Superman is back and he’s moody as hell. I explore the consequences of that decision and much much more.
Premise: (from IMDB) A young man is forced to confront his secret extraterrestrial heritage when Earth is invaded by members of his race.
About: Warner Brothers is getting a little jumpy these days. Without the gargantuan Harry Potter franchise pumping out a new film every year anymore, and without Nolan directing Batman movies, they’re in desperate need of a huge new franchise they can depend on. They put all their chips into Man of Steel, and it looks to be paying off. The film made 125 million dollars this weekend, despite some not-so-enthusiastic reviews. Since Friday, public reaction has been split. Some like the film, some not so much. What did I think? Read on.
Writers: David S. Goyer (story by Goyer and Christopher Nolan) – Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster
Details: 143 minutes
I wanted to love this movie.
If you’ve been following my Twitter, you know that. I was so ready to fall in love with Man of Steel, I almost asked it to marry me. Of course, before the wedding, you have to buy the ring, and I bought mine, only to find out the diamonds were fake.
I really thought this Superman movie was the one. The last Superman (Superman Returns) was so miscast and uninspired, it nearly destroyed the brand. It was that catastrophe that helped Warner Brothers realize they needed to take Superman in a new darker direction, and I applauded them for that. That’s exactly what Superman needed. It needed filmmakers willing to take risks. Because the idealistic version of Superman is dead. Today, we want our superheroes flawed and a little dark. And that’s exactly what the trailer promised.
Too bad it was only a trailer.
Man of Steel was not just badly written, it was terribly written. Even more terribly written than Iron Man 3. I mean, at least Iron Man 3 had Robert Downey Jr. to make the dialogue sound kind of good. I do not have enough blog space to note all of the terrible writing mistakes here. And blog space is infinite.
For those new to the site, I don’t sit there and tally up “screenwriting mistakes” as I’m watching a movie, and if the movie violates too many screenwriting “rules,” give it a failing grade. I don’t care how a movie is written, as long as it entertains me. If a movie doesn’t entertain me (or in this case, lulls me to sleep), I go back to the screenplay to figure out why. There were certainly a few director choices that annoyed me in Man of Steel (the 15,000 shots of someone about to be rammed into, only for someone to fly across the screen and intercept the projectile/person at the last second), but if a script fails to connect this severely, it’s always the script’s fault.
So what was Superman about? Krypton, Superman’s planet, is dying. So Superman’s dad must save the future winged one by sending him to earth. The catch here is that Military Leader General Zod, who’s upset that the Krypton Government put them in this mess in the first place, wants to make sure Superbaby never gets off the planet because… well, I’m not entirely sure why. I think because he doesn’t want the Kryptonian bloodline to survive. Which doesn’t really make sense because I’m pretty sure Zod wants to survive. And he’s Kryptonian. Superman experts can clear this up for me in the comments.
Anyway, once on earth, this new 2013 Superman (now Clark Kent) is a drifter. He doesn’t have a job at the Daily Planet and wear glasses. He goes crab fishing and wears a beard. This new Clark Kent is reallllly moody. He’s so down all the time, and I suppose it’s warranted. He has these super powers but knows if he uses them, even for good, people will think he’s a freak, or worse, the government will lock him up. So all he really cares about is hiding, which is why we see him drifting from town to town, ignoring our good nation’s hitchhiking laws.
Unfortunately for Clark, the U.S. government finds another ship sent from his planet embedded in ice (I believe the ship was a scout ship sent to Earth to determine if it was a viable planet for invasion – which is how Superman’s dad knew to send him here). This attracts Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane to see what the government’s covering up. This results in Lois and Clark meeting and beginning a friendship, which is quickly ruined by our old buddy General Zod showing up and demanding the world give up Superman or be destroyed. Clark believes Zod’s going to destroy Earth regardless, so he takes on Zod and his Kryptonian clique in a fight to the death.
This is sooooo a simplified breakdown of the screenplay. So much more happened. DNAs, planetary codexes, terraforming. I could get into the immense amount of exposition-heavy plot there was here, but there were so many other issues that doomed this script, the first of which was the protagonist himself.
Superman was boring. Whether he was Clark Kent or the caped crusader, he was boring. I didn’t realize until now what the original Clark Kent reporter angle did for the character. It gave him a personality. Superman had to be stoic and on top of shit. Clark Kent didn’t. And it really made us fall in love him. New Clark Kent just mopes around and complains about his situation all the time. In a screenplay, your main character is everything. For that reason, you have to be aware of how any choice you make will affect the audience. If you make your main character a moping moody drifter, chances are he’s going to depress the audience.
But what really killed Man of Steel was that Superman was an inactive character. This is one of the first things they teach you in any screenwriting class and there’s a reason for it. If your main character isn’t carving out his own path – if he’s not leading the charge, he has a big chance of fading into the background and becoming boring, or worse, forgettable. There are stories where this kind of character can work, but in a Superman movie?? I don’t think that’s one of the places where you want an inactive protagonist.
I just remember in the original Donner Superman movie, Superman was always going out there and trying to save people. Here, we had the school bus scene and the oil tanker scene. So he DID save people, but both instances were in flashbacks (or pseudo flashbacks) and therefore felt like a thing of the past. And even if they weren’t, the writing made these moments feel so… depressing. Like something wrong was being done. It was bizarre. And even when Superman DOES decide to start doing things, the movie is ¾ of the way over, and the decision isn’t really his. He’s practically gotta be talked into it. In combination with a personality-less and depressing Superman, this overt inactivity made him an extremely boring character (not to mention he barely says anything the entire movie).
My next issue was the endless backstory being shown. When the movie started on Krypton and we were introduced to that world, I was like, ‘Ooh, this is cool.’ I liked the technology, the originality of the planet, even the political stuff, with Zod trying to take down the government. But then it kept going. And going. And going. And going. And going. And going. And going. And going. And going. I don’t know how long it actually was, but it felt like half an hour.
That’s THIRTY FREAKING MINUTES of backstory they’re showing us. While I understand there’s a LITTLE bit of exposition required for Zod’s later arrival on Earth, it did not warrant a 30 minute opening that could have easily been boiled down to a quick montage and/or some later exposition. Hey, I’m all about the showing and not telling. That is unless your showing takes FOREVER.
Which brings me to the flashbacks. Why were these flashbacks necessary?? I suppose there are a FEW people in the world who don’t know Superman’s origin story. Even still, the flashbacks prevented any rhythm at all from developing. Maybe, MAYBE, they might’ve worked if you didn’t make us sit through a half hour of backstory that could’ve been edited down to 3 minutes. But because it took us so damn long to get down to earth, we were already impatient. And that impatience meant we weren’t okay with stopping every 8 minutes for a flashback that told us something we already knew (or could’ve assumed).
Now, here’s the thing with the flashbacks. Goyer uses them to establish Clark’s flaw. Or at least his central inner conflict – that he can’t help people even if he wants to. Goyer wanted to establish that in order show change in Superman later on, when he decides to go against his father’s wishes and fight for the planet. So I get why that was included. But here’s the irony, that choice is what made Superman so boring. By creating a flaw that states you “can’t do anything,” you limit your character to an inactive tumbleweed.
Now, here’s an example of how screenwriting mistakes start compounding on top of each other. Because we spent the first 30 minutes of the movie on backstory and because we spent ANOTHER 40 minutes showing Clark try to adapt to the world amidst a series of flashbacks, we didn’t get to the actual freaking STORY until over halfway through the film – Zod showing up and demanding Superman be returned.
This should’ve happened 30 minutes in, at the end of Act 1, and could’ve happened without all the backstory. One of the oldest storytelling tenets there is, is “Come into the story as late as you can.” Never start earlier than you have to. And if you really really wanted the Krypton stuff, you could’ve done it in a three minute montage without dialogue, which would’ve been so much more impactful anyway.
On top of all this, I couldn’t BELIEVE how melodramatic, on the nose, and over the top all the writing was. Here’s a screenwriting tip: If you’re writing a human interaction that would never ever happen in real life, you probably shouldn’t write it. There’s this scene where Young Clark, at school, is overwhelmed by all his new powers (mainly his X-ray vision) and escapes into a custodian closet in the hallway. His entire classroom follows him as his mother comes along and has a heart-to-heart with him, through the door. We get this dialogue. “The world’s too big mom.” “Then make it smaller.” AHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!! This conversation would never happen! The teacher would’ve whisked the kids back to class so Clark and his mother could be alone, not waited for a mom to try and coax her kid out of the closet. And what kid says, “The world’s too big mom,” after finding out they have x-ray vision?? What about, “Why the hell can I see through people??” The combination of the falseness of the scene, the falseness of the dialogue and the overly dramatic handling of the interaction, destroyed any realism this scene had the hope of accomplishing.
I mean there isn’t a single genuine moment in this film. In the original Superman, Clark’s dad dies of a heart attack. It’s quick and tragic and never lingers. Here, Clark’s dad dies IN A TORNADO!!!! He actually stands outside the car, with the tornado coming his way, as Clark watches him from an underpass, wanting to save his father. His father raises up his hand and just says, ‘No,” and allows himself to be whipped up by the tornado. ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME!!!??? Again, I understand that this is an exploration of Clark’s inner conflict going on here – whether he should show his powers or not (and all the Jesus themes that come with that). But do you have to use a dad dramatically waving his son off from a LEVEL 5 TORNADO to get that conflict across??? What are the chances of ONE MAN finding a crashed alien and being killed by a tornado in the same lifetime???? A quadrillion to 1?
I loved the set-design here. I loved the new Superman uniform. I loved Russell Crowe as the father. I love Michael Shannon (who played Zod), period. And when Zach Snyder’s on, he’s an A-List director. But the writing in this was so freaking bad, it was embarrassing. And what’s so baffling is I know Goyer knows what he’s doing. Even on his worst day, he’s not this bad, which makes me wonder where some of these script decisions came from. Is Snyder known for over-the-top melodrama? Is he the cause of this? I know Christopher Nolan (who oversaw this) loves exposition, which explains the first 60 minutes. But the worst scene in The Dark Knight is better than the best scene in Man Of Steel, so it couldn’t have been him. Maybe Jon Peters (infamous for parlaying a Barbara Streisand hairdressing relationship into a producing career) was still contractually allowed to make some story decisions? I don’t know. My gut tells me people who don’t understand screenwriting got to make some major story decisions because I can’t imagine a top level screenwriter writing a script this bad.
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Be wary of an internal conflict that makes your protagonist uninteresting. It can be so rewarding finding that flaw or inner conflict that allows you to explore your character on a deeper level throughout the script. With Will Hunting, it’s that he refuses to open up. With Luke Skywalker, it’s that he doesn’t believe in himself yet. With Clark Kent in Man of Steel, it’s that he CAN’T ACT. Does that allow you to dig into your protagonist and explore him on a deeper level? Sure. But the conflict dictates that your main character take on the very trait that makes characters uninteresting – not acting, which is what doomed this. Even if you got everything else right here (less backstory, cleaner plot) an inactive, reclusive Superman will always be boring. Let this be a warning not to write yourself into a corner with your main character’s flaw.