[Opinon] - What Needs To Change In A Man Of Steel Sequel

I had low expectations going into Man of Steel, so I guess in that respect, my expectations were met: it was not a good film. This is, unfortunately, par for the course when it comes to Superman on the big screen, but Man of Steel was meant to be the film that changed all that, and would lead us into a larger world. Instead, it was just another in a long string of evidence that suggests either Superman doesn't work on screen (provably untrue considering some of the best versions of the character have appeared on TV), or that the sorts of people making these films don't understand how to make the character work (Richard Donner came the closest, and the failures of Superman '78 are largely pacing and technical stuff).

This past weekend saw a 65% drop in the box office for Zack Snyder's film, hardly the sort of performance that Warner Bros was hoping for when they greenlit a sequel a week before the movie opened, for release next year. Understand, thanks to $170 million in promotional agreements, Man of Steel didn't even need to be released to be profitable. But thanks to poisonous word of mouth, it will ultimately be nowhere near the huge blockbuster Warner Bros was hoping it would be, and is a rather tepid way to kick off their own shared universe of characters (which, at this point, I'm guessing will mostly just be Superman and Batman).

That they expect to be able to shoot, post and release a sequel within a year suggests to me that, despite Snyder's claims to the contrary, a script from him and David S. Goyer must already be in hand, and that this was all part of the plan. If MoS had tanked utterly in the first week (which, again, thanks to the promotional agreements, it couldn't have done), then the sequel would have been postponed, and Warners could still pretend like they intend to release a Justice League film in 2015. But a sequel will happen at this point, for better or worse. And considering how this one turned out, I'm betting worse.

But, we can hope for better. And for it to achieve the lofty ambition of "better," here are some things I feel the sequel must do, to turn the tide not only on this particular franchise, but on Superman's future in film. Hit the jump for my concerns, which includes spoilers for Man of Steel.

The Title

I've often thought Marvel missed an opportunity back when X-Men came out, that they hadn't went with the comic's superlative adjectives for the film titles. Just naming the character seemed so benign, when they had decades worth of comics called "Uncanny", and "Astonishing." The only two super hero films to date to make use of the whole original title are The Amazing Spider-man, and the Incredible Hulk. But think how much more fun the Amazing sequel would be if it were The Spectacular Spider-man, which could be followed by The Sensational?

Sorry, had to vent there. At least those franchises aren't filled with such a constipation of shame that they omit the character's name from not only the title, but from the film itself. Look at that poster up there. Is there any doubt about who we're talking about? Nolan used that very argument when he called his second Batman film The Dark Knight, that the character recognition had reached a point where they didn't need to be name checked in the title. I disagree. Even Sherlock Holmes and Dracula, the two most adapted characters in the English canon, still generally appear in works baring their names. It's not brand recognition, it's about embracing the character. Saying that this is a film about Superman is the first step in making a Superman movie. Man of Steel, like The Dark Knight, is a fine subtitle, but the name needs to be front and centre, not something that is implied by iconography (fun fact: Joesph Stalin's nickname was also the Man of Steel, which explains why that group of communists sitting beside me in the theatre looked so disappointed).

Get Over It
Ohh... realism. Now I get it.

As I said in my review, Man of Steel is a testament to embarrassment. The word "Superman" is spoken once, as a joke. The costume is changed, apparently in the name of realism, but actually as a way for the film makers to divorce themselves from a perception that the standard Supersuit is cheesy. It isn't. What it is, is perhaps the most iconic and recognisable fictional creation of the twentieth century. Show anyone a deerstalker, they will name Sherlock Holmes. And show anyone that red S, and even if they've never read a comic, watched a show, or see a film, they will tell you it belongs to Superman.

He was the first modern superhero, he's been adapted more ways, been involved in more things outside of his comic and had more of an impact on the culture then any other superhero (even Batman). As with the title, the sequel needs to embrace the idea of Superman, in all his long-held glory. Goyer, in the lead up to the film's release, said that the original costume was based off of the strongman outfits worn by wrestlers and weightlifters. This is true, it did start that way. But it has stopped being that. Like police boxes now just being the TARDIS, show someone a strongman outfit today, and I'll bet they'll say Superman before anything else.

Make Him Known
Look at all the adoring fans...

One of the bigger issues I had with the film was, by the end of it, I'm fairly certain that no one in the world outside of the Daily Planet and the military knew Superman existed. What made Zod's demands to hand Kal-El over to the Kryptonians such an empty threat was that Earth had no idea that he existed before that moment. So, when he presented himself, the military had no compunction handing him over. To make that moment mean anything, to have any sort of conflict; the people of Earth need not only to know who Superman is, but they need to love him. Turning him over needs to be painful, and perhaps enough to make them stand up to Zod themselves. Whatever faults the Richard Donner films might have had, at least he understood that Zod's attack needed to happen in the sequel, because the first film needed to be about establishing the hero. This film grossly misunderstood that fact, tried to everything all at once, and ended up with a mess on their hands.

The problem that presents itself now is, there isn't a chance in hell any human will ever trust a Kryptonian. Children are meant to point into the sky and chase after Superman ("They will stumble. They will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun."). In the world following Zod's attack, after all the damage has been done, children would cower and run in fear from anyone displaying those powers. The film alienated Superman from the core of his dynamic: he is a hero for the people. Unlike Batman, Superman operates in plain view. He works in the day, doesn't wear a mask, wears bright colours. He hoists attention upon himself. Goyer and Snyder's Superman hides, steals and is ultimately more a menace then a hero. And how exactly does he introduce himself after all that? There is no amount of catching helicopters, dissuading earthquakes and rescuing kittens that will undo all that ill will.

You are not on a cross, you're in space.

Can we just do away with this allusion. Because, in the last two films, it hasn't been an allusion, it's been a tired, obvious comparison that share very little beyond the "father sent him from above" part of their respective origins. Jesus, as it has been explained to me, was about tolerance and peace. Superman, despite his tendency not to kill, feels no hesitation about punching people through various rungs of the atmosphere. Jesus dies for humanities sins, so that they might look upon his sacrifice and be inspired to be better for it. Superman died because a rock monster in bicycle shorts punched him too hard. And was resurrected because a machine from his home planet... and a robot... then he grew a mullet... OK, so I'm not entirely certain why Jesus came back to life, but Superman's return makes just as little sense.

Comparing characters to Jesus is an easy way to gain hero cred. It is also incredibly lazy and cliched, and means the hero never has to do any work to establish their own hero cred (which is exactly what the Man of Steel Sups does). And I think it's only fair, if Superman is going to keep being compared to Jesus, that Jesus should start being compared to Superman. And I think there is a fairly large portion of the American population that might take issue with that. So next time around, leave the veiled references to religion at home. It doesn't make you clever, it makes you look like a first year university student in a media studies course. Unless, you want to start comparing Superman to Vishnu, in which case go right ahead.

Use Different Villains
There are several Superman villains in there. None are Zod.

Zod was a minor character who appeared once in a Superboy comic in 1961. That was all. Richard Donner used the character in Superman '78, and since then the Superman mythos has been unable to escape the one note gravity suck that is Zod (even the Animated Series had Jax-Ur, who was Zod by another name). And the film series seem unable to escape the repetition of remaking the Donner films over and over. Returns, and Smallville, was Superman '78 with better special effects, and Man of Steel was Superman II with better special effects. Don't call it a reboot, call it a remake, because that's what it is. Every damned time, they show use Krypton exploding, and every damned time Zod shows up and gets into a fist fight. It's the same story, with the same characters, told in increasingly empty ways.

Superman has one of the largest rogues galleries in comics, behind Batman and Spider-man (as befits a character who has been around for 80 years). And the closest anyone who isn't Zod or Luthor has come to making an appearance on film was the machine from Superman III, which was originally to be Brainiac. Brainiac actually holds the record for nearly being in the most Superman films, as he was set to appear in III, Kevin Smith's Superman Lives and the replacement script Tim Burton wrote to replace Smith's. He was also to be the villain in a Returns sequel, and was the original antagonist for Man of Steel before being replaced by Zod. And that's just one disembodied artificial intelligence. There are dozens more characters, like Bizarro, Metallo, Livewire, Parasite, Toyman, Ultra-Humanite, Amazo, and the whole of Apokolips. Are you telling me that none are as appealing, have the potential to carry the plot of a film for two hours, and could present a major problem for Superman in a visually interesting way? Or at least, not as much as a character so minor that, if Donner hadn't used him, he would have been forgotten about entirely? I so very much doubt that.

Personal note: the lovely and capable Carla Gugino provided the voice of Jor-El's floating helper bot Kelor in the film, taking on the role that Brainiac did in the Animated Series (and preserving her Snyder film appearance streak). I am very much in favour of her reprising the role in the sequel, and becoming the film universe's version of Brainiac.

Develop The Characters
Who are you people?

Superman has a large family of characters, and in a film it is hard to strike a balance between primary and secondary characters. Man of Steel didn't even try. See Michael Kelly up there. I still have no idea who he was meant to be playing. Or why he was included at all, because he certainly didn't do anything other then nearly die like the rest of them. Rebecca Buller, on the other side? The only reason I knew she was playing the Jimmy Olsen archetype was because of the internet crazy before the movie's release. We didn't learn her name (Jenny, by the way) until the final scene of the film, long after we had been expected to be concerned that she was going to be crushed by a gravity plunger. And in the middle is Perry White, played by Laurence Fishburne. He's a bit of an ass. That's all we learned. No surrogate fathering for Lois, no "great Cesar's ghost/shades of Elvis." Not even an ounce of quiet, soulful resolve like Frank Langella's performance in Returns. He's just a jerk.

These are not characters, these are plot breaks. These are ways of filling in the silence between action beats. In real movies, these characters get developed into fully formed persons, whom the audience becomes attached to, cheer for, mourn for. These characters become Agent Coulson. Do you think that when Marvel made Iron Man, they thought Clark Gregg's minor SHIELD character, used to deliver one very protracted joke, would become the rally character for the entire franchise? No (look closely during the Iron Monger attack: Coulson pretty much gets killed in the initial assault. Best continuity error ever). But they gave the character a niggle of a soul, something the audiences found interesting and amusing, and developed into love. Would I have been sad it the whole Daily Planet staff had been crushed to dead by the planet sized Shake-Weight? I wouldn't have even blinked (in fact, considering how pessimistic the rest of the film had been, I thought they were going to die). They hire actors like Fishburne, or Richard Schiff (who was, for me, the one actor I was looking forward to seeing in their role), and then have nothing for them to do or contribute. When Dr. Hamilton presumably died, I was gutted, because he hadn't done anything, and now wouldn't even have a chance. I mourned the missed opportunity rather then the actual character.

Find A Balance
I think this one speaks for itself.

MoS currently holds a 56% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, compared to a 75% for Returns. Why the disconnect? Well, simply put, neither of them did a good job of making a movie, but Returns did a better (again, not necessarily good) job of figuring out the point of the character. A lot of fans complained when Superman failed to punch anything in Returns, and have cheered on the fact that Superman only punches things in Man of Steel. Many more viewers have complained just the opposite. And that, I think is the disconnect. A certain percentage of the population wants Superman to be something specific, and that specific thing is the Hulk. They want Hulk smash, and movie critics like it when characters think about their problems rather then hit them. One without the other is going to be rubbish. This same problem plagues the original films, with very little happening in Superman '78, and too much happening in Superman II.

The comics, by benefit of being decades old, have found that balance. Superman is as much a cerebral character, lost in his doubts and grief as much as he is an action star, fighting giants squids and planet sized laser bombs. If they ever expect to make a good Superman movie, that is a movie that is well made and is about Superman, then they need to find that balance. Tellingly, the Clark Kent character is usually what maintains the quieter moments, a character that Man of Steel omitted until the very end, as some kind of reveal (and a pointless one at this stage, since he has no secret identity left to protect). Any future followup or reboots need to find a way to have the big punchy action, and the slower character driven moments. And at the risk of sounding like a cheerleader on a skipping record, the Avengers managed to do that. While balancing ten primary characters. Clearly, the makers of Man of Steel weren't paying enough attention to last year's massive hit. Or to Thor, which managed the same thing, or Iron Man. Or Batman Begins, which Goyer co-wrote. Or any highly regarded action film, that manges to actually express an idea without having to dumb it down, or hide a half developed thought behind CG fire and motion blur.

Lex Luthor
Not Luthor. But really, the best possible choice

This doesn't go against my earlier point, because I'm of the opinion that Lex Luthor isn't a villain. He's Superman's arch enemy, to be certain, but not in the same way that Joker is to Batman. I was disappointed that Luthor wasn't in Man of Steel, because Luthor is the other side of a balance beam, in which Superman is the fulcrum. Lois is on one side, gushing over the Big Blue Boyscout, while Luthor is on the other end, vilifying everything The Alien does. Luthor is the Devil's Advocate in all discussions Superman. The man who can say, "well sure he saved that orphanage full of nuns and puppies, but what does he want in return?" Luthor can coexist with other bad guys, the physical threats, because Luthor, like Lois, can only influence people's opinions of Superman. So long as he stays out of that stupid power suit.

For all Superman Returns various faults, one thing it got absolutely right was casting Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor. The character himself was a little shaky, but every scene with Spacey on screen was electric. Sadly, he'll never reappear, partly because he took the role as a favour to his Usual Suspects director Bryan Singer, and partly because Warner Bros doesn't want there to be any confusion between the two series. Which is, I feel, for the best. Spacey's (and by extension, Gene Hackman's) Luthor was a left over of the original version of the character, the mad scientist hiding in lairs, plotting to destroy Superman with increasingly evil schemes involving mind control rays or evil robots. It had a time, and a place, and that is past now. The current version was the one cooked up in the eighties, the Gordon Gekko inspired version. This is the version that Clancy Brown played perfectly in The Animated Series, and that Michael Rosenbaum bit into in Smallville (props to John Shea, the first to play this modernised version on film). The industrialist, the billionaire, the corporate wolf who is the most powerful man in Metropolis until Superman shows up, and whose ire grows more from a place of jealousy and power lust then real hate (though he gets there).

There is a potential here for a third, twenty first century version of the character. One that could be introduced in the films rather then in the comics. Man of Steel seeded Luthor's influence rather well, hiding references to LexCorp on buildings, billboards and tanker trucks, so obviously they are going with the tycoon version. But in this modern era, where do we see rich blowhards ramble on and on, repeating talking points, saying truly terrible and provably false statements, and carry a truly terrifying amounts of influence? Cable news, and social media. Why not make Luthor a pundit? One of those talking heads, like Donald Trump, who would pop up on chat shows and panel discussions, and spew his vitriol there? It's the perfect stage for his rants about The Alien, and an almost poetic corollary for Lois' old media reporting in the Planet.

In many ways, Man of Steel is the perfect set up for Luthor's introduction: the film has already made Superman an untrustworthy figure, one that will be looked upon with suspicion, can be easily vilified, and smeared, and Luthor won't come off looking extreme for his views. He's also got an in, to make himself look like the hero while the man of steel looks like the bad guy: Metropolis was destroyed. Seriously, flattened. There are damage estimates in the trillions. All Luthor has to do is rebuild Metropolis. He's done it before, sort of, with Gotham in the aftermath of the No Man's Land story arc. This act of goodwill was actually his first steps towards a presidential campaign, something that is not unheard of in the talking head pundit department either. What better platform to run on, after an alien invasion and the country's major city has been effectively levelled? And, if the intention is to spin the Man of Steel universe into a larger DC Cinematic Universe, then what better way to keep Luthor as a powerful and present threat then by putting him in the White House?

There were many sequel seeds planted in Man of Steel, from Luthor, to Wayne Enterprises, to Starr Labs and to Supergirl, though I suspect we won't be seeing her in future films, for the same reason that Joseph Gordon Levitt played Robin in Dark Knight Rises instead of Isla Fisher (or whomever) - studios still don't think that women heroes attract an audience, no matter what Katniss tells them. These seeds are obviously an indication of where the series might go. Both Goyer and Snyder, since the release, have said that Superman will have to go international, though I would argue he didn't go local in this film. If the expectation is to have a film ready inside 11 months, then they clearly already know where they are going with the sequel. I just hope they've learned their lesson from this time around.

I hope. I just don't believe.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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