Why Hollywood's new Superman needs to change -- and how to do it.
The pieces of Hollywood’s new model Superman are coming together. At the helm: Producer Christopher Nolan, screenwriter David S. Goyer and director Zack Snyder. British thesp Henry Cavill will play the Man of Steel, and Kevin Costner and Diane Lane will play the hero’s adopted Earth parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent. In the coming weeks, we should be getting casting announcements about the film’s villain (Zod?), leading lady (Lois Lane?), and its official title (Superman: Man of Steel?). We know something about that the movie won’t be: In our recent cover story about Cavill’s casting, Snyder told EW that unlike director Bryan Singer’s 2004 bid to reboot Superman, his movie won’t be beholden to the continuity of the original Superman movies starring Christopher Reeve. (Snyder reaffirmed that sentiment in a recent interview with Geoff Boucher of The Los Angeles Times.) Snyder — whose new action fantasy Sucker Punch opens March 25 — told me last month that he has “great respect” for previous Super-flicks. “But just like Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins broke with the previous Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher Batman movies, this is a clean slate approach to Superman.” Does that mean he won’t be using John Williams’ iconic Superman score? “I don’t know. I don’t think so. Too early to say,” said the director, noting that Nolan’s Bat-flick opted to deviate from Danny Elfman’s memorable music for Burton’s Batman without much complaint from fans.
As a fan of the superhero movie genre, I was psyched to hear that Snyder is making a break with Superman’s cinematic past. Superman and Superman II need no improvement; I don’t want reverent remakes redressed with state-of-the-art special effects. What I want is a Superman that speaks to our times, and I hope the filmmakers will allow themselves the creative license they need to make a piece of entertainment that’s contemporary, credible and all kinds of cool. “I want my Superman to be awesome,” says Snyder. “I want him to blow your mind.” A fantastic ambition. I look forward to seeing the battle plan.
Given that I’ve been covering Superman somewhat intensely over the past few months, I’ve been giving the whole “How to make Superman relevant?” question a great deal of thought. A few weeks ago, I came up with an idea — a tiny tweak to Superman’s “last son of Krypton” origins. I doubt we’ll be seeing this idea dramatized in the forthcoming movie (I’ll explain why in a few paragraphs), so I share it with you in the spirit of impassioned (but largely pointless) fanboy geeking and to spark conversation – and if I’m inadvertently pitching an idea that’s already been dramatized in some recent Superman comic I haven’t read (“recent” = “circa the past 10-20 years”), please bring it to my attention and accept my apologies in advance.
According to Superman’s origin story, Kal-El was born on doomed Krypton and evacuated to Earth as an infant by his parents. He was found and raised by the Kents, who cultivated in him a huge heart and an unfailing moral compass with their enlightened parenting techniques, plus a grueling regimen of farmhouse chores. The super-boy grew into a Superman, selfless and disciplined and forever capable of choosing The Right Thing To Do. His only source of existential angst came from the alienation of being an orphaned alien, a child of two worlds, belonging to both yet neither. But boo-hoo. Nothing a little night flying and bad guy face punching — and Lois Lane romancing — couldn’t cure.
It’s a classic story about an admirable character that embodies the best of humanity. Superman has inspired readers for decades, and still inspires today. You don’t need Superman’s powers to have Superman’s character. I think. Regardless, here’s the thing: The past decade of superhero pop has found buzzy relevancy by communing with the post-9/11 zeitgeist. Batman, Spider-Man, and Iron Man can be used for metaphors for how we respond to catastrophe and tragedy because catastrophe and tragedy are elements of their origin stories. Superman doesn’t have that. Yes, his planet died. So sad. But for Supes, that sorrow is abstract. He never saw it. He never felt it. So I submit that Superman needs some traumatic shellshock in his soul in order to speak meaningfully to today’s 9/11 haunted, Japan-quake-rocked audiences. He needs a Bruce Wayne/Joe Chill moment. He needs a Peter Parker/Uncle Ben moment. He needs a Tony Stark/Enlightenment-in-Afghanistan moment. Superman needs his direct, unforgettable brush with tragedy and catastrophe. The boy who fell to Earth needs a hard, heartbreaking encounter with Fallenness.
So consider how differently Superman’s story might play if you changed one teeny little detail: Kal-El’s age when Jor-El and Lara loaded him into his atomic powered Moses Basket. Imagine: Kal-El at age 7. Imagine: A kid old enough to have the eyes and inclination to look out that little window of his rocket ark as he blasted away from Krypton. Imagine: A child old enough to have seared and sealed into his memory the sickening spectacle of his beloved home burning up and the blowing up, obliterating his parents and people in the process.
This little tweak would change much about Superman without changing much of anything. Kal-El would still land on Earth, still be found by good-hearted, salt of the earth farmers, still raised to be a man of impeccable, steely character. But instead of being an easy lump of clay for the Kents to mold, this new scenario would make Clark a tougher, harder parenting challenge. Here’s a kid who’s been rocked by catastrophe. He’d probably be profoundly pissed off and pained by it, wouldn’t he? And since we’re talking about a kid who also happens to have Powers And Abilities Far Beyond Those Of Mortal Men, he might be tempted to think the following thought: I’m going to make damn sure that what happened on Krypton doesn’t happen here … by any means necessary. I want to see the Kents make something super out of that kid. The angry kid. The grieving kid. The kid who wants to know: What’s so wrong with the radical fix? What’s so wrong with me using my powers to take over the world if that would mean changing things for the better for everyone? This latter question is the question any Superman movie should pose and answer well if it wants this enduring relic of Greatest Generation-era heroism to have maximum credibility and relevancy with the global culture — a culture that has spent the last 10 years watching one catastrophe after another play out on their TV and computer screens (especially this past week); a culture that can’t quite understand why The Powers That Be aren’t powerful enough and smart enough and willing enough to prevent that which can be prevented; a culture that in many places around the world has had enough, and doesn’t want to take it anymore.
Like I said a few paragraphs earlier, I don’t think you will be seeing this idea dramatized in the new movie. Why? Because of what Snyder said about the character of Jonathan Kent in yesterday’s announcement of Kevin Costner’s casting: “Jonathan Kent is the only father figure Clark has ever had, the man who was there to help Clark understand what he was meant to do in the world as Superman. Kevin will be able to communicate the quiet strength of this rural American man who raised the greatest super hero of all time.” Since my idea of a 7-year-old Kal-El implies that he would have had some kind of relationship with Jor-El, it doesn’t quite square with the movie suggested by Snyder’s statement. Like I said: Impassioned (but largely pointless) Fanboy Geeking! I’d love to hear your ideas on the matter. Do you think Superman has a relevancy problem? If so, what do you think should be done to address it? The message board is yours.