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.
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.
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.
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.
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