Superman postsSunday July 28, 2013
HISHE: How 'Man of Steel' Should Have Ended
This one's pretty good:
I particularly like:
- “You mean a randsom priest?”
- “Oh my gosh. Thousands of people might have died!”
- “Oh well, what're you gonna do about it? Snap my neck?”
In the above, Kal-El uses his brains rather than his brawn but then the movie's over in an hour. The dramatic problem is almost always how to lengthen the problem (believably) rather than solve it.
Here's my review of “Man of Steel.”
Did Superman Resurrect Patriotism? On Truth, Innocence, and the American Way
Was “Superman” the first patriotic movie I saw in a theater? I guess I’m asking myself more than you.
I was born in 1963 and grew up in the age of the cinematic anti-hero—“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “Billy Jack,” “Evel Knievel”—when patriotism was almost always seen as the last refuge of scoundrels. On TV’s “M*A*S*H” it was used by Frank Burns and Col. Flagg as an excuse for spying and incorrigible behavior. In the movies, rich men justified corrupt business practices by wrapping themselves in the flag. Sure, Apollo Creed came into the boxing ring in “Rocky” dressed as Uncle Sam, and wearing stars-and-stripes boxing trunks, but it felt ironic. The flag meant Nixon back then. It meant Vietnam. People who waved it were squares and fools and con artists.
Then Superman embraced it. “I’m here to fight for truth, and justice, and the American way,” he told Lois. Moviegoers in December 1978 laughed out loud at that line. So corny! Their laughter drowned out Lois’ response, which was was theirs:
Lois (snorting): You’re gonna end up fighting every elected official in the country!
By the second movie, Superman, the superpatriot, literally carries the American flag to the White House. A year after that, Rocky wears Apollo’s stars-and-stripes trunks himself, inironically, in “Rocky III,” and again in “Rocky IV,” where he also drapes himself in the American flag. Suddenly everyone was draping themselves in the flag: Stallone, Olympic athletes, politicians. Suddenly it became problematic not to wear the American flag. Anyone who didn’t was suspect.
Obviously a lot of factors went into this profound cultural and political shift. In 1979, with long gas lines and Americans held hostage (or America Held Hostage, as ABC News put it), it felt like the world was spitting in our face. Working-class jobs were disappearing and people felt powerless. The U.S. Olympic hockey team, college kids and massive underdogs, upset the mighty Soviet machine in February 1980 before a home crowd, chanting “USA! USA!,” and it felt good to chant that. Apparently it felt good to vote for Ronald Reagan, too. A majority of voters did that. Twice.
But did some part of it begin with Superman saying he was going to fight for truth, justice and the American way?
Here’s director Richard Donner in the 1980 TV documentary, “The Making of Superman: The Movie,” talking about the impact the character had on him:
He’s a lot of what America once was a long time ago. I’m a very liberal human being in my philosophies and my politics. And I find myself, in an odd sort of way, looking and respecting the conservative attitude of what Superman stands for now. Because I think I see a lot of my philosphies in application now and I’m not very happy with them. And I almost wish I could go back to what once was, and what America once was.
I almost wish I could go back to what once was, and what America once was. That line may be the single best description of post-1980 political theater that I’ve read.
According to Christopher Reeve in the same documentary, this fact, this going back to what American once was, was the most difficult part of creating “Superman”:
We all know Superman can leap over tall buildings but the question is could he leap over the generation gap since those early Siegel and Schuster days. We wanted to know if a man from the innocent ‘30s could survive in the post-Waterage ‘70s.
It’s instructive to see how they did this. How did Superman, as a character, go back to what America once was? In a way, he never left it.
He was raised in Smallville, Kansas, in the 1950s, then disppeared for 12 years of education under Jor-El, before turning up in Metropolis in 1978. This means—and this is no small cultural feat—he leaped over the 1960s in a single bound. He avoided our internal conflicts over the Vietnam War, black power, Watergate. He avoided the assassinations of MLK and RFK. He didn’t see the American myth die, or at least reassemble itself into multicultural pieces. He didn’t recognize the limits of American power because he himself had none.
Eventually the movies themselves went back to what American once was. During the Easy Rider/Raging Bull decade, roughly 1967 to 1977, our most popular movies were disaster-ridden (a ship overturned, a tower burned) and dark (the devil was in a Sicilian family, or a little girl, or a great white shark). Our heroes and anti-heroes didn’t end well. Bonnie and Clyde died. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid died. Wyatt and Billy died. Ratso Rizzo died. Jenny died. Randle Patrick McMurphy had a lobotomy and then died.
Then Rocky Balboa went the distance. “Rocky” was called a sleeper hit because the lead was unknown and no one expected it to be a success, but movie audiences loved it. Critics at the time wrote that it reminded them of a Frank Capra movie. It began in the gritty ‘70s, with poverty, gangsters and the down and out, but leaped back to the Capraesque ‘40s for its happy ending. It won best picture and was the No. 1 box-office hit of 1976.
Then George Lucas leaped back even further. Not to “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far way,” but to the movie serials of the ‘30s. “Star Wars” was a better version of these heroic cliffhanger fables of good and evil, and it was the No. 1 box-office hit of 1977. “Raiders of the Lost Ark, an even more obvious update, was the No. 1 box-office hit of 1981. Then we were off to the races.
It’s kind of a shock to rewatch all of the Christopher Reeve/Superman movies, as I did recently, because you see this cultural and cinematic shift take place. “Superman: The Movie” is set in the gritty world of the 1970s, where journalism matters; “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” is set in the business-oriented, hostile-takeover world of the 1980s, in which journalism is reduced to a Page-Six joke. In the first movie, it felt innovative that the star of the film actually lifted weights to become its central character. By the fourth movie, we were all lifting weights. We were all going to the gym. Our bodies got hard while our minds got soft.
One always wonders how much the cultural affects the political, and to what extent our cinematic wish-fulfillment fantasies creep into politics. The modern GOP certainly feels like a Hollywood studio of yore, offering up the great American myth in the manner of Louis B. Mayer. It’s morning in America of a kindler gentler nation in which no child gets left behind and we put country first and our enemies are wanted dead or alive. Mitt Romney’s campaign slogan, “Believe in America,” actually comes close to the first line of “The Godfather,” “I believe in America,” which the Italian barber tells Don Corleone. The barber meant it when he said it but the movie didn’t. Back in 1972, we knew there was an underside to the American myth. To get ahead, sometimes you had to get your hands dirty. Or bloody.
We ignore that underside now. We have a forced innocence now. Here’s Reeve again in that 1980 TV documentary explaining Superman:
He’s got all these powers, but he’s got the kind of maturity—or he’s got the innocence, really, to look at the world very, very simply. And that’s what makes him so different. When he says, “I’m here to fight for truth, justice, and the American way,” everyone goes [coughs into hand behind a sly, knowing smile]. You know? But he’s not kidding.
Innocence is the key word here. It’s positive in Reeve’s explanation but it reminds me of this line from James Baldwin’s essay, “Stranger in the Village”:
Anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.
Baldwin wrote that line in the late 1950s, I first read it in the late 1980s, but for most of my adult life it’s not only felt like the truth; it’s felt like the American way.
SLIDESHOW Essay: An Open Letter to Clark Kent
SLIDESHOW: Let’s start with a simple question: What do you call yourself when no one’s around? Kal? Clark? Superman? I can’t imagine you’d call yourself “Superman,” as in, “C’mon, Superman, get your head out of your ass.” You might have given yourself that immodest name in the beginning, back in June 1938 when you could only leap 1/8 of a mile, but you’re no longer that person. You’ve been corporatized and retconned and rebooted dozens of times since. Now others give you that name. The shield on your chest is Kryptonian—the family crest or the word “hope”—but it looks like our “S,” so they extrapolate and come up “Superman.” It might be a nickname you don’t even like—like Stinky. It might even embarrass you. So … who are you? Clark? Superman? Kal? Stinky? (Screenshot from “Atom Man vs. Superman,” 1950)
This wasn’t much of a question in your early years. We knew who you were because it was announced before every episode of the radio and TV series: “Superman! Who can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel in his bare hands, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way!” Get that? Disguised as Clark Kent. Who’s weak and cowardly and wears glasses. But all of that is part of the disguise. Because it’s not who you are. (Clark Kent in the opening of the Fleischer Studios “Superman” cartoons.)
Yet you started out as Clark. We all know what. That was John Byrne’s argument back in 1986 when he decided that, no, Clark was the real person and Superman the disguise. Just as Bruce Wayne was the real person and Batman the disguise. Except … Well, in many ways, Bruce, the frivolous playboy, isn’t who he is at all. That life has been given over to revenge, and the representation of that revenge wears a cape and a cowl. He’s been more Batman than Bruce since that night in the alley. (Clark (Jeffrey Silver) having a heart-to-heart with his mother (Frances Morris) in the first episode of the “Adventures of Superman” TV series, 1952)
Blame Don Diego de la Vega for the dilemma. No, further back. Blame Sir Percy Blakeney. Both Diego and Percy were new kids in town, NKOB, and so could alter their personalities to deflect attention away from their attempt to secure justice as, respectively, Zorro and The Scarlet Pimpernel. They could show up, pretend to be foppish and not at all courageous, and no one was there to say, “Dude, why are you suddenly acting so foppish? That’s not you.” (Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent in “Superman III,” 1983)
Is that how it happened with you? You grew up in Smallville, Kansas, the adopted son of Jonathan and Martha Kent, or Eben and Sarah Kent, and you just acted the way you acted. (Which was how exactly?) Then you went to Metropolis, where you could be whoever you wanted to be. Most of us use this opportunity to put on a better face but you did the opposite. You put on glasses, you acted the coward, you stumbled and bumbled. Me? Superman? Why, I can barely walk down the street. It was a conscious decision. (Clark stumbles on the pier in the Ruby-Spears “Superman” cartoon, 1988)
That’s what Christopher Reeve suggested. In 1978, in the hubub before “Superman: The Movie” was released, he told The New York Times, “I see Clark as a deliberate put-on by Superman. Clark’s a tongue-in-cheek impression of who we are. There’s some of him in all of us. I have a great deal of affection for him—it’s not just that he can’t get the girl, he can’t get the taxi.” (Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder as Clark and Lois in “Superman: The Movie,” 1978)
Or did it come about organically? Maybe you started acting mild-mannered way back in Smallville because you knew what would happen if didn't; if you blew your top. What disasters you would cause. Maybe you nearly caused such a disaster. Maybe you did cause one. I mean, who wouldn’t be mild-mannered if they could destroy the planet when they lost their temper? (George Reeves' Clark losing his temper in “Superman and the Mole Men,” 1951)
Maybe, too, in Metropolis, when you began to duck out to become Superman, others noticed and came to the wrong conclusion. As soon as trouble brewed, Clark retreated. What a coward! Reputations are established early and hard to shake, and maybe you decided you didn’t want to shake this one because it was ultimately beneficial. It made excuses for your absence so you wouldn’t have to. (Perry, Lois and Clark in “The New Adventures of Superman,” 1966)
Or does it go deeper? Maybe you began to realize that the cowardly persona was a great way to attract the bullies of the world. “The thing you fear the most will meet you halfway,” Victoria Williams once sang, and maybe you realized the truth of this, and feigned fear to attract the world’s predators. They smelled fear, licked their lips, and came out of the shadows to get you. And that’s when you got them. (Tom Welling as Clark in the premiere episode of “Smallville,” 2001)
That’s an explanation anyway. But the real explanation is much simpler and sadder. We need you to be mild mannered. We need you to be a coward. We need you to be like us so that when you turn into him, we can be thrilled. John Byrne got this wrong. So did George Reeves, who played you like Superman in a suit and fedora. The joy you give is in the idea that underneath the weak man, the plain man, is the super man. It allows every weak and plain man, which is most of us, to think, “Maybe ... Maybe ...” You are our ultimate wish-fulfillment fantasy. (Clark turns into Superman in “Last Son of Krypton,” 1996)
We still get a thrill out of it. In the new movie, when the dude in the bar starts messing with you, even though you’re bearded and butch and don’t exactly look like a pushover, it’s thrilling to watch. Unlike when someone messes with us, we get to think, as we sit there in the dark with our tub of popcorn, “You’re messing with the wrong motherfucker, motherfucker!” We get to pretend the opposite of what you pretend. We pretend we’re brave. (Henry Cavill as itinerant Clark in “Man of Steel,” 2013)
But … a reporter? For The Daily Planet? In this day and age? The rationale for the gig was always so you could be close to the news; so you could hear about fires breaking out and crimes being committed and rush to stop them. You use that excuse again in the new movie. But, dude, it’s 2013. You don’t need The Daily Planet, all you need is wi-fi. All you need is a smartphone. All you need is you. (Kirk Alyn as Clark Kent in “Superman,” the serial, 1948)
I keep going back to that scene in “Superman Returns” when you're floating over Metropolis with Lois and you ask her what she hears. She says “Nothing” and you say, “I hear everything.” Wow. Everything. Good line. It lets us know the burden of being you. But the follow-up is problematic. “So wait… if you hear everything … why ever be Clark Kent? Why wait for the story to break? Why not save the person crying for help right now? Why not save the people crying for help right now?” (Brandon Routh as Clark in “Superman Returns,” 2006)
In your very first stories, Jerry Siegel had you join the San Monte army to teach a war profiteer a lesson. You became a miner to teach a mine operator a lesson. You joined the circus to save the circus. You became a super-fugitive from a chain gang. You became part of the oppressed to champion them. So why not do this again? (A panel from Action Comics No. 1, June 1938)
Don't be Clark Kent, reporter. Disguise yourself as a member of an oppressed group, then emerge at an opportune moment as Superman. Word would spread: Don’t attack these guys because one of them is really Superman. Then you could move on to the next group. It would be like the scene in “Spartacus,” where, one by one, men stand and say: “I am Spartacus.” Except instead of the many pretending to be the one (to protect the one), you would be the one pretending to be the many (to protect the many). “I am Superman,“ you could say to the tyrants of the world. ”And I can do anything.” (Clark Kent after being beaten up in a diner in “Superman II,” 1981)
It's a thought anyway. It might not even be a good thought. To be honest, Clark, I wouldn’t want to lose you. In the end, you’re still the reason for the thrill. Superman would be a rather dull boy without you. (“The New Adventures of Superman,” 1966)
Ranking Every Superman Movie Ever Made
I did it with the Batman movies so I figured I'd do it with the Superman movies, too. To be honest, I planned on doing it before “Man of Steel” opened last Friday but time got away from me, and unlike some folks, or at least one super folk, I can't turn back time.
So here it is: my ranking (worst to first) of every Superman movie ever made. Feel free to add yours in the comments field.
The principles (particularly Lois and Jimmy) look too old for their parts, while the subplots (aerobics classes and hostile takeovers) remind us of everything we hated about the '80s. The story? Awful. Spurred by an annoying kid, Superman unilaterally decides to rid the world of nuclear weapons, and does, but because Lex Luthor places a Superman hair and a gold suit in one of the rocket capsules, a villain, Nuclear Man, emerges, with whom he battles all over the heavily dropshadowed globe. But the chief villains in the movie are its producers, Monahem Golan and Yoram Globus, the cheap bastards who bought the rights to Superman but fearing bankruptcy slashed the budget from $40 million to $17 million, losing great technicians in the process. As a result, big scenes became small scenes. The global became local. A grand vision was replaced by the rinky-dink. It looked fake ... fake ... fake. Watching it, you won’t believe that you once believed that a man could fly.
Blue eyebeams are for repairing the Great Wall of China.
The theme of small-town intolerance is particularly fascinating here since Superman himself is rather intolerant. If Kirk Alyn played Superman with wide-eyed bombast, George Reeves takes it down a notch. Or 10. For decades, Reeves’ was considered the touchstone performance, the one and true Superman, but I was never a fan, and I’m even less of one now. Reeves’ indifference to the role permeates the character. His Clark Kent is strong and smug, his Superman vaguely disgusted and contempuous. He messes with both the first and second amendments: convincing Lois not to publish a story and (in a hilarious scene) disarming an entire Texas town. “You saved my life,” the movie's chief villain says in amazement at one point. “That’s more than you deserve,” Superman sneers back. It's a dry little movie filmed in a dry little backlot. Its main action consists of a midget in bald wig and furry suit being pursued over nondescript brush and hills. The whole thing makes me vaguely nauseous.
A half hour of this.
We get gags. We get evil Superman. We get an early ‘80s version of what computer programming is like. (Psst: Magic.) But most of all we get Richard Pryor doing unfunny bits. Here he does drunk, here he does “Patton,” here he does the bland white-guy voice. He plays at Superman, with a tablecloth as his cape, then skis off a high-rise and walks away, looking, not astonished at surviving a 40-story fall, but simply embarrassed. He looks embarrassed throughout. He should. Think of everything they could’ve done with this movie and look at what they did. Look at what they did to my boy.
I'm with Vaughn here.
“Atom Man vs. Superman” feels cheaper than “Superman” (1948), the previous Kirk Alyn serial. We get more stock footage: floods, fires, etc. We get redos from the first serial: Clark Kent ducking behind a file cabinet and emerging, a second later, to a triumphant blast of music, as Superman. One episode, about Superman's origins on Krypton, is essentially the entire first episode of the first serial retold. Meanwhile, the titular Atom Man, Luthor's secret identity, is a terrifying figure in a … Naw. It looks like they took a jug, cut in eyeholes and a mouthhole, sprinkled on glitter, and plunked it on Lyle Talbot’s poor head. You know the scene in “Duck Soup” where Groucho gets his head stuck in a pitcher and Harpo draws a Groucho face on it? Like that. On the plus side, in Chapters 14 and 15, Superman beats Slim Pickens to the punch by riding a nuclear missle out to sea. Yee ... ha?
Is that a nuclear missile between your legs or are you just happy to see me?
Remember “This is a job ... FOR SUPERMAN”? Well, this is a Superman who doesn't do his job. He strolls into The Daily Planet in the middle of the day, then spends most of the movie clumsily flirting with, revealing his secret identity to, and wining and dining Lois Lane. At the Fortress of Solitude, he actually gives up his superpowers for her and the two sleep together in a silver bed that seems stolen from Andy Gibb’s 1970s pad. Meanwhile people are dying and the President of the United States (in a bad toupee) is kneeling before Zod. How can we not hate him at this moment? The movie is set up so we hate Superman. Too late he remembers what his job is and begs for it back. “FATHERRRRRRRR!” he cries. But father is in litigation with the movie's producers, the Salkinds, who didn't want to pay him 11%. They also fired the first movie's great director, Richard Donner, for this movie's crappy director, Richard Lester. Apparently they didn't like a man doing his job.
Superman and Lois in Andy Gibbs' bed. He just wants to be her everything.
The plot is typical of the serial genre. The Spider Lady, who never once leaves her mountainside lair, tries to get the mysterious reducer ray, “a force more powerful even than the atomic bomb!” Basically it’s a big ray gun. First she tries to steal it. No go. Then she employs Dr. Hackett, “a brilliant scientist with a warped mind,” who invents a kind of kryptonite gun. That doesn’t work, either. Then she kidnaps Dr. Graham, the original inventor, and forces him to create a second reducer ray. He refuses. After he’s tortured, he complies. But he needs “mono chromite.” It takes a few chapters to get that, at which point he refuses again. So he’s hypnotized. But now he needs an “activator tube” from Metropolis U. Blah blah blah. By Chapter 14, the reducer ray finally works. Spider Lady’s first target? Her own men in jail. Her second target? The Daily Planet building. At 3:00. By then, though, everyone converges on her lair: Jimmy, Lois and eventually ... Superman, When the Spider Lady tries to run away, she’s electrocuted by her own spiderweb. Crime don’t pay, kids.
Superman watches the Spider Lady fry in 1948's “Superman” serial, with Lois and Jimmy behind him.
The best part of the Donner cut is how they open the movie. In Lester’s version, Clark Kent strolls into The Daily Planet office at midday and you wind up wondering why Clark isn’t at work, why he doesn’t know about the terrorists, and why he keeps detonating nukes in space when his mother has already warned him against it in those Kryptonian lesson plans. Here’s what Donner does. Lois sees Clark across the room, and draws a suit, glasses, and a fedora on a photo of Superman. Wah-lah! She ain't dumb. And what does she do with her suspicions? She teases him. Perry calls Lois and Clark into his office and gives them an assignment to pose as a honeymoon couple at Niagra Falls. She’s game, he’s worried. She talks about flying up there and pokes him in the ribs. “You know, fly?” she says, then flaps her hands like a bird, like Jack Nicholson’s Joker would do eight years later. Then she opens a window and falls out. “You won’t let me die, Superman!” she cries. He doesn’t. But he doesn't reveal his identity, either. It’s fun. It’s clever. It’s sexy. It’s got pizzazz. It’s better than any scene in Lester’s version. And it wound up on his cutting-room floor. You watch it and want to call Superman. Because we wuz robbed.
Supercute. And on the cutting room floor in the Lester version.
Too young. Brandon Routh is actually several years older than Christopher Reeve was when he put on the cape; he just looks younger. But the Lois Lane casting is worse. Kate Bosworth was 22 when they filmed this. And she has a 5-year-old? From a consummation six years earlier? That’s some awkward math. Kidder and Reeve were adults in a gritty adult world—New York in the 1970s—but these two look like kids and act like kids. Why the world doesn’t need Superman? Really, Lois? She assumes her pain is the world’s, her resentments ours. And he can’t get past the fact that she wrote the article? That she was angry that he left for five years without a word? What is he—a Vulcan? Even so, the movie has some poignant moments. It brings cohesion to the whole Donner/Singer enterprise. Superman travels to Krypton to discover he's its last son, then travels back to Earth to find out he isn’t. He goes searching for Krypton but finds it in his own backyard.
This headline says it all. Other Daily Planet headlines available here.
Divide this movie into changes that are good and changes that are bad. For me, the good changes to the Superman mythos include: 1) wanderlust, bearded Clark; 2) people freaking when Supes first shows up; and 3) Lois Lane figuring out his secret identity before anyone else knows he even exists. The bad changes include: 1) the adventures of Jor-El, free-thinking scientist; 2) the codex; 3) the whole Kryptonian natural childbirth movement. And the ending? Which everyone is debating? Yes, but not for the reasons others say. I'm just bummed Superman couldn't figure out a smarter way to defeat Zod. “Mind over muscle, Superman?” Lex Luthor said in the first Chris Reeve movie. Here, it's muscle over mind. Again.
Henry Cavill's Superman: Not exactly greeted with cheers from the U.S. military.
Director Richard Donner’s watchword during production was “verisimilitude,” which begins and ends with Christopher Reeve. He’s the greatest superhero casting ever. He’s not only comic-book handsome, he’s an actor. He makes the worst secret identity ever—I’ll put on these glasses and no one will tell—believable. Here’s creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz on what happened when Reeve finally got his screen test:
He hopped off the balcony and said, “Good evening, Miss Lane.” And [cinematographer] Geoffrey Unsworth looked over at me and went [makes impressed face]. Because the tone was just right. He went through the test and we just knew we had him.
The movie was years ahead of its time. It was Kryptonian in its advancement. It took another 11 years before we got Tim Burton’s “Batman” and another 11 years after that to get to Bryan Singer’s “X-Men.” Twenty-two years: an entire generation. Back in the mid-1970s, Hollywood, enamored of disaster and devil movies, didn’t think much of superhero movies. But it only lacked the light to show it the way.
SLIDESHOW: A History of Superman Onscreen
SLIDESHOW INTRO: According to IMDb.com, as of June 14, 2013, there have been 175 various incarnations of the Man of Steel. But these include Uljas Kandolin in “Kiinni on ja pysyy” (1955), Ronald Wong in “97 goo waak jai: Jin mo bat sing” (1997), all of the web-specific HISHE stuff, but not, believe it or not, Henry Cavill (above). In “Man of Steel” (2013), his character is simply called Clark Kent/Kal-El, so IMDb's algorithms fail to make the connection. Oh, IMDb. When will you learn? (BTW: What are the IMDb parameters for web-specific inclusion? A certain number of YouTube hits? A certain place in the cultural firmament? Or do you just have to ask?) What follows is a slideshow of 17 of the better-known cinematic incarnations of the Man of Steel, including Cavill, but not Kandolin and Wong. They will have to wait. Admittedly, though, the dude on the next slide wasn't exactly cinematic ...
1940: At the 1939-40 New York World's Fair (for which, yes, read Doctorow's novel), actor Ray Middleton was hired to play the Man of Tomrrow at a special Superman Day. This was the first time a man had ever played Superman and he doesn't look bad for a first go. My favorite part of the costume is the written-out explanation above the “S” symbol. Image that. A time when you had to explain the name of the man in cape and strong-man undies with an “S” on his chest. Middleton would never play the Man of Steel on screen but he did play a founding father in the screen version of “1776,” as well as various roles on “M*A*S*H,” “Charlie's Angels” and “Too Close for Comfort,” before his death in 1984.
1941: A year later, the Fleischer Studios, which had created Betty Boop and Popeye cartoons in the 1930s, put together 17 Superman shorts that still hold up. The animation is much better than the low-budget, sketchy stuff of the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, for example. Plus Lois is tough, and almost every job is a job ... (drop an octave) ... FOR SUPERMAN. As in the radio series, Superman is voiced by Bud Collyer.
1948-1950: Finally! After 10 years, a live-action version of Superman appeared onscreen. Kirk Alyn has a dancer’s lightness to him and a perpetual gee-whiz expression on his face, as if he too is amazed by the amazing things he can do. He also has an early version of the spitcurl. Yes, at times, particularly employing his x-ray vision, he looks slightly crazed. Plus he’s undone, certainly to modern eyes, by the lack of special effects. But to me Alyn's enthusiasm makes up for these other deficits.
1951-1958: George Reeves was the second actor to play Superman on screen, and he lost both the spitcurl and the enthusiasm. Reeves’ indifference to the role permeates the character. Plus he makes very little distinction between Clark and Superman. Basically he's less deus ex machina than admonishing father, but he does provide one of my favorite moments in the Superman oeuvre: When the defender of truth, justice and the American way tells a Texas mob, “Obviously none of you can be trusted with guns. So I’m going to take them away from you.” Then he does just that. Play the scene, from “Superman and the Mole Men,” for your favorite NRA member.
1966-69: In the intro to Filmations' “The New Adventures of Superman,” Superman fights for “Truth, justice and freedom” (so no “American way”), but make no miskae: by now he's as muscle-bound as his adopted country. He also seems to forget he's adopted. At one point in the first episode, “The Force Phantom,” he says, “It looks like we have visitors from space. OK, I’ll be a one-man welcome committee!” Psst. Dude. YOU'RE a visitor from space. A few villains from the comics show up, including Lex Luthor and Brainiac, but mostly Supes battles aliens from space, aliens underwater, and various giant monsters. The voice was once again provided by Bud Collyer.
1966: That's Bob Holliday on the Broadway stage in “It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman!” which ran for 129 performances in 1966. But despite the success of a campy Batman that year, a campy Superman didn't really take off. Jack Cassidy, father of David and Shaun, starred as the villainouse Max Mencken, a fellow reporter who wants to bed Lois and unmask Superman.
1973-74: My main memory of “Superfriends” is the work Superman went through to stop a train in the first episode. In the comic books, which I was reading regularly at this point (I was 10), there was a scene in which a subway is about to run over a commuter and Superman stops it. “One foot!” an admiring observor declares. “Did you see that? He stopped the train with one foot!” That was my Superman. This guy who has to struggle to stop a train? What's the point? As was true of many superserious early 1970s cartoons, each episode revolved around an issue of the day: the energy crisis, pollution, etc. “Marvin,” Batman says, “don't forget not everyone has super-strength. But everyone has a brain.” Yes, Batman. Yes, they do.
1975: Poor David Wilson. You know that Seinfeld bit where Jerry talks up the lousy Superman outfit he wore for Halloween? How it hangs off his body in unflattering ways? It looks like Wilson's wearing it for the Feb. 1975 TV adaptation of “It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It' Superman!” Even Kirk Alyn 30 years earlier was better outfitted. But no matter. We were about to get the greatest Superman ever ...
1978-87: Look at that. You couldn't draw a better Superman. One imagines the disaster if one of the producer’s original choices—Robert Redford or James Caan—had gotten the role. Instead Superman came to us, as he should, fresh-faced and innocent. Christopher Reeve is shockingly handsome, with a jawline straight out of the comic books, and yet he’s actor enough to make us believe in the worst secret-identity subterfuge ever. He’s also actor enough to say lines like “I’m here to fight for truth, justice and the American way,” make them work, and, at the same time, through this boy-scout persona, flirt with Lois Lane.
1988: The Ruby-Spears Superman Saturday morning cartoons, which died a quick death, take their cue from the “Superman” movies so much they even make Superman look a little like Christopher Reeve, who had become the standard.
1993: For some reason, Dean Cain's Superman lost the spitcurl in “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.” It's Clark who's now the hottie, so it's Clark whose hair dangles like a man of action. Odder still: Clark shows up in Metropolis without having conceived of the notion of Superman, let alone the maskless costume, yet Clark is already wearing glasses. Why? He's wearing his disguise even though he doesn't have anything to be disguised from.
1996-2000: In 1986, John Byrne rebooted the Superman franchise in DC Comics. Ten years later, Warner Bros. Animation produced a cartoon version of the reboot, with Tim Daly as the Man of Steel and Dana Dulaney as Lois Lane. Superman's powers have been clipped a bit (he can't toss around planets like medicine balls), his Clark Kent is no meek, mild-mannered man, and Lex Luthor is a billionaire industrialist rather than an evil scientist. Oh, and Jimmy Olsen rides a skateboard. Kowabunga, dude.
1999: Superman's No. 1 fan Jerry Seinfeld appeared in several ads in which he palled around with Supes as if the Man of Steel were a gentler, and gentiler, version of Larry David. They weren't bad.
2001-2011: In 1989, a meteor shower struck Smallville, USA, bringing with it Kryptonite, a rocket ship, and a small baby. That baby grew into Tom Welling in one of the more imaginative reboots of the Superman franchise. Here, Supes develops his powers gradually, in adolescence. Here, he learns of his true origins gradually. Everything is gradual. We're interested in the becoming, not the become. The theme song was called “Somebody Save Me,” but it always felt like the cry was issuing from Clark himself, who needed saving from all of that adolescent angst.
2006: You have to admire the attempt. We live in a throwaway culture but in 2006 director Bryan Singer became involved in the greatest recycling project in movie history: a continuation of the Christopher Reeve/Superman movies that jettisons the awful ’83 Richard Pryor vehicle and the ’87 Golan and Globus abomination, and adds intrigue and depth to where we left off in 1981. It didn't quite work, the Jesus metaphor was overdone, and Brandon Routh looked too young to play Superman; but he wasn't bad. Plans for a sequel were scuttled when the movie did only so-so at the box office.
2010: These days there are so many one-offs in the comic books, and direct-to-video Warner Bros. cartoons, that it's tough to keep up with them all. The above image is from “Superman/Batman: Apocalypse,” which involves the rebooted introduction of Kara, Superman's cousin, AKA Supergirl. Here's a line from the Wiki explanation of the plot: “Superman encounters Darkseid, who sets the brainwashed Kara on him. Kara pummels Superman while Darkseid watches, until Batman confronts Darkseid and informs him that he has activated the Hell Spores, all of which will destroy Apokolips.” Makes one long for the simplicity of Mr. Mxyzptlk.
2013: He's got no spitcurl, he's British, but Henry Cavill makes a helluva Superman in David S. Goyer's and Zack Snyder's reboot, “Man of Steel,” which opened this weekend. Reactions about the movie have been mixed, from both non-fans and fanboys alike, but Cavill is mostly getting praise. He exudes a lonely decency as Clark and a steely determination as Superman. My review.
EXIT MUSIC (FOR A SLIDESHOW): Up up and away.
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