Truth, Justice and Samurai Robots
My immediate response upon hearing that Warner Bros’ Superman reboot both existed and was going to be a retelling of the origin story was: “if you don’t know the drill with the Blue Boy Scout’s origin story by now, then you clearly just crawled out of a crashed alien spaceship in the middle of Kansas.” Well, okay, my immediate response featured a lot more incoherent cursing and acidic phlegm-sprays than that, but you get the idea. Everyone knows Superman. Everyone knows Krypton and Smallville and the Kents and Lois Lane. It’d be like making another origin story film for Spider-Maoh wait.
The news hasn’t really gotten much better since then. We’ve got a teaser trailer for Hobo of Steel that didn’t exactly set my underpants on fire, and a relative unknown in the lead role (no, I am not going to watch The Tudors. You actually can set my underpants on fire, and I still won’t watch The Tudors). The only real upside, I thought, was that we wouldn’t have to edit out Brandon Routh’s package in post-production.
But hey, quite apart from the fact that Christopher Nolan is producing, Zack Snyder is directing. And the more I think about it, the more I become genuinely interested to see how this turns out.
You see, ‘interesting’ is the right word here. Zack Snyder as director is a very interesting choice for WB to make. Not like Coen brothers interesting, where you have no idea what twisted piece of performance art they’ll spit out, or Michael Bay interesting, where the production team had spontaneous epileptic fits while filling out the director’s contract (I will stop picking on Mr. Bay when he stops ruining the US military, science fiction, my childhood and sixty years of progress in race relations). Not “what were they thinking,” “I’m impressed they had enough money to get that guy,” “isn’t that the wrong genre,” or “why is our director an unkempt chimpanzee currently lens-fucking the camera” interesting. No, Zack Snyder is the kind of interesting that’ll get me into Buns of Steel on opening weekend.
Now, Snyder isn’t the most accomplished director. If IMDb pages were erections, Snyder would have to take a run-up to pleasure a field mouse (and they are some of the most wanton rodents). Up until 2011, if you’d asked me for my opinion on him, I would have said, “yeah, he’s pretty good.” If you’d asked me for a more in-depth answer and justification because the McDonald’s queue is indescribably long and if we ogle the blonde in front of us for too much longer she will whip out that can of mace she’s been gripping furiously for the past twenty seconds and just go nuts on us, I would have said: “I like him, but so far he’s only really done one type of thing, and so for all I know that’s the only thing he can do.”
“What is that thing?” you ask, wondering how that fat geriatric could make it all the way to the front of the 20-person queue without once looking at the colour-coded, toddler-proof menu boards and deciding between chicken and beef as his preferred means of cardiovascular suicide.
“He makes good-but-not-great adaptations of other material, and imprints it with his own unique visual aesthetic. Excuse me, sir, but for the sanity of the twenty-six people behind you – “
“Twenty-eight. Two more just joined up.”
“ – the twenty-eight people behind you, please discharge all the extra brainpower you’ve saved up by not doing that ever before in your life, and choose a titty-dicking salad.”
My own problems with elderly epicures aside, Snyder’s early oeuvre was ‘solid, visually interesting adaptations’.
Dawn of the Dead? A very well-constructed remake, but the only way it really improved upon the original was the ridiculously memorable colour palette (oh, and one of the best a capella/country covers of a metal hate anthem I’ve ever heard).
300? Again, a well-put-together, enjoyable film of a comic that many would consider unfilmable (Frank Miller’s distinctive odour of quasi-fascist protagonists, ultra-violence and homosexual imagery doesn’t exactly scream ‘Hollywood’), but it wasn’t exactly Citizen Kane. Again, Snyder’s visual creative streak reared its bullet-timing head here; love it or hate it, the almost monochromatic palette and tender handjob to the very concept of slow motion sure stands out from most sword-and-sandals flicks.
Now, Watchmen WAS a truly great film, but as much as I was tempted to send pictures of my genitals with happy faces drawn on them to everyone involved in it, Snyder can’t take all the credit. The vast majority of the writing and meaning of Watchmen, the brilliant soundtrack, and even the composition of certain shots were all laid down in the original comic (or graphic novel, if your crumb-stained neckbeard quivers with rage at the thought of 60-year-old art connoisseurs not taking your favourite book seriously). And so even though almost everything about Watchmen was sex on .avi, I still wasn’t sure it indicated that Snyder was anything more than very good at unique-looking adaptations – you give him 300, he’ll make a good film, you give him Watchmen, he’ll make an orgasmic one.
Then he made Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, which I have not seen, but generally understand to be, shock and horror, a very nice-looking, solidly-designed adaptation.
Then came Sucker Punch, and I felt very stupid.
Not my usual ‘why does a microwave need so many buttons’ stupid, and not when I watched it, you understand – I walked out of the theatre thinking that Snyder really needed to stick to adapting, because when he writes his own scripts it’s a vapid, misogynist (but visually interesting) mess. I laboured under that delusion for around a year before I watched it again, and actually got it.
If you’re reading this with brows furrowed and recall Sucker Punch as ‘that stupid shit with the ninja hookers’, I would advise you to either:
a) Rewatch it with an analytical mind, preferably the director’s cut, if your time is as valuable as mine, or
Yeah, it’s actually a pretty bloody deep film. I won’t pretend it’s a great one, because all that intelligent subtext is just way too easy to miss on your first run through, or even your third. Sure, I could just say that it’s the audience’s fault for not ‘getting it’, but that argument doesn’t really hold up – most critics aren’t dumb, and the quickest look at Rotten Tomatoes will tell you that precious few critics ‘got’ Sucker Punch in to submit their reviews. To a certain extent, the author is responsible for making sure the audience gets his brilliant subtext, or failing that, at least making the basic text enjoyable. Even if you didn’t ‘get’ all of the symbolism in The Dark Knight, it’s still a great, gritty superhero movie; even if you didn’t ‘get’ the postmodern commentary in Cabin in the Woods, it still works as a (weird) horror flick. But if you don’t ‘get’ the subtext in Sucker Punch – and judging by the box office, not very many people did – it doesn’t really work as anything other than a kick-ass music video. And you can’t really place the blame anywhere other than Snyder – he directed, wrote and produced the damn thing. But even if it doesn’t fully work, I’m still very glad Sucker Punch got made – it’s the kind of personal, artistically-driven work that’s far too rare these days (300-page rant on the generic new World War Z trailer in progress, but for the moment, sub in a joke about Taken 2. Low-hanging fruit is the best kind).
Since I ‘got’ Sucker Punch, I’ve redefined Snyder in my mind. He’s an incredibly ‘solid’ director when it comes to basic mechanical stuff (read: could direct the crap out of a dumb action movie), and he has a very strong creative streak. When this manifests visually (trippy, memorable or beautiful shots), he’s a bloody auteur, but when he tries to articulate his vision with regards to theme, metaphor and morals (as opposed to someone else’s, as he did in Watchmen), the results are… inconsistent.
This all leads me into why I’m so excited for Man of Steel. Although I’ll probably be proven laughably off the mark, I see two ways the movie can go:
- They just have Snyder make another adaptation – this time, of a pastiche of Superman comics. This would be by far the safest and most ‘Hollywood’ of routes, and it looks like WB planned it this way, because they’ve got Christopher Nolan producing, who has already cut up the comics adventures of a DC superhero and translated them into (successful) movie form (no, almost nothing in the Dark Knight Trilogy is actually original. No, that does not diminish the accomplishments of Nolan and his screenwriters). That depresses me, because I don’t think that approach will work for Kal-El as it did for Brucie. Supes simply doesn’t have enough great, thematically deep comics to draw upon, and the great ones he does have (All-Star, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow, Red Son and of course Kingdom Come) are the ones which did something unique and out-there with the character or universe. Man of Steel, for all we’ve seen so far, looks to be the origin story as we know it (Krypton, Kents, Kansas, you know it), which you may remember as having nothing to do with the comics I listed up there, and being the exact opposite of the words ‘unique and out-there’.
- Then there’s the second, much more interesting, vastly less likely option. Quite simply, it’s that Zack Snyder has learnt some lessons from Sucker Punch, and whether WB likes it or not, Man of Steel will be coming out not just as a superhero movie, but as an expression of Snyder’s creative and thematic talent. This doesn’t seem likely, of course; after Sucker Punch’s box office, WB will be keeping a tight rein on him. He’s also not writing.
So, yeah, the second option seems unlikely. But then again, Man of Steel is being written by David Goyer, who has previously worked on both superhero movies and meaningful superhero movies. And Nolan has some experience in bringing personal artistic vision to the fore in the guise of a marketable summer action movie, as well (read: Inception). So I’m not about to give up hope just yet.
Odds are, Man of Steel will be a visually interesting, good-but-not-great adaptation of various Superman origin comics. But it’s still possible that we’ll get another Sucker Punch, one where the director has learned from his mistakes, where he’s being helped by one of the most creative producers in Hollywood, one where it’s done RIGHT… one involving one of, if not the most, popular and enduring characters in fiction.
If that works, even a little bit, I will bloody well believe that a man can fly.