Written by: J.M. Carter
In the summer of 2013, following the the breakout success of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films and Marvel Studios reaping in huge box office totals with their interconnected universe concept, Warner Bros. executives saw a golden opportunity to rejuvenate their dormant figurehead with Man of Steel, a “gritty, real world” reimagining of Superman’s origin story. . Unfortunately for them, and for longtime Superman fans around the world, Zack Snyder’s interpretation of the Last Son of Krypton fell short of expectations in several ways.
Financially, it started extremely strong out of the gate, but plummeted 65% in its second weekend and fizzled out before grossing only $668 million on a bloated $225 million budget. In critical terms, the results were mixed, garnering only a 56% freshness rating on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. The film also stirred up contentious discourse among Superman/Comic Book fandom with its muted color palette, dour tone, and questionable narrative choices that many within the community felt betrayed Superman’s core morality and heroic code.
While the sci-fi spectacle of Krypton’s destruction, the “first flight” sequence, Kryptonians showing off their super skills in the Smallville battle, and the presence of Henry Cavill in the supersuit stood out as highlights, Man of Steel’s legacy is one of polarization and controversy - not the knock-it-out-of-the-park, crowd-pleasing blockbuster that Warner Bros. was counting on to launch a long-running, money-printing interconnected cinematic universe.
But, it didn’t have to be that way. With a few changes, Man Of Steel could have been the universally loved, critically acclaimed, billion-dollar box office smash Warner Bros. needed; a strong foundation on which to grow the DCEU upon. Here then, are Five Easy Ways MAN OF STEEL Could Have Been Saved:
Give Clark A Happy Childhood Moment
One of the most egregious sins committed by Zack Snyder in Man of Steel is his overly somber depiction of Clark’s childhood and adolescence on the Kent farm. Kal-El’s upbringing in this bucolic, all-American setting by warm, loving parents is crucial to who he is as a character - it’s where he develops his kind, friendly disposition, his innate moral goodness, and his deep-seeded love for his adopted homeworld. But Snyder’s Kent farm in Man of Steel too often feels like a bleak place where kid Clark spends nearly every minute of his screen time in a state of fear, uncertainty, anger, confusion, and misery. This is in stark contrast to other on-screen iterations of Superman, which provide audiences with uplifting sequences of wonder for young Clark as he unlocks his powers and experiments with them with a sense of unbridled joy that’s sorely lacking in Snyder’s film.
While all traces of strife and hardship from young Clark’s story shouldn’t be removed—his onset abilities overwhelming him in his elementary school classroom and subsequent comforting by Martha Kent is a great way to open the movie—an easy solution to this would be to excise one of the other young Clark flashbacks and replace it with a scene of discovery or a happy family moment. The likeliest candidate would be the scene where Clark is bullied by Smallville High classmates and crushes the metal fencepost while trying to hold back his anger. At this point in the film, the overcast skies and negative tone of the scene coupled with the somewhat redundant life lesson Jonathan Kent offers up in it, drags Man Of Steel further into grimdark territory. Something akin to Clark outrunning a train or gleefully leaping in the sunny Kansas cornfields as shown in Richard Donner’s Superman:The Movie and Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, respectively, would have been a welcome, cathartic contrast to the preceding moribundity.
Pa Kent Is A Problem
Let’s talk about how Jonathan Kent is portrayed in Man of Steel, because it’s a massive problem. Goyer writes the character far more stoic, stern, and paranoid than any previous version, which is diametrically opposed to the warm, caring, charming, and supportive father he is in the comics and previous media iterations. Essentially, there are two narrative jigsaw pieces that need to be replaced in the Jonathan Kent puzzle; one quite simple, the other requires a hefty bit of rejiggering.
First and foremost, the oft-ridiculed “Well son, yeah, maybe you should’ve just let all those kids drown on that bus instead of saving them” scene was in dire need of a second pass before going in front of the cameras. Now, proponents of this reaction from Costner’s Kent defend it by saying it’s a natural, “real world” reaction by a protective father who is fearful that the government will discover his son’s powers and lock him away from the world for torture and experimentation. This sentiment is all well and good, but there is a way for Jonathan Kent to express his concern to his son without telling him he screwed up and probably should have just watched 30 kids’s lungs fill up with pond water without lifting a finger to help them. All it requires is one simple dialogue change:
Instead of “What was I supposed to do, just let them die?”
The whole scene can be salvaged simply by having Jonathan reply with something like:
“What was I supposed to do, just let them die?”
“Of course not, you did the right thing, BUT…”
Everything that Pa Kent says after that in the scene as it exists can be retained without any alteration, but with this one tweak, he no longer comes across as a callous sociopath, and doesn’t put any doubt in Clark’s mind that he should always save lives with his gifts.
The bigger conundrum is how to repair Jonathan’s absolutely asinine death scene, wherein he needlessly waves Clark off and lets himself be swept away by a tornado, rather than risk a dozen people out of their minds with fear huddled beneath an overpass maybe/possibly/sorta seeing a blur rush out to snatch him away from danger. It’s a poorly-conceived, poorly-written sequence that completely undercuts the fundamental lesson Clark is supposed to learn by seeing his adopted father die of natural causes - which is that even with all of his god-like powers, he can’t save him, therefore instilling in him the dedication to try to save every life he can from there on out. In Man of Steel’s misguided scenario, there is no motivation or greater truth Clark gains from watching Jonathan die when he could have easily saved him using his abilities.
The tornado death scene is immediately preceded by an argument Clark and Jonathan are having in the car about Clark wanting more out of life than farming and telling Jonathan and Martha that they aren’t even his real family out of teenage hormonal rage. It may have been a better idea to follow up that scene with the Kents arriving home, Clark storming off, and Jonathan—still shaken by the fight and Clark’s cutting words–keeling over from a heart attack. This way, the conflict in the car is left intact, and the traditional lesson is still learned without an unnecessary, bombastic quasi-action scene.
Superman Saves The World, But No One Is There To See It
Superman flying off to destroy the second piece of General Zod’s terraforming World Engine should have been one of Man of Steel’s most rousing, intense, exciting, and triumphant moments…but there was just one problem.
It happens in the middle of nowhere.
What good is saving the world if there’s no one around to see you do it? By placing the terraformer in the middle of the Indian Ocean, Zack Snyder missed a golden opportunity for badly needed crowd shots of ordinary people on the ground actually witnessing Superman performing a heroic act to save their lives. Doing this would not only form a crucial bond between the “strange alien visitor” and humanity within the text of the film, but also with the audience watching.
The solution to this seems rather obvious - instead of launching one pod, the terraformer—which is just a nonsense sci-fi doohickey MacGuffin to begin with—could launch two pods - one in the heart of Metropolis and the other across the earth in the Indian Ocean. That way, the action beats of Superman struggling against giant metal coils and mustering all his might to push up into the World’s Engine’s laser ray could be intercut with terrified groups of onlookers staring up at the battle in awe, watching Superman perform these tremendous feats. Imagine the catharsis moviegoers could have felt as the citizens of Metropolis let out a thunderous cheer when the World Engine exploded into atoms above their city, saving them from certain doom. Instead, we get Kal fighting a machine in a nondescript void, thousands of miles away from anybody we’ve come to even remotely care about in the film.
Superman Needs To At Least TRY To Rescue People And Limit Collateral Damage During The Climactic Battle
One of the fundamental aspects of Superman as a character is his unwavering commitment to protect every innocent life he can at all costs. And as we’ve seen time and again across various media adaptations of the Man of Tomorrow, he always at least makes an attempt to stop what he’s doing to rescue people in the line of fire. Now, stop me if you’ve heard this one before - “Superman couldn’t stop to save anyone during that final battle, because it was his first day on the job and Zod wouldn’t let up!” Well, take a look at something like 1981’s Superman II, where Superman had to battle not only Zod, but TWO other Kryptonians at the same time in Metropolis, and still managed to break away, swoop in, and do things like prevent a plummeting radio tower from crushing a Mother and child.
There’s no excuse and no defense for Superman—even in his nascent state as a protector and superhero in Man of Steel—failing to take the safety of people around him into account and carelessly causing wanton mass destruction to Metropolis, killing thousands in the process. In this writer’s mind, Superman performs two acts of absolutely ridiculous negligence in the climactic battle with Zod - first when he steers Zod’s huge spaceship directly into the heart of Metropolis when he could have just as easily pushed it off into the ocean; and second, when Zod throws a LexCorp gas tanker trunk at him and instead of bearing the brunt of the impact to protect any innocent citizens that might be in the parking structure behind him, he nonchalantly leaps over it, causing the building to collapse in a fiery explosion. Were there people in that garage? Who knows? Snyder’s Superman never even bothers to check, and that’s a huge issue.
Another thing ardent defenders of Superman’s blatant disregard for human life like to say is, “It doesn’t matter if Superman tried to protect random citizens from the fallout of his fight with Zod, because he ultimately saves the entire world!” Well, no, it certainly does matter. Superman Returns was criticized—and rightly so— for its lack of superhero fights, but Man Of Steel goes way too far in the opposite direction, with a numbing, relentless slugfest that robs Superman of his conscientiousness, and thus robs the audience of connecting with him as a well-rounded hero with a good soul.
If Zack Snyder could get his effects team to load the screen with fire, sparks, explosions, falling debris, collapsing skyscrapers, ash, it certainly wouldn’t have been a problem for them to have Superman briefly break away to shield a family on the ground from a plummeting piece of rubble, or catch someone falling from one of those skyscrapers. Though dismissing the sequence outright simply because buildings get destroyed (it’s a battle between two people with superpowers, after all), is foolish, inserting elements like these would have balanced the carnage with heart and human connection, making for a much more complete Superman storytelling experience.
Superman Doesn’t Murder Zod
Well, you probably already figured out that Kal-El’s brutal execution of Zod at the end of their battle over Metropolis would be the number one thing that needed changing in order to save Man Of Steel. After all, it is the most-often debated and discussed element of the film on social media for very good reason…it’s just flat out wrong.
This woefully misguided attempt by screenwriter David Goyer and Snyder to “take big swings” with Superman and concoct a scenario wherein there is no choice for him but to butcher his nemesis not only sabotaged and dominated the discourse surrounding the film, but a very strong case can be made that it cost the movie hundreds of millions of dollars in box office revenue. The frustrating thing is, it didn’t have to be that way. Goyer himself recently revealed that he did script a different outcome:
“The idea was that Superman would – there was one of those sort of cryopods on the ship that ends up becoming the Fortress of Solitude that he’s able to put Zod back into and then throw out into space. We did talk about it and maybe some people would’ve been happier with that.”
Had that ending been pursued (and the changes discussed in this piece implemented), Superman fans with intimate knowledge of his history, average moviegoers familiar with Superman through the pop culture vernacular, and essentially anyone who entered the cinema not expecting to see a superhero engage in neck-snapping ultraviolence likely would have left initial screenings feeling much better about the film. They would have talked to friends and family about the spectacle of a fresh modern approach to Superman, instead of spreading toxic word-of-mouth that the film ended with a punishing clash that invoked 9/11 trauma and a shocking murder. It’s hard to imagine a single person who saw Man Of Steel in the theater in the summer of 2013 walking out and saying, “you know what? That was pretty good, but it would’ve been amazing if Superman savagely broke Zod’s neck like he was twisting off a Dr. Pepper cap!!”
More positive word-of-mouth could have prevented the disastrous 65% second-weekend box office drop, fueling a more sustained performance that raised the domestic totals somewhere in the $375-$450 million range (ultimately finishing with a $850-900 million gross). Beyond that, eliminating Zod squandered the potential for future appearances by Michael Shannon, who put in an excellent, menacing performance. When you’re handed an icon of American popular culture like Superman while simultaneously laying the foundation for a future cinematic universe, you have a responsibility to portray the character in the best possible light, and Zack Snyder failed to do this by just about every measure imaginable.
There are a lot of things one could cite to justify and/or defend Superman killing, and if you’ve spent any amount of time on Twitter or Reddit you’ve no doubt seen the Snyder faithful posting out-of-context comic book panels and tying themselves into pretzels attempting to prove it was a great idea that was fully “comic book accurate. And while some of these pontifications or observations have merit, Superman killing—especially in an introduction to the hero for a new generation— just doesn’t feel right.
At the end of the day, shouldn’t you walk out of a Superman film feeling uplifted, inspired, thrilled, and hopeful?