After almost 20 years, the last son of Krypton finally returns to the big screen this week in “Superman Returns.” After all the excitement, planning, collecting and waiting, one fanboy fear remains: What if the movie stinks?
The Internet is abuzz with debate as to whether or not “Superman Returns” will do justice to both the comic book character and the late much beloved Christopher Reeve. Over the past year, skeptical fanboys (myself included) have come to embrace this newest Man of Steel, grudgingly accepting the dark costume and the notion of Lois’ offspring. But we’ve been burned too many times in the past — “Daredevil,” anyone? — to approach any comic book film with unguarded enthusiasm.
Still, Superfans should be counting their blessings, as things could have been — and almost were — so much worse.
When “Batman” producer Jon Peters acquired the rights to Superman in the early 1990s, his take on the character was less than reverent. Peters showed outright hostility toward the character, demanding a Superman movie with no flying and no traditional red-and-blue costume. Peters, evidently, was thinking more “Star Wars” than superhero, wanting Kal-El to fight using Kryptonian weapons, including a silver “S” shield that came off an all-black outfit and transformed into daggers — to battle, no lie, a giant spider.
|Part One: ” ‘Superman’ — Truth, Justice And The Fanatical Way”|
|Part Two: “How Much Prep Work Is Too Much?”|
|Part Three: “Watch It When? Where? With Whom?”|
|Part Four: “Come On Feel The Toyz”|
Over the next decade, numerous directors and writers struggled with a handful of concepts, none of which clicked. In one version, Superman dies fighting über-monster Doomsday and his “life essence” leaps into Lois Lane, immaculately impregnating her. Days later, she gives birth to a super-baby who grows to adulthood in a matter of weeks, adding Oedipus complex to the lore. One-time director Tim Burton wanted to play up Superman’s “darker, more murderous side” (Uh, Tim? He doesn’t have one). In another script by J.J. “Alias” Abrams, Krypton doesn’t explode (?) and Kal-El is sent to Earth to prepare for a Kryptonian invasion (?!) being set up by a Kryptonian Lex Luthor (?!?). For a while, director McG was tapped to do a campy “Superman” in the vein of his “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle” adaptation. Around that same time, Wolfgang Peterson was slated to direct an epic battle between DC Comics’ biggest icons, “Superman vs. Batman.”
Thankfully, none of these ill-advised features made it past pre-production, leaving the dormant franchise available for avowed Superman acolyte Bryan Singer to approach the material with a reverence missing from the aborted versions.
But will that reverence translate into a Superman that satisfies both fanboys and the general public? Superman’s wide and varied track record on big and small screens places the odds with Singer.
Consider that right now, there are four different versions of Superman in popular culture: The comic book Superman, the Kal-El of “Superman Returns,” the young Clark Kent of “Smallville” and the animated hero of the new “Brainiac Attacks” direct-to-DVD movie and the recently canceled “Justice League Unlimited.” All of those Supermen differ from each other — and, in fact, DC publishes more than one version of Superman, further complicating the matter. So why isn’t anyone confused? It’s because Superman is so ingrained in our collective consciousness that everyone already has a slightly different idea of who Superman is — and they’re all right.
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All these different takes on the Superman story can coexist because the character has become so iconic. The nutshell is solid and perfect: The sole survivor of an advanced alien civilization, raised in bucolic small-town America with ironclad values, decides to use his incredible powers to help mankind (rather than rule it) while masquerading as a powerless Everyman. It’s a story endlessly adaptable to changing times.
While many fanboys detest the TV show “Smallville” for taking more liberties with the Superman canon than any other adaptation, their myopic hard line misses the big picture. “Smallville” is faithful to the original because it remains true to the heart of the story. Resisting the urge to make young Clark Kent (Tom Welling) cool or edgy, Smallville shows the selflessness of the character, the struggle between desires and obligation better than perhaps any other adaptation. If the show has any drawback it’s that, by now, the extrapolation of the inevitable makes it impossible to believe that anyone in Smallville won’t know who Superman is when he finally puts on the costume. Especially Lex Luthor.
To my mind, the worst version of Superman wasn’t either of Christopher Reeve’s last two movies; the ill-advised campy 1960s Broadway show, “It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman!”; or when he temporarily became a pure-energy being in the comics in the mid-1990s. Rather, it was the 1993 TV series “Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.”
“Lois and Clark” reimagined the tale as a romantic comedy, a radical concept that might’ve worked had the show’s creators had any kind of grip on the characters themselves. Sadly, they didn’t, as evidenced by their reversal of the myth’s key tenet: Following the lead of John Byrne’s 1986 comic revamp, they made Superman the disguise and Clark Kent the real persona. A horribly cast Dean Cain played Clark exactly the same as Superman, with the glasses and — really atrocious — costume being the only difference. Audiences couldn’t relate to either side of Kal-El.
Saddled with bad special effects, a pathetic Luthor (John Shea) and awkward attempts at making the show hip — Clark gets tickets to a Pearl Jam concert! — “Lois and Clark” never found a comfortable balance between romantic comedy and action-adventure.
“Superman Returns” will very likely be much better than “Lois and Clark,” but either way, it won’t matter. The bottom line is that regardless of whether “Superman Returns” is a creative and commercial smash or a dud, it won’t replace anyone’s idea of who Superman is. It will only add to a long, rich, complex legacy.
But in a world where an angst-ridden Spider-Man just wants to be loved, an angry Batman is obsessed with vengeance and feared mutant X-Men just wanna be left alone, does Superman really fit in anymore?
In a 2002 Vanity Fair article, James Wolcott commented that “pop myth adapts, rewrites its own history, reflects contemporary values in an enlarging mirror, and, like Greek myth, cloaks human fears and desires as godly forces and supernatural feats.”
Superman matters. Superman represents our greatest desires in their most noble terms. Yes, it’s a fantasy about absolute power. But even more, it’s about using that power for the greater good. In fact, in our trying and cynical times, maybe Superman means more than he has since he fought for the repressed during the Depression. The concepts of sacrifice and heroism will never become obsolete, and Superman remains, after almost 70 years, the quintessential pop-culture embodiment of those virtues. After all, they don’t call it the “never-ending battle” for nothing.
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