Tuesday, November 5, 2013

'Arrow' won't win any awards, but it still hits its target (Season 1 Review)

Apologies for the pun.

When it was initially announced that the CW was going to move ahead with a series devoted to Green Arrow, I was cautiously optimistic. The advantages of using a character like Oliver Queen for weekly TV were many - he has no superpowers, meaning no great amount of computer wizardry would be required (at least no moreso than any other action series) and as a less culturally iconic character, more creative liberties could be taken with his mythos without alienating potential audiences. The disadvantages however, were just as thought-provoking: not only was this going to be a network show meaning the widest possible audience would need to be reached with a laboured 22 episode run per season (rather than something like 'Breaking Bad' which has proven that 13 episode seasons are a lot more effective) but it was going to be on The CW known for prioritising teenage angst and romantic drama in its shows - often to the detriment of quality storytelling.

It also crossed my mind that The CW were responsible for 'Smallville', the biggest mixed bag to have ever spent ten years on the air. Clark Kent's long-winded odyssey was probably the deciding factor in bringing 'Arrow' to the air, as Green Arrow also played a sturdy role in that show, bringing much needed life to the roster of characters and the capabilities of the production from season 6 onwards. Green Arrow was blatantly a stand-in for Batman on the show (as the Dark Knight had other media on his mind) and this was both a blessing and a curse for the character for reasons that I'll get into later.

'Arrow' jettisons any connections to the 'Smallville' universe, starting from the ground up with a brand new set of characters, a revised origin and an interesting mission statement. The series sees Oliver Queen, a wealthy young layabout who gets stranded on an island off the coast of China after mysterious circumstances. Five years later he returns to his home of Starling City a new man; seeking revenge for the death of his father and justice for his city - going after a list of elite citizens who have brought harm to his hometown. To do this he adopts the mantle of a hooded vigilante, allying himself with former soldier turned bodyguard Andy Diggle and later a bubbly but eccentric IT assistant named Felicity Smoak.

When the series premiered, the initial episodes didn't do much to excite me. Nothing about it seemed particularly compelling or original - it was for all intents and purposes a by the numbers TV version of Christopher Nolan's Batman. But without the calibre of acting those films offered, heavy dialogue such as "I must become something that criminals dread," fell to pieces in the hands of lesser actors. Recently, with the vacuum provided by the conclusion of 'Breaking Bad', I decided to give it another look. I had heard from many of the show's fans that while it's definitely a bit cheesy throughout, it does get consistently more enjoyable and well-executed. I can at least say that that much is true.

The best thing about 'Arrow' at least on a conceptual level is that it's more 'free' than other superhero programmes. I'm sure there are plenty of Green Arrow enthusiasts somewhere in the world who are angry that Oliver isn't an orphan and that he suddenly has a sister, but for the most part the series relishes in its ability to tell its own story in a way that no other superhero series I've seen (at least not one based on a pre-existing character) has been able to do. The concept of a superhero who pointedly goes after white-collar criminals who are poisoning the world with unfair distribution of wealth is oddly relevant - especially as it's a criticism often (unfairly) made of Batman, a rich, privileged individual who goes out at night and beats up people who have been failed by society. This is the greatest argument the show makes to prove that it's a series primarily about the Green Arrow character (for whom social activism has often been a hallmark) and not merely a cash-in attempt at doing a weekly version of the Dark Knight.

However that being said, this is very much a series aware of its DC Comic roots and nearly every single episode of the series has made a point of bashing us over the head with a bizarre reference ("I'm getting the red-eye to Central City. I should be there in a flash!") or a bastardised version of a character from the comics.

The villains of the series range from the usual brand of faceless TV villainy (various white-collar criminals) to actual Green Arrow villains (Merlyn - who together with his son provides this show's Lionel/Lex Luthor tragedy quite similar to the one in 'Smallville') to fistfuls of B-list Batman villains (Deadshot, Firefly, Count Vertigo and others still). While Deadshot is a recurring character who has admittedly grown into something almost worthy of his comics counterpart, Firefly and Count Vertigo are as hilariously TV as possible - Firefly is a disgruntled Fireman who pours petrol at his enemies and Count Vertigo is a drug dealer inexplicably named 'The Count' who sells drugs named (you guessed it) 'Vertigo'.

The villains aren't the only signs that this show is secretly a Batman show - there are dozens of brazen scenes that are hamfisted homages or blatant rip-offs of scenes and plots from Batman movies (and occasionally Batman comics). One such scene is when Diggle asks Oliver if he's going to change into his costume to stop a bombing - Queen responds "Never during the day!" just as he grabs a motorcycle helmet. Doesn't get more 'The Dark Knight' than that (funnily enough that scene itself was an homage of a similar scene in 'Batman Year One').

And yet, I don't really mind that this is a Batman-lite series. Firstly, it has its own agenda (at least conceptually) and while it admittedly mines Bruce Wayne's back catalogue of villains, it does an admirable job of providing exciting stories involving the concept of an individual who employs theatrics, a keen mind and fighting skill to fight crime. I've wanted a non-Batman show that could capitalise on such a concept for years. The closest we came before this was 'The Cape' which fell so flat on its face that it's become a running joke on 'Community'. Point being, there's so much that can be accomplished storywise without sacred cows getting in the way.

The most controversial aspect of 'Arrow', particularly in that first season is its protagonist's stance on taking lives. Obviously Batman is well-known for supposedly never killing anyone (although in 75 years, he's been quietly guilty of doing it on more than one occasion), and yet while this is a series that owes a huge debt to the Caped Crusader, Green Arrow (or 'The Hood' as he's annoyingly referred to 95% of the time for some reason) is regularly seen offing baddies. Initially it seemed as though that he would only take their lives when there was absolutely no other solution, but in later episodes he's seen shooting arrows into the chests of the most insignificant criminals in the show (the waiters of an underground casino had this grisly fate only minutes after they were mixing martinis). I really do appreciate the efforts by the writers to do away with the tired cliché of the hero not killing his foes only for them to return and laugh at him for his 'human' failure (are you listening, Paul Dini?) but showing Green Arrow mowing down anonymous henchmen a la John Rambo is a bit too much to stomach, not to mention that it segregates the series from the younger audience it ought to have. Not everybody has to die.

The biggest problem with 'Arrow' is the one sacred cow it has chosen to indulge. Laurel Dinah Lance (who we know as 'Black Canary' in the comics but who in this show doesn't show any similar desire to bust fools) is introduced as Oliver's long-lost love, who he betrayed in favour of her sister Sara who died on the same yacht trip that resulted in his island-incarceration. The series does the usual teen drama song and dance between the two characters and it quickly becomes apparent that while they do have some degree of chemistry, the back-and-forth is going nowhere fast, even though the legacy of these characters' comics counterparts demand it. This was a similar problem in 'Smallville' where Clark was constantly pining for Lana despite her relative uselessness as a character. Just like 'Smallville', this series has its own fan-favourite nerdy girl who pines after the hero, is far more likable than the object of his affections and who is probably going to peter out as a character down the line, destined to be paired off with some comedy sidekick (ironically it was 'Smallville''s version of Green Arrow that ended up with Chloe Sullivan on that show).

Outside of these considerations, the only other thing worth criticising is that the dialogue is outrageously over the top in many episodes, to the point of teetering on the precipice of so-bad-it's-good. The David Goyer-esque 'I fight for justice' material is always a bit bizarre to hear (especially in the hands of TV actors), but lines such as "You slept with your girlfriend's sister and now you think you can make things right? You really are crazy," coming from Deathstroke is a very special kind of hilarious. However, I can't tell whether I just became used to the level of cheese 'Arrow' offered or whether the writing genuinely got better, but by the end of the series I was noticing less and less ridiculous exchanges between the characters.

Overall, 'Arrow' is a reliably fun series that succeeds where 'Smallville' failed. Its core concept is solid enough that when weaker episodes come along (and they do), the appeal of the series isn't lost. Unlike so many other similar shows that promise a grand destination and get bogged down in the journey, with 'Arrow' we're already there - and it's non-stop, unashamed superhero fun from week to week. It won't win any Emmys any time soon but if it stays as consistently entertaining as it has been, I'll look forward to it with a grain of salt in one hand and a beer in the other.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Freaks of the Week and Whedonspeak: Agents of SHIELD S01E01 Review

From the very first rumblings that Joss Whedon may be planning a return to television to coincide with last year's Avenging triumph at the box office, I was cautiously optimistic. I'm a casual fan of Whedon's previous efforts, but I think I'm a handful of years too young to properly go back and delve deeply into the annals of Slayers and Hellmouths (although I'm certain to eventually). What excited me about 'SHIELD' was that it promised to use entirely original characters unfettered by decades of Sacred Cow mythology, girlfriends that had to die, villains who had to kill them, etc. Whedon was going to create a party of characters all his own, none of whom had ties to the vast, complicated canons of the comics. This was a wholly new addition to the Marvel Universe that wouldn't have an army of naysayers dismissing it before it could ever take off.

And from its inception, it's clear that 'Marvel's Agents of SHIELD' is going to be all the better for that creative freedom. Let me make one thing perfectly clear: Breaking Bad it is not; the show is still constrained by the usual problems of US Network television: it's clear there's going to be 20-something episodes (when really shows as big as this are often better when they only have 10-15 tops), every episode is going to be populated by annoyingly good-looking people rather than meaty actors, and we're likely going to see a lot of procedural 'freak-of-the-week' episodes to fill in the long production schedule of the show's season.

Without giving him too much credit, Joss Whedon seems to be trying to tackle these problems head on. While watching episode one, I had the distinct impression that perhaps Whedon had familiarised himself with previous superhero (or vaguely superheroic) TV shows and had analysed where they went wrong. Like "Smallville" or "Knight Rider" or "Arrow" or even that Internet punching-bag of a show "The Cape" (yes, it's a real show, not just a fantasy dreamed up by Dan Harmon), "SHIELD"'s premiere episode features a likable enough fellow stumbling onto abilities that weren't meant for him and ultimately lead to his psychological undoing. After a lot of battering of keyboards, ridiculous technobabble about hacking into mainframes and deleting every trace of someone's identity, the gang of heroes vanquish the villain and save the day. This was practically the plot of every episode of "Smallville"'s first season.

The involvement of Joss Whedon and Marvel Entertainment however has ensured a style, a gloss and sheen that's been absent from any superhero show I've seen since "Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman" ended in 1997. "SHIELD" is really trying to be upbeat, action-packed and heroic despite the obvious trappings of a TV show.

Character-wise, none of the newbies have impressed me greatly in this opener. Maria Hill, the makey-uppy character that followed Nick Fury around in 'The Avengers', telling him about the plot, is back for a guest appearance, for the simple reason that trying to lure Sam Jackson over to the small screen for a few TV guest appearances is a wildly unrealistic financial absurdity. Cobie Smulders fills the 'Nikita Fury' role well enough and it provides the viewers with a bit of crossover-consistency. Some have complained that this episode went too far hammering viewers over the head with the fact that this is the same world as the one we saw in "The Avengers" and their accompanying films - I thought it was nice. People should remember that not everyone scours websites all day for news and updates regarding what new TV shows are about, and that some viewers need a bit of a reminder as to what they're watching. I didn't feel as though any of it was out of place or forced.

There's a bunch of pretty-young-things rounding out the rest of the cast and I can't really comment on their abilities until I've seen more of them. There's an obvious James Bond analogue, some annoying British (one of them's Scottish, one of them's English, if I'm not mistaken) eggheads and they're rounded out by a genius computer hacker who is basically the exact same character as Chloe Sullivan from "Smallville" or the character Summer Glau played in "The Cape". They're all fine and serviceable, but understandably unoriginal.

The real character-caveat for the show is Clark Gregg's much-publicised return as Agent Coulson. Coulson was always a great inclusion to the Marvel movies insofar as he was an entirely original invention who wasn't hampered by pre-existing fan notions of what he can do or what his history should be. Truthfully, he represents the foundation over which the series will be based and I was pleased that more and more focus was placed on him over the course of the episode. Unlike the films where his character was always harmless and nondescript, in this series it seems like he'll really have an opportunity to shine as the moral heart of the show. I eagerly await the directions the show takes him in and whether it will impact the future of the Marvel films.

While 'Agents of SHIELD' has in no way reinvented the wheel, it's provided a most-satisfying romp into the inner annals of the Marvel Cineverse and I look forward to enjoying the fun-filled action-packed adventures from week to week. Marvel have once again proved that they can be superior in their simplicity.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Batfleck: Hunt the Dark Knight

 So the dust has settled and somehow the world has continued to turn despite the supposedly cataclysmic news that Ben Affleck has been appointed as the next Dark Knight in a film where the eponymous character will do battle with Superman. As the internet is wont to do when a well-known, talented, good-looking actor (particularly one that may have appeared in suspect romantic comedies at some point in their career) is cast as a superhero, they riot.

My stance on the matter is that despite the venom that surrounds some of his work (Gigli), I genuinely like Ben Affleck both as an actor and as someone who is clearly a comic-book fan themselves. I’ve been admittedly blessed in that I’ve thus far avoided the horrors of his back catalogue (Armageddon, Paycheck, Gigli - was he any good in that one Jack Ryan film he was in?) but as a fan of Kevin Smith’s ‘View Askewniverse’ (read: Jay and Silent Bob) films, I feel like I’ve been following him from the humble beginnings of his career up until now. While he’s certainly not my first choice (my first choice would be no choice - I don’t want more Batman films just yet, but more on that later), it truly feels like the man who has taken the torch from Christian Bale is not only a movie star, but a fan just like us. Not to mention an enormously successful Academy Award-winner in his own right.

At this point in time, I should probably mention the film that seems to be on everyone’s lips when discussing this recent casting kerfuffle - ‘Daredevil’, the 2003 film that seemed to only exist in order to cash-in on the recent might of Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man film.

Can I be honest? I liked Daredevil. Admittedly I was 14 when the film was released, but after the colourful psychedelia of Joel Schumacher’s view of Gotham City, it was actually refreshing to be back in the world of an urban vigilante dealing not only with society’s woes but his own demons. Affleck was a large part of why that film worked for me. Certainly watching the film now reveals that an awful lot of it is a cheddar-ridden disaster (the playground battle scene has justifiably fallen victim to the ‘Hank and Marie Watch’ meme), but I would lay the blame squarely at the film’s ridiculous action (why can Daredevil leap entire city blocks?!) and its nauseatingly adolescent screenplay (“I didn’t kill your father, Elektra!” “Liar!”). None of the actors are too blame. It’s still worth a watch for fans of the genre, especially the Director’s Cut which is largely a completely different film.

Outside of Affleck’s writing and directing credentials however, another large part of why I’m excited to see Ben-the-Bat is to see how he might try and recall his highly publicised fall from grace - possibly (??) exhibited in the above J-Lo video - in his performance. Robert Downey Jr. has explained on occasion that some of the electrified eccentricity he brings to Tony Stark is rooted in his wild days of abuse (there’s even an in-joke in the first Iron Man involving a cheeseburger). Well in 2003, the tabloids were painting Ben Affleck in much the same way as they do Bruce Wayne in the Batman films - a partymad layabout. We’ve since learned that there’s quite a bit more to Affleck than meets the eye, primarily in the films he’s written and directed. My hope is that perhaps he’ll inject some of that initial perception into his scenes as ‘public’ Bruce Wayne to give us something truly interesting and unlike what we saw from Christian Bale in that regard (who remained suave and debonair in scenes where he was playing the insufferable bastard).

As for the cape-and-cowl portion of Affleck’s new occupation, one need look no further than his oft-mentioned directorial efforts. In both ‘The Town’ and ‘Argo’ (and in Daredevil for that matter) he plays a character who has become exhausted, haunted and even a bit broken by that which he excels at. So many of Batman’s stories show us the toll that years of crimefighting have taken on Bruce Wayne’s body and soul - his very ability to be happy has been taken away from him.

And yet, I’d be lying if I said I was wholeheartedly excited about the film Affleck is appearing in.

After ‘Man of Steel’ didn’t quite wow critics or audiences as the studio hoped it might have, Warner Bros, in their infinite wisdom decided to shoe-horn the Caped Crusader into Clark Kent’s neck of the woods for a film that appears to be titled ‘Batman vs Superman’ to be released in 2015. They even used a quote that confusingly recalled a scene in the seminal Frank Miller graphic novel “The Dark Knight Returns”.

Where to start with the problems: First of all, ‘Man of Steel’ despite the bursting shell of hope and expectation I had for the film - was absolutely a disappointment. Zack Snyder and David Goyer recklessly squandered their stellar cast and the limitless potential of a story about Superman in the cynical age of information, for the sake of a ho-hum sci-fi ‘grimdark’ grudge match that in no way believed in Superman. Despite repeated claims to the contrary, it was a film that was too dark, too juvenile and too dull to truly capture the magic and the might of the Man of Steel, constantly apologising for the character's greatest inner strengths. For me it was neither a crushing failure nor was it a bombastic, runaway success (various corners of the Internet have set their tents in either camp) - it was agonisingly adequate; a disturbing indication that perhaps the golden age of superhero movies is coming to an end and that we may be entering an era where cynical studio formulas reign supreme.

With this in mind, the news that a ‘Worlds Finest’ film was on the way for release a mere two years later, how could I possibly be excited? In what way was the insertion of Batman going to suddenly legitimise this new Superman’s agency and environment? Was Bruce Wayne going to make Perry White and the rest of the Daily Planet crew more interesting?

I doubt it.

In addition to this, the film will be coming a mere three years after the end of The Dark Knight Trilogy. While the end of ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ polarised some, it was undoubtedly an epic conclusion to one of the most definitive interpretations of Batman there has ever been. The fact that Warner Bros are churning out yet another vision of Batman so soon, rather than allowing the franchise to rest for a few years is further indication that the superhero genre has reached its creative nadir and its industrial peak - every character will ultimately be dusted off and restocked within a few years, no matter how conclusive their last adventure was.

Finally we come to the perplexing use of ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ as a means of marketing the upcoming film. We’ve been told that Ben Affleck's Batman will be 'weary' and 'seasoned' (as he should be) and that the script will draw upon elements of ‘The Dark Knight Returns’, which sees an ageing Batman return to crimefighting after fifteen years retirement. Sound familiar? That’s because it is: ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ also drew heavily on the story’s material, featuring an out-of-action Batman returning to Gotham with many specific references to the story’s scenes, as well as its overall themes and concepts.

The only thing ‘Rises’ left out was the epic battle with Superman - which Hack Snyder is unsurprisingly interested in.

Since the original graphic novel’s release, writers and artists have often experimented with how Batman might physically engage with Superman (should one of the two heroes turn evil, steal the other’s girlfriend, eat the slice of toast etc). The idea that Batman, ostensibly a normal human being - albeit an incredibly resourceful, physically fit example - should be able to do battle with a Sun-God from outer space has intrigued the comic book world for decades after ‘Returns’ to the point that every big comic-book event seems to have to feature the same tired battle between the characters (almost every time Jim Lee has drawn the two character together, they’ve fought each other).

Almost every time this happens, Batman uses some kind of gadget that either enhances his strength or neutralises Superman’s (a kryptonite ring, an Iron Man-esque suit of armour, etc) and the battle always ends in Batman’s favour. While this is certainly acceptable in the comics, doing this in a film series not only recklessly stretches audience credibility, it also once again doesn’t do Superman’s image any favours. It’s a really questionable tactic for a series of films that is trying to make Superman truly popular again in the eyes of filmgoers. It’s truly saddening that Superman’s chances at a high-quality contemporary film series to rival that of Batman, Spider-Man or Iron Man may have been dashed once again by poor decisions.

While it’s not fair to jump to conclusions (I haven’t seen the film and they haven’t made it yet) it’s just hard to be excited. I firmly believe Superman and Batman to be the best and most individually interesting superheroes in existence and their respective worlds and agencies work perfectly fine without the inclusion of the other. Admittedly great stories have been told that feature the two bouncing off each other (intellectually as well as physically) but the time is not ripe for such a story to be realised cinematically. Batman needs to rest and Superman needs to grow.

Bizarrely, it’s Ben Affleck that I’m most looking forward to moving forward in the supposed DC Comics Cinematic Universe. His involvement in this project is the only thing that in any way assures me that there’s some level of care, commitment and cinematic ambition going into these films. If there’s any chance that he may contribute to the writing or directing of any of these films (particularly future Batman films or a Justice League film), then I could actually become truly excited again. In an era of uncertainty regarding these characters, I think it’ll be him who surprises people and delivers a performance worthy of the Dark Knight.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Why the World Needs Superman (and other stories)

I’ve always found it a bit pretentious to refer to superheroes as “modern mythology”, but in many ways it’s the best way to look at them. Just like the old Greek myths of old, stories about Superman, Batman and Spider-Man teach us how to push ourselves to be better, to always rise above the shackles that subdue us and to always fight for a better world, even when the decisions that need to be made aren’t always easy ones.

So why does the world need Superman? Why’s he so important?

Superman is the embodiment of everything that we can be. For many - therein lies the rub: Why tell stories about an impossible perfect ubermensch who can do no wrong? Well for me, that’s the most interesting challenge about the character - that for all intents and purposes, Superman isn’t quite perfect - he was raised by mortals on a mortal realm and while it would take a heck of a beating (or a glowing green rock), he’s ultimately mortal himself. There are things he can't do, people he can't save. His adventures aren't as effortless as people make them out to be - they're a struggle, just like Batman's or whatever character. The only difference is that unlike the Dark Knight or Iron Man or James Bond or John McClane, Superman isn't just concerned with the fate of a small group of people or even an entire city - his concern is planet Earth in its entirety there's more at stake if he should fail (which he has been known to do). Not only that though, as General Zod so aptly puts it  -

“He cares. He actually cares about these people.”

Unlike the legions of sarcastic beer-swilling, cigar-smoking anti-heroes that dominate today’s popular culture, Superman actually really does genuinely care about humanity. In a strange way this actually makes him unique - and interesting.

So let’s start with why I like Superman.

One cold winter evening a lifetime ago, I recall sitting in the living room with my mother when an ad came on for “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman”. I’d never heard of this programme before, but its protagonist was a beacon of colour, excitement and action certain to appeal to 4-year old me. I was a huge fan of Batman already, so it seemed logical enough that I go check out this other guy with the red cape. Even then I remember already being aware of Superman - I have no idea how. Such is the iconic nature of the character, his uniform, his insignia and how it permeates through a collective consciousness.

For four years, I lived my life around “Lois & Clark”. I literally would only play football on Saturday evenings on the basis that my mother promise to tape it for me so that I could watch it when I get home. It was my introduction to the world of Metropolis and while it may seem a quaint cheesy 1990s dramedy now, in 1994 to my prepubescent eyes it was the face of God. Even then I remember soaking in all the information the series gave me on Superman: He didn’t need a gun because bullets bounced off him. He could see through walls and hear people cry for help from miles away. He could fly.

 And while I knew none of it was real (I never understand when I hear about kids who can’t tell the difference between fiction and reality), it had the appearance as to be real in its own context. While now I can spot the grainy green screen shots and I can see the folds where the wires are in Dean Cain’s costume (heck, there’s even an episode where they didn’t even get rid of the wires in post-production) back then I couldn’t figure out how they did it. I believed a man could fly. I asked my mother how it was possible and she told me that it must have been some kind of rig - my immediate response was “Can I get one for my birthday?”.

I must have pictured this pseudo-scientific device that combined a mixture of wires and electro-magnets, allowing for seamless hovering, banking and soaring - the kind of flying I realise now that they never actually did on “Lois & Clark”, but in my minds eye, every time Dean Cain jumped offscreen (flapping his cape off the edge of the camera) he was SOARING at mach 10.

Around this time I believe I saw “Superman: The Movie” for the first time. I loved it. (Who wouldn't?).

Midway through the soaring mist of nostalgia that is the 1990s, a cartoon started showing on Saturday mornings called “Superrman: The Animated Series”. Like a lot of young boys in 1996, “Batman: The Animated Series” had shaped a large part of my childhood and I was keen to see what the creators might do for Superman. I certainly liked the series, although I definitely recall being disappointed that they didn’t use Clark Kent or Lois Lane more often. Even as a kid it seemed like so many episodes were made up entirely of mindless action rather than the characterisation I enjoyed on the live-action "Lois & Clark" series. This might seem a bizarre reaction for a young kid to have (since most people are convinced all kids want is mindless action and colour), but that’s how I felt.

This sort of ties in with how I feel about one of the perceived 'problems' with Superman as a character - that he's too powerful. The way I look at it is this:

In any story involving a 'hero' with some sort of special tool or advantage (say something as simple as a cowboy having a gun in a village full of peaceful people) is that character not going to be the most powerful person in the story? Is he not probably going to triumph over the villain and save the citizens in peril, even though the odds will inevitably seem stacked against him in some way?

Three ways to get around this are:

- Give the cowboy/gunman a challenge he CAN'T overcome with just his gun (maybe his loved ones are in danger and he doesn't even know straight away). Give him a challenge that requires his intelligence and a strict adherence to HOW and WHY he's using that gun.

- Find a reason for why the gun doesn't work (Kryptonite, Magic, Red Sun, etc).

- Introduce a character with a BIGGER gun.

The first option is how the best Superman stories are told. The second is how many Superman stories are told. The third is how most Superman stories are told and to me, it always seemed like that was the approach they took with "Superman: The Animated Series" - just give him someone bigger that he can just punch into space and then people will think he's cool.

Watching back over the series now, it has more quality episodes than I initially gave it credit for, but I still feel like there was an excessive amount of action and not enough time spent on exploring the magic of Superman's world (characters like Perry White, Jimmy Olsen didn't get nearly as much focus as the likes of Darkseid). So in short, Superman is not too powerful. He has simply been too privy to a lack of imagination from bad writers and lazy readers.

In 2001 on the cusp of my adolescence came the beginning of “Smallville” a series that showed Clark Kent as a youngster, grappling with his emerging superpowers and the realisation that he’s not like other teenagers. This came not a moment too soon and was the perfect version of Superman for me to enjoy at that age. Every week I mistakenly thought that we were getting closer and closer to when we might see Clark fly and I was sure the series would only run for a few years before they had Clark become Superman in a 2-hour special. How wrong I was.

Following its third or fourth season the series suffered from an all-too common stagnancy that many American series with too many episodes and too many seasons tend to suffer from, and it never quite recovered. It eventually trailed off so recklessly that it became a pale shadow of Superman that teetered on the precipice of self-parody. I’ve seen every single episode of every Superman live-action series ever...with the exception of a few episodes of “Smallville” I just couldn’t bring myself to watch. Nevertheless, those early seasons are a cherished memory.

Midway through "Smallville"’s third season, news started sparking up that they were finally, actually going to make another Superman movie. During this time I learned of all the horrifying false starts and terrible ideas that had almost made it to the screen including (but not at all limited to):

- Nicolas Cage as Superman in a dark black suit with a logo made of throwing knives in a movie where Brainiac had a flamboyantly gay robot sidekick called ‘L-Ron’.

- Lois becoming pregnant with Superman’s child; Superman dying and passing his life-force on to the unborn baby, who is quickly born and grows to maturity in a matter of days essentially becoming his father again.

- A Krypton that doesn’t explode

- Lex Luthor being an FBI agent who turns out to be a Kryptonian too


I’m glad I was too young to have followed this horrifying sequence of events as they were actually unfolding. Most of those ideas seem absurd, depressing and completely insane.

The film we did eventually get was “Superman Returns” a movie that tried to rekindle the magic of the original Christopher Reeve films by (supposedly) setting itself in the same world as those original movies. This sounded like a great idea to me at the time - just jump on board and continue the story and the imagery they initiated with those great films (even if III and IV weren’t great). This film was the first time I've ever ecstatically looked forward to a film, constantly checking online for updates, etc. My first true experience with the 'new media' saturation surrounding modern blockbusters.

Unfortunately the resulting film was confused, excessively dark, miserable and lacking in the kind of hope and triumph people want to see when they watch Superman. It tried too hard to humanize Superman, forgetting that one of the great things about Superman is the humanity he already has. The plot was...difficult. Superman travels back to Krypton because scientists receive faint transmissions from there (we see none of this in the final film, Superman just off-handedly mentions it later on) and then returns to Earth five years later to discover that the world around him has changed. The ensuing film somehow plays as an almost scene-for-scene homage to Richard Donner’s “Superman: The Movie” in the way that uncomfortably antiquated that beloved movie, instead of celebrating it. New Superman actor Brandon Routh only had one scene where he wasn’t just repeating Christopher Reeve’s old dialogue. And he just looked bad as Superman. Weird hair, annoying costume...there was nothing manly about him at all. He looked positively girly. By no means the necessary aesthetic for the Man of Steel.

The writers of that film more or less wrote themselves into a corner by introducing Superman’s child with Lois Lane (who herself was now engaged to another man). There was many promises of a sequel in the intervening years, many of which supposedly involved the aforementioned son becoming an adult villain or Lois’ fiancée becoming Metallo or other such ridiculousness - no matter what happened a perfectly decent character was going to get screwed over.

In my opinion, the best Superman story ever is his origin story - it’s the one that’s most timeless, the one that most people can understand and appreciate and the one that lends itself the most to being updated for a new audience. “Superman Birthright” is my personal favourite rendition of the origin as it starts off by examining what makes Clark Kent, a young man from Smallville so interesting. We learn that it’s not just the powers that make the man, but that it’s as much down to the love and support of the people who raised him. In “Birthright” Clark travels the world trying to find a way to help people in whatever way he can. He learns how to be a journalist to expose society’s ills and as a way of knowing what kind of people need his help. While initially people are fearful of him, he decides to embrace the culture of his home planet Krypton, adopting a colourful, dynamic uniform visually inspired by the imagery of the culture of his heritage (we learn that the ‘S’-shield isn’t just a flat logo that’s supposed to mean ‘Superman’ - it’s actually a Kryptonian symbol for hope that just happens to look like an ‘S’) that will help people accept him. It’s here that he comes up with the idea of a ‘secret identity’ as well - Martha Kent suggests that if he changes his demeanour, wears ill-fitting clothes and acts in a socially awkward manner, that it might throw people off the scent a bit, enabling him to lead a normal life free from intrusion. It’s Martha who makes the suggestion that Clark wear glasses as well - the glasses dull the exceptional brightness of Clark’s blue eyes, making him appear a bit more drab, as well as changing the shape of his face considerably.

People will always justifiably raise their eyebrow at the effectiveness of Clark Kent’s disguise, but I think it’s at least vaguely plausible the way “Birthright” presents it - how many people do you know who look completely different when they scrub up, change their hairstyle and wear different clothes? I can think of at least four.

Besides that though, Clark Kent having a human disguise is a narrative requirement to that all-important question of what makes Superman interesting. Lots of less informed people will say that Superman’s too perfect, that he can do anything and he has the world in his pocket. Clark Kent is what proves these people wrong. Bad writers forget that Clark is an essential cog in making good Superman stories - we need Clark to discover the human flaws and frailties and problems in the world that a Superman can’t fix. The best stories are always a mix of sensible deduction and intelligent reasoning, mixed with superheroic strong-arming.

And this is why “Lois & Clark” is still my favourite overall version of Superman. Sure, the plots are a bit basic and the action is tepid at best, but it still maintains a healthy balance of humanity mixed with superheroics. It’s not just Superman mindlessly bashing some intergalactic brawler for 45 minutes, it’s stories that require “The only real magic - the magic of knowledge.” It also happens to have the best Lois Lane ever, in Teri Hatcher.

Lois Lane is another reason why I like Superman as much as I do;. If Superman is everything beautiful about what we can be, Lois Lane is everything beautiful about what we are: fearless, courageous, accomplished, scatter-brained and righteously cynical about society’s failures. She represents all of the incomplete, unfinished beauty of the human race and that’s why it’s so great that Clark Kent falls so hopelessly in love with her. Unlike other God-like deities or alien visitors, Superman is so delighted by the presence of humanity and all their efforts, and no one embodies that delight more than Lois Lane. They’re the ultimate yin/yang couple.

This is why I just can’t bring myself to read current ‘New 52’ comic books where Superman is in a public relationship with Wonder Woman - a shameless, shallow publicity stunt. It’s as bad as that time when Rachel used to go out with Joey on “Friends” for a few episodes - just throwing the best-looking characters together isn’t going to ensure success. I’m sure they’re going somewhere it and that eventually Superman might find his way back to Lois, but for now I don’t have any interest. I also just don’t really care for Superman’s ‘updated’ costume in these new books. I’ve never particularly cared for Jim Lee - I don’t believe he’s particularly good at drawing textures or detail and in this new Superman costume, he’s basically just drawn a load of lines all over the costume for no reason. I don’t even mind the absence of the classic red-underwear-on-the-outside, but I hate that goddamn collar. It’s too regal for Superman - he should look like a man ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice. The collar makes it look like he’s wearing a dress-uniform.

So I suppose that brings us to ‘Man of Steel’...

A lot of people understandably groaned when it was announced that “They’re doing the origin again,” and to be honest, they’re perfectly justified. Superman’s origin was done well 30 years ago (and a few times since then on television), but people forget that there’s an entire generation of children who don’t know Superman, what he is, where he’s from or what makes him important. They don’t know the life lessons that can be learned from him - embracing the things that make you different and being a better person for it. For all the sharp suits and slick one-liners in Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man movies, this is something they could never do.

There’s also a lot of storytelling potential in setting a Superman origin story in today’s almost fethishistically cynical society where everything has to be ironic and nothing can be genuine and everyone has an agenda. After World War II, Superman proclaimed that he stood for “Truth, Justice and the American Way” - the ‘American Way’ is something that is by no means as bright and beautiful to people around the world as it once was. This kind of obstacle actually provides a suitable challenge for Superman in the new movie, even moreso than the punches he’ll have to dole out to General Zod - he’ll have to prove that his brand of heroism is legitimate. This is where I think the inherent moral fibre of the character will lead to success. In our society, especially RIGHT NOW, when every week seems to announce another natural disaster or another senseless society - people need that unfettered, totally straight-faced HOPE to get them smiling again. “The light that leads the way” as Marlon Brando put it. This is why the world needs Superman.

It helps that unlike many superhero movies, it’s very clear that the writers, producers, the star of the film and director Zack Snyder aren’t messing around here (even if Snyder has been responsible for a few dodgy movies in the past). In absolutely every single interview they’ve stressed how deeply they’ve mined the source material, how important Superman is to the pantheon of fictional characters, how they’re not ‘apologising’ for Superman in any way and how this is absolutely not a ‘dark’ movie - merely a more realistic vision for a modern generation (or as realistic as a film about an alien with superpowers can be).  This is the attitude that made “Superman: The Movie” such a success in its day and I’m confident the same approach will do “Man of Steel” justice.

It also helps that the cast is fucking dynamite. Russell Crowe as Jor-El, Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Michael Shannon as a particularly thuggish General Zod, Laurence Fishburne as Perry White and Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent. Costner especially is just spot-on pitch perfect casting. The kind of casting that recalls times where my friend Parker and I would wish Hollywood would have that kind of ingenuity and imagination, only to be disappointed with another drab Ryan Reynolds or Channing Tatum-flavoured disappointment. Jonathan Kent is another critical character in the Superman legend (even if he didn’t appear in the first issue, like Lois did). Like Uncle Ben and Thomas Wayne, Jonathan Kent roots his son in humanity - people forget that Clark Kent isn’t as noble or virtuous as he is because of his superpowers - he could just as easily have become a ruthless despot if he’d landed just a few kilometres down the road and was found by Lionel Luthor or worse - any number of perfectly ordinary, perfectly unassuming people who became opportunistic, greedy and ultimately evil in the face of the power a Superman could offer them.

Jonathan Kent is probably my favourite ‘Dad’ in fiction. He’s the guy who knows the value of a hard day’s work, the importance of trying your best even if no one notices straight away, and of doing what’s right rather than what’s easy. In many respects I’m privileged to say he reminds me of my own father. In this film they’re taking a further approach to the character - like Clark, Jonathan doesn’t always know what to do and sometimes the love he has for his son has to come before his respect for society. I’m eager to see how Jonathan’s world outlook is tempered by society and by his son’s unyielding optimism in this film.

And then there’s hot-new-young-thing Henry Cavill. As his “Immortals” director put it “He’s the perfect cookie-cutter Superman”. And sure, he looks as perfectly suited to Superman as Christopher Reeve ever did - if you look at John Byrne’s drawings of Superman from the 80s, Cavill looks like he walked off the pages of those comics. Beyond that though, the guy is a class act. He’s frequently been seeing enthusiastically signing autographs for dozens and dozens of people, never reacting rudely, always smiling. Literally every interview he’s had, he’s gone into detail about the comics he’s read, the research he’s done into the character, the enthusiasm he has for the role and the belief he has in this film. I will attest that in a recent GQ interview he stated that he’s “doing all of this for the money”...

...well I guess it’s money well-spent so. If the guy is representing the character as thoroughly as this, he deserves to turn a tidy profit while doing it. I can’t say how effective he’ll be in the movie, but based on his strong lead performance in “Immortals” (a fun, silly action film that’s never boring and worth a watch) and based on the sackfuls of charisma he has in the trailers thus far, I’m expecting good things. I’m confident the role is in good hands. Also the suit for the movie is way better than the New 52 suit I dislike so much (notice the absence of a collar on Cavill’s suit).

It also helps that Man of Steel has thus far produced the greatest superhero trailer ever. Seriously. The Greatest Superhero Trailer Ever. 

Those initial shots of Jor-El are truly heartbreaking - in just a few seconds you know he's a broken man who has really tried everything to save his culture to no avail, and that Kal-El's new destiny on Earth is the absolute last hope for Krypton's enduring legacy. "Goodbye my son," floors me every time I watch this trailer (and I'm not even going to talk about Costner's stuff). A large part of this is Hans Zimmer's theme for this film -  which may have finally tipped him into my top spot as far as film composers are concerned.

So that’s my two-cents. It has occurred to me that I’ve meandered for 3000 words and I probably still haven’t offered any kind of persuasive argument as to why Superman is an interesting character. I guess after all that, the best argument I can offer is this:

Superman is interesting, because he’s US. He represents our struggle, our strength, our hope and our beauty, even if sometimes he’s better than we are right now. Maybe we’ll be as good as him eventually. As Russell Crowe promises in the trailer. “They will join you in the sun.”

Pints in the Woolshed after the movie’s over.