In the 2004 film Finding Neverland, playwright J.M. Barrie is depicted seeding orphaned children throughout the opening-night audience of Peter Pan. He does this to break the ice for the surrounding adults, gambling that the children’s earnest reactions will suspend disbelief in grown-ups.
I was reminded of Barrie’s strategy upon watching the teaser trailer for Man of Steel, which was attached to the recent release of The Dark Knight Rises. For those not expecting it, the teaser plays its subject close to the chest. Shots of rural America are interposed with footage of a black-bearded, blue-eyed migrant worker hitching rides between jobs. Visually, all is ordinary, even a bit mundane. Only the voice-over hints at something special about this man. In the version I saw (there are two making the rounds), Kevin Costner speaks of a moral choice ahead and states that this man, his son, will undoubtedly change the world.
It is only after that subdued montage, when our interest is piqued regarding how this seemingly ordinary person could change anything, that we get a brief glimpse of something up in the sky, a caped figure propelled without effort, zipping through the clouds at such speed that he leaves behind a sonic boom. Then, we behold the iconic S shield.
It was at that moment during my viewing that a young child among the audience gasped and cheered.
I doubt he was a J.M. Barrie plant, but the moment played as he would have intended. The whole audience took that kid’s glee as permission to get excited. After the Dark Knight legend ends, the Man of Steel’s begins.
The grounded portrayal evident in the teaser offers hope that this on-screen iteration of Superman will depart significantly from the increasingly cartoonish super-powered soap operas of the past thirty years. Lending credence to that hope is a familiar creative team. Christopher Nolan, who directed the Dark Knight trilogy, is producing Man of Steel. He also came up with the story, which was put to script by Dark Knight scribe David S. Goyer. Direction is provided by Watchman and 300 auteur Zach Snyder.
Assuming Nolan can tame Snyder’s often chaotic visual style, it seems likely that Man of Steel will revitalize the Superman mythos for a generation that’s never been properly introduced. Sure, there was Superman Returns a couple years ago, and the adventures of a young Clark Kent in television’s Smallville. But neither of those efforts effectively captured the essence of the character or his world.
Those of us with young children today grew up with the films of the late ’70s and ’80s. For us, Superman was and shall in spirit remain Christopher Reeve. The earnest humanity he brought to Clark Kent was eclipsed only by his steadfast portrayal of Superman.
Richard Donnor, director of the 1978 original, famously sought verisimilitude.
You will believe a man can fly.
So read the teaser poster. And we did believe. The film is still regarded as one of the best in the genre. But it was not without flaws, and things have slid downhill since.
Superman II was only partially shot by Donnor. It was finished by and credited to Richard Lester, who added heavy camp reminiscent of super hero parodies like the ’60s Batman television series. Though much of Donnor’s verisimilitude endured in the final cut, it was wholly absent from the absurd entries which followed. Reeve remained impeccable as Superman, but could not overcome his increasingly ludicrous surroundings.
After Donnor and Reeve, Kent and his alter-ego retreated to the small screen in various iterations until 2006’s Superman Returns. Coming off the success of the X-Men franchise, and in light of vocal reverence for Richard Donnor, it seemed the Superman property was in good hands under director Bryan Singer. Alas, what emerged in theaters was a super disappointment for reasons we shall explore.
In order to set things right, and restore Superman’s verisimilitude, there are several things next year’s reboot must do. The fact that Nolan and company are proceeding as though no previous films exist provides an opportunity to recast the godfather of all superheroes in an image long lost. Here are six punches director Zach Snyder must land in Man of Steel.