Part Two: The Storytelling
(I am guessing that most of my readers are most familiar with the original Superman movies and are not ardent comic book readers. Because I honestly only know Superman via film and television and have read only about half a dozen comics in my life, I need to stick with film and television portrayals of the character. Comic readers, please show me some grace! Please also remember that I am not avoiding spoilers and that I possess very strong opinions.)
You can read Part One: The Struggle here if you are just joining this adventure.
The folks behind Man of Steel took some risks with their storytelling. They opted to interweave two sub-genres of speculative fiction (superhero fiction and science fiction). They removed one of the longest standing conventions of Superman’s story (Lois not knowing Superman’s true identity). They used flashbacks as one of their main storytelling devices. They showed more than they told. They developed characters with such subtlety that many viewers think there was no character development at all.
So many risks.
I think most of them paid off. Perhaps because I’ve seen the movie three times and because I’m a writer, a trained literary critic, and an analytical freak, I see how the risks they took, for the most part, work.
Man of Steel opens on Krypton, just like the original Richard Donner Superman movie did in 1978, but the two planets looks entirely different. The new Krypton looks much more like the planet Vulcan does in the 2009 Star Trek reboot movie. This similarity bothers me, because I do not like thinking about Star Trek while I am watching Superman. I want to be on Krypton, not thinking about how much Krypton looks like Vulcan, because then I am all too aware that I am watching a movie instead of experiencing a story.
However, I do like that this decision took Man of Steel more into the direction of a science fiction movie instead of being a strict comic book movie. One point I need to note is that science fiction and superhero fiction (comic books) are closely related, because they both fall under the broader genre of speculative fiction. Science fiction and superhero fiction share much in common. Consider, for a moment, the advanced technology used in The Avengers, Spider-Man, and Batman movies, and now in Man of Steel. Advanced technology is a key component of science fiction, but isn’t it also a key component of superhero fiction? Without waxing long, the two genres are related, and the Man of Steel folks simply decided to wade more deeply into science fiction rather than only dipping their toes in the waters like the Donner films or the TV series. I, personally, appreciate that decision, because I think science fiction is more interesting than a straight up superhero movie like Superman Returns (Can we all admit that Man of Steel is better than Superman Returns?).
I think the more sci-fi take on Superman in Man of Steel works, because it asks broader questions than the original Superman movies did. Unlike in the Donner films, Man of Steel is darker in tone. As previously noted, this movie focuses on Clark’s struggle with his identity and his role as a hero. This question was not asked in the original Donner films, which are more comic book in nature. Superman just showed up ready to rescue kittens from trees and screeching newspaper reporters from broken helicopters. Because Man of Steel takes on a darker tone, the harder questions that are staples in science fiction are asked and answered.
I also believe that when the next Superman movie comes out, there will be a return to some of the lightheartedness of the earlier Superman movies. Clark will be working at the Daily Planet. There will be opportunities there for humor and levity that were not possible in the first movie, because Clark was not yet that person. Clark wasn’t ready to have fun with his powers, because, heck, he didn’t even know he could fly until a third of the way through Man of Steel! How do I know that the next movie will have more humor? That Clark will be more like the Clark we know from the earlier incarnations? Because I saw the twinkle in Clark’s eye when he grins at Lois in the military facility while they are discussing the symbol of the House of El. That same twinkle was there when he grinned at Lois in the Daily Planet office at the end of Man of Steel. That adorable, slightly awkward Clark is there. I promise. And, if I’m wrong, I’ll eat crow.
Man of Steel also takes a risk by using a shifting timeline to tell the story. The lengthy introductory scene on Krypton provides the back story for why Kal-El is on Earth, just as it does in the Donner Superman movie of 1978, but then the shifting timeline begins, which is a storytelling device that I, personally, love. Time skips ahead to 33 year old Clark working on a fishing boat. After his first rescue for the movie, time reverses, and we see little elementary school aged Clark experiencing his x-ray vision and super-hearing in the middle of his teacher’s history lesson. Then we return to the present, only to return to the past when we have 8th/9th grade Clark finding out that he’s actually an alien from another planet.
I’ve read so many complaints about this form of storytelling, and I just have to ask, do these people also hate LOST? Do they hate the flashbacks in Batman Begins? What about when Aragorn has flashbacks to his time with Arwen in The Two Towers? How about when Logan/Wolverine remembers his past in the X-Men movies? Or the entire movie The Prestige! Talk about a mind-bending adventure through time! If they hated all of those flashbacks, then, fine, I’ll give you a pass. But if you like LOST or Batman Begins or almost any other movie that requires the main characters to remember any part of their life prior to the movie, then, please, be quiet and accept that fact that Clark is remembering key moments in his life throughout Man of Steel (Please, also, read more. You’ll notice when you read books that the great books frequently include flashbacks. Start with Ender’s Game. You’ll need to read it before you see the movie in November anyway.)
Another risk they take with Man of Steel is letting Lois know who Clark is from the start. I actually have been surprised to see the lack of complaints about this aspect of Man of Steel. It seems that folks agree that the Lois Doesn’t Know That Clark and Superman Are the Same Person storyline is completely unbelievable and lame. Is there any other part of the Superman myth that has been mocked more consistently over the last 75 years than this one? I’m thrilled that Lois knows from the beginning of the movie that this incredibly attractive man with freakin’ awesome abilities is Clark Kent. It makes her Pulitzer Prize winner status a bit more believable.
In fact, I find this Lois Lane much more believable than any other Lois Lane I’ve seen thus far. The Lois of Smallville is close, but even she is not quite as Lois as Amy Adams’ portrayal (For the record, I refuse to address the complaints about Lois having red hair in Man of Steel, because I think dismissing an entire character based on her hair colored is petty and juvenile. And Amy Adams is perfect. The End.). Amy Adams’ Lois is a grown-up. She isn’t a tantrum-throwing Lois like Terri Hatcher’s. She isn’t a frail, neurotic, and freaking annoying Lois like Margo Kidder’s. She isn’t vapid and stupid like Kate Bosworth’s Lois (who chooses Cyclops over Superman. Seriously? Cyclops???). Amy Adams’ Lois is a confident, intelligent, self-sacrificing woman of integrity, and I find it completely believable that Clark would fall for her. She’s a woman well-suited to standing beside Superman.
What I think people miss, though, because I have also read numerous complaints about the character development in the movie, is how the movie actually does develop the characters to a greater depth than most viewers realize. That discussion will come in Part Three: The Characterization.