"Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound."
Of course, we all know that it's not a bird or a plane.
The iconic introduction to the 1950s Superman series single-handedly sums up all of the problems with the Superman franchise. It's too familiar (as in Bryan Singer's reverent, boring 2006 film Superman Returns). It's too old-fashioned (more powerful than a locomotive? What about a nuclear warhead?). And—at a time when audiences are regularly lining up for grim, modern, and above all, plausible heroes—it's too whimsical.
Superman is a part of our culture. But the America he protects in 2010 is a far cry from the one he protected in 1932. Has The Daily Planet posted its archives online? Without phone booths, where will Superman change into his cape? And will Superman's secret identity be discernable—glasses or not—to anyone who studies Clark Kent's Facebook profile picture closely enough?
These questions may be silly, but they also point out a key problem: how do you modernize a character as iconic as Superman? Warner Brothers is betting that director Zack Snyder, whose Superman: Man of Steel is scheduled for release in December 2012, has the answer. Snyder—the stylistic director of hyper-violent films like 300 and Watchmen (and, incongruously, the recent kiddie flick Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole)—is reported to be working with Batman Begins screenwriter David S. Goyer on fine-tuning Man of Steel's script. As they work out the story details, there are 5 things Snyder and Goyer should keep in mind:
1. Speed through the origin story. When you're rebooting a superhero franchise, giving the origin story is like going in for a colonoscopy: it has to be done, no matter how unpleasant it is for everyone involved. If it's done skillfully, you're relieved to have it behind you—until you need to do it again in ten years, of course (if you think the analogy is falling apart, consider the upcoming Spider-Man reboot). If it isn't done skillfully, you walk out traumatized, and you'll never quite feel the same (if this sounds melodramatic, you didn't see Ang Lee's Hulk). As a reboot, Man of Steel is pretty much required to give us Superman's backstory, but that doesn't have to be the arc of the whole movie. Just give us a CliffsNotes version; there's no reason Snyder can't get us from Krypton to Earth in 15 minutes, even with his beloved slow-motion camera tricks intact.
2. Introduce a powerful villain with unpredictable methods. Superman's near-invincibility is a storyteller's nightmare, because there's virtually no one who can physically challenge him in a meaningful way (apologies to Lex Luthor). His weakness to Kryptonite can be exploited, of course, but that's just a lazy writer's trick. There are two ways to make a Superman story legitimately suspenseful: make Superman fight someone who's as powerful as he is, or put Superman's loved ones in mortal danger that can't be easily resolved. There are rumors that Snyder plans to bring back Superman II's evil Kryptonian General Zod; if that's true, he's already halfway there.
3. Get the cast right. Despite the film's countless other flaws, Brandon Routh's lead performance in Superman Returns was excellent. The rest of the cast, however, was a nightmare, from Kate Bosworth's obnoxious Lois Lane to Kevin Spacey's scenery-chewing turn as Lex Luthor. In casting Man of Steel, Snyder should follow the examples of Batman Begins and Iron Man: find a young, charismatic lead for your hero, and pad the rest of the cast with respected veteran character actors.
4. Do everything Man of Steel's producer Christopher Nolan says. Nolan masterfully revived the Batman franchise with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight after Joel Schumacher killed it with 1997's campy George Clooney-starring Batman & Robin. If there's anyone who know how to do a reboot right, it's Nolan.
5. Keep the John Williams theme song. Because—modernization be damned—some things are too perfect to change.