Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Trailers@24 Panels: MAN OF STEEL

By now, you've probably seen the trailer for Zack Snyder's Man of Steel, but in case you haven't we've embedded it below. After you've watched the trailer, hit the jump for a discussion between Dave and Dru, and make sure to contribute your own thoughts in the comments section!

DRU: Well, we've been waiting for this trailer for a long time, haven't we Dave? I must say it doesn't disappoint me in the least. As someone who admits without shame that Superman is his favourite superhero, and who counts Superman Returns not only as his favourite Superman film but one of his favourite superhero films, I'm glad to see that they're continuing to emphasize the character's interior life and struggles. A lot was made of the first teaser's Malick-like imagery, and that continues here, for which I'm glad. It looks like the origin stuff in Kansas in particular is going to be treated in that style, which may go some way towards appeasing the origin-h8rs (such as yourself); I saw a film critic lamenting on Twitter that it looked like the film would have 40+ minutes of origin material before it "takes off," but for me the Malick influence suggests that this material might interweave elliptically throughout the film, creating connections between Clark's present and his past trauma. This is all speculation, though, since this trailer still plays a lot like a teaser and keeps most of its cards close to its chest. At the very least, it looks to me that Zack Snyder is going to give us the most beautiful superhero film ever made, and possibly -- and surprisingly -- one of the most thoughtful. Not the direction I was expecting Warner Bros. to take the franchise after Superman Returns was mostly criticized (unjustly) for its lack of punching, but I'm glad for it nonetheless. Dave, what do you think? What strikes you most about this trailer?

DAVE:  More than anything else, this trailer had one major task to accomplish, and that was to announce to the world that the image of Superman which has dominated popular culture since 1978 -- including Superman Returns and Smallville -- is not what this film is going to offer. And without question, this trailer has done that job beautifully. There is not a trace of Richard Donner to be found in this trailer, and for that reason alone, I am excited to see what Snyder has in store for the audience. That isn't to slight the Donner film, mind you, but it's influence on pretty much everything that has come since has helped to develop a very narrow vision for what Superman can be.

And while some people may complain about the lack of action in the trailer -- as if Superman punching people were somehow the most interesting thing one can do with the character -- what strikes me most about this trailer is the sense of scale about the film. This trailer isn't selling "Superman, the pop culture hero," it is selling "the Myth of Superman." Frequently we see lip service in Superman stories about how much he means to the world, how his sheer existence changes the world around him, but rarely do we ever actually get a sense of that. That grandeur, that weight is communicated beautifully in this trailer.

DRU: Well put, though I do think there's some superficial Smallvilleness to some of the Kansas stuff (young Clark's haircut and fashion choices strike me as very Tom Welling). On the whole, though, this is a strikingly original take on the character insofar as he's been presented in film. One of the funny things I've been enjoying today in the wake of this trailer's release has been Rob Liefeld's reaction, who (predictably) seems to be the leader of the "Have Superman Punch Stuff" club. The fact that Snyder and co. are going for something else in addition to that (trust me, Superman is going to punch plenty in this movie) speaks only to the fact that this movie stands a chance of being something substantial, rather than merely an empty slugfest (see most of Liefeld's work).

The thing that I'm most curious about at this point is Christopher Nolan's involvement. I like Nolan as a filmmaker, but I think his Batman films are not necessarily his best work (and The Dark Knight Rises is easily the worst film he's made to date). I know you disagree with me on that front, but I think you'll agree that those films had some serious issues that we don't want to see replicated going forward. One thing that seems to be better here already: the iconic character poses seem integrated into the story and aren't just there for the sake of looking "cool." Here are some of my favourite "wow" moments from this trailer:

What I like about all of these moments is that they express the mythic dimension of Superman while also being integrated into the narrative fabric of the film. The Nolan Batman films, it seems to me, were particularly bad at this. (See any of the shots of Batman standing atop a tall structure: How'd he get up there? Why? How's he going to get down?) While Nolan struggled to integrate Batman's mythic qualities in logical ways visually, he made up for it (or perhaps overcompensated) by hammering on these points in the dialogue. I'm hoping that Man of Steel won't be as heavy-handed on the script level; let the images speak for themselves, as they do here. If you shoot Superman in a mythic way, you don't  need the characters to blather on and on about symbols and myths.

Dave, what do you think of Nolan's involvement here? Do you see his fingerprints on this trailer? What aspects of the film that this trailer only hints at (Amy Adams as Lois, Michael Shannon as Zod, etc.) are you most excited to see fleshed out in the film?

DAVE: Without getting into our continued disagreement on Nolan and his Batman work, I think about the most that can be said about his involvement is that the world that Snyder seems to be building here is more "real" than what we have seen in past Superman films or in the Marvel series of movies. The lighting and camera work is beautiful and painterly, but there is a visual grit to this work that strikes me as Nolan-like in its efforts to make the world around Superman recognizable and not one-step removed like a Marvel film. However, at first glance, this approach is not being used to the same ends as Nolan did in his films. Nolan wanted to make the idea of Batman seem more plausible; Snyder seems to be using the reality as a way to emphasize the "miracle" that is Superman. (Though I wrote two seconds ago about how I would not talk about Nolan's Batman, I think one point needs to be made as it relates to Man of Steel: Nolan's films are about people making a myth, while Superman simply is myth. As such, the integration of the visuals in terms of narrative and themes will be different due to that fundamental difference alone.)

However, one thing that does interest me which I have seen concern some fans is the issue of how serious the tone of the film is. If there is one complaint about the Nolan Batman films I understand, if not entirely agree with, it is that they are at times perhaps too self-serious to just watch for the purposes of fun, unlike something like The Avengers. While I am certainly digging the mythic approach Snyder is taking, there is always the risk of the film becoming reverent to the point of sucking the fun out of the character. What are your thoughts on this (we'll get back to Lois, etc. in a moment)?

DRU: I'm perhaps alone in thinking that being "fun" isn't necessarily the most important quality for superhero movies to have, especially when it comes at the expense of character. The defining characteristic of my favourite Superman stories is most definitely not fun; it's wonder. That's what I want out of a Superman film, and it looks like that's what we're going to get. (Batman, obviously, is a different story. I think "fun" is only likely be to injected into a Batman film via characters like Robin, Batgirl, Joker, or Harley Quinn; Batman himself doesn't have fun. Indeed, the "comedy relief" moments in the Nolan Batman films are almost always their most painful.) Whether the filmgoing public will be happy with wonder instead of fun is another story, but based on the reactions I'm seeing on Twitter, they might be.

As for what we don't get a lot of in this trailer, I'm excited about how Lois, Zod, and the rest of Superman's extended cast will be portrayed in this film. (And I didn't think that I could be interested in Zod, who never did it for me in the Donner films.) The casting of Amy Adams is a sign that they're taking Lois seriously (please, let's have a Lois that can spell this time!). In the tradition of Jennifer Connelly in Hulk and Emma Stone in The Amazing Spider-Man, we might have a love interest here that is equally, if not more, compelling than the hero. Adams is one of the best actresses working today, and I'm glad that they didn't make her dye her hair or anything to achieve some superficial similarity to the traditional comic book representations of Lois. 

We only see Michael Shannon as Zod ever so briefly in this trailer, but what can we discern from this still? That he's a warrior, ready for battle. I'm guessing that Zod is primarily going to represent a physical threat to Superman; I doubt we'll be getting the "villain-as-ideological-threat" treatment in Man of Steel (see, again, Nolan's Batman films, or even The Avengers). Don't get me wrong: I like seeing superheroes challenged on all fronts -- not just physically, but morally and intellectually -- but I think Superman's primary journey in Man of Steel will be his own coming to terms with his place in the world (which is why we need that origin stuff: the things that Jonathan Kent says to Clark in this trailer should take years of therapy to overcome. #ItGetsBetterSuperman!). Zod's presence on Earth should confirm rather than threaten Clark's identity as Superman.

I completely forgot until this very moment that Laurence Fishburne had been cast as Perry White, though we don't see him in this trailer. I'm looking forward to his performance, but I'm hoping that the Daily Planet stuff will be downplayed in this film. Like The Amazing Spider-Man, I think it's a good idea to save the newspaper stuff for sequels (or include it in some minor, but modified and contemporary way). The Daily Planet can only seem like a throwback to the Donner films, and moreover to a modern age that is long past. I wouldn't be disappointed to see its role dramatically reduced here.

[EDIT: James pointed out in the comments that Fishburne can be seen in the trailer for about half a second. Here's a screen capture of that.]

I think the last major subject to hit is how this film will (or will not) lead into a DC Cinematic Universe. With the Marvel films, it was easily to see how they could come together; they were all tonally similar enough individually to combine in a single film. Man of Steel seems very different tonally from anything we've seen before, even The Dark Knight. Is that going to help or hinder Warner Bros. and DC's efforts as they build towards Justice League in 2015?

DAVE: On the subject of tone, I am in full agreement with you: fun is not necessarily what I want out these films either. At the same time, I do think there is a point where in the effort to create the wonder you mention, the film could fall into the trap of off-putting self-importance (see: Star Trek: The Motion Picture, a film I do have high regard for but which goes overboard in its attempts to be "serious" science fiction).

Now, as for the supporting cast of characters, the one I am most excited for is Amy Adams as Lois, and I doubt with her in the role we'll be getting anything like the prior versions of this character. With Adams in the role, I fully expect to get a much more subtle Lois, one who is very much the strong, take-no-BS version we have seen in the past but without pushing it to the point where it becomes caricature, which Lois has come dangerously close to becoming in the past. Plus, I just plain love Amy Adams as an actress: from the seriousness of Doubt to the silliness of The Muppets and the absurdity of Talladega Nights, I've yet to see her give a bad performance.

Now, Zod....well, here is the thing: I love General Zod as a character in Donner's films. He is an iconic villain for a hero who has few real villains of interest, and that is in no small part due to the way the character was portrayed in those films. In fact, it is entirely down to those films that Zod is popular at all. Nobody talks about all the great General Zod stories from the comics, because they don't exist. Nobody talks about the various different takes on Zod in other media like they do Lex Luthor, because they don't exist. When people say they love Zod, what they mean is that they love the character pretty much created for screen by Donner, Mankiewicz, and Stamp.

So, the use of Zod in Man of Steel looks, at least from the outside, like a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the character is one whose name will drum up interest in audiences, which I get. However, no matter how much Snyder and crew reinvent Zod, there will always be that comparison to Stamp unless we have a performance on the level of Heath Ledger. I don't doubt Shannon's ability to deliver that performance, but had they called the villain something else, ANYTHING else, it would have taken a little bit of the pressure off.

Also, that goatee on him looks silly.

As for the Daily Planet, something tells me we are likely to see a fair amount of the paper, but not much of Clark there. From what we have seen, it doesn't appear that Clark has developed any sort of full-time dual identity yet, and my guess is we won't until the end of the film. I doubt we'll see the paper presented as it has been in the past, mainly because the tone of the film thus far doesn't look like it will allow for the screwball antics of the Donner films. Still, we shall see.

Now, as for the question of an onscreen DC Universe and where Man of Steel fits into that...I'll be blunt. The more I think about it, the more I think a shared cinema universe full of DC heroes is a mistake, not only because it will come across as a rip off of Marvel no matter how solid the effort is, but because I don't think the DC Universe works in a way that allows for that kind of co-existence outside of comics.

The thing that people tend to forget about Marvel is that its universe was really the product of a small group of talent who came together at the right time and set up a shared universe right from the get-go. As radically different as Thor, Iron Man and Spider-Man seem to be, they are products of a particular creative voice, and right from the start, it was pretty much understood that these characters all shared the same universe.

The DC Universe, by contrast, was never intended to be a shared universe. Its big three characters are the creations of three distinct creative teams who, from what I understand, never had any real contact with one another. It would be a few years until Batman and Superman would even meet in the comics, and even then, it wasn't exactly a regular thing. Meanwhile, the versions of the Flash and Green Lantern that we know to be a big part of the DC Universe would not come into existence until a few decades later, while other major parts of the modern DC Universe, such as the Question and Captain Marvel, only became part of DC due to them being bought by the company. Given this history, it is kind of a miracle that the DC Universe makes any sense at all.

As such, the DC characters tend to be ripe for being given to very individual filmmakers, and from what we see in this trailer, this is very much Zack Snyder's Superman, much in the same way The Dark Knight trilogy is very much Nolan's Batman. To try and force these distinct voices together is just not going to work, and to stifle these voices in an effort to create a shared universe is only to going to hurt the potential of these films in the long term, both creatively and financially. Lord knows we don't need another Green Lantern.

DRU: Of course we need another Green Lantern! We need a better one! 

I suppose I'm more optimistic than you are, because I'm a bigger fan of how the shared DC universe works together than you are. (Wait, that's not true -- you love the Timm Justice League cartoon!) I will pretty much take any of the DC crossovers over any of the Marvel crossovers (Civil War was good, though). Blackest Night is easily the best company-wide crossover I've read, and it's entirely due to how the diverse DC stable of characters works as an ensemble. I think it can work on film, but I think they need to take their cues from the comics: let Superman and Batman be background characters and let Flash, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, or Martian Manhunter take the lead role. That's obviously not going to be easy if none of those characters have had their own standalone movies, though...

Anyway, I think we've done a good job going through the trailer and its possible implications for this movie and future movies. 

DAVE: Thanks for reading folks! Post your thoughts about the trailer in the comments!


  1. Jeez, that's a lot of words on 2:33 of footage.

    1) Yes, this is the thoughtful, reverent take on Superman I have been dying for. (and by the looks, the one I have been writing in my head since I was 16.) The trailer, at least, is grand but not "epic," serious but not dour, intimate but not singular. By the end, there appears to be a number of moving parts here that I cannot wait to see get put together. Dru, there IS a shot of Fishburne as Perry in the trailer.

    2) Dru, you make a good point about weaving iconic imagery into the narrative. All of the footage we see of Supes in the North Pole conveys that mythic grandeur of the character. My favs: the over the shoulder shot and the close up of his fist on the ground.

    3) I am in complete agreement with Dave on the whole DC cinematic universe - I don't think it will work. Marvel (the film company)made a conscious decision to build towards THE AVENGERS, so they hired a bunch of directors - while all good storytellers (except Leterrier) - don't necessarily have different styles (or at least they can adapt their styles - in my mind only Whedon is a distinct director). Marvel films are the kind that are littered with in-jokes, cameos, winks, and nods to the comics - something that, historically (besides a reference to Gotham in SUPERMAN RETURNS) the DC films have done without. They tried to copy the Marvel mode with GREEN LANTERN, and well... I'm interested to see what the 2015 JUSTICE LEAGUE will look like, but let's just keep focused on making great individual films for the time being.

    4) Amy Adams is probably my favourite actress working right now, and the casting of her excites me to no end. I think with her, we'll get something akin to Connelly and Stone, as you suggest, Dru. Traditionally, Lois is one of the more active female characters in the comics, so I hope they treat her with care here. But I still hope Supes catches her when she invariably falls from a building/helicopter/airplane. Zod is a good choice for a villain, in that he is iconic, but not that well-known. Ledger's Joker was thought to have drawn negative comparisons to Jack Nicholson, but that took a completely different turn when we say the final film. Zod will work, I think, because Superman needs a physical threat in this instance. Plus, I think it will tie in nicely with the "Who/what am I?" theme the film is going for, as Zod is the dark reflection of what Supes could be. And Dave, the goatee lets you know he's eeevil.

    Part of what I love about Superman, and specifically his origin, is Clark's journey and discovery of who he is. It's a more complex origin in that he has one more facet of his identity to negotiate, and there is so much that can be drawn from that. Besides, what is more inspiring than seeing the journey of a good person becoming the best person they can be?

  2. Thanks James. I have updated the post accordingly.