Where there's a malaise, we need a messiah. Hollywood is certainly in a malaise, with 2011's first-quarter box-office receipts down 20 per cent from a year ago, sagging under the weight of such expensive flops as Red Riding Hood, Mars Needs Moms and Battle: Los Angeles. Perhaps that's why there's been so much buzz over the past week about Superman: Man of Steel, a movie that won't even open until December, 2012.
In the last week we've learned that Amy Adams, fresh off her Oscar nomination for The Fighter, will play Lois Lane opposite English actor Henry Cavill in the title role. We already know that Kevin Costner and Diane Lane have signed on as an attractive Ma and Pa Kent, and that the movie will start shooting in Chicago this summer with an estimated $175-million (U.S.) budget.
But there are major cracks appearing in the Fortress of Solitude. Last Sunday, Nikki Fink's scoop site, Deadline Hollywood, released part of a letter from the recently deceased Joanne Siegel, the widow of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel (and inspiration for Lois Lane), imploring media giant Time-Warner not to pursue its current legal actions against her and her ill daughter. The lawsuit, which The Hollywood Reporter called a "cartoonishly nasty" copyright battle between the company and the estates of Siegel and his Superman co-creator, Canadian-born artist Joe Shuster, was re-launched in November, 2010, and is a story that can only get bigger.
The controversy is also a reminder that, for a dude wearing only a cape and a leotard, Superman carries a surprising amount of baggage. Ever since director Richard Donner was fired while filming the 1980 sequel to the original 1978 film, the franchise has been mishandled. After four Superman films and one Supergirl, the series was run into the ground by 1987. For most the next 20 years, the Man of Steel was left to rust in development hell. A string of titles, including Superman: The New Movie, Superman Reborn, Superman Lives, Superman: Flyby and Batman Vs. Superman, were pitched but never fully produced. Tim Burton spent a fruitless year working on a Superman film. Potential Supermen – Nicolas Cage, Josh Hartnett and Will Smith – never made it to the screen.
Meanwhile, the superhero landscape changed. Sam Raimi's Spider-Man and Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins revived the genre by tapping into the post-9/11 discourse on heroism. Bryan Singer's Superman Returns felt dated when it was released in 2006, and although the film earned more than $390-million at the box office, Warner Bros. felt it underperformed. After a repeatedly delayed sequel, the studio decided to jump on the current "re-boot" mania and fast-tracked an entirely new Superman movie, based on a script by David S. Goyer ( Batman Begins, The Dark Knight).
The company picked special-effects whiz Zack Snyder ( 300, Watchmen), a director whom the L.A. Times called a "polarizing" figure. Last weekend, Snyder's pet project, Sucker Punch, fizzled so badly it was out-drawn at the box office by Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules. That must have caused a few Warner executives to choke on their morning lattes before they went into damage-control mode.
To that end, Jeff Goldstein, the executive in charge of domestic distribution for the company, told the L.A. Times that Sucker Punch "brought out [Snyder's] core fan base," then added that the director "has a lot of potential, and with a bigger, broader title, he can attract a wider audience, as he has in the past." As a vote of confidence, that was almost enthusiastic.
So, long before the movie actually hits the theatres, much remains muddled and one thing is certain: The backstage story of Superman: Man of Steel should provide us with one of the liveliest dramas in Hollywood.
OPENING NEXT WEEK
Arthur A remake of the 1981 Dudley Moore comedy about a hapless heir (Russell Brand) and a clever minder (Helen Mirren) who teaches him how to be independent. Also with Jennifer Garner.
Beeswax Part of the new low-key Mumblecore movement, Andrew Bujalski's Austin-set film explores the relationship between twin sisters: Jeannie, a vintage clothing store owner and paraplegic, and Lauren, her unemployed sibling.
The Bend Debut feature from Canadian director Jennifer Kierans follows a 17-year-old boy (Adam Alex Butcher) who, a year after the mysterious death of his brother, believes he may be losing his mind.
Hanna Saoirse Ronan ( The Lovely Bones) stars as a child raised by her father (Eric Bana) to be a professional assassin, with Cate Blanchett as the intelligence agent on her trail. Joe Wright ( Atonement) directs.
Kaboom A college student takes some hallucinogenic mushrooms and has a life-changing, erotic, apocalyptic night in the latest film from Gregg Greg Araki.
Littlerock A Japanese woman's car breaks down in a small California town, where she becomes involved with the locals, despite language differences, in this American independent film from Mike Ott.
Rubber French musician and filmmaker Quentin Dupieux's droll English-language oddity follows a psycho tire on a killing spree, as well as the film crew and spectators who participate in the experience.
Soul Surfer A drama based on the real story of teen surfer, who lost her arm in a shark attack and came back to be a sports champion. With AnnaSophia Robb, Helen Hunt and Denis Quaid.
Son of Sunshine A young man with Tourette's syndrome can cure his condition, but at the price of his supernatural gifts in this debut Canadian feature from Ryan Ward, which played at the 2009 Slamdance Film Festival.
Your Highness The estimable David Gordon Green ( All the Real Girls) directs this medieval-times comedy in which Danny McBride plays Prince Thadeus, who goes on a quest with his useless brother (James Franco) to rescue his kidnapped bride (Natalie Portman).