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’.