Archive for September, 2016

Sep 18 2016

Man of Steel Review

I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.

1. This movie is about as bad as Catwoman but, in Catwoman’s defense, it had okay action scenes.

2. Man of Steel particularly struggled with family dialogue. E.g. Clark’s Kryptonian parents take 3 minutes to describe their plan to send him to Earth and say their goodbyes. It’s pretty bland stuff, e.g. melodramatic intonations like “Goodbye, my son, all our hopes and dreams travel with you.” For much better family sequences, I’d recommend checking out Up, Incredibles, and Inception, non-dramas that happened to have some highly emotional and sometimes tragic family scenes. Let’s look at Inception’s vault scene, where a son insecure about failing his imposing father’s expectations is about to inherit a business empire from his dying father. He quietly hates his father because he thinks that his father has rejected him (e.g. not acknowledging a photo of a homemade pinwheel that’s probably the only happy memory they ever shared).

If you can get through this scene without shedding a tear or smiling at all, I’d recommend talking to a WB casting director because apparently they’re really into that. Also, the dialogue in this scene takes about 1:15. Compare to 3:15 of “Goodbye, my son, all our hopes and dreams travel with you and maybe also an AI which will spend another 5-10 minutes narrating to you later.”

(For some extra tragedy, this scene from Inception is a dream sequence created to trick the son into breaking up his father’s empire. In actuality, the father probably actually was a bastard).

2.1. When Pa Kent reveals to his son that he’s an alien, he bends over backwards to be weird about it. E.g. “You’re not on the periodic table”, “You’re the answer to ‘are we alone in the universe?’”, and “You need to decide whether to stand proud in front of the human race or not.” Clark doesn’t respond at all to this weirdness (his father gets 146 words in this scene, and Clark gets 13 – like most scenes between Clark and a parent, it’s more of a parental monologue than a conversation).

2.2. When Ma Kent’s son locks himself in a closet at school, mixing in some conflict would probably be more interesting than trying to be a yoga instructor. (“Focus on my voice. Pretend it’s an island. Out in the ocean. Can you see it?”) Alternately, maybe having Clark react when they take conversations in exceptionally weird directions. In this scene, Clark’s mom gets 80% of the words. Contrast to more effective conversations in Dr. Strange – even the most New Age-sounding lines from the Ancient One address problems and advance goals in a serious, practical way.

3. A question-and-answer session between two entirely cooperative characters is almost never the most interesting way to convey information. If the backstory of what had happened on Krypton actually were important, I’d recommend cutting the first 20 minutes of the movie on Krypton and most of the conversation between Clark and Jor-El, and have General Zod briefly mention or allude to important pieces when he shows up. Even that’s probably unnecessary.
3.1. If you’re rewriting a scene that feels like an 100% cooperative Q&A session, I’d recommend considering building some conflict between the characters, some mistrust, some concealment and/or lying and/or self-serving, not being willing and/or able to tell the whole story, and/or unreliable answers, etc. Also, there may be some degree of “cost” to the questions — e.g. if you sent your son to another planet and could have come yourself but chose not to, you might be uncomfortable freely admitting that because he’d probably think that you abandoned him. There probably should have been some pushing/conflict before Jor-El elaborates on what happened there.

4. The movie heavily overfocuses on Clark’s parents, who delivered twice as many lines as Clark/Superman gets (26% vs. 13%). Minor characters (mostly the military and minor Kryptonians) made up another 39%. Giving 2/3 of the lines in the movie to minor characters that have little bearing on the plot, little personality, and almost no unusual decisions between them is a bad idea. If your superhero is so boring that sidelining him for his parents might be a good idea, something has gone catastrophically wrong for your superhero story.

Characters Word Count % of Total
Clark’s parents 1,888 26%
Clark/Superman 926 13%
Zod 850 12%
Lois 725 10%
Everybody else (mostly military + minor Kryptonians) 2,815 39%

4.1. Arguably the worst part of the conversations between Clark and his parents is that his parents are windbags that relentlessly info-dump at him in the most grandiose, messianic terms what he symbolizes and the unbelievably wonderful things he’s going to accomplish some day when he gets off his ass and stops listening to windbags telling him about it. Jor-el: “You will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards. You will help them accomplish wonders. You will guide them so they might not make the same mistakes we did. You will show them this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and the planet began to heal.” Pa Kent: “You were sent here for a reason. All these changes you’re going through, one day you’re going to think of them as a blessing, and when that day comes you’re going to have to make a choice, to stand proud in front of the human race or not… You just need to think about what kind of man you want to grow up to be, because whoever that man is, good or bad, he’s going to change the world.” Who the **** cares what he symbolizes? Get him doing and saying interesting things. In the first hour, he doesn’t come close on the first or attempt the second.

4.2. If ANYBODY takes 80% of the lines in a conversation with your main character, the scene-stealing characters damn well better be hyper-charismatic and/or critical to the plot, on the order of a Hannibal Lecter or Han Solo or Blake (the “coffee is for closers” sales instructor in Glengarry Glenross). In Man of Steel, virtually every scene with Clark’s parents sidelined Clark, which is very unusual for a lead character. I don’t see what they were going for. Clark didn’t get a lot of opportunities to have personality, develop himself and/or be interesting.

4.3. There’s one point at which the ghost of Jor-el tells Clark “If only Lara could have witnessed this.” Nah, three hyper-generic parental figures should be enough, I think.

5. The entire plot is a festering cancer of incompetence.. Being in Man of Steel is like barrel-rolling a Jeep full of incontinent donkeys. Nobody walks away looking good.

  • The military and Superman have one Kryptonian weapon against the Kryptonian invasion. Instead of doing a conventional aerial assault, like the last one that got totally wrecked by Kryptonians flying at Mach 20, why not have Superman fly it in?
  • Krypton’s codex, the only means by which Kryptonians can have children, is completely unguarded. Jor-El doesn’t even need to pick a lock to steal it, let alone deal with any guards. It’s less secure than the average 7-11.
  • Zod moves at an exceptionally slow pace when trying to recover the codex .
  • Zod: “I was bred to be a warrior. I trained my entire life.” Zod and two soldiers with rifles are unable to defeat a scientist in combat, and the scientist punches Zod out. Nor is he able to prevent a journalist from shooting her way out of captivity. I’d get a refund on that training.
  • When Zod stabs Jor-El, he doesn’t secure Jor-El’s gun even though Lara is a few feet away from it. You sure you can’t get a refund on that training?
  • Zod has at least 10 Kryptonians. Earth has one. Might have helped having more than 2 of the invaders try superpowered fighting.
  • Clark not figuring out a way to save his father secretly from the tornado (e.g. creating a distraction with heat vision and then running in while people are distracted).
  • Less blatant, but I think a smarter superhero could have spared Metropolis some devastation by drawing Zod away from the city.
  • Here’s the first lines exchanged between Hardy and Lois. COLONEL HARDY: “You’re early. We were expecting you tomorrow.” LOIS: “Which is why I showed up today. Look, let’s get one thing straight, guys, okay? The only reason I’m here is because we’re on Canadian soil, and the appellate court overruled your injunction to keep me away. So if we’re done measuring dicks, can you have your people show me what you found.” That… got out of hand quickly. To make Lois come across as tough rather than mentally unstable, I’d suggest giving her an actual provocation to respond to rather than just a military officer gently pointing out they agreed to a different schedule. Treating that as “measuring dicks” makes her sound completely in over her head and/or massively insecure. Also, I’d recommend giving her some social skills – check out Maltese Falcon or The Killers for much better examples of characters working on hostile sources of information. Introducing yourself by declaring “YOU’RE OPPOSED TO MY INVESTIGATION!” for no benefit generally isn’t very sharp, even if the target actually were opposed to your investigation (which Hardy doesn’t appear to be, in this case).
  • Clark: “I don’t know if Zod can be trusted.” Zod has threatened to devastate Earth and Jor-El mentioned that he launched a coup against Krypton. I’d recommend taking this in a badass direction (e.g. “he’s probably going to kill me, but it might save the planet”) rather than “I really am that dumb”.
  • Perry evacuates the Daily Planet about 10 minutes after an alien warlord’s spaceship reaches Metropolis and a few minutes after the bombardment begins. If an alien that has threatened dire consequences for Earth parks a warship over a major city, sticking around to watch makes it less of a murder and more of a suicide. This is probably obvious to everybody in the world but Metropolis.
  • The conspiracy blogger was a pleasant surprise. He’s fully aware that Lois is trying to use him, and throws a wrench in her plans the first chance he gets (revealing that she knows who Superman is). It’s badass and makes Lois’s habitual idiocy sort of tolerable here. (If you need to blindly trust somebody, telling them how much you detest them while asking them for a favor probably should not work out all that well. That’s probably obvious to everybody in the world besides Lois).
  • Perry refusing to run a huge story on a UFO sighting because he thinks that Lois might have hallucinated it. Okay, but did she hallucinate the multiple collaborating eyewitnesses? And her laser wounds, and the massive ****ing crater where a spaceship flew out of a mountain? To make Perry look less idiotic here, I’d recommend making Lois’ case a bit more sketchy (e.g. she has several military contractors who will anonymously corroborate her story but no one willing to go on record, and there’s a plausible alternative explanation for the crater, like a volcanic eruption). Alternately, have Perry refuse to run the article because he’s been badly burned by Lois’ sources before and/or he suspects there’s something she’s not telling him (e.g. she’s in love with the subject of the article, probably has a vendetta against the military, is a BS artist, and generally is a walking time-bomb of incompetence and conflicts of interest).
  • Speaking of chronic incompetence, about 2 seconds after Perry refuses to run her UFO article, Lois gives it to a conspiracy blogger to run. She’s still surprised that Perry figures it out. (She gave him the article to read. How could he have NOT figured it out? There weren’t any other journalists within 100 miles). I’d suggest having her handle this in a more brazen, daring way (e.g. she knows that Perry will figure out what happened, and maybe doubles down when Perry confronts her about it – his decision to sit on an ironclad blockbuster story because there was an official denial is bad journalism).
  • Jor-El: “We’ve had a child, Zod. Krypton’s first natural birth in centuries.” Why tell him that as he’s about to kill you? It accomplishes nothing but endangering Clark. It’s also unnecessary from a plotting perspective: nothing Zod does later requires knowing this early that Jor-El sent a child (when Clark later activates the SOS beacon on the ghost ship, Zod can figure it out on his own).
  • If you’re driving a schoolbus, and blowing out one tire (out of 4-6) causes you to completely lose control and drive off a bridge, you probably shouldn’t be driving a schoolbus.
  • If you’re an infantryman and you bring a grenade launcher on a cargo plane carrying the military’s only superweapon, you probably shouldn’t be on this mission. Particularly if the enemy has proven utterly immune to conventional explosives.
  • If you’re a military planner and you have an alien in custody, you might want to try learning more about Kryptonian capabilities, Zod’s goals on Earth, whether Zod can be trusted, the backstory between Zod and Superman, or anything else that might be useful if the obviously sinister Zod turns out to be a major problem moving forward. Taking a tissue sample might also be useful for developing ways to kill Zod if it comes to that (and, based on the way Zod introduced himself to Earth, it should be obvious it’s going to).
  • Military planning: if an alien is immune to heavy aerial munitions and can fly at supersonic speeds, anybody that sends in riflemen next probably shouldn’t be a military planner. Maybe nerve gas? Sound-based weaponry? Biological weapons? Anything more creative and/or potentially useful than weaker versions of what you’ve already tried? (Alternately, if the point is that the military is unable to respond in ways that might be effective, why give it so many scenes?)
  • When a building collapses towards Perry, he tries outrunning it in the same direction it is falling. E.g. the Chrysler Building is ~1000 feet tall by ~100 feet wide. If the building is falling south, running south will take 1,000 feet, whereas running east/west will take 50 feet.

6. Emotional variety is missing. I think Clark smiles twice in the entire movie and there are literally no moments that are exciting or cool. Compare to much more effective dark movies, like Chronicle and Deadpool and Kick-Ass and Watchmen, which have a lot of despair and suffering, but ALSO have some levity and a lot of energy. E.g. in Chronicle, one of the main characters has an abusive father and is generally an outcast at school, but everybody gets occasional bursts of excitement and happiness and most of the characters are living semi-functional lives. Man of Steel is a gray pile of sadness where Superman stumbles from one tragedy to the next.

6.1. Here are some faceshots from the movie. Clark’s emotional expressions could use some work (e.g. his pose for seeing Lois for the first time is virtually identical to when he sees by a corpse).
Superman faces

6.2. I can sort of understand the rationale behind doing several scenes with military extras – Superman has virtually no good dialogue in this movie, and his powers don’t lend themselves well to interesting fight scenes. However, if you spend so much time on military characters that they have more lines than Superman does, I’d recommend having the military extras actually be sort of useful (e.g. taking down one of the minor villains or something rather than just shooting ineffectually).

7. Jesus Christ, how tragic can one person’s life be?

  • One father dies in a tornado, and the other gets murdered in a 5-minute civil war. And then gets murdered again by the same guy.
  • His father died because some asshole left her dog in a car. He couldn’t save his father because there were randomly hundreds of witnesses on a highway in the middle of Kansas.
  • His mother dies when his planet explodes. His Kryptonian father who turns himself into a ghost apparently forgot her. Probably just as well, they were just going to get murdered again anyway.
  • According to Jor-El, his parents could have accompanied him but chose not to, shooting him into the middle of Kansas instead and guessing that’d be good enough. They’re the ultimate deadbeat parents. (Superman doesn’t remark on this, but given that he himself was a deadbeat dad in Superman Returns, I imagine it’s a sore subject). Seriously, not even sending a robot or something to make sure that he’s cared for before humans find him? Also, dressing him first?
  • The only other people that survive his planet exploding are hardened criminals that had previously vowed to track him down across the galaxy.
  • When Zod shows up with a warship orbiting the Earth and demanding that Clark turn himself in, Clark doesn’t remember that Jor-El had previously mentioned Zod to Jor-El and might have some insight into whether Zod is as nutso as he appears (“yep, actually he murdered me”). He asks a random priest for advice instead.
  • A fishing cage falling when he’s right under it.
  • At least five people start a fight with him because they’re assholes (two sets of school bullies, and a drunkard in a bar).
  • His school assigns Plato.
  • Millions of people die when Kryptonians attack the planet. Zod thanks him for (unknowingly) activating the SOS beacon that gave them directions.
  • His schoolbus loses a tire just as it’s going over the bridge, and everybody nearly dies.
  • An oil rig explodes near his fishing boat.
  • Yellow sunlight makes him invincible and green sunlight makes him interesting. I’ve never seen a green sun, either.
  • Falls in love with Lois “Catastrofe” Lane. She can’t ****ing cross the street without getting kidnapped twice, and she’s not much better at journalism.

8. A recurring problem for Superman: an active Superman is so powerful that he can instantly solve most problems that come his way. For most of the movie, they opt for “Clark wants to act but instead does nothing to hide his powers, and then has a 3+ minute debriefing where a parent monologues about why he had to do nothing to hide his powers.” If you’re going to have so many of these scenes, I’d suggest at least having him TRY to overcome his problems without superpowers (e.g. talking his way out of it, run for help, or make some friends by having any outside interests or anything going on in his life besides random disasters and tragedies) or maybe some sly use of superpowers like using his heat-rays to start a fire alarm to bring out witnesses at an in-school fight.

9. Characters should respond more naturally to each other. For example, if Clark says something like “You’re some guy that found me in a cornfield” to his adopted parents, please write a sharper response than “Clark!” / “No, honey, it’s alright.” If you want to have Lois to declare that Hardy is trying to measure dicks with her, please give Hardy a sharper response than nothing. Other moments in the movie that probably deserved more of a response than they actually got:

  • Clark finding out that he’s an alien, and that his adopted parents have been keeping that from him for a long time.
  • Jor-El telling Clark that he’s Clark’s father.
  • Jor-El heavily implying to Clark that his parents could have accompanied him to Earth, but chose not to. (Alternately, maybe a slight rewrite like Jor-El and/or Lara attempt to accompany him to Earth, but die of wounds taken during the civil war?) This conversation sort of starts to explain why Kryptonian society thought Kryptonians couldn’t be trusted to have their own kids. They’re really, really bad at it.
  • Any of the lines where Jor-El sounds strangely lukewarm about Zod, even after getting murdered by him.
  • Clark locking himself in a closet at school.
  • Clark’s parents deciding that he shouldn’t have any friends. (We hear this from a kid at school, it never comes up in conversation between Clark and his parents).
  • Any exceptional strangeness from Clark’s parents.
  • Pa Kent sacrificing himself to save some asshole’s dog that, spoiler, will probably get euthanized in 5-10 years because its owner won’t pay $6,000 for hip replacement surgery. Clark’s parents (both sets) repeatedly screw Clark, and certainly a father screwing his family on behalf of a stranger’s dog is pretty rough, but at least they didn’t send an infant alone to an alien planet, right?
  • Clark’s father not creating a ghost for Clark’s mother.

10. For a dramatically effective version of soldiers fighting an impossibly powerful enemy, I strongly recommend looking instead at the final scene of Rogue One (doomed rebels in a terrifying encounter with Darth Vader). The scene lasts less than a minute and is completely non-redundant with everything else in the movie. In contrast, Man of Steel (and Suicide Squad) have 4+ emotionless scenes where military extras get mowed down emotionlessly just to burn time off the clock.

33 responses so far

Sep 17 2016

MISTAKES WERE MADE

Published by under Writing Articles

I spent 5 hours this week watching Man of Steel and taking 5,000 words of notes. It was like being trapped on an alien planet where the atmosphere consists 80% of characters telling Clark what incredible, grandiose things he symbolizes, 20% of daringly bad action scenes, 15% of grimly constipated expressions, and 15% of acting this bad. 130% lethal to humans.

And they haven't even mentioned the zombie part yet

(Much) more to follow for the masochistically inclined.

2 responses so far