My gut reaction to that movie when I saw it in theaters was to dislike a number of things about it, and over several years with multiple viewings, I was hoping my opinion would change. On the contrary, I still take issue with exactly the same problems I had with it from the start, which further cements the theory in my brain that they are legitimate gripes and not just minor flaws.
With that being said, how do you fix Man of Steel?
Here is a list of what I feel are the errors of the film and how I would have fixed them in a rewrite.
Core Problem #1: The Brainiac Problem
Since this movie was the start of the DC movie universe and a reboot of the Superman story, it needed to establish the world of Krypton yet again. In the past, we've seen it portrayed as a crystalline world with the old films as well as having more of a Jetsons flair in the Bruce Timm animated series. This time around, Snyder's style was a weird, sepia-toned (of course) bio-mechanical look that I personally didn't like whatsoever. I mean, what's up with those odd dragon creatures?? I would have much rather seen something similar to how Asgard was brought to life in Thor, but I'll dismiss this as not a true error of the film and more of a personal preference. I would like it better, but it doesn't improve the movie on a grand scale and if lots of people like it, good for them.
Putting that aside, though, why does this movie do its best to make things more complicated than it needed to be, and in the process, also ignore one of Superman's top 3 best villains ever?
In Man of Steel, we're introduced to this idea of the Growth Codex—a single skull that contains the genetic layout of every Kryptonian. All births on the planet are basically test tube babies and the codex is used to implant a predestination of purpose into each individual. Some are meant to grow up to be scientists, others are soldiers, and so on. The only person who doesn't fit the mold is Kal-El, cause he's a natural birth. We get the symbolism, guys. Way to hit us over the head with it.
Why couldn't the codex be Brainiac? Although the character didn't originally start out as much more than a silly name for a green and purple alien who is really smart, arguably the most widely appreciated version of Brainiac nowadays is the Brain InterActive Construct—artificial intelligence from Krypton that regulates everyday life and knowingly puts the continuation of its own existence above the Kryptonians themselves when it deems the planet doomed. Its justification is that it holds all of the records, so it's the best way of preserving the history of the planet.
First, that right there should be reason enough to tie it into the Growth Codex. It's a computer system that has all of the information! That's the same thing, but they just didn't want to call it Brainiac, cause they wanted it to be a skull instead. Hell, considering the appearance of Brainiac, they could have still kept the skull concept, but just referred to it a single, quickly passing time as "BrainIAC" and it would have tied the two together for future installments.
Second, the idea of Brainiac hoping to preserve Krypton was somehow transferred into Zod for the movie. His story is that he was predestined to be a warrior and that's all he knows how to do, and he just wants to preserve his lineage. Shouldn't Brainiac be doing that? Shouldn't Zod be more concerned with ruling the planet? It's as if they wanted to do Brainiac's story, but gave it to Zod as the vessel.
Also, look at the technology going on. They bothered to have Kelex (awesome) as a metallic, artificially intelligent nanotechnological computer system on Krypton and the World Engines have fucking tentacles! These are totally Brainiac concepts!!
If you have these elements to your story and you have a character that people love which could be used to help simplify things and make it not only easier to tell the story, but in a cooler way to please the fans, why wouldn't you do it? When you ask your GPS for directions and it tells you the quickest, easiest route, why would you rather opt to take a longer path with more detours that puts you on unpaved roads and costs you more gas?
Now, the DCEU is set up in a way where if they try to bring Brainiac into the fold, they'll be retreading on ground they've already covered. Would anyone care to see Superman fight giant machines with tentacles, or would they just claim it's a repeat of Man of Steel? How do you do a story about the preservation of Krypton and being built to serve a purpose when you've already done that with Zod?
This is how you accomplish the same basic ideas of the movie, but make it better:
- When you establish Krypton, you talk about how there's a 50/50 split between biological and mechanical. You keep the weird dragon creatures and some of the style that I personally don't like, and you chalk that up to the bio side. You also establish that the mechanical side is a product of The Brain InterActive Construct.
- The governing bodies of Krypton are the council that we see plus the insights of Brainiac. They don't take sentient creatures out of the equation, but they also rely heavily on the computer system to offer guidance. Why not, considering how it has all the technical readouts and such?
- A bit too much trust is put in Brainiac, though. In fact, Krypton's so dependent upon it that they've gotten to a point where no natural births have taken place in hundreds of years. When they started expanding and exploring planets, they used Brainiac to artificially inseminate the explorers and to always make sure it created beings that kept a homeostasis. This method worked so well that they applied this to the normal planet based on Brainiac's recommendations. Too many scientists and not enough soldiers? Well, the next 1000 babies will be bread to be warriors. This is also a form of population control and all of the information is stored in the Growth Codex—a skull of the oldest living Kryptonian genetic ancestor.
- General Dru-Zod's mental programming is a bit off. He and many others were implanted with a sense of rebellion because Brainiac was sort of bored and also thought an element of chaos needed to be in the society to keep things in check. He starts a civil war on the planet and in the process, activates the Black Zero weapon of mass destruction, which severely messes up the planet's core.
- Zod is sent off to the Phantom Zone for his war crimes and Jor-El thinks the planet is doomed to self-collapse, but Brainiac keeps assuring the council that it's okay as it's already run the calculations and has determined that Krypton is a lost cause. Instead, it's manipulation the direction of the council—who are too stupid to realize it—so they focus their efforts on preserving Brainiac rather than themselves.
- Jor-El hasn't trusted Brainiac in a long time. He rewired Kelex (his personal assistant offshoot of the Brainiac infrastructure) a long time ago and Kal-El is going to be a natural birth with no influence from Brainiac whatsoever.
- At the zero hour where the destruction of the planet is imminent, Kal-El is sent on a spaceship (along with Kelex) to Earth. Brainiac saves itself. Krypton explodes and sends Kryptonite throughout the universe.
- Kelex is eventually used to create the Fortress of Solitude, but it doesn't have the full memory banks of Krypton. This means Brainiac can come to Earth in a sequel, pretending to be a source of good for "The Last Son of Krypton" but it really turns out to be sinister.
Core Problem #2: Replacement Characters
This is going to piggyback off the Brainiac situation in the previous problem, but take it to a new level. In the previous paragraphs, I was speaking about how using Brainiac would have been a way to include a popular character and implement him in spots that made it easier to explain what was going on. Basically, they missed out on using something cool which would simplify things.
But when we talk about how it would be better to use established characters instead of making up new ones, we can stretch this even further and apply it to other people in the movie.
Remember how stupid it was to have two mutated hulking animals be the villains in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze only for them to not be Bebop and Rocksteady? Were you disappointed to learn that Harry Osborn would turn into "New Goblin" instead of Hobgoblin or Green Goblin II in Spider-Man 3? Did you never quite understand why The Dark Knight has a big, burly white male cop and a Hispanic female cop, but they aren't Harvey Bullock and Renee Montoya? Wasn't it cool that at the beginning of Avengers: Age of Ultron they were taking down Baron von Strucker instead of a brand new character named something like General Smith?
The same thing happens in this film.
If you were to name the three most important people in The Daily Planet who are supporting characters in the Superman lore, wouldn't it be Lois Lane, Perry White and Jimmy Olsen, not Jenny Jurwich? Why was that character there instead of Jimmy Olsen? I would have been okay with it if Jenny died in the movie (to help up the stakes) and was replaced in the sequel with a young intern named Jimmy Olsen, but that wasn't the case, as Jenny didn't die. If they desperately wanted the Jimmy Olsen character to be a woman, why not just reinvent it as Jenny Olsen like we all speculated? It's not like reinventions can't work if done well. Look at how positive the reception has been for Carrie-Anne Moss being Jeryn Hogarth in Jessica Jones—nobody's bitching about that. Jenny Jurwich served no purpose in the movie at all other than to not be Jimmy Olsen in the Jimmy Olsen spot.
They felt that we needed to have a stern military leader who survives and another member of the military who dies in a self-sacrifice. Those were General Swanwick and Colonel Hardy. Wouldn't it have given Lois Lane more to do in the script and a stronger role if it were her father, General Sam Lane, who was in charge of overseeing the Superman situation? Change the actor, twist the dialogue in the scenes between Lois and General Swanwick (now General Lane) to reflect their father/daughter relationship, and there you go.
As far as Colonel Hardy goes, there are so many people from the comics he could have been. Ignoring someone like Nathaniel Adams (since he will be used as Captain Atom later, so you want to save him instead of killing him off here), these are just a few examples of characters that would have served as better replacements instead of Nathan Hardy: Phillip Hunter or Nicholas Hunter (or Benjamin Hunter), Sgt. Rock, Ted Gaynor, Steven Savage, Horace Canfield, Bulldozer Nichols, Gunner MacKay and there are so, so many more. In five minutes of looking through this DC Wikia page, I was able to come up with these names and only got to page 4 of 15. You mean to tell me the people working on this film couldn't put in the same work?
The worst thing here, though, is Carrie Farris. It's absolutely insane and beyond stupid to name a character something so incredibly similar to another character in the DCU! Everyone keeps thinking this is Carol Ferris, which means it creates confusion for no reason whatsoever. If she is Carol Ferris, then why is her name Carrie Farris? That's like having Batman be Bruce Bayne. If she's not Carol Ferris, then why isn't her name something else? Even if you didn't want to do the research to give her a name of someone from the comics (which is lazy) you still could have just called her Carrie Jones or Amanda Gunderson or whatever and you wouldn't have run into this problem.
It looks like in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, we're going to be having this same issue with Senator Finch. Holly Hunter could have been Elizabeth Alderman or Elizabeth Lawrence or plenty of other names.
Core Problem #3: Recasting
This one is much, much simpler to explain. Amy Adams is too old for Lois Lane in the 2013 Man of Steel. A few years beforehand, she could have been perfect, but even then, they should have died her hair. Lana's the redhead, Lois is the brunette. Does hair color destroy the interpretation of the character? No. But does spending $10 on a bottle of hair dye to go with the right look for the role hurt the budget of the film? If so, I would have sent them a check.
Christina Wren (Carol Ferris...I mean Carrie Farris) looks more like the character and she's closer in age to Henry Cavill. Why is Lois Lane 10 years older than Clark Kent? Some suggestions could have been Jessica Biel, Emily Blunt, Lauren Cohan, Olivia Wilde, Rachel Bilson, Odette Annable, Chyler Leigh, Sarah Shahi—again, I could go on and on with names.
If Amy Adams gave such a great, standout performance that I could ignore the age gap and the hair, that would be a different story, but she doesn't. There's absolutely nothing that she brings to the table that isn't replaceable.
I would have preferred someone younger than Michael Kelly being cast as Steve Lombard as well, for the record, just to clarify that this isn't an issue of ageism vs. gender roles.
Core Problem #4: Jonathan Kent
One of the core principles of the Superman character is that he has the power to be the most destructive force on the planet, if not the entire universe (or even the omniverse considering Superboy Prime somehow punched holes in fucking reality itself...) but because of how he was raised, he grew up to value life and not to be selfish. This is not just a genetic thing passed onto him from Jor-El and Lara Lor-Van (who in their own right, were heroic) as the nature of his familial legacy is strengthened by the nurture of his adoptive birth parents' tutelage. While Krypton is his true heritage and he comes from good stock, it is Jonathan and Martha Kent who raise him to be a good man.
Why, then, is Jonathan such a dick in this movie? He's not some horrible murderer or anything of the sort, but there are some choices in dialogue and actions that are seemingly deliberately made just to have mistakes in the movie. For example, when Clark saves everyone from the bus accident, Jonathan tells him that he can't do that as he needs to keep his powers a secret. That in itself is perfectly okay, but look at this exchange of dialogue:
Clark: What was I supposed to do? Just let them die?
Jonathan: Maybe, but there's more at stake here than our lives or the lives of those around us. When the world finds out what you can do, it's gonna change everything; our beliefs, our notions of what it means to be human...everything. You saw how Pete's mom reacted, right? She was scared, Clark.
Hold on a second. Maybe? MAYBE? Maybe your son should have just let a bus load of children die to hold off on exposing his secret and scaring Pete's mom? I'm pretty sure despite Pete being a fat little turd, Pete's mom would rather be scared of what Clark did than mourn her son's death. The "maybe" causes so many problems because all of his scenes are about him wanting Clark to keep his secret, and it flat out implies that that's more important than human life, which is contradictory to what he should be teaching him. You can literally keep everything else in the whole scene exactly verbatim for what it is and just do one quick rewrite of the line where instead of "maybe" being the answer, Jonathan says "Of course not." When your son has the power to save lives, of course he should, but he should also be careful about how people will react to these extraordinary feats.
Later on, Jonathan's death scene comes up and it reinforces this notion that the secret is more important than saving people, because he would rather spend more time trying to help people out himself than to let Clark do it swiftly. He knows that he'll be safe, since nothing can hurt Clark, and by now, Clark should also know the difference between super speed and average running. Just by his youth and how much better shape he's in, Clark would be able to run faster than Jonathan and save people easier, so nobody would question it if he didn't go crazy with it. Even if he did go full-on Superman mode and exposed himself, wouldn't it be worth it to save all those people and the dog? Hell, at this point, Superman should be able to zip by and save Jonathan at the last second from the twister and people would just see a streak that he could blame on some kind of weird weather anomaly.
It was so much better when Jonathan's death was caused by a heart attack because that was something that Clark actually couldn't save him from, as opposed to something that he could have, but was told not to, since Jonathan had a death wish. A heart attack shows Clark that not all the answers in the universe revolve around being physically strong or fast and there's a vulnerability inside that needs to be protected. Superman would have no problem with tornadoes, but how is he going to save his dad from a heart attack? He can't, and that's why he dies—not because his foot got stuck in the car.
Core Problem #5: The Perception of Dark Destruction
Let me get this out of the way before we begin this section: I have no problem with the idea that Metropolis and Smallville were heavily damaged during the movie, nor do I have really much of an issue with Superman snapping Zod's neck.
The problem, I feel, is not in the idea itself, but in the repercussions from the audience's point of view. Similar to the Jonathan Kent scenario, too much was left on the table where the fans would have to draw certain conclusions on their own.
Immediately, people were reacting to this with hatred that Superman was a killer and didn't care about the deaths of thousands. That's not true. Superman doesn't want to kill Zod, but reaches a point where he sees no way out and that he must make that hard decision in order to protect the planet. Superman has killed before, such as when he killed Doomsday. Where it gets tricky is that Zack Snyder and company didn't set up the circumstances correctly to illustrate not only how Superman was backed into a corner, but that he wasn't equipped to handle the task in a better way.
Up until the final fight, Clark has really not been Superman. This is his first real test against an enemy rather than just saving people from accidents and putting out fires. He has no training in combat and he certainly has not seen destruction on such a grand scale. It's one thing to struggle to help save everyone from a collapsing oil rig where you just need to hold up some metal and tell people to get to a helicopter. It's an entirely different thing to fight superpowered and highly trained warmongering killer soldiers in hand-to-hand combat while stopping their giant planet-devouring machines AND to do so while protecting the civilians in the city...and to do it all singlehandedly.
There needed to be a more concerned effort in showing that Clark was overwhelmed and was trying to figure out how he could fix all of these problems at once. Maybe instead of focusing so much on the fights, there could have been a scene or two where he knowingly ignored the villains and didn't go for a really good punch because he rushed to save someone, which made him vulnerable to one of their attacks. In that scenario, he shows that his priority is the safety of everyone else, not himself, nor winning the fight. Remember the scene in The Avengers where Captain America tells the police that he and the others will take the fight to the Chitauri, but there are people on the streets that still need protection and the cops should be setting up a perimeter and so on? That illustrated that Cap was prioritizing the people while also working out battle strategy. He's more trained in that field, so of course he would be better at it than Superman, but the average moviegoer isn't thinking of that unless they're told. One quick scene where Superman tells the military that he doesn't know the best strategy of how to handle all of the threats and he needs their help while he puts himself out there as the target for Zod and company to attack could have done massive justice.
When it comes to killing Zod, why after all this destruction does it come down to Clark killing him to avoid hurting one family? Also, why does Zod's heat vision go in a straight line instead of just killing them if it's just his line of sight, considering how he could simply look at them and it would be the end? Let's ignore that plot hole and just go with the ticking time bomb scenario they set up. That one random family could have been an attempt to put the destruction under a microscope. It's one thing to see a building collapse and know that hundreds of people were killed, but it's another to watch each person die. If this was the filmmakers' attempt to put that into perspective and make us feel a more visceral reaction to the deaths that we could easily brush aside with the big sweeping destruction porn of the other scenes, it just wasn't executed properly. As far as if Superman had the right motivations in that scene, that's another whole issue. I think it would have made more sense if it were a family of a man, a woman, and their little boy where the father was standing in front of his wife and son, offering himself as a sacrifice to try to protect them. This would cause a flashback of remembrance for Clark to think back to his father and he would look at the situation where if he doesn't kill Zod, here's another family similar to his own where the boy will have to endure the pain of losing his father and the mother will have lost her husband. Since Clark couldn't save his father before, but he can save this boy's father (as well as everyone else out there), he has to make the tough call and end Zod.
To put an emphatic period at the end of all this, what really would have helped audiences swallow this destruction much easier is if Superman would have reacted to it more after the dust had settled. Yes, now that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is coming out, we know there's repercussions from Batman and Lex Luthor and the government, but we didn't get anything to indicate to that at the end of this movie. Instead, we had Superman acting cocky to the military about how he could totes kick their asses if he wanted to and they should just leave him alone. Instead of a slightly veiled threat of "dude, you've seen what I can do, and you should trust me or else" it should have been Clark feeling remorseful that he couldn't do a better job saving people and the military being the ones that give him a pep talk. They could cheer him up (to an extent) by telling him he did all he could do and he proved (to them at least) that he has Earth's best interests in mind, and they willingly are choosing to give him some freedom to recompense for their mistrust earlier.
Miscellaneous Extra Flaws & Nitpicking
Basically, those big problems above are the things that would have saved these movies and made them better as a whole, but there are smaller things that could have been changed as well. I'm obviously not going to nitpick every little detail, but a few things that stand out to me are as follows:
- Pete Ross and IHOP – Pete Ross in general is poorly handled in this. I mentioned before that he's a fat loser and a bully, which is just weird to me to begin with. Whitney Fordman poses a better antagonist, although I would get on board with Pete being converted from a bully to a friend if he didn't turn out to just end up working at a goddamn IHOP. In the comics, Pete became the freaking President of the United States! He also married Lana Lang, who shows up in this movie bearing a resemblance to Kristin Kreuk's version of the character from Smallville rather than the red-haired Lana from the comics. I'm okay with this interpretation of Lana being the new standard as it promotes more diversity (but Lois should have had brown hair, not Lana's red hair, just to reiterate that point). Pete from Smallville was portrayed by a black actor, Sam Jones III. This version of Pete could have taken a similar route, or even stayed a Caucasian person and even an out of shape one if necessary, but why is he just working at IHOP? Why the product placement? That was ridiculous!
- Krypton Exposition – This should have been tightened up as it just runs too long and that time could have been better spent filling in other gaps of the story. I'm sure if they wanted to, they could have rewritten it to cut down on a scene or two and combine them in some fashion.
- Hallucinations – It seems as though we're getting another one of these "horrific nightmare" scenes in Batman v Superman and I don't know why Zack Snyder is such a fan of them. This whole stuff with the ship and the hallucination with the skulls was superfluous and unnecessary flair that ate up time.
- Hamilton shouldn't have died – Keep this character around to be a primary scientist in researching things for S.T.A.R. Labs or even Lex Luthor's version of Doomsday if you're going that route. There's no need for him to have died whatsoever.
- Fortress of Solitude – Speaking of destroying things that you could use for the future, why did you just get rid of Jor-El and the whole idea of the Fortress of Solitude? If you don't know if you can use something in the future, but it's a big part of the canon, leave it open ended. You don't need to come back to it, but you are writing yourself into a corner you need to explain harder later on if you want to bring it back. This is why I'm worried they'll cut corners and kill off Dick Grayson just to get rid of the problem of having too many Robins to deal with and they'll merge him together with Jason Todd. Now this means we're one movie into the DCEU and we can't have Jor-El and the Fortress of Solitude ever show up again unless there's some convoluted method that eats up more screen time that is introduced to explain why it could have a resurgence. And what impact did it have to destroy it? None. It was pointless.
- The Dogs – Why isn't either of them named Shelby?
- Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel – I hope that Clark using the pseudonym Joe while he was traveling the world was a reference to Joe Shuster, and I wish that his time on Deadliest Catch playing around in the ocean would have addressed him as Jerry to make it a double. Missed opportunity.
- Stealing – Maybe if one of the criticisms of your movie could be that it's too dark and everyone's too cynical, don't show Superman stealing clothes and screwing up trucks just for revenge. The truck thing is played for a laugh and that's more excusable to me, but stealing the clothes wasn't something we needed to see, cause we would just fill in the gaps ourselves about how he got his clothes he was currently wearing. Now, instead of us making the judgment call ourselves on whether he just had extra clothes stashed somewhere or he purchased them or whatever, we know that he's a thief—probably because his dad had a conversation with him at some point that said if you're missing clothes, it's more important to get something on than to be nice to people, cause they should all die anyway.
- Closet Scene – The dialogue in that scene where Clark hides in the closet at school is too sappy. If the world is too big, then make it small? Someone's trying too hard to be deep.
- The Suit – Overall, I love the suit, but one change I would make that I think could have had a really nice reflection on the classic look is for the little blue sections around his waist to be red and for a more pronounced gold belt-like center to be placed in there. This wouldn't give him the red underwear and gaudy yellow belt, but it would resemble it more.
Well, there you have it—some insight into how I would have changed things in hindsight if DC magically gave me the ability to do so. This is the type of movie that has a ton of things that I absolutely love, like the first contact angle and "Welcome to the planet" and so forth, but some things that really just irk me so much that I can't love it and it makes me nervous for how things will go with the rest of the films coming up.