Over the course of 75 years, the creation of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two young men from Ohio, has not only withstood the test of time, but has grown because of time. Yes, Superman has not always been successfully translated to the screen, big or small, just as he hasn’t always been successful in his own comic books, but he has somehow managed to survive the Senate Committee Hearings of 1954, the stark realism that grew out of the 1960s and into the 1970s due to the Vietnam War and the cynicism of modern America. His origin story is retold over and over again. I’ve read two very different retellings in just the last three years–Superman: Secret Origin by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank, and Superman: Earth One by J. Michael Straczynski and Shane Davis, both of which are superb–and have at least three that I can think of downloaded from Comixology (Superman: Birthright by Mark Waid and Leinil Francis Yu, Superman for All Seasons by Jeff Loeb and Tim Sales, and Superman: Secret Identity by Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen). His personality has changed though the core of this modern American myth remains the same.
In watching and rewatching Superman’s exploits on the Silver Screen, it becomes apparent just how much his story is our story. The baby from another place comes to the United States, learns the principle values on which this country was founded, and grows up to do his best to maintain those values both to keep what is essential about himself as well as to be a role model to the humans he could so easily annihilate. His values aren’t just American, in the end, but human.
Each version of Superman that made it to the Silver Screen was able to capture where this character was at any given time. The early Fleischer and Famous cartoons gave us a Superman who was quick to leap into battle and protect Metropolis, the United States, and the world from danger. The 1948 and 1950 serials gave us a Superman who was ready to get the bad guys with gusto and verve. Superman and the Mole Men (1951) gave us a Superman who would use his might when needed to but would appeal to our goodness and be a role model when possible. The Superman portrayed by Christopher Reeve was a straight-forward, earnest man who spoke plainly but also was all-too-human. He made mistakes but, more importantly, he rose above those mistakes. Brandon Routh’s Superman was a throw-back to Reeve’s but in the modern world. Does the earnest, caring young man with the strong principles have a place in a world as complicated as this one? What happens when the human emotions become so strong in the man who can never be physically hurt? And Henry Cavill’s Superman brings us to the modern era in which you and I live, with a young man torn between doing what’s right and doing what’s safe. How does the world react to a super man in Post-9/11 America when there’s serious talk about building walls across borders and when no one is trusted?
Superman is not on the top of very many people’s Favorite Superheroes list. For a long time, he wasn’t on mine at all. But now, I have to ask myself: does Batman still get the top spot? The big argument against Superman (and for Batman) is that one simply cannot become Superman, but anyone, with the right amount of training and education, can become Batman. And now, after watching these movies, and writing these essays, I can firmly say: You’re wrong. Superman isn’t about whether or not a boy or girl can someday become him, Superman is about living with the set of principles that includes tolerance, empathy, ethics, and love. Superman is about the goal of not being super-powered, but the goal of being human.
The two young men in Ohio, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, sons of Jewish immigrants, understood what it was like not to fit in. They understood what it was like to be different. And what was their payback to the people who surely bullied them as they were growing up in the 1920s and 1930s? They gave the world Superman. Superman isn’t supposed to save us, he is supposed to show us how to save ourselves.
Nineteen years. The world changed substantially between 1987 and 2006. One thing did not change: The desire to bring Superman back to the Silver Screen. After the disastrous Superman IV, it looked as though the Man of Steel would be on sabbatical. That was fine because 1989 brought a different superhero to the Silver Screen. Batman, starring Jack Nicholson and Michael Keaton, written by Sam Hamm, and directed by Tim Burton, was one of the most anticipated movies of 1989. Don’t think that Superman still wasn’t on people’s minds, though. 1988 saw the worldwide celebration of Superman’s 50th birthday, he appeared on the cover of Time, and the Salkinds returned to him…kinda-sorta. They produced a syndicated television series of Superboy that lasted between 1988 and 1992. But the word on Batman was good. People were looking forward to it and the Warner Bros. marketing machine went into overtime. And when the movie finally opened on June 23rd, 1989, it was a blockbuster. A new era in the comic book movie had dawned and Superman seemed like a relic.
The success of Batman and its 1992 sequel, Batman Returns, as well as the general popularity in comic books that resulted, made the comic book movie seem like a legitimate film genre. Despite Superman appearing on television in a new series in 1993, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, which promised at the outset a more grown-up Moonlighting feel but quickly descended into a juvenile adventure show, the idea of bringing Superman back to the Big Screen was very much on the minds of Warner Bros. Jon Peters, the famed former-hair-dresser-turned-Big-Time-Hollywood-Producer and one of the producers of Batman and Batman Returns, wanted to bring Superman to the Silver Screen in a big, big way. And that is how the Superman Lives fiasco came about. The film, written by Kevin Smith, directed by Tim Burton, and starring Nicolas Cage as Clark Kent/Superman seems to be a near-miss for Superman fans. Peters kept at it, though, and so did Warner Bros. I won’t go much more into it but a simple Internet search for Superman movies will bring you a lot of information.
Besides, by the late-1990s, the comic book movie genre had pretty much died. Aside from the Batman movies, no other movie hit its mark. There was a lot of development but little actual production. What movies were made looked horrible, weren’t taken seriously, and died a quick death. Television was a little kinder with the Warner Bros. Animated series of Batman, Superman, and Justice League.
And then in 2000 came X-Men. With a story by Tom DeSanto and Bryan Singer, a screenplay by David Hayter, and direction by Singer, the film adaptation of one of Marvel Comics’s most popular teams hit all the right chords and was a mega-hit. The idea that Bryan Singer would have gotten involved was shocking. He was an up-and-coming indie film director and his film The Usual Suspects was an Oscar darling. What he brought with him was the knowledge that the characters were important, that without strong characters, these films could have as much spectacle as anyone could put in them but it wouldn’t mean a thing.
X-Men rejuvenated the comic book movie genre, but it took Sam Raimi’s adaptation of Spider-Man to really get it going.
I loved these movies, but not being a Marvel kid, I kept waiting for DC’s triumphant return while skipping the 2001-2012 TV series Smallville. With Batman Begins (2005), DC returned to the Silver Screen in a triumphant way. Using the model set up by the Marvel Entertainment movies, Warner Bros. went with Christopher Nolan, who’d gained tons of attention for his indie thriller Memento. So it wasn’t a shock that Warner Bros. would have a new Superman movie for the following year. What was the shock was the director: Bryan Singer. After two successful X-Men films, who would’ve called him jumping ship for Superman?
So in June 2006, I found myself with a friend whom I liked a lot sitting in a local movie theater eagerly awaiting Superman Returns. With a story by Singer, Michael Dougherty, and Dan Harris, and screenplay by Dougherty and Harris (who’d written the screenplay for the great X-Men sequel X2), there was no doubt the movie would be great. Although I’d seen the trailers and wondered about a few things–Marlon Brando’s posthumous return as well as the use of John Williams’s original theme–I was pretty excited.
It was a movie that I was truly looking forward to. Things hadn’t been so great for me starting in 2003 but were beginning to take an upswing. I would be starting a new job at the end of the summer as a teaching assistant. Though I was pretty depressed, I knew that I was on the road to recovery. Things were looking up. And there was a new Superman.
So the lights dimmed, and I was transported away for my first Superman movie viewing on the Big Screen….
The opening title sequence. Though I’d seen all the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, I’d seen none of them in theaters. So to see the opening title sequences for the first two films recreated on the Big Screen gave me chills. John Williams’s music has been a part of my life seemingly forever, so sitting there and seeing a “new” version of the old credits with his music just blew me away and brought tears to my eyes.
The special effects were astounding. Superman’s flying effects were as real as anything done to that point. It wasn’t just the flying effects that were good, either, but all of the effects. A little too good, perhaps. In the sequence when Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) is covering a space shuttle test on an airplane and the plane ends up plummeting from the sky until Superman (Brandon Routh) saves it, I actually had a panic attack brought on by the uber-realistic effects, both visual and sound. It is a scene that started me wondering if maybe special effects are too good these days.
The story wasn’t bad. It took the material seriously and did its best to give the characters pathos. It honored what came before but went off in a different direction. And it took some bold risks in the adaptation. It’s not perfect, which we’ll get to, but it’s a valiant attempt with some good moments.
Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor is perfect. He comes across as arrogant enough, and cold enough, to be Lex Luthor. Besides being one of the best actors working today, he embodied what a modern Lex Luthor would be like. And, unlike Gene Hackman, Spacey was willing to shave his head for the role.
The Phantom Zone
This is a tough one. I’d like to talk about the rest of the cast, but I don’t feel like they should be placed under The Kryptonite, so I’m placing them in The Phantom Zone. Brandon Routh as Clark Kent/Superman, Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane, Parker Posey, and James Marsden were all actors I had some issues with, especially upon rewatching this movie. Marsden plays Richard White, Perry White’s (Frank Langella) nephew. Look, I’m not a fan of Marsden. I’m not sure what it is exactly, though I’ve liked him in some stuff I’ve seen him in. He was great as Cyclops in the X-Men movies, but here I didn’t particularly care for him. He plays Lois’s boyfriend–partner? fiancé?–her not-husband and seemingly the father of her child. He has some good moments in this movie, but there’s something about him that just doesn’t sit well with me. Parker Posey is another actor who I think is great but who got on my nerves here as Miss Tesch–er…um…Kitty Kowalski. She’s obviously supposed to be the modern Miss Teschmacher except she’s not…how to put in a Politically Correct way? Aw, to hell with it. She’s not sexy enough. Valerie Perrine, I’m sure, got many a young men started on the road to puberty in 1978. Parker Posey? Not so much. She’s attractive in different ways and I think her talents are under-utilized in this role. She’s not bad, she actually brings a lot of emotion to the part, but she just doesn’t feel right to me.
Which brings me to Kate Bosworth and Brandon Routh. As the two most important characters in the movie, their roles are essential. Both look too young to be in their roles. Considering both look (and, according to Wikipedia, were) in their early-to-mid 20s, it’s hard to believe they were together five years before this story for any substantial amount of time in Metropolis. They’d be better cast as young Superman and young Lois Lane first meeting, but even that wouldn’t be ideal since Lois was already established as an up-and-coming major reporter. Bosworth lacks some of the toughness that Margot Kidder had that made Lois Lane believable. Whether it’s 1948, 1978, or 2006, being a woman reporter is difficult because the news agencies are boys’ clubs. Lois Lane needs to be tough-as-nails while still being soft and, sometimes, vulnerable. Bosworth doesn’t sell me on the tough part. She’s cute, she’s a capable actress, I guess, but I had trouble buying her as Lois Lane. Not only that, but I never sensed any onscreen chemistry with Brandon Routh. The chemistry is essential to the part.
And now I go to Brandon Routh. I want to love him as Superman, and after that first screening at the Flagship Cinemas in New Bedford, Massachusetts, on July 15th, 2006 (I keep my ticket stubs), I did. I thought he was the perfect Superman. But now I’ve seen the movie three, four, maybe five times (I think it’s four) and I’m not so sure. He plays the role fine in the sense that I’m sure he did what he was directed to do or as the script called for him to. He mostly looks the part of Superman and Clark Kent, and even resembles Christopher Reeve when he smiles. But he’s too muted. He’s too serious. He’s too goddamn subdued. And because he looks so young, I had trouble believing him as Superman. His Clark Kent has nearly no personality, and his Superman only a modicum more. As a matter of fact, he hardly speaks as Superman. Again, I think it’s the performance that was asked for, and he delivered. But….
The story. Here’s one of those contradictions I enjoy employing. I mentioned what I liked about it so here’s where it rubs me the wrong way. Is it a new movie that’s paying homage to the original Donner movie(s)? Is it a follow-up to it/those? What is this beast, exactly? It has the John Williams theme, the opening title sequence, pictures of Glenn Ford as Jonathan Kent, Lex Luthor’s obsession with real estate, Lois’s article “I Spent the Night with Superman,” a consummated romance between Superman and Lois, the Kryptonian crystals forming the Fortress of Solitude, and Marlon Brando as Jor-El. It looks as though it’s a follow-up to the Donner film(s). But the fact that it takes place in modern America, with cell phones, flat screen televisions, etc., disputes that. So it seems to be a new movie with a helluva lot of homages. This is cute when you see it in the theater for the first time, but it gets old upon further viewings and once you bring your brain to the party.
The lack of wonder and fun is a problem for me. It tries for wonder, I’ll give it that. The image of New Krypton rising from the Atlantic towards space is something to behold, however, the rest of the movie falls short. In some parts, the movie is just plain boring. Maybe it’s the lack of chemistry between actors. Maybe it’s boring lines. Maybe it’s because the fact that this entire movie feels like the song “Superman (It’s Not Easy)” by Five for Fighting. Don’t get me wrong, I love the song and the ideas behind it, but I don’t want a 2hr 34 minute movie based on it. Yet, that’s exactly what it feels like. Superman spends a lot of time alone and serious. It’s not that I don’t want Superman serious, or alone, but I don’t want him emo, either. Christopher Reeve’s Superman was serious, but not slit-my-wrists-serious. Lex Luthor and his gang have some dark humor, and there’s some humor at the Daily Planet with Jimmy Olsen (Sam Huntington) and Clark, but overall the movie just went on and on and the performances and story in between action set pieces aren’t engaging enough.
Superman’s beating has always bothered me. New Krypton is made with Kryptonian crystals stolen from the Fortress of Solitude combined with Kryptonite. This means that when Superman is standing on it, he becomes powerless (and, in theory, should eventually die). Lex Luthor and his gang use this opportunity to beat the living shit out of Superman, ending with Luthor stabbing him with a shard of Kryptonite, breaking it in Superman. The beating is brutal and probably is what led to the PG-13 rating, because none of the rest of the movie really warrants it. It’s a bit overkill, really, based on everything that’s been set up so far. I know Lex Luthor is a ruthless criminal, and there’s no Otis this time bumbling around, but the beating feels out of place in this particular movie. That’s probably because the movie is so closely related, by its own cleverness, to the 1978-1980 films. Maybe I’m being too judgmental here, but I just don’t think it fits.
I’m not a fan of the new Superman suit. It’s a little too much. I don’t mind the switch away from tights/spandex, but there’s something about the costume that just doesn’t feel like Superman to me. It’s unfair, perhaps, due to the perfection of the Christopher Reeve costume when compared to the comic book version, to be so critical over the suit, but there are things that just bother me. The boots look like something from Nike, which makes me wonder how it fits into Clark Kent’s shoes. For that matter, how does the S on the chest go unnoticed under Clark’s shirt? Also, the dark red and gold aren’t right. I made an allusion to this in my essay on Superman III; Bad Superman’s red and yellow is the same color as Brandon Routh’s Superman’s, only he’s not evil (he’s barely even alive!). The shirt goes up too far, too, or something. I don’t know. I’ve just never been a fan of this costume.
Finally, by biggest issue with Superman Returns is Jason White, played by Tristan Lake Leabu. Jason White is Lois Lane’s son, whom we think belongs to her fiancé Richard, but is actually Superman’s son. This shocker wasn’t all that shocking, which is part of the problem. The moment the audience is introduced to the asthmatic little boy it knows the kid belongs to Superman, even though they look nothing alike. The kid doesn’t look like Lois, either. The thing that made me think that maybe the kid wasn’t Superman’s was the thought that I’m sure every fan had: Oh, wow. The creators of this movie are really adapting this by giving Lois a kid. It must be Superman’s, except, who’d be that stupid? Surely fans will revolt against this. But it is Superman’s son. Which, again, throws the plot into a weird light in regards to the Donner movies. There’s no hint in this movie (other than the boy) that Lois and Superman were ever together, just that they obviously cared for each other. So the question goes back to: Are the filmmakers going back to Superman II with this, and if so, which one? The Lester Cut has Superman giving up his powers before sleeping with Lois, which would mean his sperm wouldn’t have the super powers anymore, right? The Donner Cut has Superman sleep with Lois and then lose his powers. But since most people probably wouldn’t have seen this version, isn’t that a little out there? And if it doesn’t have anything to do with those cuts, or the first Donner Superman, then how come more isn’t made of Lois and Superman’s relationship? Does she realize who Clark is? There are so many damn questions, never mind the science of two different species conceiving a child. If it’s impossible for two species of creatures on Earth to conceive, how can a humanoid creature from another planet conceive with a human woman?
And that’s not even my biggest problem! Because if it were Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder on the Big Screen, directed by Donner, with a screenplay by Mankiewicz that exhibited the same dedication to the characters that their movies did, I’d be with Superman, Jr. Or if Singer and his writers done a better job with their characters and hired actors I could get behind more, I’d be with Superman, Jr. But that’s not what happened. Their story is good, but never really finds the right balance. Their actors are all right, but I have trouble really buying them as people who’ve gone through these kinds of adventures before. And the worst of the actors is, I hate to say it, Tristan Lake Leabu. Look, I don’t want to beat up on a little kid so I won’t say it’s his talent that’s lacking, I’m sure the kid is a fine actor as he’s worked in movies and television after Superman Returns, but it’s the story and the directing. He becomes a Creepy Kid. As I wrote about Miko Hughes in the otherwise phenomenal Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, Creepy Kids seem to infiltrate many movies. Why does Jason White have to walk around like a zombie? Why must he have no personality? There’s nothing charming about what this kid does in the movie. Again, I don’t think it’s the young actor so much as the way Jason White is written and Bryan Singer’s direction for the boy. When a kid is used to advance the story like this, and really doesn’t do much else to contribute to it, he’s a prop, and the filmmakers should be ashamed. It would’ve been far more interesting having the child behave like a five-year-old child, running around, getting into true mischief, than having this Golden Boy who walks catatonically through the movie to finally throw a piano at someone.
After the Battle
I left the movie theater that summer night happy, and I guess that’s what really matters. Superman had returned (for the time being) and things would be getting back on track for me, too.
If it seems as though I dislike Superman Returns it’s because I get hung up on the details that bother me. I don’t dislike it, nor do I particularly like it. It’s better than Superman IV and, overall, Superman III (though there are parts of Superman III I like better than anything in Superman Returns). I think it was a lost opportunity. On its own, I think there’s some great stuff in this movie, but I think some of the ideas going into it were flawed, as were many storytelling aspects of it. I think Brandon Routh could’ve done better in the role had the script (and direction) had him do so. I think Bosworth does as well as she can but is miscast as Lois Lane. I guess I just expected something better from the people who brought us X-Men and X2.
I still would have seen a sequel to this, though. It does intrigue me on where Singer and company would’ve gone. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be.
Growing up, there were only a few superheroes I really knew: Spider-Man, Batman, the Incredible Hulk, and Superman. I knew there were more, one of my favorite cartoons was Super Friends, which was a very kids-friendly version of the Justice League, and there were the other comic book heroes in the ads that ran in the comic books my father brought home with the milk and bread, but for me, those four superheroes (and I include Robin in with Batman) were the ones I really knew. And the head of them all, the most important, was Superman.
At least until I was about 10 or 11. Which makes sense, in a way. It’s around 9 through 11 that childlike wonder begins to dull as The System has its way with children and with that wonder, the idea of a man flying around saving the world from aliens and robots and mad scientists while all the time hiding behind a pair of glasses is preposterous and obviously something only a baby would believe. It didn’t help that 1989 was Batman’s year, with him popping up everywhere you looked. And so Batman moved in as my favorite superhero.
Batman kept that title until about three, four years ago. I bought the 700th issues of both Superman and Batman and found myself walking away with a renewed interest in the Man of Steel. And so it went. If you were to ask me who my favorite superhero is now, it’d be a toss up between Supes and Bats.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of Action Comics #1, the comic book in which Superman debuted. There have been many incarnations of the character over the last three quarters of a century. Just in the pages of the DC Comics comic books the modern Superman is very different from the original that was created by two very young Jewish men. What Joe Shuster and Jerry Seigel created was a god for the 20th (and now 21st) century. It doesn’t matter if you’re a fan or not, without Superman, there’d be no…well…any of them.
Superman became so popular upon his debut in 1938, that by 1940 he had his own comic book and his own radio show. It wasn’t long before Hollywood came knocking. In 1941, the first of Superman’s silver screen adventures played out in theaters around the world.
This year marks not only the 75th anniversary of this literary and film icon, but it also marks the release of the much-anticipated new adaptation of Superman on the movie screen: Man of Steel, written by David S. Goyer, directed by Zack Snyder, and starring Henry Cavill as Superman.
For the next 11 or so weeks, I’ll be posting essays about Superman in the movies. I will be mostly skipping over his television years because I only have so much time to devote to this, though I will touch on George Reeves as the Man of Steel, I promise. I’m afraid that the 1990s Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, Smallville, and the 1980s-1990s syndicated Superboy shows, not to mention the plethora of animated shows and direct-to-home-video movies will also be skipped (though the animated movies produced by Warner Animation will be looked at some time in the future, though not in as much detail). In other words, this is hardly a complete series of Superman on film, but it will do the job for a free enterprise on a website that’s not, technically, about superheroes or movies.
So let’s get this show started, shall we? Up, up, and awaaayyy!