Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Wither Superman?

So, the new Superman movie, Man of Steel, opens tomorrow with midnight showings. Sometime this weekend I'll be packing up the family and going to see it. Not, I must admit, without significant trepidation. The fact that Zack Snyder is the director fills me with dread. I've been accused of being overly negative, like I want the film to be bad. Nothing could be further from the truth. I want Superman to be great. In the history of this character, we've gotten two pretty good, albeit flawed, movies, two downright awful ones, and one that had moments of greatness lost amid a turgid morass of awkward tone and ill-fitting angst. So I want Man of Steel to be great, but I'm not expecting it to be, despite some early rave reviews from various corners of internets. Why? Zack Snyder.

I base my skepticism on Snyder's track record. Watchmen, which also garnered a lot of early internet buzz, is what I consider his best film. Yet despite this, I found the movie surprisingly cold and aloof, going through the motions without any heart or passion. The opening title sequence was brilliant, I'll grant you, but the rest of the film failed to live up to that promise. And Rorschach's meat cleaver scene was downright awful. 300, the ultra-violent, ultra-stylized swords-and-sandals movie that made him a star director was, to my taste, crass, bombastic and wholly superficial. Even with all they visual spectacle, I found my attention wandering throughout the film. And, God help me, I found myself actually looking forward to Sucker Punch. My thinking? A sexy, girl-power, gonzo genre-bending over-the-top fantasy action epic. What could go wrong? Egads, that trainwreck made Showgirls look like a sensitive coming-of-age character study. Sucker Punch fails at every level, and to make matters worse, this was supposedly one of Snyder's dream projects, a story he developed himself. If that's what he chooses to produce when given the chance, what basis do we have to expect more from his Superman?

Let's contrast that with another film I'm looking forward to this summer, Pacific Rim. As a long-time Godzilla fan, this giant robots vs. giant monsters smash-em'-up is right up my alley. The trailers look good, and I'm expecting great things from it. Why? The director: Guillermo del Toro. Just as Snyder's track record gives me pause, del Toro's inspires confidence. His film adaptation of Hellboy was clever and inventive, and even if hardcore fans didn't like the FBI viewpoint character, I though del Toro made it work. There was a lot of heart and personality in that film, and in the sequel, Golden Army, del Toro turned everything up several notches. But Hellboy aside, del Toro's achingly beautiful and tragically horrific Pan's Labyrinth is a landmark film that, no matter how far his career may fall, will always give me reason to look forward to his next movie with anticipation. Terry Gilliam's the only other director I feel that way about.

So, yeah, Snyder has a lot to prove. The trailers for Man of Steel have been awesome, but I can rattle off a long list of wretched films that had enough cool material in them with which to splice together a kick-ass trailer.

And it's not blind allegiance to Richard Donner's Superman: The Movie, as well as his and Richard Lester's competing versions of Superman II that make me wary of Snyder. Those movies have all kinds of problems. A lot of the problems stem from mixing and matching sequences from both scripts (Donner attempted to film the movies simultaneously to control costs, but production fell way behind schedule) during production to meet a looming release deadline. Not to mention the Salkinds' continual interference. But the thing is, Superman was the first attempt to treat super-heroes seriously on the big screen. Nobody had done it before, and a certain number of missteps are to be expected (and forgiven) even without nostalgia kicking in.

Bryan Singer, unfortunately, didn't realize that fondly remembered missteps are still missteps, and repeated them intentionally in Superman Returns. I watch that movie and enjoy it for its potential--there are, again, magnificent scenes there--but as a slavish remake/sequel, it doesn't bring anything new to the table, has serious structural flaws and strikes a really, really awkward tone throughout.

So, yeah. I've been accused of excessive negativity regarding Man of Steel. I really, really want it to be an amazing film. I want Zack Snyder to hit it out of the park. "But Christopher Nolan's riding herd on him! He'll keep him in line!" argue some. Well, I admire Nolan's work in general, but he's got some blind spots and inclinations that are starting to become more obvious in his more recent films. The strong undercurrent of nihilism present in pretty much every movie he's ever done strikes me as very wrong for Superman. But we'll see.

While I don't think anyone would argue with Snyder's visual instincts as a director, I've yet to see anything from him that convinces me he can tell a story that even reaches the flawed level of Donner's film. Again, I hope he proves me wrong. In a few days, I'll know one way or the other. If Snyder delivers, I'll be back here to sing his praises as loud as anyone.

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