With all the buzz surrounding Zack Snyder’s new Superman film “The Man of Steel”, it’s almost amazing that we haven’t seen any actual footage yet.  The excitement from the studio seems almost palpable.  The first still of Henry Cavill as Superman hit the net and polarized the audience.  Half of the public felt at long last that this is what Superman is supposed to look like.  The other half found the costume clunky and rubbery.  Behind-the-scenes stills showing the costume in natural lighting along with shots of Michael Shannon in a motion capture suit did little to bolster public opinion.  But despite all this, there is still hope.

To say that I am less-than-excited for this film would be an understatement.  I am a huge Superman fan, but I’ve found that over the past few years almost every creative force behind the Last Son of Krypton has forgotten how to handle the character and what makes him great and the mistakes of the past.

Superman, like any great story, can be subject to individual interpretation.  You take from it what you want.  My favorite overall interpretation of Superman in the comics was John Byrne’s reboot in 1986.  My favorite film/TV adaptation continues to be Richard Donner’s SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE from 1979, despite its flaws (of which there were but a few).

One of the major components of Donner’s film which separates it from the rest of the treatments of Superman is, of course, his hardline stance on verisimilitude.

veri·si·mil·i·tude – the quality or state of having the appearance of truth; depicting realism

It’s a tough sell for a film about a man who can fly, but Donner himself demanded verisimilitude from the production staff at every turn, even having a customized sign made for the production as a constant reminder of this fact.  After a brief stint into the otherworldly on Krypton, Donner propels Superman directly into our world  From the bucolic simplicity of Smallville, Kansas where we spend enough time with his foster family to see the seeds of morality sewn with deft hands, to the VERY New-Yorkian hustle and bustle of the city of Metropolis (which is so completely realized that you could reach out and touch it), the film is given a very tangible sense that is difficult to ignore.

SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE was made at such an incredibly key time.  It was before the digital revolution, but right on the cusp of the special effects revolution of the late 70’s.  The tagline of “You’ll believe a man can fly” was realized with varying degrees of success, but the most key element of their attempts was stringing up poor Christopher Reeve on a crane and yanking him through the air.

The production team considered animation.  They considered radio controlled models.  The considered action-figures on strings.  Ultimately the team felt that nothing sold the effect better than an actual human being.  They couldn’t be more right.  Reeve’s prior experience flying gliders helped to prepare him for the rigors of “flying”, most notably giving him the experience of how to change your attitude to change course in mid-flight.  It’s not something that you necessarily consider when doing a special effect, but believe it or not, this kind of experience helps, and it shows.

While part of what makes a film “epic” is the sprawling vistas, and larger-than-life stories… another aspect that lends it size and scope is music.  John Williams’ score has been criticized in the past as being derivative and being ear candy without much substance.  It’s been compared to pop music for film.  If you stop to listen, however, you can notice that the music elevates the film throughout.  The most popular piece of music from the film, of course, is the Main Title… followed by the love theme, “Can You Read My Mind.”  What no one considers is that there is so much more music which flows through the film.  It’s touching and tragic and inspired at all the right places.  And when you match those sounds to the visuals, you see that it just couldn’t have been done any other way.

Donner treated the material with respect, but he also treated the audience with respect.  He knew that you don’t mess with Americana, and you don’t mess with Superman.

Bryan Singer dropped the ball on this completely because he didn’t really realize what he was paying respect to.  Instead of treating the character with reverence, he treated Donner’s film with reverence.  As such, you got a film based on a film, which is about as successful of a parody based on a parody.  Or, if you’re looking for a slightly more pop-culture reference, imagine Michael Keaton’s character in MULTIPLICITY.  The clones that he made of himself were OK, but when they made a clone based on a clone, it just came out really badly.  This is what happened in Singer’s unfortunate outing.  It was trying to improve on something that shouldn’t have been improved on, and therefore tried to succeed in places it shouldn’t have and failed where it could have been incredible.  It was a remake/homage to a film that didn’t need one.

While every image I have seen from “The Man of Steel” has made me cringe, there is one thing nugget that was recently released that gives me a small measure of hope.

Special effects master and Weta Digital director Joe Letteri discusses the new Superman movie will handle the flight sequences, which have always been a huge part of the franchise’s draw going right back to the original movie’s tagline promise that “You will believe a man can fly.” Letteri explains director Zack Snyder’s approach, which seems to deemphasize CGI:  Zack’s going for pretty much everything in-camera as much as he can. “I mean, the reason to think about Superman in CGI, you don’t need him full CGI as a character, because he’s basically a full person. But you just don’t want the flying scenes to look like he’s on a wire. So [the question is] how do you use CG to make that happen, and that’s still kind of being played with right now… I think it could still be refined. Because there’s always room for interpretation there. The idea of a human flying, because you can’t actually tell how they’re powering themselves, leaves it open to trying different things.”  The Playlist via  io9

The fact that Snyder is deemphasizing CG is giving me hope.  It’s making me believe that it’s possible that Snyder will use the CG as a tool only and not as a short-cut to just make stuff happen.  It keeps a sense of the cinematic.

Then again, Michael Shannon in a mo-cap suit really doesn’t instill much confidence.  Ryan Reynolds’ mo-cap turn in Green Lantern was done about as well as it could have been, but it still didn’t look all that great.  It looked like what it was.  Animation.  Not a dig on the animators who did the best job possible, but on the technology which still can’t make it look nearly as good as it should.

I have my own laundry list of problems with the film as it stands and nothing I have seen or heard makes me want to go see it in the theater.  But the simple fact of the matter is that you can’t exactly mess with the pedigree of the man at the wheel.  For all of its faults, WATCHMEN was incredibly true to its source material, constrained mostly by the fact that most audiences won’t spend 6 hours in a movie theater to watch one film.  Maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised.  Maybe I shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover.

Honestly, though?  This is one ugly book.