Goodness gracious, where to begin? The tone is stone-cold dread, the characters are uninteresting and the camerawork and action are shoddy and incoherent. But this is Batman and Superman. The material is there for something great.
Looking at the implications of a standalone modern Superman film and a Batman versus Superman film, some fans will say that DC is rushing the story, and while that may be true, it does not mean two strong films could not have been made from their concepts. So how could Man of Steel and Batman V Superman have been saved? Let’s start with Man of Steel:
Man of Steel
- Make Clark Kent the central protagonist with real stakes and with deliberate choices in the film
This is screenwriting 101, but was sorely lacking in the film. Basically, Clark Kent has too little to do with the actual narrative of the film. The events of the plot are initiated by his father, his adopted father, Lois Lane and Zod, leaving Clark pretty much as a puppet.
Taking away all the clutter, the narrative should focus on him, his character and his choices and should simply be this: Unsure of who he is, young Clark Kent, brimming with powers beyond his comprehension, wanders the world, searching for purpose, until he discovers a clue to his past that leads him to discover that he is the last descendant of an alien race. Listening to the guidance of the hologram of his father, Clark witnesses for himself firsthand the suffering of man and the need for a savior. He takes it upon himself to serve his adopted homeworld as a symbol of hope against evil.
Many complain about the tone being too dark in the film, and granted, that may indeed be a detriment, but it is not a film-killer. You can have a dark Superman film and have it be good, but you have to handle it well. What Snyder gave us in Man of Steel was simply darkness; you also need the light. You need ying to balance out yang in order to feel anything. Clark should see a world devastated by war and conflict, see people losing hope, and that could inspire him to give his very soul and identity towards a higher goal. That is a powerful sacrifice that should be examined, and it should start with Clark being the center of attention, driving the action and choosing his own destiny.
2. Themes: Establish the Idea of Gods and Make the Villain Essential to the Story
The theme of Man of Steel is a little murky. Is it that mankind needs a protector (the destruction of Metropolis and Superman stopping Zod)? Is it that violent measures are sometimes necessary in a dangerous world (Superman killing Zod)? Is it that people are wary of a superpowered individual (arresting Superman and gaining the people’s trust)? What is the point of it all?
The focus should be on Superman and his relationship to Earth. Since it is established early on that Clark is an outcast looking to find his way, his quest should be fulfillment, finding a purpose. Everything that influences the plot should reflect that goal of his. For an example, look to the plot of the animated Hercules.
The theme would then be accepting the potential power of yourself to make your world better despite the road that got you there.
In act one, we would meet a young Clark Kent, raised by his parents in Smallville. He begins to show powers beyond what others believe possible, and he feels shunned. His father and mother tell him the truth: they discovered him in a strange ship no one has ever seen before.
At the beginning of act two, we find Clark traveling the world, from Kansas to Brazil to India to Russia, trying to find his place. Every now and then, he is forced to do something extraordinary, such as saving a family from a falling building, but in so doing, he has to keep moving because of other’s fear of him. His exploits draw the attention of a reporter, Lois Lane, who chronicles this “man of steel.” This is pretty similar to the film.
Also on his journey, he learns of the cruelty of man, meeting warlords and terrorists, stopping them when he can. Clark eventually discovers a clue to the Fortress of Solitude where he learns about his true nature and consults the hologram of his father. He wrestles with the realization that he will always be different from everyone else and the loneliness that comes with it, unsure of what to do.
In the background, sinister forces are at work, perhaps led by Lex Luthor with his own subplot. He is representative of the evil that man has in its midst.
At the midpoint, Clark finally meets and falls in love with Lois Lane, never letting on that he is the subject of her journalism piece. When he is forced to save her from something (a drug cartel, terrorists, etc.), he understands his purpose. Even though he is not of man, he is bound to them and will sacrifice his life for them if need be. He dons the cape and becomes Superman.
There are pieces of this sprinkled throughout Man of Steel, but they feel rushed so that the big fight at the end can occur or the excruciatingly long introductory Krypton sequence (all of which can simply go- it is not important to Clark’s journey). The importance is Superman’s journey into discovering his purpose and why he chooses to be that hero.
Once the world discovers him, people may fear him and his powers, unsure what to make of him. Luthor’s scheme of some kind of dastardliness gives Superman the chance to save the day, giving mankind a savior they have not seen in a millenia (there are plenty of Jesus references in the film and that is fine, but they can be less overt).
The biggest problem with Man of Steel is Zod and his entire storyline. Man of Steel never needed huge action set pieces and gigantic space battles. Zod hijacks the story away from Superman and his journey. Clark is trying to find himself, someone so different, the last of his kind, and at the end of the film, he has found himself. Zod as a villain is too complicated, attention-diverting and not a proper villain for an introduction to Superman. Luthor may not even need to be in there as he is also capable of stealing Superman’s thunder. Imagine if Superman simply tried to save the world we have now. Imagine if he tried to defeat terrorists or warlords and tried to give hope in a global sense.
From then, his entrance onto the world stage could invite all sorts of other super-powered individuals such as Wonder Woman, Darkseid and Aquaman. Perhaps Superman’s entrance changes the global dynamics of world power, elevating other superheroes who had been hiding out into the open.
I think Warner Bros. was confused as to how to make a Superman film that would appeal to modern audiences, much more jaded today than they were in the Christopher Reeves-era. They decided to go gritty and edgy and darker. Again, that does not equate a bad film, but they forgot or neglected to include the core of what has made Superman special for over 70 years: as spectators, we marvel at his powers as Superman, but as Clark Kent, we empathize with his inner loneliness. That dichotomy between man of steel and man of fears is endlessly fascinating, how one man so powerful could feel so weak. Man of Steel never attempted to go that deep, substituting action for heart. A laugh in a superhero movie never hurt anyone.
3. Make Everything Coherent and Build to Finale
One last rebuke of Man of Steel that has somewhat been mentioned is its insistence on grandiose explosions and destruction. Zack Snyder seems to have an explosion fetish of some kind for the last 45 minutes of the film are non-stop action and devastation.
It is unfortunate that action is used to replace drama and heart. The greatest action battles and fight scenes are all pretty meaningless unless they are accompanied by real stakes in the character’s life. When Batman tries to save Gotham at the end of Batman Begins, he is not just trying to save a city, he is staking his ideal of the world, a world that can still be saved, against that of a militant organization. The fact that he was once a member of the same League of Shadows and allowed them to rise up again fuels the rage that drives him to stop Ra’s al Ghul. And the fight at the end lasts at most ten minutes, delivering just what is needed for the emotional punch to land.
Man of Steel on the other hand features Superman trying to save the world against a villain he has never really met. To top it off, he never actually saves any people other than Lois Lane, and their relationship is underdeveloped. To top it off, the battle lasts so long that it is the equivalent of a short bald man driving a fancy car as if to reassure himself that he’s something special, even though just about everyone can see that he’s lacking self-esteem. It’s not the length nor the intensity of fighting and explosions that creates audience empathy but the character’s journey to that point and his or her emotional stakes in the action. Man of Steel flashes brilliant nothingness at us for an obscene amount of time.
The climax should be heartfelt, with Superman’s quest of discovery in the balance, his need to be mankind’s savior the emotional crux. This moment should be built up to to achieve full dramatic value and should only last as long as it needs to.
Really, I could go on and on about everything wrong with Man of Steel because the list is nearly limitless. It is almost a perfect representation of everything wrong with the modern blockbuster. But let’s move on to another mess, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice (right from the title, you knew something was wrong).
Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice
- Establish the Protagonist and Whose Story You Want to Tell
Even buddy cop movies have a leading man. There is always a protagonist unless your film is a true-team movie (i.e. “The Battleship Potemkin”, “The Avengers”- though an argument can be made that Tony Stark is still the protagonist of a “The Avengers”). So it is that BvS needs a main character. The question the film never answers is; is it Batman or Superman?
The answer doesn’t come down to screentime or how many fight scenes there are, but to who drives the action of the story and who undergoes the emotional change through the course of the telling. Two characters can have journeys over the course of one story, but one should be the audience’s heart along the way.
But much like Man of Steel, we are left with nothing to really care for during the film. Neither Batman nor Superman is relatable. Neither of them has a true emotional arc. For all the fighting, talking of gods and whatnot, you still need the basic heart of a hero somewhere in here.
I would think that the protagonist would be Batman. Ben Affleck does a fine role as Bruce Wayne (though I can’t look at the screen and see ‘Bruce Wayne’, I see ‘Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne’) and he seems actively concerned about the power of Superman. His desire to keep power in check is admirable and the fact that he is a little crazy (as Batman is) works. So the story should focus on him.
Superman can still be in it, but he should serve as a secondary character, an antagonist to Batman’s goals. Especially with the Man of Steel already having his own film, he could play second-fiddle in the narrative to Bruce Wayne. Bruce would then go through the emotional journey of not trusting Superman, to trusting him to perhaps saving his life at the near-expense of his own at the end. Their relationship can build. The climax should not be Batman V Superman, but it should be the act two climax. The confrontation could leave them both broken in some form (Superman by kryptonite, perhaps Bruce’s suit out of juice and stuck in it). This would then give them the opportunity to bond before saving the world from some other catastrophe (i.e. not Doomsday- that’s a whole other storyline for an entirely different film).
The execution of the relationship between the two characters in the film is pathetic. There needs to be development, they need to go from hating to liking back to hating etc. A good example of how something like this is done would be Toy Story. The foundation between Woody and Buzz starts off rocky, they are forced together towards a common goal, drift apart again and finally gain true friendship. They need to save each other, learn a bit about each other, stick up for one another. It’s development that Batman V Superman is missing, and it should be the heart of the film.
2. Stop With the Sequel-Bait
Wonder Woman is here. So is Aquaman for a second. Flash? Green Lantern? They might appear at some point. It’s hard to keep track anymore with all the sequel-bait.
It’s become an epidemic in the Hollywood blockbuster. One film is never enough anymore. Each film is a prelude to another film which is a prelude to ten other films. The result are mediocre films bogged down by less dramatic plot points and subplots that do not serve the main story other than to advance a future film down the line (“Avengers: Age of Ultron” is very guilty of this).
Wonder Woman does not need to be in this movie. Nor really does Lex Luthor. Nor any of those other cameos. The story should only have as many characters as necessary to its plot. The Dark Knight Rises has many characters, but they all solve a purpose (mostly). X-Men Origins: Wolverine has many characters, but almost none of them serve a purpose. Batman V Superman has many characters, and most of them serve a purpose, but many don’t, and the film feels less because of it. It’s less impactful because it is cluttered in purpose. Batman should have a storyline. Superman should have a storyline. Characters that contribute to each of their storylines should be included. Anyone else should be excluded.
3. Focus on a Simple Story
So now that we’ve cut away all the unnecessary bits and pieces and added an emotional arc between Batman and Superman, all you need now is a simple story to tie them together. It has to be more than Batman hates Superman because he’s dangerous. One of them actually has to be at fault for something so that that person can learn something over the course of the story.
If Batman is your protagonist, perhaps he views Superman as a dangerous weapon, tries to reason with him to no avail, has kryptonite developed just in case, but after repeated efforts, feels he has to take Superman down for the good of the planet. He has to view the situation as any of us would. We would try to handle the situation peacefully, try harder when that doesn’t work and then work towards drastic measures.
Perhaps Superman is recruited by the US government as a pawn to destroy rival governments (as in the graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns and this would also carry over themes from Man of Steel) and Batman hates that Superman can be used as a weapon of corrupt government officials. As he himself tries to clean up Gotham using whatever means necessary, it is rumored that the mayor of Gotham may call in Superman to deal with the bat menace. The two heroes can meet and have that pivotal conversation where they let each other know they won’t stop their duty. Perhaps Superman is plagued by self-doubt about confronting his friend Batman. Perhaps Batman feels the same way.
There needs to be something internal between the two characters that makes their choices have greater meaning. Two friends, pitted against each other, against the theme of devotion to the greater cause and godhood in the modern world. If only more of that was imbued into the narrative.
In conclusion, it’s hard to overstate just how much is wrong with Man of Steel and Batman V Superman. Character over action, internal growth, a commitment to story principles and climaxing drama… All of these things are necessary to create an engaging story. Zack Snyder’s films are superficial, uninteresting and nauseating. Warner Bros. is going down a poor road to generate profit and has sacrificed a great story.