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.
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.