Storytelling Failures – Man of Steel

It’s probably obvious from my fifteen-minute version of Man of Steel that I didn’t care for it very much.  If that wasn’t enough, I railed against it in another entry.  But aside from the fact I don’t think it was much of a Superman movie, I think it failed to craft a good story.

1) Characters –
a) Again, looking at this not as a Superman movie but just as a movie, the character of Clark Kent/Kal-El was underdeveloped.  L’il Clark/Teenage Clark seemed to have more lines through flashback than the grown Clark.  Grown Clark was a buff hottie, but not much personality.  How can I care much for a guy who just kind of stands there looking vaguely angsty?  And as it was a movie, it could be the acting/directing contributed to the flatness of the character of Clark.

b) Lois Lane – I liked her fine.  She was deadly serious, but most everyone in a Nolan-style movie is deadly serious.

c) The Kents – Here is a problem.  Martha Kent was fine but not present much.  I had a problem with Jonathan Kent, and not because he wasn’t much like the source character.  I simply can’t imagine anyone, upon learning their child/adopted child, saved a whole bunch of children, would have the thought cross their mind it might possibly be better if their child let those other children die.  Or, or at the very least, such a person would never, ever express that sentiment to that child.  They might, in private moments of guilt, express such a thought to their spouse, but not the child.  But maybe I’m more optimistic about human nature than the creative team for this movie.  I think it’s especially egregious because there was no negative consequences from Clark saving those kids.  There wasn’t a torch-wielding mob trying to run them out of town or anyone threatening to call the FBI or something.  The one kid’s mother thought what happened was a miracle.  That’s it.

d) Jor-El – There was simply too much Jor-El.  He was literally a deus ex machina.  He got more character development than Clark.  If the audience was supposed to feel sad over his death, then that was negated as soon as the hologram was introduced.  If he had just been a source of exposition, that would have actually been better.  Instead he overshadowed the person who was supposed to be the star.

e) Zod – he was a space Nazi.  I suppose he was supposed to be some kind of tortured soul who really wanted what was best for his doomed planet and was pushed to be some kind of monster, but I didn’t get that from the movie.  In the end, he chose to try to destroy Earth just to punish Clark, and his attitude towards genocide was all too casual to believe he had ever been anything but a monster.  Actually, I don’t even have a problem with that.  I mean, Clark is Jesus so having Zod be a Nazi seems to me as a good match-up.  I just have a problem with the idea that Zod was supposed to be anything but a monster.

2) Plot
a) Main plot – Space Jesus vs. Space Nazis.  Or, good guy defends loved ones from crazed bad guy.  Not a very complex plot, but one that can be a lot of fun or it can be deadly serious.  Guess which one fits a Nolan-style movie best?  Unfortunately, this was plagued with chomper logic.  As I’ve said, fridge logic can be overlooked but chomper logic just pulls me right out of the story.

I) If Zod had the technology to terraform a planet, and the ability to travel through space to find a suitable planet (assuming not just any planet would do), and some information about where to find suitable planets (since it has been established the Kryptonians had a period of space exploration), why pick the one planet with someone willing and able to stop him?  This plot point could only be resolved through the detriment of Zod’s character (i.e., for the evulz).

II) So Lois always managed to be exactly in the right place at the right time.  That doesn’t seem contrived at all…  I know that this was common in the comics/cartoons, but it’s really jarring in this movie, especially when the henchwoman demands Lois accompany Clark onto Zod’s ship.  Why?  Do the Kryptonians know who she is?  How would they know?  Why would they care?

III) Jor-El ex machina.  Why in the world does a command key from a modern Kryptonian ship work in one that’s over 20,000 years old?  In human terms, that’s like trying to plug a flash drive into a cave painting.  But even assuming Kryptonian technology plateaued such that there was very little advancement in spaceships over that time, or that the tech has amazing backwards compatibility, how does that command key so easily override Zod’s command?  Zod’s ship was a prison ship!  Surely the security on a prison ship wouldn’t allow any idiot to plug in a command key and take it over.

IV) For being Space Jesus, Clark didn’t seem to be in much of a hurry to, well, save the world!  Seriously, he sure took his sweet time working out a plan to stop Zod and he didn’t seem the least bit concerned about all those people in the wrecked buildings.

b) Subplot – Becoming Space Jesus.  Or, how Clark was supposed to become Superman.  This really didn’t happen.  The flashbacks were supposed to serve show how the child tormented by his superpowers and doubts finally took charge of his life and his powers and became the savior of the Earth.  But this fails.  Jor-El pretty much told Clark he was supposed to be the savior of humanity; Clark didn’t really choose for himself.  Also, Jonathan Kent’s “sacrifice” to prevent Clark from revealing his powers is so obviously contrived (i.e., chomper logic), there was no emotional effect from Kent’s death.  My thought was, “Dumbass.”

c) Subplot – required romance.  Honestly I didn’t expect much because there wasn’t a lot of time.  The chick falling for the brooding hottie for underdeveloped reasons is a weak resolution.

3) Setting –
a) Big City vs Small Town.  I know I said I would rate this movie on its own merits and not compare it to the source material, or other Superman media, however I think I need to at this point.  The setting of Smallville contributed to Clark’s character.  He was a small town, Midwestern boy with small town, Midwestern values.  This often made him the odd one out in the big city of Metropolis with its big city ways.  Lois would make fun of his small town values and call him “Smallville.”  In this movie there is absolutely none of that.  Jonathan Kent doesn’t seem to exhibit any of those small town values, such as valuing your neighbors (and their kids) almost as much as your own family, and being cautiously optimistic rather than totally jaded and cynical.  In short, this movie could have been set anywhere.  There is no dichotomy between Smallville and Metropolis.  The only difference is how much one is blown up.

b) Generic.  Smallville is basically “generic small Midwestern American town” and Metropolis is basically “generic big East Coast city.”  I’m not sure there was a lot of time in the movie to make the setting less generic.  Compare Metropolis with Gotham City.  Gotham City isn’t just a generic big East Coast city (even though it’s based on NYC).  The recent Nolan trilogy, and most representations of Gotham City, make it almost a character of its own.  It might have been nice to have Metropolis and Smallville as more than places to just get blown up.  Also, the movie makes a point of telling us Clark is 33.  This movie came out in 2013, so Clark was born in 1980.  As a child of the ’80s, his flashbacks were remarkably generic.  No neon, no Transformers logos, no G.I. Joe logos, no girls with side ponytails and leg warmers?  No trends, no fashion, no music, no cultural touchstones to mark the decades of his growth in any way?  I’m sure this was done as a way to prevent the movie from aging, but that didn’t make the movie feel timeless to me.  It just made it feel that much flatter.

4) Narrative Structure – there is a set-up, climax, and denouement, so the minimum requirements are met.
a) Constant flashbacks – I don’t care for a movie done like this.  I usually prefer linear storytelling because I find constant flashbacks to be a distraction at best and confusing at worst (a friend pointed out to me that he thought the scene of Clark in the diner wasn’t supposed to be a flashback; I thought it was and I don’t know which of us is right).  Even in a movie like Batman Begins, I found it annoying.  And there is a point in which there are two flashbacks in a row, which make me wonder what the purpose of the connecting scene is since nothing is established.  There’s nothing wrong with jumping from one flashback to another, especially if those chronologically follow each other.

b) Logic – I have a high suspension of disbelief for superhero movies.  It’s pretty much the only way to enjoy them.  But I don’t have a high tolerance for contrived situations and bad logic.  Contrived situations and fridge and chomper logic go hand-in-hand.  That is, the obvious and logical solution must be ignored in favor of whatever solution the writer thinks will fit the story better.  Did Jonathan Kent have to die stupidly?  No.  Also, it seems that repairing the damage Metropolis suffered takes what, a month, maybe two?  Right.  Also, why didn’t Clark ask the Jor-El ex machina for help with the Zod situation in the first place?

c) Plot resolution – weak.  Yes, Zod was vanquished, the planet was saved, and Clark got the girl, but did he really become Superman?  I would obviously say no, but I am biased by other media.  Some people would clearly say yes.  He didn’t seem concerned about casualties, he didn’t seem inclined to help repair the damage, and one of the first things he did after the crisis was wreck a military satellite.  Sure, it was spying on him, but that’s still kind of a dick move.

Overall – I know that this was meant to be the first of three movies.  I know there is supposed to be more character development to follow.  However, this was the origin.  An origin story is supposed to show the hero’s journey (it’s an old, old plot).  It fails due to the above-mentioned problems with the character of Clark.  Could this premise of dark and brooding Superman have possibly worked?  Maybe.  I won’t go so far as to say the concept itself is doomed to failure from the get-go.  But an origin story is, in general, far more focused on character development than plot, so if the character is flat and unconvincingly heroic, so is the story.

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S. J. Drew is an aspiring writer who finally entered the blogosphere to shamelessly promote that writing (as evidenced by the title of the blog). Whether or not this works remains to be seen, but S. J. hopes you are at least entertained. And if you're actually reading this, that's probably a good sign.

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