James Gunn must usher in nothing less than Superman’s big-screen second coming

James Gunn must usher in nothing less than Superman’s big-screen second coming

The definitive take … Christopher Reeve in Superman, 1978.
The definitive take … Christopher Reeve in Superman, 1978. Photograph: Warner Bros/Allstar

The Guardians of the Galaxy writer-director and DC Studios CEO has turned his focus to the company’s ultimate hero. But will anyone ever fill Christopher Reeve’s 45-year-old red boots?

The old DC adage (with apologies to Voltaire) always went that if Superman did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him. Perhaps such religious imagery goes some way to explaining why, despite umpteen reboots over the years, and even though the character had been in existence for four decades by the time he really arrived on the big screen, it is Richard Donner’s 1978 take, starring the quietly majestic Christopher Reeve, that remains the definitive iteration. For comic-book fans, that version of the man of steel really was right up there with Jesus and, frankly, there never has been a second coming.

Nobody could accuse James Gunn of not being up for a challenge then, following the news this week that the Guardians of the Galaxy film-maker will direct Superman: Legacy, from his own script. Not content with jumping in to take charge of Warner Bros’s stumbling DC extended universe – a movie mega-saga that has had more ups and downs than Batman has had run-ins with the Joker, the newly installed DC head honcho will now take charge of what is billed as an epoch-defining reboot for the last son of Krypton.

Gunn will be trying to solve a problem that has tripped up film-makers for more than 40 years: how to get Kal-El right on the big screen. Ever since Donner delivered the near flawless Superman, there hasn’t been a single theatrically released movie about DC’s mainstay that didn’t at the very least divide critics, and in many cases have them running for the cinema doors.

It’s a baffling situation, because Reeve’s godlike superhero was perfect from the moment we first met him, back when there was no playbook for comic-book movies and Donner had to create one. And Reeve – dignified, graceful and gorgeously statuesque but with remarkable humility for a superhuman with the power to turn back time and fly to other planets – induced in audiences an almost neo-religious level of awe.

How it went so wrong in the intervening decades is perplexing when it was all there from day one. But the film’s rights-holders and producers, Alexander and Ilya Salkind, clearly felt they knew better than their own director, and decided to oust Donner in favour of the far less visionary Richard Lester for 1980’s Superman II. The sequel has its moments, not least Terence Stamp’s thrillingly frosty performance as Kryptonian super-sociopath General Zod, but Lester’s determination to throw in his trademark campy comedy marked what was really the beginning of the end for Reeve’s Superman.

Additional episodes Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace followed in 1983 and 1987 respectively, but by that point there was nothing left of the soaring, warm-hearted, fabulously cod-Shakespearean epic fantasy of the short-lived Donner era. (The Richard Donner cut, released in 2006, gives us glimpses of what might have been if the film-maker hadn’t been fired after shooting around three-quarters of Superman II, but for me it always felt a little cobbled together from limited, decades-old footage.)

Too much homage … the trailer for Superman Returns

The rest is a continuing tale of mediocrity and underachievement. Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (2006) paid too much homage to the Donner era, with Brandon Routh completely failing to recapture Reeve’s quiet charisma. Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, with Henry Cavill now installed in the suit, had style in spades but very little substance and far too many explosions. Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) was more marketing exercise than movie, while Justice League (2017) always felt like Batfleck’s film rather than Cavill’s, in both the original theatrical and Snyder Cut iterations (though at least the latter version didn’t suffer quite so horribly from moustache-gate).

Superman: Legacy, which will reportedly focus on a younger version of the superhero while he is still a cub reporter at the Daily Planet, is expected in 2025. Gunn said this week he finally decided to sign on as director (having already written the script) after discovering “a way in that felt unique and fun and emotional that gave Superman the dignity he deserved”, suggesting the new film will focus on Kal-El’s dual heritage as the son of both aristocratic Kryptonian parents and Kansas farmers. Gunn added: “Just because I write something doesn’t mean I feel it in my bones, visually and emotionally, enough to spend over two years directing it, especially not something of this magnitude. But, the long and the short of it is, I love this script, and I’m incredibly excited as we begin this journey.”

His challenge, then, is to bring back the Superman we once knew and loved without offering up a pale imitation of Donner’s film. This needs to be a life-affirming, joyously epic experience that makes everyone forget that any of the sardonic, in-jokey, wonderfully throwaway Marvel movies ever existed. It needs to define an entirely new era for the superhero genre. A true second coming for the man of steel on the big screen, almost a half century after he first wowed audiences. So, no pressure then.

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