Spoilers ahead. You’ve been warned. I just got back from Man of Steel. It’s getting mixed reviews and for good reason. As a writer I’m always breaking down plots to understand them. I need to see why they succeed and why they fail. Overall, Man of Steel looked promising. The commercials had the right mythic heft. The advanced technology in the movie looks organic, echoing the look I often favor in my own work. Telling the story as a sci-fi piece, rather than a fantasy was a bold move on the part of the creators. The special effects were superb and the action big and dramatic. As I sat through the movie, I saw flashes of brilliance, echoes of what it could have become if given just a little more time in the oven. Yet, ultimately, it somehow fails to deliver. Why? Most people will see it and just say “I didn’t like it,” or “I was bored.” Not good enough for me. I need to see why, so let’s look deeper.
Ultimately, what went wrong? The first problem the script faced was on-the-nose dialogue. If you think about that phrase for a minute you’ll probably guess it’s origin. The dialogue just punches you in the nose. It lacks subtlety. It’s meaning is black and white. It’s too precise and rigid. It means what it means and absolutely nothing else. In other words, it’s too direct, too often.
Audiences like to work a little. A phrase that means more than one thing allows the audience to tease out additional emotion. Sometimes writers call this layered dialogue, because it coveys multiple meanings in a highly compressed way. One of the best dialogue writers in movies is Quentin Tarantino. The dialogue feels natural, it loops around and spirals. It doesn’t get right to the point every time. When you first listen to it, you’re simply enjoying it at a superficial level. Maybe it’s too friends teasing each other, something anyone can resonate with easily. Yet, if you stick around long enough you realize something else is at work there. Let’s take Pulp Fiction for example. The dialogue between Sam Jackson’s character and Jon Travolta’s character is about nothing on the surface. You got two guys telling stories and teasing each other. Yet, as they talk more we realize much of the story is about another character, Marcellus Wallace. Through their dialogue about him throwing a man out the window we see how dangerous he is, without even meeting him. Then we learn that Travolta will be taking his wife out to dinner. The sense of tension and anxiety rises. That’s good dialogue.
Often great dialogue involves people talking about one thing on the surface, but something else entirely below. Chinese films are fantastic with this technique because they have to avoid the censors. Watch any movie coming out of China in the 1990’s, like Raise the Red Lantern or Eat Drink Man Woman, and you quickly realize the characters are always talking about something bigger. They might talk about the necessity of duty to family and somehow critique the one party system at the same time. There’s nothing like real pressure to forge a writer’s skills in subtlety.
The second major problem with Man of Steel is a fragmented or episodic plot. It moves from one action set piece to another. The action never slows down and gives the audience time to pause and take it all in. It also borders on the absurd. How can one man see so many disasters in such a short time? It’s one thing to travel the world looking for problems to fix, it’s another to have your father randomly taken away by a hurricane while insisting he save the family dog from the car.
It was downhill from there. Usually, I like more and bigger action, but it fails here, because I never really care about the characters, any of them. For a movie that’s supposedly about hope and inspiration, it’s largely hopeless. Clark is beaten down as a boy, picked on, seen as a freak, but none of his enemies have a real personality, or even a name. They’re faceless bullies. The requisite jocks are there, as well as the fat bully, and the girls gossiping. His enemies are as faceless as the Viet Cong in a bad Vietnam war flick. This failure kills any story. If a writer can’t personalize enemies then you have nothing worth giving a shit about. If someone walks into a subway and shoots someone, it’s a news story, but if he shoots his own brother, it’s fiction. We want to care about our heroes and even our enemies. The enemies must stand out. Method actors call it personalizing or finding something unique. The same archetypes appear again and again in stories. There are only so many ways that kids can learn that life is hard. A parent can die. A best friend can die trying to help them or because of their mistake. Bullies can pick on them. Yet those scenes must have traits that distinguish them from the archetype, something that makes them unlike all the other bullies out there. Think back to when you got picked on as a kid. Maybe the kids used some phrase that cut right to the heart of why you were different and it hurt like a motherfucker. Think about the bullies in a Christmas Story. You remember the red headed kid right, the one with the braces? He’s the one that ultimately cried when the smallest kid snapped and fought back, beating him until he bleed. That’s a personal bully, not a generic clone.
Another stand out problem is the internal logic of the film. Audience are constantly asking questions, even if it’s subconscious. Any movie must answer those questions in a satisfying way or risk alienating people. Even worse is when you never answer the questions at all. You never want your audience smarter than your story. The movie is filled with answers that don’t add up. Let’s take a few examples of hairbrained logic in the film’s structure.
Let’s go back to Clark’s father’s death again. Was there was no way Superman could have just saved the dog from the car himself without anyone seeing? I can think of a few ways right off the bat and I bet other people in the audience could too. All I could think was, man, I’m smarter than Superman. Not good.
The most egregious error in logic that Clark has no examples of good people, other than his father. This makes his intense desire to save people meaningless and unbelievable. In male super hero dominated movies it’s often the girl who gives the hero a reason to believe. Woman symbolize hope and love. They show us the tender side of life, a soft contrast to the violent and brutal ways of men. Clark’s father is too good, so he’s not a real beacon of hope. He’s a wise old man, someone who seems too good to be true, too perfect. He’s flawless and we don’t trust flawless folks. We need someone his own age, someone who risks getting beat up or hurt to defend him, for no other reason than it’s the right thing to do. In other words, he needs a friend, someone to give him a reason to think humans aren’t all dumb bullies and religious nuts. None of the kids is on Clark’s side. He has no love interest until later in the film and even then it’s tenuous at best. He desperately need someone to give him a reason to see the good in people.
A writer has to beat down his hero. That’s his job. In fact, I often think that our only job as a writer is to make our characters suffer. Yet watching this film made me realize that it’s also about giving them hope and joy, something to keep them going through the hard winters. None of that happens here and so I just never believe that Superman would want to save us. The way the story is laid out, he’d probably agree with General Zod, if Zod wasn’t such a card board cut out himself. Oh look, a military leader who thinks he’s superior and hates the wishy-washy ways of politicians and wants to commit genocide of an inferior race. This is a terrible cliche. There are countless examples of men like this throughout history and all of them were utterly fascinating and unique, unlike Zod. Kim Jong Il loved fine wine and Sushi cut off live fish. He hated America and yet he loved basketball and American films. Stalin never slept in the same room twice. Hitler was a vegetarian who never drank and who was incredibly lazy. He rarely got up early ever and worked only a few hours a day. There is simply no excuse not to make your villain unique as well. They wasted a fine actor’s skills here. Michael Shannon just has nothing to sink his teeth into at all.
More internal logic errors abound. An alien ship comes down and it proves hostile, so we try to attack it, with basic missiles and guns. Not once does someone even raise the question of a nuke, our most powerful weapon. Perhaps it’s too dangerous, because the ship landed in a major metro area but the idea never even comes up. Other examples are the basic plot of Superman’s origin itself, as represented in the movie. The comics and other films have mostly touched on the origin story in passing and probably for good reason. It’s basically preposterous. This one focuses on it directly and that means we want real answers. At no time did I ever buy that Superman might be the only one who could make it off the planet. I did not see why his mother or father wouldn’t or couldn’t go with him. I saw no reason that a race of aliens that spread out to the stars would suddenly abandon all other colonies and live on a single planet. I didn’t believe that if they had hundreds of colonies not one of them would survive without its mother planet, Krypton. I can’t see any reason they would mine the planet’s core. It goes on and on. There are plenty of good answers the writers could have come up with to all of these questions. They didn’t bother. The only one they did give is when Superman asks his father why he didn’t come too? “I’m a product of this society and I share it’s destiny,” he says or some such hokey shit like that I can’t remember exactly. Huh? That’s the same level of crappy logic when Anakin Skywalker asks his mother why she won’t come with him in the later Star Wars films. Anakin rescues here from slavers who torture her. She is free yet she says “my place is here.” As a slave? What? Makes no sense.
When writers fail to answer the questions the story poses inherently, then a story just falls apart at the seams. I wanted to like this movie. I stuck it out, even as I saw other folks leaving. I’ve rarely seen people just walk out of a film, especially a popcorn summer movie where the action often doesn’t have a deeper meaning. I’ve seen people stay for worse films. It wasn’t even the worst movie I’ve seen this year, not by a long shot. Man of Steel, as I said, had flashes of brilliance and moments that made me feel but they were gone too fast. I think people walked out because Superman means more to them. He symbolizes the best parts of ourselves. He’s a Christ figure, something we wish we could live up to and rarely can. The writers knew this, they just chose to tell us that, over and over, instead of showing us. That’s why this movie hurts more and people take off before it’s over. We wanted to believe but we ultimately got something that didn’t really work. That made the fall of the man of tin much, much harder and more unforgivable.