Monday, January 31, 2011

5 Simple Rules for Filming My Superman

They did it. They finally did it. Damn them all to hell, they did it.
They cast the role of Superman in the Zack Snyder take on the Man of Steel that will be filming in Vancouver this summer. I dunno, some British guy. But I guess that means that they're actually going to go ahead and make a Superman movie for the 2010s.
Okay, look, I thought Snyder's Watchmen was a joylessly pedantic adaptation that mostly missed the point of the Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons series. Patrick Wilson was pretty good as sadsack superhero Dan Dreiberg, but then I'm a sucker for sadsack superheroes. I do respect Snyder's high regard for art direction, but come on, dude, even Tim Burton always ties his eye-candy to his movies' themes.
Snyder will be at a disadvantage here, compared to his previous comic book adaptations. Both The 300 and Watchmen were based on graphic novels (in Watchmen's case, it was a 12-issue series that was subsequently collected in the graphic novel format) that Snyder clearly used as storyboards for his film. But there is no Superman graphic novel. Oh sure, there are graphic novels that tell stories about Superman, but what's the greatest Superman story? What's Superman's Dark Knight Returns or Year One (both of which have been pilfered by Chris Nolan for his Batman movies). Where's Superman's "Death of Gwen Stacy"? Which story, in Superman's nearly 75-year history stands out as the perfect distillation of Superman's essence? There are certainly some popular favourites, "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" and the unimaginatively-titled "All Star Superman" come to mind. But it's unlikely either will be directly adapted for Snyder's talkie.
For one, so soon after Superman Returns, I don't think anyone is eager to have the word whatever in close proximity to the character. Second, "Whatever/Tomorrow" is a Supermanic Götterdämmerung, a Last Days of Chez Supes, that imagines an ending to Superman's story. That's no good for a big budget sequel machine. Third, who wants another round of Alan Moore whinging about what's been done with stories he wrote a generation ago?
All Star Superman, in its full glory, could be adapted as a trilogy of films. There's certainly enough story there. But that's not going to happen, since an animated adaptation will be coming straight-to-DVD (or whatever format things go straight to these days) sometime this year.
Interestingly, All Star Superman also concerns the final adventure of the Man of Steel. Most superhero mythos find their most iconic stories in characters' Secret Origins. But a great part of Superman's appeal is his endurance, his reliability, the longevity of his exploits. Superman was not only around for my childhood, and my parents' childhood, but also my grandparents' childhood--or at least their early adolescence. Of course, my daughter is already a Superman nut. And so it goes. We take Superman for granted, and it's generally good that we do. That's the kind of character he is. When writers seek to affect poignancy within a Superman story, it's more often than not his demise that drives home his significance. Ever since 1961--in a story written by Superman's creator, Jerry Siegel, no less--DC Comics has been wringing pathos and bathos out of sending off to arm-wrestle Great Caesar's Ghost. Like Lex Luthor says, "cry your hearts out, folks!"
But Zack Snyder probably won't kill Superman. Not in the first movie, at least. I get it, and mostly, I support it. Here are five things I would like Snyder to keep in mind as he constructs a new Superman film:
  1. Do Not Stare Directly Into the Superman - One of the best developments in the Superman mythos is that his incredible powers are derived from our yellow sun. This isn't just pseudo-science mumbo-jumbo, this is poetry. Like the sun, Superman, as a concept is huge and nearly all-powerful. It's from his light that all other superheroes get their resonance. It's too much! You hear things like, "Superman's too powerful, it makes him unrelatable," a lot. That's a load, but, hey, no one says your audience has to relate to or identify with Superman. That's what his supporting cast is for. Filtering Superman's light through the lenses of Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen allows for all kinds of depth and resonance and all that stuff that changes readers (or viewers) into fans.
  2. Lois Lane, Spell It Right - When was the last time there was a great Superman movie? Well, that would be the last time there was a great Lois Lane. Margot Kidder gave us a Lois Lane that was as potent a character as Superman. Why would a man with powers and abilities beyond those of mortal men fall so hard for a mere Earth woman? Because she's everything he hopes he would be without those powers: fearless, devoted to ideals like justice and truth and driven to make a change. This is your most important casting decision. Off the top of my head? Rashida Jones? Who else? Parker Posey? Why not?
  3. Superman is an Archetype - You know what kind of story you should try to tell with Superman? A big one. Lay on the metaphors, bring on the allegories. Get operatic! Superman doesn't just have ideals, he is an ideal. Let Batman, Spider-Man, Wolverine, or even Kick-Ass play to our insecurities, they're great at it. Let them explore the darkness within, let them be complicated heroes on a journey to discover and define their own morality. But Superman will not work as an antihero. Yes, he may brood over the loss of his entire planet, a culture and family he'll never know. He may, in private, question whether he's up to the task of saving the world. But Superman must be super. He must use his powers and abilities for good, for that is his greatest power, goodness.
  4. The Best Superman Story is All of Them - Remember what I said in the last rule about telling a big story? Forget it. Don't tell a big story. Tell a million little stories. One of many reasons there are few great superhero movies is that comic books are a serial medium. Comic books have traditionally translated better to episodic media like radio and television where characters aren't expected to develop at the same rate (if any) as they would in film or a novel. Of course, movies have become more episodic over the last dozen or so years. Nonetheless, Superman is impervious to character development like his skin is impervious to bursting shells. Again, this is why he has such a great supporting cast (especially Steve Lombard!); they grow and change and suffer because Superman can't. They are the workhorses of the serial melodramas that Superlore is built on.
  5. That's Why They Call Him Superman - You can't put Superman into a grim, cynical world and force him to navigate the shifting ethics of uncertain times--outside of an origin story, that is. Whatever world Superman inhabits has got to be a greater, more optimistic place than this one right here that we live in for one simple reason: Superman lives there. He's the best at what he does, and what he does is very nice. A genuinely super Superman must change the course of humanity's destiny merely through his power of super-influence.


Chenoa said...

Jesse and I have already to decided to cast Anne Hathaway as the next Lois Lane. Give it some time to sink in, I think you'll like it.

C. Bentone said...

I like the article and the ideas, but, sadly, it looks like they've just cast a homosexual Superman. I swear I am not kidding you. It appears Warner Brothers is more interested in having Superman tank as a franchise for the insurance money than in supporting the character to make it a success. It's really depressing and disturbing, really. Too bad. So sad. 8(

Emmet Matheson said...

Anne Hathaway is a great idea. She's admirably held her own alongside Steve Carell (in Get Smart) and Meryl Streep.

SWhitworth said...

Bring on the euros! Audrey Tatau. Eva Green. She's American, but is Kat Dennings old enough? She can do smart AND funny.