Last week, the third trailer for this summer's upcoming Superman reboot Man of Steel was released, giving fans a longer look at the film. The three-minute trailer offers audiences their first look at characters like Jor-el (Russell Crowe), Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner), Lois Lane (Amy Adams), and General Zod (Michael Shannon), as well as shots of Superman (Henry Cavill) in action. But more importantly it conveys to audiences the tone Man of Steel is attempting to achieve. While Bryan Singer's 2006 film, Superman Returns, offered what was essentially a continuation of Richard Donner's films, director Zach Synder (Watchmen, 300) and writer David Goyer seem to be doing everything they can to set this film apart from the earlier series of the 70s and 80s; they even go out of their way to avoid mentioning the hero's name in the trailer. In one of the trailer's more humorous moments, Kal-el blows the word "Superman" out of Lois’s mouth when she suggests the nickname.
Watch the trailer below:
Rather than continuity, this trailer emphasizes an elegiac tone and the fact that Man of Steel is a whole new envisioning of the Superman mythology — similar to what Christopher Nolan (who serves here as producer and is credited with the story) did with Batman in his Dark Knight trilogy. The trailer plays up emotional moments between fathers and son, emphasizes the hopeful, ideal aspects of the Superman myth (even drawing the notion that the S-shield stands for "hope" from the Superman: Birthright comic book miniseries), and implicitly asks the audience if they are ready for a new Superman. Synder's film employs desaturated cinematography, combined with shots of nature and flowing camera movement. This film style has come to be associated with "realism" in contemporary filmmaking. Some have even suggested, (especially after the first two trailers that played down the action in favor of Clarks childhood and journey around the world) that the film is going for a "Terrence Malick style;" shots of babies and grass blowing in the wind, contrasted against a cosmic backdrop, certainly bring to mind Malick's Tree of Life.
But does such a radically different style mean anything significant to the superhero film as a genre? Nolan's Batman films and Marvel's The Avengers and Iron Man both found phenomenal success in very different film styles. Nolan's film attempted to ground the Batman myth in a film language of crime cinema. Film noir and the films of Michael Mann are touchstones of that series. Marvel Studios' films take a distinctly less stylistically adventurous angle, aligning with mainstream action and adventure film conventions. The success of The Avengers or Iron Man relies on their characters' robust personalities and the unique voices of creators such as Joss Whedon or Shane Black (in the upcoming Iron Man 3) to maintain a sense of freshness.
Man of Steel, The Dark Knight, and The Avengers all have significant stylistic differences and explore different themes. While some critics have bemoaned the over-saturation of the superhero genre, the variety of films that are being produced shows that the superhero film well is not dried up. To suggest that the potential for the genre has been exhausted is to accede to the notion that there is only one way to do a superhero film. Creators need to tap into what makes the characters unique, acknowledging that, like the science fiction genre that superheroes draw from, the superhero film is a hybrid genre that can benefit from stylistic creativity. Superhero-comedy, superhero-drama, superhero-romance: all of these are possibilities, as well as variations in cinematography, editing, and narrative structure.
What is it that makes superhero films so popular? It is the compelling characters who form a contemporary, shared mythology that make it work. To suggest that the superhero film is a strict genre, with specific stylistic imperatives, is to ignore the immense freedom that artists can have in telling these stories. I'm excited to see what Man of Steel does in bringing a fresh take on the Superman myth, while tapping into some of the themes at the core of the character that have made him a lasting icon.