A Few Impressions

'Man of Steel': The Super Movie

By James Franco


Image by Courtney Nicholas

Last week I was asked to attend the London premiere of Man of Steel, so after working on my forthcoming little thriller at Pinewood studios, I went over to Leicester Square to see the latest filmic take on the superhero.

Many things went through my head, both subjective and objective, or rather as a person on the inside of the film business and as an indiscriminate viewer of the film. I too have been in comic-book films—the Spider-Man trilogy directed by Sam Raimi. I mention the director because this distinction is now necessary in the wake of the new Spider-Man series that arose even before there was time to bury the corpse of the old one and enshroud it in the haze of nostalgia. Indeed there are still young children who approach me as fans of the original (boy, it seems weird to say that) series. I don’t have a huge emotional attachment to the Spider-Man franchise as a subject, my biggest sentimental ties are to the people I worked with on those films: Sam, Toby, Kirsten, the late and great Laura Ziskin, and the hundreds of others who worked with us. I don’t really feel much distress over its being remade, for many reasons, but what is interesting to me is that it has been remade so quickly—and the reasons why.

The answer is, of course, money. We are in the film business, and the studios are owned by large corporations who want to make money. And in this art form, where so much is spent and so much profit can be made, one criterion for success is inevitably the financial. And when movies become so big that they can make $200 million in one weekend like The Avengers did, everyone from studios to filmmakers are going to want to get in on making comic-book movies. And when great directors like Sam Raimi and Christopher Nolan show that equally great characters can live within special-effects-laden films, then the comic-book genre becomes legitimized and great actors will follow. But the biggest reason, we cannot forget, is money. For all involved, it’s about being able to work with the biggest toys and the best people, because the product can support paying for them. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If you want to make a movie about a man who can fly and tear spaceships in half with his hands, then you need lots of money to make it look good. Otherwise you might as well keep the story in the comic books, where it costs much less to make superhuman feats look cool.

I was also at Leicester Square earlier this year for the premiere of my film Oz, when the red carpet was a yellow brick road, but the night I saw the new Superman, I arrived incognito: 1) because it wasn’t my film, and 2) because I don’t think Henry Cavill would have wanted to see me there. Not that we’re enemies. Years ago we worked on a film together called Tristan and Isolde. I played Tristan and he played my backstabbing sidekick. My hunch is that he didn’t like me very much. I don’t know this for certain, but I know that I wouldn’t have liked myself back then because I was a difficult young actor who took himself too seriously.

What Henry took seriously back then was Superman. He wanted to be Superman more than anything in the world. Personally, I’m not sure why. I missed the whole Superman-film phenomenon. I was more a fan of director Richard Donner’s Goonies and Lethal Weapon. I can understand the appeal the original Superman comics had for the WWII generation and its need for a hero to rid the world of evil, but in my days as a young man, this appeal was long outstripped by the cheesiness of the character’s suit and his douchey invincibility. But Henry was dying to do the Bryan Singer version of Superman that was being put together as we were shooting Tristan in Ireland and the Czech Republic in 2005. Henry was in the running but, in the end, he was passed over for Brandon Routh.

The night of the premiere I saw Henry from afar on the red carpet and knew this was the moment his whole life had been building toward. His dream had come true, and I was happy for him. It was the role he would have killed to do, with the right director (Zack Snyder: 300, Watchmen) and the right producer (Chris Nolan: The Dark Knight)—people who would keep the story and the characters focused, grounded by Chris’s regular team of David S. Goyer and Emma Thomas. If anything this was a project that must have made the people who made it very happy.

So, what did we watch? A great film. But what makes me say this? Is it the nerd revolution that has brought our public taste to the point where comic-book characters and video games are now cool? Are these huge comic-book films the way for the world at large to embrace the subjects of these forms that are traditionally relegated to the nerd niche? Yes, in a way. But in another way, we are just wowed by the money that brings them to fruition. Kids like comic-book-style heroes, teens like flashy action and sex, and therefore these films make money. Adults—the third audience—respect money. So these films are made. Again and again. And if Brandon Routh doesn’t work as Superman, or if Sam Raimi can’t agree on the villain for a fourth Spider-Man, they will just make new versions without them. Man of Steel is great because it delivers everything it should. It made Superman cool again. It delivered great action and interesting characters with a plot that was grounded enough to make us care a little.

In addition, to be fair, movies are fighting for their lives. With all the great television that is increasingly monopolizing good drama, and the video games that allow people to actively engage rather than sit back as passive viewers, movies need to offer something that these other forms can’t: big effects, 3D, and money, money, money.

But, in the end, why did I really walk away liking it? It wasn’t because of the film’s message. Maybe I sound naïve going to a film like this for a message, but images and themes are being thrown at me in 3D, so I want to know what I’m swallowing. One of the main reasons I liked it was because in this film, Superman’s S symbol stands for “hope” on the planet Krypton. Viewers discover that Superman is the symbol of hope for his dead race and simultaneously the symbol of hope for the human race. He hides his powers for the first 30 years of his life on Earth because his adopted father (Kevin Costner) believes that humans won’t be ready for him. In this way Superman is presented as a kind of Christ figure, given to Earth to save humanity. (A parallel that has been made many times before, I’m sure. Jesus Christ Superstar, anyone?) But sadly this Christ doesn’t teach any fishermen how to fish. He just does all the heavy lifting himself. If we are supposed to have hope in anything, it’s hope that Superman keeps fighting for good. If he doesn’t, we have no way of stopping him.

I guess that sounds a bit like the movie itself. We love these movies because they’re so big, and damn, they’re all that we have. They aren’t going away, so we just have to keep hoping that they are, at the very least, well made. 

Follow James on Twitter: @JamesFrancoTV

Previously - The Parallel Structure in 'Strangers on a Train'

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