The Man of Steel has not fared well on the big screen in the last few decades. After some very well-remembered work by the Salkinds, Richard Donner, and Richard Lester in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Superman movie franchise found itself out in the wilderness. It first passed through the hands of Menachem Golan and Yoram Globus (best known for making B-grade action flicks with likes of Sylvester Stallone, Chuck Norris, and Jean-Claude Van Damme), only to move through nearly 20 years of development hell under the supervision of Jon Peters (originally known as Barbara Streisand’s hair stylist, but later the producer of Flashdance, The Color Purple, Batman, and Batman Returns, among others.) These changes have not been kind to the franchise, moving it from broad comedy (Superman III) to low budget mess (Superman IV: The Quest For Peace) to high budget mediocrity (Superman Returns). It’s enough to make the conspiracy-minded think that the bottled water served in Los Angeles is spiked with Kryptonite.
Lately, Superman fans have new reasons for hope that Hollywood will restore luster to the franchise. Warner Brothers has put creative control of the next Superman film in the hands of Christoper Nolan. Mr. Nolan brought his Batman Begins/The Dark Knight collaborator David S. Goyer on board to write the script and brought in Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen) to direct. This is a creative team known for turning comic books and superheroes into films that are true to their roots, popular with both fans and the general public, and critically well-received. Where past films attempted more to bring Superman to a particular genre (comedy, CGI action), perhaps the last son of Krypton will finally get a story that says something more uniquely about him.
It is in this spirit that I offer these 5 ideas about what the next Superman film should include…
1. A Good Villain
(Rumored to be General Zod)
Let’s face it: Superhero movies are nothing without good villains. Heroes are like the great moral immovable objects; we intrinsically know what they stand for. Superman is especially guilty of this (“truth, justice, and the American way” as the old TV and radio show put it). Without an unstoppable force, the immovable object can become boring. With it, the collision of the two can be fascinating. Batman and the Dark Knight had this in the Joker. Spider-Man II had this in Doctor Octopus. Iron Man had this in Obadiah Stane/Iron Monger. Real menace has been sorely lacking in the last few Superman movies (I’m sorry — I love Kevin Spacey, but his Lex Luthor was so much more hustler and prison punk than he was evil genius.)
2. A Deeper Moral Dimension
The character of Superman has to deal with some interesting internal conflicts. An uncompromising moral figure with a strong sense of ethics, he lives in the morally compromised modern world. As a being from another planet, he looks like human, tries to blend in with human society, but he cannot fully BE human. As Superman, he can be himself (or a different part of himself)… but he can’t seem to be Superman all the time. How does he make his “ordinary” life as Clark Kent and his extraordinary life as Superman fit together? How does he deal with the compromises he sees others make to live, but he cannot make himself? How does he face the fact that the most direct way to hurt and manipulate an invulnerable moral man is to threaten and wound the more vulnerable people around him? The early movies touched upon these questions, but they have never been explored in great depth.
3. Better Casting
Richard Pryor, Robert Vaughn, Mariel Hemingway, Kate Bosworth… casting hasn’t been the greatest friend to some Superman films. The next film needs to do better in this regard. Yes, Christopher Reeve will always have a strong association with the role of Superman, as did George Reeves before him. Will Brandon Routh put his stamp on the role? Superman Returns did not seem to be a tremendous showcase. In any case, this is something that is also on the mind of Christopher Nolan. As previously reported:
I want to cast the way they did in 1978 with “˜Superman,’ where they had Brando and Glenn Ford and Ned Beatty and all these fantastic actors in even small parts, which was an exotic idea for a superhero movie at the time. It really paid off too.’
4. Some Grit
Yeah, yeah, yeah, “you gotta make it gritty” seems to be a big catch phrase when it comes to Hollywood films. The Superman films have gotten a little neat and tidy over the years. Now while it was something of a statement to make a rather sweet, innocent film in the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam 1970s, it’s been 30 years. If anything the tougher economic times are closer in feel to the Depression era when Siegel and Shuster created the character in the 1930s. Two Jewish men writing in Cleveland at that time are going to bring a certain sense of social consciousness to their work, and they had to present stories and themes that were relevant to people living through the height of the Depression. Let a little of that same sense come into the film. This need not be a Batman movie, where the entire palette is lighter shades layered on black… but Superman has to live in the world and comment.
5. A Non-Origin Story
Must a film series reboot always involve a re-telling of the origin story? Let’s hope not. Look at all the superhero origin stories floating around out there: Batman Begins, Iron Man, Hulk, Spider-Man, X-Men Origins: Wolverine… it’s become rather cliche. Does Superman need a new version of the origin story? No. (Do I look back yearningly at Marlon Brando as Jor-El? No, but that’s another matter.) There has only been one Superman film since 1987. We’ve spent the major part of 20 years looking backward. Unless there’s a really compelling story to be told, it is time to look to something new.