Man of Steel is a 2013 action drama film directed by Zack Snyder featuring Superman from DC Comics, It stars Henry Cavill as Superman/Clark Kent, Amy Adams as Lois Lane and Michael Shannon as Kryptonian villain Zod. Russel Crowe and Kevin Costner also appear in supporting roles as Clark’s Kryptonian father Jor-El and his adoptive father Jonathan Kent, respectively. Snyder attempted to bring Superman back to prominence at the modern box office, adopting a grittier, more serious tone than previous Superman films and considerably increasing the level of action in the film. While Man of Steel was a box office success, the mixed reaction seems to indicate that it is not exactly a creative one.
While this movie does have its supporters, I believe the general reaction has ranged from apathy to negativity. I think the film, whether at its best or its worst, is a mixed bag. There are good things that should not be ignored, but there are also strong negatives that should not be glossed over. The actors are all very solid in their roles, and there are some truly creative and spectacular action sequences. However, Snyder’s tendency to focus on spectacle rather than substance is quite evident; the script is extremely poor and lifeless, with little in the way of humor or even solid emotion. While the actors often do the best with what they have, they don’t have much to work with.
Man of Steel is an extremely flawed film, and I think even fans of the movie would have to admit this. But just because something is flawed does not mean it has value. Instead, I think that this Superman movie is an important for us to watch, examine and think about. Why doesn’t it work? What are the flaws and how can they be avoided? In short, what can we learn from this movie?
For anyone who has not yet seen this film, beware; there are many spoilers to follow.
Lesson #1: Characterization and Storytelling Always Trump Action Scenes
The scope of the action scenes is remarkably ambitious, if sometimes shot in a way that is unnecessarily messy. However, the main problem is that there is so much action and so little focus on actual storytelling that the action feels meaningless. We don’t have a sense of who the people fighting are, so we don’t care about why they are fighting except for the basest aesthetic appreciation and adrenaline rush that action causes. But we are not as engrossed as we should be.
One does not need to look much further than the first twenty minutes of the film in which peaceful Kryptonian scientist Jor-El is transformed into an action star for no particular reason. The opening scenes feel like the closing scenes to a movie that we never saw; characters are introduced and they do things to move the plot, but there is no true exposition. We don’t know why the different Krytopnian groups are fighting each other or why two people as opposite in temperament as Zod and Jor-El were ever friends. There is so much crammed in this short amount of time that we don’t get a chance to breathe. The biggest problem with this is that this is not a movie about Jor-El (which could work, by the way), but a movie about Superman. Having action scenes at all during this period clutters what should be a simple exposition scene to get us to the point where we are talking about the main character.
The film’s two biggest action scenes are a battle in Smallville between Superman and Zod’s officers in the middle of the movie and a titanic smackdown between Clark and Zod at the film’s climax. The first battle for the most part is well set up and doesn’t drag on too long. This is one point where Snyder feels like a good fit for Superman, as he can deliver impressive action that we never were able to get from the character in previous films. The biggest problems are the overuse of shaky cam, a comic amount of product placement and a disregard for civilian casualties and property damage (which I’ll get to later on). This scene works because of its placement in the film; the audience is anxious for some action and we get it; there’s a solid reason for why it starts and the action itself is entertaining.
The film’s climax battle between Zod and Superman is another story altogether. It is a perfect illustration of the difference in a mid-movie action scene and a climactic action scene. A film’s climax should feel like a natural payoff to the build-up of conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist. One of them has cornered the other and a fight must resolve the issue that the audiences cares about. The problem is that there is no truly engaging reason for us to care about, so the spectacular scope of the knockdown, drag out brawl feels anticlimactic and boring.
This problem occurs because the film’s structure is inherently flawed. Characters are not thoroughly explored, morals and motives are not properly defined, the conflict is not obvious or engaging. Which brings me to the second thing we can learn from this movie.
Lesson #2: No Writer Should Ever Draw Attention to Superman Being an Alien
If the writers sought to make Superman easier for audiences to relate to, they failed spectacularly. Many writers make this mistake. They feel that Superman’s invulnerability and perfect “boyscout” ethics make him “too good to be true”, as if goodness is some inhuman trait that nobody can relate to because we are all evil. This tends to result in Superman becoming an allegory for Jesus Christ, which isn’t horribly off-base but should be something that the audiences concludes for themselves rather than being told by the movie itself. The other alternative is to try to make Superman a more flawed person who is more “realistic”, but doesn’t accurately depict the character. This film somehow manages to do both of these things, resulting in possibly the single most confused and therefore awful version of the character…ever.
The film painfully mines the Christ symbolism even going so far as to show Superman going to church asking God (in the form of a priest) if he has to save the world with a picture of Jesus doing the same thing in the background. This isn’t symbolism any more, this is dropping an anvil that says “Superman is Jesus, Love Him!” on the audience and all but the most simplistic Bible thumper is going to feel insulted by this. After the film tries to get away with telling us that Superman is a perfect man who has come to save us all, the movie then throws us the huge “twist” of Superman breaking General Zod’s neck to save innocent bystanders, and tries to show that this is some horrible thing that has made Superman not perfect.
I say “twist” not for emphasis but because this barely qualifies. Within the context of the film, Superman killing Zod is not shocking (aside from the gruesome way it is done) because the film never tells us that Superman has a problem with killing. It is never once brought up, and the only people who would know this is out of character are devout fans of the character; the casual viewers and children who are not familiar with Superman are going to be confused by the narrative. After all, the film has already blatantly told us that Superman is Jesus, so doesn’t that make Zod the Devil by proxy? Why is Jesus killing The Devil to save innocent people a bad thing? I think the fact that Superman seems to be so devastated would be more of a twist to most people.
Okay, so I’ve already explained that the lack of character development hurts the emotional impact of the film’s action scenes and dramatic moments. I’ve beaten that horse to death. Let’s get into the bigger problem here; Superman is not an uninteresting character and does not need to be changed. It isn’t the character, it is the presentation that matters. Most people can relate to somebody who wants to do good in the world. That is what a hero is. That is why we read books and go to movies; to see people who want to do good and succeed at it despite the odds. The important thing is that we get to know who the person, why he is the way he is, and what we have in common.
One of the most common mistakes Superman writers make is focusing on the fact that he is an alien with godlike power. They believe that Superman’s alien heritage and superpowers make him fundamentally inhuman, something greater and more perfect than we are. But if he isn’t human, then we don’t relate to him. Writers shouldn’t focus on his alien qualities, but on his human ones. Clark Kent is the real character here, not Kal-El. Clark has a deeply personal code of ethics and a sense of responsibility to use his gifts to help people; he is compassionate and decent and kind and basically everything people should want to be. He has infinite power, but doesn’t abuse it because it is wrong. But he doesn’t neglect it either; he uses it where it is needed, to save lives. And he happens to be a charismatic person who can influence others to exhibit that same kind of altruism.
Superman is meant to inspire us because he makes us believe we can be more like him. He is not mean to alienate us because he makes us think we can never be as good as him. Man of Steel repeatedly informs us that Superman is unique and special and unlike us; this is the absolute least effective way to make the audience care about the character. We didn’t come to a Superman movie looking for God, we came looking for a super man.
Lesson #3: Superman Should Be Explored, Not Reinvented
Superman should not be edgier, nor should he be made out to be some perfect, divine being who came down from the sky. All he needs to be is a good man trying to do good in the world. The way you make an audience relate to somebody like this is by explaining how the character thinks and why he thinks, and by challenging him. If we understand the character and sympathize with him, then we will cheer for him and feel like we share something in common with him.
To be fair, Man of Steel does one of those things very well. Superman is physically pushed in this film like never before; he gets beat up and that is refreshing and it makes the villains feel like serious threats, which is not always easy to do with this character. However, Superman’s morals and emotions aren’t challenged often, and when they are he reacts in a way that just doesn’t mesh with the character. Superman would never allow a person to die; he saves people. That is what he does. But this Superman allows his father to die in a tornado (at his request, but it still doesn’t work), and pays absolutely no attention to the safety of civilians throughout the film until it is convenient for it to matter so Snyder can justify his stupid scene where Superman kills Zod and is troubled by it for no explained reason.
The reason the mid-movie action scene works is because Zod threatens Clark’s mother and he reacts in anger to this and saves her, pulling Zod far away from his mother to protect her. That is in character, that makes sense, and unfortunately it is a glaringly rare example of good character work in this movie.
One of the biggest problem’s with Clark’s character in this film is how pathetically dependent he is. All of his characterization is explained by his fathers preaching about ethics, which are conflicting and thus somewhat confusing. But we never see Clark actually talk about what his fathers are saying to him, how he feels about it, and thus he just feels like a product of the good will of his parents and not a self-actualized character. This is taking the idea of parental influence way too far and damages the hero because he feels like he didn’t choose to be heroic by himself, but because his parents told him to.
If this film had simply chosen to calm down for a moment and have Clark be an actual human being with feelings who expresses why his values matter and why he will fight for them, we would understand the man and thus be invested in the superhero. This is not complicated; it is basic, simple storytelling that always works. If nothing else, Man of Steel is the perfect reminder of how some people can completely miss the point about what makes characters appealing to audiences. And that is something that every writer needs to learn from.