Superman…no more?

Why has the world said 'No more Mr Nice Guy'...? And could DC be reading the signs wrong as to whether a new Supes movie could fly...?

Still worth the price of admission.

Yesterday the new head of DC Entertainment, Diane Nelson spoke to MTV on the future of the cinematic Superman franchise; it was less of an ill-omen and more of a death-knell for the Man Of Steel.

“We actually don’t have any current plans for Superman,” said Nelson, when asked if recent developments made a sequel or second re-boot (after 2006’s semi-dud Superman Returns) likely.

Warner Bros/DC have been trying to make sense of what happened with Superman Returns for nearly three years, and it seems they’ve tossed their notes away in frustration and gone out to think about other things for a while.

Such as the years they spent paying Joss Whedon, the doyenne of strong female characters, to write a movie about Wonder Woman, another relentlessly unconflicted hero, only to find that they couldn’t believe the script would fly. Or that such a beatific character would work at all in these dark and conflicted days. Not for all the ass-kicking in the world.

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But Wonder Woman has never even been seriously tried on the big screen, and certainly never proved the smash that Superman was. I believe that DC are mistaking happenstance for zeitgeist

Bryan Singer’s Superman movie was neither exactly a sequel nor a reboot, in practical terms, though it was nominally a sequel to 1980’s Superman II, politely skipping over the increasingly under-budgeted and ludicrous sequels that followed throughout the 1980s. I’ve already given my opinion on Singer’s movie and also on last year’s news that DC would turn a new Superman movie ‘dark’ in the wake of the block-busting The Dark Knight.

I said then that if you need Superman depressed, you’re sick, even if ‘sick’ really does sell these days. DC’s panic to do something desperate with a badly re-launched franchise confuses the issue of whether Superman is still a potential cinematic draw, binding it up with the quality of Superman Returns and the decisions that Bryan Singer made.

It could be that we are still willing not only to believe a man can fly, but to love that man again, not in spite of the schizoid state of our culture right now, but because of it. Yet apparently we think he’s too goody-two shoes to fit into the tortured quandaries of the Marvel & Batman-defined movie superhero universe.

Fact is that Superman Returns itself was tepid, more imitative than reverential and in certain areas poorly (and unpopularly) cast. We can’t blame the actor, but Brandon Routh’s Superman was a dope, exhibiting the kind of muscle-bound shyness that made David Boreanaz such a heart-throb as Angel, but which was entirely unsuitable for the character.

Routh’s Supie was an apology for years of being smug, powerful and inherently sexist (however noble). He managed to make having the best super-powers in comic-stripdom look peculiarly dull and pedestrian, and even the shamefully little-credited use of John Williams’ classic score only served to remind us of back when life in Metropolis was exciting and sexy (that would be 1978-1980).

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I don’t believe in my heart that this means we have had enough of Superman – but perhaps we’ve had enough of that Superman.

Certainly we can’t take the notion of this utterly angelic super-being without a pinch of salt; he has moral standards that were considered overkill even in the late seventies, never mind in this far more cynical age. Director Richard Donner was winking with us at how silly the character ought to be all through the 1978 blockbuster, without ever losing respect for the legend.

There’s no Earthly reason why the same dynamic of naiveté vs. urbane culture couldn’t be a smash hit again now. 

During the ‘dark Superman’ discussions of 2008, our own Seb Patrick suggested that if Superman is not a viable big-screen character, then heroes of any kind are not viable either, thus ending a story-telling template that goes back 3-4 thousand years.

One director, in an extra that I viewed recently on a DVD, presaged his forthcoming film with the sexy tag-line ‘Don’t forget, this won’t be about good guys versus bad guys – it’ll be about bad guys versus evil guys!’. And he smiled in anticipation…

Does sound good, doesn’t it?

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The film he was talking about was Chronicles Of Riddick.

It’s about the script, dummies. Amongst other things. Don’t shoot (or attempt to shoot at) Superman for the mistakes Bryan Singer made. If you ask kids now if they’d be interested in a new Superman movie, pretty much all of them will be old enough to half-remember dozing through Superman Returns, and will consequently tell you that the character is a yawn. And for them, the Donner/Lester movies were made about the same time as Battleship Potemkin.

Yet as Seb pointed out, Superman comics still sell in cosmically impressive numbers – the kind of numbers that make persisting with a cinematic franchise re-boot a no-brainer.

When considering whether only a ‘dark’ Superman will do for the jaded teenagers of today, it might be worth remembering that Christopher Reeve’s impressive two-part debut in the role took place in an era of post-Watergate cynicism. In the 1970s, for Christ’s sake!

With war and economic strife everywhere, and a pervasive mood of cynicism threading cinema releases (yes, even after Star Wars), the public was ready and willing to believe that a man could fly. Ready even to get out and push to make it happen. We must surely be at least as ready, if not far more.