Superman should have kept his underwear on.
Despite his status as the oldest, most iconic comic book character, few seem to be able to do Superman justice when it comes to the big screen. Internet buzz among the DC fan base revealed a high level of anticipation for Man of Steel (2013). It had disaster written all over it before the project even started. It would seem obvious to anyone except film executives: co-writer and producer Christopher Nolan has a reputation for excruciatingly complicated narrative, which promised to be a case of oil meets water for a very simple, very old, and very well-known story. This was the first bad sign. The second, even more predictable omen of failure was in the choice of hack director Zach Snyder. His one-dimensional 300 (2007) was a new, crude lesson in soulless, video game stylized juvenilia. Sucker Punch (2011) actually strove to be even worse and, incredibly enough, succeeded.
There have been only two solid cinematic treatments of this solemn American myth: Superman and the Mole Men (1951) and Superman II (1980). Superman and the Mole Men depicted Superman in exactly the way he is supposed to be, as envisioned by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. He’s a barrel-chested, steadfast believer and proponent of Truth, Justice and the American Way even in the face of social bigotries. (Though he had a lighter side, too; Superman was probably at his zaniest, funniest and most surreal in Jack Kirby’s spinoff “Superman’s Pal: Jimmy Olsen”). It works, despite the film’s being undeniably dated, and despite the threadbare budget which resulted in clunky makeup and special effects (such as a souped up vacuum cleaner subbing for a ray gun). It is in Superman’s very first feature film that the filmmakers (a ragtag team of assignment types, including director Lee Shalom, who went onto work in television) captured the rudimentary essence of a decidedly unpretentious character. Preceding the Man of Steel’s first feature were the art deco Fleischer Brothers animated shorts (1941-1943), the noirish radio show “The Adventures of Superman” (1940-1951, starring Bud Collyer as the voice of Superman) and two 1950 theatrical serials, Superman (1948) and Atom Man vs. Superman (both starring Kirk Alyn). All of these productions were true in spirit to the original “Superman magazine.”
The first season of the televisions series “The Adventures of Superman” (1953-1958) continued the edgy noir flavor of the radio show from which it took its name. Like Superman and the Mole Men, the series starred George Reeves as the quintessential Clark Kent and Phyllis Coates as the equally quintessential, feisty Lois Lane. Possessing virtuous fire, Coates’ Lane still has not been surpassed. Unfortunately, the show’s producers, believing virtuousness was not compatible with fire, decided the way to make the show more “kid friendly” was to replace Coates with the hopelessly “Leave it to Beaver”-styled virgin Noel Neill. That wasn’t the only change. While the second season did have a few good episodes, the saccharine quickly began to set in. The series, low budget to begin with, dissipated into embarrassing Ed Wood territory in budget, writing and acting. Mercifully, it came to an end, albeit through the tragedy of Reeves’ suicide.
The next screen incarnation came with the mega hit Superman (1978) starring Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder. It was, by and large, a bloated, unimaginative affair, although it did have fleeting moments of charm. Superman II was far better for having bypassed the redundant origin narrative. Superman II has a host of great villains (Terence Stamp as Zod, the underrated Sarah Douglas as Ursa, and Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor). Clark Kent, stripped of his powers for the sake of love (the priestly Superman must remain celibate, of course), is far more than a bumbling oaf, and succeeds in winning our empathy in his fight to regain what he has lost.
Superman III (1983) is easily the worst screen version of the character to date, and the fatigued Superman IV (1987) was only marginally better. It was up to television to return Superman to his luster, and by most accounts this it did in “Lois and Clark” (1993-1997). A number of critics wrote that Dean Cain and Terry Hatcher did a convincing job of channeling George Reeves and Phyllis Coates, even if the series also carried a residue of camp.
“Superman: The Animated Series”(1996-2000) was a fan and critical favorite, with some some comparing it favorable to the Fleischer series.
“Smallville” (2001-2011) was certainly popular enough, though it received mixed reviews through its run.
Superman Returns (2006) was considered a box office failure (although it did substantially better than what is often claimed on the Internet). Critics had no such qualms, giving it mostly favorable reviews. Director Bryan Singer’s conscientious sequel to Superman II was alternately praised and criticized for the reverential homage he paid the 1978 film.Barely out of adolescence star Brandon Routh gave a performance that imitated the late Christopher Reeve, but couldn’t hide the obvious fact that he was more Superboy than Superman. Unfortunately, Lois Lane was reduced to being a mere baby mama, which was a grave misstep. The same year produced a smaller scale Superman of a very different sort: Allen Coulter’s flawed, but atmospheric Hollywoodland (2006) tells the dreary story of TV Superman George Reeves and his suicide. It’s fashioned as a whodunit with multiple scenarios and aptly features seedy characters who could easily have been lifted from the original series’ quota of gangster type villains. A number of critics complained that the behind the television series’ vignettes worked better than the mystery. However, the glimpses into Reeves’ private and screen life work better as is: in brief.
When Christopher Nolan revamped Batman into a successful box office trilogy, it became inevitable that DC’s other flagship character would be seen as ripe for a revival. However, Nolan’s take on the caped crusader became increasingly arduous by the time the series came to an end. In retrospect, The Dark Knight (2008) was easily the best of the lot, primarily because of Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker. Christian Bale made for a compelling Batman (raspy voice aide) but his Bruce Wayne was a dull, one-note playboy facade, comparatively paling next to Michael Keaton’s twitchy performance in the two Tim Burton Batman films.
Batman always had the edge over Superman, due, in part, to the former having better villains to contend with. In the comic books, the vintage Superman had three colorful regular adversaries: Mr. Myxlptlk (an animated prankster), Brainiac (Lex Luther as a green alien) and Bizarro (a Frankenstein monster-like antagonist to Superboy). None of these villains have been attempted in live action incarnations. Superman, like Green Lantern, was always more approachable when earth-bound. Once the character descended into elaborate pulp sci-fi outer space terrain, he became insufferably pretentious—which brings us to Man of Steel.
Man of Steel is postmodernism at its sloppiest, picking and choosing from a smorgasbord of influences without an iota of discernment. Fascism is among those influences. This is not altogether surprising coming from the director of the Spartan 300. This Clark Kent is a navel-gazing pseudo messiah. Framed in Triumph of the Will (1935) styled compositions, Superman is as one-dimensional as Leni Rienfenstahl’s stormtroopers. Hook, line and sinker, Snyder adheres to Rienfenstahl’s concept of deities shorn of personality. The result is a protagonist reduced to a video game character put through various levels of challenges. Indeed, much of Man of Steel treats the viewer as a non-participatory player, deprived of joystick.
Transformers (2007) and Twister (1996) are other overt influences (the former nauseatingly so). Big silvery tentacle thingamajigs chase Superman through the sky, skyscrapers fall, and streets are covered in shattered glass. Yes, it’s “Twin Towers: The Endless Arcade game.” The soundtrack is akin to a heavy metal sensory overload; an audio equivalent to the equally relentless Passion of the Christ (2004). Kent even whisks through an episode of “The Deadliest Catch” before succumbing to the chaos.
Making the mythology even clunkier are slivers of awkward religiosity. In one unintentionally funny scene, Clark Kent engages in a brief confession of sorts with a Catholic priest, the composition framed before a Sermon on the Mount stained glass window in case we don’t get it. 2,000 years of religious tradition is served up in an over-simplified 2 minute bite. Kent makes it a point to state his age; 33, a reference to Christ’s traditional age at the time of death. Yet the Man of Steel has none of the personality actually found in New Testament writings. Although he descends from the Kryptonian version of Valhalla, Kal-el (i.e. Superman) does not possess the dimensions of Wagner’s characters, divine or not. To be fair, star Henry Cavill does show an occasional half-second or so of much-needed boy scout charm. Alas, it quickly evaporates and, to make matters worse, he violates the most vital and long-held oaths of the Superman mythology: Cavill’s Superman is a messiah who kills. Of course, this will be manna for Man Of Steel‘s ADHD fan base.
Only two actors survive this slop: Michael Shannon as Zod (he’s still no Terence Stamp) and Kevin Costner in the brief role of Jonathan Kent. Every other actor is utterly defeated by clueless direction.
Several years ago I had to take a nephew to a comic book store. My exposure to the medium had ended in the 1970s, but I did remember the comics of my youth. One could pick up any random issue and immediately know that it was drawn by Gil Kane, Frank Robbins, Mike Ploog, et. al. even without seeing the credits. The artists’ style and personality shone through in everything they did. Revisiting comics in that store, I found the” graphic novels” to be uniformly grey and devoid of personal artistry or aesthetic joy. They all looked uniformly bland. That’s what this Superman is like: zapped of color, charisma, and genuine style. Man of Steel amounts to nothing more than a dull and vapid apocalypse, paling compared to previous incarnations, even the most flawed ones. Not that the majority of postmodern audiences will notice, since few of them know anything which preexists them. Audiences will allow themselves to be spoonfed anything that is hyped, even this chocolate meets asparagus reworking of pop Americana.