Making Superman Super Again
Nestled snugly away on the Batman Begins special features DVD is an interesting moment in which some DC big cheese, whose name evades me at this point, remarks that Batman is a difficult character to get wrong. It seems to me that Superman, Batman’s big DC brother, has the opposite problem: he is a very difficult character to get right. The problem is simple. Everyone, basically, knows who Batman is. He’s a dark character, in a dark world. He’s a vigilante stung by his childhood brush with violent crime, and obsessed with fighting back. People get the point of Batman. But what of the earnest Superman? Well, um, he’s invulnerable to nearly everything on planet Earth, he can only be killed by a glowing green rock, oh, and his archenemy is an overweight middle aged bald man. Riiiiight. To quote a certain Mr. Bond: ‘Not exactly Christmas, is it?’. Superman is seen as a character with a catalogue of random, seemingly unconnected powers, and an array of strange supporting characters and foibles, but with no real glue holding the man and his world together.
What I’m about to say may be heresy to some, but I’ve never particularly cared for the Christopher Reeve franchise; granted, I haven’t seen the last two instalments, although I gather there’s little point as the last one is decried as a cinematic Anti-Christ that makes Batman and Robin look like Lawrence of Arabia, but I know the original two films are remembered fondly. However, CGI over-saturated good for nothing upstart that I am, I never quite felt the magic as I watched Reeve soar over a grainy back-projection of 1970’s New York. I will admit, however, that John Williams’ score is one for the ages – iconic, inspiring, timeless, blahdy blah blah – and Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder melt my heart. But even so, the world presented in those films is just not interesting to me, it seems too campy, and I don’t think Superman is a campy character. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
We all know the story. After nearly twenty years off the screen, having collapsed under the weight of its own silliness with The Quest for Peace, the franchise returned with Superman Returns. The film was technically brilliant in a way that the originals never could have been: breathtaking cinematography, staggering effects and John Williams’ original theme nicely augmented with a stirring score. But the film itself felt to me like a cinematic Easter egg: fantastic to look at, hollow on the inside. Brandon Routh had the Superman look, but he was given very little to work with, whilst Kate Bosworth’s shrill and petulant Lois Lane reminded me of that fly that keeps landing on you whilst you’re trying to read, the one you can never quite swat. Kevin Spacey was a serviceable Lex Luthor but could have been better with a better script. The whole thing didn’t so much fly as jump desperately in the air for a few seconds and then crash down on the concrete with a sickening THWACK. The production values made the original’s drab visuals and wobbly sets look like a child’s stick man when compared to the Mona Lisa, but the film still left me cold, like I was sinking into an ice cream bath in the middle of the Fortress of Solitude. Where were the laughs? The tears? The suspense?
So could Christopher Nolan, no walk-over he, resurrect another unfashionable superhero relic in the same way he’d successfully given new life to the Dark Knight? Unfortunately not. The task proved too great. Man of Steel gave it a go, but in the end it was a failure, not least because it seemed to try to rectify Superman Returns‘ lack of WHAMBANGPOW by overdoing the Boom! Boom! in the final act, as if a crazed Michael Bay had blundered into the editing suite and started pressing lots of buttons. The filmmakers also seemed to have convinced themselves that by replaying endless flashback scenes of little Kal-El’s first day at school, they were creating a three-dimensional, empathetic character. Of course, showing the backstory is an effective part of constructing a flesh-and-blood character, but it doesn’t constitute a job well done. The film, despite its early promise, fell short. As the credits rolled, all it had given me was a splitting headache and a crushing sense of disappointment. Now, like a failed Euro-zone state, old Supes needs Batman to bail him out in his new film, and the filmmakers seem to have accepted that the Big Blue Boy Scout alone can’t put those longed-for posteriors on cinema seats next time.
This is a truly sorry state of affairs for the so-called grandaddy of all superheroes. For a character created by two good-for-nothing schoolboys in 1933, Superman is the purest, simplest form of the hero. In this complicated world of moral greyness, he represents the primary colour of unambiguous good, and that’s a unique commodity. Even his name has entered the lexicon as a by-word for a person who does good deeds. What people don’t understand is that Superman is not like any other superhero. Viewers, myself included, complain that they can’t relate to Superman, but I’ve since realised this isn’t a blind spot of the character’s conception, it’s intentional. Superman isn’t supposed to be relatable. People assume this makes him boring, but being relatable and being understandable are two different things. A character can be unimaginably foreign to an audience, and still easily be understood, hated or loved if they act or emote in a meaningful, human way that we recognise. The films before have explained the what of Superman, the powers and mythology, but they’ve never given an explanation of why he does what he does. Just why is he so goddamn selfless? Why does he pull on that costume from the planet Krypton and save his adopted planet? Who is this man? This is the missing ingredient. This is the ‘why’ that Batman and Spider-Man have demonstrated in their films, and that’s why they’re so successful.
So why does he do it? This is a man who feels aggrieved by the loss of his home and wants to do some good, by paying back the planet, and a couple of farmhands, who took in a mysterious baby in a spaceship. He has a moral code as strong as Batman’s, a world as colourful and fun as Spider-Man’s, and, as the ultimate immigrant, the existential isolation of the X-Men. And he accomplishes all of this whilst wearing his underpants over his trousers. That is a potent cocktail. But his problems are human and understandable. Who hasn’t had that moment of complete isolation, where you glance at your peers and feel completely different? Try being a man from another planet, who has no home to return to. Have you ever been bullied for some real or artificial difference, either miniscule or inescapable? Everyone has. Superman is no stranger to prejudice, and he’s singled out because of his difference. He’s the most alien of all heroes. Most potent of all, the Superman mythology speaks to that timeless notion that inside any person, old or young, black or white, inside any pathetic looking Clark Kent, there is a person who on the right day could do something wonderful (forgive me for slipping into syrupy Disneyfied rhetoric, but on this occasion it’s justified). All of these experiences are human experiences, and the character of Superman is no stranger to them. He may be hard to relate to physically, but the problems he faces are one hundred percent human. The guy is an alien, but he shouldn’t be alien, if you see what I mean. It’s all there, waiting to be put on screen.
Once the understanding of the central character is there, all of the good stuff follows, and any film-maker worth his salt can go to town in this incredible universe. The Big Blue Boy Scout’s adventures are intergalactic in scope. He has a multitude of alien worlds to get lost in, and offers potential for escapist cinema in a way no other superhero does. This is another failure of the previous films. Who wants to spend all their time on boring old Earth in a film about a kick-ass alien? Would you go on holiday to Vegas and spend all your time admiring the wallpaper in the hotel? Imagine a Superman film played out on an epic, Star Wars style canvas, with worlds as diverse as those in Lucasland like Kashyyyk, Coruscant and Mustafar. The character offers potential for a real blockbuster, in the truest sense of the word.
And what of the big man’s adversaries? I’ve heard it sniggeringly said before that Superman’s rogues gallery pales in comparison to his comic-book peers, and a look through the previous films would seem to bear this out. However, in the comics Superman has a lineup of Big Bads that could puts other heroes to shame, if only they were portrayed onscreen correctly. Consider Brainiac, the telepathic, ruthless scavenger. I’ve always envisioned him as a compendium of HAL from 2001 and Prometheus’ David, with a heady injection of pure robotic savagery thrown in for good measure. It’s criminal that he (it?) has never been put on film. Then there’s Darkseid, the ultimate dictator, and ruler of the volcanic, North Korea-like planet Apokolips. He’s the personification of political extremism and terror, with near omnipotent levels of power; a kind of intergalactic Bane, if you will. My geek senses are tingling. Or what of Lex Luthor, Superman’s ultimate nemesis? He is not, as the films would have you believe, the real estate agent from hell, but the ultimate xenophobe, a human who despises the alien who protects HIS, the great Lex Luthor’s, planet. He’s motivated by the belief possessed of all dictators worth their salt that society deserves to be led by one as visionary and benevolent as he, and possessed of unlimited resources, a genius intellect and the manipulative skills to become President of the United States. There’s a reason Lex is known as Superman’s arch-enemy. Let’s see it.
This Superman upstart could be something special on the big screen, if only he were done right. There are vast untapped reserves of awesomeness in this ancient character, in the huge universe he inhabits, and the unique struggle of an alien left on this cold, unfamiliar rock and deciding to protect the people who live on it, not for revenge or thrills, but because it’s right. I keep thinking of J.J. Abrams’ first Star Trek film for some reason, and imagining a Superman film with as much heart, humour and excitement. It’s scary, funny, fast, and spectacular – a wise-cracking, technicolor shot in the arm of pure sci-fi cinema. That’s how to make Superman super. Maybe another reboot is needed, or maybe, just maybe, Nolan can pull it off next time. I don’t know if he was suffering Bat-withdrawal symptoms during the making of Man of Steel, but he misfired. If Superman’s about anything, however, it’s faith. I have faith in you, Chris. Just make Superman soar.
What do you think? Leave a comment.