(This article contains major spoilers for Man of Steel)
Man of Steel isn’t a great movie. It’s got a disjointed script of emotionless characters; on-the-nose theming; overlong action scenes; scattershot pacing; and more holes than a chain-link fence.
Perhaps the greatest stir came from the movie’s reimagining of Superman -the idealistic paragon of truth, justice, and the American way- into a gritty, sociopathic murderer. Initially, I, like so many others despised these changes. Why make a Superman movie if you’re not going to use Superman?
Still, just as many people seem to prefer the dark Superman, citing that they’d never liked the original character, and that he’s unrealistically pure and upstanding for our modern world.
Divisive, to say the very least.
With Man of Steel not being the $1.5 billion dollar success they’d anticipated, WB seems to have all but pulled the plug on the fledging franchise and has called in Batman to save the box office day. Maybe even Wonder Woman. Hell, it’s not like they’ve got Marvel’s level of foresight.
But what if they’d followed up Man of Steel? What kind of sequel could possibly reconcile fans of classic Superman purists with those of the dark-and-edgy new version?
Get ready- this proposed sequel is going to blow your freakin’ mind.
If you want to cut to the chase, I guess you could just jump to section 3.
1. The movie’s story.
To help understand the tools I’ll be working with, here’s a summary of Man of Steel. If you’ve already seen it, feel free to jump ahead.
On the dying planet Krypton, Jor-El helps thwart the crazed military leader Zod’s insurrection, putting him in the Phantom Zone, an extra-dimensional prison. Simultaneously, he sends Kal-El, his only child, loaded with the Codex (a record of all of Krypton’s genetic information) into space just as the planet explodes. Why he didn’t send himself and his wife on this ship is beyond me.
Discovered and raised by the Kent family on Earth, Kal-El grows up as Clark Kent. His parents teach him to hide his powers from society, even at the cost of human life. This culminates in Pa Kent allowing himself to die in a tornado while Clark watches.
Clark Kent travels the world, finding himself, using his strength to do “good things.” Sometimes this involves saving people on an oil rig, other times, it means skewering a lecherous trucker’s rig with logs. Still other times, it causes him to go to church and equate himself with Jesus. No, really.
Discovering a Kryptonian space ship buried in the Arctic, Clark and Lois shoehorned-into-this-movie Lane, inadvertently send a signal out from it, bringing Zod and his insurrectionists out of the Phantom Zone. Zod’s bent on terraforming Earth into the new Krypton, presumably because Mars doesn’t have enough genocide opportunities. Problematically, he also wants to use Clark’s genetic material for repopulation.
Also activated in this Kryptonian space ship? A holographic personality recording of Jor-El on a handy-dandy USB drive, who provides a Superman suit for Clark and tells him how important he is. Why Jor-El didn’t let his wife in on the holographic-personality-recording action is anyone’s best guess.
Clark/Superman sets out to treaty with Zod, but winds up having a series of smackdowns with him that leads to the destruction of Smallville and play a massive role in leveling Metropolis. Saving the day? Not for hundreds of thousands of civilians.
At the apex of their fight, Zod, in Superman’s headlock, uses his laser vision to threaten murdering some civilians. Ignoring the fact that he could do a million other things to prevent this, Superman snaps Zod’s neck.
“Triumphant,” Superman flies away. When the U.S. military deploys surveillance drones on Superman, he takes them down, warning the government to leave him be.
…And that’s sort of the end.
2. The Tools:
As stated earlier, everything in Man of Steel sets Superman up to be a sociopathic menace. Let’s unpack that.
Pa Kent repeatedly gives young Clark mixed messages about basic morality. To paraphrase…
“It’s ok to let a bus full of people die if it protects your identity.”
“Here’s your space ship! You were destined for greatness, and everything about you is special.”
“I’m going to awkwardly die in a tornado because your freedom is more important than anything else.”
The arrival of Jor-El, holographic ghost from an ancient flashdrive (bad script, remember?), complicates this with more mixed messages, which I’ll also paraphrase:
“You’re the first being to be naturally born on our planet, and you’re (theoretically) its only survivor. You’re special.”
“Also, you carry all of our genetic information, making you the most important person in our history.”
“We deliberately set you to this planet to be a God among men.”
“Wear these Kryptonian long johns that I somehow perfectly tailored for you 20,000 years ago to show how special, important, and godly you are.”
Torn between two some of the worst parents ever, Clark becomes a sociopathic super-powered being with a messiah complex, which again culminates in (1) a destroyed Smalltown, presumably at the cost of a hundred lives; (2) a leveled Metropolis, presumably at the cost of several thousand lives; (3) a slaughtered villain; and (4) a threat against the U.S. military.
I suppose we can add ‘fascist’ to the list.
Bear a few things in mind: (1 & 2) We never see Superman save anyone during these fights, and there’s no indication that either city has evacuated in any real capacity. When Superman slams Zod into the train station, the civilians had no idea what was happening outside. With this, by slamming Zod into buildings, there’s reason to believe that Superman was complicit in mass murder, at least by omission. (3) Yes, villains die in superhero movies all the time, but notice a common thread: they usually die by their own hand (ex: Spider-Man’s Green Goblin), or by the hero’s inaction (ex: Batman Begins’ Ra’s Al Ghul). What few times the hero DIRECTLY murders the villain are often extremely fantastical (ex. Iron Man 2’s Whiplash). Contrast this to Superman’s actions in Man of Steel where, on camera, he outright snaps Zod’s neck. Brutal and direct. (4) Superman’s cheeky and unchallenged threat to the military codifies him being above the law. Perhaps to the point of BEING the law. They are afraid to take measures against him.
3. The Sequel Idea
Superman’s got a long history of being the bad guy in alternate universes, either by leaning to far in a radical direction or by just being outright villainous. Hell, even within the mainstream DC universe, he’s got to deal with evil Supermen like Bizarro, Ultraman, Eradicator, Superboy-Prime, and Cyborg-Superman.
So what if Man of Steel’s Superman was actually an alternate/evil Superman from another dimension?
4. The Retcon/Sequel…
“Man of Steel 2” or whatever you’d like to call our proposed Superman sequel, would take place a few months after the events of Man of Steel.
Things have been quiet. Real quiet. Superman’s been dealing out justice with an iron fist. You break the law –anywhere in the world- you die. Simple as that. Crime drops 100%. Hell, there IS NO crime. That done, Superman turns his eyes to war, stopping every national and international conflict. Effectively, he becomes Earth’s dictator.
Superman broods in that ancient Kryptonian warship in the Arctic (his Fortress of Solitude), waiting to detect the slightest tremor of human aggression. Little does he know that the Phantom Drive Device that summoned Zod’s ship is on the fritz…
Earth’s governments band together in a desperate mission to overthrow Superman. Prodigy genius and strategist LEX LUTHOR leads them. This guy’s studied Superman for months, and he’s convinced he’s got a plan…
A seemingly endless wave of military forces siege the Fortress of Solitude, guns blazing. Superman soars out to meet them, cutting through their ranks like butter. He prepares to kill them, starting with Lex Luthor, when Luthor’s true attack comes into play:
A low-orbit satellite fires a kinetic bombardment missile, hitting the Fortress of Solitude with the force of an atom bomb, inadvertently sending that Phantom Drive device into hyper drive. This creates a vortex in space and time that rips Superman into it.
Here’s where things get really interesting.
Superman lands in the Arctic, right outside his Fortress of Solitude. Geographically, nothing much has changed, except the military’s gone… And there’s something else…
In Man of Steel, the dying planet Krypton looked dark and corroded, foreboding and hellish. That made sense; it was on its last legs. But Earth… Earth looked much the same, its colors washed out, its people existing only in grays and blues. People were short, curt, and passionless. The world felt empty and ready for ruin. But now… everything’s HIGHLY saturated and clean…
The sound of mayhem in the distance –Superman zooms after it with lightning speed, the prismatic world blurring past. He finds himself in Metropolis –a city so beautiful and strong to give him pause- and it looks like a major catastrophe never happened there –well, except for the GIANT ROBOT currently demolishing 5th avenue. Before Superman can intervene, a blur of blue, red, and yellow whooshes past him—
Superman watches in wonder –or is it horror- as another him zips around the robot, using a clever mix of heat vision, frost breath, super-speed, and super strength to reduce it to scrap –leaving its pilot unharmed to be delivered into police custody –all without any collateral damage.
As this other Superman helps clear away the robot’s mess and rebuild, Man of Steel Superman notices differences in their costume: while his costume is dark and washed out, other Superman’s costume is bright and cheery … and he wears a red speedo outside of his spandex. Man of Steel Superman? Meet CLASSIC SUPERMAN.
Alerted to the sounds of a bank robbery, Man of Steel (MoS) Superman zooms off in its direction –Classic Superman notices and shoots off after him –nonchalantly passing the LEXCORP Building, where a terrified Lex Luthor gawks out the window. MoS Superman slams down, preparing to deliver his brand of justice –only for Classic Superman to stop him, apprehending the criminals effortlessly. MoS Superman yells about how they’ll just cause more crime, Classic Superman tries to calm him down, but it’s all too much for MoS Superman… the noise of crime, the chaos of the world, and of the presence of another him… he flies into the upper atmosphere until Classic Superman can talk him down, and take him to a place where he can get his head screwed on straight.
MoS Superman wanders the Fortress of Solitude. It’s brighter. Cheerier. There’s a zoo of Kryptonian animals, things he’d only seen in data records, and trophies of colorful villains he’d never (but we might!) recognize. Classic Superman sits down with him, hashing out the world. Classic Superman is what we, the audience, would know as “the real” Superman from the DC comics. Idealistic, wholesome, pure… you get the picture. MoS Superman can’t get over how calmly Classic Superman’s taking this. Classic Superman shrugs “After Toyman, Brainiac, and Parasite, it’s pretty hard to surprise me.” The two talk vaguely at first, both sizing up the other, not sure what to do. MoS Superman asks Classic Superman why his world is so chaotic. Classic Superman replies that he’s a hero, not a dictator. He saves humanity; he doesn’t rule it. It’s just not how he was raised. At one point, it becomes clear to MoS Superman that in this universe, Classic Superman’s parents are still alive. He flies out of the Fortress of Solitude at hypersonic speed, leaving Classic Superman to follow.
MoS Superman lands in Smallville at the Kent farm and sobs, hugging Pa Kent. Classic Superman lands. “I’m sorry, Dad. You died when he was just a child.”
Seeing the farm and Smallville in all of its glory before the Kryptonian attack on his world (in Man of Steel), MoS Superman agrees to help Classic Superman defend his world until they can find a way to send him back.
Together, they save people from natural disasters, and stop crimes, always stopping back to the Fortress of Solitude to work on the Phantom Zone Drive together. Still, this lingering doubt hangs in MoS Superman’s mind as they pass over battlefields, and as he sees political strife causing inequality and human suffering. It’s slowly driving him mad. Just as they’re putting the finishing touches on the Phantom Zone Drive, a series of major rumblings draw their attention—
They fly to Metropolis where they’re too late to save thousands of people from collapsed apartment buildings. Classic Superman mourns their loss, hating himself for not being more vigilant; but MoS Superman with glowers with a fiery vengeance for those responsible. Classic Superman sweeps over the ruin with his X-ray vision, discovering the buildings’ cornerstones: they’d been made by Lex Luthor.
The Supermen burst into Lex Corp, but Lex Luthor is ready. He assaults them with kryptonite, and prepares to kill them. The collapsed apartments? All to get both Supermen to come to him after his robot trick failed the first time. No one should have the kind of power they have; especially aliens from another planet. Earth deserves better. He levels a gun at Classic Superman, who struggles helplessly under the kryptonite… MoS Superman just uses his heat vision to kill Luthor. Just burns a hole right through his heart.
Luthor sinks to the ground, confused, “But… but you’re Superman…” and dies.
Classic Superman’s beside himself with horror, screaming at MoS Superman that he can’t just murder people –that they have to uphold the law. MoS Superman argues that in letting people like Luthor live this long, he’s let thousands die. If he hadn’t have snapped Zod’s neck, how many others would die? Classic Superman broods. “So you’ve killed before.” MoS Superman argues that Luthor slaughtered innocents just in the hope of killing Superman. Of course that justifies murder. He goes on to argue that this is the same man that united the Man of Steel world against him. Classic Superman wonders if maybe that world’s Luthor had his head screwed on straight. MoS Superman flies off to “correct the world” that’s grown too chaotic and allowed too much human suffering. Classic Superman tackles him out of the sky, refusing to let him kill again.
Commence epic Superman-on-Superman fight, Classic Superman in defense of justice and Earth’s sovereignty, and MoS Superman to save it from itself –at any cost. However, at multiple points during the fight, Classic Superman breaks off from combat to save people from collateral damage. MoS Superman screams at him to just surrender, starting to notice how terrified civilians are of him.
Classic Superman draws the fight away from people as best he can… which allows MoS Superman to maneuver him into a headlock. Classic Superman asks him if this is how it’s going to go… if life means so little to him. MoS Superman prepares to do it… but his eyes keep meeting those of terrified civilians… and Classic Superman isn’t struggling. He’s just waiting. Scared of himself, MoS Superman lets him go and falls to his knees, shaking. Classic Superman stands, telling him that they’re as much a part of the world as everyone else. Their talents are used to inspire humanity to greatness and to catch them when they fall. “We’re Superman. We’re not better; we’re held to a higher standard.”
Mos Superman helps Classic Superman rebuild what was destroyed in their epic battle, learning that final ounce of compassion… learning that people can sort themselves out, if he but gives them a chance.
Humbled, MoS Superman returns to the Fortress of Solitude with Classic Superman. There, he uses the Phantom Zone Drive to travel back to his Man of Steel universe. Classic Superman wishes him good-bye, telling him to shape up. After all… He could always pay him a visit.
MoS Superman returns to where he’d been without skipping a beat: the militaries of the world surround him, Lex Luthor in his grasp… MoS Superman lowers Luthor to the nearest ship. He relinquishes his hold on the world, pledging to make it up to them. Then, he flies away, leaving them all in wonder.
He lands in the crater of Metropolis, now a memorial to those lost. Somberly, he begins to rebuild.
6. What the hell was that?
At the end of the day, just like Warner Bros.’ forthcoming “requel” tentatively named “Superman vs. Batman,” “Man of Steel 2” would be about rebuilding: literally in Metropolis’ sense, but figuratively in crafting a Superman that’s a happier medium. Rather than wallowing in a cold, apathetic world as Man of Steel does, “Man of Steel 2” makes MoS Superman a fish out of water in his own world and redeems him through the power of compassion and humanity.
With my pitch, you get a surprising, creative story; an emotional arc; moral grayness; metaphysical wonder; and a few kick-ass, character-driven fight scenes all for the price of one. At the end of the day, you’re left with a Superman who’s got a closer, more genuine connection to humanity, with a greater understanding of what might be done to save it.
And really, that was all we needed from the first movie.
Nice try, Warner Bros.
Official pictures courtesy Warner Bros. & DC Comics.