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.
6) Lose the Love Story
In classic iterations, the relationship between Clark Kent, Lois Lane, and Superman was relatively tangential to the larger adventure. The point of a Superman story was to showcase his battle for truth, justice, and the American way, not to linger on his frustrated sexuality. While certainly delivering the most earnest and believable portrayal of Superman on film, Richard Donnor also started an unfortunate trend in the character’s lore by focusing heavily on romance in 1978’s Superman.
It wasn’t downright terrible in that first film, which only devoted a couple of scenes to romance and otherwise remained focused on Superman’s crusade. However, Superman II dialed it up significantly, making romance the centerpiece of the narrative. At least then, it was leveraged properly to frame a conflict. Clark’s desire to abandon his role as Superman in order to take up with Lois collided against the clear and present danger of Kryptonian super-villains. He could not both have his love and protect her world. He had to choose. That was at least relevant to the genre.
However, future iterations took the loving too far. ABC’s weekly hour-long Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman conscientiously focused on romance in an attempt to net female viewers. It was far more of a soap opera than a super-hero tale, culminating in perhaps the second-worst decision in Superman’s narrative history (we’ll talk about the absolute worst later), the marriage of Lois and Clark. Unsurprisingly, the series didn’t last long beyond that union’s consummation. It turns out people liked the chase a lot more than the catch.
Surprisingly, the comics followed suit, marrying Lois and Clark mere months before his untimely “death” at the hands of a marauding juggernaut called Doomsday. But clearly, the comic writers regarded the marriage as a context in which to tell stories, not the story in and of itself.
Back on television, the long-running Smallville followed in the footsteps of Lois and Clark, focusing largely on a frustrated high school romance with Lana Lang. Romance was such a central aspect of the show that fans came to reference Clark and Lana collectively as Clana.
The worst offender came on the big screen in the form of Superman Returns. The film had no excuse to fail. Building off the established Donnor mythos and starting from an inspired premise, Singer’s tale of a Superman five years removed from his adopted home never delivered on its promise. The opportunity to explore why the world does or does not need a Superman was wholly squandered to wring hands over Lois’s new boyfriend, lay face in palm upon the reveal of a bastard child, and put down a run-of-the-mill cartoonish plot by the recently liberated Lex Luthor.
The problem with all this romance is not only that we don’t care. Superman shouldn’t either. He’s got better things to do. It is not a duty which drags him from what he wants, but the rational choice to pursue a greater value than romantic love. Ultimately, he can best serve Lois by keeping their relationship in the proper context. Want her? Yes. Yearn for her? Sure. But giving in to love as Superman is not an option. It’s like a teacher getting involved with a student or a therapist with his patient. Superman cannot properly be Superman and maintain that kind of relationship.
Losing the love story frees Lois up to be much more than a sexual prize. She becomes what she was in the old serials, an attractive journalistic rival working aloof alongside the story of the century. To Clark, she is both a threat and a temptation. To Superman, she is the personification of humanity at large — flawed, ambitious, courageous, and vulnerable. What he has to teach, she is often unwilling to learn. He loves her, not by succumbing to romantic impulse, but by continuing to patiently inspire.
5) Beat the Tar Out of Bad Guys
The big blue boy scout doesn’t throw a single punch in Superman Returns. What’s the point of being super if you’re just going to fly around and mope about your baby mama? Get over it. Kick a fool through a mountain.
It’s easy to forget the effect of Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman upon that character’s popularity. Until then, Batman was still defined in most minds by the campy Adam West portrayal. But Burton changed things. With his particularly gothic take on the Dark Knight, Burton gave license to adults to openly like superheroes. Much of that had to do with the unadulterated violence. Burton’s Batman bled, and gave as good as he got. Burton’s Batman even killed, and he did so without reservation or remorse. It didn’t shock our delicate sensibilities. Quite the contrary, we loved him for it.
Of course, there is a difference between Batman and Superman. It is like that between cops and firemen. Both are respected protectors, but through different means. As portrayed in film, Superman behaves more or less as a fireman, responding to dangerous emergencies which require his unique skills to mitigate. Batman, on the other hand, is defined by his rogue’s gallery of intractable villains. Got a plane in a nosedive? That looks like a job for Superman. Have a madman terrorizing your city? Signal the Bat.
But these roles need not be mutually exclusive, and it would serve Snyder’s Man of Steel well to place Superman in an arena where he must ruthlessly fight. The villain in Man of Steel is General Zod, a Kryptonian fugitive with all of Superman’s abilities and none of the moral compunction. Defeating Zod should require everything Superman can muster, his god-like power unleashed. That’s what people want to see, and what Snyder must deliver.
4) Impose Limitations
To complement the release of Superman Returns, Bryan Singer teamed up with renowned documentary filmmaker Ken Burns to produce Look, Up in the Sky! The Amazing Story of Superman. Recounting the many media incarnations of the character, the film did not shy away from showing Superman at his most absurd. Among those noted is one comic book story where Superman blows out a star as one might blow out a candle.
Even in the respected Donnor film, Superman’s power serves as a kind of deus ex machina. Unable to accept the death of Lois as a consequence of his choosing to save countless others, Superman cheats her death by flying around the Earth so fast that it somehow reverses the planet’s rotation which somehow turns back time.
Subsequent films were replete with similarly arbitrary powers. Remember the mind-erasing kiss? The finger-emitted tractor beam? The krypto-cellophane-super-rang? Remember when Superman turned a tornado upside down? Or when he created an eclipse by pushing the moon in front of the sun?
Even in the realm of fantasy, suspension of disbelief requires imposing some limitations on both the characters and their world. When there is no narrative reason for something to occur, or no narrative logic to a sequence of events, it pulls the audience out of the experience and blunts any emotional impact.
Superman can fly. He has incredible strength, speed, hearing, sight, and other more remarkable powers. But he must also have limitations. If he can blow out stars and reposition planets and turn back time, it’s tough to imagine him ever being in a position which is truly precarious. That’s probably why so many Superman tales have relied upon Kryptonite or some other power-neutralizing device to bring the hero down to earth. A protagonist that cannot be harmed or stopped is immune to genuine conflict.
There is a danger in taking this advice too far. Superman’s power should remain extraordinarily potent, just not omnipotent. While physical threats to his person are few and far between, his ability to achieve his goals must be credibly challenged if we’re to remain engaged.
3) Debut the Last Son of Krypton
Man of Steel, like Batman Begins, is an origin story. Superman’s beginnings have been explored many times before, but have never really settled into much of a canon. There are beats which have become familiar — the destruction of his home planet, his exodus to Earth and discovery by the Kents, his teenage longing for Lana Lang, the emergence of his powers, the discovery of his true identity, and his taking up the charge of hero. But the details vary wildly from iteration to iteration, some more arbitrarily than others.
Historically, Superman’s alien origin was a simple device for explaining his extraordinary abilities. The character’s debut in Action Comics #1 spent only a few panels on it. In the decades since, the tale of Krypton and its demise has become more central to the character’s heritage.
Rumor has it that a significant portion of Man of Steel will be set on Superman’s home planet and, more intriguingly, that Krypton will be in the grip of war. If true, that suggests a fresh take on how and why Superman is sent to Earth.
It is important that Superman’s exodus and apparent sole survival not be arbitrarily established or taken for granted. A character’s history is fundamental to his motivations and goals, and a background like last son of a destroyed planet is far too ripe a narrative to let go unexploited.
Based on the version of the teaser trailer which includes voice-over by Russel Crowe as Superman’s biological father Jor-El, it seems clear that Clark will learn the details of his past and that those details will inform if not dictate his goals on Earth. That is promising. The cause of Krypton’s destruction should portend the feasibility of our own, and Superman’s alien nature should weigh heavily upon him in a compelling way.
At a recent Comic Con 2012 panel, director Zach Snyder revealed that Clark will wrestle with the potential consequences of revealing his true nature to the world. In a way, he is forever cursed to go unknown. As Kent, he must hide his amazing abilities and conceal his heroic character. As Superman, he is more icon than person, alien threat to some, would-be god to others, and in no case simply himself.
Let us hope that Superman’s roles as orphaned alien, sole survivor, and adopted son are woven intelligently into his character. Beyond his powers, that origin is a large part of what makes him interesting.
2) Fight for Truth, Justice, and Verisimilitude
Richard Donnor’s quest for verisimilitude was largely visual. The tagline on the Superman teaser was “you will believe a man can fly.” Delivering on that promise was Donnor’s most essential goal, because if you could not buy Superman in flight, you would not buy him at all.
Nowadays, making people fly is no big deal. Visual effects have ascended beyond the point where anything imagined can be convincingly portrayed. As is always the case with such advances, the chief consequence is a raising of the artistic bar.
The verisimilitude which Snyder must now nail is narrative and tonal. We must believe not just that a man can fly, but that he would choose to do so for a particular reason. We must also believe how the world reacts.
Imagine what the emergence of a god-like man on Earth would truly inspire. It would not necessarily be positive, especially at first. If anything, it would likely inspire fear, confusion, even hatred.
Is this alien the first of an invading hoard? Are there others so endowed? In the face of an enemy with such power, what hope could humanity have?
Is Superman telling the truth about being the last survivor of a dead world? The arrival of Zod suggests otherwise. How many more are there?
Is there an ulterior motive to Superman’s apparent good deeds? Is he manipulating the public as part of some veiled agenda? These are the kinds of questions the fearful may ask. They are the questions a fear-monger like Lex Luthor would leverage.
It is important that Superman’s fight for justice be informed by a sense of truth. We must believe that he is truly righteous, not Pollyannaish or idealistic. And we must accept as authentic the reactions of the world to his moral example. Doing the right thing for the right reasons is not frequently popular, and that should be portrayed in the story.
Imagine what some might want a god-like man to do, the problems they might expect him to solve, and the means they might prescribe he employ. Would not many feel entitled to his service? Would not some want him to fight their battles, even their wars? How would they react when he said no?
Contrast Zod, whose lust for power and savvy to lead would prompt him to pander. Who would be more popular? The god seeking to inspire? Or one offering the temptation of ease?
That’s the style of conflict Man of Steel ought to develop. At the very least, it seems that Superman’s sense of justice will not be taken for granted. In his version of the teaser, Pa Kent warns young Clark:
One day, you’re going to have to make a choice. You have to decide what kind of man you want to grow up to be. Whoever that man is, good character or bad, he’s gonna change the world.
Hopefully, the precise nature of that choice will unfold in a manner which rings true and rewards our sense of justice.
1) Restore the American Way
One of the best scenes in Richard Donnor’s Superman is the rooftop interview with Lois Lane. Upon composing herself in his overwhleming presence, she gets around to asking the central question.
Lois: Why are you here? There must be a reason for you to be here.
Superman: Yes. I’m here to fight for truth and justice and the American way.
Lois: (laughing) You’re gonna end up fighting every elected official in this country.
Lois’s cynicism is our own. It has since festered to such a degree that Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns excluded mention of the American way entirely, replacing it with “truth, justice, [and] all that stuff.” Later, DC Comics had Superman renounce his American citizenship.
That last bit, by the way, is the afore-teased absolute worst decision in Superman’s narrative history. Having Superman walk away from his roots as a quintessential American icon betrays both the character’s soul and his legion of fans.
Here is the premise which the perpetrators of these artistic errors do not understand. There is no separating truth, justice, and the American way. Indeed, the concepts are a trinity, aspects of the same essential reality. What is just is so because it is also true, and the recognition of that is the American way. What made America exceptional up to a recent point was its recognition of individual rights and its subsequent protection of liberty. Far from universal, that idea must be perpetually defended.
While a comic book film is hardly the ideal venue for overt political evangelism, the context of a superhero story can easily lend itself to advancing philosophical ideas. As Christopher Nolan did in his Dark Knight trilogy, it is possible and indeed advisable to concretize philosophical principles through character and narrative.
While Superman’s American heritage has been portrayed in different ways by writers with different political perspectives, he has until recent years been defined by it. Trying to separate the American way from Superman is like trying to separate the prime directive from Star Trek. There are certain foundational ideas which cannot be extracted from a character or story without transmuting it into something else entirely.
Snyder must restore the American way, and he should be both ambitious and audacious about it. Key to his success is rejecting jingoism and framing the American way as an ideal which many Americans routinely fail to uphold. After all, Lex Luther is an American, as are most of the criminals and villains facing Superman day to day. Being American does not make one righteous. Nor does originating elsewhere prevent one from embracing the American way, a point made rather emphatically by this ultimate immigrant from a wholly other world.
Born among the gloom of the Great Depression, Superman has always been an inspirational figure. His fight for truth, justice, and the American way is a choice to defend both life and liberty. He must take up his mantle for reasons which he believes in, and we must perceive his belief as authentic.
Absent such moral context, super feats and fireworks will not inspire. While it is certainly important that Snyder get the action right, it will only matter if we can relate to the conflict and enjoy the thrill of meaningful stakes. That requires treating both the characters and the audience with respect. As it was done in the Dark Knight trilogy, so may it be done in Man of Steel.
Related at PJ Lifestyle: