‘Superman’ — Truth, Justice And The Fanatical Way: Inside The Fanboy Dilemma

In the first of five columns on the Man of Steel, a devotee examines the superhero's intense, personal appeal.

Webster defines “fanatic” as “one having obsessive zeal for and irrational attachment to a cause or position.” We would only add “or element of pop culture,” as some film fanatics, for instance, are so extreme in their love of a genre that it can, in part, define them. Consider horror devotees, Harry Potter fans and “Star Wars” fanatics so unwavering in their devotion that they’re willing to forgive the sins of Episodes I, II and III.

(Click here to watch an exclusive interview with reclusive “Superman Returns” director Bryan Singer.)

But few movies in any genre are more thoroughly scrutinized prior to release than the comic book adaptation. The core audience — comic book “fanboys” — often judge a film before it’s even made, based on nothing more substantial than one promotional photo.

On a fanboy scale of 1 to 10, I’ve slid from a peak of 10 in high school to about a 5.25 today. I don’t buy many comics anymore, but I still love the art form. When it comes to comic book movies, I do understand the definition of the word “adaptation.” Translating something from one medium to another requires alterations, and what works on the printed page might not fly in a live-action film.

 Part Two: “How Much Prep Work Is Too Much?”
 Part Three: “Watch It When? Where? With Whom?”
 Part Four: “Come On Feel The Toyz”
 Part Five: “What If ‘Returns’ Is (Gasp) Kraptonite?”

What matters is that the spirit of the comic is captured. That’s why Bryan Singer’s X-Men movies are great and Tim Burton’s Batman movies are bad. Singer significantly altered the Marvel X-books, but got the essence of the story right; Burton, meanwhile, created a distinctive look for Batman but utterly failed to grasp the character’s ethos (Batman does not kill, and especially not with guns). So, I’m relieved that it’s Singer and not Burton (as was once planned) who’s in charge of bringing the biggest superhero of all back to the big screen with this summer’s “Superman Returns.”

When it comes to Superman, I’m pretty territorial. To me, Supes is more than just a comic book character, and far more than merely a favorite pop culture icon. Superman represents absolute power absolutely uncorrupted. He represents humility (despite his name and primary-colored costume), altruism and, yes, the hidden power of the underdog. Apply whatever Jesus or Freudian metaphor you like. The point, to me, is that the Man of Steel matters. So when he’s portrayed in a manner I consider wrong, or wrong-headed, I get a bit testy.

I’m not one of those myopic fanboys who considers the only acceptable canon to be the current DC Comics version. I haven’t read Superman comics regularly in years, but I’m unquestionably still a huge fan. My idea of Superman is part Siegel & Shuster, part Reeve, part Filmation, part O’Neil, Swan & Anderson. That most of those names probably mean nothing to you is irrelevant; you’d know him if you saw him.

Superman means different things to different people, of course, even within the comics community.

Steve Leach, for instance, is drawn to Superman’s altruism.





















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“I love the idea of someone who is tremendously powerful selflessly using that power to benefit humanity,” the 38-year-old graphic designer and Superman collector says. “There’s a lesson in there for everyone in today’s political climate: the more powerful you are, the more you should give back to the community.”

Leach also finds the immigrant metaphor appealing.

“He’s like the embodiment of American history. He’s literally an immigrant sent to the United States by his parents to make a better life for himself.”

Adam McAllister is the webmaster of Kal-El.org, a Cincinnati-based Web site devoted to gathering every possible tidbit of information on “Superman Returns.” While he hasn’t read Superman comics since childhood, he says he has never been this excited for a film. For McAllister, Superman is unique because he’s seminal: “There’s something special about being the first. No other comic character has been able to touch him. He’s got the best powers, the best origin story, the best symbolism — it’s just perfect.”

Some avowed fanboys, while obviously eager to see what happens with “Returns,” are less effusive.

You’d think that, being the manager and buyer for New York City’s sci-fi and comic megastore, Forbidden Planet, Jeff Ayers would have a business and personal stake in “Superman Returns.” But Ayers says superhero movies rarely have a lasting impact on comic book sales, and advance material for the film has mostly left him cold.

Still, he does care what happens to the character — he’s been a genuine fan since the first Christopher Reeve movie in 1978, a film he calls “the purest interpretation of a comic ever put to film” — and the potential inherent in the role gives him some hope for Singer’s movie.

“The film’s got a leg up on most, if only because it has one of the most inspiring, noble characters created in the 20th century as its focus.”

Somewhat less of a Kal-El acolyte, cartoonist Chris McCulloch (creator of the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim series “The Venture Bros.”) has a more ironic take on Superman.

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Check out everything we have on “Superman Returns.”

More of a Marvel Comics fanboy in youth, the 34-year-old McCulloch still has an affection for the character, again due primarily to Reeve’s portrayal. He appreciates Superman as a “kind of a retro-nostalgia trip. He represents a kind of throwback to a simpler, mid-20th century time and takes me back to my ’70s childhood.”

But even someone who’s never cracked a comic book has an idea of who Superman is. He’s one of the most recognizable fictional icons in the world. Parents browsing the action figures at Target who don’t know Dr. Fate from Dr. Strange will buy Superman toys for their kids because, well, he’s Superman.

In a 1988 Time magazine cover story about Superman’s 50th anniversary, Christopher Reeve said, “I’ve seen that Superman really matters. It’s not Superman the tongue-in-cheek cartoon character [people are] connecting with; they’re connecting with something very basic: the ability to overcome obstacles, the ability to persevere.” Who could predict that, ironically, Reeve would later come to embody those traits in real life?

Still, there’s a stigma attached to being a Superman fan in that Kal-El simply isn’t cool. Especially as comics became darker and more nihilistic in the late ’80s, the notion of the “overgrown Boy Scout” became ever more easy to mock. There’s nothing dark about Superman; there’s precious little angst. Sadly, nobility and selflessness aren’t considered “cool.” Plus, youth has a tendency to dismiss any pop culture emblem that belongs to prior generations, and Supes has been fighting the good fight for almost 70 years now. He could be your grandfather.

But for pop classicists who think nobody’s cooler than Frank Sinatra or Cary Grant, Superman fits into that equation. So, yeah — like millions of fanboys, I’ve got a personal stake in how Brandon Routh and Bryan Singer pull off “Superman Returns.”

It’s certainly not just comic book fans that feel possessive of adapted characters. Anne Rice fanatics fumed over the casting of Tom Cruise as the vampire L’estat in 1994′s “Interview with the Vampire.” Petitions circulated to stop cinematic re-imaginings of “The Honeymooners” and “Bewitched” (not a bad idea, actually). Surf on over to CraigNotBond.com for some heated arguments against Daniel Craig’s casting as the latest 007.

But Adult Swim’s McCulloch feels that fanboys are more obsessive than other genre and series aficionados because “most of us started with comics when we were pretty young, so the characters are deeply ingrained in our psyches — they were literally our heroes.”

Across the world, Superman fans are braced for “Superman Returns” — some foaming at the mouth with anticipation, others cautiously hopeful, many expecting the worst. (I’m in the cautiously optimistic camp.) For more than a few, the film’s success or failure might dictate whether it’s a pleasant or a crappy summer.

Yeah, that’s what you call vested interest.

In the next installment of this five-part series, we’ll take a look at the varying degrees to which fanboys are readying for “Superman Returns.” How much information is too much prior to seeing the flick? Check back in two weeks for Part II: “Prep Work.”

Check out everything we’ve got on “Superman Returns.”

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