Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Chrisicisms: Waiting for Zack Snyder's "Superman"

So, in the interest of keeping this blog more active, I want to start adding in some new features. A few looks at older movies, maybe some capsule length reviews of movies I've watched and not reviewed for the paper. But a big component I want to introduce is "Chrisicisms," in which I talk about some recent news, trends or other opinions in film. Sometimes it will be a bullet list of some items that I've stumbled across during the week. Other times, such as this week, it's just my viewpoint on something I've been mulling over. Hope it's enjoyable!

The big news this week is that Zack Snyder has been chosen to helm the Christopher Nolan-produced reboot of "Superman" for Warner Bros. for a 2012 release.

I've seen quite a bit of reaction on both sides about this news. There are some who feel Snyder is a perfect fit for such an iconic character, as the "300" director has fueled his career by putting together some particularly dazzling images. Others feel that Snyder's reliance on slow motion and green screen (which, to be fair, was only with "300") make him the wrong person to tackle the Man of Steel.

It's kind of a silly game to play. After all, whether we like it or not, WB has made their decision. Unless there's some kind of behind-the-scenes fiasco, Snyder is going to make the next Superman movie. It might be best just to take a breath, let him choose his Clark Kent and make the final judgement once we've seen the final work.

But it's Superman. And fans of Superman movies are likely going to have opinions on this matter.

I wasn't much of a comic book reader as a child--a few Batmans and Ninja Turtles as they grew in popularity, but not much more. But when I was in Middle School, DC Comics presented the "Death of Superman" storyline and, like many of my friends, I was hooked. I read every issue of that arc, riveted to the page and shocked that in the end I actually saw Superman bloodied, beaten and dying in the arms of Lois Lane (I was still young enough to not know what "publicity stunt" meant and be surprised when Supes was resurrected just about a year later).

My grandfather bought us a VHS of the old Max Fleischer Superman cartoons when I was young. I loved every one of those and can still hear the theme song in my head. I loved the Christopher Reeve films (although even as a kid I knew Nuclear Man in Part IV was pretty lame). Superman was always the ideal hero to me--a bona fide good guy, fighting for good causes and without the dark, questionable morality of Batman. I still think Richard Donner's "Superman" is one of the greatest comic book movies ever made and I have a soft spot for "Superman II" as well. While I understand why some people didn't care much for Singer's "Superman Returns," I think it's a worthy follow up to Donner's film and Brandon Routh is fantastic as the Man of Steel.

Superman's a tricky property to get right, though. There's a balance of optimism, hope and Americana that is a large part of who the character is. Superman has been derisively called a Boy Scout, but I have never understood why that's a criticism--there's something pure and admirable about Superman, a character who always does the right thing and stands up for justice. When you can get it right on film, as Donner does in the first 2/3 of the first "Superman," you can make something joyful, inspiring and memorable. But if you go too far in the wrong direction, the character can be cheesy, cliche and campy.

Of course, we don't live in the same innocent world that embraced Superman before. We prefer our characters to be dark and edgy, haunted by inner demons. It's why Batman endures--he does the right thing, but goes to dark places to do it. And perhaps the failure of Snyder's "Superman Returns" was that it was a little too innocent and earnest for current audiences, especially those who had been thrilled by "Batman Begins" only a year prior--a hero reminding the public to fly safely and wearing bright red and blue tights may not have been what they were in the mood for.

But I still think that a warmth and optimism is crucial for getting the character of Superman right. Batman's darkness and edge work because they are a part of the character--the Dark Knight appeals to our darker sides. Superman is the Man of Steel...he's a symbol of hope, fighting for truth, justice and the American way.

Nothing Nolan or Snyder has done have convinced me that they can bring that tone to this story.

Nolan, of course, gets the benefit of the doubt simply because he's a genius. When your filmography includes "Memento," "Insomnia," "Batman Begins," "The Prestige," "The Dark Knight" and "Inception," you've earned a bit of trust. I've enjoyed all of Nolan's films and felt the majority of them are masterpieces. He's an original, a master of both images and narratives. I have no doubt that he has an idea of how to approach Clark Kent/Superman or that he has a fantastically plotted story in mind.

But remember what I said about optimism and hope. Up until now, all of Nolan's films have been dark, possessing a distrust of even their protagonists. The reason Nolan's movies are so resonant is because he deals with broken characters, men who are trying to do the right thing and yet find themselves complicating situations throughout the way. He has a recurring theme of men haunted by their past, trying and failing to do the right thing and often with a habit of sabotaging themselves; it's this interest that has elevated Nolan's Batman films beyond mere superhero movie status to actual art. I'm not saying that he doesn't have an optimistic bone in his body and I trust that he's smart enough to know what sort of theme "Superman" should have...but given the themes he's traditionally tackled and the tone in all of his films, it's just hard to fathom what a Christopher Nolan-produced "Superman" would be.

Snyder's more problematic for me, and not because I'm a hater. As I stated in my "Legend of the Guardians" review last week, I think Snyder knows how to produce gorgeous images. He knows how to deliver a hero shot and he's a master at delivering action sequences--yes, he might overdo it with the slow motion, but you have to admit it always looks good in his hands.

And Snyder's made good movies. A "Dawn of the Dead" remake should have been verboten; Snyder's is surprisingly effective and entertaining. While "300" has not held up well in my experience, I must confess that it was quite the visceral experience when I first viewed it in theaters. He deserves major points for just being bold enough to tackle "Watchmen" and even more for actually making it good, even brilliant in parts (although he also cast Malin Ackerman and oversaw the horrible makeup jobs that marred the film). "Legend of the Guardians" is an interesting children's film and I think his upcoming "Sucker Punch" looks visually amazing.

But all of those films are surface entertainments for the most part--pretty-looking movies that don't have a ton that stick with you. With Superman, he's setting up a franchise and has to be able to take a character that, in the wrong hands, can come off as silly and cheesy, and make him heroic, admirable and intriguing. Nothing Snyder has done has made me confident in his ability to put likable characters on the screen or engage me beyond a visceral level.

And again, look at that filmography. A zombie movie. A bloody gladiator epic. A satire featuring superheroes with neuroses who kill villains with meat cleavers or have awkward sex on the couch. A children's movie in which owls attack each other with metal claws. Snyder's films typically have a darkness and edge to them. He pushes the limits. He's best when he's going beyond what we'd expect in a traditional movie. He has a dark aesthetic and seems to prefer characters that don't apologize for their blood lust. With a little reining in, he might be good for Batman. But I don't see the right tone for Superman in any of his work.

Of course, with the success of "The Dark Knight," WB might be edging towards a darker Superman movie. The other two directors up for the gig were Ben Affleck and Darren Aronofsky--neither of whom is known for their lighthearted fare (although I can't help but dream about what an Aronofsky Superman would look like). After all, before Singer took on the material, the franchise was set for a reboot helmed by Tim Burton with Nicolas Cage as a Superman who dressed in black and didn't fly.

A dark, edgy Superman may be what WB wants. If so, I think it's a mistake and misses out on some of the most essential characteristics of this iconic character. I don't want a dark and edgy Superman...I want a noble, pure and courageous Superman, one who inspires children to deeds of great heroism.

And maybe I'll be wrong. There's nothing more I'd like than to sit back in 2012 and realize that Snyder has made a fantastic Superman movie. I will happily admit it if I'm wrong.

But still...if you've seen what he's done with owls, what do you think he'll do with Supes?

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.