Zack Snyder hates Superman.
This argument has been made again and again in the six years since Snyder’s Superman movie Man Of Steel came out. The argument has ammunition. Snyder essentially took the most iconic superhero we have and inverted the character, stripping away many of the core elements of his appeal. To understand what Snyder didn’t do, you have to know what Superman is, at least in the popular imagination: Superman is supposed to be a mythic boy scout, a willfully corny guardian whose greatest weakness is his overwhelming love of humanity and whose greatest heartbreak is that he can’t save everyone who needs saving. Superman is bright and optimistic and silly.
Zack Snyder, on the other hand, has never made a bright or optimistic movie. He probably doesn’t think he’s made any silly ones, either; your mileage may vary. Snyder has a very specific style: painterly slow-motion tableaus of violence, sweeping digital vistas, heavy-amber color grades, oppressive cloud-covers, steely-eyed men making rousing pre-battle speeches. With all that in mind, DC’s choice of Snyder to direct Man Of Steel, the Superman reboot that became the company’s first real answer to Marvel’s suddenly dominant cinematic universe, was almost willfully perverse. Snyder was never going to be interested in the traditional pop-art Superman. Everyone involved had to know that from the jump.
Instead, Snyder did something else. He made a Superman movie faithful to his own tastes and ideas and proclivities. Despite a few tiny Easter-egg references to other DC entities—like the words “Wayne Enterprises” written on a satellite that gets destroyed before you can quite make them out—Man Of Steel is as self-contained as Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies. Snyder wasn’t necessarily trying to create a whole universe. He was trying to tell a grand American myth his own way. More than any of the Marvel movies that had come before, and more than almost any that have come since, Man Of Steel is a relatively uncompromising auteurist vision. That’s what’s good about it, and that’s where it fails, too.
With Man Of Steel, Snyder had to walk some weird lines. He had to tell a story that had already been told throughout virtually every storytelling medium, and he had to serve corporate overlords, not just in hitting the familiar plot beats but in forcing in product placement and delivering the big set pieces at the right intervals. And yet he did all that with his own visual sensibility, with his own ideas of tone and pacing, and with his own blackhearted narrative logic. He made a superhero movie that doesn’t really look, feel, or think like any previous superhero movie. Man Of Steel is a deeply flawed movie, and it’s often a boring one, too. It also goes for grand, overwhelming spectacle, and it achieves that majesty more often than many of us might like to admit. But in setting the tone for a whole lot of what would follow, it all but doomed DC’s whole cinematic-universe enterprise to failure.
The thing you need to know about Zack Snyder: He doesn’t give a fuck about humans. He never has. Has there ever been a fully-formed, convincingly alive character in any Zack Snyder movie? Off the top of my head, the closest thing to one I can think of is Chips, the dog from the Dawn Of The Dead remake. Snyder’s characters don’t laugh or interrupt each other or trail off mid-thought. They don’t do things that humans do. Instead, they brood, and pose, and play out their parts in vast preordained narratives. Snyder’s Watchmen was a total mess in a lot of ways, but that movie’s Dr. Manhattan might be the ultimate Zack Snyder character: calm, poised, ruminative, humorless, remote, dispassionate except in the rare moments where he gets pissed off, all-powerful, willing to accept crazy amounts of human death. And so when Snyder made a Superman movie, he pretty much came up with a Superman who was just like Dr. Manhattan.
Snyder’s Superman kills. That’s a primary reason why so many people hate Man Of Steel. General Zod, the movie’s antagonist, has been laying waste to Metropolis and doing his very best to wipe out all human life on Earth, to make the planet safe for the Kryptonian race to rise again. Superman has stopped him, so Zod’s just raging out and trying to revenge-kill as many as possible. He’s turned his heat vision on a family in a museum, and while Superman could probably think of any number of ways to stop Zod, he doesn’t. He just coldly snaps Zod’s neck, like this was a Steven Seagal movie or something. After killing, Superman falls to his knees and lets out a telegenic anguished roar, but one scene later, he seems just fine. He’s pretty okay with what he just did.
That scene works as a big fuck-you to the whole Superman mythos. Superman doesn’t kill. It’s a fundamental cornerstone of his character. In most versions, Superman recognizes how overwhelming his power is and how it makes everyone and everything around him fragile. And that understanding makes him gentle. With the neck-snap, Snyder threw that out the window. But Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer, I think, understand the ramifications of that choice. It’s not a misreading of the Superman character. It’s a rewriting. And it’s consistent with the vision of Superman we see throughout Man Of Steel.
For instance: When General Zod and Superman first fight, Superman smashes Zod out of an unpopulated farm and into downtown Smallville. Superman knows that Zod’s senses will be overwhelmed by his own newfound superpowers and that he can use this to get an advantage against this legendary career soldier. But to get this advantage, Superman has to turn his own hometown into a smoking hole in the ground. Smallville more or less explodes when Superman fights Zod there. And this is Superman’s hometown! The fight is probably killing people he’s known his whole life! But he does the mental calculations and figures that this is what he needs to do, and he doesn’t hold back.
In Richard Donner’s Superman II, Superman fights Zod and intentionally drags the fight out of Metropolis and into Antarctica, where nobody will be hurt. That is not what happens in Man Of Steel. Superman and Zod instead smash the whole city to pieces, leaving survivors to scramble to save themselves and each other. The movie’s destruction is so wanton that a lot of later superhero movies, including Snyder’s own Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, include big plotlines about the collateral damage from super-fights like that. (The big New York alien-battle centerpiece from the previous year’s Avengers left plenty of devastation, too, but it at least had scenes of the heroes trying to get people to safety. Man Of Steel just has Superman halfheartedly muttering that people should stay inside.)
But Superman is trying to save the planet. He doesn’t waste his time trying to grab individual people who might be falling out of buildings. He doesn’t get any cats out of trees, either. There’s a whole planet-reshaping machine working, and he has to break it before it kills everyone on Earth. So Superman maximizes his time. He calculates. And while we don’t see it happen on screen, it seems safe to assume that he lets a whole lot of people die.
And, as Snyder tells it, that’s how Superman was raised! In bits of flashback, we see Kevin Costner’s Jonathan Kent getting mad at Clark for saving all his classmates in a school-bus crash. Jonathan doesn’t think anyone should know about his son’s powers, and he’s willing to sacrifice a bus full of kids to keep that secret. He’s also willing to sacrifice himself. Clark watches Jonathan die in a tornado because Jonathan insists that nobody should know about his powers. And he’s not the only one who feels that way. Perry White, the newspaper editor, tells Lois Lane to cover up the Superman story because people wouldn’t be able to handle it. Again: A newspaper story! A guy whose entire life is predicated on letting people know what’s happening, whether or not they can handle it! For Snyder, those weird and indefensible principles are worth a few lives.
The humans aren’t the only cold-blooded motherfuckers in the movie, either. When General Zod is trying to recruit Superman to his cause, his sales pitch is, more or less, “You will be buried in human skulls, and also I killed your dad.” Maybe that’s just how they get down on Snyder’s version of Krypton.
This characterization of Superman isn’t a lot of fun. I don’t much like watching this take on the character. For entertainment value, it’s definitely got nothing on Marvel’s many extended families of squabbling quip-machines. And I don’t really like Snyder’s version of Superman. I wouldn’t want to hang out with him. And yet I respect the purity and brutality of Snyder’s goofy-ass vision.
A lot of what works about Man Of Steel is in the grandeur of the set pieces. The movie opens with a wild, psychedelic Kryptonian battle sequence, which is a whole hell of a lot more engaging than a bored Marlon Brando intoning at crystals for 20 minutes. There’s a frantic intensity to the super-being fights that didn’t have any real precedent in superhero movies. Like Brandon Routh in Superman Returns, Henry Cavill spends a lot of his time in Jesus Christ poses, floating in an ocean after saving workers from an exploding oil rig or in space after destroying a Kryptonian terraforming engine. It’s a movie about godlike forces colliding, and on a sheer spectacle level, it’s impressive.
But Snyder’s lack of interest in humanity is also a massive flaw in the movie, for reasons that go way beyond his off-the-reservation interpretation of the character. One classic element of Superman has always been the way the godlike being played Clark Kent as a klutzy, flustered galoot, and Snyder pretty much does away with the whole secret-identity thing entirely. He also jettisons the delicate dance between Clark and Lois Lane. And he doesn’t really replace those elements with anything.
We know, from The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Mission: Impossible—Fallout, that Henry Cavill can, at the very least, radiate macho-dickhead charm. But as Superman, he’s a big blank, totally unable to communicate the internal conflict that Snyder seems to want him to sell. We also know, from the past 15 years of American cinema, that Amy Adams is a truly great actor, vivid and alive when the material is there. She gets to show none of that in Man Of Steel. It’s the sort of movie where we know she’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter because she literally says, “I’m a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter.” The chemistry between Cavill and Adams is a vast blank. When they kiss, it seems to come utterly out of nowhere, a random freak occurrence with no buildup.
And the story, for all its intriguing subtext, is also a fucking mess. For example: Superman barely does anything superhoeroic before General Zod arrives. He saves a few people here and there, but he hasn’t yet put on the super-suit and revealed himself as a champion of the people of Earth. He also accidentally triggers the alert that brings Zod to Earth. Everything that happens afterward is, in a way, Superman’s fault. So either Snyder is arguing that the world would be a whole lot better without Superman—a side that Batman takes up in the sequel—or he just doesn’t do the work to explain why Superman’s presence is a good thing.
Also, I can’t claim to understand how the Kryptonian genetic codex is supposed to work, but it seems like Superman has billions of baby zygotes living in his blood, or something? That’s pretty weird! And he never really stops to process that! And the usual blockbuster-movie bullshit, like the (very) occasional comic-relief bits, or the glaring product placement for 7-Eleven or Sears, seems especially glaring in light of whatever mythic parable Snyder is trying to tell.
Man Of Steel, at least from where I’m sitting, is a bad movie, overlong and ponderous and numbing and joyless. But it’s ambitiously bad, or bad in interesting ways. Everything you need to know about the movie is right there in the scene where a young Clark Kent, already an outcast in his classroom, suddenly develops super-hearing and X-ray vision. It’s a nightmare for him. He curls up into a ball, unable to handle all the stimulation. Past tellings of the myth usually have the scene where Clark suddenly realizes he can fly, where he howls with glee and then gracefully swoops off into the sky. But there’s no exhilaration to the way Snyder tells the story. For him, superpowers represent a vast burden, a hell of other people.
Later on, we do get the scene where Superman first takes off into the air, and he even laughs, but then he immediately falls and smashes a mountain. And in Snyder’s hands, human flight isn’t a thing of beauty. It’s all sonic-boom violence, Clark’s body moving at shooting-star speeds that we can barely comprehend. The Superman-flying scenes are one more crushing, overwhelming thing about a movie that remains unrelenting in its heaviness.
The real problem with Man Of Steel isn’t Man Of Steel itself. It’s that some executives really thought a movie like this should be a jumping-off point for a whole movie universe, an answer to Marvel’s frothy entertainment-engines. After Man Of Steel, DC tried to rush a universe into being, and they used Snyder to do it. His next two superhero movies were increasingly incoherent and self-serious, and, worse than that, his grim vision seeped into everything else DC did. Even the widely loved Wonder Woman was, I thought, overburdened by its own importance. And it wasn’t until last year’s Aquaman that one of Snyder’s successors figured out ways to turn that blueprint into something fun, getting a self-consciously goofy stoner-fantasy out of it.
Man Of Steel made a lot of money. If it had flopped, if it had been allowed to remain a one-off experiment, then maybe we’d remember it as a clumsy but committed take on an iconic character. Instead, it became the shaky foundation for a whole lot of bad shit that followed. Plenty of that blame falls on Snyder, and plenty more falls on the executives who hired him and then kept hiring him. Don’t blame Zack Snyder for hating Superman. Blame everyone, Snyder included, who thought that his fucked-up version of Superman could become the basis for something bigger.
Other notable 2013 superhero movies: The solo Marvel movies became a bit weird in the aftermath of The Avengers. If all these heroes know each other, if they can function as a team, then why doesn’t Captain America show up when Iron Man is fighting a deranged fire-breathing tech genius who has kidnapped the president and given people a disease that makes them explode? Nonetheless, Iron Man 3 is a total joy. Robert Downey Jr.’s old buddy Shane Black, once a driving force behind clever and self-conscious ’80s and ’90s action movies, delivers on all the Marvel popcorn thrills—like the kinetic scene where Tony Stark saves a bunch of Air Force One passengers as they’re plummeting to the ground—while indulging his own ideas about motormouthed heart-of-gold fuckups, old-school detective-novel plotting, heroic halfassery, and Christmas decorations. It’s my favorite of the Iron Man movies.
Thor: The Dark World, meanwhile, has a pretty satisfying answer on why Thor’s Avengers buddies aren’t around to help: He spends most of the movie in Asgard, or in other off-world realms, where those guys have never been. But the movie itself is a plodding bore, a cut-rate Lord Of The Rings fantasy with a singularly unmemorable villain, an indistinct look, and a whole lot of nothing for Natalie Portman to do. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki gets some room to have fun, but even with that in mind, it’s still the worst movie ever to come out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
In non-MCU Marvel news, James Mangold got ahold of everyone’s favorite X-Man with The Wolverine, and this was a good thing. The Wolverine largely eases up on the CGI theatrics, instead sending Wolverine to Japan and building a low-stakes old-school action movie around him, letting him battle ninjas and yakuza, staging cool fights on bullet-train roofs. Mangold would do a whole lot more with the character the next time around, but this was a strong start.
Kick-Ass 2 is a movie nobody ever needed, one that cranks up the original’s empty edge-lord provocations even further, acting like it’s pushing envelopes when it’s really just telling the same stupid fucking joke again and again. This is a movie where the villain decides that his name is the Motherfucker. It’s a movie where the Motherfucker attempts to rape a superhero, telling her that she’s about to “see what evil dick feels like,” and it plays that for laughs. It’s a movie where a pre-W’Kabi Daniel Kaluuya gets wasted as a villainous henchman in an African-savage costume. Jim Carrey starred as a hardbitten Captain America figure, then distanced himself from the movie after the Sandy Hook massacre, claiming that he didn’t want to be associated with something so wantonly violent. Fair enough, but he should’ve known better than to be in the fucking thing in the first place.
Also, I guess the Ryan Reynolds Ghostbusters/Men In Black ghost-cops bite R.I.P.D. counts as a superhero movie? It’s an unqualified disaster that nobody even remembers, which might somehow make it worse than Green Lantern. People at least remember Green Lantern.
Next time: Marvel pulls off some kind of insane coup with Guardians Of The Galaxy, turning a strange and non-famous sci-fi super-team into absurdly entertaining, weirdly moving blockbuster mainstays.