Examining the use of flashbacks in Man of Steel by M.Schinke
Man of Steel, Zack Snyder’s 2013 film based on DC Comics Superman character, is a film that challenges on a number of levels. It attempts to employ a complex philosophy asking questions about choice and includes themes relating to environmentalism, religion, cautions on genetic engineering and societal stagnation all while trying to give audiences a blockbuster summer movie experience. To do this the film employs a nine act structure with the movie broken into two halves, parsing the story out over 183 minutes. Writer David S. Goyer, coming off the mega successful Dark Knight trilogy of films with director Chris Nolan, who served as a producer on Man of Steel, decided to employ a structure similar to his screenplay for Batman Begins. Instead of telling the story on a straight, linear path; flashbacks would be employed to provide context and depth to the film. But whether by design or inspiration the method in which the flashbacks ended up on film is radically different from their use in Batman Begins or just about any other mainstream film
And boy howdy; were people not happy about that.
The use of flashback in storytelling is almost as old as the form itself. Most of us are well familiar with how the tool is commonly deployed in films as it usually functions as some form of call and response. There is a trigger; a question that is asked, an object that is noticed, a name overheard, a face, a smell. There is a limitless number of things that can trigger a flashback. The story then breaks the linear flow of time and presents events that are to have happened in the past. Sometimes hours, sometimes days, sometimes millennia. When we have seen what the story wants us to see we then ramp back to the present where we can contextualize the information we have just been given. Sometimes this information can be directly related to the events in the present. Other times it’s information that bolsters the characterization of one of the story’s players. Where a flashback’s information applies is usually not difficult to understand. If the purpose of the flashback is to answer a question, then the question will normally be posed before the flashback and the answer reiterated after the flashback has ended. If a flashback is being used to provide backstory, then we will be given a trigger and the context will be made clear once the flashback ends. One of my personal favorite examples of this is from the 1994 Alex Proyas adaptation of James O’Barr’s The Crow. Early in the film we witness our protagonist rise from his grave, memories lost and confused and stumble back into the living world. Upon reaching what remains of his former home, Eric (our dark hero) is taken on a painful tour of the events that brought about the death of he and his love. At the end of this we see him arise in his new persona, the flashback providing the backstory, or what happened, with the remainder of the film providing the reason why. This use of flashback is fun because we get to experience the events as Eric does; viscerally and painfully, almost as if he is living them again for the first time. Creative use of flashback can do more than just provide information; they can draw you into the film or into a character in a way that is more visual and visceral than just having the characters talk about what has previously occurred, bringing the events to life in front of us.
The interesting, and confusing, way that the flashback tool is applied in Man of Steel is, unlike most films or books that employ it, with one exception this movie will go into a flashback without first presenting the question. The flashbacks will still provide contextual information that is relevant to the film as any other use of the tool would but how it provides that context is left up to the audience to discern, rather than being explained. They can be looked at as simple asides that provide back story for Clark and present information that contextualizes his character, but they are as layered as the storytelling in the rest of the film, providing more for those who wish to dig deeper. However the response form critics has made it clear that when it comes to flashbacks, people like a concrete call/response application. They want to know exactly why the flashback is occurring and how to apply the information in it immediately upon presentation. When that information is not provided immediately it can draw an audience member out of the film as they have to take time to contextualize it. It’s frustrating, and I can understand that.
I have no trouble admitting that I was confused for a long time about what exactly the flashbacks were saying and how they applied to the greater context of the film. I also have no trouble admitting that the reason I was so confused is because I never bothered to think about it. I never went back and had a conversation with the movie about the subject. How was I ever supposed to get any clarity if I was content to allow the film to just play in front of me instead of engaging with it, talking to it; asking it questions? Once I finally decided to to do this I found that the storytellers did have a method to their madness and the reasons I could not see it were because I wasn’t asking the right questions. As I’ve said in other articles, it’s up to the viewer to align themselves with how a film delivers it’s information. Watching a film is a conversation with the film makers, but in order to have a conversation you must understand the language being used. Once you do that the films opens up to you like an old book.
I’m going to do something now that goes against everything a person communicating through writing should do; I’m going to ask you to stop reading here.
Stop reading and go watch Man of Steel.
If you haven’t seen the movie yet then my advice is to watch it like you’re at a lecture and please save all your questions for the end. Watch it like any other movie and try and see if you can enjoy it for how it plays out before you. You are not required to think it’s the best movie ever. It isn’t even necessary for you to think it’s the best Superman movie ever. Just try to determine if you think there is any personal merit to it. You don’t have to share that with anyone and you don’t have to fight to justify your opinion; just think your own thoughts.
If you are someone who is giving the movie an additional chance then you can skip to the end and start asking questions. Not to me, not to the internet, but to the movie. Watch, listen, think; ask the movie the questions you want answered. You might not get them right away, but they are there.
All done? Did you enjoy yourself? Good.
Now, on the subject of flashbacks, I’m going give you my take on how I believe the tool is applied in this film. I’m going to go scene by scene, giving the context surrounding the flashback, the trigger and how I believe each one supports the story and the narrative. You might agree with me; you might not. But we’re both here so screw it; let’s get into it.
Flashback 1: Clark in school
The Scene: After our low key introduction to Clark as an adult, and the oil rig set piece, we get the films first flashback. A young Clark is in school when his sensory powers suddenly spike out of his control. In a confused panic he runs off and locks himself in a storage closet, the teacher having called his mother in to help mange the situation. To help help him cope with the sensory overload she suggests he use her voice as a focal point; one input to focus on that would help him filter out all the rest of the sensory information.
The Trigger: Sensory deprivation
Adult Clark is blown from the exploding oil rig into the water below. As he begins to sink the world around him becomes dark and silent, the sensory input becoming muted by the surrounding water. There are several things that are going on in this flashback that kick off a few continuing ideas in the film. We’re establishing Clark’s connection to his mother even before introducing Johnathon Kent into the film. We’re introducing the idea that people already perceive Clark as different without even knowing of his alien origins, and that perceived difference is causing him to be regarded as strange by his peers even at this young age. Most importantly though we are establishing some ground rules for his abilities. Just as the scene on the fishing boat establishes that Clark can be affected physically if he is taken by surprise this flashback establishes two things in regard to his sensory powers; exactly HOW he can ever BE taken by surprise and WHY he either doesn’t or can’t just keep his senses open to the world at all times. Both of these pieces of information will come into play later in the film. Something to note about flashbacks that I think is important to remember, especially when it comes to how they are cut into a film, is that the actual length of them is irrelevant to the passage of time within the film. This flashback lasts just under two minutes and twenty seconds, which seems like a long time for Clark to be underwater. However we must bear in mind that no matter how long the scene is for us as we watch it play, for the character experiencing the flashback only a moment or two may pass as the memory flashes through their mind. A five minute flashback does not mean a character stands there staring blankly off into the middle distance for five minutes until the scene ends. Many films will use some kind of indicator to let you know how much times has passed while the flashback plays out but Man of Steel doe not. As an audience member it is your job to make sure to put the passage of time into the correct context.
Flashback 2: The Bus Crash
The Scene: Clark in his early teens rides the bus with his classmates, presumably on their way home from school. As he is being harassed by a young Pete Ross the bus blows a tire while crossing a bridge over a small body of water. The bus careens wildly from side to side before crashing through the side of the bridge and sinking into the water below. As the bus begins to go under and the kids are panicking, Clark makes for the emergency exit and pushes the bus out of the water and onto the embankment. Being seen by Lana Lang pushing the bus, he then turns and dives back into the water, emerging moments later with Pete Ross in tow.
The scene shifts to the Kent farm where we are finally introduced to Johnathon Kent. Pete Ross and his mother are in the Kent front room while Mrs. Ross describes what she believes the events are and what they mean. Johnathon finds Clark outside and they have a conversation aboutwhether or not Clark should have acted and why Johnathon feels it’s vital that Clark keep his abilities hidden even if it is at the cost of others lives. When Clark inquires about why he is different from other people Johnathon shows him the ship he was found in and informs him of his alien origins as well as sharing what he hopes Clark will be in the future.
The Trigger: A passing school bus
Coming only a couple of minutes after the first flashback Clark has emerged from the water where he was thrown after the oil rig exploded. He takes some clothes from the back of a truck and walks off into town. A passing school bus triggers a flashback to the crash that happened when he was a child. This is a scene that many audience members have a problem with for two primary reasons. The first reason is many feel that because the scene feature a conversation about whether or not Clark should use his powers to help people, the fact that the scene occurs after we have already seen him doing so means that the scenes are edited out of order or that the information in the scene is irrelevant as the drama has been undercut by his actions in the present. The second reason is Johnathon Kents’s oft lamented response to young Clark’s question about whether or not he should have let the kids on the school bus drown. Ironically, both of these complaints are related to the same idea and, as far as I can tell, neither one of them is the actual point of the scene.
Firstly, the issue of whether or not Clark should use his powers to help people or not isn’t really addressed here or anywhere else in the film, including John Kent’s death later on. The issue isn’t about using his powers, but of being exposed. The way he saved the kids on the bus didn’t leave any room for obfuscation, which is why Pete’s mother came to speak with the Kent’s. She mentioned that not only did Pete see Clark but also Lana Lang and, “the Fordham boy”. As Johnathon says, keeping this side of Clark a secret is important because of how people will react to him; people will be afraid, as Pete’s mother was. This relates to the, “present” scene not because Clark has to deal with whether or not he should have helped the men on the oil rig but because he now feels he has to get out of town as opposed to staying and interacting with anyone else. As pointed out by Lois Lane, Clark’s modus operandi involves going to a place, helping people when they need it and then disappearing; leaving a trail of rumors and stories behind him. The scene is there to offer an explanation as to why he does this; why he isn’t just, “Superman” at this point. Additionally, Johnathon plants the seed in him that he has a duty to himself to discover his origins; where he comes from and why he was sent to Earth. This is the journey Clark is on; one of discovery of self. It also, incidentally, sets up Johnathon’s death by showcasing how important he believes it is that Clark’s secret be kept.
I’ve covered the, “Maybe” scene in another entry so I won’t spend time rehashing my thoughts on it here. I will go as far as to say is that this; no matter how much emphasis some audience members might put on it, the storytelling doesn’t treat this as the most important statement in the scene. One of the following lines, “people are afraid of what they don’t understand” is the line that gets the close up, and the following exchange where Clark challenges Johnathon on why he’s different is the one left with the lingering moment before the scene changes. This lack of focus or emphasis on the conversation surrounding whether or not Clark should be helping people is the film makers telling you that this is not the story they are telling and is not what you should be focusing on. It’s an important consideration if we are approaching the subject from the real-world perspective the movie is trying to apply but it’s not the idea that the movie will revolve around. I’ve seen people get so twisted around trying to deal with this that they have gone as far as to say that because the movie doesn’t focus on this idea, that it doesn’t make it the central theme of the film, that the story is wrong or being told wrongly. I’ve asked this question before and I’ll ask it again here; how can the movie be incorrect or faulted for not following an idea it never indicates will be followed? The critical audience for this scene, and the Johnathon Kent death scene, is putting so much emphasis on the narrative they want to see followed that they are ignoring the storytelling that is actually happening in those scenes. I’ve said this before too, but I will say it as many times as I feel it’s necessary to say; just because you think something should be there does not mean the movie is doing something wrong when it isn’t. If we as an audience are cognizant enough of what’s transpiring to know that the movie isn’t doing what we think it should be doing, then a fair assessment would be to try and understand what the movie actually is doing instead.
Flashback 3: The Death of Johnathon Kent
The Scene: Martha, Johnathon and Clark Kent and the family dog are driving to an unknown destination when a tornado appears on the horizon. Johnathon stops the car and begins to tell all present to take cover under the overpass for safety. Martha recognizes that the family dog is still in the car. Clark offers to retrieve the animal but Johnathon instructs him to to care for his mother while he retrieves the animal. Johnathon is injured in the attempt and, instead of allowing Clark to use his powers to save him, opts to allow the twister to take him.
The trigger: A question from Lois Lane about why he doesn’t want his story told.
This is the other scene that really seems to get under the skin of a lot of critical audience members as they try to make sense not of what is happening but why it is happening. The number of complaints leveled against this scene are almost too numerous to list and they are all valid from their individual points of view. I could get into an entire discussion about how layered this scene is; how it carries forth some of the themes in the film and how it benefits the story being told. However I only want to focus on the connective tissue used to place the scene in the film. There is a tendency, or rather a desire, to examine this scene in a vacuum; separating it from the context of both the reasons why the story is being relayed to Lois as well as from what Johnathon Kent talked about earlier in the film. The events in this flashback link directly to the greater context of the film up to this point; it’s not just Clark telling the story of how his father died. The story being played out is directly related to the previous flashback, bolstering Johnathon’s belief that it’s for the greater good that Clark keeps his abilities hidden. Here, Johnathon is putting actions behind his words by showing that he considers his own life less important than safeguarding what he believes is best overall; both for the world and for his son. The emphasis here is that Johnathon’s belief in his point of view is so powerful that it effects how Clark goes on to conduct his life. Clark sums up the idea while wrapping up the story with Lois; putting a point on why Clark doesn’t just go off and be, “Superman” or whatever until the world needs him to become that. All in all the story telling here should be quite clear to anyone that isn’t getting hung up on the situation surrounding John Kent’s death. I’m not telling anyone they have to like it but it is possible to properly examine the storytelling of the scene while still holding your personal opinion of it; good or bad.
Flashback 4: Clark Gets Bullied
The Scene: Reading a book while sitting outside a mechanics garage in the family truck, Clark is pulled out by a group of kids looking to get some kind of emotional reaction or response from him by attempting to harm him. They kids run off when they notice Clark’s father, and by the end, former bully Pete Ross, whom Clark saved during the bus accident, helps him from the ground. His father inquires about his well being and when Clark tells him that he wanted to hurt the kids, tells him that one day he’s going to have to make a choice about the kind of person he wants to become and how important that choice will be.
The Trigger: Zod’s ultimatum
This last flashback confuses many people as well. Those who have trouble with it see it as another example of a narrative centered around whether Clark should use his powers to hurt or to help people and the irony is they are correct; but for the wrong reasons. Another criticism is that this is an example of scenes that are edited out of order. Like the bus crash scene coming after the oil rig, we already know that Clark will go on to use his powers to help people; so this scene doesn’t do anything to support that narrative. Examining the context of the scene surrounding the flashback should paint a different picture. Clark has been faced with an ultimatum; give himself up to Zod or the world burns. It’s easy to paint this as a simple matter of what’s right and what’s wrong; as easy as it is to say, “He’s Superman, of course he’ll do the right thing”. This is a person being asked to give up their life and, I’m sorry to report, no one is that selfless. So there is a choice to be made. Does he give himself up? Does he run and hope Zod is bluffing? Does he fight? The flashback isn’t about whether or not Clark should use his powers for violence, or whether or not he should have fought back against the bullies. It’s as Johnathon says; it’s about making a choice about the kind of person you want to be. Who Clark is as a person will ultimately decide what decision he makes. Of course it indeed does go without saying that Clark will do the right thing. Ultimately, he is Superman when all is said and done. However instead of taking that as a given the movie want’s to showcase the mindset that stands behind the qualities that we see as inherent in his character; that Clark isn’t who he is by virtue of anything inherited as the other Kryptonians are, but by virtue of the choice to be a good person. This is then personified by the decision he makes; surrendering himself to humanity and allowing them to turn him over. As he says, between surrendering to humanity or surrendering to Zod, “there’s a difference”.
Adding It All Up
As presented, the flashbacks in Man of Steel offer a glimpse into Clark’s younger life and begin to define the limits of his powers while adding additional context to the points we see in his journey. They help to explain his actions, his outlook on the world and it’s people as well as his apparent distance from it. When you step back from examining the individual scenes and look at how they relate to the overall film you get a picture of how they inform the decision Clark makes to come out to the military and surrender himself. Each flashback shows a step on the path not just to getting the suit and taking the name, “Superman”, but also towards how the man underneath the suit will function in the world. He is taught to focus, hone his senses and learn to control himself. He is told to be mindful of his potential impact on the world. He is told he owes it to himself to discover his origins and his reason for being on Earth. He’s sees that some things you believe in are worth sacrificing your all for. Most importantly he is told he has a choice in what kind of person he want’s to be. When the time comes he chooses to put on that suit and let’s the people of Earth call him, “Superman”. He doesn’t do it because he has to. He doesn’t do it because he’s destined to. He does it because he believes it’s the right choice. There is a reason the flashbacks stop once he presents himself to the military; our stand in for humanity. All the background information and context we are given leads up to making that choice.
Back To The Present
I cannot say whether the application of the flashbacks in the film is as they were intended by the screenplay or not. To date all I can manage to find is an abridged script based on the film as completed, and not any shooting or prior drafts. It seems highly unlikely that David S. Goyer would apply the flashback technique in such an unorthodox manner. It’s not that I don’t believe he’s capable of writing this way, I just don’t think this is an approach a great majority of people scripting a blockbuster would choose. It would arguably have been much easier for a larger audience to accept if, instead of this flashback structure, they had Clark work through these issues through conversations with people; essentially just telling the audience what’s going on in his head. I acknowledge that would have been more simple; but simple doesn’t always mean better or more fulfilling.
I’m shocked at how short a period of thought it took to make all these connections with that shock being eclipsed only by how long it took me to ask myself the question to begin with. I never had an issue with the way flashbacks were used in this movie. Even before attempting to dissect their usage I was able to flow with their presentation, following where the emphasis was being placed in the storytelling and at the very least understanding what they were individually saying. What irks me more than anything is that I am not a necessarily a smart person; I’m certainly no more intelligent or learned than anyone else. So if understanding the structure isn’t a matter of intelligence than it must be a matter of effort or will. If processing isn’t the issue then it has to be that those who continue to be confused or critical simply do not wish to develop their own understanding of it. It isn’t like it takes much; just watch the film and ask it, “why”. I did, and I think not only did I get some additional insight into a movie I already admire but I learned a thing or two about storytelling and how to engage it as an active audience member.
So, after having read all of this, cue up the film one more time and see if what I’ve given makes any sense. If I’ve done anything here, I hope it’s given you a little extra fuel for your movie watching fire and maybe some ways of thinking looking at storytelling that you can take to other films as well. Getting the most out of a film is all about understanding how to communicate with the storytellers and hold up your end of the conversation. Go back and talk to Man of Steel one more time and see what kind of conversation you can have.
Clever endings aren’t my bag. Laterz