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Given my niche in film the world of film criticism, it was inevitable that The Man of Steel was going to be one of the upcoming films I'd end up covering most heading into 2013. It's the next big comic adaptation, the return of the biggest superhero of all time to the screen, the comeback of Zack Snyder after the (commercial) stumble of Sucker Punch, the (possible) launch of a proper DC Movieverse, etc.
But even absent all that, it's a project I just can't take my eyes off. There were people who wondered why I was so fixated on the chaotic production of The Amazing Spider-Man, and the central truth is that the behind-the-scenes drama (Spider-Man 4 scrapped in pre-production with a reboot scheme suspiciously ready to go, a frantic race to beat legal deadlines, rumors of disastrous pre-screenings and massive editing overhauls) was fascinating in the way that so few modern film productions are. Sure, it's not quite Francis Ford Coppola and his editor threatening mutual destruction of Apocalypse Now in a fight over a woman while shooting in a Philippine war zone ... but it's something.
And while Man of Steel's strange history lacks the cloak and dagger backstabbing skullduggery of Spider-Man, it carries with it the weight of competing interests and delicately hinged plans such as to make its impending debut the answer to dozens of high-stakes questions.
It's another legal time clock production, first and foremost, with Warner Bros. scrambling to keep the rights to the Superman mythos from reverting to Siegel & Schuster's' heirs. Christopher Nolan is producing, but is he an active boss or is his function mainly to bless the production in the eyes of The Dark Knight's cartoonishly rabid fanbase? It was initially pitched as a standalone project, but is now rumored to be the new foundation layer for WB's desperately desired Justice League franchise after the Green Lantern debacle. How does that work? Warners was allegedly so hot to get Snyder onboard that they backed Sucker Punch to keep him happy. Is he newly humbled?
And perhaps most intriguing of all: Will this film, the first major "new" comic adaptation to kick off in the wake of The Avengers - birthed in the afterglow of Dark Knight and well into production before Disney/Marvel redrew the map for the genre this past May - wind up feeling like some oddly timelost relic? A Dark Knight Superman looking out of place in a post-Avengers world?
It's stuff like this that makes the otherwise incredibly tiresome 24/7/365 film news cycle (almost) worth it. Below, I've sketched out a short list of things that, from my own vantage point, the film needs to do right in order to make the whole enterprise work.
Be Your Own Thing
Here's a bit of received wisdom that I used to subscribe to until I actually thought about it: "Nobody needs to see Superman's origin again."
Makes sense on the surface. Everyone knows the backstory, the supporting cast, the basic outline, so you should just jump right into your main story. I think that's true for most characters in similar circumstances - it would be a mistake for the next run of Batman movies to run through the origin again, and revisiting Spider-Man's turned out to be a complete disaster. So it sounds logical that re-introducing Superman would be even more unnecessary.
Here's the problem with that: Everyone has heard Superman's story, but most audiences have only ever seen it in live-action once, in the 1976 Richard Donner movie. Now, the original two Superman movies are both great films, but they've cast a shadow over all subsequent live-action adaptations of the character, and trying to live up to them hasn't worked out.
If Man of Steel is going to work, it needs to chart a course as different as possible from previous versions and if that means going back to the drawing board then so be it. Give us a new Krypton. Give us a Jor-El that isn't Marlon Brando. Show us a different Kent Farm (preferably as far removed from Smallville as possible). I hope Michael Shannon's Zod isn't a redux of Terence Stamp's. If Lex Luthor turns up (the character isn't officially cast) he should be something new. And yes, they probably need to move on from the John Williams theme music.
Go Big or Go Home
The other common received wisdom about Superman movies? They can't work because the main character is too powerful, removing all tension.
Thing is, Superman isn't real. He's made-up. So the problem of his invulnerability is easily solved by making up something more powerful than him. The Superman franchise (outside of comics and animation), in general, has been resting on the "everyone knows how strong he is so let's explore the human factor" approach for about as long as I've been alive. Enough is enough: Your main character, by his very nature, gives you a free pass to ignore every physical law of what a human being can do in an action sequence. Use it. Remind people why Superman, as a character, was popular in the first place - because he fired the imaginations of children (and adults) by being the answer to one of our favorite questions: What would you do if you could do anything? Show us what he can do. Put 26 years of technological advancement in visual effects and filmmaking between the first Superman movie and now to work. Destroy every possible expectation of what an action scene can be when the guy at the center can't be stopped by bullets, or doesn't have to come down when he jumps.
If nothing else, this is a good reason to be at ease with the film having Zack Snyder in the director's chair - the man knows how to go for broke on action. On the other hand, he's working under a producer (Christopher Nolan) who tends to live on the other side of that particular aesthetic philosophy.