For people like myself who invest considerable time into parsing film, and storytelling in general, we have a phrase for tropes like the Superman: Older than dirt.
From Action Comics no.1 to the Cold-War-classic Christopher Reeves films to the displacing of the characters into Smallville as teenagers (something which has slightly less narrative sophistication than Muppet Babies), the Superman trope has seen better centuries, and it shows. In fact, the Superman plot device has been around since the Sumerians chiseled the Epic of Gilgamesh onto stone tablets in cuneiform ca. 2000 B.C. In a sense, this makes the upcoming Man of Steel a film 4 millennia in the making.
Today’s question is simply this: Can Christopher Nolan, Zach Snyder, and David S. Goyer make a Superman film that anyone cares about?
There’s no reason they can’t.
The black hole that pulls at film marketing these days—and which is consequently responsible for the story cannibalism that Hollywood is frequently mocked for—is that people have so many other avenues for diversion. In practical terms, it means the powers-that-be in Hollywood want to develop widely known, exclusive properties (like Superman) for exclusive venues (like theaters), in order to entice the audience to stop watching films on YouTube via their phones, and instead drive to a mall to sit in a theater with hundreds of other people.
And this works. For a while. But smart producers and marketers are in for a longer game, and with Superman…the order is tall, and the trap is dangerous: Don’t rely on brand recognition instead of deeper meaning, or your brand will eventually be recognized as meaningless.
There is hope, though. The trailers for Man of Steel seem to suggest there will be a significant emphasis on Superman’s relationship to humanity—and where the 1978 version emphasizes his emotional states while glossing over the deeper rational questions of interventionism, this will ostensibly attack them head on.
“You’re not just anyone. One day, you’re going to have to make a choice. You have to decide what kind of man you want to grow up to be. Whoever that man is, good character or bad, it’s going to change the world.“
It suggests the producers of this film are not going to rely solely on audience recognition, but that they really are invested in being meaningful; to revitalize the brand so it can be around another 75 years. This is heady stuff, and producer Nolan is fresh from tempering the wider audience with the Dark Knight trilogy to understand that fictional paragons are at their best when profound and meaningful. Moreover, Zack Snyder, helming this soiree, is no stranger to integrating philosophical depth with fantastically entertaining technique; with super-duper-human figures to boot.
If you go see Man of Steel this June, I’ll probably be there with you. After 75 years of iterations, perhaps this Superman is finally ripe to tell a proper story for the ages.