Superman postsSaturday May 31, 2014
How Wrong is Joe Posnanski About Superman Movies?
Damn. I was enjoying the column, too.
In it, Joe Posnanski, my man Joe, my regular lunchtime reading, wrote about why walks are down in Major League Baseball, and why attendance is down in the American League, and he makes a joke about all the charts he's throwing up, about how “this is the chartiest post I've ever done.” So he finishes it with a flourish. He adds a line graph on his ratings for the Superman movies:
A few things I don't get:
- The rise from “Superman: The Movie” to “Superman II.” Is he suggesting “Superman II” was better? Richard Lester's “Superman II”?
- I get the steep drop for “Superman III” but why does it rise again for “Superman IV”? Shouldn't it plummet? I mean off the charts?
I like that he likes “Superman Returns”—that movie is way too maligned. As for his feelings about “Man of Steel”? Whatever. It's not the worst of the Superman movies—that's almost impossible. I originally had it second-best but I might drop it a bit now. Maybe below “Superman Returns”? Maybe below the Donner cut of “Superman II”? Nah. It's still #2 or #3 in my book. Or blog.
But I don't mind that Posnanski dislikes “Man of Steel” so much. That's fine. But to think the series got better with “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace”? Now that's just crazy talk.
Superman's blue eyebeams miraculously repair the Great Wall of China in “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.” What—you didn't know about the blue eyebeams? I think they first made an appearance in Action Comics #389: “The Shrinking Budget of Golan and Globus.”
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 America 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: Dear Clark. 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 I can't turn back time.
So here you go: worst to first of every Superman movie ever made.
Everyone looks too old, while the subplots (aerobics and hostile takeovers) remind us of everything we hated about the '80s. The story? Awful. Spurred by an annoying kid, Superman unilaterally, dictatorially, decides to rid the world of nuclear weapons, but because Lex Luthor places a Superman hair and a gold suit in one of the rocket capsules, a villain, Nuclear Man, emerges. The real villains here are the producers, Monahem Golan and Yoram Globus, the Israeli cousins who bought the rights to Superman but slashed his budget in half when other pet projects failed. As a result, big scenes became small, the global became local, and everything looks fake fake fake. Watching, you won’t believe you once believed that a man could fly.
Super wall-building ray
If Kirk Alyn played Superman with wide-eyed bombast, George Reeves takes it down a notch. Or 10. His 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. The movie's main action consists of a midget in bald wig and furry suit being pursued over nondescript brush and hills by rednecks. It's a dry little movie filmed in a dry little backlot.
We get gags. We get evil Superman. But most of all we get Richard Pryor doing unfunny bits: drunk, “Patton,” white guy. 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 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.
“Atom Man vs. Superman” feels cheaper than its predecessor: more stock footage, more shots of Clark Kent ducking behind the same file cabinet, and one episode, about Superman's origins on Krypton, is essentially the entire first episode of the first serial retold. Meanwhile, the titular Atom Man, Lex Luthor's secret identity, looks like they took a jug, cut out eyeholes, 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?
“This is a job ... FOR SUPERMAN!” Except 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, Lois Lane. At the Fortress of Solitude, he actually gives up his superpowers so he can get laid. Meanwhile people are dying and the President of the United States is kneeling before Zod. Too late he remembers what his job is and begs for it back. “FATHERRRRRRRR!” he cries. But father, Marlon Brando, is in litigation with the movie's producers, the Salkinds, who 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.
Super dry look
The plot is typical of the serial genre, which has to stretch things out over 15 episodes. Our villain, the Spider Lady, is after the mysterious reducer ray, “a force more powerful even than the atomic bomb!” Basically it’s a ray gun. First she tries to steal it. Then she hires “a brilliant scientist with a warped mind,” to invent a kryptonite gun. That goes nowhere. Then she kidnaps the original inventor and forces him to create a second reducer ray. He refuses, but complies under torture. But he needs “mono chromite.” It takes a few chapters to get that, at which point he refuses again. So now he’s hypnotized. Etc. etc. Even so, this is our first live-action Superman, and former dancer Kirk Alyn looks like he's having fun in the tights.
A lot of “Superman II” was filmed along with “Superman: The Movie,” but then its producers canned director Richard Donner and brought in Richard Lester; and Lester brought along his own sensibility; and it wasn't good. Donner's version begins with one of the most charming scenes in any Superman movie. In the Daily Planet offices, Lois draws glasses on a photo of Superman, and a light-bulb goes on. Then she spends the next five minutes teasing him. 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, clever, sexy. 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.
Brandon Routh is actually several years older than Christopher Reeve was when he first put on the cape; he just looks younger. But Kate Bosworth? She 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. Lois assumes her pain is the world’s pain, while he can't get over the fact that she's angry that he left for five years without a word. Even so, the movie brings cohesion to the whole Donner 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.
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 includes: 1) the adventures of Jor-El, free-thinking scientist; 2) the codex; 3) the whole Kryptonian natural childbirth movement. And the ending, 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.
Here’s creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz on what happened when Christopher 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 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.