Some might say it’s a strange old time to be making a Superman film. Three years ago, when fledgling details of Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan’s Man of Steel first began to emerge, The Dark Knight had just changed the face of comic book movies by driving all before it at the box office with a steely, noir-edged take that seemed to suggest spandex and power rings might have had their day. It was no surprise that the new take on Superman looked set to mirror Batman in his next celluloid outing, even if few had ever imagined Kal-El as the stern, haunted and driven type.
Unfortunately, in 2012 the comic-book movie landscape looks somewhat different. The Avengers, not The Dark Knight Rises, has been the year’s biggest film. Joss Whedon’s multi-character flick found a fresh, postmodern comedic way to engage audiences which owes very little to Nolan’s movies. If there’s one thing worse than the idea of a moody Superman, it’s a wise-cracking Superman, so we should perhaps count our lucky stars that Whedon wasn’t hired earlier by Marvel Studios, yet next year’s Man of Steel still has the feel of a project arriving out of time. Consider the US box-office failure last month of Pete Travis and Alex Garland’s extremely furrow-browed Dredd, a stylish, no-nonsense, visceral blast of a movie, yet one clearly forged in the light of The Dark Knight’s earlier success. With Batman presumably due in a few years at the multiplexes, it may just be a long, long while until we see another “dark” superhero film breaking box-office records.
Could that be why David S Goyer, the Dark Knight and Man of Steel co-writer who first persuaded Nolan to come on board as “godfather” to the latter project, is suddenly making noises to the effect that the new Superman won’t be dark at all? “Christopher Nolan and I have been trying to bring the naturalism of the Batman trilogy,” Goyer said earlier this week at the Rome fiction festival, where he was promoting his new television series Da Vinci’s Demons. “Our approach has always been naturalist, realistic; we always try to imagine these stories as if they could happen in the same world in which we live. It is not an easy thing with Superman, and this does not necessarily mean that it will be a dark film, but in working on this reboot we are thinking about what would happen if a story like this really happened.
“How would people react to this? What impact would the presence of Superman in the real world have? What I like to do are stories set in ‘genres’ which, however, are not cartoons, or comics. I did the same thing with Da Vinci’s Demons, and I will do the same with The Man of Steel.”
Of course, Nolan and Snyder were not the ones who put the “dark” label on the new Superman movie. Rather, it is a phrase bloggers have used to describe the film in the wake of a low-key, pomp-free trailer and shots of British actor Henry Cavill wearing a Supes costume that appears to have been through the wash a few times too many. Perhaps realistic does not mean dark, but there is a definite sense that Man of Steel is plumping for a less obviously exuberant take on the most famous comic book myth of them all.
Personally, I’m inclined to give Nolan and Goyer the benefit of the doubt, not least because their approach has a certain freshness about it. We should also bear in mind that the movie’s ability to enrapture and enchant is not going to be entirely dependent on its first five minutes. A Superman film with a more naturalistic origins story ought to give Snyder extra room for manoeuvre when it comes to the razzmatazz further down the line. On first watching Batman Begins, I remember thinking Nolan’s occasionally doleful first film about the caped crusader was a little underwhelming in comparison to some of the earlier big screen iterations. Yet in the intervening years, I’ve come to far prefer it to any of the Tim Burton or (God forbid) Joel Schumacher entries in the canon.
If Nolan wants to give us a Man of Steel whose youth is largely spent in tedious manual-labour employment in cold parts of north America (as he appears to be in the trailer), then so be it, provided this is ultimately contrasted with Kal-El’s joyous transformation into Superman later on. The DC Comic book character is supposed to be a life-affirming embodiment of hope for mankind, a crystallisation of all that is good in the human spirit, ironically enshrined in the form of an alien from another planet. There’s no way he’s going to be bumming around Maine for the whole movie, but maybe in these difficult times he needs to know how that feels in order to get under the skin of the human condition.
It’s easy to forget that Superman was conceived at the height of the Great Depression and debuted at the start of the second world war. In terms of recent history, you don’t get times much “darker” than those. Perhaps in adopting an approach that notes the grim and precarious nature of life for many Americans in the 21st century, Nolan and Goyer are not straying quite so far from the orthodox path after all.