Revisiting Man of Steel, one of the most poorly paced blockbusters in recent history

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Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice opens in theaters tonight, and I sincerely hope it’s good. Based on early reviews and word of mouth, that seems unlikely, but I will nonetheless be walking into the theater ready for a pleasant surprise.

After rewatching Man of Steel, though, I have one major concern. With all the talk about Dawn of Justice potentially being rushed due to the presence of so many characters, it’s easy to forget that this was already a problem with its predecessor, Man of Steel, by far one of the worst-paced blockbusters in recent memory. The first hour of Snyder’s movie is so sloppy and unfocused, it’s as if we’re watching an extended version of the trailer rather than an actual film, and so by the time major events begin to happen, the setup has been so thoroughly squandered that it’s difficult to care.

Man of Steel starts off on Krypton, and including a bit of a prologue about how Kal-El gets to Earth may have worked. But did it need to be this freaking long? We spend 20 full minutes on a planet that subsequently blows up – too long to serve as a mere cold-open, but too short for us to have an emotional reaction when Jor-El and Lara die. Imagine if the wonderful opening of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek was 20 minutes rather than 10. Snyder simply couldn’t resist playing around with visual effects and exploring a crazy science-fiction environment, and he didn’t care how it served the narrative. This idea of Snyder tossing in every single idea he has without worrying about pacing will become a recurring theme.

Twenty minutes in, we’re now on Earth, following Clark Kent on a boat. Yes, we are finally spending time with the titular character after 20 minutes. He rescues some people on an oil rig, therefore deciding he will reveal himself as a man with superhuman abilities, but he’s soon knocked out and he falls into the water. This lasted just over two minutes.

Now, we’re in a flashback following Clark as a kid. He’s overwhelmed by everything around him, runs into a closet, and his mom comes to calm him down. That’s all. Once again, we spend about two minutes in this completely new time period before moving on, back to the present time.

Now old, floating-in-the-water Clark opens his eyes, runs to the shore, steals some clothes from a random family, and walks into town.

Sixty seconds later, we’re back with young Clark again! He saves a bus full of kids, and this time it appears what we’re seeing is more than just a quick flashback. We will be spending a bit more time in the past now? There’s a whole scene where the mother of the boy Clark saved comes over to the house to voice her concerns,  Jonathan talks with Clark about not revealing his identity and all that. And then very abruptly, we’re back with older Clark. So far, the movie has been jumping all over the place from Krypton to Clark as a kid to Clark as an adult back to Clark as a kid, and we’re left wondering when the hell Snyder is going to pick a place to focus on.

Back in the present time, we have a two minutes scene where a guy in a bar pisses Clark off and so he destroys his truck. Yup, that’s it there. Moving on!

Now, we’re in a completely new environment with totally new characters – a helicopter is landing in the arctic and Lois Lane comes out. She meets some U.S. air force guys who tell her about a spooky discovery they made in the ice, and she’s going to go investigate. Is Lois going to become the audience surrogate for the rest of the movie, as she attempts to uncover who Superman is? Kind of like April O’Neil in the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? For a while, the film seems to be leading us in that direction. Lois sees Superman in action, she writes an article about it, and she sets out on a mission to learn more about the mysterious man. Her editor won’t publish the story, but she needs it out there, so she leaks it to another outlet. We began to latch on to this only because it’s the first time the movie hasn’t felt like it’s hopped up on sugar, rushing through plot point after plot point and jumping all around in time like crazy. By this point, we have spent 10 minutes following something occur in chronogical order, which is like a miracle. Have the pacing issues worked themselves out?

Nope! After this, Lois is never really a protagonist again for the rest of the film, becoming secondary to Superman for the remainder of the runtime. Now we’re following Clark on the ship, and Jor-El comes out to tell him the whole story of Krypton and why he’s on Earth. You know, the story that we as the audience already know because we sat through 20 minutes of it at the beginning. Normally we’d either get the extended prologue giving the backstory, or the exposition dump giving the backstory, but in Man of Steel, we get both for some reason.

Clark Kent has now put on the Superman suit for the first time, and Lois Lane has tracked him down. It took her a remarkably short amount of time to do that, but whatever. We’re done moving all around in time now, I guess?  Just when we begin to think that, Snyder cuts to yet another flashback, this one about two and a half minutes long, in the middle of a dialogue scene. Later, in the midst of an alien invasion, we have another flashback, this one occurring even earlier than the previous one. Snyder can’t even keep the damn flashbacks in chronogical order.

Once General Zod comes to Earth, the pacing issues mostly fade into the background, but by then the setup was so awkward and clunky that the next hour mostly just feel like a cool special effects show. It feels like Snyder was thinking about either…

A) Spending the entire first act in Krypton, thus making us care about Clark’s parents and about General Zod.

B) Have a brief Krypton prologue lasting a few minutes, then spend a fair chunk of time with Clark as a child (with all scenes occurring in order), then show him in the present time. [If you’re saying it would be too long without seeing Superman in action, consider how long Batman Begins takes to masterfully set everything in motion).

C) Don’t show Krypton at all, and have the audience learn the backstory along with Clark later on. Give brief glimpses into his childhood, but don’t make them last more than 30 seconds, so they feel more like vague vignettes than entire sequences.

Instead, Man of Steel ends up being a weird blend of all three options. Snyder wanted to do absolutely everything he could think of, but the result is a film that too often feels like a jumbled mess. The first hour of an origin story is clearly the most important, but here, it’s a strangely jarring experience because the movie has no clear center.

Can Batman v. Superman fix that problem, with a more effective pacing that doesn’t make the audience feel as if they’re simply watching a series of short scenes thrown together in random order without much of a transition? I worry that the additional storylines will only exacerbate the problem, but I truly want to be proven wrong. Prove me wrong, Zack. Let’s do it.

 

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