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Thoughts on Snyder’s Superman

It has been over a week since the news that Zack Snyder would be directing the Superman reboot was announced. And what a week it has been. No sooner was the movie announced than details started flooding in – Luthor would not be the main villain, it would be an origin story of sorts, it would not share continuity, Zod would be the primary antagonist, Brandon Routh would not return. That’s quite a bit of news to get straight out of the gate, and I took a while to really shape my opinion of it all. And I’m optimistic, just very cautiously so.

Look! Up in the sky!

Richard Donner’s Superman is perhaps the definitive take on the Man of Steel. I mean that seriously. Sure, you can make the case for various comic books – the Grant Morrison distillation of his history into twelve issues with All-Star Superman or John Byrne’s relaunch of the Man of Steel – but, to me at least, nothing so perfectly captures the hero as Donner’s fifties-esque apple pie fantasy. However, Donner’s influence has cast something of a chilling effect over the franchise (certainly on film, but also arguably in comic books). As much as I love Superman and Superman II, there’s no denying that Bryan Singer’s love and affection of the original films left Superman Returns feeling somewhat numb and empty – it was a movie that didn’t exist for itself, but sole to serve as a homage to a beloved original.

I like that there is no way Snyder will allow himself to be tied down to that legacy, and I say that with the utmost love and appreciation for Donner’s work, and in acknowledgement of the tremendous debt that the character owes him. I’ll likely be making the same point in a decade or two about Christopher Nolan’s contribution to Batman. It pretty much boils down to a case of “quit livin’ in the past, man!”

Let’s be honest here, the key thing about this movie is that Superman needs to actually do something. It’s a common criticism levelled at those who didn’t appreciate Singer’s Superman Returns that we just didn’t recognise the introspective nature of the story and that we seem to want superheroes without depth. I disagree with the insinuation that Superman is somehow a character who lacks a form of depth or sophistication. The assumption that Superman is an inherently shallow and boring character is flawed – there are plenty of interesting and exciting things you can do with him.

That said, a quiet and introspective approach isn’t necessarily one of them. The mistake that Superman Returns made was the idea that it had to choose between being thoughtful and being action-packed – the two are not mutually exclusive states. Superman shouldn’t mope. Yes, he has the weight of the world on his shoulders, by he always has. He’s come to live with it. The reason he doesn’t lock himself away in the Fortress of Solitude and instead has a job is bumbling reporter Clark Kent is because he likes being one of us. He enjoys playing human. He loves life.

As for the other mistakes that Superman Returns made, the key is in the assumption that giving Superman personal issues made him easier to relate to. To quote I’m a Marvel, I’m a DC:

So, they thought the best way to make you more relatable to young people was to make you an illegitimate father?

-Spider-Man reacts to Superman Returns

This approach to the character simply misunderstands the appeal of the character. Superman isn’t relatable because he share the same problems we do – be it self-doubt, insecurity, family troubles. He is “Super” Man. He is the best we could ever be, and everything we should aspire to.

Superman didn't take the success of The Dark Knight particularly well...

I think he’s an inherently visual hero, and I look forward to seeing how Snyder stylises the film. 300 and Watchmen at least demonstrated that Snyder works well with colour, and a large part of Superman’s appeal is the bright and cheerful world he inhabits. I can’t help thinking of the following quote about Snyder when I consider his upcoming Superman adaptation:

…yeah, it’s all just about as goofy as it sounds. But Snyder never winks. Never comes close. I don’t think he has a winking bone in his body. It’s his saving grace, his secret weapon and Achilles heel all in one. It’s the reason he can make something as melodramatic and broad as 300 really work. And also the reason why, though it’s intentions were noble and sections of it brilliant, Watchman did not. He lack’s Moore’s dark irony, but has Miller’s true believerism. Indeed Snyder is perhaps the most deeply unironic filmmaker working today, and I for one find it his most endearing quality…

Even in Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, I got the sense that the cast and crew were embarassed by the costume. They sewed in little shiny “S” symbols rather than favouring the plain blue. The chest insignia seemed rather small – as if they were afraid of being garish. They shouldn’t be afraid. He’s Superman and he wants everyone to know. Be proud of your “S”.

However, when Snyder took the reigns, I accepted that storytelling isn’t necessarily the director’s strength. His visual flair tends to overwhelm his material, particularly where the core script isn’t necessarily superb (I’m thinking of Watchmen). However, I was confident that that the writing of David S. Goyer and the supervision of Christopher Nolan would help compensate for this weakness. The rumour is, however, that the production of the movie is being fast-tracked due to the infamous “Superman” lawsuit (requiring a movie in production by 2011 and in theatres by 2012):

We’re told that Snyder was not really Warner’s first choice to direct Superman, but that a director needed to be hired imminently. Privately, even Snyder has confided to agency sources that the current Superman script needs work, but clearly Warner Bros. believes he can get it done faster than Aronofsky.

That doesn’t bode particularly well and is perhaps the main cause for concern over the project.

Another little snippet that has surfaced is the revelation that the story will be a “sort of” origin story. I noted back when the news of the Spider-Man reboot surfaced that I think rehashing familiar origins might potentially alienate audience members. I mean, we all know Superman’s origin. So iconic is the story that Scottish writer Grant Morrison was able to condense the origin down to nine words for his All-Star Superman:

Doomed planet.
Desperate scientists.
Last hope.
Kindly couple.
Superman.

Superman will be damned if the fastest man alive makes it to film before him...

However, the rumour is that Goyer’s Superman script will explore something akin to “the wonder years” of Superman’s life, focusing not so much on his time in Smallville or his adoptive father’s inevitable death (it seems that Papa Kent is destined to die in just about every continuity), but on the years when Clark Kent decided to be Superman:

Except that no sooner did the news break that Snyder had got the job than stories began hitting the web about how terrible this new version might turn out to be. Top of the heap comes an investigation via New York magazine’s Vulture section, as re-reported by SlashFilm  (the original piece doesn’t seem to be on the web). The story which Snyder will work from, according to the mag, sees us follow Clark Kent as a journalist travelling the world “trying to decide if he should, in fact, even become Superman”.

This is that epiphany in Clark’s life which occurred over about five minutes of Richard Donner’s Superman. You remember the bit where Clark packs his bags, wanders to the Artic, plants a crystal and builds a fortress, before meeting his dad and getting a spiffy new costume? This movie is going to be made from that one scene. It is, however, very similar to Mark Waid’s Birthright miniseries, which was designed to connect the television series Smallville to main DC continuity in some small way.

Either way, it actually sounds like it could be interesting – perhaps offering a psychological deconstruction and reconstruction of the Man of Steel in the way that Batman Begins or Iron Man crafted compelling reasons for those superheroes to wear their costumes. Both movies offered plausible suggestions for why people like Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark might dress in silly-looking outfits and fight crime. It’ll take a bit of work to convince us why he wears his underwear outside his pants, but I love the idea that this film could do that for Superman.

Even at that, it could alternatively be terrible, lending itself to the angst which defined Superman Returns. After all, nothing gives the character (or any character) a better excuse to be mopey or whiny than actually being a teenager. You could also make the case that we don’t need a compelling reason for Superman to fly around in his tights – that it isn’t complex enough to warrant a two-hour film. He’s a guy who believes in truth and justice and can actually make a difference, so he does. What other reason does he need? I have to admit I can see the logic in that argument – Batman and other characters lend themselves to complex psychology better than the big blue boy scout. After all, psychology is only really interesting if the subject is messed up in the head some how – well-adjusted characters don’t lend themselves to drama. And we don’t want a maladjusted Superman.

Perhaps the best piece of news to come from all this is the revelation that Superman will the hitting things this time around. Although Geoff Johns was relatively coy on the subject, he did assure fans that Superman wouldn’t exactly be a shrinking violet in the film:

I don’t know if you can ask for much more than Chris Nolan and Zack Snyder. We’re really lucky to have them on board. I’m psyched. [Superman will] be punching something.

And maybe that’s enough. After all, despite all our speculating, it’s far too early to really start discussing or worrying about the film too much. I’m keen to watch it all develop and play out.

I just want to believe a man can fly.

7 Responses

  1. Snyder’s visual panache combined with Goyer and Nolan’s storytelling abilities has me excited for this. I’m hoping Armie Hammer gets a chance to go for the role, but if not then I’m sure whoever will be casted will be great.

  2. Ahaha, now they are coming out and saying Zod is only a rumor and Brandon Routh still is in the discussion to be Superman. Go figure 😉

  3. Brandon Routh was an amazing Superman, he was just given a poor film.

  4. BRAVO for saying what I should’ve said to the comments a few had over at my post: “The assumption that Superman is an inherently shallow and boring character is flawed – there are plenty of interesting and exciting things you can do with him” Absolutely, the fact that he appears boring is the fault of the filmmaker, never the character.

    Just one of the qualms I had about Superman Returns is how SInger NEVER showed the part when Clark Kent is running as he takes off his white button-down shirt, revealing the red/blue outfit, just before he takes off. That always gets me grinning ear to ear every time I watched that scene in Donner’s version… can’t believe SInger left it out.

    Yeah, Snyder’s forte isn’t in the storytelling but isn’t that what a screenwriter is for? And with Nolan’s supervision, I think this collaboration has a load of potential. YES Darren, I too just want to believe a man can fly!

    • Thanks Ruth. So do I. I want to believe it like I did back when common sense was telling me it was an awkward green-screen effect and Margot Kidder should stop internal monologuing.

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