Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Zod Comes To Town: How I Would Write a Superman Movie

I realize I'm late to the party about this, but I watched Man of Steel last week, and I must say: every single negative review I read of it, including Chris Sims' absolutely scathing one and Mark Waid's heartbroken blow-by-blow, failed to prepare me for exactly how much I would hate it. I had a year of thinking "Whenever I end up seeing this movie, I'm probably going to hate it" so I went in prepared, and there have been times when I've managed to enjoy movies on that level, but this was one where I just sat there, for two and a half hours, thinking "Shit, this is worse than they let on."

And while those reviews are primarily concerned with the idea of Superman, and Man of Steel's poor way of reflecting the source material, I will say as someone who is not overly invested in Superman as a character (compared to Batman or Spider-Man) that this is a Bad Movie. I don't think it comes down to Superman killing Zod, since Superman always seems to kill Zod. The masses are fine with that. My brother, who is not a comic fan and watches these movies as a curious outsider with a better-than-average understanding of storytelling, pointed out that the moment where Supes kills Zod isn't "earned." As powerful as Zod is, the killing doesn't feel as much like Superman's hand being forced as taking the easy way out with some reluctance. But the problems started a lot sooner. It is a poorly-constructed misadventure featuring barely-sketched characters with too much power and not enough to do with it, and yeah, a lot more destruction than there ought to be. Made me yearn for the days just post-9/11 when you wouldn't think of knocking down even one building in a movie.

And as I write this, I think about how rarely I bother registering my feelings when I hate something, because who cares. Besides, it's a year-old movie that's probably vanished from everyone's mind by now. But this was just such an egregious waste of everyone's time and money, I had to take to the blog and do a thing.


(Before I move on, I'll say the only other movie I remember disliking this much was Star Trek Into Darkness, which I actually enjoyed for the first half, then got dumb real quick when Khan revealed he was a bad guy. Felt very rote. But in comparison, that was friggin' Scorsese.)

They say the best way to critique a movie is to make another movie, but since I have no time, no means, no money and no rights to make a Superman movie, I will use this meager space on the internet to build a treatment for my own damn Superman movie... out of as many elements as possible found in Man of Steel.

Opening: I'd spend, in general, less time on Krypton, but there are a few things you need to establish. Kal-El is special. Generations of selective breeding have weakened Kryptonian biodiversity: they have great soldiers and great scientists, but after selecting these genes for centuries, they're prone to degeneration. The Kryptonian lifespan is now so short that the planet will soon be an uninhabited husk which will, because of energy consumption, explode anyway. The Council of Incredulous Scientists won't heed Jor-El's warnings, afraid of the unpredictable results of natural birth, compared to their selective program. They move to censure him so he can't go ahead with his "natural breeding" premise... unaware that he's already started, and that Lara is giving birth to their natural-born son right damn now.

Meanwhile, General Zod wants to co-opt Jor-El's theories to extend his own lifespan and rule Krypton. Knowing the secret is in his baby's genes, he sends baby Kal away with only some Kryptonian ceremonial garb (so there's your cheesy "S is for Hope" costume origin) and some data files about his home planet. Zod, in anger, kills Jor-El, then gets sent to the Phantom Zone with his co-conspirators: Lieutenant Faora, a genetic scientist to be named later, and a bunch of basically Stormtroopers/Putties/mooks to beat up later.

I'd trim the stuff with his parents. In general, the movie was way, way too concerned with Superman's relationship with his dad, and while that's always a good starting place, what it had to say wasn't as interesting as it wanted. Focus on happy times: young Clark playing catch with Kevin Costner (I mean, you've got Kevin Costner and a cornfield and you're not gonna have him toss the ball around?) taking note of his son's power. He shows his son the spaceship he arrived in, the Supersuit, etc etc. I feel like the thesis of these scenes should be a heartwarming "You're not like them, but you can do so much for them," with Clark wondering whether he should. The tornado hits, and Clark loses his dad while he's off saving other people. It's something that haunts him - the first time he's ever felt really helpless - and one day this memory will toughen his resolve to save everybody. But we're not there yet.

On Earth, we meet Clark Kent working in Alaska, as he does in MOS. If you absolutely have to have him angsting over whether to use his powers, it ought to be resolved by the time he puts on his suit. I actually liked the bit where some jerk tries to pick a fight with him and he walks away. In this version, he takes a breather, goes outside, bench-presses the jerk's truck, and then, thinking better of it, puts it down gently. He's fucking Superman.

Meanwhile, we have Lois snooping around a top secret military thing, where they're investigating what is at first guessed to be a Cold War era Soviet supersub, but is really a Kryptonian ark. Their prodding unlocks the stasis pods, and out comes a few of those crazyass superbeasts we saw on Krypton in the opening. I mean, why bother showing Jor-El riding a kooky dragonfly-wolf if you're not going to bring that back later? Isn't that Chekhov's Dragonfly-wolf Law?

So these wild animals are all rampaging over Lois and the military guys, when Clark, who overhears the ruckus from miles away, decides something's up and he needs to intervene. He speeds over there and gets a chance to display as many of his powers as you like: speed, strength, even a bit of flight and heat-vision. He attempts to non-lethally take down these creatures, but they eventually wheeze to their death: they can't survive in Earth's atmosphere.

Before anyone sees him, he beats a retreat and decides Alaska isn't for him anymore. Later, back in Kansas, he reads a version of the story in the Metropolis Daily Planet - we see Lois Lane fighting with Perry White, who excised the bit about superpowered aliens because none of that could be confirmed. Clark decides that Metropolis sounds like a pretty good place and finds himself there, bringing his "S is for Hope" suit for good measure. He interviews for a reporter job with the Planet, but he's turned down. However, after stopping a few local crimes himself, he submits a freelance story about the mysterious blue-clad hero helping fight fires and rescue the passengers of overturned trains and such. Lois, as she always does, names him Superman. Clark, modest midwestern kid he is, is a little embarrassed.

Then Zod shows up, determined to modify Earth's atmosphere to make it into a new Krypton. He and his crew start setting up these energy pylons that will rapidly do the trick, but Superman puts a halt to that right quick. We're only an hour or maybe 90 minutes into a 2.5 hour movie by now. This will leave us time to see the budding romance between Clark, Lois and Superman: Lois is infatuated with Superman, Clark is gaga over Lois, but Lois looks at Clark as some wet-behind-the-ears shmuck who got lucky with one story, a story she already basically submitted. Around this time we get some face-to-face time between Supes and Lois, a kind of "whole new world" sequence where he puts his powers on display gently and wins his way through her tough exterior despite herself.

It's not entirely selfless and romantic though, because it's the 2000s and we might as well put a slight cynical spin on it if we have to: Superman knows he can never be with Lois, probably in either identity, so he might as well be in good with the media, since he is after all a flying superweapon albeit a benevolent one.

In the course of things, of course, Zod realizes he is now a living weapon, but as much damage as he does (and it shouldn't be no damage, but let's not go overboard here) he'll never rule his own planet as long as Superman is around using his powers to protect people. So he calls Clark out, they have a big fight, etc etc, but Clark gets the better of him. He offers Zod a chance to return to the Phantom Zone, but Zod swears he will never yield.

That's when Superman uses his x-ray vision to determine that Zod is on life support, a breathing apparatus. This was a minor plot point in MOS that was totally dropped after one scene. Even though Zod's got superpowers, he still isn't adapted to Earth's atmosphere. He'll either have to convert Earth into Krypton and lose the powers, or live the rest of his life as a walking iron lung with superpowers. Zod decides to go for broke and make one last attempt to kill the misbegotten son of Jor-El, and in the fight, Zod's airtube is damaged and he suffocates in the open terrestrial air.

He dies, because unlike Clark, his genetic engineering didn't allow him to adapt to Earth. That's what Jor-El was going on about in the first place. That's Kal-El's entire raison d'etre.

There. There's your fucking Superman movie, where the bad guy dies, a bunch of shit can get wrecked, but Superman is not a murderer. More than that, it welds together a bunch of stuff that could have easily been used in the Man of Steel movie, but was forgotten in favour of a punch to the death scenario. It's no trick to write a movie where the good guy is so strong he can topple buildings then have him snap his foe's neck because, gosh dangit, you've gotta do what you've gotta do. Why are we watching that movie? There's got to be something about being Superman that allows him to win, or else he isn't the good guy, he's a prop.

Epilogue: A real estate magnate named Lex Luthor acquires numerous contracts to rebuild the city. "I promise you this, Metropolis: what I build will stand a century or more. And we can't wait for some self-appointed god in a cape to save us whenever we're in trouble."

Maybe it isn't perfect and maybe it isn't perfectly fleshed out, but I only gave myself a weekend to think about it, then typed it up in about an hour. Professional filmmakers, men with years of experience on me, who are clearly favoured by the Warned Brothers corporation, had years to figure out the script to this movie, and it was a giant plate of pan-friend butt. Hot wet garbage.

As I said, I'm not a longtime Superman fan, I could hardly care if a really great movie gets made out of him they way they have for Captain America or Iron Man or Thor or Batman or Spider-Man... the movie Snyder & Co put out made money and if they're comfortable with that then they can do what they like. I'm just a guy who prefers seeing a good - not even great, but serviceable story that has even one single thing going for it. Because you know, they might want to have a second one, and it's easier to enjoy that if everyone had a good time with the first one.

Anyway. All that, or just put Mr. Mxyzptlyk in there and make it total bananas. Either way, no more crying Supermen.

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