Saving Superman - Part 1
By Kevin Aheam (aka TMW Man)
[Date: September 8, 2008]
In August, Warners announced that it was going to 'reintroduce Superman', and begin the franchise all over again as if SUPERMAN RETURNS (2006) never happened.
As the studio had already disavowed SUPERMAN III (1983) and SUPERMAN IV (1987), it's been thirty years, before the vast majority of Man of Steel's target audience was even born since a SUPERMAN film (II 1980) worth paying to see has played on the silver screen.
What went wrong? Will Warners learn anything from the disappointments of the past and finally get SUPERMAN right?
Of course, the Internet has been deluged with comments, suggesting writers, actors, directors, costume changes, villains, budget, marketing...Whoa! This is 'cart' thinking? The 'horse' is Superman.
"Leaping over skyscrapers, running faster than an express train, springing great distances and heights, lifting and smashing tremendous weights, possessing an impenetrable skin - these are the amazing attributes which Superman, savior of the helpless and the oppressed, avails himself of as he battles the forces of evil and injustice..."
SUPERMAN, Action Comics, August 1939
Oh, you mean that 'Comic Book Character?'
The super-misconception: Superman came from a comic book as he did from Krypton. The 'Adam' of costumed superheroes, his appearance in 1938 begat an entire industry from which he has long since transcended.
Half a century ago, seven different comics a month starring the Man of Steel sold 25,000,000+ copies a year, but in the new millennium, to a market three times larger, comic book sales are going the way of Superman's home planet.
Not a "quality" or "economic" issue - expanding TV, movies, and video games and DVDs have sorely diminished the power and impact of comic books as an entertainment medium.
This guts the accepted logic that comic book writers would best be able to reboot Superman - they can barely save themselves. The beancounters are quick to boast that the 'Death of Superman' (1992) arc sold millions of copies and became the bestselling graphic novel of all time, therefore, that has to be the way to re-boot the character.
Wrong. According to Warners, SUPERMAN RETURNS made the brand "toxic". No matter how well made, 'The Death of Superman' would be akin to beating a dead horse.
Leaving the 'comic book mindset' back in the 20th Century - Superman is the greatest hero in all of literature. Get over it, literary lights and SF&F fanboys. No Star Fleet Captain or Jedi Knight or boy wizard or elf is even close. Every hero everywhere, real or imagined, one way or another, is compared to Superman.
Said Aunt May to Peter Parker in SPIDER-MAN: "You're not Superman, you know."
Tell us about it, lady!
Yet SPIDER-MAN 3, a cut-and-paste embarrassment of a movie, beat SUPERMAN RETURNS at the box office by more than $150,000,000!
What has gone wrong with Superman?
Unlike Bat-Man's vengeance crusade, Spider-Man's guilt trip and Tony Stark's and Hancock's struggles to redeem themselves, Superman is about being the hero. Those who would apologize for, or worse, compromise the Man of Steel's mantle as the greatest hero ever created, should re-boot somebody less.
But, and here's where the process could go fatally awry, "It's always best to start at the beginning," said the Good Witch of OZ and how right she is.
Oh, no! Not another 'origin' story! Hardly. The first 20 seconds of the next film could do that. And another 10 seconds for the Clark Kent 'secret identity' angle.
Show some confidence in and knowledge of the character as created by Siegel and Shuster 70 years ago. The hero's tale is a quest. "Truth, Justice and The American Way" is only half of it. The other half is Lois Lane.
Oh, no! Not another 'closet' Lois Lane fan? Make that a Jerry and Joe fan.
Back to the beginning...
As observed by Jules Feiffer in 'The Great Comic Book Heroes' (Dial Press 1965), what separated Superman from the other 'fakes' is that (paraphrasing) "When Superman wakes up, he is Superman. Clark Kent is the put on."... "Superman's opinion of the rest of us - his fake identity is our real one."
Feiffer then brilliantly states: ..."Among Lois Lane, Clark Kent and Superman there existed a schizoid and chaste ménage a' trois."
Bottom line: resolve or consummate the Lois Lane quest and the hero's story has nowhere to go but down.
Substituting Doomsday for Richard Pryor would not have made SUPERMAN III much better. Instead of a lifeless, unengaging Nuclear Man in SUPERMAN IV, a rampaging Kirby-esque creation and all 'The King's" men would not have saved the film.
What if... the Man of Steel comes back after being away for five years to discover he's the father of Lois's 'love child'?
How did that work out?
As we know Superman's story, the "question word" in the re-boot is not Who? or Why? or How?, but WHEN?
Don't misunderstand me. A 'period piece' would be unthinkable. The 'new' Superman must be young and fresh already a part of the 21st Century. The question: When in the Superman story does the re-boot begin?
Superman, unlike the rest of the crowd who came after him, because of him, is a timeless icon. To reintroduce a 'new' Superman, it is mandatory to pay tribute to an 'old' Superman. (To do BATMAN BEGINS and DARK KNIGHT, Nolan did not go off on an ego trip to spin his own Caped Crusader. Instead he dug into the very blood of Bob Kane's character and let all hell spring loose!)
For the Donner-led I-IV series, Noel Neill, the original Lois Lane from the Paramount serial, got a cameo. But SUPERMAN RETURNS didn't go to the well once too often; the movie jumped in.
Opening with that big, beautiful S logo from the Donner film from 30 years ago and Williams' incredible score from the old series, on came the ghost of Marlon Brando looking like Kal-El's grandfather with a touch of Odin...cut to Noel Neill dying in the opening scene.
As a result, SUPERMAN RETURNS was DOA before we ever saw Brandon Routh.
Let that serve as a warning to Warners: their Superman re-boot will fly or die with the opening credits. Come on 'dark' and 'gritty' and the film is going to be over before it begins.
"We must hold on to our loyal fanbase," declares Warners.
Cut to George C. Scott's opening speech in PATTON: "We're not 'holding' anything. We are attacking!"
The mission of the SUPERMAN re-boot must be to expand the DCU fanbase and leave Marvel in its wake.
Hollywood is a 'Big Idea' Culture. Mark Millar, a comic book writer and long-time Superman fan, has had a "plan for like 10 years for a big three-picture Superman thing, like a big 'Lord of the Rings' epic, starting over from scratch again with a seven-hour Superman story. And hopefully release them one year after another. If it works out, we'll have to start shooting next summer."
Not so fast. While Millar might have a thrilling, three-part Superman 'epic' on paper, but equating a "seven-hour Superman story, starting from scratch" with 'Lord of the Rings' is apples and oranges logic. 90% of those who saw 'Rings' did not know the story going in. As 90% of the market already knows the Superman story, how many will pay to see not one, but three movies?
The 'Big Idea' for Superman must be about energy and spirit and the right when in his story.
Two words: Max Fleischer! - Lois in her "damsel in distress' period before she becomes a love interest. A 'homage' to the 1940s cartoons with a live-action $250M action-packed spectacular in super-scale featuring the most evil villains in the DCU that'll blow away the world!
Imagine it's the summer of 2010. With a large soda in one hand and a tub of popcorn in the other, you grab your seat just as the main feature begins...
"In the endless reaches of the universe there once existed a planet known as Krypton. Their civilization was far advanced and it brought forth a race of supermen, whose mental and physical powers were developed to the absolute peak of human perfection.
"But, there came a day when giant quakes threatened to destroy Krypton forever. One of the planet's leading scientists, sensing the approach of doom, placed his infant son in a small rocketship and sent it hurtling in the direction of the Earth just as Krypton exploded!
(A ten-second CGI cataclysmic event!)
"The rocketship sped through star studded space, landing safely on Earth with its precious burden, Krypton's sole survivor. Found by Jonathan and Martha Kent and raised in Smallville, as the years went by and the child grew to maturity, he found himself possessed of amazing physical powers.
(Cue Sammy Timberg's trumpeting score!)
"Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound...
"The infant of Krypton is now the Man of Steel...
"...Disguised as Clark Kent, a mild-mannered reporter for a great, metropolitan newspaper, he fights a never-ending battle for Truth, Justice and The American Way."
Roll the 97-minute, stand-alone film.
(Please keep the spoilers to yourself.)
What do you think, Kessel? Matt?