Man of Steel: a Sort-of Review
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
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...
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".
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
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 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.
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!
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.
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?"