Sunday, 23 June 2013

Man of Steel, Script of Lead

The first draft of my review for Man of Punching was actually much longer than the version that I ended up posting. It originally went into detail about the numerous issues I had with the film's script. The screenplay is by David S. Goyer, one of the writers on the Batman films, and it's kind of terrible. Ultimately, I cut those sections out because, as well as getting way too long, the review was coming across as almost entirely negative, where my feelings are actually about half-and-half. The script issues are definite problems, but they aren't the problems that kept me from enjoying the movie, so the review worked fine without them.
I still feel they're worth discussing, though, and I have that first draft lying here unused, so lets use it to take a deeper look now. This post is quite long, and will get into a few story specifics, but the only real spoiler is clearly labelled and easily avoided. Let's do this.

The scene that best sums up everything wrong with this script is one at the end of the first act. Superman's father, Jor-El, explains to his son that, where other Kryptonians have their purpose and destiny chosen for them and imprinted upon them before birth, he, Superman, is free to choose a destiny for himself. Then Jor-El immediately follows this speech with, "So here is exactly what I've decided you must do with your life..." and hands him a suit to wear.
Putting aside the questions of what the suit is doing there (on a scout-ship from thousands of years ago that has nothing to do with the House of El) and why its colours don't match any others used by Krypton, this scene highlights three problems that are indicative of the entire film: a problem with exposition, a problem with setup and payoff, and a problem with convolution.


1: Exposition

The scene above is one where Jor-El just stands and talks at Clark (or Kal) about the plot. It goes on for quite a while, and Jor-El even has some Kryptonian PowerPoint slides prepared.
While there's nothing inherently wrong with this approach, everything he is explaining has already been dealt with, or at least touched on, earlier in the film. We've already seen how the caste system works, we already know that Kal-El was born naturally, we watched General Zod attempt a coup, and we saw Krypton explode. This was all established in the film's fifteen minute prologue on Krypton. It's fair to give us a refresher on this stuff, but there's no need to spell it all out in detail as though it's new information - otherwise, what's the point of showing that prologue in the first place?
That's not even the last time this stuff gets explained! Zod himself rehashes some of it when he first meets Supes, he later repeats it in a debate with Jor-El, and then, during the final battle, he finds time in his busy, punch-filled schedule to clearly lay out all his motivation - detailing the history of both his character and his people. Again.

It's a - if not the - basic rule of storytelling: show, don't tell.
No-one in a story should ever have to explain their motivation (except possibly in a mystery reveal) because we should be shown those motivations through their actions, inactions and interactions. It can even be done through costumes and props - think how much more effective it would be to just see a framed Pulitzer on Lois Lane's desk, rather than having her exclaim, "I'm a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist!" to her own boss.

In a way, Man of Steel is actually very true to the early era of comics, when writers didn't trust the artists to convey meaning, so they filled every panel with a massive speech bubble of the hero saying out loud what they were doing or thinking.
This is never clearer than in the Krypton-set prologue. That part actually looks like a Golden Age sci-fi comic, too - all weird creatures, insane costumes and nonsense technology. I'm pretty sure there's Kirby Dots.
The writing in this sequence is as pulpy as the design. All anyone does is hurriedly explain the plot to each other, using unwieldy semi-classical language. Jor-El is in the middle of explaining Krypton's doomed fate to a council who keep explaining Krypton's history, when Zod bursts in and explains why he's starting a coup, prompting Jor-El to explain his history with Zod and all his thoughts on all of this. He then goes home and explains to his wife a plan they've no doubt been discussing for months. It's ridiculous but, because the four-winged dragons and the council's giant hats are also ridiculous, it isn't noticeably out of place. It's not until we get to Earth, and the film decides to act deadly serious, that this style of exposition-filled dialogue really starts to grate.

The Krypton stuff is actually some of the better exposition in the film because at least people are explaining things that we are actually seeing. It's not showing or telling - it's doing both. At its worst, Goyer's script doesn't even stretch that far, telling us - and expecting us to accept on faith - things that it never shows us for ourselves.

There's a scene in an IHoP (product placement!) where Superman faces Zod's sidekick Faora. They have an awesome, but way too short, fight, which Faora wins by being better at punching. Then she tells Supes that he can never win because he is held back by his morality, and her advantage is that she has none. Then she proceeds to beat him by being better at punching.
You would think, after (or maybe just before) telling him that, she would demonstrate her point by using his morality against him. Like, say, distracting him by threatening one of the many humans in the room. But no - she just punches him some more. This little speech is seemingly prompted by nothing - there's no reason for her to be saying that right now.
There's no reason for her to say it at any point, actually. We never see any evidence that Superman's morality is putting him at a disadvantage. We never see any evidence that Superman really has much morality anyway (see: carparks, petrol-stations, death). It comes up once much much later but, other than that, Faora's monologue is the only evidence the film gives us - it tells, but it never shows.

Jonathan Kent, Clark's father, has many similar monologues. He's one of the better characters in the film, but he gets the worst exposition by far. Every line he utters is a warning to his son that people are not ready to see his powers, that the world will fear him, and that no-one can be trusted. Kevin Costner makes this work somehow, but on the page it's just flat preachy statements from his first line to his last.
That's pretty terrible in itself, but what makes it far worse is that we never see any evidence to back him up. There's a woman whose son sees Clark using his powers, and she seems a bit worried or concerned, but hardly terrified. Yet Jonathan keeps telling his son, again and again, how careful he needs to be because people won't be able to handle it and will go for their pitchforks.
There's also a bit where Perry White won't print a story for the same reason, which made me giggle. He's a newspaper editor - that's exactly the kind of public reaction they usually aim for!
Both Perry and Jonathan are guilty of telling without showing. Nothing in the film suggests that people are afraid of Superman, yet we're expected to believe it because it's explained in dialogue. People do seem a little uncertain and twitchy around him, and the military do fire on him at one point - but that's because he's actively destroying a town, which is honestly fair enough. As it is, because Jonathan Kent keeps saying these things so fervently without anything else in the film backing him up, he just seems paranoid and crazy. He does some pretty messed up things based on this belief of his but, without seeing his fears confirmed, it's impossible for us to agree with his actions.
He's a nutjob, frankly. But he didn't need to be a nutjob. If we'd actually witnessed a violent, crazed reaction from someone who found out about Clark, we'd be on his dad's side without question. But we never do - we just hear about it from a man who hasn't witnessed it either. Jonathan is only a nutjob because Man of Steel relies too much on spoken exposition.

Again and again, this movie stops doing whatever it's doing so that it can tell us what it's doing. Worse, it often tells us what it's not doing instead of actually doing it. It's a problem.
At one point this excessive amount of exposition is actually what drives the plot! When Zod experiences super-hearing and vision for the first time, he is overwhelmed and disoriented by it. We know this because we already saw Clark go through it himself. Showing us was enough - we get it. But, just in case we don't get it, the script then has Superman explain to Zod exactly what he's experiencing, explain that he learnt how to deal with it as a child, then explain how he deals with it. Zod later uses this information to cope with the problem himself, allowing him to commit mass-murder.
As a general rule, if the exposition in your film directly leads to hundreds of deaths, your film probably has too much exposition.


2: Setup and Payoff

Jor-El, in that first scene above, is a total hypocrite. He goes on at length about Kal's freedom to choose his own fate, then straight-up tells him the fate (and clothes) that he's picked out for him.
The same thing happens with Jonathan Kent - he keeps telling Clark that he must choose if and when to reveal himself and then, in the same breath, outright telling him not to. When Clark actually does have to make that decision - when a certain important thing happens - Jonathan raises a hand, looks stern, and denies his son the very choice he kept lecturing him about. Also, shouldn't Martha, Clark's mother and Jonathan's wife, get some say in that moment? I'm amazed that she ever speaks to her son again.
Both Clark's adoptive and real father often pay lip service to the idea of "choice", yet both then continually dictate his actions. The only time he does make a choice, it's not the "what kind of man will you be?" that all the parental monologues have been setting up, but rather "will you hand yourself in to save the planet?" It's similar in some ways but, really, it's a very different question.
The setup here does not match the payoff. His parents set up certain choices, then make the choices for him, denying us a payoff. When we do get a decision-based payoff later on, it's to a decision which was never set up.

There are weird incongruities like this throughout Man of Steel. Wasted setups that don't really lead anywhere. When the film establishes Clark's super-senses (x-ray-vision, super-hearing), for instance, it's setting up an expectation that they will reappear. There is one gag about seeing through a mirror but, otherwise, he never uses these powers again. Why do we even see these skills if they never factor into the plot? Zod experiences them later, as mentioned above, but he gets over them so quickly (and also never uses them again) that their inclusion effectively serves no purpose, even then. They are set up, and then forgotten about. Again, no payoff. Which is a shame because they might have spiced up the repetitive action a bit.

Much more problematic are the unearned payoffs that the film fails to prepare us for. In the IHoP scene (again) it's established, through bad exposition, that Superman's weakness is his morality and compassion. Yet this weakness is never used against him until one specific point at the end. That one point is supposed to be the payoff to this morality setup, but it comes after we've watched Superman let carparks explode and buildings fall down and never once display any concern for the humans getting trampled underfoot. We've effectively forgotten Faora's speech by this point, because it was never reinforced by the action. So, while there is a payoff, it comes after an extended period of pointedly ignoring and contradicting the setup, which makes it feel like it comes out of nowhere.

Most damning of all, though, is another thing that comes out of nowhere, in the exact same scene at the end. A thing which is a massive spoiler, so skip ahead if you haven't seen it.

The conclusion of the final fight is so out-of-the-blue it's ridiculous.
We've been watching Kryptonians punch each other for over an hour now and at no point has there been any evidence that they can actually harm each other. No matter how many times they get punched through city-blocks or punched into space, they never bruise, they never cut, they never sprain or twist or fracture anything, and they never seem to get tired. Even their hair can't be damaged. There is never a single moment of setup - not one - to suggest that Kryptonians can hurt each other on Earth.
So, when Superman snaps Zod's neck, it's a complete shock. It is meant to be shocking, of course, but it's meant to be shocking because we don't expect Superman to kill people, not because we never knew it was even an option!
If the fight was going to end the way it did then we needed to be aware that Kryptonians can actually hurt each other (which would have made the endless punching more dramatic, too, because we might actually have felt some concern for the hero) and we needed more evidence that Superman is compassionate. As it stands, neither of these things are set up enough for the payoff to feel satisfying. It's a poorly handled ending to a poorly handled fight.

End of spoiler.

Many times, Man of Steel sets things up and doesn't pay them off, pays things off that it never sets up, and sets things up only to pay them off later, long after they've been actively contradicted. The disjointed feeling this causes is one of the film's biggest problems.


3: Convolution

Returning again to that first scene we mentioned, Kal-El was born naturally, where most Kryptonians are bred in Matrix-pods for a specific task. His DNA is natural and unaltered. That, Jor-El tells him, is why his destiny is a choice - he could become anything or anyone.
Zod wants to repopulate Krypton (or the Kryptonian species, at any rate), but he can't currently do it because he only has soldiers with him and their DNA is too limited. To complete his task he needs genetic templates for the other castes.
There is already a clear story emerging here. Zod needs a broader sample of DNA; Kal-El's DNA is malleable and undefined. If Zod gets hold of Kal, he will have pure Kryptonian DNA to work from.

That's it, surely. That's the story.
I'd be willing to bet a fair amount that, in an earlier draft of the script, that was the whole story. But, in the finished film, there's an entire extra layer of unnecessary complexity added onto it.

In the final script, Jor-El steals the Codex (a database containing the genetic templates for all Kryptonians) and somehow transfers that information into his son's cells. This essentially serves the same purpose as the scenario above - Zod needs Kal-El's DNA - but it's more complicated when it doesn't need to be.
It also raises a bunch of stupid questions. Why does Jor implant it into Kal, rather than just giving it to him? Why does he give it to Kal anyway? Allegedly it's so Kal can bring the species back at some point - but Jor continually says the race must start afresh, free of the caste system, where this Codex is the embodiment of that system. Why would he want to keep that? If he did want to keep it, why wouldn't he tell his son about it? And why the hell was it originally stored on the side of a broken skull?!
This stuff is ridiculous and, as we saw above, it could have been avoided easily while actually telling a simpler, neater story. In the movie Kal was born naturally, and Zod is hunting him for a different, unrelated reason. Wouldn't the film function better structurally and thematically if Zod was hunting him because he was born naturally?
It's convoluted and it's silly. And it doesn't stop there.

Zod and his micro-army attack Earth with a ship that's actually several ships that's actually a modified dimensional portal or something.
When the Kryptonians try to terraform the planet (technically "kryptoform", because "terra" means "Earth") they use a world-engine which is also a spaceship on one side of the planet, and a spaceship which is also a space-portal on the other side, which they then use to create a portal which links to the world-engine so that the portal-ship can also function as a world-engine. Maybe.
I've heard other explanations - all totally different - for exactly what is going on here. The point is that it's ridiculously complicated and it doesn't need to be. Why does the script not give Zod two world-engines? Or just use one? Having two gives Superman another thing to punch, I suppose, but why the portal stuff? There is a narrative reason, technically, but it's not one that can't be easily written around by using a slightly different narrative reason.

None of this stuff is necessary - it's convolution for the sake of convolution. And, for a film that loves to stop and explain things that are obvious, it skims over the needlessly confusing stuff without a second thought!


The more I think about it, the more terrible this script becomes. It ignores a whole list of basic storytelling rules, and expects us to swallow a lot of nonsense and bad dialogue instead.
What works in Man of Steel works because Cavill and Adams carry the film on much better performances than it deserved, and because, much as I am loath to admit it, Zack Snyder actually made a half-decent movie.
Looking back on his career so far, Watchmen notwithstanding (that one is entirely on him) it's a sequence of terrible scripts - Dawn of the Dead, 300, Sucker Punch - that he directed pretty damn well. Sucker Punch is a terrible script that he himself wrote, of course, but the direction's actually not bad.
If Snyder was given a decent script, without much depth and subtlety (he's not good at subtlety) - and if he could only find someone more imaginative to storyboard his action - then one day, one beautiful day, his films might actually be good!

But still not great.