It seems strange to ask — rude even — given Superman’s long history as a bulletproof champion of American pop culture, but the question will hang in the air this weekend at Comic-Con International: Can Superman still fly as a film franchise?
Hollywood’s next Superman, a chiseled and charismatic Brit named Henry Cavill, will greet roughly 6,500 fans in the hangar-like Hall H of the San Diego Convention Center on Saturday as part of Warner Bros.’ panel at the annual pop culture expo. The director of the upcoming Superman reboot, “Man of Steel,” Zack Snyder, will show the first footage from the feature film that brings the “first and greatest” superhero of them all back to the screen in June 2013.
The studio has a handy way to remind people that Superman was the first of his kind — the movie arrives the same month as the character’s 75th anniversary — but it may be harder to convince the Xbox generation that this icon of the Roosevelt era is still, in fact, great.
He might simply be too good for these times. Movie fans today seem to prefer bad boys like Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark — the actor will be on hand for the Marvel Studios Hall H presentation to promote the upcoming “Iron Man 3.” His character is arrogant, decadent, self-possessed and has a corporate jet with a stripper pole — and that makes him a rebel with a crowd in today’s popcorn scene, where Jack Sparrow, James Bond and Captain Kirk are kindred spirits.
In addition to the bad-boy tricksters, there are also the haunted, volatile loners (Batman, Wolverine, even Jason Bourne) and the misunderstood kids who become empowered underdogs (Spider-Man, Harry Potter, Sam Witwicky in the “Transformers” films). So, where does Superman fit in?
To Larry Tye, author of “Superman,” the just-published Random House “biography” of the character and his creators, Superman’s differences make him more powerful than ever. Tye predicts that “Man of Steel” is arriving just in the nick of time.
“It’s precisely because we have so many dark heroes and fraught ones, that we’re aching for a ‘Big Blue Boy Scout’ who knows right from wrong instinctually, and never wavers from the light or is sidetracked by anxieties,” Tye said. “If we look back at history we see that Superman does best when America is doing worst, like when he came to life in 1938, in the middle of the Great Depression and on the eve of World War II. It was an era much like ours, when the economy is teetering and we can’t seem to extract ourselves from overseas conflicts.”
But John Koukoutsakis, a merchant at Comic-Con who had no buyers Thursday for his FDR-era Superman memorabilia, said: “Superman is too wholesome. He’s the character who plays by the rules. Who wants that? Everyone wants edgy heroes now.”
Superman was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in the days of heavyweight heroes and global clarity about the forces of evil. In June 1938, the refugee from another planet landed at newsstands that were full of headlines about the mighty Joe Louis knocking out Max Schmeling, the German fighter who many feared would be taking the heavyweight championship home to Adolf Hitler (who would soon start a different fight in Czechoslovakia).
With all the newsprint gray, the bright yellow-and-red cover of the inaugural “Action” issue seized young eyes — as did the blue-and-red figure who looked like a circus strongman or Hercules in long johns. The concept ricocheted around the globe. The hero quickly went up, up and away with a syndicated newspaper strip starting in 1939, a radio series in 1940 and a silver-screen serial in 1941.
In the decades since there have been dozens of versions to choose from — Christopher Reeve and George Reeves, the Fleischer Bros. cartoons and “Smallville,” Kirk Alyn in serials and Bob Holiday on Broadway.
The hero’s last Hollywood mission, “Superman Returns” in 2006, was one of the most expensive films ever made (the production budget was $270 million and marketing costs pushed it well north of $325 million) but its final worldwide box office total was $392 million. That’s far less heroic than, say, “Iron Man,” which cost $140 million and flew home with $585 million.
“Superman Returns” director Bryan Singer darkened the colors of the hero’s suit and the tone of his world. The result (some fans called it “an emo Superman”) gave the movie an uncertainty at the edges and stiffness at the center. The Singer movie was also a valentine to filmmaker Richard Donner’s version of the hero, which took flight in the 1978 smash starring Christopher Reeve. That film mesmerized a young Singer, and his movie was tethered to it in startling ways (he re-used the vintage John Williams score, added a cameo by the late Marlon Brando as Jor-El, etc.).
Tye says, though, that was just one bumpy flight in a long career.
“The lesson isn’t that Superman is flawed but that somehow their film was,” Tye said. “We’ll see, of course, next summer. But Superman’s handlers have had misses in the past… and he’s always managed to make them look good by coming back stronger than ever.”
In an interview last year, Snyder made it clear that if he makes mistakes they will be new ones.
“We’re making a movie that finally goes with the approach that there’s been no other Superman movies,” Snyder said. “If you look at ‘Batman Begins,’ there’s that structure: There’s the canon that we know about and respect, but on the other hand there’s this approach that pre-supposes that there haven’t been any other movies.”
Cavill is the first non-American to play the hero in a major live-action film or television project but, really, the character is the ultimate immigrant anyway, given his outer space origins. The native of the small island of Jersey off Normandy, France, is the muscular version of the hero, to be sure, and Snyder’s history of sinewy men of action in “300” promises that there will be nothing meek about this incarnation of the hero — except for Clark Kent, his alter ego, and even he gets something of a rugged makeover.
Grant Morrison, the Scottish comic book veteran who currently writes Superman for DC, said the character needs a little John Wayne or Rocky Balboa in his American heart.
“The noble attempts to portray him as a Christ-like, American redeemer figure in ‘Superman Returns’ had the unfortunate effect of making him a limp and wimpy punch bag,” Morrison said. “Superman is a highly principled hero, but he’s no pacifist; he’s a brawler who doesn’t give in until he’s dead or the bad guy’s down, and I’d like to see a bit more of that grit.”
Warner Bros. could use a heroic idea, especially now that Harry Potter has moved on from Hogwarts, and director Christopher Nolan and star Christian Bale are packing up their boxes in the Batcave with “The Dark Knight Rises,” the final installment in their Gotham trilogy due in theaters July 20.
“Man of Steel” has Nolan as a producer and he shares a story credit (with David S. Goyer). While their story is being kept under wraps, the film does begin on doomed Krypton and it adds new key elements to the mythology of that planet and baby Kal-El, who grows up to be Superman on Earth.
The cast is led by six Oscar nominees or winners: Amy Adams as Lois Lane; Michael Shannon as the ruthless General Zod; Russell Crowe as Jor-El; Laurence Fishburne as Perry White; and Diane Lane and Kevin Costner as Kal-El’s adoptive parents, the Kents. Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros. are bringing the movie to the screen — that’s the same tandem behind Nolan’s three Batman films, “300,” “Watchmen” and the upcoming “Pacific Rim.”
Star Cavill understands the inherent risks of wearing the cape, but he believes that the character is rich and dynamic enough to win over a new generation of fans and strong enough to inject some optimism into these gloomy times.
“People can still look into the character of Superman and have polar opposite opinions about what he is and who he is,” Cavill told The Times in an interview last year. “That’s the wonder of mythology. We make the interpretations and hear the messages we want to hear.”
— Geoff Boucher
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