As Superman’s return draws ever closer, Martin Deer reflects on the previous movie incarnations of the Man of Steel….
This week marks one year of me writing for Flickering Myth – which continues to be an honour Gary, thank you – and my first article was a piece on Man of Steel and Superman. So I thought what better way than to mark that anniversary, and ‘Comic Book Movie Month’ here at Flickering Myth, than with yet another Superman related article.
Man of Steel will be the sixth feature film to feature Big Blue; some have been good, some have been bad, and some… well some have just had downright strange characterisations that were just not Superman to me. So I wanted to take a look at how well each film has portrayed him. I’m not concerning myself with the films as a whole, merely their portrayals of Superman, and so here is my take on…
Superman: The Movies – What They Did and Didn’t Get Right
Superman: The Movie (1977)
The film that made you believe a man could fly. Superman I is an excellent look at the origin of Kal-El and his emergence as the man they will call Superman, however whilst it is over an hour before we actually see Superman, the reason Clark becomes his heroic alter ego isn’t explored in any great real depth. We see a teenage Clark feel regret at not being able to save his Earth father, Jonathan Kent, from death by heart attack, but then the film swiftly brings Clark to the Fortress of Solitude for a 12 year education and then it’s Superman in the red and blue tights. There is no real exploration of why he chooses to do this – not that this is a criticism, there’s still a feel for why he chooses to save the world from the lessons given to him by his fathers, but with Man of Steel apparently exploring this in detail people will wonder why we need to see the most well known origin in the superhero world again, and this is one of the reasons.
Christopher Reeve is so pure as Superman: Superman isn’t just about being super-powered, it’s about being a super man. Embodying all that is good about humanity, the very best of us, Reeve was perfect for the role. Lovably clumsy as Clark to the outside world, powerful and confident as Superman, Reeve hit all the right notes. What Richard Donner and the writers got right was the hope that Superman inspires, his endless desire to do right and to help: the kind of person we should all aspire to be. In terms of pure characterisation, Superman: The Movie is virtually flawless.
Being born in the 80s, Superman I was obviously a huge part of my childhood, but I love stories such as Secret Origin and Birthright, and Smallville was a huge part of my teenage year,s so I’m hoping Man of Steel shows us a Clark who has that heroic nature within him from an early age. Based on the trailers, it looks like that is what we will be getting.
Superman II (1980)
The problems with the production of Superman I and II are well documented. The films were shot back to back and when Donner was removed the ending of Superman II – Superman spinning the Earth backwards to reverse time – was used for Superman I instead. This leads to two major gripes I have with Superman II.
Firstly is Superman freeing himself of his powers so that he could be with Lois Lane. Whilst I appreciate the character wanting to have a normal life, this is the kind of character development that should have taken place prior to Clark taking the mantle of Superman – which could of been explored in Superman I. The problem with it here is that Superman has saved the world from nuclear destruction at the hands of Lex Luthor (granted Luthor is now in prison), but having already stepped up, Clark now wanting to give up his powers for love always seems very un-Superman to me. To me, once Superman steps up, that is where he belongs.
Secondly, and most importantly, is what just doesn’t wash for Superman. With the removal of the intended ending – reversing time – the end of Superman II makes a very bold move – Superman killing. If you don’t recall the end of Superman II allow me to recap: Having discovered earlier in the film that he is able to use the Fortress to humanise himself, removing all of his Kryptonian advantages by changing his molecular structure so that he is completely mortal, Superman tricks Zod, Ursa, Non and the audience into thinking that if they place him in to this chamber they can humanise him again. However, Superman has sprung a trap and reversed the mechanism of the chamber so that he is actually now protected and those outside will be the ones affected. Thus, Superman has turned his fellow Kryptonians to humans, with no powers and now completely harmless. Rather than take them to prison however, Superman throws Zod in to the icy waters below, killing him. This goes in the face of everything Superman stands for, drowning his morals in the freezing depths along with his victim. The Richard Donner cut of the film at least removes that element when he reverses time.
There is an exchange between Clark and Lois when Clark is powerless which I have always hated too. Having been beaten up whilst defending his woman’s honour, Lois says to Clark, ‘I want the man I fell in love with’, to which Clark responds, ‘I do too’. The reason I’ve always hated this is that it suggests Lois is only interested in Superman because of his powers and Clark’s response suggests he only sees himself as Superman. Each personality that he has -Clark to his parents, Clark to the world, Kal-El and Superman – are all part of him, they each represent areas of his personality and heritage. He isn’t just Superman, the powers don’t define him.
Superman III (1983)
A far more light hearted and erm, ‘fun’ film, Superman III is essentially a Richard Pryor film, and it is pretty awful. The plot involves Superman being poisoned using a synthetic piece of Kryptonite, as Richard Pryor’s character analyses a piece of Superman’s home world and replicates it. However he uses tobacco to fill in for the ‘unknown’ elements of the rock. Obviously this does not have the effect they are hoping for in incapacitating him and instead has a delayed effect which turns Superman in to a drinking, womanising jerk. It’s interesting to note that the first instance of Superman acting oddly involves him ignoring an emergency situation to sit and chat, with the aims of seducing his high school sweetheart Lana Lang. Basically, the first time Superman begins to act more selfishly he ignores the people he has devoted himself to protect and services his own needs, which is part of the plots for Superman II and Superman Returns. There’s nothing wrong with how Superman is portrayed here for me and I think it has some great Superman and Clark moments; I particulaarly love the metaphorical fight that takes place between evil Superman and the humanity of Clark. It could of been easy for the writers to make it a Superman vs Superman fight for a visual feast, but they chose to portray the humanity of the character as the part of him that fights back. Great stuff.
Whilst I am not reviewing the films, I do want to mention that Reeve is fantastic yet again. He’s given an extra dimension to play with here, and once again he is superb as a menacing and evil Superman.
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)
Okay, we all know this is a terrible film, but its saving grace is actually that it stays very true to who Superman is. Even behind the scenes. Christopher Reeve wasn’t interested in coming back for a fourth outing after the calamity of the third, however he negotiated a return based on him having a say in the story. Reeve wanted a story that dealt with Superman taking a stand in the nuclear arms race as he felt he had a responsibility and a voice which could be heard to spread an important message. Reeve – as he had long before taking the role of Superman and long after he finished with the role after the fourth installment – was embodying the spirit of Superman. The plot then sees Superman intervene when the world continues to threaten itself with nuclear annihilation and removes all nuclear missiles from the planet. Despite its failings as a film in general, Superman IV is pure Superman, and his address to the United Nations is nothing short of wonderful. Again there is some great Clark moments in here too, as he further comes in to own and becomes more confident as he finally feels at home as a member of Planet Earth.
Superman Returns (2006)
Where do I even begin? First, I should tell you that I have a soft spot for Returns; this was the first Superman film that I got to experience the build up to, and the first Superman film that I got to see at the cinema: how could I not enjoy it on some level? And enjoy it I did. I saw all of the positives in the film after release and none of the negatives. As time has marched on however, its monumental failings in its characterisation of the ultimate hero are astoundingly clear. So we begin…
Superman Returns takes place after Superman II, ignoring III & IV, which I think I’ve shown that despite being terrible films, were actually better characterisations than Superman II. Returns begins 5 years after Superman II and we are informed that scientists have discovered the remains of Krypton (in the comic mini-series detailing events prior to the film was the reveal it was Lex who falsified reports; thankfully this wasn’t in the film for I hope obvious reasons: Superman clearly does no actual investigative work despite being a journalist) and so Superman takes off to see if there are any survivors. This in and of itself is not a problem. He wants to see if there are any survivors of his home world and it is noble to go and search. The problem is that he leaves before he has given testimony at the trial of Lex Luthor, and so Lex walks free. You know, the man who tried to drop California in to the Pacific Ocean with a nuclear weapon and aided three Kryptonians in their attempts to take over Earth. Yeah, that Lex.
So Superman returns to Earth and is very unhappy with Lois for writing an article entitled ‘Why The World Doesn’t Need Superman’, despite its obvious attempts to ease the suffering of a world that had lost an all powerful being who saved millions of lives, then puts the moves on her. Despite her having a child and a fiance to boot. Classy.
But it actually gets worse, with Super-stalker. Superman has the ability to see through objects and uses it to betray the privacy of Lois and her family so he can get really melodramatic about the fact that she has moved on from Superman who just disappeared for five years without so much as a see ya later. Smallville, the TV series which explored Clark Kent’s teenage years, showed Clark discovering his powers and the moral implications they brought in to question. Episode 4 of the first season dealt with Clark developing X-Ray vision and at the end of the episode Clark looks through a house wall, much like in Returns, to spy on his high school crush Lana Lang and her boyfriend. Clark turns to his mother who is there and asks her what she would do if she could see everything. Ever the moral rudder for Clark, Martha simply responds; ‘learn to close my eyes’. Peeping Toms aren’t cool, Superman.
Then there is the utterly baffling, ‘I’m still Superman’ that he screams when being assaulted by Lex’s henchmen – he’s nothing if not egotistical is our Supes apparently – and there’s also just the absurd melancholy tone of the whole thing. Superman is meant to represent hope, to inspire by leading through his ultimate example of goodness and being a constant in an ever changing world, not by being depressed and sulky because the girl he was never with was with someone else. It’s a shame Adele wasn’t around in 2006, as we could have had a scene in the Fortress where Supes curled up in the fetal position and played ‘Rolling In The Deep’. It should come as no surprise that the writers openly admitted to never having actually read a Superman comic book. That says it all doesn’t it.
Superman Returns did feature a pretty great Superman. His name was Richard and he was played by James Marsden. What a stand up guy he was.
The portrayal of Superman (and Lois and everything) in Returns was, well….
People will tell you it’s hard to make Superman relevant, that because of his innate goodness, strength of character and abilities that he is hard to write and portray because he has no real issues to deal with, and that we are too cynical today to buy in to a man that pure. That however, is just flat out wrong. Terrible writers write terrible stories and good writers write good stories. Too cynical to believe in a man that good? I think we’re all crying out for a hopeful symbol to show us the way, aren’t we? Hopefully when David S. Goyer talks of getting him right and ‘fixing’ him, he’s referring to giving us a Superman fit for the title not just in strength and unimaginable powers, but in character. You can still write conflict for the character and have him overcome personal obstacles, you just have to create them through good writing and understanding the character. Thankfully, I trust Goyer to deliver for us.
Am I right? Am I wrong? What does Superman mean to you? Let us know below…