Storytelling school

How Man of Steel Failed at Its Most Important Storytelling Element

Superhero movies tend to wear their themes on their sleeves – it’s part of what makes them so universally appealing, from batman begins“It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me” for wonder woman“I believe in love.” Because their roots are in comics primarily aimed at children, these stories often deal with absolutes — us versus them, good versus evil, selfishness versus sacrifice — which make perfect vehicles for strong and simple themes. . Steel manhowever, was the rare superhero film that failed to establish that basic element, turning a potentially compelling character study into a story that ultimately lacked a core.


In case it’s been a while since you took a high school English class, here’s a quick refresher on the topic: Plot is what happens in the story; the theme is what the story is on. For example, the plot of Disney’s The beauty and the Beast is, a beautiful girl is imprisoned by a fearsome beast in an enchanted castle; over time, he wins her heart and her love transforms him into a handsome prince again. The theme of The beauty and the Beast is, “Don’t be fooled by appearances, for beauty lies within.” Not all movies say their themes out loud, but family movies often do so that even children can understand them.

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Previous Superman stories have been built around one of the most iconic themes of superhero lore: as the bright-eyed Boy Scout played by Christopher Reeve put it, “I’m here to fight for truth, justice, and the American way.” This motto was not coined by the comics or the movies, but by a Superman radio broadcast from World War II. And while new releases have revised the theme, generally abandoning or altering “the American way”, in general, Superman stories tend to be positive and hopeful. Of course, that doesn’t mean a darker, more cynical version of Superman couldn’t be interesting or fun to watch. Zack Snyderthe version has been interesting; he never understood what he wanted to be.

Much of the first half of the Henry Cavill-LEDs Steel man revolves around Clark’s struggles with his identity and his quest to find his purpose in life. We see his difficulty in integrating with the people around him; we follow him as he discovers and adapts to his powers; and most importantly, we hear his father Jonathan’s warning to conceal those powers. Pa Kent believed that the world would not accept Clark for who he really was, and like any overprotective parent, he was more concerned with his son’s welfare than that of the people Clark would be tempted to save. In fact, he believed in it so strongly that he gave his own life in its service.

But when Clark sneaks aboard a newly discovered ancient Kryptonian ship, he finds a new father with a new mission for him: to guide humanity, and to be a force for good and a beacon of hope on Earth.


Superman’s Central Conflict Never Pays Off

This conflict—whether hiding her powers to protect herself or using her powers to save others and inspire hope—had the potential to be an interesting theme. If the film had then introduced an existential threat to humanity other than Zod (Michael Shannon) – perhaps a villain with no previous connection to Clark, or even a natural disaster – we could have seen Clark struggle with this decision: does he reveal himself, risking their rejection, or does he remain in the shadows , doing what he can right? without drawing attention to him? And even though this is a Superman movie, and we know what choice he will ultimately make, following Clark on this journey could have been very rewarding.

Instead, shortly after Kal-El gets his fancy new uniform and learns to fly, Zod attacks and targets him directly, threatening both Earth and him. Kal never has a choice whether to reveal himself or not. Zod already knows he’s on Earth; whether he surrenders or not, his existence will be revealed to mankind. And though he initially surrenders to Zod in a selfless sacrifice, it doesn’t work out – Zod plans to destroy Earth anyway. What follows is a massive battle of titans that has nothing to do with the conflict established in flashbacks to Clark’s past life. Zod’s defeat by Clark and his obvious pain at being forced to murder him with his bare hands feels like the climax of a different theme. In fact, he could have fitted in perfectly. black adamwhose theme is whether heroes should ever kill people.

We will ultimately never see Clark make the decision to reveal his powers to humanity as a whole. Rather than building a climactic moment in which Clark confronts the choice represented by his two fathers — which was clearly set up in flashbacks to his conversations with Jonathan and his side conversations with Jor-El — the film lets him off the hook. Zod reveals Clark’s existence to the world, not Clark himself. Clark never has to make that difficult choice.

Clark’s internal struggle resolves thanks to Zod

In fact, it’s even worse than that. Not only do we not see Clark resolve the internal struggle that should have been the theme, in his fight with Zod, he does not save people. The combat is spectacularly destructive; entire buildings are demolished in downtown Metropolis – buildings we know to be full of people – and after the battle is over, rather than using his super speed to help the thousands of citizens presumably trapped and injured in the amidst the rubble, he takes the time to share a kiss with Lois. As the dust clears, one of Daily Planet worker comments, “He saved us”…but did he? People under these collapsed buildings might not agree. Kal wears the symbol of the House of El which is meant to represent hope, but from the perspective of the vast majority of humans involved, he is just a deadly alien fighting another deadly alien in their city, and they are collateral damage. No wonder Batman is developing a grudge.

The latest Justice League movies do a little better job of making Superman a savior and a beacon of hope, though batman versus superman no doubt suffers from problems similar to those of Steel man. Batman and Superman’s eventual team-up and fight against Doomsday is a more conventional “save the city” type of fight, but it’s Bruce who makes sure they lure the monster to an abandoned area to protect the citizens, and finally, we still see very few images of Superman saving people. After his death, the scenes of global mourning seem totally unwarranted.

DC Studios recently announced that man of steel 2 is in the works with the return of Henry Cavill in the lead role. So they will try again to give Superman the strong theme he deserves. But it remains to be seen whether the Last Son of Krypton will eventually prove he truly stands for truth, justice, and the American way.