Okay: let’s get linear.
The critical conversation surrounding Man of Steel has always been only moderately interesting at best, founded largely on qualms with Superman’s less-than-super demeanor and with the Metropolis-leveling final act of the film. There are no shortage of detractors who do their detracting based solely on Zack Snyder’s position in the director’s chair, which, okay, fine. I saw Sucker Punch in theaters. I hear you.
But that’s neither here nor there. Of all the labels to slap on Man of Steel — laudations and/or criticisms — the one we’re concerned with today is that of Most Non-Linear Time-Jumpy Superman Movie Ever Made. Yes, a high achievement, to be sure.
Really, though, when you’re actually paying attention to the active play-by-plays throughout the runtime of Man of Steel, the fact that the film even approaches coherence is fairly impressive. We’ll talk minutiae in a moment. For now, consider the broad time-jumps that constitute the storytelling structure of the movie:
- We start on Krypton. Kal-El is born. Russell Crowe does some cool shit and then we see the Phantom Zone, which, it should be noted, looks like technology straight out of Galaxy Quest.
- We’re on a boat on Earth. Clark is probably 33 years old, considering this is the often-Christlike Superman we’re talking about here. In the context of Man of Steel this particular time is treated as Present Day.
- Suddenly, an elementary school in Kansas. Clark is 7.
- Back to Present Day.
- Middle school. Clark is 13. There is a use of the word “dicksplash”.
- Back to Present Day.
- Tornado scene, death of Jonathan Kent. Clark is maybe early 20s, but it’s hard to tell because Henry Cavill is just doing that thing where he wears a wig and magically appears younger, like Michael C. Hall used to do on Dexter to hilarious effect.
- Back to Present Day, where Clark makes a point of telling Lois “I let my father die” — we’ll talk more about that momentarily. No use of “dicksplash” though.
- A field or a farm or something. Clark’s like 15. He gets in a fight. Moving along.
- Present Day.
- This one’s weird but constitutes a flashback nonetheless. In the Present Day Clark suffers atmospheric sickness aboard Zod’s Kryptonian ship and in his fever dream we see Zod’s journey as parallel to Clark’s, essentially showing us everything that happened while Clark was 0-33 years old.
- Present Day.
- School Daze, again, Clark is 7 or whatever. Final act of the movie and we’re back at the Kansas elementary school. Yeah.
- At last, back to the Present Day for a big thematic wrap-up.
Two things are immediately apparent, and those two things are sort of at war with each other: first, this thing looks a mess when it’s written out. Granted the tone of the actual script is likely a little less cynical than that of a bulleted list on the internet’s greatest film review resource, but even that doesn’t change the fact of the matter. The second perspective to take on this structure is that Man of Steel would be really boring if it played out chronologically. Lots of people say it’s boring as is, so imagine sitting through the first half of the film with only 7- and 15-year-old Clarks to keep you company. Then Cavill finally appears at the midway point and — hey, nice wig!
Admittedly, there are superhero origin stories of every kind. There are good non-linear tales like Batman Begins; there are crappy non-linear tales like Daredevil. There are good linear tales like Raimi’s Spider-Man and crappy ones like…well, take your pick. Man of Steel certainly has elements of both, but, again, we’re just trying to highlight the fact that in terms of structure this movie is about as wonky as a superhero flick gets. Every single jump listed above is both a shift in time and a shift in location, too, and even there we’re covering a ton of bases. We have smalltown Kansas and big-city Metropolis, the snowbound Fortress of Solitude, the office building of the Daily Planet, the various landscapes Supes visits including the Indian Ocean and the big oil rig from the beginning. Not to mention outer space, where a surprising portion of Man of Steel takes place. It’s everywhere and everytime.
The reason any of this matters — and, in fact, the reason we’ve attempted to present the nonlinear mischief in a pure state, shorn of any judgments as to whether Man of Steel is good or bad — is that it’s already apparent that Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice will do more than just continue the trend. BvS looks to take those Present Day elements from Man of Steel and treat them as further diversions within the larger story. In this BvS might be considered more than “a sequel”, instead a sort of pre- mid- sequel that makes full use of the nonlinear structure of its predecessor.
That’s speculation, of course, but if it’s true to any significant degree then one would hope the uninteresting assertions that Superman isn’t Super enough in Man of Steel might finally be laid to rest. The whole “Superman never kills” thing? Who better to embody that argument than Bruce Wayne? The whole “I let my father die” thing? Who better to confront that than Bruce Wayne? BvS might be entwined with MoS in more significant ways than any of the Marvel movies, and it might complicate the DC Cinematic Universe timeline even further. Suicide Squad and Wonder Woman both look like they’ll keep going with that, too, sinking a Joker flashback yarn and a WWI Wonder Woman tale into the canon.
On the most minute level, perhaps Man of Steel is a bit too jumpy. Zack Snyder’s been accused of being a crappy director for a lot of reasons — overuse of slo-mo, gratuitous violence and destruction, overemphasis on visuals, etc. etc. etc. — but the sheer number of individual cuts throughout his Superflick make for moments of jarring, hard-to-see action and movement. Jor-El’s opening speech is rendered ridiculous because it seems more like a voiceover than an actual in-person argument. We constantly cut to reaction shots, to wide shots, to close-ups, and meanwhile all we really want is one shot of Russell Crowe doing his thing. To that nitpicky degree Man of Steel has too many internal shifts to be an unadulterated success.
On the larger scale, though, the DC Cinematic Universe has a strong storytelling opportunity, one that highlights the consequences of actions and words and ideas we thought might never return. Compressing time or drawing it out allows overarching themes to do the same, to either be compressed into a single action (i.e. Superman killing Zod) or to be stretched over a spate of films (i.e. the formation of the Justice League). In the real world, we’ve got one month until Batman v. Superman is released. In the world of Man of Steel, it’s already begun.