Fixing Man of Steel

Man of Steel has been out for almost six years now, and it hasn't gotten any easier to write about. The first time I tried, I wrote, “When Man of Steel gets the characters right—which is about 90 percent of the time—it gets them exactly right. But when it gets them wrong, it gets them spectacularly wrong.” I might quibble with that exact percentage now, especially after seeing where the rest of the DC franchise headed under Zack Snyder's watch, but the basic problem remains. How do you account for a movie that gets the letter of the characters so right and the spirit so very wrong?

Motivated by our panel on the DC Extended Universe, inspired by Jerry's post on fixing Batman v. Superman, I'm going to take another crack at it. How do you fix such a controversial and divisive film? Well, by giving it a decent role model and a functioning moral conscience, for starters.

1. Fix Jonathan Kent

Man of Steel’s original sin, the fundamental flaw that creates every other failing, comes down to a mismatch between character and director. Zack Snyder is apparently a fan of Ayn Rand, which is to say he is at least an admirer of Objectivism, Rand’s pseudo-philosophy of radical entitlement and selfishness. (Cue the obligatory John Rogers quote. If Snyder isn’t an outright Objectivist himself, I suspect it’s because he hasn’t put much thought into his own philosophy one way or another.) Needless to say, this is a terrible fit for a character who is supposed to be a perfect man who came from the sky and did only good simply because it was the right thing to do. In fact, it’s a terrible fit for pretty much any superhero, with the possible exception of the Question.

This is nowhere more apparent than in Snyder’s handling of the man who is supposed to be Superman’s moral guide and compass, his adoptive father, Jonathan Kent. As written in David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan’s screenplay, Jonathan Kent is a selfish and paranoid man who dithers over the seeming no-brainer of whether his son should have saved a busload of drowning kids. This insistence on placing Clark’s secrecy and privacy above other people’s lives culminates in the most baffling scene in the movie, where Kent chooses to risk his own life to save a dog, then sacrifices himself rather than allow his son to save him. The death of Jonathan Kent is a pivotal moment in Clark’s development, the moment when he realizes that for all his power he can’t save everybody, but it’s usually not presented as a suicide. A character who was more altruistic wouldn’t have met such a bizarre end—and a son who followed a better role model would have made the next fix unnecessary.

2. Respect the characters

This isn’t just about the murder of Zod (but yeah, it’s about the murder of Zod). Throughout the movie, Superman doesn’t do what Superman is supposed to do: save people. Sure, he offers himself up to Zod when the Kryptonians threaten the planet, although his anguish over that decision makes it clear that he doesn’t really love or respect the people he’s helping. He’s willing to act for the benefit of humanity on the macro level but he does surprisingly little for them on the micro level, to the point where he doesn’t even try to limit the casualties from his own battles.

It’s that lack of concern, even more than his failure to imagine any alternatives to killing Zod, that makes Snyder’s Superman ring false. He’s a remote and self-obsessed god, not the compassionate figure seen in portrayals ranging from Christopher Reeve to All-Star Superman (which Man of Steel quotes at one point but doesn't seem to understand.) We see him rescue more people as Clark Kent, Drifter at Large, than he does after he puts on the cape—but we also see him trash that one guy’s rig, an unusually petty and spiteful outburst of revenge from Objectivist Superman. Sullen and self-involved, this Superman is truly a chip off the old block.

An improved Man of Steel would feature a hero who actually values human life and tries to save the people around him. It would also rein in Zack Snyder’s fetish for large-scale urban destruction (previously seen in his adaptation of Watchmen, which multiplied the body count while neatly sanitizing the carnage). It’s the cheap route to gravitas after 9/11, but as with so much of Snyder’s work, there is nothing mature about upping the violence and the death. The problem isn’t just that Superman fails to keep Metropolis from turning into a smoking crater; it’s that he doesn’t seem to care.

3. Keep what works

For all my problems with Man of Steel, there’s a lot I like about it: Amy Adams gives us a Lois Lane who’s nobody’s fool, and some of the supporting cast (in particular Christopher Meloni’s Col. Nathan Hardy) display the heroism that Superman is supposed to inspire, if only he’d get around to inspiring it. The screenwriters are clearly familiar with the comics and they work in all sorts of deep cuts while somehow missing the most fundamental attribute of their main character. But there’s no reason to toss out all the good work around the edges.

Perhaps the best part of the movie is the opening sequence on Krypton with Jor-El as the two-fisted man of science fighting to save his planet. (The unspoken rule for all of these fixes is “Do it like the animated series, stupid,” and this is one place where they already did.) The political collapse in the face of environmental catastrophe only makes the situation more desperate, and it sets up the delicious irony that Zod is the only person who believes Jor-El. It’s the kind of dramatic tension you can build a great hero-antagonist relationship on, and it’s sustained when he essentially makes Superman the same offer.

Michael Shannon brings as much nuance to Zod as the character can bear, especially when he points out that he’s fighting for Krypton because that is literally what he was bred to do. It’s a great concept for Zod, one that’s sadly ruined when the script casually kills him off. Park this guy back in the Phantom Zone and keep him around for later.

4. Preserve the iconography

For all that Man of Steel gets right, it also has some curious omissions. The decision to have Zod kill Jor-El (presumably out of some misguided and formulaic Hollywood logic that dictated the hero have a personal crime to avenge—something not just unnecessary but completely antithetical to the Superman character) means that we never get to see the iconic scene where Jor-El stands by Lara’s side as Kal-El’s rocket lifts off while their world collapses around them.

The film’s plot structure, in which the story of Clark’s youth is told in flashback as Lois unravels the truth, means we never get that equally iconic scene where Jonathan and Martha Kent discover the rocket crash-landed in a furrow of dirt. I can understand the reasons for the latter: beginning Superman’s story in his infancy means that you have a lot of time to kill before he puts on the cape, and a strictly chronological retelling like the 1978 movie can be a long slog until you get to Metropolis. Flashbacks work for a reason; Aquaman certainly made shrewd use of them, even if the scenes themselves weren’t especially compelling. But nothing is more compelling than the two scenes of Kal-El’s parting from his first parents and his meeting with his second. Both should be there.

(It’s not lost on me that these are the two most human, moving moments in the Superman story and they are both missing from Man of Steel. This film goes out of its way to make Superman a murderer, but it has no room for the joys and tragedies of parenthood.)

This extends to the soundtrack as well. I get that Snyder and company were looking to make their own movie and avoid the creepy remake fetish of Bryan Singer's Superman Returns (Bryan Singer's least creepy fetish, as it turns out), but John Williams gave Superman the definitive superhero theme. Don't just leave it sitting on the shelf; use it once and make every aging nerd happy.

5. Needs more Luthor

There’s one more major omission from Man of Steel—his greatest enemy. Specifically, that version of his greatest enemy who, but for a couple of tragic flaws, could have been his greatest friend.

The character of Emil Hamilton is pretty much an afterthought in Man of Steel (he dies on the plane? I think?) so there’s no reason not to replace him with Lex Luthor. No, not the whiny tech-bro with the bad Crispin Glover impression: this Luthor is a scientist, entrepreneur, CEO, technical consultant to the military, former romantic partner of Lois Lane, and uneasy ally of Superman. And he’s got a full head of gorgeous hair.

It's easy to envision a film in which Luthor is working towards the same ends as Superman yet always trying to outdo him, and always coming up short. He can still do everything Hamilton does, down to activating the phantom drive and getting caught in that backwash of radiation, but of course Superman would save him along with Lois. Such a Luthor might easily see himself as the real hero of the battle of Metropolis, the guy who saved the world. And he wouldn't be entirely wrong—but since he was stuck on the plane while Superman was fighting the Kryptonians in the city, he wouldn't get any of the credit. He would get something else from that radiation burst.

In the final round of scenes, we see a humiliated Luthor hiding in seclusion, fuming over the fawning press coverage of Superman while clumps of his gorgeous hair fall out by the fistful…

6. Clear the sequels

Let’s be honest: Superman doesn’t have the greatest rogues gallery in comics, but he does have more than the two (2) villains who have appeared in all seven Superman movies to date. (Three if you count Doomsday, four if you count Richard Pryor.) And as Sean pointed out in our roundtable, the gods of Apokolips really needed more of a buildup if they were going to work as the villains in Justice League. These problems answer each other. Instead of using the sequel as an ill-advised attempt to seed the heroes of Justice League, let it do the more necessary work of introducing the villains.

Jerry’s suggestion of replacing Luthor with G. Gordon Godfrey works well, but I’d rather see him complete his heel turn. I’m imagining something like the animated series episode “Tools of the Trade” (remember the unspoken rule), where Apokolips is working through Luthor to fund his rebuilding of Metropolis as “the city of tomorrow” and establish their own beachhead on Earth. That would lay the groundwork for Justice League, set up Luthor as Superman's archenemy, and provide an opportunity to flesh out the supporting cast.

I won’t lie to you, reader: I have an elaborate fanfic outline of this plot. It has Maggie Sawyer and Dan Turpin in a newly-formed Special Crimes Unit that's trying to figure out how to work with Superman to take down Intergang. It has Lois and Clark exposing Luthor’s civic corruption with their reporting. It has a Perry White who actually supports real journalism instead of berating his staff for it. Trust me, I have even more crowded versions of this storyline that include the introductions of John Henry Irons and Metallo. It’s probably too many characters, to be honest, but they’d be Superman’s supporting characters in a story centered around Superman. He wouldn’t be reduced to 43 lines of dialogue in his own movie.

And then, at the very end of the movie, in the post-credits sequence, that's when you cut to another city and you have a quick shot of a shadowy figure silhouetted against the night sky. Suddenly he’s illuminated by a flash of light: the Bat-Signal.

That’s all you need, guys. You don’t need a whole movie to introduce him. You don’t need another flashback with those damn pearls. We all know who Batman is and how he came to be. We all know Wonder Woman can carry her own movie (and did, quite handily). They can team up in Justice League. Let the Superman movies actually be about Superman.

The first time I wrote about Man of Steel, I said, “I don't like judging the movie that was made against the perfect one that exists only in my head, but that's what happens when you come so close to the mark yet fall so short.” That resistance faltered as the sequels fell shorter and shorter. But a few minor changes at the beginning could have steered the whole DCEU franchise in a healthier and more humane direction.

Marc Singer teaches English at Howard University in Washington, DC. He is the author of Breaking the Frames: Populism and Prestige in Comics Studies, out this week, and Grant Morrison: Combining the Worlds of Contemporary Comics. Neither one is about Man of Steel, we promise.
Fixing Man of Steel Fixing Man of Steel Reviewed by Marc Singer on Tuesday, January 08, 2019 Rating: 5
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