'Man of Steel' needs to be good

Published: Thursday, May 9 2013 3:48 p.m. MDT

Henry Cavill as Superman in "Man of Steel."

Warner Bros.

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Iron Man is dominating the box office and many more superhero movies are on tap for the summer and beyond. But right now, only one of them really matters.

Bottom line: “Man of Steel” needs to be good.

Why? What’s the big deal? Well, because it’s a Superman movie. And Superman is not just a superhero — he’s the superhero. Since 1938, when Big Blue first burst onto the scene in Action Comics #1, every other guy in tights has just been a variation on the Superman theme.

And it’s been far, far too long since Supes has shown up in a decent movie.

Forty years after the Man of Steel’s comic book debut, “Superman: The Movie” set the cinematic template for how to handle the transition from the pulpy page to the silver screen. Prior to 1978, the best we got was a campy, “BAM! POW!” low-budget Batman movie, noteworthy only for Adam West’s reluctance to drop a bomb on a flock of baby ducks.

That’s no surprise. Comic books have always been considered lowbrow, silly kid stuff. “Superman: The Movie” was the first film of its kind to treat its source material with respect. Director Richard Donner approached his subject not as a cartoon, but as a mythological archetype. He recognized that comic books are our modern legends and there are layers of depth and wonder beneath all the derring-do.

Sadly, however, subsequent sequels were not kind to the Last Son of Krypton. Oh, sure, “Superman II” was pretty good, especially with Terence Stamp yelling “Kneel before Zod” all the time. But “Superman III” wasn’t good. And “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” shouldn’t even be spoken of in polite company. (Seriously. Look away — it’s hideous.)

The 20 years subsequent to the ignominious end of the Christopher Reeve film series saw several attempts to resurrect Superman’s movie career and all of them were lousy. Tim Burton envisioned a weird, creepy Superman movie starring Nicolas Cage with a spit curl on his toupee. When that collapsed, current Star Wars/Trek wunderkind J.J. Abrams pitched a screenplay where the planet Krypton doesn’t explode, and where Lex Luthor is actually a closet Kryptonian himself, who eventually takes to the skies to fight Kal-El mano-a-mano. Fans were outraged, and that version died, too, and deservedly so.

Then Bryan Singer showed up to direct 2006’s “Superman Returns.”

Geeks like me were encouraged, having seen Singer’s outstanding work on the first two X-Men flicks. And the news coming out of the production made it clear that he was going out of his way to honor what had gone before. The movie was going to be a loose sequel to the first two Christopher Reeve films. He was even going to use John Williams’ Oscar-nominated Superman theme.

This guy gets it, I thought. He reveres Superman just as much as I do.

Sadly, that was the problem. An overdose of reverence sank “Superman Returns.” Singer’s movie was a limp retread that merely recycled the core of the original Donner film. It also added some unseemly elements to the Superman mythos, transforming the Man of Tomorrow into a peeping tom and a deadbeat dad. Sure, it wasn’t “Superman IV,” but that’s not saying much.

So when “Man of Steel” was announced, I was skeptical. And when the first trailers showed up, with brooding shots of a bearded Clark Kent on a fishing boat that seemed more moody than majestic, I got scared.

But then I saw the latest trailer. It had Superman being super, punching bad guys in midair. It was fun, exciting and even moving. It looked good. Really good. This new movie might actually be good.

Please, please be good.

Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.

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