There is something about the Superman story. It is has literally captivated me my whole life. There are countless comic books, television series, cartoons and books but for me Superman will always be Christopher Reeve in the original Richard Donner film. And despite the awful special effects and many awkward scenes, the film still stands up for me (number 2 is a disgrace although the Donner cut does show the potential that was originally there, 3 & 4 should be destroyed with extreme prejudice). I even have a soft spot for Superman Returns despite its many faults, probably because Bryan Singer taps straight into the nostalgia vein (and purposely ignores Superman 3 & 4).
There are many great Super Hero stories but Superman is the original. And there are many elements that make Superman is so ever lasting. Batman is the current Super Hero benchmark, especially in Hollywood, although I would argue he isn’t a Super Hero (he has no super powers). Other Super Heroes are mutated humans, gods or powered by some kind of device or power source. Superman is different because he is an alien, the ultimate outsider. He is forever trying to understand, while also trying to protect, humanity. Quentin Tarantino summed it up best in Kill Bill 2:
“Batman is actually Bruce Wayne, Spider-Man is actually Peter Parker. When that character wakes up in the morning, he’s Peter Parker. He has to put on a costume to become Spider-Man. And it is in that characteristic Superman stands alone. Superman didn’t become Superman. Superman was born Superman. When Superman wakes up in the morning, he’s Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit with the big red “S”, that’s the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby when the Kents found him. Those are his clothes. What Kent wears – the glasses, the business suit – that’s the costume. That’s the costume Superman wears to blend in with us. Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent. He’s weak… he’s unsure of himself… he’s a coward. Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race.”
Superman is the ultimate Super Hero. He has every super power you could wish for and is practically invulnerable except for only one weakness (well two if you count Lois and who wouldn’t have a weakness for her). Yet we’re still enthralled by his adventures, despite knowing its virtually impossible for him to lose. Which I think shows the magic of the character. As well as possessing super powers he is also humble and without a trace of vanity which leaves him in a unique position to tackle our great moral problems. He is also devoted to justice and a sense of fairness that is also unclouded. Though this can also be exploited as a weakness.
Superman’s story has been told many times over. Richard Donner’s film, written by Mario Puzo, is for me the perfect origin story. The film is limited by the special effects of the time and the occasional scene of bad acting but the key to the film working is firstly Christopher Reeve, who pulls off Superman and Clark Kent perfectly. For any Superman story to work you have to believe they are two separate characters because for any self-respecting viewer the glasses do not work on their own.
The second element is Lois. Margot Kidder absolutely nails the role and has made it virtually impossible for any other actress to seize the part. She’s everything Lois needs to be. She is brave, courageous and fearless. She pulls no punches and takes no crap. She does not end up in jeopardy or need of rescue through weakness or frailty rather the complete opposite. Her determination and stubbornness to uncover the truth is what gets Lois into trouble. This also puts her on the outside which is why she and Superman have such a strong connection. (Note, I am ignoring Superman II).
Superman was conceived in the 1930s and if you want to get a sense of the time and place he was born out of you should read Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Setting Superman in the modem day seems to be one of the biggest challenges in updating his story. It was one of the reasons Superman Returns didn’t quite work and also I think the sequels to Donner’s film. I think Donner’s film just caught the cusp of the era where Superman works (although the ending is a total cop out that makes no sense). From 1980 onwards there doesn’t seem room in the world for a Superman (one that works in a movie anyway).
After Superman Returns there were rumours flying everywhere of a Superman reboot. The story I hoped they would have told was It’s Superman by Tom De Haven. Written as a novel De Haven set his Superman story in the 1930s and it works perfectly. The naive Clark Kent exists perfectly in this setting and the strong willed character of Lois excels. It is probably the best realised version of Lex Luthor too. Instead of the surreal super villain we have come to expect from Lex, he is distilled into the best kind of villain for Superman, a politician. De Haven also keeps a great sense of humour throughout the story that is witty and far from some of the cheesy humour that has crept into some Superman stories. This would have been a great vehicle for someone like the Coen Brothers to make and turn the whole Super Hero franchise on its head. It would have also been perfect for the actor I think could play the ultimate Clark Kent/Superman – Jon Hamm from Mad Men.
Instead we have the very modern reboot, Man of Steel. While Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer (Dark Knight Trilogy) are behind it there are many aspects that have me quite apprehensive. Reboots are tricky because you start to mess with the mythology. Nolan and Boyer nailed it in Batman Begins but can they do it again? (The Dark Knight Rises was pretty weak compared to the first two films). Also modernising Superman seems to be its downfall and Man of Steel will be very modern including by the looks of it the elements of Krypton. Casting Kevin Costner and Russell Crow also sets off alarm bells and it will be interesting to see their roles in the new film.
One of the downfalls of the Lois & Clark TV series (apart from the prolonged romantic tension) was that Clark had both his parents (Smallville did this too I think, although I couldn’t watch it). One of the key aspects to Superman’s origin story is that he loses his “earth Father”. Superman must be alone. It is a crucial element of his make up (his home isn’t called the Fortress of Solitude for nothing). It is also why the love triangle between Superman, Clark and Lois can work so well. Clark needs Lois to be more human but Lois getting close to Superman threatens his solitude.
One part of me is excited silly about the prospect of a new Superman movie, while another part is full of dread. Super heroes are very much in vogue at the moment, particularly those retold with a dark, hard edge rather that the camp, slapstick they had become in the 80s and 90s. I like the blacker sides to these reboots but am wary when it comes to Superman. Yes, he is a character born at one of the darkest points in human history but does that mean he will still work in a world one could argue is darker? Classic stories will always be retold to try and capture a new generational audience but sometimes going back to the time and pace the story came from is better than forcing the story forward into a new time and place where you risk the story and the character no longer being relevant or even believably possible.
UPDATE 21/7 [spoiler alert]
So I’ve seen Man Of Steel and I was bitterly disappointed. I think the whole film was a complete betrayal of Superman, as a story and as a character. What made it worse was there were some really good elements to Zack Snyder’s film but it was fundamentally flawed because everyone involved seemed to have no understanding of what makes Superman who he is and why people have loved the character for so long.
I’ll start with what I did like. I loved Krypton. I thought they did a great job creating Kal-El’s home world. Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Jonathan and Martha Kent were also really good and the flashbacks of Clark’s story growing up worked really well. Michael Shannon was also brilliant as General Zod and I didn’t mind Russel Crowe as Jor-El.
But the film betrayed three fundamental characters; Superman, Clark Kent and Lois Lane.
I’ll start with Lois. I was really looking forward to seeing Amy Adams as Lois Lane. I thought it would be a good fit and she did a fair job with the material she was given. However the strong willed, fiercely independent character we have come to know wasn’t there. Instead we were given a 2nd class character who we are meant to just accept is a brilliant journalist even though she rushes off to write a flimsy and highly speculative piece about aliens and spaceships. Lois Lane should be a goldmine for any screenwriter to explore. Instead of investing any time or energy in developing her as a character it seemed like the film makers just expected the audience to bring their own knowledge of the character with them and consequently were get a Lois Lane who is barely there and who has no credibility or respectability.
Clark Kent is where the film is truly let down. Clark Kent and Superman are two separate characters (yes, yes I know they are the same person) and Man Of Steel failed to portray this. Clark Kent is Superman’s connection to humanity. Being Clark Kent helps Superman understand what it means to be human. Yes Clark Kent doesn’t ever really fit in but that is also part of Clark’s experience and understanding that helps make him Superman. There is no delineation in Man Of Steel between Clark Kent and Superman. The Clark Kent character isn’t portrayed as an adult until the last 10 seconds of the film instead we get Superman/Kal-El for the whole movie. And the fact that Lois knows Superman is Clark Kent is just …… [insert expletive]
And now we come to real problem of Man Of Steel. That wasn’t Superman. Superman doesn’t let thousands of people get injured and killed while he fights the bad guy. Superman is near invincible. His only weakness (apart from Kryptonite) is his humanity and the Superman in Man Of Steel did not possess this weakness. In both of the film’s big fight scenes, in Smallville and Metropolis, Superman shows a callous disregard to the damage he causes and the consequences suffered by innocent bystanders. The only time he does finally care about the bystanders is right at the end when he is fighting Zod and what does he do? He kills Zod. The most un-Superman thing he could possibly do and quite frankly the ultimate betrayal of who Superman is and what he stands for.
I was so let down by this film. What makes it worse is that there were some good elements. The potential for a great new Superman story was there but the film makers failed because they didn’t understand the story or it’s characters. Unfortunately the film has done well at the box office and it looks like the follow up with be a combined Batman/Superman film with all the same people, behind and in front of the camera, involved. After doing so much to revitalize Batman with The Dark Knight Trilogy I shiver to think what Zack Snyder will do to that character.