Monday, August 25, 2008

A darker, edgier Superman? But that trick NEVER works!


Lots of people have had their say on Warner Brothers' recent statement that they'd like future movies based on DC Comics characters, notably Superman, to take a darker, brooding feel a la The Dark Knight... and now I'm gonna have mine, and it's this:

I think we need to accept that Superman, as a movie concept, is done, at least for the foreseeable future. The definitive cinematic statement on the Man of Steel was made 30 years ago, and everything since then has either been treading water or off the mark entirely.

When WB and the Salkinds set out to make Superman: The Movie, they approached it in that big, 70s, tail end of the era when studios still had near omnipotent moviemaking power sort of way and set out to make not just a Superman movie, but instead a capital-E Epic. A script by the author of The Godfather, a director capable of handling both large action sequences and smaller character moments with equal aplomb, some of the most famous actors of the era in the cast, and a budget big enough to make sure that everything not only looked good, but looked right. And for my money, they succeeded. Now, based on the various stories of behind-the-scenes chaos, squabbles, and backstabbing, that success may have been a happy accident at the end of the day, but still, a success all the same. It was everything a Superman movie needed to be - part legend, part fairy tale, part romance, part comedy, part adventure, part "small town boy makes good" story. It was the quintessential American tale, a Capra film in tights.

And with the details worked out, they decided to go all out to depict the traditional superhero slugfest story in Superman II, and while that one has less heart and may not hold together as well as a film, it certainly embellishes, and maybe even completes, the story began in the first movie, it's still a lot of fun, and to this day has its share of fans. Some folks even like it better... they're wrong, to be frank, but still.

And from their, the folks in charge lost their way. Maybe too many Suits wanted to have a say so they could claim some share of the success, maybe the Powers That Be simply didn't understand what actually worked initially, but whatever the case Superman III and IV just aren't very good at all. Nor were any of the proposed series revival ideas I heard bandied about
in the years after IV... ideas that, at various times, included a Superman in a completely different uniform, a Superman who couldn't fly, a Superman played by Nick Cage, and a Krypton that never actually exploded. How many of these were rumors - or perhaps were even part of the same story - I'm not sure, but I heard enough of them over the years as to lead me to believe they were better off leaving well enough alone.

I did have some hope, however, with the initial announcements of Bryan Singer's Superman Returns. Singer's previous films were great, his work seemed to have a definite vision to it, and I was anxious to see what he'd do. And what he did was... pretty much create a state fair tribute band version of the first two films (Bryan Singer's Richard Donner's Superman... not the original, but an incredible simulation!). It reminded me of Gus Van Sant's shot-for-shot remake of Psycho... sure, it's something you could do, I supposed, but why would you? Oh, and he added a kid, because that always goes over so well. I didn't enjoy it, but I remained hopeful they'd tweak the problems in the inevitable next film (or that, at the very least, Superman would do something other than foil yet another amped-up real estate swindle).

But this latest news has led me to the conclusion that the folks in charge are better off accepting the original movie (and, for the sake of argument, the first sequel) as pretty much THE Superman movie and moving on for now. Compare Superman: The Movie and Superman II to The Godfather and The Godfather Part II (and honestly, I think there are many levels on which you can). The first two films in both series combine to tell one big story, but once they go back to the well for the third movie, everything falls apart, and most folks end up ignoring the later material altogether. But at least with The Godfather they knew enough to actually call it quits, and hopefully have the sense to avoid any sort of remake down the road.

Let Superman be, Warner Brothers. It's already as good as it's going to get.

(Unless you plan on doing a late 30s story with Superman fighting full-on mad scientist Luthor and an army of robots, filmed sort of like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow so that it looks like one giant Max Fleischer cartoon, because my God, would that be awesome.)

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