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How to Make a Superman Movie

Superman, who is the Man of Steel, who is the Last Son of Krypton, who is faster than speeding bullets, is a fascinating subject to spend your time reading about. He’s got such a long history, such a varied history, that you could very nearly make an academic career out of him. And really, he’s been spread so consistently across so many mediums for so very long, you could make the argument that the Superman comics are almost besides the point.

The history of Superman is terrific. My favorite fact about him is that originally, he couldn’t fly. He could literally leap tall buildings in a single bound. And if you go back to old Superman comics and puzzle about the odd postures he seems to be flying in (he looks like the Captain Morgan commercials) then you know why: he was jumping great distances.

If I really start talking about Superman all across the board, this article will go on forever. Neither you nor I have the life expectancy needed for me to truly geek out about Superman.

So I want to focus on the movies. And I want to talk about fixing Superman. Because frankly, ladies and germs, Superman does not work. Not on screen. Not in comics.


The problem with Superman is two-fold. The first part are his powers, which are astonishing and powerful and almost without limit. The second part is the nature of the original character, and the fact that his existence goes back so far.

The problem with having a character who can fly, who can deflect bullets and most weapons, who can regain his powers by sunlight, who can – depending on what film you watch – reverse time…is that suddenly, you have to be extremely careful how you use him. Because he is so powerful, he’s a bit like a raging bull inside the china shop of your storyline. He can break things just by shrugging, you see? And this requires very careful writing, to make him work. Otherwise, what you wind up with is a lot of what you currently get in Superman comics, these days: monster-of-the-week stories. Big strange creatures from outer space with whom Superman has a grand old punch-up for twenty-four or thirty-two pages, and then we tidy it away.

Now, the reason throwing bigger and stranger threats at Superman doesn’t necessarily work is something simple which I believe Robert Heinlein pointed out, when talking about deaths in a science fiction novel, which is, people cannot comprehend the death of a million individuals. We just can’t. It becomes an abstract number. However, the well-executed (pardon the pun) death of one beloved character can tear up the reader. It’s the same thing with Superman. If you throw him against a giant purple blob from outer space, that’s just an abstract series of images into which you have no investment.

This is why Superman’s chief villain is always Lex Luthor, who has no super powers and nothing but incredible genius and incredible coldness. There is no point to a punch-up. It is a conflict of minds, and hearts. What is each man willing to do, for what they believe? That’s why the best Superman stories have always been in spite of his powers. Why both Lex Luthor and Clark Kent are so important to any good Superman story. You need the human element to give any meeting or use to the superpowered element.

The second reason is how far back his character goes, and the nature of the character itself. He wears blue tights with a red cape and a big S on his chest. Has a square jaw and neatly parted hair and red boots. Now what do you do with that?

Well, it’s tricky. You can’t modernize him. He’s too fixed as that look and that character. And it’s a bit of a puzzler, because it’s recently been proven that you can strip down the sometimes equally as broken character of Batman, and then build him into a character which can support movies like Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, which are both stunning pieces of writing and character-work. You can redesign the costume. You can bring logic into the mess. You can make the character dramatic and serious and interesting.

But you can’t do that with Superman.

Bryan Singer, in his Superman Returns film, gave it a shot. And what you got was a Superman which was just sort of dulled. The colors were dimmed down, the red underwear was made small enough to be awkward. The S on his chest was small and dull. And what worked on Batman doesn’t work here.

That’s because of the hugely different natures of the characters. Superman is mythic. Superman is iconic. Superman’s earnestness and iconic nature means that he doesn’t necessarily suffer from being cheesy, just because he looks the same as he always has. In fact, that actually lends strength to the work. It’s not just because of Christopher Reeves that the original Superman film was far, far better than Superman Returns (although that’s plenty of it). It helps that he wore a bright, fitting-to-character costume. It’s the same reason why, in the comics, they spent most of the 1990’s trying to replace the costume with all manner of gimmicks (some of them which I have fond memories of, for no good reason. Superman Blue, anyone?) and yet, in the end, we always revert back to the same old mostly-unchanged costume.

These things have to be considered, when making a successful Superman film. You cannot alter the character drastically and still be Superman. And you have to intelligently work against his powers. Moreover, I suggest that in order to make a Superman film, you cannot make a hyper-realistic modern-day film. You cannot take out Batman and put in Superman.

There are two examples of Superman being modernized and working. One of them is Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (at least for the first couple of seasons). The other is Smallville. And the reason that both of these work extremely well is that they are both, essentially, the story of Clark Kent. They are an emphasis on Clark Kent dealing not only with various problems and opponents, but dealing with how to quietly use his powers and not give it away to the whole world. They work because they are done in spite of his powers, as I mentioned above. These, however, are not necessarily useful for a feature film, in that you can unfold characters slowly and to great expanse in a television show, but not necessarily so well in a feature film. A satisfying Superman movie needs fights, and flights, and super-powers, and all of that. It has to be an action film. As much as I like the idea of going to see a quiet character study art-house sort of film about Superman…I think I’d probably be sitting in the theater by myself.

Instead, you get the later Christopher Reeves Superman movies, with Richard Pryor, about which the less said the better. Or else you wind up with Superman Returns , in which Superman is rather creepy, and ineffectual, and in which the whole movie is self-conscious about the Man of Steel, and in which he fights a cartoonish Lex Luthor who, er, is not very geniusy.

So. How to make a Superman Movie.

You need to create a highly stylized piece of work, an iconographic film into which Superman neatly fits. You need to create Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow …but with Superman.

Sky Captain had the archetypal characters that you need. It had the visuals, and it is already nine-tenths of a Superman film. All you have to do is insert Superman and Clark Kent into the place of Sky Captain (replace Polly Perkins with Lois Lane) and you have a beautiful Superman film. The colors and the way the shots are done would create amazing flight sequences, amazing fights. And you have created such a highly stylized film in which there is nothing at all cheesy about someone saying “There! Up in the sky! It’s Superman!” because it is the nature of a film of that type to have a line like that in it.

(An aside: there is an image in Sky Captain that you wouldn’t have to change. Early on, when the great robots invade the city. There’s a shot when, in unison, hands are raised toward the sky, fingers pointing. That would be perfect, just the way it is.)

I have evidence to back this up, in the form of a really wonderfully done comic called Superman For All Seasons. It did very much what I’m talking about. It took Superman back in a stylized look, a 1930’s pulp Superman, the same way that Sky Captain paid glorious homage to the old fantastic serials. And although I could write another excessively long article on various Superman stories and why some worked and some didn’t…I will at least contend, here, that Superman For All Seasons worked by leaps and bounds better than ninety percent of the Superman comics we’ve seen over the years, and better than most of the Superman films.

Therefore, my suggestion is that we file a restraining order to keep Bryan Singer well off the next Superman film, and we hand it to Kevin and Kerry Conran, who created Sky Captain. We finally live in an age where, with computers, we can stylize the filmmaking to such a degree that we can make a successful Superman film in which we don’t have to try and forget the old comics, the old Superman television shows, the old Superman radio shows. We can make a Superman film in which it is not embarrassing for the announcer to proudly say …strange visitor from another planet!

I think the odds of it happening are pretty slim, but I’m an optimist. I keep hopin’.

About Peter Damien (33 Articles)
Peter Damien is a busy writer who lives in Minnesota because he just really likes frigid temperatures and mosquitoes. He lives in the crawl-spaces between heaps of books and can be seen scurrying out at dusk to search for food and ALL the TEA. His wife and two boys haven't figured out how to get him out of the house, so they put up with him. He as astonishing hair.

9 Comments on How to Make a Superman Movie

  1. What a wonderful article. Exceptionally well written and I agree entirely. What made the original Reeves films work was that naive sense of wonder and the fact that no-one had seen effects like that before. To recapture that, we need more naive wonder and more effects no-one has seen before! Singer tried to take that naive character and put him in the midst of a cynical world, which could have worked if he’d pushed it far enough, but he loved the character too much to do that! Still, how cool would an arthouse Superman film be?!

  2. I think you’re a bit too harsh on Superman Returns… but I do like the idea of a ’30s-style Superman movie. Indeed, the visual style of Sky Captain owes more than a little to Max Fleischer’s Superman cartoons.

  3. Pete Tzinski // March 22, 2009 at 11:01 am //

    Yesterday, John sent me a link to a SF Signal post from the days of yore (like, last year).

    https://www.sfsignal.com/archives/2008/05/superman-mechanical-monsters-pop-up-version/

    ANd I grumpily wished I’d seen it before I wrote the article. But it’s well worth a watch, enhances what I’m saying, AND made me happy when I saw it.

    As for being harsh on Superman Returns…I am a bit. I try not to just flame the movie, because it wasn’t walk-outta-the-theater bad by any regard. But it fell short, I felt. And I’ll be honest, some of what it felt short from was just my expectations walking into the theater…but I thought it fell pretty short of itself too. In some places, it felt like odd fanfiction. In other places, it felt like the script was terrified to go beyond the walls constructed by the Christopher Reeves’ Superman films. And in many places, it just felt a bit ashamed of itself. As if Superman is flying and doing good deeds, but the whole film is sort of nudging the audience and grinning sideways and saying “It’s just silly fun.” You see what I mean?I got that same feeling from the odd costume changes.

    Still, it gave me some stunning visuals, and that I don’t mind.

    My wife started watching Smallville a couple of months ago, and when she starts watching a TV series, I inevitably get drawn into them (which is why I have seen every episode of Gilmore Girls and know way too much about it…I’m only a little ashamed, actually). And the more I watch of Smallville, the more I find it to be a successful translation and modernization of Superman. But as I said, I think that has a lot to do with it being a Clark Kent story. A movie inevitably has to be a Superman story.

    I hope when they make it, they let him be the Big Red Boyscout.

    *sigh* in the process of posting this article, and now writing this comment, I’ve had a whole pile of other Superman thoughts occur to me. And if I put them here, this comment will turn into a major work of writing that no one will want to read. So I’ll go have tea instead. 😀

  4. Nice set of ideas Pete, and I agree. I’m equally unhappy with Superman Returns for the same reason – I had expectations of being enthralled by a reimaged Man of Steel similar to how I felt about watching the reimaged Caped Crusader. Sadly I didn’t get that.

    The Superman movie was on TV a couple of days ago (TNTHD I think) and I was equally dissapointed on a second showing. I really liked what they did with him and Lois and his son, but the Luthor plot fell flat. That’s what made held it back – the supervillian (who should have been amazing with Kevin Spacey in the role) turned out to be almost comical and entirely uninteresting. I mean really, the whole plot was about land? That was almost as lame as the whole plot being about half-cents. I have often felt that Superman was an unfortunate superhero because he literally had every valuable superpower. The Justice League didn’t really need to exist, since Superman could do it all. He’s too powerful when get right down to it and I feel the comics and movies strugled to deal with that.

    I can see a modernized Superman where everything has modernized – except him. I thought that is where the film was going – he left for a long time, when he returns he’s relatively unchanged but the world has changed beneath him (heh, and to bring some sci-fi into it, we could assume he flew to Krypton at relativistic speeds allowing him to feel as if time didn’t change.) But give me a plot involving somebody or something truly evil, that way superman doesn’t look anachronistic when he acts the boy scout. And oh yeah, if times have changed, perhaps there could be new containment devices beyond Kryptonite? Why not break into the sci-fi box of tricks and pull our transparent aluminum or memetic poly-alloy or electronic pulse rifles that can, in fact, injure Superman? He could still be strong and fast and fly, but even the comics have him coming up against things stronger and faster than him. I see no reason why the movies can’t without always resorting to Kryptonite.

  5. Man, it seems I disagree with everything you say most of the time.

    Superman was written to counter the Nazi idea of the “superman/overman” from Nietzche. The idea there was that the Overman was a person who used his power without mercy or pity in order to rule over the herd of humanity. Nietzche disliked the influence of “jewish” religions like Christianity and of course judaism, because he found them weak. You can confirm this by reading the extremely short and straight forward book by Nietzche called The Antichrist.

    In the Talmud, the ultimate man is one who uses his power to serve the whole of the jewish community. He’s like a Communist in that he uses his talents to improve the collective rather than rule over it.

    Nietzche thought these ideas had made people in Europe wimpy. It’s worth noting that he seemed to be afraid of girls, but hey, he’s entitled to his opinions.

    Superman, the comic character, is an example of how the most powerful man uses his talents to help humanity instead of rule it. Instead of a “jewish” hero, he’s a secular hero because he helps everyone, not just a certain group of people. The whole point of him is that he CAN DO ANYTHING but chooses not to. For this, people love him and will do anything for him, thus he has super influence and social power in the stories. This is a comment to the reader about how to get power.

    So, stories about him have to highlight the fact that the most “super” thing about him is his mind and code of ethics. Also, the “super” thing about him is the fact that the collective of humanity comes first for him. That’s how you write a Superman story. His concern for people and how he goes about finding resolution is the story.

    Villains:

    They’re people who have superior powers, like him, but always work against the collective and that brings them nothing but trouble. Had they gone the Superman route, they’d have all the fame, fortune, and power they could want, because humanity would love them.

    End:

    Superman is one of the best characters ever regarding social philosophy. As a person who works in social service, I can tell you that there far more Supermen at work than “Wolverines” and you should all be glad of it.

  6. Pete Tzinski // March 22, 2009 at 1:52 pm //

    TheAdlerian: We’re not disagreeing, actually. You point out that the super thing about him is his mind and his code of ethics. I agree. And as I pointed out, Superman works more often than not IN SPITE OF his super-powers. And further, I pointed out that it’s when the story does nothing more than pit his powers against a big dumb bad guy that the story fails.

    That is why Lex Luthor is his ultimate counter-part villain and not, for example, Doomsday (Superman/Doomsday, Death of Superman, etc, were brilliant stories full of super-powers…and humanity. And it needed the full weight of the Superman myth and history to work, and it could only work once). Lex Luthor is a-moral, and he is extremely intelligent. THAT is what’s pitted against Superman. And again, Lex Luthor stories fall flat when it’s Lex-and-death-ray versus Man-of-Steel.

    (I’m not sure what you mean about there being more Supermen at work than Wolverines. Um. But considering which one causes death, carnage, and unfortunate facial hair…I’m certainly glad of it.)

    As for all your discussion about the idea of “supermen” and where it comes from…yep. But I was only talking about Superman MOVIES, with a very brief aside into comics. If I were getting into the myth, the character, the origin, the function, the archetypes, and everything else that I could put into a Superman article, you would have found me talking about those points. And an article that was thirty thousand words long that would crush SF Signal’s servers and make John and JP take me out back and shatter my knees with a tire iron.

    (I have read “The Antichrist,” but not in years, and I am familiar with the concept of the Overman and Nietzche, and I agree that some of the ideas of Supermen probably did influence Siegel and Schuster, although I wonder how overtly the original Superman character was actually a social commentary. I think he can be seen that way, and I think he works that way, but I wonder if it was consciously intended. I don’t know, one way or the other.)

    Scottish: I have long held the theory that the Justice League is not only non-functional, but damaging…but only when it has Superman and Batman in it. You can use the television cartoon as a good and simple example of this. Because Superman is supremely powerful, in the manner that he is, you have to tone him down a LOT in order to leave any story behind for other characters, like Ollie Queen, or the Flash, or Zantana (am I the only one who thinks Zantana is a dumb dumb character?). And thus, you wind up with henchmen firing laser guns that knock Superman down, or blasts that knock him out. You have to hobble him.

    Similarly, when you take Batman out of his gothic noir setting, in Gotham, where he prowls rooftops and fights crime brilliantly…and you put him on an orbital fortress and in space ships and into a science fiction story like Justice League…you make him more or less a moot point. And in sharp contrast against any Batman story of note that you’d see anywhere else. He doesn’t work.

    And yeah, with regards to Lex Luthor in Superman Returns…it was such a shame, because Kevin Spacey was actually a TERRIFIC Lex Luthor! He was funny, but he was also hostile and violent and fascinating. And if he’d had a strong script behind him, no bumbling henchmen, and something more interesting to do than…grow…land… (uhhh?) then he could have shone as brightly as Heath Ledger did, revitalizing the Joker for us.

     

  7. I was talking about the movies, comics, novels, and everything else.

    Superman, is the reader, much like Hulk was aimed at the angry young man reader. You’re a big strong guy and you want things to go your way, so what do you do? Do you take the fighting and forcing things route or the slow one where you use your brain, and occasionally accept semi-defeat?

    The Lois Lane story is especially designed to deal with this frustration. It was ruined by Bryne’s reimaging and I don’t know what’s up with it now in the comics. In Smallville it’s ruined as well, but in the films it was only sort of ruined.

    Anyway, Lois loves Superman, who isn’t real, but not Clark who basically is the real person. No matter how much Clark loves her back he waits for the day when she falls for the “real man” who is Clark and not the exciting showboat who is Superman. That’s a message to the reader that they don’t have to show off and be a tough guy to get the girl, and if they do, the girl’s not worth it. So, in her current state of mind—Lois isn’t worth dating! According to the original story.

    Superman is about how to act. This is why many recoiled at Superman in the last film using his powers to spy on Lois in her house. Only a moral degenerate would write that.

    Suit:

    When I started reading Superman it was in the early 70s when I was a little boy. The story was that his mom made the suit out of material in his space craft. The suit looks like workout gear from the 30s. I love to workout and bike, and guess what, I wear clothes, much like Superman, to do so and so do millions. I like to wear black colors, but there’s many who wear spandex which is way more colorful and outlandish than Superman. The purpose of the clothing is to have complete freedom of movement.

    Google “workout tights” to learn more.

    Plus, if I had super powers and my mom, who’s now dead, made me a costume, I’d freakin’ wear it with a smile. So would the character of Superman, and every time he put it on, he’d think of her. That’s the type of dude he is.

    Wolverine:

    I get annoyed at the popularity of these sociopathic character. If the reader acted like them they’d be in jail and have to deal with the idea they killed someone. The writers who created them installed a fantasy of being a crazed murder in the heads of the reader, and you can never be that and get away with it.

    However, you CAN be just like Superman in real life. You can use your “powers” for good to help others while not worrying about making lots of money at the cost of your values and self-respect. Thus, a social worker or a fireman—is Superman—in character. In that sense Superman is a very realistic character, while Wolverine and the like aren’t.

    I’ve known many “Supermen” in my time.

    Socialism:

    In the original comics Superman went after sinister Capitalists in that he destroyed their buildings and whatnot. In one comic he destroys a slum in an effort to force the owners to rebuild it.

    He and almost all other heroes have a Communist theme since they work for free. If everyone were like them, then we’d need no money and there’d be no exploitation. Superman doesn’t take bids on contracts before he saves the day—and neither should you, according to the logic.

    Brain:

    Not everyone should be a writer of this type of material. It’s not violence/power porn, it’s a comment on psychology, society, economics, ethics, and so forth. If an idiot views Superman they’ll see a guy in a dumb suit who beats people up, and we’ve gotten a lot of that.

    I say this jokingly, but I’m for IQ and ethics tests for people in any position of power in the media and just about everything else. I’m writing Obama ASAP.

     

  8. Pete Tzinski // March 22, 2009 at 5:05 pm //

    Just to randomly hit a few points.

    1) I do agree — to an extent — about the popularization of Wolverine and certain related characters…but I do so with the emphasis on pointing out that actually, when well-written, neither Wolverine nor the Incredible Hulk are just about sociopathic behavior and killing, nor were they ever. In Wolverine’s case, in the good comics, and the early Chris Claremont comics, Wolverine is a bad person who has done bad things and been treated horribly who is, with the X-Men, trying to be better than he is. Trying to rise above. Likewise, the Hulk.

    I do think that when he’s written badly, it’s fairly stupid. And you get the 1990’s of comics when it’s big brick-wall men with guns and mullets killing everything for no reason other than to be XXXTREME or something.

    2) I’m not sure I agree that Superman and his ilk are Communist because of their fighting of crime, because I’m not sure I agree that they’re doing it for free. THey aren’t fighting crime just to fight crime. Or even, necessarily, for the betterment of society. That’s a side-effect. Batman, for example, is fighting crime because he was mentally traumatized as a child and is trying to come to terms, and escape, that initial pain. He fights crime for himself, for his own guilt.

    Superman, I would argue, does good because the alternative is only to do bad. To borrow from another universe, Uncle Ben said that with great power comes great responsibility. And with Superman’s power, he can either use it to do GOOD…or to do EVIL. There is no option to not use his powers and do nothing. Therefore, he is doing the best he can to be responsible. But still, he’s doing it for himself.

    ANd for the others…well, I don’t know. Green Lantern is a police officer, of sorts. I’m not sure about the Flash.

    And yeah, it is true, Superman’s costume was based on the wrestling uniform that either Siegel or Shuster wore when THEY wrestled. Which is a neat little fact.

    And now, I must go take an IQ test.

  9. Pete,

    You’re a good sport.

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