Friday, September 16, 2011

Superman: The Man of Yesterday

I frequently see updates on the filming of both The Dark Knight Rises (2012) and Superman: Man of Steel (2013) in my twitter timeline. Most of the time, I cave in and have a look at the latest spoilers and set shots, but occasionally I get a spine and resist, out of the desire to let the films surprise me by what they are as finished products. Having every little tidbit and nugget about the making of each film crammed down my throat on an almost daily basis is a kind of death.

I think Christian Bale's interpretation of Batman has made the transition into the 21st century quite well. Both Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008) have done extremely well and avoided the terrible curse of campiness to which many past superhero films have given way.

Then I think about Superman.

Please don't take this the wrong way, but I've always been disappointed with the Christopher Reeve Superman movies. Granted, the first film was released in 1978, but it wasn't the lack of CGI or 3D technology that was at fault but the attitude of the film makers. Superman was played completely for camp. There was some taking him seriously in the first film but with each sequel, he became more and more silly. Here's an example.

Remember the first appearance of Superman in the original film? Lois's helecopter is disabled, the pilot is knocked unconscious, and Lois is suspended a hundred stories over the streets of Metropolis, hanging only by a seat belt and screaming for her life. Clark makes his magical transformation into Superman and lifts both her and the falling helecopter back to the safety of the roof of the Daily Planet building. Afterward, Superman gives Lois a supportive talk about how air travel is still the safest way to fly. Boy Scout as always, right?

The gag is, as Superman turns away from Lois and as he's walking out of the scene, he gets the biggest grin on his face. The whole Boy Scout speech was just an act. He's totally having her on (she passes out a few seconds later).

Cut to Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1981) which was horrible and total anti-nuke propaganda. Superman narrowly prevents a total subway disaster which would have killed hundreds. After the rescue, he gives an impromptu speech to the passengers he just saved about how Metropolis's subway system is still the safest in the world.

The problem is that here, he's totally serious. The campy "mask" he wore in the first film became his real "face" by the last movie. Superman became a clown in a cape. It didn't have to be that way. But what went wrong?

Part of it was that Hollywood never took comic book heroes seriously and it showed in the writing and directing. The actors did their best, but you can only work with the script in hand and those scripts made superheroes seem like...well, comic book characters. If you actually read a comic book from 1978 or before, they really did sound campy and sappy. The dialog could be terrible if said outloud in real life. Comic books don't translate into reality without a lot of massage work. Christopher Nolan was willing to take a completely different approach with his Batman films and it paid off magnificently. Let's hope Zack Snyder can pull it off with the next big screen incarnation of the last son of Krypton.

There's another problem, though.

Both Superman and Batman were originally created in the context of the 1930s. They both represent two sides of the same Depression-era coin. Batman represents the pulp fiction heroes popular during that time period and the darkness and dispair experienced by victims of street and corporate crime. The original Dark Knight had an almost "it takes a thief" approach to crime fighting, by becoming as menacing and as fear-provoking as the people he battled.

Superman was almost as "dark" in a sense. I once had the opportunity to read the first appearence of Superman in Action Comics #1 (June 1938) online (this was years ago and I'm sure it's been taken off the web by now). Superman was pretty heavy handed back then, extorting confessions out of crooked politicians by hanging them off the rooftops of tall buildings, threatening to drop them to the ground (sounds more like Batman). I understand that young, 21st century comic book Superman is doing similar things in the 2011 version of Action Comics 1. The original Superman fought rampant political corruption and criminal gangs by overwhelming them with his power. He was like everyone's big brother and protector. If a helpless person was victimized by a big, tough "bully", Superman was bigger and tougher than the "bully" and he'd beat the snot out of him. The victims were saved and they had someone who would always look out for them.

Times changed.

If you look at the development of Superman and Batman across the 1940s through the 1970s for example, you'll see their very natures and characters changed dramatically. Batman and Robin really were as corny as their 1960s TV show counterparts (it really wasn't Adam West's and Burt Ward's fault after all). The tough, action oriented, no-nonsense heroes of the 1930s became the clowns in capes of the 1950s and 60s. No wonder the movie Superman of 1978 acted the way he did. "Darkness" in comic books didn't return until the 1980s and 90s and certainly by the 2000s, it was time to try and take them back to their roots.

With Batman, that's certainly possible, but will it work with Superman? In 1938, there really were "great metropolitan newspapers" which were a force for "truth, justice, and the American" way. It was completely realistic for Clark Kent to work as a reporter to get the inside scoop on the latest emergencies and crimes happening in Metropolis and beyond. Today, newspapers are dying, and instead of being beacons of truth and information (OK, I'm exaggerating, there's always been "yellow journalism"), they're now (for the most part) propaganda machines, selling a single social and political vision of the world that hardly resembles the lives we really lead (kind of like "reality TV"). Who would Clark Kent be today, where would he work, and how would he act if we didn't have the model of the 1930s Man of Steel?

What would happen if we just tossed the 21st century into the trash can as far as Superman goes? What would happen if the next Superman film was set in 1938? Little Clark's spaceship would have crashlanded in a Kansas wheat field during or near World War I. Clark would have grown up in a world without the Internet, without TV, without microwaves, or iPhones, or Lady Gaga. In that place and time, his adoptive parents, the Kents, would have almost certainly been Christians, so Clark would have been raised with a specific set of attitudes. He would have grown up in a world where Chicago was completely dominated by the mobs. Tales of Capone and Dillinger would have been all over the news as would Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, and Joe DiMaggio.

The tough part for modern film makers would be to capture the essence of the era and the people living in it, including Clark Kent/Superman, without imposing 21st century politically correct attitudes on the movie. Superman would have to be a Superman who was completely a child of his environment. Who would he be like? The Superman of Action Comics 1, June of 1938? Certainly. But could we relate to him? Could we even stand him?

Maybe or maybe not. I love the time period and am a big fan of dieselpunk, so I think he'd work out just fine for me, but how about you?

Will Superman, the iconic image, the "greatest American hero", be able to survive, let alone thrive, in the 21st century and be taken seriously? We won't find out until 2013. I certainly hope so. I'm still hoping that someday the film studios will become bold again, groundbreaking again, and make Superman 1938. I think it would be a blast!


  1. Oh man, I can honestly say that Superman will continue to survive. I read Action Comics #1 on my I Pad the other day, and what they've done with the character is brilliant. There will always be a need for a social crusader when social issues matter. Can you imagine Clark Kent reporting from the Jasmine Revolution? If I was working for DC Comics, oh man, you bet he would. ;)


  3. Too true. Today, Clark Kent would be tweeting and live blogging at such events...when he wasn't intervening as Superman, of course.