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.

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