Zack Snyder vs Superman: Why Intent Became Conflict in Man of Steel

Chloe Zhao added to the reception of her film, Eternals, the statement that Zack Snyder’s “authenticity” in adapting Superman in Man of Steel was a major influence on the tone she took with the little-known Marvel property. The tone of Man of Steel is undoubtedly the best thing to take from it. In one of the best movie marketing campaigns of the decade, Russell Crowe’s waning, patriarchal voice described Superman’s place in the universe in the film’s teaser trailer. He read lines from Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman to sell the audience the awestruck, cosmic optimism that has defined the character since the end of the Silver Age, when his patriotic origins faded in favor of a more universal truth. This truth, which is present in Man of Steel, is the most likely place to begin a counterargument against the unnecessary claim that Snyder “doesn’t understand Superman.” He clearly understands the intent of his new iteration.

However, Snyder’s habit of communicating through visual excess clashes with Superman’s nature in nearly every action scene in Man of Steel. Combined with an ungainly script by Dark Knight veteran, David S. Goyer, this unravels the intent. At the point when Man of Steel turns its authentic dramatic setups into action movie cliches, the film becomes its own counterargument. The third act going into autopilot causes the best parts of Superman to go into regression. Debates on the film never quite make it around to discussing why the film is so debatable to begin with, which is what I hope to unravel here. But at the heart of the film is Snyder's desire to make a story about Superman a great film, not a passable one, not a one-and-done cinematic Whopper combo with quips and a drink. I think that's what Zhao was trying to say and it's in the backdrop of every criticism I have about the film. It's what I respect most about him. In an industry tailormade for okayness, he wanted this to be great. Unfortunately, he often translates "great" to "big."

Visuals vs Themes: The Problem with Excess

The greatest achievement of Goyer’s Man of Steel screenplay is its willingness to show Superman (played with an appropriately withdrawn manliness by Henry Cavill) as a flawed human, raised by flawed humans. He has a desire to do good without always knowing what that means. The lack of moral impenetrability, in theory, makes a physically indestructible man more accessible. This works well in a scene that shows Clark attempting to hold down a job as a waiter. The scene demonstrates that he's unable to witness wrongdoing around him without acting yet also unwilling to take advantage of his powers to dominate the situation. That balance defines him as a man (it’s not a restraint that many in his position would have). The scene that demonstrates it in the script is ideal – a man acts rough with a woman, Clark intervenes, the man demeans Clark, Clark takes it, and when he goes outside (off-screen), he destroys the man’s truck. Establishing that Clark has human emotions at the same time that the script demonstrates his unwillingness to use his powers to easily escape the situation is a perfect opportunity to convince a stubborn audience to accept a new version of Superman. Snyder messed it up so efficiently that half the audience left the theater arguing that Clark was a super-vandal.

When this scene is translated to the film’s visuals, it no longer works due to Snyder’s lack of restraint. The truck isn’t simply flipped, or pulled apart, or separated from its tires. It is suspended in the air, crushed like an unwanted toy, the metal torn like paper, impaled multiple times with towering pieces of lumber. It is crucified. The visual is so dramatic that it reads as sadistic; it perverts the character moment intended by the situation (the image wouldn’t be out of place in Brightburn). To cause that destruction required Clark to not only be angry but to have a god-sized tantrum. Without restraint, the scene seems quietly badass (the thrumming score backs up that impression). It's a simple example of how Snyder converts well-scripted scenes into conflicted, debatable ones. And it makes Clark seem less like someone who is misunderstood than someone who needs psychotherapy. Viewers who might have been able to understand a restrained version of this scene instead find themselves reluctantly seeing the plight of the skeevy truckdriver (“Did he *really* deserve that?”). The actor reacts to a visual that he cannot see with mild concern.

The brutality is naturally downplayed since the destruction of the truck takes place off-screen. It turns it into a moment of levity, which helps the audience get past its implications. Even as it is, the scene basically works. This problem is not restricted to one scene, however. The most egregious example of how the film's visuals thwart its intentions is in the death of Jonathan Kent (Kevin Coster), Superman's earth father. The situation, already implausible, that a tornado is "heading" for a group of cars that contain an innocent dog, is made even less believable by Jonathan going to save it rather than Clark and by his insistence that Clark should not then save him on the basis that Clark's true identity is more important than his life.

There are several reasons why this scene does not work for the average viewer, the biggest of which being Clark's obvious ability to save his dad without arousing "that" much suspicion to the few onlookers, under the circumstances. Watching as his father is wiped away, as if in a dream, is a completely unrelatable reaction to the situation, one that has been a sticking point for many Superman fans disappointed by Man of Steel. The intention, which seems to be to show the lengths to which Jonathan would go to give his son a choice in how he lives his life, is valid but undermined by such an irrational, visually excessive situation. I can think of a much more effective alternative that might begin with Jonathan and Clark walking in town. Jonathan collapses as he begins to have a heart attack. People crowd around. Clark wants more than anything to pick up his dad and fly him to the hospital, but Jonathan stops him, tells him to wait for the ambulance. Clark doesn't know what to do, he's emotionally struggling, people are watching, and Jonathan dies. This would be a drastically more effective way to communicate the same intention without alienating the audience with a situation that feels more like a sequence from The Day After Tomorrow (2004).

Implausible scenes slowly add questions to the pile growing in the audience's mind throughout Man of Steel, but they only foreshadow how confusing the third act of the film is. This is when the overall lack of clarity hits critical mass, as Snyder makes this same mistake again and again, using visuals that detach the audience from their intended meaning. The film’s thematic framework rested on whether the viewer could accept, not only tonally but also morally, the way Superman handles the film’s climactic situations. The crucial issue is in how Snyder and cinematographer Amir Mokri handle Superman’s actions through visuals in this climax.

A Series of Super-Conveniences

Already, problems existed in the concept of the film. From Superman: Birthright by Mark Waid, Goyer and Snyder (and Christopher Nolan, contributing to the story) took the idea of a Kryptonian invasion as a way to demonstrate Superman’s loyalty to earth. However, in Birthright, the invasion was engineered by Lex Luthor to cause the people and the U.S. government to turn against Superman. The lengths Superman goes to defeat the fake Kryptonian army accidentally proves the opposite of what Luthor had intended. Rather than inspiring xenophobia, Superman’s reaction to the “invasion” inspires hope.

The invaders being Luthor’s robots disguised as Kryptonian soldiers is thematically key to the effectiveness of the sequence. His xenophobia creates the invasion and causes the destruction that Superman tries to stop, even as the military reacts against him with the same prejudice. The prejudice is the true villain of the situation. In Man of Steel, the decision to make the Kryptonians real, and the plot manipulation required to have Clark initiate the invasion by accidentally activating a homing beacon, obscures the thematic intention of the setup. In Snyder’s version, a xenophobe could make a very good case since Superman himself is responsible for the invasion that will destroy earth and the Kryptonian race is, by all available evidence, a race of conquerors. No part of the rewritten scenario in Man of Steel involves our human failings – it’s Krypton vs Krypton. Even one death in this scenario is unjustifiable, and there are thousands.

The problem is that Goyer used plot devices and conveniences to cover up clumsy logistics. The improbable exposition detailing how Zod acquired the phantom drive and terraformers are to writing what caulking is to a hole in a collapsing wall ("We managed to retrofit the phantom projector into a hyperdrive"). Elements unchanged from the Donner films, such as Jor-El’s mythic goodness and the Kryptonian council’s arrest of Zod, give Man of Steel even less clarity since they clash with its new themes. Had the council sent Zod to earth explicitly to terraform New Krypton, as Jor-El resists by sending the phantom drive and codex to earth ahead of him before his death, none of the script’s logistical gymnastics would have been needed.

This would have even saved Clark’s actions from directly causing the plot to occur, which would have allowed his choices to be clarified as the actions of a normal man thrust into a situation out of his control. Jor-El gambled on our good nature to raise a son that would defend Krypton’s legacy by saving earth from Zod, but only in my revised version. In the real film, multiple people must push multiple literal buttons to coerce the story into working. It's never clear why Jor-El sends the codex to earth in the first place, believing as he does that Krypton's gene pool should end with their mistakes. His beliefs get roped into making the plot work later. This kind of thinking never stops being a burden to how the audience reacts to Clark’s perception of his responsibility and the resulting moral conflicts in the fight for Metropolis.

The forced plot devices cause many moments to fail to make their intended arguments for individual freedom, such as a scene near the end where Superman lays a crushed surveillance drone at an army general’s feet and demands to be trusted and left alone. The preceding events did not justify this attitude, as they might have in Birthright or in my revision. The invasion may not have been Clark’s intention in Man of Steel, but his part in it would cause any normal person to feel guilty; his intolerance of the general’s hesitant attitude does not match the film’s intention to show a conflict between a xenophobe and a free man. It feels more like the relationship between a man who did something wrong and a blackmailer who knows about it. When Jor-El suggests that his son will be humanity's guide "into the sun," the film leaves no room for Crowe's tender, mythological point to be questioned. Yet based on the plot of the film, and Clark's actions, perhaps it should have been.

The inability to question JOR-EL, as he reads lines from comic books that recall the airier Richard Donner films, is part of the script's overarching problem (this film is the anti-All-Star Superman and is misguided in quoting it). It set out to reassess this mythology without questioning enough of its tropes. It asked the audience to consider that Superman might not be a perfect being, yet still refused to question whether his actions were justifiable. The discussion itself vanishes when the film takes a hard left turn away from its dramatic setups to a series of scenes that would not be out of place in Transformers: Dark of the Moon (a film also shot by Amir Mokri, coincidentally). The fact that Man of Steel ends up with the same climax as Superman II (1980), complete with the Zod conflict and his death, is a clue to how it failed to commit to the new direction it suggested in the first two acts.

The IQ of the film plummets once it starts being a reminder that the constantly overestimated Goyer also writes the infantile plots to the Call of Duty: Black Ops games. Lois (Amy Adams) becomes unhinged from her far more interesting role in the earlier acts of the story – a journalist on the hunt for an impossible man – and begins spouting dialogue that sounds like the breathless boardroom exposition scenes in Independence Day ("We have a plan, general ... This ship is powered by something called a phantom drive. It bends space. Zod's ship uses the same technology, and if we can make the two drives collide ..."). Given a flash drive capable of destroying the giant spaceship, her role for the rest of the film is pre-determined by cliché: she falls from a spaceship, is saved by Superman, tells the army the plan to destroy the spaceship, goes on the mission with them, falls out of the plane, and is saved by Superman. Each step requires more exposition, though none of the steps themselves were necessary to start with.

None of it is ever as interesting (or authentic) as the preceding acts where she was hunting for Clark based on the deeds he was willing to do and unable to hide. This structure, one of the many plot threads Snyder lifted directly from an Ayn Rand novel (in this case, Atlas Shrugged, which he mines for plot beats in nearly every film he makes), establishes compelling drama between Clark and Lois. Yet the film impatiently skips what might have been a small-scale third act based on this setup. For instance, after tracking him down and interviewing him, Lois could have witnessed the army create a plan to subdue him (such as robots disguised as a Kryptonian invasion) which Superman has to fight while trying not to hurt anyone. Then maybe the army’s plan gets out of hand and Superman has to save the city from their anti-Superman strategy. Without the real Kryptonian army, the film’s action scenes would be easier to see as demonstrations of how willing Clark is to do the right thing, even if he may not sacrifice his personal liberties to justify it. A little restraint would have gone a long way towards making the film's genuinely compelling second act feel like the setup for a great piece of drama, rather than the time-killer before the blockbuster starts.

The sheer scale of the actual third act of Man of Steel defies any possible thematic justification for Clark’s role in it. His hesitance to help becomes a luxury that half the audience could not accept. His willingness to choose Earth over Krypton demonstrates his moral upbringing, but his battle against Zod is elevated to such an excessive level that questions about Clark’s reaction to this situation are more numerous than scenes in which it is identifiable. The film is so busy rendering effects that it cannot realistically manage any human reactions.

As buildings topple in an amount roughly equal to the carnage in Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla, people on the ground look on with mild concern, confusion, and at times, awe. The cuts from the massive effects shots to these people on tiny sets are always jarring. Rarely does anyone scream or react with panic. As buildings fall like Jenga towers into crowded streets and busses bounce around like a dropped container of tennis balls, the film obscures the people beneath them, cutting back to the action in the sky.

Superman and Zod’s battle takes them through office buildings, as crushed stone and glass facades crumble into crowded streets. Zod even punches Superman into space at one point, where they create more shrapnel from the only thing available – a satellite that floated by at just the wrong time. They re-enter earth’s atmosphere like meteors at the exact angle required to continue damaging the same city block. Yet, people are not shown to be overly concerned about the apocalypse around them, at least not to a level that even approaches reality. Why is that? Assuming it was not a purposeful way to avoid a contradiction, the problem stems from making pacing and visual effects the priorities of the sequence. The result is a disillusioned audience (and a lot of headaches).

This lapse can be demonstrated in miniature with a scene in which Zod kicks a fuel tanker at Superman, who breezily dodges the truck, allowing it to hit the parking garage behind him, which topples to the ground. If Clark's actions there could be justified, it would have to be his conscious decision to accept the deaths of the people in the garage in order to keep fighting Zod. But since the audience doesn't see anyone die, and doesn't see him save anyone, and barely sees his reaction, it's unknown whether he was justifying those deaths, ignoring them, or acknowledging that there weren't any. The audience knows that people could have died, but the situation avoids confronting the issue, which makes the situation feel aloof. Up to this sequence, the film was centrally concerned with how Clark viewed his power in a moral context. Yet here, he reacts like someone brushing it off in an action movie. The badass explosion is the focal point of the shot. Even Edwards' Godzilla showed people dying in a panic to contextualize the cost of Godzilla's actions. By contrast, Man of Steel relies on not showing people at strategic times to avoid confronting the true nature of the situation.

This problem carries over to Batman v Superman, where the fight with Doomsday takes place in a part of the city that multiple people on radios inform us is “uninhabited,” no doubt as a response to complaints about Man of Steel. But this still doesn't address the core issue, which is that if the heroes’ actions were justified, the destruction could be shown even if people were there; if they were not, then the scenes should have been toned down to justify them. Making them uninhabited just deflects the core issue of how Snyder’s visuals conflict with the themes. In Man of Steel, a visually implausible scene in which staff from the Daily Planet run from a skyscraper that is falling towards them shows the people we know by name being able to survive the situation with comical resilience. Jenny (Rebecca Buller) is trapped under rubble from the building (it was that close to them) but in such a way that does not seem to have hurt her; it just lays on top of her. Safeguarding named characters like this is almost permissible in an Avengers film because of its loose, non-committal tone. However, Hans Zimmer scores Man of Steel like a religious experience. Whenever it fails to maintain internal consistency, such as a Whedon-style joke where Zod whacks Superman into an “X days without incident” sign, Man of Steel becomes completely inscrutable.

That joke is a symptom of Snyder’s inability to create a film that reflects his idea of a relatable Superman, despite working so hard to emphasize his human nature. As Metropolis is crumbling to glass-dust, Superman is getting smacked into signs that jokingly refer to this entire battle as an “incident.” Is the audience expected to laugh? If so, why exactly? What about this situation calls for a Spielbergian visual gag sandwiched between constant visual references to 9/11? The joke in Jurassic Park, “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear,” diffused a scary situation that Spielberg did not intend to be that scary. This irony is not detectable in Man of Steel’s “days since last incident” joke since every other aesthetic choice tries to convince the audience of the scene’s apocalyptic significance.

The Battle for Superman's Heart

This all boils down to a question of moral responsibility and it’s a testament to the character’s history that this question is the ultimate sticking point in debates about his movies. “What should I have done – just let them die?” young Clark asks his father after he revealed his powers to save a school bus. “Maybe,” Jonathan Kent replies. This was a huge moment of contention on the film’s release, but it is one of Man of Steel’s most resoundingly meaningful decisions. Clark’s dad is not telling Clark to refuse to take responsibility for others – he is simply giving him the ability to live without being responsible for the people he doesn’t save. That is not as risky a script decision as it sounds because it addresses a hidden flaw in other Superman films, which is that Clark naturally takes breaks sometimes and this, in theory, means that he's consciously ignoring people in need. Man of Steel confronts the issue head-on by concluding that Clark is not morally responsible for everyone he does not save. He should be able to do great deeds without being required to do them. He can still live his own life.

But what if Clark was shooting his laser beams around and accidentally hit the bus’s tire and that’s what caused it to crash? That’s the scenario that plagues the third act of Man of Steel, about which Jonathan Kent would not be as right in saying, “Maybe.” Since the Kryptonian invasion is not thematically representative of any flaw with humanity, it becomes only a testament to Krypton’s violence and Clark’s mistakes. This results in a situation where the audience is subjected to 40 minutes of destruction that is detached from any moral context. How Clark reacts to this situation – with straight-faced determination, never reacting to the people dying around him or trying to save them – is confusing to an audience that expected the traditional Superman. But this does not mean that this audience was unable or unwilling to accept a new version, had it been demonstrated in a coherent context.

“People are afraid of what they don’t understand,” Jonathan Kent tells his son, a quote that would fit perfectly into Superman: Birthright but which would also be freely used by the defenders of Man of Steel to describe its detractors. Yet, the Kryptonian threat is quite easy to understand for the people on the ground, as well as those in the theater enclosed in a tumble dryer of action sounds. Jonathan’s quote makes perfect sense in the first act of the film. By the third act, what exactly is lacking in comprehension that prevents them from calming their fear? What about Metropolis falling to the ground do they not “understand?”

The script’s ambitions were not wrong. They include showing conflicts that Superman cannot clean up nice and tidy, portraying him with flawed human emotions, and making him less than a perfect savior. But it is completely wrong for a movie with the ambition to show Clark’s human side to scale up the conflict to a level where moral questions no longer matter compared to the death toll. This is emphasized rather than recontextualized by the lack of on-screen death, which might have dramatically changed the audience’s perception of Superman’s resistance and his reactions. Simply by focusing on the people at the edges of the frame, rather than the broad strokes of heroism in the straight-faced aerial battles, you can view the film in a way that causes it to lose its deniability. The idea that Clark must directly save a family by killing Zod and doing so causes him great emotional pain would only work in a scenario where they were the first to present him with this choice. Instead, thousands of people have been dying all day from his perspective, as a result of him delaying this decision.

Even after all I have said, one counterargument still remains available in the form of a question: doesn't the possibility that Clark is conflicted, wrong, aloof, and imperfect, while still doing the right thing overall, prove this entire intention with the character? Don't the flaws in his actions prove the intentions of the screenplay to make him real? The answer is: they should.

But despite the film’s attempts to de-mythologize the character, the situation's moral power is completely in his control when he begins destroying the city. This is entirely a result of the broken, convenient screenwriting devices that maneuvered us there. The script assigns him no flaws other than conscientiousness and no evidence that his actions in this scenario are worthy of closer inspection. The scale of the conflict has been expanded to the point that no misgivings are justifiable, no role in the events can be forgiven. Even if the sequel attempts to justify the audience's hesitance by paying lip service to doubting Clark's integrity or questioning his existence, films about Superman, even the Snyder ones, always boil down to him being right. Batman can have a completely logical thought process on his side, backed by evidence, but Superman will always have the deniability which, in the Snyder films, is deflected by the sheer excess of the action. This is as true of the Zod conflict as the Doomsday one. But it's also true of the smallest human interaction, in the wake of those scenes of violent excess.

Even Martha Kent’s (Diane Lane) playful chuckling at Clark’s concern when he visits her in their destroyed house after the Smallville battle seems tone-deaf. It's the reaction to a typical Superman brawl on the scale of the old TV show, not the reaction of real people to a scene where Clark was throwing exploding trains like footballs into the buildings of their hometown. Man of Steel is not without levity (Clark even smiles here and there). But it's a film with no thematic support for levity because it's protracted the scale of the situations to a level on which anything less than grave seriousness is a moral luxury. People reacting to some of these situations calmy or jokingly is not charming in context. It borders on sociopathic.

Superman may be Christ-like in his hesitance in the screenplay of Man of Steel, but Snyder turned him into a character that could not be crucified. Through visual excess, the film becomes the story of the deeds of a misunderstood god, whose self-doubts are less like internal conflict than internal absolution. Over the years since its release, I have witnessed arguments about this movie escalate in entitlement and violent certainty (I've even received a death threat from a Superman fan, or a Snyder fan who thinks they're one) to a point where Man of Steel may be a net loss to the character. But the fact that this resulted from a film with so many great ideas, which in moments has the heartwarming, mythical significance of the first genuinely human take on the Man of Tomorrow, means that I don't think these debates reflect the quality of the Man. At the center of this movie's reception is a reflection of how much we need him. I'm glad the film has received so much serious devotion. I just wish it had worked half as hard to earn it as the fans have worked to defend it.

Images are screenshots from the film: ©Warner Bros. Pictures

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