Has there ever been a good Superman movie? I’m beginning to think not. I have a fondness from days of yore for the first two Christopher Reeve versions, but they don’t hold up so well. Parts of them are great. May we at least say that? If nothing else, Zod as played by Terence Stamp is iconic. He’s the reason Zod is the villian in Man of Steel, just as Khan is the villian in the latest Star Trek atrocity. Studios panic at the notion of feeding the public something not previously vetted. Who do you think Superman will go up against in Man of Steel 2? Kryptonite Man? Atomic Skull? Mister Mxyzptlk? He’d be more likely to battle sentient toaster-ovens from Earth 7. No, instead we can all wait with bated breath for news of what famous actor will next be assaying Lex Luthor. Who last appeared in Superman Returns, the previous attempt at resurrecting the magic alien in blue tights. Which was so bad it took seven years before anyone was brave enough to try again. I wish they hadn’t bothered.
People aways tell me to turn off my brain when watching movies like Man of Steel, but alas, I am cursed with a brain that refuses to power down during the summer months, even during the bloated explodey spectaculars I all too often force it to endure (though I’m no monster; I didn’t take my brain to see After Earth, and if I gave even a moment’s thought to seeing The Lone Ranger, I fear it would sieze up and die). I’ve never been able to shut the squirmy bastard down.
Not so this time! Prior to seeing Man of Steel I studied up on trepanning, found my brain’s power-toggle, and turned it off for the duration. What follows is the conversation I had with my brain when I switched it back on. I hope it proves edifying.
ME: You owe me big, brain.
BRAIN: Why? What happened? Why did the lights go out? It was so dark, so very, very dark. Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do–
ME: Quit clowning around. This is serious business. I shut you off to watch Man of Steel.
BRAIN: No! You wouldn’t! What the hell? I love Superman. “Kneel before Zod!”
ME: It was an experiment. See that hole in your skull?
BRAIN: Hole in–? Jesus! You maniac! I thought I just imagined that for you.
ME: Had to be done. It’s directed by Zack Snyder. Remember what you did to me after I took you to Watchmen?
BRAIN: I apologized for that.
ME: I still hoot like a gibbon every time I smell limburger! I did us both a favor this time.
BRAIN: Did you? I hope it worked.
BRAIN: I say, I hope it worked. Hello?
ME: I hear you, it’s just, I’m not sure. If it worked. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to turn you all the way off?
BRAIN: Why? What happened?
ME: Well, I watched it. I mean I saw it. Sitting there. In a sort of catatonic zombie-state. It was there in front of me, the movie, all its shiny lights and epic super-battles, but the thing of it is, without you to tell me what I thought, I don’t know what to think.
BRAIN: That’s a sticky wicket, all right.
ME: I was hoping that if I described it for you, you could weigh in.
BRAIN: Sounds perfectly reasonable. Let me get comfortable, adjust these pillows, dim the lights…Okay. Let’s hear it.
ME: It begins on the planet Krypton—
BRAIN: I’m with you so far.
ME: –with Kal-El’s, i.e. Superman’s, ma screaming and giving birth to him.
BRAIN: Subtle. Go on.
ME: After which Jor-El, Supes’s dad, tells the council the whole planet’s going to blow up, because even though he told them not to, they messed around with the planet’s core anyway, and now they’re all going to die, when suddenly, mid-discussion, Zod storms in, shoots an old lady on the council with a funny hat (the lady is wearing a funny hat; Zod doesn’t shoot her with one), and proclaims himself the new ruler of Krypton, whereupon Jor-El, after Zod refuses his request to quit with the revolutionizing, runs away and jumps on a flying lizardbug that whisks him to the secret underwater chamber where the magical half-skull of a Neanderthal Kryptonian (I’m guessing on that bit) is kept, which, see, the skull, it has these sparkly designs on it, but those don’t really matter, because the thing is is that it’s the Codex, which means all of Krypton’s biological history—or the, like, DNA of everyone who ever lived? or of everyone who’s going to live? or something?—is on it, or in it, and it’s one of a kind, it’s seriously the most wowsers superskull ever, though strangely it’s neither guarded nor locked up, hence Jor-El has no problem nabbing it, swimming back out, and leaping to his death when the hovering attack ships try and fail to blast him from like ten feet away, only his leap doesn’t kill him, because, in a hugely surprising twist, from out of nowhere flies his winged lizardbug, who takes him home, where he then laser-zaps the Codex into baby Kal’s very cells before packing him into a spaceship and shooting him to Earth, one of the planets that, about 18,000 years ago, then imperialist Krypton sent scout ships to in an effort to establish far-flung colonies (colonies they later abandoned), although actually, back up a sec, it’s ma who presses Kal’s launch button, even though by now Zod has barged in and told ma that doing so will make him very angry indeed, so angry that when she does it anyway, he kills Jor-El, only then, before his henchman’s spaceship can blow up Kal’s escape pod, the good Kryptonians blow up Zod’s henchman’s ship and bring Zod and the rest of them to trial, where they’re judged not only by the (surviving) council members—the ones apparently at fault for the planet’s imminent disintegration, let’s not forget—but also by Kal’s ma, whose husband, you may recall from earlier in the film, stole the lone Kryptionian Codex, destroyed it by zapping its info into his son, and shot his son—which son, by the way, was born naturally, a totally illegal thing to do—to Earth, and nobody ever mentions this or even looks at her funny (at Kal’s ma), not even Zod, who you’d think, being on trial for his life, might bring it up, but so anyway he yells about racial purity and stuff, nobody cares, and he’s sent to like a weird snakey prison ship that turns into a scary triangle and zaps itself into the Phantom Zone, quite the stroke of luck as it turns out, because it’s basically right then that the entire planet blows up (the effects of which explosion release Zod from imprisonment), an event we watch through the eyes of the stoically accepting mother of Kal, the very special boy now on his way to Earth, and, one expects, further stupendous adventures.
BRAIN: I hate to say it, but color me impressed. Simply fitting that much into a single movie is quite a feat. And however loony it all is, I like the whole story taking place on Krypton. On the one hand, I hate backstory movies, but this is kind of cool, even daring, in a way, having the whole film not even be about Superman, but rather about the struggles of his parents on a dying world.
ME: Oh, I’m sorry. Was I not clear? That’s the first ten minutes.
BRAIN: Fuck you.
ME: Maybe twelve. Give or take.
BRAIN: Pardon me. I meant to say: FUCK. YOU.
ME: I swear on my grandmother’s grave!
BRAIN: Are you fucking kidding me? Let me remind you how Jaws opens: some kids are drinking at a beach bonfire. One stoned girl runs down to the water, strips naked, goes swimming, and is eaten by a fucking shark. Is that not exciting enough?
ME: I’m going to go with “no.”
BRAIN: Did you say lizardbug?
ME: It’s a tough call. It has sorta leathery wings, but its body is maybe chitinous?
BRAIN: “Chitinous.” Good word. So what’s Krypton look like? If the original Donner Superman movies have anything going for them, it’s the unknowably alien ice planet they came up with.
ME: Do you remember Avatar?
BRAIN: Oh god no.
ME: It’s like Avatar but, I don’t know how to put it…stupider.
BRAIN: Okay, so let me get this straight. Zod’s on Jor-El’s side to begin with—
ME: Not exactly. Though he tries to be friends with him in the coup scene.
BRAIN: So Zod believes Jor-El? That the planet is about to go boom?
ME: No. Nobody does. Even though it’s so unstable that it’s going to explode in like an hour. Or possibly a week. I have to idea.
BRAIN: What did Zod want with the Codex?
ME: Maintain racial purity? Or something? See, all Kryptonian babies are born in a seaweedy jellyfish tank, and grow up in a caste system Zod’s unhappy with.
BRAIN: He’s going to destroy the Codex, then.
ME: No, he’s going to use it…to…to…maybe to make a different caste system? I think he’s going to reprogram the half-skull.
BRAIN: Fine. You made that last part up, but fine. My point is, if the planet’s about to blow up, isn’t the best possible outcome having the Codex shot away to someplace safe?
ME: Absolutely. If there’s any hero here, at least from the Kryptonian perspective, it’s Jor-El.
BRAIN: Then what’s Zod’s problem with Superman?
ME: It turns out that Zod’s still mad at Jor-El.
BRAIN: For saving the Codex when everyone else, including Zod, was too preoccupied with power-grabs to notice the planet exploding?
ME: Well, not exactly. It’s more personal.
BRAIN: Zod’s mad at Jor-El for…well, for what? For having been killed by Zod?
ME: Hm. I guess so.
BRAIN: I’m a brain, and I have no idea what you’re talking about.
ME: Let’s move on.
BRAIN: Wait a second. Did you say Kal was a special baby?
ME: Yes. He’s the first naturally born Kryptonian in a good 300 years.
BRAIN: Meaning he’s special on his home planet, too. Assuming he still had one. Doesn’t that kind of kill the mythos? Isn’t the whole point that he’s just like anybody else back home, and only super on Earth?
ME: I don’t read comic books.
BRAIN: Right. I knew that. Do we have to endure him growing up in Kansas?
ME: Only in the form of character-building flashbacks. He’s introduced as a mopey guy, maybe early 20’s, who works jobs until somebody picks a fight with him, and then he leaves instead of turning them into mush. And this one time after not fighting a guy, the guy walks out of the diner to see his eighteen wheeler all twisted and tied up with a few redwoods in a sculpture I hope to see next year at Burning Man.
BRAIN: Because he wants to stay on the down-low.
ME: Yes. There’s a few flashbacks of Kansas where Kevin Costner, who plays Pa Kent, tells him he can never show anyone who he really is, or all Earthlings would go bonkers nutso. So for example, twelve year old Clark hauls an entire schoolbus full of drowing kids out of a river, and Pa Kent tells him that wasn’t cool. Which is why later, when a twister is about to kill everybody, Pa Kent goes back to the car to save the dog instead of asking Clark to do it.
BRAIN: Because he’d have to fly or something to reach the dog in time, and everyone would know he was a space-alien-monster?
ME: No. He could’ve just run at human speed.
BRAIN: I’m not following you.
ME: Pa Kent goes for the dog instead, and then his foot gets stuck in the car door, and Clark just stands there watching, doing nothing. And then Pa Kent stands up and smiles and the tornado gets him.
BRAIN: Superman watches his father die instead of saving him.
ME: Right, and it looks like Pa Kent did it on purpose, like he means to die, so he can really teach Clark a lesson about never ever never using his superpowers, because he’s being saved for a special purpose. Which I guess doesn’t involve the superpowers? Actually I’m a little unclear on everything Pa Kent does in this movie.
BRAIN: I really hate you. You’re telling me Superman lets people die?
ME: Oh man, we’re not anywhere near that part yet. Block after city block of New York or Gotham or Metropolis or whatever it’s called is destroyed, in large part by Zod’s world-building super-badass-spaceship-like-thingamawhatsit, and in equal measure by Superman fighting him. I’d estimate the death toll in, conservatively, the low millions.
BRAIN: Did you have me shipped to another planet? Superman lets millions die? Because Pa Kent convinces him it’s wrong to save people?
ME: He doesn’t just let them die. He participates in their destruction. You should see what happens to Smallville. Supes tells everyone to get inside, then goes about destroying the entire town. It’s insane. But on the plus side, he saves Lois a bunch of times. And that newspaper guy and his, I don’t know, stenographer girl? Did that character have a name?
BRAIN: Fuck the stenographer! Superman’s entire reason for existence is to help people! This makes no sense at all! How is he even Superman?
ME: He’s not, until the end, when he decides to be.
BRAIN: So his wayward 20-something mopings result in the deaths of millions?
ME: Ow! Cut it out! That hurts.
BRAIN: Get used to it, you heartless bastard! Why does he stop moping in the first place? Because Zod shows up?
ME: Hm, well, sort of. Actually, see, remember that time he worked at a diner? With the sculpture he made? He overhears these two army guys mention some weird goings on in the arctic or Alaska or something. And then there’s this army helicopter and Lois Lane is on board, and when she gets off, Clark is there handling her luggage.
BRAIN: Her luggage.
ME: Right. I guess he maybe works for the helicopter company?
BRAIN: The army’s helicopter company.
ME: And then the thing in the ice is actually one of those Kryptonian scout ships from 18,000 years ago, so—
BRAIN: Hold on. You’re telling me that’s how Clark and Lois meet each other?
ME: Right, and then she follows him inside the ship late at night when no one’s looking, and he plugs in the little S thumb-drive thing his dad gave him that you think is the Codex but isn’t, which fits, and then his dad’s sentient, conscious hologram appears and talks him through some stuff.
BRAIN: You swear you didn’t make this up?
ME: I wish. You know what they pay David S. Goyer for these scripts?
BRAIN: If the ship’s 18,000 years old, how in the hell do they still have exactly the same technology? Nothing’s changed in 18,000 years? When was the last time you tried sticking a floppy disc into a Mac? And what’s a sentient hologram?
ME: It’s the kind you can have a normal conversation with, and it can see everything on the ship. So when later Lois flies up to Zod’s ship with Superman, this is after he turns himself in, she plugs the S thumb-drive, which he wisely slipped to her earlier, into the ship, because her prison cell naturally has an input thingy, and hey presto, there’s Jor-El talking her up.
BRAIN: Why is Lois on Zod’s ship?
ME: Because when Superman surrenders himself to Zod, Zod wants Lois there too.
BRAIN: But why? For what purpose?
ME: I think so she can plug the thing in and release Jor-El’s magic hologram. Jor-El leads her to an escape pod and she flies back to Earth, only this angry lady who’s Zod’s friend messes it up, so Superman has to save her.
BRAIN: But–But–That’s–none of this makes any–ARGH! Okay, how does Superman get away from Zod?
ME: Oh boy. I think maybe Jor-El messes with the atmosphere of the ship? And then Superman jumps out of a hole in its side with arms spread out so we all go, “It’s Jesus! Oh my word! He’s Jesus and Jor-El is God!” Oh, and did I mention the earlier Jesus scene where he floats with the whales?
BRAIN: Superman isn’t Jesus! You know who created Superman?
ME: I don’t read comic books.
BRAIN: Forget it. So that skull in the beginning, the Neanderthal looking one, you’re telling me that Kryptonians and humans are related? And that’s why they look exactly the same? And their planet is like our God-planet? The one that created us?
ME: No. What? Where’d you get that from? There’s nothing in the movie about that at all. We just happen to look exactly like Kryptonians.
BRAIN: Sure, of course. Why make a simple story complicated? You wouldn’t want to mess with the Superman canon, after all.
BRAIN: What’s Zod’s motivation again?
ME: He wants to terraform Earth and use Superman’s cells, which contain the Codex, to recreate Krypton, which would necessarily kill everything human.
BRAIN: So they fight.
ME: Oh boy do they ever! They spend a good hour, or what feels like an hour, slamming each other into buildings and throwing trains at each other and so on and so forth.
BRAIN: How does Superman stop him? Does he get him back into the Phantom Zone? Or otherwise banish him to a parallel universe or something?
ME: No, he just kills him.
BRAIN: What do you mean he just kills him? He can’t kill him! That’s insane! First off, Zod’s as strong as Superman. He can’t be killed.
ME: Yeah, but Zod uses his heat vision to almost fry this really sweet looking family, and they’re crying and stuff, so Superman breaks his neck.
BRAIN: You said Superman let millions die! And aided in their deaths!
ME: Yeah, but when they’re right in front of you, and the kid is crying? Come on.
BRAIN: Superman breaks Zod’s neck.
ME: The fight really lasts a long time. Someone had to win eventually.
BRAIN: Superman, who never kills anyone, snaps Zod’s neck in front of a sweet family? Does he yell “Yippee-kay-ay, motherfucker!” when he does it?
ME: That would have been a nice touch.
BRAIN: Oh, to be sure. How’s the acting?
ME: Michael Shannon as Zod is, as ever, highly watchable. Given what he has to work with, he does a good job. I can’t say I noticed anyone else.
BRAIN: What about Superman?
ME: Henry Cavill? Looks like he works out quite a bit. His Kal/Clark/Superman shows no emotion whatsoever, seems to care about nothing at all, has the morals of a Sith Lord, and comes across as an eerily affectless alien.
BRAIN: What about the whole mild-mannered-reporter disguise?
ME: That’s the tag at the end. He gets a job at The Daily Planet newspaper with Lois.
BRAIN: What’s a “newspaper”? Ha! I kid. Seriously, though, does he zap her brain so she forgets who he is?
ME: No, she knows it’s him. She gives him a sexy smile kind of thing, and nobody else recognizes him.
BRAIN: I swear to–Does anything in this movie make a damn bit of sense?
ME: That’s what I’m asking you! I don’t know what to think!
BRAIN: I think you’re supposed to think you’ve been hoodwinked! Hornswoggled! Bamboozled! Cozened! Befooled! If even half of what you say is true, this is the worst comic book movie since Watchmen! You have suffered a grave indignity, my friend. I suggest seeking recourse through the courts.
ME: So this whole turning you off business was a con. It doesn’t work at all.
BRAIN: Certainly it does! And you did do it correctly, by shutting me down completely. In so doing, you stared limp-witted and dim-bethought as a catatonic and left not knowing good from bad. Your only mistake was in filling me in afterwards.
ME: By gosh you’re right! It worked after all! What now?
BRAIN: Here’s what now: I, and therefore you, think you’d better turn me back off. Wake me when Oscar season rolls around.