California Literary Review

Teaser Watch: Man of Steel


July 25th, 2012 at 5:24 pm

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Superman returns to theaters next year, and we finally got our first taste of what Zack Snyder (director of this movie and of the highly underappreciated Watchmen) and Christopher Nolan will present us with in Man of Steel. Although it’s hard to create a full opinion based on the little we non-Comic Con attendees have been shown, my initial impressions were surprisingly good.

When I first heard about how Man of Steel was going to be a darker take on Superman, I was concerned. I have no problem with dark material, but I have an issue with forced darkness, broodiness for the sake of being broody. It hindered my enjoyment of The Amazing Spider-Man because it didn’t feel natural in that film. And Bryan Singer took it to extremes in Superman Returns by making Superman into a stalker date rapist (more on that below).

But the teasers showed something more interesting than I expected. They presented something less mopey and more legitimately serious. Much like Nolan’s Batman trilogy, especially with The Dark Knight Rises, the primary focus on the hero’s human counterpart gives the movie a sense of gravity. The teasers make it seem as though there’s something important to being Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) and that there’s a value to this part of his journey. The speeches by Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) and Jor-El (Russell Crowe), bolstered by the Lord of the Rings score, provide the film with a genuine emotional weight lacking in most previous incarnations. A welcome change for something that could easily become another rote, biding time before we get him into the costume, origin tale like Green Lantern.

The docudramaish format of the film is also curious angle, and a smart way to differentiate it from Nolan’s Batman series. The camera moves like a home movie watching Li’l Clark Kent foreshadow his superhero future. There’s an anonymity to him as we see him as a fisherman and a hitchhiker. And the distant, almost news footage-y, shot of Superman taking to the skies is a good closer.

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Controversy has been made over the decision not to use the John Williams theme in Man of Steel. To that, I say good for them. Yes, the theme is iconic, but so is Superman himself, and he possesses a history far greater than that piece of music.

For a Superman movie to succeed, it needs to cut ties with its cinematic past. Needs might be too strong a word, but much like Nolan did with The Dark Knight Legend, the best chance for success is to wipe the slate clean, get rid of the baggage attached to the original series. Accept a new Superman or don’t, but it’s almost impossible to make anyone happy if you try to work both angles. And, as defenders of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek put it, you’ll always have the original films.

People deify the Williams score, and this is highly problematic for any attempt to bring Superman back because of the height of the pedestal on which people place Christopher Reeve. While Reeve was good in the role and very successful at separating the Clark Kent identity from the Superman identity, people’s memory of the quality of those movies might be a bit inflated. Even if you herald the first two films, anyone can admit that the second two were downright terrible. Not just terrible but possible contenders for a “worst 50 films of all time” list.

Besides, we’ve already seen the dangers of trying to please fans of/paying “homage” to those original films. And I’m not even talking about the catastrophe called Smallville. Bryan Singer’s love affair with the first two, one, one and a half? films gave us the overambitious, convoluted mess Superman Returns. He ignored over 80 years of continuity and Superman’s expanded DC universe and just used (or picked and chose from, rather) the first two movies as source material. Did we really need another Lex whose main goal was real estate and who continued to hire boneheaded assistants? We should expect more from our villains. (Regarding my previous knock on Smallville, Michael Rosenbaum was pretty good as Lex from the episodes I saw, and a more introspective, anti-hero Lex like in Lex Luthor: Man of Steel would definitely be a welcome change.)

Yet of everything Singer and writers Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris copied from the first two movies, they missed the most important thing. Tone. It was easy to look past (most of) the first two movies’ flaws because they were, in the best possible way, simplistic films with black and white morality. You can’t turn the same blind eye to The Second Miss Tessmacher when you give the Blue Boy Scout a bastard son and pose the question if the world needs Superman. (A question that the film doesn’t answer in any satisfactory way.)

Oddly enough, tone might be something Snyder, a director oft-criticized for style over substance, gets right. This film appears to delve into what it means to be Superman without removing the hope and goodness that Superman is supposed to represent. To me, that’s more important than paying lip service to a 30-year-old franchise.

Besides, I’m sure there were people back in the 1970s that were disappointed that Donner didn’t use the TV series theme. They probably got over it.

  • Scott Laudano

    :D RIGHT!!! I love this review I can say I agreed with 99% of everything you said. Though you left one issue off the table, the beloved trunks that staple for the neurotic nostalgiatwits who say “He’s not Superman if he’s not wearing the trunks!” Which makes me want to roll over and cry honestly. Anyway. VERY GOOD REVIEW.

  • Andy

    Great review. And yep, cut the ties with the past incarnations and give the world a fresh take on Superman. I was really disappointed in Superman Returns. It just kinda had no zing to it, no depth. Some cool moments (like the airplane scene) but it just didn’t satisfy you by the end. Grrrr!!! Man of Steel looks good so far. As long as it’s grounded and has depth with its characters and story and is told well, it’ll have a good chance of being an awesome film.

  • Matthew A. Gilbert

    Excellent analysis! Although I disagree about Smallville: with the exception of a handful of episodes it was a very creative and contemporary re-imagining of the Superman mythos. FYI: I recall Al Gough once explaining that they made Smallville the “Marvel version” of Superman. Notably, your insight into the need for separation from previous incarnations (including the Williams score) and the folly of Superman Returns was spot-on. I am really looking forward to Man of Steel and am encouraged by the tone and timbre that I have so far seen in the trailers (and the Comic Con footage that I might have *allegedly* seen online).

  • Matthew A. Gilbert

    I agree about Superman Returns: there are three or four good (Supermanish) scenes/moments (including the airplane scene) that are the only parts I ever watch on the DVD. The rest of the film was a muddled mess.

  • Johnny

    He looks Superman and trunks are sucks! That old version of Superman, and i HOPE this new version (Man of Steel) NOT WILL HAVE TRUNKS!!!

  • Shawn

    First, Smallville is the best example of the Superman myth without putting all the pressure on Superman. The Clark Kent angle is what made the show work.
    Second there is nothing wrong with having the John Williams theme, the arrangement can be new & improved but that music is SUPERMAN. Not having it is a mistake.

  • mate

    This is a great article. I used to be addicted to Smallville I while back, but the more they bended (sometimes straight up disregarded) the myth and the chronology, the more it infuriated me. The finale was disappointing, to say the least. The only Superman movie adaptation to rival Man of Steel is Donner’s first Superman movie (or maybe the other way round), which is frankly the greatest superhero movie ever made, in my opinion. Nolan has the story-telling duties for this one and I really couldn’t think of anyone better, not just for his outstanding Dark Knight Trilogy, but for his other work (Momento, in particular). As long as Nolan stays heavily involved with his magic fingers, and Snyder knows where to draw the line on over-styling and deviation from the source material (which, judging from Watchmen, he clearly does), I don’t really see where Man of Steel can go wrong. Not to mention, Henry Cavill looks as though he can faithfully deliver. Judging by what I’ve seen/read/heard, Cavill may be the best piece of Superman casting since Christopher Reeve’s astonishing performance.

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