By Andrew A. Smith
Scripps Howard News Service
Can Man of Steel save Superman?
It’s odd to think that a strange visitor from another planet, with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, would need any saving. And in comic-book sales, the Man of Tomorrow is holding his own: The Superman franchise is probably DC Comics’ third-most-popular, after Batman and Justice League.
But from a movie standpoint, Man of Steel director Zack Snyder himself told Hollywood Outbreak two years ago that the character was “broken” and “needs to be fixed.” “[Superman is] is the biggest superhero on the planet. He’s the father of every superhero,” he continued. “Thor has a movie? Really? … And there’s no Superman movie? This is, like, the world’s out of balance.”
Superman has had great success on the big screen, but Snyder has a point: It’s all in the past.
Superman, the first superhero, burst out of the gates in Action Comics #1 in 1938, and single-handedly turned a fad giveaway vehicle into the comic-book industry. Hordes of imitators followed in various capes and cowls, immmediately dubbed “superheroes” instead of “mystery men,” in honor of the Last Son of Krypton.
But none could lay a glove on the invulnerable Man of Steel. The Superman title, which launched in 1940, remained the best-selling solo superhero book well into the 1970s. Heck, in the 1960s, the seven books starring Superman, Superboy and their friends were lodged in the Top 10 nearly every year – and that includes Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane and Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen.
That’s right: Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen outsold Batman and X-Men for much of the '60s.
Superman also leaped into every other media with a single bound. He starred in his own newspaper comic strip from 1940 to 1966. The Adventures of Superman radio show, which gave us Jimmy Olsen and green kryptonite, ran from 1940 to 1951. Seventeen theatrical cartoons from the Fleischer Studios appeared in movie houses in 1941 and 1943, paving the way for zillions of cartoons on broadcast TV beginning in the 1960s. Two movie serials, starring Kirk Alyn, debuted in 1947 and 1950. It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s … Superman! hit Broadway in 1966.
And I haven’t mentioned the toys and collectibles. From the games, dolls and lunchboxes of Superman’s early years to the videogames, action figures, statues, T-shirts and costumes of today, you can always find something at the store with a big, red S on it.
The Big Blue Boy Scout is a character that has virtually conquered television, with four live-action shows: Adventures of Superman (1952-58), Superboy (1988-92), Lois & Clark (1993-97) and Smallville (2001-2011). Smallville is continuing as a comic book, currently on “Season 11” at DC Comics.
And it may be hard for today’s fans to conceive this, but at one time the only superhero movie ever made was the 1966 Batman, based on the TV show and played for laughs. That had to change to get us to where we are now, where a second-tier Marvel character like Iron Man has become an international sensation.
Naturally, it was The Big Red S who changed it. Aside from his two movie serials, Superman came to movie screens in 1951 with Superman vs. The Mole Men, essentially the pilot for a TV show, released theatrically to gauge public interest. It was a hit, and George Reeves became the Man of Tomorrow for several generations in The Adventures of Superman TV show. It took a quarter of a century, but Superman wowed movie audiences again in 1978, with Christopher Reeve in the blue suit. Superman: The Movie was such a success, it spawned three sequels, in 1980, 1983 and 1987.
Finally, Brian Singer – famed for making X-Men a viable movie franchise – took a swing with Brandon Routh in Superman Returns (2006). It was an homage to the earlier films; almost but not quite a sequel.
And it flopped.
Perhaps that’s why Snyder made his famous comment about Superman being “broken.” The last Reeve movie, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, had its heart in the right place, but not its wallet, resulting in a film where fans pointed out that outer space looked a lot like a black curtain and The Moon looked an awful lot like a sound stage. And Superman Returns was off-putting, giving us a Superman who had abandoned Earth for five years (ridiculous!), was a deadbeat dad with the child he left Lois (preposterous!) and spent a lot of time in the movie playing Super-Voyeur with his X-ray vision (despicable!)
Snyder was right. Something had to change.
UP, UP AND AWAY
Snyder, who directed 300 and Watchmen, may just be the guy to do it.
“It’s the most realistic movie I’ve ever made,” Snyder said of Man of Steel to the LA Times Hero Complex website April 25. “There no tongue in anyone’s cheek. I’m not apologizing for Superman in any way. I’m saying, ‘Superman is a thing that must be taken seriously and embraced and understood’.”
And he’s getting a lot of serious help. Christopher Nolan – of Dark Knight Rises fame – is one of the producers. The titular character is portrayed by English thespian Henry Cavill (The Tudors), with support from an all-star cast, including Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Michael Shannon as Gen. Zod, Kevin Costner as Pa Kent, Laurence Fishburne as Perry White and Russell Crowe as Jor-El.
And it’s looking and sounding really good so far. But don’t expect your daddy’s Superman (or even your grand-daddy’s). Snyder is updating our hero for the 21st century, as he should.
Still, the basic outlines of the story are simple, and fairly familiar. And I can’t describe Superman’s trip from Krypton to Earth any better than Grant Morrison did on the four-panel, first page of his classic graphic novel, All Star Superman (2011):
“Doomed planet. Desperate scientists. Last Hope. Kindly Couple.”
We know the story so well, baby Kal-El’s trip from Krypton to the Kent farm can be summed up in eight words! But there will be some differences. For example, Krypton isn’t going to explode for unknown reasons. Instead, it will be a cautionary tale of failed conservation.
“The filmmakers envisioned a planet on the eve of collapse, a place whose leaders had surrendered to the inevitable and turned inward, their inertia allowing their culture to decay along with the land,” reads the production notes. “Light years ahead of Earth in their technology, they nevertheless had exhausted their resources, the mining of Krypton's core for energy having been the last insult the planet could bear.”
Further, Snyder’s team is abandoning the ubiquitous crystal construction (and technology) of “Superman: The Movie” for a less structured feel. Krypton doesn’t just have plants, it uses them!
“We designed their architecture and technology to have an organic feel,” production designer Alex McDowell said. “Nothing is sculpted in the manner that we understand; there are no straight lines whatsoever on Krypton."
Will purists howl? Not this one. That crystal business extends no further back than the first Christopher Reeve movie, and it got pretty played out in “Smallville.” If Snyder wants to go back to the strip’s SF roots, that OK with this fan.
The next surprise is Kal-El’s two dads.
Well, not Pa Kent – he’s the straight arrow he always was, dedicated to raising his unusually gifted kid with core Midwestern values to guide his great potential. “I don’t know why you were sent here, but it wasn’t to win football games,” Pa Kent (Glenn Ford) says to young Clark Kent in Superman: The Movie. Not much has changed in 35 years, as the new Pa Kent (Costner) says, “I have to believe that you were sent here for a reason, and even if it takes the rest of your life, you owe it to yourself to find out what that reason is.”
A more interesting angle is taken with Jor-El. In a press release, screenwriter David Goyer described Kal-El’s biological father as “very much an advocate of free choice, and that made him an outlier on Krypton. In effect, it made him a criminal, an enemy of the state.”
Crowe follows up with “there’s a touch of madness to him, a touch of massive desperation in what he’s doing. As far as he’s concerned, it’s the last roll of the dice for keeping Krypton alive.”
Meanwhile, the various stories of Clark leaving Smallville – there are several versions – are dropped in favor of one similar to writer Mark Waid’s Superman: Birthright (2005), in which the young Clark Kent goes on walkabout after high school to figure out who he is. This repeats in the movie, with an added twist: In today’s interconnected world, a man wandering the Earth occasionally doing impossible things is hard to hide. And a certain star reporter at the Daily Planet is on his electronic trail.
Which is essentially just an update; in virtually all Superman origins Lois Lane plays a role, and is nearly always the person who gives Superman his nom du combat.
The real surprise, though, is probably Jimmy Olsen. There’s no Olsen in Warner Bros.’ production notes, but IMDb.com lists a “Jenny Olsen,” played by Rebecca Buller. Great Caesar’s ghost! Is Superman’s pal now a palette?
Not necessarily. This could just be a curve ball, introducing Jimmy’s sister or cousin or something first, before the male version arrives. But if Jenny sticks around in place of Jimmy, it won’t come as much of a surprise to long-term fans, who watched Jimmy cross-dress enough in the 1950s and 1960s (to get a “scoop,” naturally) that he was in the running with Bugs Bunny for "Most Famous Drag Queen." And besides, a grown man taking a strong interest in a teenage boy might have been a wholesome mentoring schtick back in the day, but in the modern world it’s a little icky. Superman having a female groupie makes more sense, and naturally his innate sense of honor will keep her at a distance. That’s a win-win.
Meanwhile, the trailers have given us a clue what Superman’s challenge will be, as Gen. Zod and Faora-Ul (Antje Traue) arrive, demanding that the son of Jor-El join them in rebuilding Krypton on Earth – or else. This ties in with a larger theme Snyder has built into the movie as a whole.
“The film is very much about choices,” Snyder said in the production notes. “It's about a man with two fathers: Jor-El, Kal's Kryptonian father, and Jonathan Kent, Clark's dad on Earth. Clark/Kal has grown up with two sets of histories, though only one was known to him until now. And now he needs to reconcile those teachings if he is to become the man that, arguably, both fathers would want him to be, in their own ways.”
Not that there’s really any mystery. “In the world of superheroes, Superman is the completely uncompromising figure who exists to represent the best that all of us can be,” Snyder said. “He is the ideal; he's what we strive for, that magical, golden god, the kind of icon that has extended beyond the comics world and into all of popular culture.”
So we know he’s going to do the right thing. The fun is going to be seeing how he comes to the decision – and what variety of mayhem follows.
As it happens, Snyder is premiering his Super-rebirth on screen the same year as the Man of Steel’s 75th anniversary. DC Comics has noticed that as well, and pulled out the stops in support of their Main Man. Here are some Super-things to anticipate:
* First, Warner Bros. Entertainment and DC Entertainment have released a new Superman 75th-anniversary logo that will be used on Superman-related products and initiatives in all divisions, including DC Comics, Warner Bros. Pictures, AWB Television, WB Animation, WB Interactive Entertainment, Warner Home Entertainment and WB Consumer Products.
* Out already is Superman Unbound, a straight-to-video animated movie that arrived May 7. It adapts a Superman vs. Brainiac story that appeared in Action Comics in 2008, written by Geoff Johns, who is now DC’s Chief Creative Officer (Go here for a clip.)
* Injustice: Gods Among Us is a new fighting game franchise that arrived April 16, that allows players to enjoy the powers and gadgetry of their favorite DC characters. It’s supported by a comic book as well.
* DC’s “We Can Be Heroes” campaign, which is trying to help the Horn of Africa, has launched a second crowdfunding initiative. June features limited-edition Super-merchandise to help Superman’s fans be heroes, too.
* Next is Superman Unchained, a new series written by DC’s hottest writer Scott Snyder (Batman, American Vampire) and drawn by DC’s hottest artist (and co-publisher) Jim Lee (Justice League). The first issue goes on sale June 12, but few details are available.
* Superman Unchained #1 arrives (with a bonus two-sided poster) on June 12, which DC has declared “Man of Steel Day” (which is also two days before the movie launches). Those visiting participating comic shops on MoSD will receive a free copy of All Star Superman #1 Special Edition. They’ll be surrounded by Man of Steel promotional posters and bags, and 12” Man of Steel statues – including Superman, Jor-El, Gen. Zod and Faora-Ul – will be on sale.
* On the digital front, All Star Superman #1 will be available for free download, and tons of Super-books will be on sale at www.readdcentertainment.com, the DC Comics app and all digital platforms (like comiXology).
* DC and Random House are teaming to promote Man of Steel at more than 1,000 local libraries, which will offer Superman buttons, bookmarks and comics.
* Snyder also plans a new animated short, which will likely debut at this summer’s Comic-Con International: San Diego. Aiding in the endeavor are Bruce Timm (Batman: The Animated Series), Jay Oliva (Man of Steel storyboard artists), Johns, Mike Carlin (DC editor) and Peter Girardi (DC animation). WB hints at other Superman celebration rollouts at the country’s biggest comics and pop culture convention July 17-21.
* But if you don’t want to wait, there’s already a video making the rounds with Snyder and friends discussing the making of Man of Steel. Go to YouTube.com and search for “Zack Snyder featurette.”
* Talk about product placement! Sears outlets will not only appear in Man of Steel, but the retailer has teamed with Warner Bros. Pictures on a “retail theatrical integration” whereby Sears Shop Your Way Rewards members will have exclusive first-look at footage from the film, a limited-edition comic book and a chance to participate in a variety of Man of Steel sweepstakes. Check out shopyourway.com/manofsteel for details. And check out the new Man of Steel-inspired shoppable video at youtube.com/sears.
* Finally, Superman will be a major character in the new Infinite Crisis, a new multiplayer online battle arena game that will debut this fall. And the “DC Nation” block on Cartoon Network, which includes Teen Titans Go! and Beware the Batman, will have all-new Super-shorts airing throughout the year.
Will it all work? Or is Superman doomed to be a bright character in a dark, Batman world? Is it Superman that needs saving -- or is it us?
If that's the case, there's no one better suited to the job than the man dedicated to truth, justice and the American way.
“Superman is the jewel in the DC crown,” Snyder told Hero Complex. “And really what we’re trying to do is get his house in order, and then who knows what’s possible.”
Contact Captain Comics at firstname.lastname@example.org.