The Trouble with the Opening of “Man of Steel”

The narrative structure of Man of Steel‘s opening is about as chaotic as the events it depicts. The film begins with all bombastic fury when the planet Krypton is plunged into chaos by General Zod, a militant general with grand designs for a eugenically pure kryptonian race. In the midst of this, Jor-El is trying to save his son from an impending Armageddon of a different sort than Zod’s revolution. So already we have three competing story drives. Zod’s revolution (#1), Jor-El’s desire to save his son (#2), which is related to impending destruction of the planet (#3). Less than 5 minutes in and this film is stuffed with plots to explore. The whole thing plays out like an explosive, overly rambunctious homage to the opening of Star Wars, without much grace or eloquence to the execution and with hardly enough of a nod to suggest homage. Theft might be a more apt term then, but not simple wholesale appropriation–that version would at least be coherent–this is merely tactless retrofitting.

Allow me to explain the charge. In Star Wars, Lucas didn’t need to keep explaining his story more than what he already had because the events in the opening were directly related to the remainder of the film. The conflict between the Empire and the Rebellion, Leia’s goal to overthrow this empire, Darth Vader and his goal to stop them, the hunt for the death star plans: it’s all set in motion by this opening. Not so in Man of Steel, in which Krypton’s problems only serve as marginal backstory for a much broader narrative about taking over the Earth. So the problem is that rather than deal with any of these three elements outlined already, the story instead takes an abrupt turn to have Jor-El go hunting after an item. The most marginal problem with this, and the only problem I shall explore since it’s the only one capable of being fixed with a minor adjustment in the script, is that the film does nothing to signal this detour in the narrative. Quite simply we don’t know he’s going after an item until he finally retrieves it. Granted, he does allude to a mysterious object called “the codex” after a brief chase sequence, and after three plot themes have been crammed together, but why be so needlessly obscure in your opening? I admit, this is probably my own failing as an audience member to pick up on the most marginal of details in the most chaotic of openings, and generally I wouldn’t bother describing my own personal response in this case, but I use this instance as a vehicle for talking about the brilliance of The Dark Knight and Raiders of the Lost Ark, so I’m going to take it.

I’m going to get to why this is a problem, as I am going to give a quick-fix, but as a brief side-note detour into plot mechanics, I want to briefly mention that this jumbled combination in itself suggests some revision was needed beyond the fix I’m about to describe. To roughly equate the problem with this chaotic opening, imagine if in Goyer’s other famous comic book film, The Dark Knight, Batman’s entire ideology had been laid out in the opening scene that also featured the introduction of the Joker (and a few quick outbursts about his intent to spread chaos), before a whole civil war erupts in Gotham. And, with all this going on, imagine then had Batman ran off to go fetch his life-saving utility belt. Obviously writers don’t like to repeat themselves, but there are other ways to avoid repetition than putting your ideas through a blender. The Dark Knight, which I should mention was also co-written by the brothers Nolan, was careful to let each scene develop its own theme, shuffling on to the next when the function of that scene had been satisfied.

Putting plot mechanics aside, I want to look at the actual narrative, that is to say, to examine “how does this plot unfold for the audience”. And I want to return to that one specific moment in the intro that could have tightened up the focus of the narrative, but which I acknowledge does nothing to fix the overload I’ve previously mentioned.

So here are the problems: What is Jor-El doing? Why is this important? The solution would be to hint at the answers to these two questions, if only briefly, before the instance containing the problems occurs. I must admit a break from my usual objective position in that this suggestion is purely my subjective opinion. I will acknowledge that the film briefly hints that he’s about to dive into a pool of water to get the codex, but this comes after a chase sequence. As I see it, there are no stakes to this action scene because I have no idea where he’s going or what he’s doing. And even still, when we do learn about “the codex”, it’s importance is supposedly alluded to by the line “stealing the codex is a class B offence”. Stealing being an offence does not capture the function of the item, only that this obviously insane society that harvested out the core of its own planet doesn’t want something stolen. Hardly a lecture on the Ark of the Covenant, wouldn’t you say? It’s not that the film withholds explaining the item at all, but that the film signals this explanation too late in the narrative. I’ve bashed my brain against this film’s logic to understand why the writers would choose to delay hinting at the progression of the story until after an action scene. Akira Kurosawa would literally have characters draw a map to explain the ensuing action scenes in Seven Samurai, and the director spent two hours getting to the main event. Cameron had no less than three characters sit down to discuss the plan for the final battle in Avatar, and there was still five minutes of build up to the event. And both of those climax work because their action scenes have been earned through careful structure and a building of the stakes. Here we’re thrown into the action, in media res, as it were, just to show I know it can be done–and by the Greeks no less–but the action doesn’t work on any level other than visual because the plot and the characters are already in media res. The whole film is in media res, it’s like singing at the same pitch for two and a half hours. The whole film has rushed to the action at the expense of explaining with even a fraction of style why we should care about it. The script expects us to care only because we’re required to–only because it’s Jor-El and Kal-El.

We have a perfect scene where the script could have accomplished a measure of clarity on the ensuing action scene and tightened up the function of the item. Why not throw in two extra lines after Jo-El overpowers his guards and tells Lara to prep the pop? Something running the circumference of “Lara, prep the pod. I’ll be along shortly. First I must retrieve the codex”. To which Lara could protest, if only meekly, which would allow Jor-El to assuage her concern and stress the item’s importance, “our future depends on it”. Immediately we know he’s going off to risk life and limb to do something. Specifically, to get something that holds the key to their future. Snyder and Goyer still get to keep the allure—we don’t know what exactly he’s going to get—but we understand that it is of such importance that he would still bother to fetch it even with the world crumbling. The reason why these lines would be so helpful is because we’re given no indication beforehand what he’s doing. We don’t even know where he’s going, whether this is even some secret entrance to his home or not. We can’t know that this item is important (in the same way that we know the idol in Raiders is important) precisely because we don’t even know that Jor-El is seeking something until after he retrieves it! Moreover, even once he’s retrieved it, unless we’re familiar with the comics, we don’t even know what it is. What is this skull fragment? And why should the viewer care about it? The viewers must already decode the visual information, but now so too must they contend with the narrative. After all, why doesn’t Jor-El go straight home if the planet is about to explode? And during a military coup no less…

I already explained briefly how action scenes must be earned as a climax, but what about when filmmaker’s want to start their movie with one? Well, this can be done too, and in fact Goyer and co already seemed to have one mind. This fetching of the item is a beat they seemed to have borrowed from Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, and rightly so. Both Jor-El and Indiana are hunting after a McGuffin. But notice how this opening and this scene is divorced from the main narrative. There is no mention of the Ark, no issues with Nazi’s or Marion, precisely because the scene itself has enough work to do in exploring this character. Also note how in Raiders it is made quite clear relatively early in the scene that these characters are searching for something. They don’t mention what exactly, nor why it is valuable, but once we see the gold idol, and consider the trouble they’ve gone through to get it, we can of course understand that anything gold and anything long lost is probably worth something to somebody. We don’t get the luxury of that logical referent in Man of Steel. What is this item he just nearly drowned for? We know that it is important—because Jor-El is risking his life for it—but we have no idea why it is important. The film never established why this item was so important that it needed fetching. In fact, it’s not until a third of the way into the movie that we begin to understand what this item does.

Because of this lack of information we’re obviously left with multiple questions with no readily available answers. All we know is that this item means something to both Jor-El and Zod, obviously because they both want it. But rather than increase the allure and mystique of this item, the lack of information raises only questions. In Raiders, we could imagine that the item was of some importance for some reason. We’re given a hint at this importance when Indiana Jones declares “this is it, this is where Forestal cashed it in.” We can surmise from this exchange that the item is valuable to Indiana or he would not risk his life, and we know it’s a risk because Indiana is keen to repeat his friend “was very very good”. How good? Very very. And he still failed. Notice how this danger is not present in Man of Steel. We already know Jor-El is going to die, he just said as much. What he doesn’t say is what he’s going to do.

This is not a matter of asking for the script to do some hand-holding. Raiders, it must be noted, does not commit this sin. It gestures towards the future events in order to set down the narrative strands first so that we can then enjoy the spectacle. In this opening moment, Raiders sets out the expectation (that Indiana will get the idol), and so the fun and the enjoyment of the ensuing scene comes from watching just how the events unfold according to this basic plan—or don’t, as it happens. Instead of getting the idol, as we all know, a thrilling sequence of complications ensues. Part of the thrill is the danger these complications present—like running away from a giant boulder—but a far larger part comes from our ability to understand how they factor into the plot. And by understanding the mechanics of plot we understand how this literal obstacle course at the start of the film serves as a synechdoche for the structure of the rest of the film. Spikes and traps manifest as Nazis and an old flame. Spielberg and Lawrence Kasdan, the writer, have committed an ingenious feat of using the introductory scene as a blueprint for the plot of the rest of the film. In effect, this scene is their gesture towards the plan (that Indiana is going to get what he’s seeking), and the thrill comes from watching this basic plan unfold with ever greater complications.

No doubt ironically, the same could be said about the relationship between Man of Steel’s jumbled opening and its overall plot.

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