Man of Steel is an origin story written by the creative team behind another pivotal cinematic origin story, Batman Begins. David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan (or “Golan,” as we’ve taken to calling them after an amusing flub by William Robert Rich in our Story Maps Screenwriting Podcast) bring the dark, reality-based sensibilities they honed on their Dark Knight Trilogy to the latest big-screen incarnation of perhaps the most iconic of all comic book superheroes: Siegel & Shuster’s Superman. Joined by the epic visualist Zack Snyder, this triumvirate of movie talents realizes a stunning popcorn blockbuster that pumps new energy into a 75 year-old character, with strong themes of destiny, blood ties, environmentalism and free will.
Zack Snyder may be the director, but Nolan’s storytelling imprint is all over Man of Steel, from the use of flashbacks to the emotionally conflicted protagonist to the epic set pieces that stretch the running time past two hours.
Christopher Nolan was a key factor in getting the greenlight from Warner Bros. for Man of Steel. I imagine that it helped to appease studio executives and financiers to have a “Godfather” who had already gone through the process of rebooting a cinematic legend. But that’s just the business side of it – what really mattered was the audience, and that begins with the story. When you’re commandeering a multi-billion dollar franchise with millions of fans worldwide and an army of fanboys sharpening their blogs in anticipation, every choice has potentially huge ramifications.
Early on, the most crucial choices were no doubt associated with the flagship elements of the Superman universe – Krypton, Jor-El, Smallville, Metropolis, Lois Lane, The Daily Planet, the list goes on… when and how to introduce all of these familiar elements? Each one had to be made convincing and relevant to today’s world, while standing out from previous incarnations on the big and small screen (remember Lois & Clark?).
Once they decided which elements would make an appearance, Golan had to decide on how to structure the major “signpost” beats in Clark Kent’s arc. When and how will Clark Kent first display his superpowers? When does he get the iconic Superman suit and cape? Will Lois Lane become a love interest? Will Lex Luthor make an appearance? Will other superheroes pop up (perhaps to sow the seeds of a Justice League movie)? Should Superman kill General Zod in the climax or just send him packing back to the Phantom Zone? With all of these decisions to make, the narrative was a complex endeavor from the getgo, but the writers who brought us films like Inception and The Dark Knight have never shied away from dense plotting.
There are many interesting structural choices in the film. Similar to Batman Begins, two father figures play a pivotal role in the hero’s journey (Jor-El and Jonathan Kent), and Act One turns on two flashbacks, one on each major line of action (External and Internal). The Midpoint is used in a classic manner: the villain arrives in a big way and throws down the gauntlet, launching a new throughline with a ticking time clock that forces a horrible decision upon the hero. In this case, General Zod’s ultimatum broadcast dead-center in the story will force Clark to decide between Krypton and Earth; his homeland by birth or his adoptive home. What more American story can you formulate than one about the ultimate immigrant and his battle against an oppressive despot?!
Many criticisms have been lobbied against Man of Steel’s story, most notably complaints about length and an inactive hero. You can study the beat sheet in our Story Map and determine if the structure contributes to these issues and others, for better or worse. Personally, I look at the Story Map and I pinpoint a few scenes that can be cut, mostly featuring Jor-El and Jonathan Kent (two characters that I feel had too much screen time), but I can see Golan’s intention with each step in the story. In short, these seasoned professionals told the story they wanted to tell.
The inactive hero criticism may spring from the “soft” Assumption of Power moment at minute 75, where Clark gives himself up and boards Zod’s ship, only to be immediately incapacitated by the alien atmosphere, just when we wanted to see him start kicking ass in his super-suit! He also cedes control of the “command key” device to Lois, which leads to her and Joe-El driving the story for a section (some might say too long). But consider that this is barely 10 minutes after the Midpoint, and this is a 133 minute film, so Golan structures a longer arc for Superman, and then rewards our patience with an epic third act.
In our estimation, Act III begins later than most modern films at minute 107 and most Nolan films we’ve mapped in the past, but its length at 27 minutes (book-ended by a 32 minute Act I) is nothing out of the ordinary, and neither is the length of Act II-B being greater than Act II-A, a standard structural device.
We invite you to enjoy the Man of Steel Story Map and hope it aids in your writing, whether your chosen medium be screenplays, comic books, teleplays, video games or novels. You may purchase the Man of Steel Story Map for 99 cents HERE.
Good Luck and Happy Writing!
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