April 17th, 2013
Man of Steel

superman-fleischer-poster1

Yes, you can probably file this under “Chris is thinking too much about Superman again.” But the latest trailer for Man of Steel is out, and I am almost physically excited by the chances for this movie now.

I admit, I’m an easy target for anything about Superman. As a kid, I wore the Underoos, I ran around in a red cape, and read the comics. I  saw Superman III in the theater, and even that did not kill my love of the character. So I was going into the theater on opening day, no matter what.

To put it in the kindest terms possible, that hasn’t always been the case.

Superman, despite being on the level of a primal myth for us now, is not an easy character to bring to life. The idea behind him is elegantly simple, and almost encoded into our DNA: a perfect man comes from the stars to save us all. That’s easy to understand and often incredibly hard to pull off in execution.

But two things in this trailer makes me think that’s going to be time and money well spent, that make me believe the filmmakers really understand what a Superman movie needs — what every Superman story needs.

This is the first: when Lara says to Jor-El, “He’ll be an outcast. They’ll kill him.”

And Jor-El responds with one word: “How?”

That’s brilliant. It’s more than just a badass line. It shows a fundamental understanding of what makes Superman so compelling.

In most fiction, the threat of death — “They’ll kill him” — is the ultimate raising of the stakes. I’ve read that every good story ends with a death, and while that may not be true, it’s definitely true that death is the engine that drives the drama. Characters seek to escape it, avoid it, or deal it out to their enemies. But they cannot ignore it.

Except, as Jor-El points out, Superman can. By virtue of his powers, he is beyond the usual punishments and sanctions that mortals must endure. He is outside the old rules of the game, and that makes his story a new and compelling set of problems. How do you create drama where the protagonist is invulnerable — literally — to what usually drives the story?

Many writers have a problem with that, which is one reason why Superman stories are not easy. It’s hard to find conflicts that a perfect man cannot end simply by spinning the world in another direction.

But the second moment in the trailer is what makes me confident they can do it.

When Clark first reveals his abilities by saving a school bus that’s gone into a river, his foster father Jonathan Kent (played by Kevin Costner, because, come on, who doesn’t want the guy from Field of Dreams to be his dad?) tells him that he’s not from Earth.

Clark responds by asking, “Can’t I just keep pretending I’m your son?”

And Jonathan Kent pulls him in close, and, voice cracking, says, “You are my son.”

If you didn’t choke up a little at that, well, you’re far less sentimental than I am.

Moses and Christ allegories aside, this is where we see how Clark chooses to deal with the legacy of great and unearned power from Jor-El and Lara. He still wants to be human. And his father embraces him for everything he is — not out of fear, but out of love.

Superman is not about what he can do. As Chris Sims recently said, if Superman wanted, he could rule us all and force us to be good, because after all, the dude’s got laser eyes. It’s about what he chooses to do. And he chooses to be good. He chooses to do the right thing. He chooses to care about humanity.

His enemies will say that this makes him weaker. But because of what he’s learned from the Kents, it’s actually what makes him a hero.

That’s the movie I want to see.

With super-punching, of course. Because you’ve got to have the super-punching.