WARNING THERE WILL PROBABLY BE SPOILERS HERE
NOT IN A “HA HA! LOIS LANE IS REALLY A MAN!” KIND OF WAY, BUT MORE IN
A”YOU’LL BE LOOKING FOR NIGGLY LITTLE THINGS ALL THROUGH THE FILM”
KIND OF WAY
IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN MAN OF STEEL YET, DON’T READ ANY FURTHER
I’M FUCKING SERIOUS
So, Man of Steel – is it any good?
No. And yes.
I enjoyed it.
Most of it.
Except for the bits I didn’t, the bits I had to shut my mind to. And the bits which didn’t really work. And most of the CGI which, to me, looked fairly poor.
But apart from that – Henry Cavill is awesome. He’s exactly how I want Superman to be. Amy Adams is awesome. Russell Crowe kicks arse, which is nice, Kevin Costner is just wonderful (fuck it, the whole cast are amazing) and the costume and set design are exquisitely lovely.
Ultimately, I enjoyed the film … but I had to work really fucking hard in order to do so. I think I brought in so much good will and desperate desire for it to be good that I forgave all the bad bits.
And there were a lot of them.
The CGI thing is funny: Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness both had sequences where everything on screen was CGI – but I never really noticed whilst watching.
Man of Steel kept kicking me out of the reality of the film – my brain kept telling me none of it looked real. Don’t know if that’s down to the quality of the CGI or because we can’t do people properly yet. Even those breathing masks annoyed the piss out of me – I felt I was constantly trying to look past them to see the actors. As if someone had just scribbled all over the negative.
Not sure if that’s just me though.
All I know is I spent a large portion of the film arguing with myself to just shut the fuck up and go with it. Same with bits of plot, characters and motivations.
But let’s not get into that. Today I just want to talk about three things I noticed which I try really fucking hard to avoid in scripts.
I often fail, mind.
Or at least, I fail in the first draft and someone reminds me how shit they are so they can be removed for the second draft.
This isn’t a criticism of the script or David Goyer, by the way – I haven’t read his script so have no idea if these were his things or director/producer mandated or just happened that way in the edit. I’m not pointing fingers or assigning blame, just wanted to use the film as an example for discussion.
So, first up:
1. DULL DUAL-TIME TRANSITION
I like telling stories in multiple time periods, flashing forward and back between now and then or today and tomorrow. I just love it.
It’s fucking hard to do, but I love films which get it right. The Escapist is one I’ve seen recently which does it really well – a superb film if you get the chance to see it.
If you don’t get the chance, make your own luck. It’s worth it.
The thing about dual time periods is both time periods have to be interesting. Ideally, when I transition from one to the other, I want the audience to be torn – I want them to be annoyed because they’re desperate to find out what happens next in this time period, but excited because they desperately want to know what’s going on in the other one.
Both stories have to be compelling. The best way to maintain this, I think, is to leave each story at an unresolved story point. The sniper’s crosshairs are on the hero’s head, the sniper’s finger tightens on the trigger … BANG! The bullet streaks towards the hero …
… and we’re in the past.
Did the bullet hit?
One which (hopefully) will make you want to stick around to find out the answer. To me, the rule is: always leave on a question.
Man of Steel has that wonderful transition where Clark sees a bus … and remembers he once sat on a bus.
Um … right.
So we’re leaving the story at the heart-stopping moment of … a man sees a bus. Which, even then wouldn’t be that bad, if there were some relevance to the bus in the present day story.
But there isn’t. There isn’t even really any story in the present day yet – Clark is just meandering around being a bit of a loner.
The entire sequence between two bits of past backstory is: Clark steals some clothes. He sees a bus.
Is that interesting?
If that sequence were cut out of the film and we just stayed in the past, would we be missing any information?
Well, yes, we’d be missing the fact that Clark has to steal clothes; but if we saw him wearing new clothes, we’d assume he’d bought them. Or not even think about it. Given I think the point of that scene is to show why he needs a super-suit – is the stealing important? It seems a bit … un-Superman. Not sure it really adds anything.
As for his ability to see buses. Yeah … probably could have taken that for read.
Okay, so technically it does leave on a question – “Why’s he a bit mooney-eyed about that bus?” But even if you accept that as an interesting question, it’s answered in the other time period – so there’s no desire to come back to the present. There’s no continuing story we’re missing out on and eager to catch up on.
I find these sort of things in my scripts all the time – and hack the fuckers out. My aim is to always transition from one time period to the other at a moment of excitement or tension or … something other than seeing something.
Or seeing something mundane, anyway.
Transitioning as the hero sees a werewolf leaping out of a birthday cake wearing his best friend’s lungs maybe a bit more exciting.
2. TELLING A CHARACTER SOMETHING THE AUDIENCE ALREADY KNOW
That sequence where Jor-El explains the fall of Krypton and General Zod’s role in the final days is heart-achingly beautiful. Really. I fucking love the animation in that scene. Fucking awesome.
Not so fucking awesome is the fact we already knew 90% of that information and I’d already assumed the other 10%.
I really fight with myself not to have a character explaining something we’ve already seen/already know to another character. It’s just … boring.
Take Margin Call, for instance:
Spock sees something I don’t understand on a monitor screen so he tells his bosses. They freak out … and immediately explain the same thing to Kevin Spacey. He freaks out and immediately explains the same thing to his bosses. They freak out and immediately explain the same thing to Jeremy Irons.
This takes about an hour.
It’s exceptionally tedious.
Oh … and I’ve just realised, that’s a SPOILER FOR MARGIN CALL.
Sorry. It’s a tedious film anyway, you’re not losing out.
Seriously, the same thing gets explained four times, in slightly different, but equally incomprehensible ways.
Coming out of that film, I fully understood why the banking crisis happened – it’s because bankers are fucking idiots who need things repeatedly explaining to them in very small words “as if they were a Labrador”.
Again, I try really hard not to have characters explaining the plot to other characters.
I try not to do it generally; but I really try not to do it when the audience already know what’s going on. It’s dull and repetitive and rarely makes it past the first draft.
To be honest, it rarely gets put into a first draft.
3. STORY DROP
A story drop is possibly a term I made up; but more likely stolen from someone else.
Essentially, it’s the point in a story where there are no more obstacles and every question has been answered.
The odd thing about Man of Steel is it’s two stories stuck together.
The first one is: Clark isn’t sure who he is or why he’s been sent to Earth. Jor-El explains all that to him. Clark becomes Superman, end of story. All of the questions have been answered – Clark knows who he is, where he’s from and why he’s here.
Hmm … but there’s over an hour to go!
Ah ha! Here comes story number two: Zod’s turned up, which, okay we knew he was coming so it’s kind of not that bad of a story-drop.
Zod wants Kal-El or he’ll kill the world!
Lordy, lordy, what on Earth will Clark … oh, okay. He’s surrendered.
Well, I suppose it’s the logical, brave thing to do because … there’s no reason not to.
Apart from cowardice, which isn’t really a super-power.
So Clark surrenders, the bad guy wins and will just go away. I guess.
So is that the end?
Are we stopping now?
Bit of an odd place to stop; but since there’s no more story I guess that’s it. Shall I just get my coat ready and find my keys? I know I dropped them here somewhere.
Yes, I know Zod’s a baddie so will do something bad and the story will start again … but that’s the point – it has to start again.
Right now, the story has finished (again) because there are no more obstacles.
It kind of reminds me of a scene I’ve always wanted to write but never found a place for: the hero is tied to a table and the villains are going to torture him.
“Join us or die!” they say.
“Okay.” says he.
“Okay, I’ll join you. Just untie me and we can go fuck up some kittens or something.”
“Um … hang on. My Evil GCSE didn’t really cover this. Are you sure you want to join us?”
“Yup. If the alternative is death, then sign me right fucking up.”
And so on …
I think there should be a reason why the goody can’t just give the baddie what he wants. (And possibly a reason why I spell goody with a ‘y’ and baddie with an ‘ie’.) And that reason has to be apparent before the goody gets offered the choice. We have to know exactly why giving the baddie what he wants isn’t the best action to take … or it just seems like an obvious, if a bit sad, way to end a film.
If Leia had just handed over the Death Star plans to Vader … it might have felt like a good place to end the film.
Okay, so she might have a copy or they might be fake plans … but it would take a while to feel dramatic again, instead of feeling like there were no more obstacles to overcome.
I try to avoid this sort of thing too.
So there you go: tension-less transitions, secondary exposition and finishing the story in the middle of the film – three things I try not to do in scripts.
Feel free to tell me what you liked or disliked about the film, but please try not to slag off any of the people involved – you weren’t there, so please don’t go pointing fingers!