CINEMA SUPERMAN

Yes, I can pretend. I can say that I love Spider-Man. But if I wanted teen angst and melodrama, I’d watch “Degrassi.” And I can say I love Batman, but whiny leather clad Goths are the stuff of porn. I can say I love the Punisher, but why would I root for a killer? I can say I love Wolverine, but disgruntled dwarves are usually the stuff of fairy tales. Telling you I loved these characters would instantly get me in good, but at the end of the day, I always go back to Superman. Hey, I won’t argue with you that Superman doesn’t have his flaws, but since I was five the character that spoke to me the most was Superman, and I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s made me ashamed of that fact. He was the first, and he is the best. The fact that he’s represented patriotism and war has surely added to the stigma of the character, but what’s past is past. He’s one of the rare superheroes who doesn’t have the time to sit down and whine about his life.

Ever since my inception as a Superman aficionado at the age of five, Superman’s been more than just a comic book character dressed in tights and underwear on the outside. As a child who grew up sickly, I spent many, many days in and out of hospitals. Doctors diagnosed me as a child with a very low immune system, which meant I was prone to more disease, and much more illnesses. Pneumonia was a constant threat, as was the flu. For me (and for many) Superman is and was more than just a character, he was a way for his audience to live (vicariously) through him. In my case, it was a sick boy watching this invincible man achieve the impossible, thus he relinquished any doubts I had about my own ability to pursue my goals in spite of my ill-health. Watching Superman on-screen in any form from there on in was purely a religious experience, because my literary hero was alive. Though you may bat a brow, to visit “Film Threat” is to understand passionate fandom, and require a modicum of understanding.

I can say I love edgier characters, but as my comic book fandom faded and the Spawns, and Ghost Riders, and Iron Mans left my collective memory, the character that stayed with me was Superman. Originally drawn as both an allegory for the biblical character Moses and as a metaphor for immigrants since Siegel and Shuster descended from Jewish Immigrants, Superman has remained a pervasive part of pop culture and the American lexicon for decades. Coincidentally enough Superman’s roots are also bedded in the film medium as much as the comic book medium. Jerry Siegel created the moniker Clark Kent by combining the names of two famous actors. The name Clark derives from legendary on-screen romance idol Clark Gable, while Kent comes from 40’s actor Kent Taylor, Siegel’s brother in law. Siegel and Shuster also based their character’s knack for changing identities on the films of Douglas Fairbanks, one of their on-screen idols who starred as Zorro.

There’s never been another comic book character that’s transcended almost a hundred years and still remains a household name. With the impending release of “Superman Returns,” a restarting of the franchise a la “Batman Begins,” director Bryan Singer’s foray in to the franchise not only puts a new spin on the man of steel but continues where DC left off after years in development hell. The first representation of the “Man of Steel” was surprisingly in animated form. Max Fleischer’s animated short cartoons were a staple of the cinemas from 1941 until 1943. The Austrian born animator created seventeen shorts with his brother, which aired separately as serials featuring the leaping Superman fighting gangsters and evil scientists. Fleischer revolutionized the Rotoscope by filming live action sequences of the film with actors, and then drawing over the frames one by one to make the character movements more fluid.

It was a method used prominently by Ralph Bakshi, and is a method still utilized in films by Richard Linklater in “Waking Life,” and “A Scanner Darkly”. Fleischer’s films were possibly one of the most revered and lavish depictions of the character. The Fleischer brothers, who’d just completed their work on “Gulliver’s Travels,” were brought on by Paramount Pictures hoping to capitalize on the rising popularity of the character in the comic books. The result of which ended with seventeen episodes, one of which, simply named “Superman,” earned an Academy Award nomination in 1941. Though the Fleischers really only directed nine of the episodes, they were later kicked out by Paramount, whom inserted their own propaganda and storylines. Fans praise the series as the standard for the character, and it simply is one of the best representations of Superman on film to date.

In 1948, after the end of the Fleischer serials, Columbia pictures picked up from there with a thirty chapter serial starring Kirk Alyn and Noel Neill. The series this time focused on two arcs, one entitled “Superman” and its sequel “Atom Man vs. Superman” in 1950. Alyn, the first actor to portray Superman in a live action format, gained notoriety for playing Clark and Superman as different personalities, but many felt he paled in comparison to George Reeves’ portrayal. Over the course of the years, Superman experienced many transitions from television shows, animated series, and much success in the comic book medium. Superman sadly also became a surefire soapbox for anyone seeking to voice their opinions. Superman became a “Christian hero” in early conservative America during the time of the world wars, but during the Post-Vietnam era Superman was cast aside as a rather archaic entity, which added to the consistent notion of the character’s antiquated morals and views, particularly when Batman and Spider-Man became the zeitgeist for conflicted human characters with problems. Even though DC comics pulled away from his past and molded him as a more modern hero with a much more universal method of thinking, the character, thanks in part to Frank Miller’s Nazi Nationalist portrayal, is still considered an old-fashioned concept.

In 1976, Warner Brothers began filming for a new adaptation of the Superman character in a feature film franchise for the flagship character of DC Comics. Directed by Richard Donner, who signed on after Hackman and Brando were cast, “Superman: The Movie” was a combination of the quirky 50s science fiction and old-fashioned heroics that introduced Superman in to the mainstream. Written by Mario Puzo, “Superman: The Movie”, which opens with a child reading a Superman comic book, introduces, with a scene sweep of the turn of the page, the epic origin of Superman. Producers opted for a more experienced, well-known figure, auditioning many people including sports stars, actors and models. After auditioning experienced actors such as Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Charles Bronson, and Kris Kristofferson, respectively, producers went for the unknown Christopher Reeve. Reeve, the New York native, had minor credits to his name before “Superman,” and expressed the talents to play Clark and Superman as separate entities but resembled Superman’s cleancut image.

Gene Hackman, on the other hand, in the midst of a powerful career, signed on to play the megalomaniacal Lex Luthor. As a result, Reeve, who’d trained for months to possess the physical attributes of the character, became one of the most well-known actors to don the cape and tights, and became arguably the pivotal Superman to be portrayed on-screen. Though often uneven in its balance of camp and drama, “Superman: The Movie” is one of the best depictions of Superman to date, and the Puzo-Donner collaboration resulted in its grossing a crisp $48 million domestically. Oddly enough, under Donner’s control, Superman transformed in to a Christ-like entity with the Americanization of a Jewish creation. “Superman: The Movie” stands as one of the finest, and entertaining film adaptations of the comic book medium, and dispels any arguments that creating a film too faithful to the source material alienates audiences. At a time when movie-going was an experience, the end credits boasted and influenced its audiences return for “Superman II,” coming soon…

Shortly after the success of Donner’s depiction of Superman in America, in 1979, Turkey premiered their version of the same film. Entitled “Süpermen dönüyor” (also known as “Turkish Superman”, but in translation ironically means: “Superman Returns”), is a cheap knock-off clocking in at only sixty-nine minutes, with a fraction of the budget directed by Kunt Tulgar. “Turkish Superman” is a shot by shot imitation of Donner’s film starring Tayfun Demir as Clark, a young goggled man who discovers his heritage of Krypton thanks to a green gem he throws in to a cave and is told he’s an alien thanks to his father who is dressed in a silver Superman suit and missing most of his teeth. Turkey who has become infamous for creating very low-budget carbon copies of Hollywood hits has only exclusively aired the film in public channels and in their own home country. Though it’s been described as an atrocious film, beginning with a long prologue featuring a black curtain with Christmas lights and Lucky Charms shapes to represent space, it has achieved minor cult status, but not in the same height as “Turkish Wizard of Oz”. The film is not available on DVD or VHS, and is only attainable through collectors online.

“Superman 2,” a large portion of which was simultaneously filmed with “Superman: The Movie,” became the penultimate sequel that would remain the standard for many years. Richard Lester signed on to direct after Warner Brothers forced Donner off production, but that was only the tip of the iceberg. Brando, who’d played the father of Superman, Jor-El, sued the studios and attained much of the profits made by the first film, and as a result, his scenes were replaced newly filmed sequences of Susannah York as Clark’s mother, Lara. Furthermore, star Hackman dropped out of production after Donner, and his role was comprised of pre-filmed footage, and a stand-in impersonating Hackman. “Superman 2” found Clark on vacation with Lois and developing a relationship with her after her discovery of his secret identity. Landing on the moon, though, were three Kryptonian prisoners from the Phantom Zone, the evil General Zod and his two cohorts in crime, intent on finding Clark or destroying the world, which ever came first.

General Zod, who’d made a cameo in the original film, arguably stole the sequel thanks to the incomparable talents of Terence Stamp who approached Zod as a cold and ruthless terrorist intent on building the world as he sought fit, but was also written with the subtext for the archetypical dictator who attempted to build his army, and colonize a foreign land. “Superman 2” explores Clark’s willingness to give up his powers to be with his beloved Lois and sew the bonds of their love, which opens the door to “Superman Returns”. Lester’s film, however, in spite of featuring rather arbitrary plot devices (Why would Superman’s safe haven have a device that could eliminate his powers?) became one of the many paradigms for the character of Superman. “Superman 2” was yet again a mixture of fifties camp and gung-ho action exploring Clark’s struggle as a human, and his return once again as Earth’s sentient savior. Reeve further grew in to the role in spite of the evident problems behind the scenes.

The sequel grossed a hefty 108 million domestically, paving the way for two more sequels, Superman III and IV, two of the most laughable films in the franchise. The last two films featured more of the cast disjointed with Margot Kidder dropping out of the franchise to protest Donner being replaced, and Lex being almost completely drawn out of the story arc. Kidder was replaced by Annette O’Toole, who appeared in the second sequel as Clark’s childhood sweetheart Lana Lang (later appearing as Ma Kent in the series “Smallville”), and though Kidder returned for the last film, most of the “Superman IV” romance sub-plot revolved around Mariel Hemingway as Lacy Warfield, an uber-Lois vying for Clark’s attention and attempting to discover Superman’s identity. Parts three and four feature some of the most conspicuous blunders in the franchise handing Richard Pryor most of the attention as a computer programmer who puts Superman through a series of perils, confronting his evil half and ultimately playing second banana.

“The Quest for Peace,” on the other hand, an obvious product of the cold war, features Nuclear Man, a character that can only be described as a demonic Bon Jovi with a large mane, long fingernails, and a costume that you’ve only seen in “Flesh Gordon”. Worse were the additions of John Cryer as the nephew of Lex, which relegated the returning Hackman as a father figure, and the insistence of re-used footage from the first three films that make up a portion of the last sequel. Both films grossed only 75 million combined, a mere portion of the grosses in first two. The failure of the film has been pinned on many aspects, from the studio cutting the FX budget in half, to completely cutting our forty-five minutes of the story. Warner Brothers attempted to continue the franchise after the failure of the previous films in 1989, but after most of the crew declined to return (particularly Reeve), talks of “Superman V” faded over the next decade and remained in limbo. After a rights battle, Warner decided the new Superman film would be based on the “Death and Return” story arc in the comic books in which Superman battles a powerful alien named Doomsday, is killed, and returns in a biblical Christ-like re-emergence, powerless and jaded with humanity.

After many shifts in writers and potential ideas (one of which included Superman using Kryptonian martial arts), Kevin Smith spearheaded a script with less progress, thanks to Jon Peters who demanded a drastic altering of the character. Smith’s cheesy concept script included polar bears, and a Chewbacca-like assistant to Superman. Tim Burton who eliminated Superman’s powers and costume in favor of a robotic suit and gadgets in the vein of Batman (including an “Eradicator Stick”), considered Chris Rock as Jimmy Olsen which [then] director Burton thought would fit the role as a “Wise ass street punk” character. Out of all the changes, there included a gay robotic assistant, a gay Jimmy Olsen, an alien Lex Luthor, a murderous vindictive Superman, a black Lois Lane, and a giant spider which Superman would spar off against.

A few of the more arbitrary plotlines bandied about for the film included having Lex Luthor as a shoe salesman, and then Lex Luthor as a CIA Agent a la Agent Smith who discovered Superman and must track him down. Superman would become a black leatherclad Christ allegory ala Neo. The irony of this being that in the Wachowski’s films, Neo inevitably became a blatant take off of Superman in the “Matrix” sequels with the Christ symbolism, flying abilities, near invincibility, and a trenchcoat that (while flying) looked an awful lot like a cape. Thankfully, many of the considered storylines (some of which were praised by fans) were either scrapped, or completely forgotten. Some of the actors considered out of a list that reaches up to and over a hundred were Sean Penn and Ralph Fiennes (which Burton pushed for), and Nicolas Cage, who was attached to the project for a number of years. Cage, a notable hardcore comic book fan, signed on to play Superman, going as far as testing potential suits. Smith pushed to have him star until he later dropped out mid-2000 after constant changes in script and creative control.

For many years McG took on the helm of director attempting build the film in the vein of “Charlie’s Angels” and leaned toward casting Jennifer Lopez or Cameron Diaz as Lois Lane. JJ Abrams was hired to re-write the constantly transforming script, forming the Superman tale as “lighter and funnier.” The list of potential directors considered for the new Superman film is almost a foot long with candidates from Oliver Stone to M. Night Shyamalan. Most ironically though was Warner Brothers’ insistence on rejecting directors who planned faithful adaptations of the character in exchange for directors whom really had no idea what the character brought to the table. Yet again, control shifted to Brett Ratner who voiced his love for the character appearing in late night shows with the S shirt and boasting how he’d re-invigorate the franchise. Such “invigoration” included a plot deriving from “Star Wars,” in which the recurring villains would be Superman’s uncle and cousin in an obvious allusion to Shakespeare.

Even after strong backlash from fans and comic book veterans like Kevin Smith, Stan Lee, and Mark Waid et al, pre-production was slated for 2002 with Abrams standing by his script, and actors like James Caviezel, Dominic Purcell, and Barry Watson being considered. Ratner, after little progress during filming, was kicked off of production, and later rebounded with “X3.” You know how that turned out. Better the X-men than Superman. After the surprise success of the low-budget actioner “X-Men” and its sequel “X2,” Warner Brothers, straight out of a humongous battle with producers and constant swapping of actors, took on Bryan Singer. Singer, who’d surprised audiences with his blockbuster adaptations of the comic book series “X-Men,” a bleak but action-packed set of films very faithful to the source material, signed on as director passing on “X-3,” which went through almost three directors before finally landing on Ratner’s doorstep.

Singer, who admits to having not been a comic book fan (yet admits he loves science fiction), took on the character hoping to give him a new spin while remaining completely faithful to the character. Singer was given considerable creative control and voiced immense enthusiasm for the project even launching an online campaign with video diaries, and personal glimpses at the construction of sets. Warner Brothers this time welcomed fan interaction, inviting many peeks at the sets, photography, and including prominent fan sites to promote the diaries. But production wasn’t in the clear just yet. Singer side-stepped all the proposed changes for the film and injected a darker dramatic look at Superman, which put the fan base at quite an uproar. “Superman Returns” takes place subsequent “Superman II,” where Superman returns to Earth to discover that his life, and the people he knows have changed and he must stop Lex Luthor from destroying the world via Kryptonian technology. Most of the film’s plot has been kept under wraps, but any film that completely disregards Superman III and IV deserves the sheer benefit of the doubt. But the reaction during production became the real news.

After the much ballyhooed emergence of Singer, fans were mixed on the director’s influence. Many wanted Tom Welling from “Smallville” (who plays a young Clark Kent) to take the role, but Welling expressed no interest, and the WB expressed their reluctance to incorporate the “Smallville” series into the Superman film. What with the continuing law suit involving the rights to the Superboy character and Joe Siegel’s family, Warner and Singer made a conscious effort to distance the Superboy theme from the film. Singer, who voiced his insistence on creating the film as its own entity prior to the lawsuit opted for Brandon Routh. Routh, a soap opera actor, ironically became the reflection of Christopher Reeve. Singer, much like Donner, opted for an unknown after testing famous actors, signing on a basically obscure actor who would lead the franchise to hopeful success, using much of the same attitude involved in casting Reeve.

Singer deflected such agitations of casting Routh (in spite of Routh bulking up considerably) by casting Kevin Spacey, who gave his Oscar-winning performance in Singer’s brilliant “The Usual Suspects,” as the meek witness Verbal Kint. Much like the “Man of Steel”, Lex Luthor, a must for any Superman property, was cast out of almost a hundred actors who’d been considered for the role from Tim Allen to Sean Penn. Singer opted for a veteran cast mate, with no apparent backlash from Warner, and no backlash from fans. Spacey pulled in an equally psychotic and demented performance as John Doe in “Seven,” and any doubts of his performance were alleviated. Kate Bosworth, who’d beaten out more experienced actresses like Natalie Portman, Keri Russell, and Selma Blair (a strong contender at the time), and starred as Sandra Dee alongside Spacey in his musical “Beyond the Sea”, took on the rather pivotal role of Clark’s love interest, Lois Lane. Along with the most important characters came Frank Langella replacing Hugh Laurie as Perry White, Eva Marie Saint, and Parker Posey, just to name a few.

Most of the plot for “Superman Returns” has remained a vague footnote in the onslaught of summer films. Singer has sought out to keep the plot under wraps in spite of it, and provides a darker glimpse into the character, while remaining true to the core of his personality and keeping his promise by remaining loyal to the mythos—in spite of fan back lash involving Superman’s costume. One of the more ridiculous but expected controversies (I use that term loosely) involved with Superman’s suit was a vague reflection on much of the uproar fans gave concerning Spider-Man and organic web shooters in Raimi’s film, another ridiculous “controversy” to say the least. Singer, who remained almost completely faithful to the character design, put his mild touches to the costume as his own personal trademark and put many a fan in to an uproar.

What was a “controversy” really became more fan boy boo-hooing that further relegated them into the lowest common denominator, as Singer and costume designer Louise Mingenbach stayed true to the Superman costume, but added a belt buckle insignia, a lifted “S” insignia, and darker shades of the traditional colors, which were ironically references to past Superman styles. Singer kept his promise and managed to give the character his classic red, yellow, and blue scheme, the blue tights, and the long red cape yet with a sleeker stylish alteration on the costume. Though Warner pushed hard to keep the classic costume off the screen, Singer was able to bring it back with much more flair.

Singer has expressed excitement toward the project he spearheaded after turning down the franchise that paved him as a viable option in Hollywood. Singer, who’s managed to explore a sleek, but bleak science fiction perspective into the films he’s directed, remains hopeful that “Superman Returns” will become the success his last franchise was. He has a surefire penchant for creating films that explore the outcast, the pariah of society, as was displayed in the “X-Men” films and “Apt Pupil,” and his enthusiasm in helping to bring the story of the ultimate adopted immigrant seeking to contribute and fit in leaves fans with a sense of ease.

It’s yet to be known if “Superman Returns” will end up becoming one of the best adaptations of the character made to date, or simply the next “Batman & Robin,” but beyond all expectations or reservations, the faith in the character continues to flourish, and does so well beyond the years to come, because the character is more than just lines on a piece of paper to most fans. And with the roots of his character bedded in cinema because of two young boys that created him because of the inspiration from their on-screen idols, he’ll continue to live on film through Alyn, the late great Reeve, and Routh forever. Superman is not just a character, he’s a timeless concept.

Many thanks to Phil Hall, Neal Bailey, and Steve Younis for their help in tracking down information for this article.




Posted on June 28, 2006 in Features by
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