Man of Steel hit cinemas months ago at this point. I want to share with you my thoughts on the film, just because it offers a good framework on which to hang my various thoughts about writing and storytelling. I’m not writing a review here in the sense that I’m offering a consumer guide to help you answer the question of “Should I pay money to see this?” because if you were going to see the film at the cinema you probably would have by now and chances are you already have. I just want to explore some of Man of Steel‘s unique… qualities, shall we say.
Two warnings before we start: first of all this rant is long. I only post one of these a month because they take a month to write. I could just write more often and go into less detail, but I find going into way too much detail is a really useful tool — for me at least.
Second warning: like all in-depth analyses of works of fiction, this rant assumes its audience has already seen the thing being discussed. I’ve kept things spoiler-free, simply because I didn’t need to mention specific plot points to get my point across, but you must know going in that you’ll be able to get the most out of this rant if you’ve seen Man of Steel. And even though I’ve avoided spoiling the plot, if you really want to avoid spoilers you probably shouldn’t read something like this. Just knowing my opinion in advance could colour the whole thing for you.
Okay, let’s go!
Disappointing Movies versus Bad Movies
It’s not that I thought Man of Steel was a terrible film. Terrible films make me laugh, they don’t frustrate me. Films that have the potential to be good but fall into easily-avoidable traps, these frustrate me.
I don’t get frustrated when I watch The Happening because, as bad as it is, I can’t imagine a world in which it could have been that much better. When all’s said and done it’s about a mysterious phenomenon that causes people to throw themselves off buildings, lie down in front of lawn mowers and slowly, methodically feed themselves to lions. There’s only so much story meat on them bones.
But the premise of Man of the Steel is “Superman!” It is a Superman movie, and we’ve already had good ones of those.
The Bible and Sandwiches, I Guess
We’ve had a lot of good superhero stories full stop at this point. If you’re a filmmaker with not a lot to say I’ve got some good news for you and some bad news. The bad news is that the audience now expects a certain level of quality from its superhero fare: no Fantastic-Four-ing it up. The good news is that if you’re at the level of ‘competent hack’ you can still make a good film anyway just by following the formula. Superhero movies don’t just have a structure that a lot of them follow, they have a really simple structure that a lot of them follow. You know what I’m talking about. Young hero gains powers, explores the possibilities of his powers, learns a lesson about responsibility, interacts with his love interest, a creeping threat looms, love interest is threatened, hero saves the day but there are consequences. Spider-man, Batman Begins, Iron Man — a lot of first instalments in trilogies takes this shape. Even if you take something that isn’t part of a franchise and isn’t a comic book adaptation — Chronicle, for example — and test it against that structure, you can see how they’ve hit those notes. If I was rebooting the Superman movie franchise, I might be tempted to hit those same notes myself, write something formulaic. I’m not even saying that like it’s a bad thing. Writing within a predefined structure can yield some amazing results. Sonnets, for example, have a very rigid structure — down to which stress you can put on which syllables — yet some beautiful poetry has been written that way. So it can be with formulaic writing. It can free you up to focus on a lot of other cool things. People always say ‘formulaic’ like it’s a bad thing, but I would much rather watch a formulaic film that does something interesting within than familiar structure than watch a film with no recognisable structure at all but which has nothing interesting to say besides the fact that it eschews structure. Brick is a formulaic film and it is excellent. The Happening boldly chooses not to follow any plot structure and consequently is a film (true to its title) about stuff happening until it inexplicably stops happening.
I’m not advocating all films being exactly the same. The shape a film’s plot takes is a small part of the overall experience of a film. If I was making the case to Zack Snyder, I would start by telling him that if he makes a film with a similar plot to Iron Man, most people won’t notice and nobody will care. Nobody cares. Nobody cares if your film has a plot structure that resembles another film. Try this experiment: find someone at a house party who likes Moulin Rouge, then explain to them exactly why the plot structure is identical to Shakespeare in Love, now observe their expression of intense disinterest. Now repeat that experiment twenty times with twenty people at twenty parties. Now you know what it’s like being me at a — I mean, now you know how few people care about similarity between plot structures.
Then I would tell Zack Snyder that he can still make a unique, interesting film with a familiar plot structure. Those examples I gave before — Spider-man, Batman Begins, Iron Man, Chronicle — they are all very different films, they just have similar beats. They’ve got unique characters, good screenplays and (with the exception of Chronicle) they’ve had successful sequels. So it could have been with Man of Steel. I’m just saying, they had the structure right there. That structure has stood the test of time, you can trace forms of it back thousands of years. Who knows? Maybe these stories are similar because of a fundamental truth about why we tell stories. The problem is, they don’t just try to tell the story of Superman, they try to tell it whilst simultaneously doing the opposite of every other superhero film that’s come before it. They’re not doing what feels right for them creatively, they’re just deliberately being different.
It’s not what I would have done had I been in Zack Snyder’s position, but then I’m not a genius film-maker. The problem is, I’m not sure Zack Snyder is a genius film-maker either.
Let’s put it this way: I’m not a gourmet chef. I can cook delicious food but I don’t improvise in the kitchen. I follow the frigging recipe. Gourmet chefs experiment and improvise, then they write the recipes for the rest of us to follow. Or maybe they’ve just been in the kitchen so long they know what every ingredient is supposed to do instinctively.
So if you’re Zack Snyder and you’re whipping up a batch of Superman, you’ve just got to ask yourself one question: “Am I the gourmet chef or am I the guy who follows the recipe?” Bare in mind that Zack Snyder’s best successes have been slavish shot-for-shot adaptations of successful graphic novels. His previous hits (i.e. his non-Sucker-Punch body of work) were all plotted out and storyboarded twenty years before he touched them.
And let’s not forget, if movie plots are recipes the ‘superhero origin + first bad guy encounter’ movie is the sandwich of recipes; it’s such a straightforward process that people don’t consider it a recipe at all, they just expect you to do the thing and get it right, to the point where they will be baffled and disappointed if you don’t. There is a point where deviating from the shape most stories take starts to look less like auteurism and more like making conscious, deliberate mistakes. I can barely imagine what it must have been like watching them make Man of Steel — it must have been like watching someone failing at making a sandwich. It’s easy: two pieces of bread, sandwich filling, optional condiments and garnishes. If you can improve on the classic by all means serve me an open sandwich or a toasted sandwich, but if you suspect for a moment that you might be just be a competent hack, I would recommend you stick to the recipe. Don’t — DON’T — just flail around in the kitchen for three hours and bring me a car tyre sprinkled in breadcrumbs.
There have been so many superhero movies at this point that most of us were sort of writing our own screenplay for Man of Steel as we walked into the cinema. And, unlike Iron Man where they just need to find a way to get some shrapnel into his heart and it doesn’t matter how it gets there, the audience of a Superman movie knows the characters’ personalities, it even knows what emotional cues to expect. Lives being saved at the last minute, daring rescues, feats of strength, Ma and Pa Kent finding a baby in a spaceship, plucky Lois Lane’s journalistic instincts drowning out her basic survival instincts. You need to cover this ground. These are the turkey, bacon, lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise of your club sandwich. These moments are carved into the very edifice of our shared culture as much as scenes from the Bible. If Superman is on the poster, I know what to expect, just as I know what I expect when I see ‘club sandwich’ on the menu. Man of Steel could have been the best film in the world but it’s not what I ordered. If you screw around with the mythology of Superman it’s just as jarring as seeing the wise men from the nativity helping Jesus to build Noah’s Ark. I mean, yes he’s a carpenter so he could probably fill that role, but dicking about with the timeline just raises too many questions… and it’s kind of offensive to anyone sufficiently invested in the mythos.
That said, I wouldn’t have minded if Man of Steel had just been disappointing as a Superman story if it had been a good story, but it’s also just disappointing as a film in its own right. It happens to be the case that most, but not all, of those problems in the latter category seem to rise out of how they decided to adapt the material. Watching the film it’s so easy to spot simple ways that the film could have been improved — an excellent film was just within arm’s reach — and they failed. I’m not a film-maker or someone who knows about the craft of movies; I don’t know what aspect ratio they used or whether the problems can be attributed to the Director of Photography or the Editor or the Best Boy. I’m just a guy who’s fascinated by the mechanics of storytelling, and despite my ignorance, even I can see where they could have made it better.
Because Superman deserves better. I say this as someone who isn’t even a fan of Superman (a Superfan?).
My History with Superman
I don’t really have one.
I’ve always been interested in superheroes in general and I love superhero movies unabashedly, everything from The Avengers to Chronicle to V for Vendetta (if that counts) but I don’t have any long-standing affection for the character of Superman left over from childhood: I never saw any of the Christopher Reeve films until later in life, my only contact with Superman beyond his status as a much-referenced cultural touchstone was the crappy 90s TV show with Dean Cain, which I still remember with fondness. However, the 90s TV show was not about Superman per se, it was about the work lives of two wise-cracking reporters, one of whom occasionally shoots lasers out of his eyes.
I actually really liked Superman Returns. Again, the things I liked about it didn’t have a great deal to do with Superman himself. I liked the action sequences, I liked the script, I liked Kevin Spacey. I liked the fact that the film-makers were saddled with a superhero so overpowered that he can do almost anything and they were still able to spend the entire film throwing problems at him that even he could barely solve (and a few that he couldn’t solve at all).
It’s like that age-old philosophical quandary. You invent the concept of an all-powerful creating God so some smart-arse says “Okay, could God create a rock that he couldn’t move?” That always struck me as the kind of question a nerd would ask. Well, Bryan Singer is a huge nerd and he turned his nerdly gaze onto Superman. He created a rock that Superman can’t move then Superman FUCKING MOVES IT ANYWAY OH MY GOD HE’S SO STRONG!
Sorry, I got a little carried away there. Bryan Singer’s affection for the character is infectious. Seriously, though. I rewatched that film recently and it really is beautiful. It’s got some lovely imagery and a gorgeous soundtrack that makes good use of the classic John Williams Superman theme. Some might call it slowly-paced and I suppose it is by the standards of an action movie but what it’s really doing is taking the time to explore characters’ psychology. It’s telling a sensitive and thoughtful story. Because matters of the heart, feeling like you belong, relationships — these are areas where super strength won’t help at all and it’s good to have a mixture of invulnerability and vulnerability in your superhero story. Plus that scene with the aeroplane rescue is heart-stopping. Props to Superman Returns. It’s a warm-hearted, ponderous beast of a movie with some dazzling plumage.
My Expectations Before the Film
I saw trailers for what looked like they could be for a gritty and realistic take on Superman. I’m not sure how gritty Man of Steel really is, but we could all tell from that trailer that with this film Warner Brothers are going for older audiences because they think older people are the kind of people that made Christopher Nolan’s beloved Batman movies such a financial success. In fact, people who like good movies made Nolan’s Batman movies a financial success. Slapping a similar aesthetic on Superman and cranking the seriousness up to 11 wasn’t the surefire recipe for success they thought it was. This overt decision does help us to understand why the film looks and sounds the way it does. We knew going in that they were trying for a grown up and realistic tone, and it goes some way towards explaining the film’s complete lack of a sense of humour and its cinéma vérité camera shakes. From my summary you might be able to guess I wasn’t terribly impressed by these choices but, credit where credit’s due, I’m sure they impressed that certain kind of 15-year-old who thinks that never cracking a smile and talking out loud about how conflicted you’re feeling equates to realism and maturity.
On the drive to the cinema, this is what I thought about: did we really need a serious-minded and realistic Superman movie? For a time it seemed like superhero movies were going in the direction, because people like a bit of moral choice and dramatic decision-making with their popcorn cinema and it seemed that pushing comic adaptations towards seriousness and realism was the only way to get that. But then Iron Man flew in wearing his shiny gold and hot rod red power armour and gave us a film packed with big decisions and moral choice nestled in an intelligent screenplay drizzled in humour. Since then, a lot of films have delivered action, drama and laughs in equal measure. And actually I should point out at this point, as I have in the past, that for all its perceived seriousness The Dark Knight is one of those films (the Joker is unprecedentedly, genuinely funny, that’s what makes him so scary in that film — five words: “I kill the bus driver”). And, of course, the massive success of The Avengers has shown us once and for all that light-hearted, colourful and funny is not the enemy of mature, dramatic and weighty: you can have both in the same film. We’ve settled that one. Hell, even the darkest and most serious-minded of action films must allow its characters to at least indulge in some ironic detachment and gallows humour — that’s just realistic, that’s just what people do in those situations.
Does Superman need a new costume that’s all scaly and dark-coloured? Does he need to mope around with a beard being cynical and disaffected? Captain America managed to wear a pretty dorky costume in both of the films he’s appeared in and he was a boy-scout, yet he was still able to kick all kinds of ass. The lesson from this is: keep the character the same and just hire a good writer. I’m getting ahead of myself. Gritty and realistic Superman. I was not impressed at that point, but I relish the opportunity to be proven wrong.
Failure as a Superman Story
We don’t see the scene of Clark Kent’s parents finding him as a baby. It’s a weirdly specific thing to miss, I know, but if your story is going to focus at all on the relationship between Clark and his parents (as this one does) then that moment really helps establish that relationship. You see the childless couple beforehand, you see their joy at finding a baby, you see their understanding of how this child is special. It would have made an elegant transition between the stuff on Krypton and the stuff on Earth. There are other classic Superman beats missing: Clark Kent doesn’t wear glasses, he doesn’t work at the Daily Planet, he isn’t friends with Lois Lane, he spends almost no time rescuing people. We can feel where those moments should go in the story and we can feel the movie chopping them out. Why did they chop? Just because they know we know what to expect and they’re deliberately trying to not give it to us? Just because they didn’t want to tell another superhero origin story? Just because we know what’s supposed to happen so we can fill in the gaps in the story ourselves? Well, if that’s your attitude, why tell a Superman story at all? It reminds me of the Harry Potter films, where they spend a disproportionate amount of screentime on big set pieces that aren’t in the book and skimp on the plot details, relying on the audience’s familiarity with the source material to fill in the gaps. You can’t do that. A film needs to make sense in the absence of previous works. Not only is the finished product, taken by itself, stupid and confusing but it also looks like you’re just going through the motions, trying to make something that scrapes by with the bare minimum number of elements from the original story.
Goblet of Fire: a bit with a dragon! Something with water! Hedge maze! Quidditch World Cup! A ball! Hold on to your butts! Wait, this film has a plot? Goblet of Fire! Dumbledoooooooooooooore!
Man of Steel: Cape! Parents! Lois Lane! Good, that’s out of the way, let’s fill the rest of the film with big action set pieces. Oh, and Zod!
Yes, Zod is in this movie. Remember that guy, played by Terence Stamp in Superman II? Well, we’re treated to a kind of warped retelling of his plotline from that film but, as I hinted before, they jumbled up the order of events. When the plot of Man of Steel starts to unfold and the evil General Zod appears, Clark hasn’t even assumed the identity of Superman yet. That raises more than a few problems, but we’ll get to that in a second. What’s with the jumbling, though? Again, it feels like they’re just changing things for the sake of changing them. What are they trying to achieve this time?
It’s because they wanted to establish a causal relationship between the characters, like the Dark Knight trilogy’s take on Batman and the Joker. The Batman movies didn’t mess with the order of events, but they did add some causality to the story that doesn’t really appear in the comics. In the comics the Joker just appears fully-formed and Batman has to stop him because that’s what a Batman does. The hero versus villain status quo is established immediately, it’s an innate assumption. In the world of the comics there is Batman and his allies and, existing separately to that group, there are also crazy clowns and spacemen and dudes with shrinking rays; and sometimes the two groups clash. In Batman Begins it’s just Batman at first — most of the criminals Batman fights are just regular guys with guns. He doesn’t start off punching Mr Freeze on a rooftop. But then it’s suggested at the end of Batman Begins that because he’s taken this leap — putting on a costume, employing theatricality and deception, scaring the living shit out of people — that criminals will follow suit. So when the Joker shows up it makes sense, and when we see the Joker wearing a costume, using theatricality and deception and other Batman-like techniques against people, that makes sense too. We can join the dots, we get a sense of cause and effect. In other words, the Joker isn’t just there because he’s there, in a very real way Bruce Wayne has created him by creating the Batman, or at the very least provoked and inspired him, and he feels guilty for having brought about this state of affairs.
And, personally, I quite like this structure where the villain is a kind of dark parody of the hero, similar in lots of ways and different in others. Bonus points if the hero has to resort to dirtier tricks than usual to defeat the villain, as Batman does in The Dark Knight because then they’ve become even more similar. But it only works if either the hero’s or the villain’s identity is established right from the very start and then their opposite is introduced in response, like the answer to a question. How will Batman change the face of crime in Gotham? Oop, here’s the Joker. What if there was a villain with all the same powers as the thoroughly-established hero Superman? Here’s General Zod. How will Hrothgar rid himself of Grendel? Oh, here’s Beowulf. You’re just in time.
But in this version of the story, Zod and his mates show up way too early. Humanity’s (and the audience’s) first impression of Kryptonians is these jerks. Zod’s there when Kal-El is launched out of Krypton, to no real purpose, then he’s deeply intertwined in the whole process of Clark Kent becoming an official superhero in manifold ways, with some really troubling side-effects. I’ve seen a lot of reviews point out that Earth would be better off if Superman had never landed there, for instance. I’ve been able to forgive films with worse plot holes, films that monkey around with the source material to the same extent, and I’d be able to do the same with Man of Steel if, having created this whole new very messy scenario, they did anything with it. But they waste it! They have Zod there when Kal-El is sent into space just so Zod can try to stop it. Like that has to be the characters’ shared history, that’s why there’s enmity between them. Then, when Zod fails, just before he’s imprisoned, he swears to the baby’s parents that he will find their son and get his revenge. Two things:
1. Swearing you’ll do anything just before you’re banished to the torture dimension implies you’ve skipped ahead in the script and you know you’re going to escape later in the movie.
2. This revenge motive is never brought up ever again.
I did say I’d avoid spoilers but I will say, dipping a toe into the mildest of spoiler waters, that when Zod does appear on Earth he has utterly different reasons for being there. And when things between he and Superman do turn ugly he has a much better reason to want Superman dead. So that whole thing with swearing revenge on the baby Superman? Completely pointless.
(It also raises the issue of why people on Krypton have the time and wherewithal to not just send one baby but then subsequently a small army of criminals into space, thus rescuing both parties, but they never try the same thing with the government leaders or scientists or innocent people. They should be banishing themselves and making the criminals stay behind. That would be a much better punishment. “Oh, you want to rule Krypton? Fine, have it. We’re off to the Phantom Zone. Enjoy!” Okay, fair enough — they establish that not everyone believes the planet is going to blow up. Fine. Then surely anyone who does believe, Zod for example, would try to commit as many treasonous acts as possible, given that the punishment is potentially life-saving and the lack of punishment is a death sentence? At the very least Zod should be rubbing his hands with glee at the prospect of being banished, not annoyed to the point that he swears revenge on a baby. See, it makes sense in the original iteration of the story that Zod would resent his banishment because Zod is banished before the planet starts crumbling like vanilla wafer, in that iteration saving Zod from Krypton’s destruction is an unfortunate byproduct of his banishment rather than a direct result of everyone’s failure to realise they’re rescuing him from death and dooming themselves. Even Zod doesn’t realise this.)
And I said Zod and Superman are intertwined in a messy way. Make no mistake, I mean that purely in plot terms (certainly not in sexual terms), I’m just referring to how the sequence of events plays out as the story unfolds. The hero and villain share precious little screentime and they don’t really have a relationship with each other, or draw on their shared history, not in the same way that, for example, Syndrome and Mr Incredible do.
In this film, Superman us not established in advance of Zod’s arrival. When Clark puts on his costume and starts flying around saving people it’s because he’s been drawn into a very messy, ugly war filled with messy, ugly decisions — hard decisions that no hero can make and keep his heroism intact. Superman is constantly being made to choose between letting a million people die and letting a billion people die, which would be great, I guess, if you saw Sophie’s Choice and thought it needed more genocide and, crucially, if this wasn’t supposed to be a Superman movie.
So now in the question-answer model of protagonist-antagonist relationships, Superman is the answer to the question posed by Zod. There are two problems with that:
1. If the question is “Zod has appeared, what’s the best way to deal with him?” the answer is not “Put on some tights and fly about.” Let’s go with the film’s reasoning and say that these are special tights that symbolise hope and the betterment of humankind. That’s not what people need right now. Aliens are invading, we don’t want self-improvement tips, we want them gone. The only hope people have is that they will live through this ordeal.
2. It’s really hard to inspire people and symbolise something when you’re constantly being forced by events to let people die and cause massive collateral damage. He’s putting on a special blue and red costume to wear while he’s not saving people. It would be a much better idea for Clark to welcome the Kryptonians as brothers, pretend to join their side, get aboard their space ship and fuck things up from the inside. Or rally a resistance movement. The scenario he’s presented with is essentially Independence Day and he’s neither Will Smith nor Phil Pullman. He’s not even Jeff Goldblum. He’s Brent Spiner.
So in the world of the film it just doesn’t make sense for Clark Kent to pick this moment to don his tights, and in the real world it doesn’t make sense to write Superman into Independence Day and not even give him an inspiring Phil Pullman speech. I mean, come on. If he’s meant to inspire all this hope, let him inspire it.
There’s another problem, one of characterisation. These kinds of detached, utilitarian, lesser-of-two-body-counts calculations would fit with a Superman that was thoughtful, intelligent and cool-headed to the point of being divorced from the human condition — like Dr Manhattan — but a lot of the time this Superman just seems like he’s pissed off more than anything else, seeking out and beating up just one guy instead of prioritising thousands of innocent people. He spends large chunks of the film looking thoughtful and contemplating his purpose, but when the chips are down all of that pondering goes out the window. They clearly want to deliver a Superman for a more mature audience, but Superman’s solution to all of his problems is always just ‘I will smash it with my fists’, even when that doesn’t make sense. That’s an angry toddler’s solution.
Again, mild spoilers, I will leave out details. His solution to the big problem at the end is “I will take this one thing and smash it into this other thing and that will probably make a third thing to solve all our problems.” The slimmest of reasons for why this might work is given. That Superman suggests it at all means he is stupid. The fact that it works means the universe he inhabits is stupid. Similarly, there is something elsewhere doing something that even someone with a modest amount of scientific knowledge like myself can tell would have disastrous affects if allowed to do what it does for even a few seconds. Even if the, uh, the process it’s doing could be reversed it might still be too late, but Superman doesn’t reverse the process, he smashes the thing with his fists. That would be like Rick Moranis finding the machine that shrunk his kids and smashing it with a crowbar. Wouldn’t it make more sense to reprogram the machine? What is the point of having an intelligent, thoughtful Superman if he never does anything intelligent?
It’s not like I went in wanting to hate the film or anything. I’m a reasonable man. In fact, the extended opening sequences on Krypton intrigued me. I liked the way a lot of things on Krypton were designed, from the wildlife to the technology to the way Kryptonian society seemed to operate. It was nice to see so many ideas on display, even if some of them were better-realised than others (the ‘living metal’ computer interfaces were interesting but then when they were used as video phones they became downright unsettling). There was an impressive sense of scale, in this part and throughout the film.
Then I began to wonder to myself, “Wow, they’re spending a lot of time here on Krypton. It will be interesting to see how all of this pays off later.” For the most part, though… it doesn’t. Not even in the way Zod swearing vengence on a baby doesn’t pay off, because at least Zod shows up again, and at least when he does he’s by and large trying to kill the adult version of said baby. I mean we see stuff in this prologue that has no impact on the story at all and is completely irrelevant. And the worst part is, you can more or less tell when your time is being wasted.
Let’s keep a tight focus on just the Krypton sequence for now. They spend all this time and creative energy establishing a setting and introducing characters that we all know are both extraneous to the plot and about to die when Krypton blows up. It’s all creatively designed and it’s good cinema in its own right, but that’s the disappointing thing about Man of Steel: if that sequence on Krypton had been 10 minutes shorter and it had paid off I would have described it as great cinema. In other words, that part of the film would have been amazing if it had been part of a different film to the one that follows. As it is, it’s just crappy in retrospect, because it doesn’t add to the story they’re supposed to be telling. It’s like a sphynx — they stuck the head and breasts of a woman on the body of a winged lion. You might admire those individual elements — and in significantly different ways — but eventually you have to look at the whole, and the whole is monstrous and vile and full of malicious riddles.
The problem, as I said before, is that we all know the story of Superman. We know what the salient details are in his origin story and mythos. His parents shoot him into space. The whole sequence serves one purpose: to get that baby into space. Anything not directly related to baby-space-shooting is a waste of time. You need one scene: parents standing by a rocket pressing a “shoot baby into space” button. Let’s gild the lily and add some dialogue. In most iterations they say something significant to him, something that will come to shape his character later in life (coincidentally, unless the baby was able to understand and memorise their words). Megamind’s parents do the same thing, and it sets the tone for the rest of the film to follow — and, actually, how it’s played out in that film is funny and tragic all at once and probably the best version of that trope I’ve ever seen.
That sequence is about a minute long in that film and 20 minutes long in Man of Steel, yet they largely get across the same story points, give or take a Zod.
What kind of unnecessary embellishment could Man of Steel possibly pack in? Well, we see who Superman’s father Jor-El talked to before he went home to shoot his son into space. We see how Kryptonians reproduce. We see how he got home. I don’t mean we see him getting into a car, getting on a bike etc. We see him get on his Kryptonian flying beast and then we watch him flying it around like it’s How to Train Your Dragon. The flying beast has a name for crying out loud. We even see what he picked up on the way home, how he got to his front door, what happened when he got home, what their home computer looks like, why the planet is blowing up. We see why the planet is blowing up! I can’t believe I’m listing this as an unnecessary detail, but in the context of this story about Superman’s adventures on Earth it absolutely is. I am a nerdy guy, I am always fascinated to learn why things in science fiction settings are blowing up, but now is not the time to indulge me and most film-makers know better. In the timeless mythos of Superman we know it’s really not important. They don’t make it important here. They emphasise it, but that doesn’t lend it importance.
Let’s say the planet is deteriorating due to environmental damage and reckless mismanagement of resources. Kal-El’s parents tell him to make Earth a better place than Krypton ever was. Unless Kal-El spends all of his time as Superman fighting climate change and corporate greed it’s irrelevant. Let’s say the planet is being torn apart by war. Kal-El’s parents tell him to make Earth a better place than Krypton ever was. Unless Superman tries to bring about world peace and multilateral disarmament it’s irrelevant (P.S. they made that film and it sucked). Krypton is being destroyed by dogs? Fine, Superman spends the rest of the film’s run-time kicking puppies in the face.
Geeking out is fine but it’s not an end in its own right. Do something with that detail. You’ve established how Jor-El’s computer looks. Okay, now in the action sequence that follows have Jor-El use that detail to his advantage. Do we need to see Jor-El confront the Kryptonian government, pick up a McGuffin and then head home? If it’s never going to be useful, it’s the easiest thing in the world to leave out. Observe:
JOR-EL: Shit, the planet’s about to explode, I’d better head home.
CUT TO: INT. JOR-EL’S HOUSE
WIFE: Honey, did you remember the McGuffin?
JOR-EL: (reaches into pocket) I’ve got it right here.
Or! Let’s say you absolutely have to have Jor-El confront the government. Let’s say people will tear their hair out if they don’t find out how he got his hands on the McGuffin. I’ve got that covered too:
INT. THE HALL OF MCGUFFIN. JOR-EL SEIZES THE MCGUFFIN FROM ITS MAGICAL PLINTH. HIS BACK IS TURNED, SO HE DOESN’T SEE THE COUNCIL MEMBERS APPROACHING BEHIND HIM.
COUNCILLOR: We thought we’d find you here, Jor-El.
JOR-EL: You don’t understand! The planet is about to blow up.
COUNCILLOR: Entering the Hall of McGuffin is the worst act of treason a man can commit in our Kryptonian society. Do you know what the punishment for this transgression is?
JOR-EL: Yes and it actually sounds like a pretty sweet deal right now but I have to head home and shoot my son into space.
COUNCILLOR: We can’t let that happen, Jor-El.
JOR-EL PULLS OFF A KICK-ASS — AND, MOST IMPORTANTLY, QUICK — ESCAPE.
CUT TO: INT. JOR-EL’S HOUSE
JOR-EL: Honey, I’m home! I got the thing!
Identical to what we had in the actual film in terms of story function, yet twenty times shorter. Why? No flying creature, no name for said creature, no detail for the sake of detail.
We are given one clear story reason for something that happens on Krypton. Why they send him to Earth and not any other plantlet. It’s to inspire hope and optimism. Unfortunately, as I mentioned before, that promise never gets fulfilled.
Then, after spending a frankly perverse amount of time on Krypton, they suddenly cut to Clark Kent as an adult, on a boat of all places. They skip over his entire childhood, his relationship with his adoptive parents — basically all of the stuff that will be important later — and only refer back to it in a handful of short flashbacks. Flashbacks! Short ones! Oh great, now the film acquires an editor. Now we’re zooming around time with efficient little snippets of scenes and trimming the fat. Thanks, movie.
The effect of all this is that we miss out on the classic beats of Superman’s formative years, this I’ve already touched on, but we also miss out on finding out why this character is the way he is. Characters’ childhoods are a great opportunity for character development. They don’t take a lot of time but, by laying out a few key moments from a character’s early years a storyteller can show us, in chronological order, the exact points at which a character made some key decisions that define who they are, decisions that become hugely relevant later. To pick on Megamind again, that film deftly does a lot of character-building by showing the protagonist’s childhood. Man of Steel doesn’t. They do it in Megamind because they recognise the importance of having a sympathetic main character, and they were probably worried that the audience might stop liking the guy when he’s committing crimes. As it turns out, the titular character of Megamind at his most villainous is twice as likeable as the titular character of Man of Steel at his most heroic. Why? Because we understand why Megamind’s doing what he’s doing. We’ve watched him grow up, make relationships and make choices. Of Clark Kent we know this much: he has parents. Sorry, there’s more to it than that. We know the name of his space Dad’s flying creature.
And let’s not forget why they spent so much time on Krypton and so little time in Kansas. It’s because they didn’t want to tell Superman’s classic origin story. Even if doing so would’ve meant telling a good story. You can see them straining to be different — different to other Superman stories, different to other superhero stories. You can see them groping for new things to focus on. “Well, nobody’s ever shown how the Kryptonian computers work before. We could do that.” And the whole film is like this! Nothing we’ve seen before, lots of stuff we haven’t seen, without any thought for why those that came before did things the way they did them. It feels like a Superman movie designed to fill in the gaps in previous Superman movies… which means they’re relying on your prior knowledge of other films or the comics to enjoy it fully, which means they’ve fallen right into Harry Potter Movie Syndrome and out the other side into Weird Accompaniment Movie Designed to Fill in the Conceptual Holes in Other Movies.
So, in straining to differ from the film’s historical precursors, they’ve accidentally gone too far and made familiarity with the precursors a requirement. They’re desperately hoping you know how Kal-El got from being a baby on Krypton to being an adult called Clark Kent in Kansas. Then they desperately hope you’ll forget about those other films when Superman is on screen minus his red underwear and minus his familiar personality.
The finished product ends up feeling like an alien invasion film that just happens to have Superman in it. A really boring alien invasion movie, too. So boring I began to pass the time by thinking of different genres you could shoe-horn Superman into. Medical drama with Superman: he uses his super strength and heat vision to remove Lois Lane’s appendix in the nick of time. Historical biopic: Superman helps Abe Lincoln pass the Thirteenth Amendment. Romantic comedy: I guess the 90s TV show already did that.
Why was I so bored? Because the same Goddamn scene repeats itself over and over. All those flashbacks? They all cover the same ground. We get it, the Kent family know Clark has super powers and they’ve got high hopes for him, but ones that involve him never revealing his secret (more on that in a second). Okay, every scene plays out the same way: something dramatic happens to Clark. He sits on a fence or in the back of pick-up truck and talks about how conflicted he’s feeling. His dad gives him some sage advice that in a better screenplay would be better advice. End scene. This scene repeats itself about three or four times. It’s hard to say because we keep getting new scenes that cover the exact same ground. There’s a scene, for example, in which Clark goes to a minister to talk about how conflicted he’s feeling, right after something dramatic happens, and the minister gives him bland advice. These scenes have one purpose: to establish how thoughtful and conflicted Clark Kent is. You only need to do that once, not over and over and playing out the same way, with Clark sitting down and a wiser person standing their lecturing him. You can do that shit once per movie — only once — and for God’s sake make it good. Do you remember that scene in The Fellowship of the Ring where Frodo’s feeling conflicted, he wishes the ring had never come to him. Then Gandalf says “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” That’s a beautiful moment. It helps Frodo go on when he’s at his lowest ebb, it encapsulates the character of Gandalf perfectly and it’s good advice that we can apply to our own lives. In Man of Steel people just tell Clark to listen to his heart and try to change the world for the better, without saying how or why. I tell you what, though. They probably weren’t imagining him punching another person so hard a gas station explodes, killing everyone inside.
At one point one of the bad guys throws something at Superman and he dodges out the way, letting it destroy the building behind him. He could catch it, but he doesn’t. Thanks, hero. All of the fight sequences play out this way, and it’s upsetting. But even if you try to ignore the fact that thousands of unseen people must be dying all the time during these action sequences, there’s no ignoring how boring the action is. Watching superpowered people punching each other is interesting for five minutes before you realise that everyone doing the punching is equally strong and completely invulnerable. Aaand then the fight sequence goes on for another 20 minutes with nobody gaining the upper hand. I’ve never seen a film with such a self-indulgent lack of restraint. And I’ve seen Nicolas Cage shooting people in slow motion whilst banging a naked woman. As ridiculous as that moment was, at least it only went on for a few minutes (insert sexual innuendo here). I mean it didn’t outstay its welcome. Man of Steel‘s fight sequences aren’t that polite; they just stick around and exhaust you.
This is the kind of decision-making we traditionally associate with small children. A child will tell you that pizza is their favourite food and they might tell you they would have pizza for every meal if they could. But in reality you could probably only have pizza three or four times in a row before you wearied of it, even if it was the best pizza in the world. These fight sequences aren’t the best pizza in the world.
Because, like I said, the sheer length of the fights is coupled with their complete lack of drama and stakes: the people attacking each other are invincible and super strong. Watching them punch and wrestle each other is like watching a dramatic shoot-out in which all the guns are empty. Speaking of which, I’d be interested to know what early years head trauma causes a soldier to think to himself “Okay, I’ve unloaded three rounds at this unstoppable alien demigod and it’s had no effect. I’d better reload and try again whilst standing perfectly still, I’ve got a good feeling about this fourth round.”
This is what I find so frustrating about the film, there were some parts where they didn’t want to cut anything and there were other parts where they cut too much. Character relationships, character psychology and backstory all get truncated into little snippets, but prologues and action sequences — anything involving special effects, in other words — get as much screen time anyone could possibly want, then another half hour.
And if I think something’s too long and in need of editing you know something’s up.
It’s bad. Nobody ever has anything funny, joyful or intelligent to say. My least-favourite line of dialogue is this:
“The fact that you possess a sense of morality and we do not gives us an evolutionary advantage. And if history has proven anything, it is that evolution always wins.”
It’s not a patch on the ‘apex predator’ line from Chronicle, which is the kind of statement it’s clearly trying to be.
Here’s why this is a bad line of dialogue:
- Human history has largely focused on, well, humans. Anything before that is archaeology and biological anthropology.
- Evolution is the process by which living things adapt to their environment. The process itself can’t be said to ‘win’ at all, it’s the species that avoid extinction that win.
- Even if we give the screenwriter a break and allow that evolution itself can be said to win, it’s not a process that seeks to elevate the strongest or most ruthless or whatever. I mean, our mammalian ancestors evolved from amphibians, who in turn evolved from fish. It doesn’t mean that amphibians represent a ‘better’ form of life than fish and it’s not like all fish and amphibians are now extinct because they had to make way for the humans.
- Even if we accept that the process of evolution has elevated humanity to a position above other species, the obvious distinction between humans and other animals is our culture and society, which includes a social code of conduct i.e. morality.
- In plot terms, the evil Kryptonians never use Superman’s morality against him e.g. jeopardising innocent people so he will have to fly off and save them instead of stopping them and thus buying themselves time. Nobody in this film is smart enough to be that manipulative. And I’m pretty sure this version of Superman would let them die.