5 Ways ‘Man of Steel’ Could Have Been So Much Better

2 Jul

Man of Steel

Okay, so I finally got around to watching Man of Steel about a fortnight after everyone else, and maybe I should have watched it the day it came out. Maybe, just maybe, I should have refused to watch any of the trailers, thereby preventing myself from getting caught up in all the hype. Because, let’s face it, the trailer made Man of Steel looked like the GREATEST MOVIE OF ALL TIME.

And, do you know what? It really isn’t.

This isn’t to say it’s a terrible film, because it’s not. Like almost every other film Zack Snyder has directed, it looks great. Hans Zimmer’s score is good, though obviously nowhere near as stirring as the classic John Williams theme. Kevin Costner and Diane Lane make a lovely Jonathan and Martha Kent, Henry Cavill certainly looks the part as Superman, and Michael Shannon is brilliantly menacing as General Zod. Most of the ingredients were in place for an excellent sci-fi adventure, but the end result just didn’t quite hit the spot. Here, then, and with quite a few spoilers, are 5 ways I think it could have been better.

1) Less Destruction

Pictured: Destruction

Pictured: Destruction

Seriously. The last hour of this movie is an endless orgy of destruction. Now, don’t get me wrong, I like explosions as much as the next guy. Explosions are the lingua franca of popular cinema, more universal than slapstick, witty dialogue or romance. But when it comes to destruction there are a few pre-requisites to stop it from being boring:

  • It must be genuinely awesome; i.e. it must inspire genuine awe. For it to achieve this the director must pause to let me absorb what I’m seeing, not jump cut to another shot of destruction every 1.2 seconds.
  • Where possible, it must use practical effects. Show me a real building exploding (the hospital in The Dark Knight) and there will be a palpable frisson of danger. Someone could have got hurt, for real. I’m glad they didn’t, but still… On the other hand, show me buildings that never existed bursting into computer-generated flames (Transformers: Dark of the Moon), and there’s a good chance I’ll feel nothing.
  • Reign it in a little. Give me time to collect my thoughts between scenes of devastation. Explosions are like punchlines. You have to give your audience time to catch their breath before hitting them with another.

2) More Character Development

Russell Crowe as Jor-El, Man of Steel's answer to Tom-Tom.

Russell Crowe as Jor-El, Man of Steel‘s answer to TomTom.

2,000 years ago the Roman poet Horace warned his pupils against resorting to the easy get-out of Deus ex machina, or “the gods in the machine”, to resolve plots. Meaning, don’t just have the gods turn up and make everything alright to sort out your narrative. And yet, in 2013, it’s apparently cool to have Russell Crowe’s Jor-El do exactly that. Perhaps it was written into Crowe’s contract that he would get considerably more screen-time than Marlon Brando in the 1978 movie.

Whatever. We should have had far less Crowe (the opening scenes and a brief bit of exposition when Clark/Superman stumbles into the Kryptonian spaceship would have done it) and a lot more time on Lois Lane’s colleagues at the Daily Planet. That way, when they’re in peril at the end of the movie, I would have given a fuck about them.

3) No Dream Exposition

Man of Steel

Okay, so I know the screenplay was written by David S. Goyer, but I’m going to lay this one firmly at the feet of story co-writer Christopher Nolan, because he tried exactly the same shit in The Dark Knight Rises.

YOU CANNOT DELIVER EXPOSITION IN A DREAM SEQUENCE.

The point, in TDKR, when Bruce Wayne is given a vital piece of information by a dead Ra’s al Ghul in a fucking dream was the point when it dawned on me it wasn’t anywhere near as good a film as I’d hoped it would be. Using a dream sequence for exposition purposes should be on the same storytelling shit list as “And then I woke up, and it was all a dream.”

Which you learn not to do when you’re fucking 10.

4) Start Small

Pictured: Not starting small.

Pictured: Not starting small.

In the comics and the original Christopher Reeve movies Superman can be a bit of a bastard. He goes out of his way to get into bar fights, simply so he can demonstrate his god-like strength, and he isn’t afraid of getting into a fracas with lowly street trash. And, okay, so you might argue that someone with Superman’s powers should have bigger fish to fry than muggers and bank robbers, but this is how the storyteller and filmmaker gets us on Superman’s side. By showing him vanquishing small-fry criminals they humanise the character and show us that he’ll combat evil, no matter what scale it’s on.

Not so the Man of Steel Superman. When confronted with a sleazy redneck in some roadside diner, Man of Steel Superman gets his revenge by destroying the man’s truck (in one of the film’s 2 moments of humour – see point 5). Now, alright, so I appreciate that Snyder & Co. are trying to sell us a Superman who is actually scared of his own powers, and knows that he could kill the man with a single punch, so why not have him knock the guy out by flicking him in the forehead? It would be funny, proportionate, and it would warm the audience up for what’s to come.

As it is, in Man of Steel we have a Superman whose first on-screen heroics take the form of him wrestling a burning, off-shore oil rig (pictured above). From about the halfway mark on the film ditches humanity for scale, reducing the humans caught up in General Zod’s diabolical plans to little more than screaming extras.

5) More Humour and Warmth

But not like this.

But not like this.

Humour is a tricky one to pull off. Try forcing too much humour into a movie and you end up with Richard Pryor mugging about in Superman III. Get the humour wrong and you end up with Peter Parker’s Venom-infected emo-swagger and jazz hands in Spiderman 3. I’m not talking a laugh a minute, but just something to give the film a bit of levity. More importantly than humour, however, Man of Steel is critically lacking in warmth. The opening scenes on Krypton and flashbacks to Clark Kent’s childhood and adolescence offer a glimpse of what could have been, with Costner’s Jonathan Kent in particular giving the film some much-needed heart, but as soon as Zod & Friends turn up on earth the film forsakes emotion for so much fire and broken glass. A scene in which, post-destruction, Superman whizzes back to his mother’s house felt tacked on, as if the writers had only just remembered Superman has a mum.

These are all things that can be remedied in a sequel. With all the clunky exposition out of the way, Man of Steel 2 (or whatever they decide to call it) could be a far leaner, warmer and more engaging film than its predecessor. As it is, we’re left with a movie that will only remind people how cruel they were to Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns.

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3 Responses to “5 Ways ‘Man of Steel’ Could Have Been So Much Better”

  1. psychedk July 12, 2013 at 9:27 pm #

    I love your reviews! I don’t always agree, but they’re always entertaining and intelligent!

    I enjoyed it a lot. Not in the same way that I enjoyed Thor, or Star Trek, but it’s still better than most superhero movies, including Wolverine, Iron Man 3 (yawn), The Fantastic Four.. am I leaving something out?

    Let me comment first:

    1) I agree. Though at first I though it a good thing that there is actually LESS action than in many other movies of the same type, and more toned down sequences, by the end I was shaking my head. Superman and Zod smashed through nameless building after nameless building and all I could think was where was everyone? Where were the casualties? For someone who is so obsessed about caring for the human race, he sure crashed through a LOT of buildings and causing quite a lot of collapses, fires, etc. It mostly looked like a completely vacated metropol. It was weird!

    2) That didn’t really bother me. Crowe’s character isn’t really a character, more a computer program. So I was okay with that. Also, after having watched The Hobbit, I don’t think anything will ever top that in deus ex machina because Jesus Christ, that’s a movie where people and eagles and hidden abilities appear out of no where, saving everyone at the LAST second. It’ll take a lot to top that!

    3) Hahahaha! I didn’t give it a second thought but put like that? You’re so right. I’ll never be able to see it in another way now.

    4) I’m conflicted about this (which makes it sounds like I care a great deal, which I really don’t), because yes, I felt the beginning and the introduction to Clark was oddly disjointed. I can see what they were trying to do, but either it lacked some scenes, or they were in the wrong order.. I don’t know, but we did rush into it in a strange way to start with. On the other hand, I LOVED the scene where he saves the people on the oil rig. I love that he’s restrained and keeps to himself. I guess in a modern, men are allowed to be sensitive and not so macho age, this is the way they’d take him. So it makes sense seen in that light.

    5) Humor is definitely a personal thing and hard to do in a way that will satisfy everyone. Lacking in warmth and lacking in humor is not the same thing, though you’ve put them under the same category. It lacks humor, yes. But by that, when I think of humor in superhero movies, I’m pretty fucking glad it lacks humor. The humor in most of these type of movies is so cheesy I want to throw up in a bucket or crawl into my seat and die. I can’t stand it in X-Men x, in Iron Man x, in Hulk [insert most any other superhero movie]. I may smile *once* and the rest of the time I’ll role my eyes and sigh. I’m SO glad they skipped it and concentrated on something, had it been music, would have been a very tight 80ies electronic production.

    Which leads me to the lack of warmth. I didn’t feel that at all. I compare it a little to my love for 80ies synthesizer music which has always touched me deeply, where it leaves other people cold. It was gritty and low key and not sentimental at all. It allowed me to feel whatever I wanted to and not get stringed along into some forced romance or heartfelt blabla that I usually don’t get. The romance, if you can even call it that (my whole being SCREAMS in protest of those words), was far far better and more natural than in, again, the Iron Man movies and in Thor [insert most any other superhero movie]. I got this.

    That being said, no, it wasn’t a grand movie, or anything. But I liked it because it was realistic and toned down. Seriously, Superman puts on a pair of glasses and suddenly Lois doesn’t recognize him? That has never made any realistic sense at all, and they managed that in a new and wonderful way here. They explained his supernatural powers and his weaknesses quite believably (relatively), instead of “Oh, this stone is from his home planet so naturally he can’t tolerate that.”

    Oh and general Zod. I could watch a whole movie with him. I don’t know how they could have expanded on the character, but damn he was a good character. And actor.

    And Cavill should wear that beard always.

  2. thedaillew July 12, 2013 at 9:38 pm #

    Ha ha! Thanks for the comment! I think I only felt let down because there was so much in place that was right. I thought the flashbacks to Clark’s childhood and teenage years were, on the whole, excellent, and loved the Krypton intro.
    Humour, as you said, is a difficult thing to get right, so I wouldn’t necessarily want a lot of goofing about, but the Daily Planet newsroom offers scope for moments of levity between all the crash bang wallop, not to mention character development of those people who are in peril at the end.

    • psychedk July 12, 2013 at 9:42 pm #

      I’m counting on the sequel to deliver lots of Daily Planet shenanigans, cos there’s so much potential there! Loved Lois’ subtle “Welcome to the Planet”, comment by the way, haha!

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