Last week, it was announced that Zack Snyder, the famed director of the Dawn of the Dead remake, 300, and Watchmen, was given the reigns of one of Warner Brothers most troubled franchises - Superman. Selected by none other than Batman guru Christopher Nolan and gifted with the almost impossible task of resurrecting the Man of Steel after the less than successful attempt by former comic book messiah Bryan Singer, Messageboard Nation has, naturally, been abuzz about the selection. Some see it as an assault to the sensibilities of superhero fans everywhere. Others suggest that Snyder just might be the one to revive the character’s failing film fortunes.
It’s a nice thought - but before we leap to commercial conclusions, let’s see what Snyder has to offer. He’s definitely had some hits - Dawn and 300 were huge for their type - and he’s proven he can tackle the genre (Watchmen had to be one of the toughest cinematic challenges ever). While his recent family film The Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole was a technical masterpiece, it definitely had some narrative flaws. Luckily, the trailer and advanced word on next year’s Sucker Punch is that the director has once again delivers the combination of eye candy and excitement that made his reputation in the first place.
So what does this mean for Superman. Back when Nolan was announced as the revamp’s Godfather, we pondered the possibilities - and problems - with any pro-Krypton conceit. In essence, the main dilemma facing any filmmaker tackling this material is how to make it relevant to an audience used to individuals with superior (almost supernatural) physical prowess. Aside from a certain green mineral, Superman is more or less invincible. He can fly. He can move mountains. Heck, he even turned back time. His abilities are so steeped in the old school hero mythos that his good guy clean cut alter ego Clark Kent is almost laughable in his chiseled jaw white bread machismo. Obviously, in 2010, Supe is no longer cool. That doesn’t necessarily means he’s not commercial.
The problem with all previous adaptations of the material is that they are locked into a desire to stay straight on the legacy path. We have to have the destruction of Krypton. Little alien baby Kal-El has to be adopted by those Midwestern milestones the Kents. He has to suffer through the whole “stranger in a strange land” ideal (mixed with some mandatory teen angst), run off and found his Fortress of Solitude, and eventually become a mild mannered reporter for the Daily Planet. Some of the other prerequisites have been altered slightly. A lack of phone booths have made such quick change stations obsolete, and in these days of hypersonic airplanes and fuel injected engines, being faster than a relatively slow locomotive doesn’t help.
As far back as the ‘40s, when Fleischer Studios brought the animated adventures of the red caped champion to the big screen, such fabled folklore was set. It continued on through the amazingly popular Adventures of Superman series (beginning in the ‘50s and even more successful in syndication during the ‘60s) and with Richard Donner’s 1978 film. In fact, it seems like every decade has had their version, from Lois and Clark in the ‘90s through Smallville in the new millennium. But as they are want to say, such overwhelming familiarity is bound to lead to some critical contempt. Both Singer and previous sequel helmer Richard Lester have felt such blowback when their takes on the material met with huge purist blowback (and restoration revisionists).
Of course, no one is ready to turn Superman into some gloomy Goth freak (one look at what Tim Burton and Nicolas Cage wanted to do to the character and you get the idea…) and yet recent movie makeovers given to classic characters like Alice in Wonderland (again, from the mind of Mr. Edward Scissorhands) have proven to be wildly inventive and successful. Even Nolan’s own reinvesting of Batman into a recognizable real world dynamic has worked amazing well. Of course, when the speculation was at a fever pitch involving the next direction Superman would take, a review of a proposed JJ Abrams script for the project argued how wrongheaded some interpretations of the wannabe re-franchise can still be. For his part, Snyder has remained joyful yet cautious. All he has let slip so far is that the main villain battling our blue suited hero will be…General Zod? Maybe? These statements were later countered with claims of the inclusion of Lex Luthor, Brainac, and…well, you know the ‘Net.
And so Superman stands at yet another creative crossroads, flush with an infusion of new talent (and one with real “vision” if we are to believe the hype) and carrying enough artistic carte blanche to get over the standard budgetary and star power hurdles. Casting will be crucial here. While Brandon Routh was actually the best thing about Singer’s otherwise subpar reboot, one imagines Snyder putting his own mark on the production by picking his own compliant model. So far, the choices he has made for other films are very intriguing indeed. Few would have guessed that Billy Crudup would be a viable Dr. Manhattan, or that the all singing, all sullen motion picture Phantom of the Opera Gerard Butler would make a kick-ass Greek king. When he gets around to it, the announcement of the next Superman should indicate where Snyder intends to take his interpretation.
Still, for all his ability with scope and eye for the epic, hiring Zack Snyder might not be the 100% right decision. There are a lot of film fans who lump him together with McG, Michael Bay, and likeminded laborers suffering under their own ‘blockbuster or bigger’ delusions. While his films have been popular, they haven’t been the kind of cash cow slam dunk that get studios really excited (even with Nolan’s Dark Knight/Inception cache in the background). Instead, he’s a weird combination of respectable and yet unpredictable, geek lightning rod and passionate defender of the content he is creating. He was reverent to George Romero with his zombie flick. He gave Frank Miller and Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons their due when meticulously bringing their ideas to another medium. Even his work on Ga’Hoole suggests a detail oriented admiring of source. In such a case, Superman seems in pretty good hands - not necessarily the most assured filmmaking fists, but decent nonetheless.