Superman Salvaged: How to Fix ‘Man of Steel’

Henry Cavill in Man of Steel (2013)

It feels like, with every passing week, there is a strong chance we will receive more news on the as-yet-untitled and apparently made-on-the-fly Man of Steel sequel. What started as a simple follow-up has quickly mutated into the makings of a Justice League franchise, with Supes now joined in the ring by Ben Affleck’s Batman and Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman. As if that wasn’t enough, we’ll get Jesse Eisenberg portraying iconic Superman villain Lex Luthor. However it is ironed out, it will be a packed installment in a presumably long-term series. This choice of direction clearly signifies DC and Warner Bros. seeing the need to at least match the lighting in a bottle that was Marvel’s The Avengers, but also suggests another underlying qualm; a lack of faith in Superman as a lead.

The Avengers is significant on this point for a number of reasons, and not purely for inspiring such superhero ensembles. Its success has rather altered the landscape for the comic book adaptation genre, making big bucks the only bucks worth making. With a worldwide gross of over six hundred million, last year’s Man of Steel will rather perversely be looked at as an under-performer given that their rivals at Marvel cracked one billion. On top of this is the mixed critical and audience responses which have retrospectively painted the film as a divisive ‘love it or hate it’ affair. In reality, it is a case of a movie that is stricken by two hugely contrasting styles and tones that barely survives by the strength of either, depending on the viewer. DC and Warner Bros. hitting the panic button on its follow-up is perhaps understandable as MoS can best be described as inconsistent and certainly a missed opportunity. Now seems a good time to explore these flaws.

Henry Cavill in Man of Steel (2013)

It is important to note that one of them is not its mood, notably darker and less ‘hopeful’ than that which imbued the Christopher Reeve era and resultant love letter Superman Returns. There is no real credit or insight in the argument that a film is inferior because it takes a different tone on the same material. By this logic, once a source is tapped by an adaptation, every successor to the well must follow the first stringently. It simply has no merit. While it may at times feel cloyingly doom-laden for the sake of dramatic effect rather than organic, Man of Steel is required to be edgier in its emotions because of the story it is telling. The angst that categorizes Kal-El’s journey is quite welcome, since it plays into the theme of an outsider finding their place in the world and learning to use what they think of as a stigma for good, letting it define them and help the people who may not understand or welcome. While 1978’s Superman briefly played on this, more centered on the idea of personal limits, it had never been truly mapped out in intimate detail before.

The real problem is in keeping this up. Using a chronological jumble that evokes Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and makes good use of Henry Cavill as the superhero alien, the first half of the film almost feels arthouse with its sense of isolation and loneliness, and a dread at having to face the world. The cinematography at times is reminiscent of Terrence Malick. The score from Hans Zimmer in its quieter moments possesses a great deal of emotional pathos, and covers the mood aptly. From a screenwriting point of view, Kal-El’s relationship with adoptive parents Jonathan and Martha Kent is handled honestly, especially during the serious discussions with Kevin Costner’s Jonathan that forsake moral righteousness in favor of more complex emotional puzzles that feel more realistic. Jonathan’s greatest fear is that his son will be chastised and forced to live in torment if he reveals who he is to the world, and this informs his counsel. While dubious when analyzed, it is consistent enough to be chalked up to character flaw rather than writing malfunction. His death is meaningful and deeply emotional, a tearjerker in fact, and closes his arc suitably.

What comes next, though, is exactly what many had expected of Zack Snyder (whose previous film was Sucker Punch): pure aspiration to blockbuster rivals. Having taken its time with the emotional core, Man of Steel quickly begins to lose its footing and becomes burdened with plot contrivances, logical aberrations, and the kind of destruction porn that is usually reserved for a grand finale rather than origin story. Having wiped out half of first Smallville and then Metropolis in a series of physics-defying duels that lack any tension due to the invulnerability of the fighters, the film comes to a bum note conclusion. Everything has already been done here and there, it seems, and there is no longer a sense of scale. It makes the idea of a sequel seem redundant since the filmmakers have already hit every beat available to them over the course of a protracted saga during the first installment. No wonder the bat signal was activated.

Kevin Costner and Dylan Sprayberry in Man of Steel (2013)

This is by no means the only problem, but it is the largest. Causing destruction to a known and identifiable location, particularly when evoking memories of a genuine disaster, is an effective way of building suspense and setting the stakes. Taking that destruction to apocalyptic levels breaks the bond with the audience, shattering the suspension of disbelief achieved with the earlier emotional journey. Also, one cannot shake off the idea that the people will blame Kal-El for the wanton desolation of their homes before he’s had the chance to create a relationship with them. It doesn’t help that the villain is General Zod, Superman’s physical equal, an antagonist better reserved for a later film. Once Superman beats his equal, who is left to challenge him?

Ironically, there is a way around this deliberately passed over by main writer David S. Goyer, one that doesn’t involve using a different villain. This method also shines light on the smaller, seemingly less substantial issues within the script that build up and influence the main sticking point. In this case, it is the matter of how Kryptonians adapt to living on Earth. It is carefully explained that this transition is long-lasting (Kal-El endures it through childhood) and painful, facilitating the need for terra-forming. Essentially, once Zod and his team arrive in the solar system, they should be at a disadvantage when compared to the protagonist. They can be defeated.

The only things preventing a surefire victory by this point should be Superman’s self-doubt and inexperience, the numbers he faces, and the weight of choosing between his new people and his old. Add to that, it would be the perfect time to deploy one of the mythos’ most immortal components; Superman’s vulnerability to kryptonite. You could easily end up with a pitched battle between Supes and a mortal enemy who possess his Achilles heel. This is sufficient to create a harsh, grueling and testing climax, one that ties in with the hero’s journey of the first half, where he truly has to decide what he wants to be. So much so, in fact, that it should be the obvious choice.

Michael Shannon in Man of Steel (2013)

Instead Goyer, Nolan, and Snyder oversee the fatal mistake of allowing Zod to fully acclimatize to the planet in the space of a few troublesome moments. Not only does this set up a tedious battle involving two supermen throwing each other through shops, train yards and skyscrapers pointlessly, it also creates a significant plot hole which distracts the audience and creates another glitch in their willful hypnosis. If the Kryptonians can adapt to the yellow sun’s influence so easily, why do they need to terraform? It completely cancels out Zod’s earlier speech on this matter and renders much of the endgame obsolete. It exists as a cheap ploy to create a scenario whereby the people of Earth will be sacrificed unless Superman intervenes. Since taking off his helm would make him and his followers a God, perhaps the jeopardy should come from the prospect of Zod enslaving mankind for his own ends, namely as minions to be used in the construction of a new Krypton, rather than wiping them out. This malevolent use of such power would also play nicely against the more benevolent protective instincts possessed by Kal-El.

This is an interesting crossroads and presents two far more fascinating routes than that presented in the film: A. Terraforming is required by Zod and his lackeys, who are weaker than Superman, albeit aided by Kryptonite weapons and facing a hero still enduring growing pains and uncertainty; or B. Enslavement and abuse of the human race at the hands of a superhuman Zod and co. is the prospect unless Superman can find a way to defeat him, as seen in the film. Both cut down the levels of destruction by 50% and boil things down to more than a punch up between two players using an invincibility cheat. The only losers of this fight are those caught in the crossfire, i.e. the people Kal-El is trying to save. Option A seems the better, even if only to avoid the head scratching counter-logic of having a battle between two Gods concluded by an injury neither should be able to sustain regardless of anatomy if their prior fights were anything to go by.

With this issue resolved, all that is left to do is pick out some contrivances and tweak them to ensure the audience continues to stay onboard. Though she is a big part of the mythos, Lois Lane is not required to play the role of audience perspective camera. Retain her search for Superman and, controversially, keep her discovery of his identity. These elements work within the film. Remove her deployment on Zod’s ship and on Colonel Hardy’s bomber, since neither are necessary and actually act as a detriment both to the story and to the character, overplaying her already burgeoning hand. As a representative of the better side of humanity, somebody Kal-El can bond with, her role is on the ground as a witness not as a secondary action protagonist constantly in need of rescue.

Amy Adams, Henry Cavill & Antje Traue in Man of Steel (2013)

This eliminates the need for the next biggest flaw, Russell Crowe’s Jor-El. Having played out his story in the prologue, there is no need for his recurring role throughout the second act. Honest Trailers are quite correct to mock his part as ‘Ghost Dad’ since his ability to participate in the action and fully interact with characters despite being a holographic recording is both too huge a leap in creative license and a cheat, completely undoing any potential emotional weight in his death. Retaining but slightly altering his use in the artic scout ship scene is sufficient. One could take a liberty by keeping the magic memory stick subplot, Superman perhaps implanting it in Zod’s ship as he is being manhandled away from Earth to make way for the villain’s plans in an attempt to slow it down. This way we get a better sense of Zod’s own troubles, since he is confronted by the specter of the man he murdered. Anything beyond this is contrivance to get the writers out a hole they dug themselves into when they decided to put Lois on the ship. With her no longer there, he doesn’t need to be there either and the situation rights itself.

Pass off the Superman costume as a basic Krypton uniform/light armor suit, spend less time with Perry White in the ruins of Metropolis as a distraction from the action, and better set up Superman’s unwillingness to kill at the expense of the often ham-fisted Messiah analogies with some quick editing and dubbing work. Pitch Zod and his crew as powerful but not superhuman warriors armed with anti-Kal weaponry requiring the hero’s absence to enact their plan, and cut down on Kal-El and Lois. Not dramatic, sweeping changes, just small amounts of corrective surgery that turn a film suffering from a painful limp after an hour to not just run again but fly. Rather than be a movie of two halves, it becomes a living and breathing singular piece, one that can deliver on the promise shown in its opening segments.

Also, more modest and less destructive, it becomes a far better opening move in a potential franchise and, perhaps, something worthy of trust that doesn’t require the panic-button activation of the Justice League. Whether or not the perfect storm of the sequel to the actual film comes to fruition and renders such debate pointless won’t be known until its expected release in 2 years’ time. But until then, one has to wonder what could have been.

— Scott Patterson




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