Kryptonian language. Everything seemed to be converging into the perfect storm for DC to unleash Kryptonian on the general public: the continued widespread use and acceptance of constructed languages in popular television and film (Star Trek, Defiance, Game of Thrones, etc.), the stated goal of realism, the huge interest in the new writing system, all the media hyping up the new Kryptonian, just the fact that this is a reboot with a clean slate on all things Superman... but in the end, the movie just completely missed the boat. Disappointing to say the least. Worse yet, the absence of Kryptonian in this film would make its inclusion in any sequels or spinoffs seem very out of place. Maybe a decade from now when we see another reboot the window of opportunity will open again.

What really twisted the knife and made the lack of Kryptonian especially—glaringly—obvious was Zod's big entrance on Earth where he broadcasts his "You are not alone" message on every device on the planet in, we are led to believe, every language. Here, Man of Steel openly acknowledges the myriad of languages on Earth and Zod's need to translate while there are absolutely no such barriers even hinted at anywhere else in the rest of the film. Because, of course, all the members of a tens-of-thousands-of-years old civilization speaks one of the relatively young languages from a remote, hard-to-find planet that only Jor-El, it seems, knows about. Right.

There isn't even the slightest attempt to explain why all Kryptonians seem to be able to speak perfect English. Sure, you can perhaps come up with some ways to explain things away (perhaps the scout ship had been monitoring human communications, learned English, and then updated Jor-El's "consciousness" with English when he was uploaded to the ship's computers). Speculating on such explanations, though, does not excuse the film's silence in this area; it's either an oversight of the writer or just bad storytelling. Perhaps some explanatory scenes ended up on the cutting room floor...

Kryptonian Names

Jor-El and Kal-El

Another disappointment was the treatment of Kryptonian names. It is a recent trend that I've noticed in the comics, carried to its logical end in the film, of treating Kryptonian names as if they are just like our own: First-name Last-name; it is no longer "Kal-El", rather, it has become "Kal El".

Aside:

Traditionally, Kryptonian names have been depicted as a single name comprised of a name+surname combination for men, and a name plus father's name for a woman with the father's name being dropped upon marriage.

Examples: Yar-El (or Jor-El I depending on which canon you follow) is the father of Jor-El who marries Lara Lor-Van who then becomes Lara, and they have a son, Kal-El. Jor-El has a brother Zor-El who marries Alura In-Ze who then becomes Alura, and they have a daughter Kara Zor-El.

Jor-El, Zor-El, and Kal-El would no sooner be called Jor, Zor, Kal, or El than I (Darren) would be called "Dar" or "Ren". Sure, we have a tendency to shorten our names (Michael becoming Mike, for example), but that's the point isn't it. It's not about what we would do, but about building a believable—and other—culture. This name shortening has not historically been a trend in the comics with the only exception being Dru-Zod a.k.a. General Zod. Likely, his title is taking the place of the identifying portion of his name. (I would imagine this is a feature of Kryptonian military rank and address.)

Personally, I think it lends far more personality to Krypton to have their names behave in a way different from our own. So many "Kal"s and "El"s were casually thrown around in the film, especially when Jor-El was talking to Kal-El, that it made me queasy. Why not just throw in a "champ" and "sport" while you're at it? It would have had about the same effect.

The Phantom Zone

General Zod et al

I must say that I did not like this film's portrayal of the phantom zone. It was a radical departure from anything seen before—film or comics—and it felt mostly like an afterthought. It's as if the writer, David Goyer, had all the prisoners boarding a space-bound prison barge to escape the planet's demise. Then, several drafts later, after being told that Zod had to be sent to the phantom zone in order to stay with canon, he just had the prison ship enter the phantom zone. It seemed completely superfluous and tacked on.

The film's portrayal of the phantom zone raised too many unanswered questions in my opion. Were the prisoners sent there in suspended animation? If so, why? What would the point of that be? The phantom zone, even in the film, is acknowledged as a sort of living nightmare. How would that be the case if you are in suspended animation? For that matter, was the suspended animation state supposed to be the "phantom zone"—a literal unending nightmare? You could easily interpret the film that way, and it doesn't do much to clear it up. At the end of the film all the Kryptonians except Zod are sucked into what is only called a singularity and black hole which is caused by the collision of two phantom drive generators—the things that we are told also open a portal to the phantom zone (which is also explained as a singularity in the film). So did the ending collision open a portal to the phantom zone or did it create a black hole? Are we to believe the Kryptonians are still alive in the phantom zone or annihilated in a singularity? We are left unsure. If it was a singularity, then where did it go? Did all of that matter just evaporate after it did its duty in the story? In that regard it was more likely a portal that closed than a singularity that gobbled them up. Further, if it was a portal, could they survive in the phantom zone without a ship or their stasis pods? We just don't know.

Further, there was really no good explanation as to how they escaped the phantom zone in the first place. We are told that Krypton's destruction freed them... but how? All of them were bound hand and foot... in some type of suspended animation pods... on a prison barge... in another dimension. We are asked to believe that Krypton's explosion safely returned the vessel from the phantom zone, woke them all from suspended animation, and freed them from their shackles. I'll allow that they would have been able to eventually gain control of the ship, but just getting to that point seems like a stretch.

Sadly, rather than remaining one of the essential components of the Superman canon and Zod's story in particular, the phantom zone just ended up being an ambiguous, tacked-on special effect that could have been completely omitted without changing the story at all.

Jor-El

Jor-El, Lara, and baby Kal-El

Jor-El was probably my favorite part of this new film. I believe this was the best portrayal of Jor-El I have ever seen. Gone is the placid indifference of Brando's white-haired old man. Russell Crowe delivers the perfect combination of action, intelligence, and determination. As I watched Jor-El fend off soldiers, dive off incredible heights, fly through epic battles, successfully beat up General Zod himself, and generally kick ass, I couldn't help but thinking several times, "Now that is an El." I also couldn't help thinking that Jor-El must be a master of klurkor, the Kryptonian martial art (now there's a geek reference for you!). All through canon, the members of the house of El have been history-making men of action. Jor-El is, finally, no exception.

What really sucked, though, is that Zod killed Jor-El. ... What. The. Hell. ... One of the more unshakable pillars of the mythos has been that Jor-El is the one that sent Zod to the phantom zone, and it is for that reason that Zod seeks revenge on Jor-El through his son. In his quest to make Zod's character and motivations more understandable (blind rage and vengeance isn't good enough for you?) Snyder/Goyer have knocked down one of the few remaining consistencies left to Superman's back story. What's worse, this could have been—and all through the movie I thought it would be—used as a HUGE motivating factor in Kal-El's interactions with Zod... but it just wasn't. I mean, if you're going to redefine canon, at least make it count for something.

And what of Jor-El's "consciousness"? Did Zod succeed in erasing it? Are there residual copies somewhere? Will we (be able to) see Jor-El in future films? I guess it can go whichever way the filmmakers want in the future. Either way, I feel a bit like I'm left hanging at the end of the film as to the fate of Jor-El's program.

The Codex

Kryptonian Birthing Matrix

It was sad for me that the filmmakers leaned heavily to the John Byrne era Krypton and did him one better with the whole concept of the codex and pre-programmed Kryptonians. I know this is just completely a personal preference, but the more I reflect on it, the more I absolutely hate the whole codex idea. It looks like a piece of Kryptonian skull with writing on it? Why? It gets grafted onto Kal-El's cells? Seriously? It is the primary motivation for Zod's search for Kal-El? Ok, I get that, except that it blows away other established canon (as noted above).

The whole function of the codex was to serve as a plot device to give Zod motivation for his actions—a plot device that I don't believe was really needed. Unfortunately, it also served to make the Kryptonians, indeed all of Krypton, a lot more two-dimensional—"Faora wasn't bad, she was just made that way." Also, if Kryptonians were consigned to their fate so much that the politicians wouldn't even make changes that would keep their entire planet from blowing up, then how did Jor-El and Lara have enough free will to have a natural child birth, build a forbidden space craft, steal the codex—the foundation of the entire Kryptonian society, infuse it into their newborn's body (did it always have that ability, or did Jor-El just know how to make it do that without any testing whatsoever?), and send him off to a distant planet?

For that matter, why didn't Lara get sent to the phantom zone along with Zod and his minions? After all, she conspired with Jor-El to have an illegal child birth, build an illegal space craft, and stealing and destroying (as far as anyone was concerned) the codex which would have been, by far, the most important item to every Kryptonian in existence? And yet, there she is at the carrying out of Zod's sentence. Talk about double standards!

Krypton

Kryptonian Landscape

This is the most fleshed-out version of Krypton that has been committed to screen. It's unlike anything we've seen before, but somehow it works and it works well. Past Superman films (and Smallville) have depicted Krypton as frozen plains interspersed with crystalline citadels, but Snyder trades in Donner's frozen deserts for rockier warmer ones—with animals!

Despite a more realistic topography, fauna, sprawling cities, towering structures, space ships, and more Kryptonians than you can shake a stick at, Snyder's vision of Krypton can't help but feel to me even more alive while at the same time even more dead and anesthetized than anything we've seen before. This is a high praise; Snyder has perfectly captured the feeling of a real, living world—and a culture—at its end.

It was also a nice nod to the fans to not only see Krypton's moons, but to see the portrayal of the destroyed moon of Wegthor.

Conclusion

Krypton from Man of Steel

As I stated above, despite it's shortcomings, I think Man of Steel was definitely worth watching. The action scenes alone are simply amazing. I would have loved, however, to see something a little closer to canon, but that seems to be the great failing of DC when it comes to Superman: every author, artist, and director has too much license to re-imagine the world of Krypton, it's history, and Superman's back story as they see fit.

I will definitely go see it in the theaters at least one more time. Maybe a second or third viewing will give me some more insight that will improve my opinion on some of these key points.

... Anyway, those are just my opinions. To quote Clark in a phrase that I will now (thanks to the trailers) forever hear in the voice of Henry Cavill, "What do you think?"

Comments (16)

  1. Mr. Lazo:
    Jun 17, 2013 at 08:02 PM

    It has its flaws but EPIC regardless a must see I agree :)

    Reply

  2. Phoenix:
    Jun 17, 2013 at 08:33 PM

    I share your feelings, though not their depth, on being a bit disappointed at not hearing spoken Kryptonian. I don't mind the Byrne ties, but also would've preferred they adhered to the established phantom zone canon. Really, Jor-El was connected with sending all of the zoners in as he established the whole system and was a member of the Science Council.
    Typo notes: klurkor and Wegthor

    Reply

    1. Darren Doyle:
      Jun 17, 2013 at 10:00 PM

      Klukor is how it was listed in the old Superman Through the Ages site, but I just found it in the DC database as Klurkor.

      I always thought it was Wegthor, but found it with the final "n" when I was doing an internet double-check. Just goes to show you can't trust everything you read online! ;)

      I fixed both typos—thanks for the catch!

      Reply

  3. Michael Newcomb:
    Jun 17, 2013 at 11:06 PM

    My biggest problem with the movie probably came at the end when Ka-El snapped Zod's neck. I understand it was meant to be a darker and more realistic portrayal of the man of steel, but I feel like a line was crossed. I'm not a close follower of the comics, but I think it was a cop out and a quick ending. It just goes completely against his character and it goes against the recent Batman movies ideals. Which would make it hard for a Justice League movie I think if the two main Leaguers are at odds on this. Also, There seems to be a lack of Kryptonite.

    Reply

  4. Dark Sentinel:
    Jun 17, 2013 at 11:29 PM

    I too was disappointed by the lack of spoken Kryptonian in the film, and really that was the only thing I was disappointed by.

    In my opinion, the films are both independent AND an extension of comic lore, and I think that just like comic lore directors/writers/designers can take what's been established and alter them. Whether or not it works is a different matter entirely, but I think that Man of Steel got just about everything right in terms of a dramatic reinterpretation of the Superman mythos in film. The Phantom Zone was never seen, yes, but the idea that it is an "extradimensional stasis prison" was an interesting direction to go in. The Zod of this film is not the Zod of the comics nor the original Superman films, and for him to kill Jor-El I thought was a great added layer to that character, who in this interpretation is a warrior through and through. And in essence, it was BECAUSE of Jor-El (or in this case his murder) that Zod was sentenced to "somatic reconditioning" (the Phantom Zone), so either way it worked for me on many levels. As for the Codex, I did think it was a little flimsy as a plot device, but in Jor-El's recounting of Kryptonian history he talks about "artificial population control." I think here it can be safely established that the Codex is a piece of "the purest" Kryptonian DNA sequencing, which is replicated and implanted onto every "blank" fetus in the Genesis Chambers. And indeed while Kal-El is Krypton's first natural birth (in centuries), he is also embedded with the best (genetic) traits of all Kryptonians, making him a true "living fossil" of a race that, by the end of MOS, is now gone.

    All in all I couldn't find much to dislike about Man of Steel, but I get where you're coming from, Darren, ESPECIALLY in regards to spoken Kryptonian.

    Reply

  5. NMC:
    Jun 18, 2013 at 10:02 PM

    I pretty much agree with this review. At last a review worth reading, hehe. I really wasn't surprised about the usage of El as a last name and Kal as the first, I think that happened somewhere before. They do call Zod by Zod and not his "full name" (though in some continuities it would seem he doesn't even have one), so that calls for "El" being a valid way of calling Jor-El and Kal-El.

    About the language... not only did I feel disappointed but also completely frustrated! I mean... you hire a linguist (supposedly) and then don't use any of that work? What was the point in hiring this linguist anyway? Are we supposed to scrutinize the whole movie and start the painful work of transcribing every line of writing and then hypothesize about how it's supposed to be read? Man! Do those guys have great ideas of us!

    I did like the movie, and how could I not? It's the first good movie about Superman in like... ever! It had the action we've been craving for such a long time and it didn't need to use the kryptonite! So that's always a good thing. I must say I do see a lot of Nolan's Dark Knight here, like his devil-may-care attitude towards canon, facts or even consistency, but the movie was a good piece of action. It would have greatly benefited from a Kryptonian language, which now feels like such a waste.

    Like I said, I pretty much agree with the review you made, only that I liked the slight nod towards Byrne's Krypton. Not that I don't enjoy your version of Krypton, but it helps to make it look more decadent and less sympathetic. I will admit, though, that it looked rather bi-dimensional, somewhat flat, but still I liked it better than a utopian Krypton.

    Reply

  6. Derek B.:
    Jun 19, 2013 at 09:48 PM

    In fairness to the production team, they didn't have to create a Kryptonian language. The script they designed being an abugida, it would have been feasible to arrange the letters entirely at random and still have them seem to make sense when spoken aloud. ...That said, if you do put that kind of effort into creating a language, the fan base will generally expect to be able to use it. While what little translated Kryptonian we've been given offers some small insights, I don't think it's nearly enough to consider it a true language yet.

    And frankly, I'm not entirely certain (based on the wording of the given interviews and material) that they did create a language. "Grammar and speaking structure" can be as simple as rearranging 'you are not alone' into 'you alone are not' and calling it foreign. There is no surefire indication that an actual lexicon of words was developed beyond [mute saoden guren nike], which again could have been a random jumble of symbols that happened to sound like it meant something.

    I suppose we'll have to see what kind of additional material gets released. And if we end up being further disappointed...well, there's always the retcon.

    Reply

    1. Darren Doyle:
      Jun 20, 2013 at 02:39 AM

      "The script they designed being an abugida, it would have been feasible to arrange the letters entirely at random and still have them seem to make sense when spoken aloud."

      This is exactly what I was thinking, and fearing, too. Hence my comment about hoping they didn't go the "Smallville route" (in Smallville they just started making up symbols by jumbling together the alphabetic symbols without any rhyme or reason. These symbols may or may not have been "translated"—more often than not they weren't and were just there to make something look Kryptonian).

      Of course, the quote from the designer interview, "Everything you see written on the walls in the Council Chamber and in Jor-El's lab is actually something from the Superman comics, existing Kryptonian mythology or philosophy," makes me think that perhaps there is something to it. However, the fact that no one seems to even remember this linguist's name or barely even mention that he exists tends to lean thinking in the other direction.

      But you are right. We simply can't know one way or another without more (a lot more) information.

      Reply

      1. Christine Schreyer:
        Jun 22, 2013 at 12:16 AM

        Hello from the "yet to be named linguist" (or the "yet to be found named by you linguist")! Thank you for your posts. It's been fascinating to see how much you've been able to figure out from the very little information you've been given. I hope that will change soon!
        http://fanboynation.com/man-of-steel-world-building/
        P.S. The word order described here is incorrect. You were right; it's SOV.

        Reply

        1. Dwight Williams:
          Jun 22, 2013 at 04:23 PM

          Good to make your acquaintance, speaking as a fan of comics-linked constructed languages! As it turns out, I stumbled onto that article just before scrolling to your reply.

          Reply

        2. Derek B.:
          Jun 23, 2013 at 02:15 AM

          Well met. It's nice to see our skepticism was unnecessary; thank you for the confirmation. I guess the hobbyists have their work cut out for them after all...

          Reply

  7. blah:
    Jun 27, 2013 at 04:05 AM

    You forgot to mention. They have alien ships floating around. They have advance technology. Why would his superman mom stay on his home planet. when she could of just escape with one the shipped or better yet instead of dying, just get into suspended animation? Why wouldn't all his people do the same thing.

    This movie was trash. All it was just a hype to make $ and they put some dude in it for the girls to enjoy it.

    Reply

    1. Derek B.:
      Jul 06, 2013 at 09:49 PM

      Funny thing is, out of all the flaws and plot holes that the viewing audiences have come across, this is the only one that they actually explain, in the movie. I'm afraid you're suffering a moderate to severe case of Snyder Syndrome.

      Reply

  8. LeVar Anthony:
    Jul 17, 2013 at 10:50 AM

    I actually see the names thing a bit differently. Im not a linguist or anything but I do have a passing fancy with Japanese. The way they use the names remind me a bit of that. Like, everyone calls Kal-El, Kal. To me this is the equivalent of the Japanese giving children the prefix of "-Kun" at the end of their names. So, when anyone speaks a first name part, it is because they can be a bit informal in that regard. Lara, Jor, Kal...all said by family or someone older than the latter. I mean, when Clark says, "That's my name? "Kal"? Jor-El kind of corrects him, "Kal-El"

    With the Suffix part of the name it represents the most formal you can be, much like the Japanese "-Samma". I think it should be noted that they only use it within the Council itself. As if House names are the most important within that setting. After all, this is a society that clings to bloodlines. Also, when Superman refers to General Zod as just Zod. It is a bit of a disrespect because "Kal" is still young and not a member of the council. Kal has not earned the right to call him by his House name. So, the less formal, but just as important "General Zod" is what Kal needs to call him.

    I dont know, maybe im way off base in this, but this is kinda how I see it.

    Reply

    1. Darren Doyle:
      Jul 17, 2013 at 11:47 AM

      First of all, the pedant in me would like to point out that prefixes don't get added to the end of anything—that would be a suffix.

      In your examples, though, these aren't really affixes, but their own words. Which brings me to my main point: your examples aren't really good analogues to Kryptonian because "kun", "san", and "sama" are all honorifics (like "mister" or "misses" in English) and not part of the person's name.

      So, I see what you are getting at, but I'll have to disagree with you and restate that I think it is too similar to an English "drop the last name for the familiar" structure. There are several other options for indicating different levels of respect, but, of course, those would all have to be in a Kryptonian language (like this) and wouldn't be very translatable without using something like "Mr. Jor-El" for a formal register which just sounds silly to me… but, on the other end of that translation spectrum, just "Jor" or "Kal" etc. for the familiar register sounds just as silly to me.

      Reply

      1. LeVar Anthony:
        Jul 17, 2013 at 06:54 PM

        You know, I knew I wrote the wrong "fix" I just forgot to go back and change it.

        When I watched Man of Steel for the first time I was kind of taken aback by the improper use of the character names. Its just that, as I watched it a few more times it seems to make since to me.

        I guess I just see them as a society that has abandoned all honorifics unless it referred to a station like General. Faora addresses herself as Sub-Commander Faora-Ul. But, man, I cant imagine anyone wanting to refer to someone all the time by their full title and name. I sure there are cultures and societies that do.

        Reply


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