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Looking for Christopher Nolan’s Superman…

Superman is a tough character to get right. In any format. I remarked earlier in the week that there are very few truly classic stories featuring the character. While I’m more than a little delighted that Christopher Nolan has been handed the reigns to the franchise, I’m also a little bit nervous. Is there a way to make Superman a viable commercial franchise for the twenty-dirst century? I’d argue there is, if we look in the right place. Here’s my opinion: Look! Up in the skies! I think that the place to look to take the character back to his roots is the sort of wonderful ‘out there’ science fiction of the fifties. Batman does noir, so let Superman do hokey sci-fi.

"You will always be a child of two worlds..." Wait, sorry, wrong monologue...

Don’t get me wrong here. I think any look at the seventy-odd-year history of the character must concede that Richard Donner’s original Superman film is one of the best stories to feature the character. Not because of the storyline, which is just a glorified real estate scam, but because it represents a wonderfully nostalgic representation of the character on screen. When you boil it down, it’s a solid character piece about the big blue boy scout. I’d argue that Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut also deserves a mention, partially for giving us the first movie supervillain (“Kneel before Zod!”) and also for offering a mature exploration of the notion of being Superman. The notion that a superhero may want to quit has been a lynchpin of big screen adaptations, but it began here. Richard Donner’s take on the character defined him.

But Nolan shouldn’t try to replicate that.

Bryan Singer learnt the difficulties of emulation when he stepped behind the camera for Superman Returns. While by no means as terrible as its detractors would claim, it did suffer from feeling too much like a homage to Donner, almost some sort of sacred pilgrimage through the legacy of those two films. Everything from Lex Luthor’s grand evil plan to Marlon Brando’s cameo were taken from Donner’s film, which disappointed a lot of people who had been waiting decades for a Superman film, and had spent the in-between time cannibalising the Richard Donner movies. Those two films worked so well because they were the first in the genre. Nolan himself acknowledges that the original Superman is his favourite superhero film of all time. Those two movies really need to be left standing on their own. Any attempt to return would just disappoint. A new direction really needs to be found, but which?

I’d argue that hokey fifties science fiction is the answer – like a classy, big budget Flash Gordon (“Flash! Ah-haaa, saviour of the universe!”). Hear me out. Superman is a creation of the thirties. His first opponents were enemies of the working man – money lenders, corrupt capitalists and so on. The character originated as a sort of a social crusader. The problem is that – unlike Batman, whose early years really laid the groundwork for what was to come – Superman took quite a while to find his feet. Did you know that he couldn’t fly in his original appearances (just leap really high)? Or that he was the next step in the evolution of mankind (hence “super-man”)? Hell, Lex Luthor was originally a red-haired thug rather than the bald sophisticated supervillain we know today. I think it’s fair to say Supes took a while to find his feet. Like so many of his fellow comic book characters, he’s undergone reinvention after reinvention, perhaps best summarised by Grant Morrison:

Superhero comics, like all pop trash art, tend to function as reliable barometers of cultural change. You have only to look at the different versions of Superman in each decade since his creation—the ferocious, feisty Socialist reformer of the Depression years became the upstanding law-abiding super-cop of the 40s, then the cosmic-suburban ‘dad’ of the 50s, the endlessly shape-changing ‘LSD’ Superman of the 60s, the troubled seeker of the 70s, the confident yuppie of the 80s, each step of the way matching, reflecting and, in some cases, even predicting social change.

On the otherhand, Batman found his feet almost immediately. The Joker, in a depiction that is almost perfectly in-step with Heath Ledger’s performance, appeared in Batman #1. Batman will always (thankfully) be more associated with the noir-themed stories of teh thirties and forties rather than the sci-fi-inspired wackiness of the fifties or the camp kitsch of the sixties. Barring a handful of more recent additions, the bulk of Batman’s iconic villains were in place within his first few years of publication.

THIS is what happens if you make Superman darker and edgier...

Superman took a while longer to find his place. You might argue that hyper-evolution was a tough fit for the gritty era of the Great Depression. The fifties, on the other hand, were a different time period. At once a fusion of middle American values and Buck-Rogers-style science fiction, Superman really epitomises the fifties. A smalltown farm boy who is also the last survivor of a dead race, the comic book embraced ‘out there’ science fiction concepts (such as Superman’s ‘Fortress of Solitude’ or the bottled city Kandor) and began introducing what would become Superman’s recurring rogues gallery.

This would seem to be the ideal period of the comic to evoke in a movie adaptation. Richard Donner shrewdly suggested 1950s America in his construction of Metropolis of his depiction of Clark’s life in Smallville, so it has been acknowledged before. Perhaps the biggest flaw with Superman Returns was an attempt to modernise this. Metropolis looked a lot more like modern New York than an America which had never really existed. Even the Richard-Bransen-shuttle-launch-bit seemed more than a little consciously modern alongside a character who always seemed sort of timeless. There was even a suggestion he would visit ground zero. And being brought into the modern world somehow diminished the impact of the character, made him mundane instead of fantastical. Superman foiled bank robberies and criminals with gattling guns rather than doing anything which seemed like a sensible use of his time. Perhaps it’s best summed up by PopMatters:

What anyone who wants to reinvent Superman has to do is recognize what the character truly offers. The iconic image of a blue suited, “S” wearing man flying through the air is emblematic of a whole level of epic that few of the films even try to embrace. Superman can literally rebuild mountains, redirect tsunamis, and correct the course of planets. Having him rescue cats and stopping subway cars is pointless. Human[sic] do that all the time. The best bit in Singer’s semi-success was the space shuttle/airplane crash. Superman needs more or that – MUCH MORE. He needs a Roland Emmerich level of catastrophe to prove what he’s really made of. We need meteor threats, nuclear terrorism, Biblical natural apocalypse. Yes, he can stop a bad guy’s bullet or two along the way, but in the case of this one character, much bigger is much better.

Superman’s (admittedly limitted) rogues gallery suggests these notions of hokey fifties nostalgia. Not that you’d really know it from the movies, which have really just centred on a comical Lex Luthor as the opponent of the original superhero – although Superman II did feature an alien invasion (and overthrow of the US government) centring around a small dust town in the middle of nowhere, calling to mind any number of much lower-budget paranoia thrillers. One of the things I think Nolan must bring to the table for his relaunch of the franchise is better villains. I love Kevin Spacey and Gene Hackman as much as anyone, but Superman needs a more worthy challenger than a vaguely threatening real estate fraudster. Luthor in the comic books has undergone a reinvention as a mad scientist, a childhood friend of superman, a green-and-purple battlesuit-wearing supervillain, a shady businessman and an out-and-out supervillain. Any of these are more interesting than what we’ve got so far.

In truth, while I wouldn’t get rid of Luthor – he arguably has a more fundamental relationship with Superman than the Joker with Batman, for example, and they aren’t always knocking the stuffing out of each other and so Lex tends to spend less time in jail – it probably wouldn’t hurt to introduce some new foes from the selection of adversaries who have faced the character. Those arguing that Luthor is the only iconic foe of the Man of Steel are missing the point – Zod was a villain who had only appeared a handful of times in the comics, but who was inserted into Donner’s Superman narrative because he fit perfectly, and ended up becoming a pop culture icon. Today people see movies of superheroes they hadn’t heard of before (Ghost Rider isn’t a matinee name, for example), so the fact they don’t recognise the villain shouldn’t be an issue.

Somebody saw The Matrix...

And, again, Superman’s villains offer a clear indication of the genre and timeframe to which the character’s heart belongs. There’s the Parasite, a purple blob who feeds off the energy of others (transformed by nuclear waste for bonus points), or Metallo, a cyborg with a heart of kryptonite (with skin grafted over). Don’t forget Titano, the giant monkey (not to be confused with Gorilla Grodd, the regular-sized super-intelligent monkey who is an enemy of the Flash), or Chemo, the sentient pile of toxic waste. Okay, maybe not all of these will easily transition to the big screen, but they would certainly give whoever ends up directing the film a chance to show off more than Superman vs. natural disasters.

And this discounts probably the largest selection of Superman’s opponents – say it in a fifties-style newsreader for maximum effect – “mon-sta’s from outer-spaaace”. Alien conquers and despots and invaders that would put Flash Gordon to shame. We all know Zod, of course, but there’s also the giant yellow Mongol or sentient bio-weapon Doomsday (who actually killed Superman). And there’s Brainiac, the huge planet-shrinking intelligence. In fact, Superman is the primary adversary of the big bad Darkseid. Superman is, on many levels, a cosmic superhero as much as an earthbound one. The current comic book arc of the character – New Krypton – has Superman joining a colony of his people in space. It’s a science fiction epic (albeit with mixed results). Even the beginning of Superman Returns alluded to this, with the character flying to the erradiated rock that used to be his planet.

Of course, I don’t think the movies will take us away fom Earth anytime soon. Partially because Green Lantern has yet to demonstrate whether audiences will accept intergalactic superheroes, but also because Superman on celluloid is so closely tied to Americana. It’s hard to imagine him outside the art deco surroundings of Metropolis, but that just illustrates how firmly Superman is tied to this classic, lost notion of an America which never existed and a return to it. That’s why I don’t believe that the most iconic period for the character were his pre-Second-World-War years, but in the confused decades that followed that last titanic armed struggle, the years in which America arguably came to realise that it was vaguely lost, before giving into the adventures and liberation of the sixties.

The historical perspective on the fifties is generally dominated by Cold War Paranoia, evidenced in the McCarthy Hearings. In a way, Invasion of the Bodysnatchers and The Day the Earth Stood Still captured that sensation through the lens of science fiction. I’d argue taht there was another side to the fifties. The moon landing was around the corner, the greatest physical struggle in the history of mankind had been overcome and the atom had been split. There was much to be optimistic about. Popular science fiction obsessed around the idea of colonising other planets – that man could fly to the stars. This is, for me at least, the era of Superman. It doesn’t matter that the stories were hokey (seriously, they were) or that the medium was awkward and stunted. Superman as a character seemed perfectly in step with that sense of potential. “Is there nothing he cannot do?” an onlooker could ask of the spandex hero. Equally the human race could look upon the potential hinted at in the decade and ask of itself, “Is there nothing we cannot do?”

Superman is an aspiration. He’s the best anyone could ever be: the super-man. To modernise him or bring him to the grim and realistic present diminishes that. He works better as a myth. Much has been made of the fading sense of hope surrounding President Barrack Obama. As a candidate, he embodied hope and aspiration, a living iteration of the American dream. Once elected, and made ‘real’, he was just as confined by the pragmatic politics of the office as his predecessors had been – his popularity has been in steep decline. Superman works best in that fantastic setting, as a beacon of hope, not in a pseudo-realistic modern setting, like Singer tried with Superman Returns.

Donner used the misleading term ‘verisimiltude’ to describe his approach to make the first two movies, but it isn’t really meant to be a representation of the real world. The streets of Metropolis appear just as fake as those in Universal Studios, just as self-consciously quaint and old-fashioned. But that’s the point. Metropolis couldn’t actually exist, except in our imaginations as something resembling paradise. And we tell ourselves it’s nostalgia, or a call back to the old days, even though the old days never really existed. The paradox of looking to a past that never existed towards the best future that ever could. The clean and shiny stylized future of the fifties rather than the more techno-punk version favoured in recent decades. That more than anything suggests that now is the perfect time for a revival of the character.

The Dark Knight may have convinced Hollywood that darker is better, but last year’s Star Trek proved that there is room for bright and shiny optimism at the multiplexes. I see no reason why a Superman movie can’t be produced to the same standards as Star Trek and similarly catch audiences off guard.

Part of what made Nolan’s take on Batman so wonderful was a recognition of the character’s roots. Batman will always be at home amid the shadows of the noir crime thriller, with it’s mobsters and fading sense of hope. It’s a dark and cynical world. Hopefully Nolan will adopt the same approach, recognising what works with Superman. We don’t want a darker or more introspective version of the character.

We just want you to let him fly.

2 Responses

  1. Awesome post mate.

    • Thanks man, I was just kinda thinking about Nolan’s Superman reboot and think about what I’d like to see for the character and I guess this almost stream of consciousness post kinda flowed from that.

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