Theme-Plot Integration Part 13 - Superman: Man of Steel Action-Romance by Jacqueline Lichtenberg
This is actually a 3 or 4 way "integration" post, an advanced writing challenge that requires several skill sets in use at once. Theme, Plot, Targeting a Readership, Worldbuilding, and even Character, Story and Conflict, to dissect and replicate Superman: Man of Steel.
We start, as usual, with THEME -- and of course without the foundation of Plot, you haven't got a story or anything else to hold an audience's attention -- but when you blow the "worldbuilding" element, the plot falls apart, the audience you've targeted is jarred out of the story, and nothing in what you've written makes sense to anyone but yourself.
Here are previous entries in the Theme-Plot Integration Series:
And here are the Theme-Worldbuilding discussions:
You can't accurately TARGET A READERSHIP (or audience) and hold their attention if the component elements of the Work are not wholly integrated with each other.
The previous parts of Targeting a Readership Series can be found in last week's Index Post:
By now, I'm assuming everyone reading this post who wants to see SUPERMAN: MAN OF STEEL has seen it, so I'm including "spoilers."
Here's a trailer for Man of Steel on YouTube:
This SUPERMAN film succeeds terrifically in ALL it's individual components, and fails utterly at the "integration" level.
Before we consider the flaws I see (which are actually strengths from the Hollywood point of view), let's examine what it's done in the "real" world.
Firstly, this re-design of the entire myth of Superman is based on the DC Comics consolidation of the "Superhero" Vigilante genre into the Justice League.
That entire ploy was created to sell comic books, and has been an unqualified success, generating an entire genre of Superhero stories for every medium from print to TV Series, to theatrical releases.
You can't fault the thinking from a commercial standpoint.
All my posts on aliendjinnromances.blogspot.com since 2007 or so have been about replicating that kind of success that DC Comics has had but for the Science Fiction Romance genre, SFR.
Our objective in studying these writing skills individually and then studying how to integrate them is to replicate DC Comic's process, that Walt Disney Studios succeeded at, and that Glenn Beck has launched himself into (in another field, but it's the same process). Beck is of little interest except in the business model transformation that he's experimenting with. Today, his web-TV channel is filling up with a diversity of shows and has been picked up by a long list of Cable distributors including Satellite.
My thesis is that you can't argue with commercial success.
Romance genre itself is commercially successful to the absolute dismay of its opponents.
But so far the respect due because of that success is lacking. Examine your respect for Glenn Beck and you will understand why Science Fiction Romance has its detractors.
Likewise 'comics" and comic fandom only gained grudging mention on TV news etc. with the advent of the commercially driven, gigantic Comic Con circuit where collectors bid up the prices of old comics to major investment decision ranges.
Money talks and money does get some respect, but not always the sort you and I are looking for.
Right now "Money" is not talking so much as it is gibbering in a panic.
The summer "blockbuster" films with Big Name Stars were flops at the Box Office.
But Superman wasn't a flop. It's done respectably well.
Here is a quote from imdb.com
As of MID JULY 2013 for Man of Steel June Release (as of mid-July it was still on several screens per multi-plex and pulling in audiences, which is success territory).
$113,080,000 (USA) (16 June 2013) (4,207 Screens)
$116,619,362 (USA) (16 June 2013) (4,207 Screens)
HUF 56,995,608 (Hungary) (23 June 2013)
€900,007 (Netherlands) (23 June 2013) (118 Screens)
PHP 245,085,619 (Philippines) (16 June 2013) (469 Screens)
$271,188,450 (USA) (7 July 2013)
So you can see it made more than its costs, and will continue to earn on Netflix, Amazon, etc. And all of that is gravy.
But is it worth our respect?
Well, for me Man of Steel makes it in the HUNK FACTOR: Henry Cavill as Clark Kent/ Kal-El is terrific (but I prefer without the beard). Russell Crowe made a lovely Jor-el, Kevin Costner's Jonathan Kent was thrilling, Amy Adams as Lois Lane worked well, and all the others were well cast, too.
The actors seemed to be aware they were playing characters, not that the characters were playing them (as seemed to be the case with Tonto in The Lone Ranger starring Johnny Depp as the sidekick.)
Of course you've seen Cavill in THE TUDORS and IMMORTALS - not exactly a small name. But this movie does not look as if it is designed around what the Big Names in it are known for (unlike The Lone Ranger casting where Johnny Depp presented Tonto as if Tonto was Johnny Depp).
Man of Steel didn't succeed at the box office because of the big name cast, but because it is Superman (and the release dates were cleverly orchestrated - check IMDB; there is a science behind that.)
It is a GREAT movie.
So what's wrong with it?
For me, it isn't SUPERMAN.
Part of that reaction is how I just don't think the Justice League approach works as well as the original (even though I'm endlessly fascinated with Justice League!)
The original Superman was, like the Lone Ranger, a champion of Truth, Justice and the American Way.
All three elements of the Superman Character, truth, justice and the American Way, have been thrown out with this reworking of his past in Man of Steel.
What is inserted to hold up all 3 Pillars of Character is Defense of Earth -- not America, Earth.
America is left in cinders, and nobody cares.
This Superman wears a dull bluish suit with a red cape, but it isn't the AMERICAN Blue and Red.
One thing they did in re-designing Krypton actually cured some of the problems with the 1978-1980's series of films.
General Zod's motive in trashing Earth has been changed into the more honorable "Restore Krypton" motive.
Jor-El's motive has been degraded into sending Kal-El to Earth for the purpose of "guiding" Earth -- instead of to learn to become more like an American, and less like those whose politics destroyed Krypton.
In Man of Steel, Krypton implodes because the ruling council decreed they needed energy, so they mined the core of the planet, and the planet implodes while Zod attacks the ruling council. This is an example of Hollywood ripping a theme (ecology) from the Headlines and throwing it into your face at any excuse.
Another theme that coincidentally made headlines just as this film was being released is the Justice League theme of the Vigilante Justice which had America glued to the TV screens during the Treyvon Martin Murder trial. That timeliness may have helped Man of Steel at the Box Office.
But, the hook that has me glued to Superman is the Lois/Clark relationship -- and nothing was more satisfying than the TV Series Lois And Clark (Lois, first, note!). Not ecology, but Alien Romance.
The film SUPERMAN II definitely scratched the Alien Romance itch.
Here's that trailer:
Superman II has plenty of "action" to satisfy the action viewer, but it has the ROMANCE that makes the action make sense. Kal El has to 'give up his powers' to marry Lois, and willingly does so - then the villains turn up (Zod and crew) (senselessly bent on destroying Earth and co-opting Superman to their own cause because of his noble birth) and to SAVE EARTH (not America: Earth) Kal El takes back his powers cutting himself off from nice, human sex with Lois.
Notice how all the good stuff is missing from the Superman II trailer to sell it as pure action to Action audiences.
In the end, Superman in Man of Steel does throw in with the Americans, but refuses to accede to American Law unless he agrees with the commands given him by a General.
This ending seems NOBLE compared to the rest of the film, as if Kal El has values from Kansas. In fact, it is antithetical to The American Way depicted in the original Superman as proceding from Truth and Justice.
Note in Man of Steel, the S is cleverly redefined as an Alien Symbol of Peace.
To remain thematically coherent, the S symbol should have been redefined as a symbol for Truth or Justice.
The "America" Superman deals with (and this is where the original theme is massively changed) is General Swanwick -- not The President!
This character (OK, it's a scripting efficiency problem, but it distorts the original Superman's thematic integrity) General Swanwick ends up unilaterally making live-or-die decisions for all Earth, not just the USA.
How insufferably presumptuous. What do you suppose Iran would be saying in the U.N.?
In other words, Swanwick (without ever being challenged on it) institutes a military coups.
Not one person in the audience that I saw the film with was groaning or booing about this. It's acceptable for the USA to be taken over by the military. Even Kansas farm boy, Clark, didn't seem to notice.
What has that to do with Romance?
Hunk isn't just a matter of a square-jawed face.
Remember how I made the point about the crucial question that every Romance must answer:
"What does she see in him? What does he see in her?"
A nice square jaw just isn't enough - helps a lot, but isn't enough!
Strong character, with detail of what composes that strength, is necessary to ignite the flame of real Soul-Mate driven Romance.
Lois and Clark have always been portrayed (from the 1930's radio shows) as Soul Mates, even when we didn't know Clark was from another planet.
Originally, they didn't emphasize the Science Fiction element of an Alien From Outer Space -- that wouldn't have been Romantic to people of the 1940's when Science Fiction itself had barely been invented.
What science fiction there was, then, was "neck up science fiction" -- without elements of Relationship other than adversarial.
The B&W TV Series of the 1950's played Lois and Clark as foils, with Lois always trying to sleuth out the Secret Identity.
SECRET IDENTITY (like the Lone Ranger) was the plot dynamic that drove the suspense, not Alien From Outer Space Falls In Love With Human.
The big reveal of Alien From Outer Space as the Secret (even from Clark, himself) came much later, because, given Clark's abilities, it was just logical.
Personally, I think Alien Romance is where it is at for Science Fiction and I always have, which is why it's always an element in my novels.
As Clark Kent's Alien origin was revealed, it was morphed and morphed to support various sorts of Superman Character definitions.
In other words, our Hero has been co-opted
Well, they did that on purpose. They are risking huge amounts of money, so they want a known box office draw topic. But Superman is old, worn, antique. It's appeal was that it bespoke the yearnings of the audience of that day. They needed to update it to speak to today's audience.
And they did that! They got everything in except the Alien Romance which needs a Kickass Lois.
And the reason the romance failed is a major gliche in the worldbuilding.
Yes, Lois gets her moments, but she's relegated to fourth or fifth place in the B story, and doesn't even get to be the one who hammers home the key that stops the destruction of Earth.
Lois doesn't get to save Superman's Life -- doesn't get to Reveal His Past -- doesn't get to pass judgement on his moral fiber and trust him with Truth, Justice And The American Way, doesn't get to kick ass, doesn't even get to save Clark's human mom.
Clark doesn't act for Lois's sake. Clark's father Jonathan Kent gives his life to maintain Clark's secret identity, and in his memory, Clark is moved to act -- not for Lois's sake, and not for the sake of his Relationship to Lois. The action that Clark chooses for Jonathan Kent's sake is to adopt the guise of the mild mannered reporter and take a job at The Daily Planet where Lois gets to say "Welcome to the Planet." And they share a secret smile, because she knows he's Kal-El. But that's the ending. It should be the beginning.
This movie is not the Romance you're looking for; move along.
If I'd been consulted (never likely to happen), on the script, I'd have pointed out that the entire composition falls to shreds because of a major gliche in the Worldbuilding.
Fix the worldbuilding, and everything else, including the Romance, would fall into place.
I have this same issue with the DOCTOR WHO depiction of Gallifrey, and with the home planet of the aliens, the Tenctonese, in the TV Series ALIEN NATION.
The Science Fails.
I'm an absolute, dedicated fan of both series. And a lifelong Superman fan. As a fan, I can and do "forgive" errors in the depiction.
But such errors are the reason I wanted to be a writer with a published "voice" in the matter of how it should be done. I've seen "it" done right in so many genres, which just etches my dissatisfaction in fire when I see the error in Science Fiction Romance, especially the Action Romance genre.
And I believe that if Alien Romance is done "right" (i.e. with consistent worldbuilding, rigorous science), it will attain a position of respect as a Literature bespeaking the most valuable part of our 21st Century Culture.
So What Failed In The Worldbuilding?
It was a failure of imagination. And it was all the more glaring an error because we have occasionally seen it done right in film.
Here's Part 4 of Failure of Imagination, with links to prior parts:
The movie DUNE did pretty well at avoiding this particular failure of imagination, but came up a bit short as it tried to stay true to the book.
We've seen glimpses in the newest Star Trek movies where they got it right - particularly the nearly invisible space suits.
The failure is actually a failure to show rather than tell.
It's a failure to integrate the science, the technology, and the civilization it belongs to, using visual methods to ILLUSTRATE that the science is what it is.
Any technology sufficiently advanced will seem like magic.
Here it is from Wikipedia:
Clarke's Three Laws are three "laws" of prediction formulated by the British writer Arthur C. Clarke. They are:
1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
....The Third Law is the best known and most widely cited. Also appearing in Clarke's Essay "Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination". It may be an echo of a statement in a 1942 story by Leigh Brackett: "Witchcraft to the ignorant, .... Simple science to the learned". Even earlier examples of this sentiment may be found in Wild Talents by author Charles Fort where he makes the statement: "...a performance that may some day be considered understandable, but that, in these primitive times, so transcends what is said to be the known that it is what I mean by magic."
FAILURE OF IMAGINATION.
That is our greatest problem with science fiction today, the lack of the kind of futurology we saw in science fiction in the 1950's and 1960's. Even Star Trek as a TV Series was able to visualize futuristic instruments that acted "magically."
So what did I expect from this Man of Steel that it did not deliver?
I went into the movie without expectations.
But a few scenes into it, I saw the very clever, very elegant, VERY IMAGINATIVE devices, instruments, methods of living, used by the Kryptonian civilization. And it was indeed a very solid extrapolation of our current science/technology into a possible future.
So I was blown away by this vision of Krypton. (then we got to the politics and I was disappointed as I had been when The Doctor first went back to Gallifrey.)
The technology was depicted amped up to the level of what we see as "magic."
After we get to Earth, the entire premise just falls to shreds.
And in it's fall, it destroys Clark's character.
The premise is that Krypton has this technology that seems like magic.
Now, look at our technology over the last few centuries.
Up to the 1940's, technological advances were always made by the triggering of a war.
World War II triggered the creation of the Atomic Bomb (and its use).
From the Middle Ages (knights in shining armor) through WWII, all our advances have been in ways to deliver more and MORE kinetic energy to a target and destroy bigger and bigger areas at a swipe.
We used the Atomic Bomb and spread collateral destruction over two (huge) cities when all we needed to do was destroy the war-making-capability of Japan, not the population.
After that, The American Way judged America's use of that weapon to be a major tragedy.
Subsequent military weapons development concentrated on delivering pin-point destruction, making smaller explosions right on exactly hit targets.
Today, we have the new term "collateral damage" -- meaning failure. When we strike a military target, ONLY that target gets destroyed. If even one non-combatant is killed, we failed.
It's a trend, and it probably won't be linear, but all our technology (cell phones being an example) use less energy, and target that usage more precisely.
All our energy-usage trends are down, not up, in terms of productivity.
And that's true of warfare as well - drones being another example.
The Krypton depicted at the beginning of Superman: Man of Steel indicates they had gotten to where we are going -- small, precise, exact, easy to use, technology, like magic.
But then General Zod arrives on Earth (out of the Phantom Zone which is not as well done as in the prior Superman film where it's a two-dimensional spinning patch in space, a portal to another dimension), and proceeds to "terraform" earth never mind it'll kill the inhabitants, Clark Kent included.
Jor-el hid the database of all-Krypton inside Kal-el's body cells, but if Kal-el is dead Zod intends to extract it from Kal-el's dead body so he can recreate Krypton. Noble goal, -- maybe that means the theme of this film is "The End Justifies The Means." But during the film, Zod goes from not caring if Clark dies to actively pursuing his death.
Remember, Lois doesn't get to save Clark and dispatch Zod.
Remember, a few weeks ago, I discussed the contretemps that erupted over a SFWA Bulletin Cover with the typical Brass Bras Babe image?
Man of Steel is a perfect example of what everyone is yelling about. The Lois that we have seen raised from a 1940's "save me Superman" girl into a "Pullitzer Prize" chanting woman hanging under the elevator cage of the Eiffel Tower is back to being a GIRL.
Because of the epic fail in worldbuilding.
What should have happened when Zod got to Earth to retrieve the database in Clark's body cells and terraform Earth into a replica of Krypton?
If imagination had not failed, we would be seeing Kryptonians wearing ordinary looking clothing that acted like armor and contained all kinds of instrumentation, not the clunky-ugly lumps they wear in this film.
The costumes are supposed to look formidable and scary; instead they look ludicrous because we've seen what their technology can do.
Remember the ST:ToS episode Squire of Gothos where the Alien we think is a malific adult alien turns out to be a kid-alien eventually scolded by Mom for tormenting humans for fun?
Remember the Organians?
Remember ST:TNG episode 9 "Hide and Q" which introduces the Q dimension beings?
All those Star Trek conflicts pitted hugely superior technology against humans who had technology superior to that of the audience (1960's and 1980's).
And the superior technology, the "instrumentality" of the Squire of Gothos looked like an ordinary mirror. The Q invoked effects by a wave of the hand (which was optional.)
In each case, the humans with the lesser technology won by being clever.
The worldbuilding in those Star Trek depictions was superb (the production technology minimal).
What is the underlying principle that film makers must apply to get this tech worldbuilding consistent?
Kinetic Energy Diminishes As Power Increases
In the opening of Superman: Man of Steel we saw a Krypton vastly superior to any we've seen before. It was superbly depicted.
Then we saw that technology deployed against a nearly defenseless planet (Earth).
Technology that superior has to be able to accomplish goals without:
a) wasted kinetic energy
b) obviously applied kinetic energy
Note our trend after the Atomic Bomb -- pinpoint accuracy.
Reduce that pinpoint further than we can today to produce the "indistinguishable from magic" effect.
And you have an enemy that takes us out by firing tiny black holes (or Higgs Bosons) or something very small that just tweaks the tiny few atoms necessary to achieve the goal.
No wasted kinetic energy. No destroying whole cities to "get" one man, not even Superman.
Quiet, simplistic elegance achieves the goal with the barest twitch of a fingertip.
That's worldbuilding, Arthur C. Clarke style, folks.
The opening scenes on Krypton set up the audience to expect that kind of elegance.
Instead, we got messy, primitive, awkward, and pointlessly ridiculous nonsense that just didn't fit the opening scene.
Think again about the trailers and "Targeting a Readership."
They took away the Romance (Superman hardly got a chance to do any really interesting rescues), they degraded the Lois character into a girl who says she won a Pulitzer but doesn't act like it, they designed the alien costumes to look more like fantasy Brass Bra outfits, and proceeded to wreak collateral damage with stray kinetic energy for no discernible reason.
What readership prefers non-characters destroying things others have built with blood, sweat and tears?
What kind of person does not value the blood, sweat and tears of grown-ups?
What kind of person is recruited for Army service because of that trait?
Not men. (I do so love men.) But boys.
Boys hate Romance. Too tedious. Men love Romance.
I believe that's why "they" did this to Superman, targeting the boy in every man. Against the backdrop of the re-emergence of sexism in all areas, but especially in SFR, it certainly makes commercial sense. The fact that this movie succeeded where others have failed this past summer will definitely give us more sexist films next year and the year after.
But the correction is not to add back the Lois character. Then she'd just be pasted on top of something that does not showcase her properly. She'd look awkward and artificial - not plausible.
In fact, isn't that what the HEA, the Happily Ever After, ending is ridiculed for? Being implausible? There's the reason why it gets ridiculed -- pasted on top of disintegrated worldbuilding.
So how do you fix it?
You fix Krypton and the worldbuilding, and that fixes everything. The fight scenes take less time, cause less disruption and destruction, and more screen-time is then available for a real story.
By fixing the worldbuilding so that the technology shown in the early scenes produces warfare that looks more magical, more precise (and reaches its goal faster, more elegantly), you can then spend the screen time on the underlying science. Superman: Man of Steel runs over 2 1/2 hours. That's long for any film.
By definition science fiction integrates the scientific puzzles with the characters, plot, conflict and story. Battle scenes do not a plot make. Scientific puzzles that must be solved against a deadline of certain death -- ah, that makes a plot, a story, raises characters to heroic stature, and spurs the audience to learn more science because it's romantic and impresses the women and the men.
Lois, the investigative reporter, solves a scientific puzzle (Clark's genes), and beats Zod, would make a great movie.
Apparently, those with $225 million to spend on a movie thought that story wouldn't sell movie tickets. And they do have a point. Young boys, and immature uneducated young men, won't notice the disintegration of the connecting links between Theme and Plot, and will go away raving about this film.
That connecting link is the Worldbuilding.
The Worldbuilding destroyed so much when it came apart that I'm not entirely sure what the theme of Superman: Man of Steel was supposed to be.
I think maybe it's Might Makes Right, or perhaps Peace At All Costs where the "all costs" contains the "might makes right" philosophy.
The Justice League central issue is the vigilante justice argument (which is "better" for society, or more efficient, Hired Law Enforcement or Vigilantes that don't have to worry about legal methods of acquiring evidence or the train of custody of that evidence and just cut to the chase.)
The Boy Mentality that prefers sex to love will prefer the Vigilante method over the more tedious and cerebral Colombo Detective method.
Peace At All Costs makes a good theme for Boys because it lets you solve the problem of roiling emotions by hitting and destroying anything in your path (regardless of whether it is the source of the roiling emotions or not).
Reconnect the theme with the plot in Man of Steel by upping the elegance of the battle-tech, and you'd get rid of the Boy part and have to deal with the Man part of the Steel.
What does it take to make a Man out of a Boy?
That's a question our society has ducked since the 1980's (Superman II), and as a result, the movie-going audiences don't want to know the question exists, never mind the answer is not "battle."
by Jacqueline Lichtenberg
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