The Man of Steel hit theaters last week, and since I’m actually back in the States again (and not in China), I could actually go see it! So I did. And there were some cool parts. And boy, did it look good. But by about halfway through the movie I was very aware that this would not be the movie I had been hoping for.
This is your official spoiler warning: I talk about specific scenes and plot points, and re-write them. It’s only for those who have seen the movie or who won’t be seeing the movie. I promise this blog will still be here after you see it.
As always, I’ll start with where the movie excelled. And for that you need look no further than the visuals. Whether it was in space, on Krypton, or in Metropolis, everything here looked beautiful, though dark. The vistas and landscapes of Krypton, the snowscapes of the Arctic, and the cityscapes of ground zero in Metropolis were like paintings, and the design of the ships, costumes, and technology was similarly sumptuous.
In addition, it had some amazingly strong performances: Henry Cavill has been snubbed out of being a household name for a long time, but I can see him earning it with this one; he didn’t have much to work with script-wise, but he still packed an emotional range into the character that saved the movie from being unbearable. Michael Shannon was bristling with aggression and insanity as General Zod. Amy Adams as Lois Lane was impressive, as expected; she didn’t come off as overly pushy, in-your-face reporter girl, which was a relief. Russell Crowe did a fine job, but for much of the movie his character was very flat. I didn’t really like this take on the Kents, but given what they were aiming for, I think Kevin Costner hit it out of the park with that “Maybe.”
Finally, let’s talk action. The fight scenes are fittingly epic, with major smack-down on all sides, lots of explosions and indiscriminate destruction. The fight between Superman and Zod is possibly the best super hero fight since Spider-Man and Green Goblin in 2001. Unfortunately, there’s so much fighting going on, it eventually loses its pizzazz.
OK, that’s the short list of what was good in this movie, and some of those were still qualified. I’ll mention some things that were really lacking, then I’ll dive in to a re-imagining of Man of Steel.
First, where was the humor? Batman Begins was lighter than this movie, for cryin’ out loud. The unrelenting heaviness seemed completely inappropriate for a super hero summer blockbuster movie at all, let alone a Superman movie. What’s worse is that the ever-present mood made their few, awkward attempts at humor feel out of place and fall flat all the more. This shortage of levity made it difficult to watch.
Second, why was everything so washed out? Everyone looked pasty white, except Jor-El for some reason. All the colors were muted to what seemed like an obscene degree. That kind of thing might work in a Batman movie, where, y’know, everything takes place at night anyway, but in a broad daylight movie, you’ve gotta put that color there.
And third, someone needs to organize an intervention for Hans Zimmer. His work has become increasingly similar as of late. Step 1: lots of percussion. Step 2: dramatic chord progression. Step 3: have those strings riff around on top. Step 4: no one notices the lack of melody. Inception. The Dark Knight Rises. Man of Steel. I like Zimmer, I really do, but I can’t help but feel like we’re missing out on some great themes and motifs because this percussion-driven mood poem is not only accepted, but praised as awesome because Zimmer’s name is on it. Maybe he’s a genius who’s purposefully pushing soundtracks in a new, minimalist direction and I’m just not a fan, but I much prefer his earlier stuff (Lion King, Prince of Egypt, Gladiator). (Remind to write a piece about how good Michael Giacchino is someday).
OK, that was the easy stuff. Anyone can point out things like that. What comes next is a little trickier. This movie just didn’t speak to me. I’m not excited to see more Superman after watching it. I don’t feel like I know this film’s Superman very well. He wasn’t a very memorable character. The guys that stands out in this movie is General Zod, followed by Jor-El. What I feel it really came down to was that Superman himself didn’t have much of a story to tell. It felt like there were big action set pieces to get to, and Zod had a clear motivation, but the writers just didn’t know what they were getting at with the main character.
Finally, a Superman movie unafraid to ask the tough questions
In fact, this lack of clear narrative direction resulted in a lot of conflicting themes. Jor-El broke Kryptonian law and had a naturally-born son who would have the choice of becoming the kind of man he wanted. But then Superman’s choices in this movie are almost entirely made for him, or they’re so extreme that its clear he has no choice at all: Save the school bus of kids or let them drown to protect my secret? Sacrifice the Earth or turn myself in to Zod? No hero points for that one. Even the final conflict with Zod, where it’s a choice between sacrificing the family he’s about to kill or killing Zod is specifically designed to be inevitable, to push him to justifiably have to kill Zod. So in the end, as Zod had revealed, he is genetically engineered to pursue the path he is, while Superman…also has no other real path to pursue. He can’t help but save people, even when Pa Kent seriously discourages it. He’s clearly got this hero mindset down, but where on Earth and/or Krypton does it come from??
Superman has no reason to be a good person, besides the fact that its easy for him to save school buses; Pa Kent lives and dies to keep him from doing so, he never knew Jor-El, much less his aspirations for him as a hero or leader, and he apparently struggles with trusting humanity himself. Oh, well, I’m the protagonist, I guess I’ll do the right thing and save the world for no good reason. ? I’m so confused.
It’s super effective
Next on the list of Things That Confuse Stubbazubba, is why does Lois Lane do any of the things she does? What is her motivation? I mean, tracking down Clark’s secret is one thing, after she personally encountered him, and a touch that I rather like, but printing a story about him against her boss’ wishes, and then not, just because she feels sorry for his sob story about his dad? It’s almost as if Lois’ character was so poorly thought out that she was written just to reflect the poorly thought out internal conflict of the main character (which is only ever talked about, never acted upon; he’s a hero from the word ‘go,’ he just…makes a show of debating it sometimes). In which case, why are we wasting Ms. Adams’ valuable time here?
OK, so the first two problems were just the two leads. Maybe the rest of the characters were better? Sadly, not so much. Pa Kent is afraid that people will fear Clark, a reasonable fear and a good twist on the character, but why he’s afraid enough of that to die to prevent the secret getting out is a mystery. Yes, we can just figure that it’s a scary prospect to possibly have your child taken away by black suits or an angry mob, but the movie never shows the Kents feeling that fear, so it lacks explanatory power for Jonathan’s motivation. Instead, he just comes off as paranoid to the point of completely uncaring about the fate of others (Really? He struggles with whether or not to let a school bus of children die? These aren’t strangers, these are Clark’s friends, their neighbors’ kids, people he knows!), yet still likable? Curse you, Kevin Costner and your considerable folksy charm! Faora (Zod’s lieutenant) has the opposite problem: She keeps spouting off all this stuff about evolutionary advantage, hinting at her motivations, which don’t really gel with Zod’s fanaticism that well, but when they’re on-screen together, all that just disappears. How did those two end up working together?
Their love for fashionable armor, I presume.
I’m sorry, folks, but there is hardly a character that is well done here. There’s not even a central theme they’re working with: Hope is a buzzword they throw around, but that didn’t really come up in any significant way, while the outsider/humanity thing was talked about and we had some awkward scenes where soldiers started trusting him (because…wait, he hadn’t done anything to impress those soldiers…how did that scene even happen?), but it was hardly central to anyone’s motivation, mostly because no one had any motivation…except the villains, and they couldn’t even agree on one. They paid lip service to themes, but didn’t actually put any into the DNA of this tale.
So…that’s a lot to re-write. While many people would probably prefer going back to concept, I’m going to try and keep the major plot points as they are, and stick to what I think the filmmakers wanted to get across. So, Superman will kill Zod in the end, but that makes this a tragic Superman story. Unorthodox for an origin story, but that’s the way it’s got to go.
First things first; Superman has to be way more Big Blue Boy Scout and way less Batman. So he will not be destroying trucks like a petulant teenager. He will be saving people, not in the abstract, but preventing harm to everyone he can get to. This motivation needs to spring from somewhere: He needs to feel a deep connection to the human race, and to specific individuals. His mother is a good candidate, as is Lois, and some more people he’ll have to have scenes with from Smallville, and preferably the crew of the Daily Planet. And his relationship with his dad is going to be re-tooled.
Let’s talk about that. The way I see it, Superman cannot be a hero without Ma and Pa Kent kind of inculcating that in him as he grows up. However, encouraging him not to use his powers in public is all well and good, and they should be afraid of losing him. I want the audience to feel that fear, so we are going to see a bit more into their lives. They will be established as good, honest, loving people who have been unable to have children in a single scene, possibly at the hospital when they find out. Then the ship falls from the sky, revealing the baby Kal-El. They are bewildered, but overjoyed. But the next morning, the sheriff knocks on the door, accompanied by an FBI agent in a jet black suit and tie. The Kents are terrified, and as they ask if they can take a look around the field, they must think of something fast to stall for time so Jonathan can move the ship before they can go look. They are successful, barely, but they resolve to hide him from prying eyes until they can sort things out.
Flash forward to the X-ray vision/hiding in the closet scene, which works as-is. Cut to young Clark at home, listening in on his parents going back and forth about what happened. His dad is certain the teacher will report it, but mom said she was able to put it out of everyone’s mind. Dad is still not totally satisfied, but mom promises to help him learn to hide his gifts. Clark runs off crying (possibly at super-speed).
Flash forward to the school bus scene. Spend extra time establishing that Clark and Lana are good friends, then as the bus fills with water, have them make eye contact just before Clark disappears. Bus is saved, Pete is saved specifically, as-is. This time, in the scene afterwards, first off I want Martha to come out first and just sit next to Clark and hold his head against her. When Pa Kent comes to talk to Clark, Clark apologizes. He says he tried to just shut it out and hide from it all, but he just couldn’t listen to the screams and see how afraid they were when he could help. Pa Kent looks Clark in the eyes and says, “Clark, don’t you ever apologize to me for doing the right thing again.” Ma Kent takes over, “Your…talents, they’re yours to help people with, even if we forget that when we’re afraid.” Clark replies, not quite understanding, “Afraid? What am I, some kind of monster?” And then we do the spaceship scene as-is.
Flash forward to another scene. It’s a bully scene, but it’s not the one in the movie. Clark is in high school, he’s friends with Lana and Pete, they’re eating lunch, and some bully starts picking on Pete and/or Lana. Clark steps in, tries to defuse things, but the bully taunts and taunts, harassing Clark, Pete, and Lana, which finally gets Clark to snap. He sends the bully flying. This elicits cheers from the students, but Pa Kent kind of freaks out, tells him hospitalizing boys with no hope of fighting back is a sickening abuse of his gifts and an insult to everything they’ve taught him, and showing off like that in front of hundreds of people is asking to be taken away, to destroy his life and his parents’. Segue directly into the tornado scene, which can still play largely as-is (though Pa Kent dying to save a dog is pretty dumb; make it someone’s kid at least, preferably Ma Kent herself).
OK, so Clark has learned his lesson about keeping a low profile the hard way now, and the best part is Pa Kent actually has to sacrifice himself in the tornado because anything else would arouse too much suspicion with Clark’s feat of strength the same day. Now, the next challenge is to get from that Uncle Ben moment to world-traveling silent do-gooder. From the end of the tornado scene, segue into montage of Clark and mom at the funeral, Clark on graduation day bummed that his dad isn’t there, and him taking care of the farm but not really doing anything else. Mom comes to him and pretty much tells him this isn’t the future his father envisioned for him. Clark brings up his other parents, his heritage, and Ma Kent suggests he search for clues. He says he couldn’t leave her, as she’s all he has left. She replies something along the lines of, “No, Clark, you have more than just me. You have a future, a destiny. You will always be my son, but you are a gift to the whole world, and I’m not going to let you waste your gifts doing farm work for me. You, more than anyone, can become whoever you want to be, because I know you’ll always be the same good man. Just remember the good woman who raised you every now and then, OK?”
That wasn’t so bad. They have a scene at the bus stop where he says good-bye, and then we flash forward to the ship/oil rig scene. It plays as-is, followed by the clothes-nabbing, hitch-hiking, and bar-tending scenes, where he will show way more interest in what the military guys are saying about the discovery site. He gets harassed by the redneck, walks away, totally doesn’t destroy his truck like a child (heck, maybe have him save him somehow).
OK, so that’s the first part, kind of the obligatory exposition to his motivation. We feel connected to his upbringing and his motivation now, I think. Moreso, at least. We know he helps because he feels empathy and because the Kents raised him to be that way, while also hitting home the fear of being discovered, and the quest to discover more about himself. I’ll wrap up here for tonight, and continue on the next chance I get with another character that has to be re-directed a bit; Lois Lane.
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