I never regarded Michael Caine as one of life’s great pop philosophers. But having heard his views on Batman and Superman, I think I may have to revise my opinion. Caine, who played Alfred, the butler, in Christopher Nolan’s reboot of Batman, once said “Batman is how the world sees America. Superman is how America sees itself.”
As a comment on the entire Batman myth, this may be overstating the case. But it is an accurate assessment of the turn the Batman legend has taken in recent decades (mostly after the publication of The Dark Knight Returns comic book/graphic novel) with the one-time ‘Caped Crusader’ being portrayed as a rich guy who respects no law and metes out his own kind of justice, while tackling some serious personal issues: in many stories he seems nearly as disturbed as the crooks he fights.
Superman, on the other hand, is squeaky-clean. He was created in 1938, just as Hitler had occupied Austria and America was still recovering from the Great Depression, by a pair of young Jews called Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster for Action Comics, owned by another Jew, Jack Liebowitz. In many ways, Superman represented the immigrants’ ideal of America. He was born elsewhere, was sent to Kansas and set the world right while living in the big city of Metropolis (originally Cleveland but later New York).
He was so much the embodiment of the American dream that in 1942, when the Superman radio show first aired, Superman was introduced as a “visitor from another world” who now fought “a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American way.”(The radio show was overseen by Bob Maxwell, born Robert Joffe, also the child of Jewish immigrants).
The problem with the do-gooding Superman was that only simple plot-lines pitting our perfect hero against evil men made sense. In the 1950s, this was not a problem. The radio show was a huge hit. Low budget serials starring first, Kirk Alyn and later, George Reeves were popular with young viewers. And then Reeves (who was recently played by Ben Affleck in a biographical film that claimed he hated the Superman character) went on to star in a very successful TV show that stuck to the “truth, justice and American way” characterisation of Superman.
The problems began when the world grew more cynical and people tired of a boy-scout who wore his underwear outside his trousers. In 1965, the Superman comic book sold 823, 829 copies. Five years later, sales had nearly halved to 446, 678. By 1975, the comic was down to 296,000 copies. And ten years later, in 1985, it sold just 98,767 copies.
But even as the comic books were tanking, Superman found a new life in the movies. In 1978, after an absence of two decades, Superman returned to the screen in the form of Christopher Reeve. The first Superman movie, directed by Richard Donner, treated Superman’s origins in a quasi-Biblical fashion with a God-like Marlon Brando sending his son to help the people of Earth. But the film worked at the box office largely because Reeve accorded with most people’s idea of Superman. Not only did he look perfect but he captured the character’s essential charm and decency. Yes, he was a boy-scout and the plot was corny, but the cast (including Margot Kidder as a feisty Lois Lane and Gene Hackman as an excellent Lex Luthor) made it work by walking a fine line between epic and gentle comedy.
The second movie (partly directed by Donner) focused on Superman’s quest for love (at one stage he gave up his powers to live with Lois) and the sensitivity of Reeve’s performance plus a terrific villain (Terence Stamp as General Zod) gave it a depth that the first had lacked.
By the third movie, however, it had all gone wrong. A new director, Richard Lester, went for laughs and ruined the balance. And the fourth was so bad that Reeve refused to even talk about it.
Since then, nobody has known quite how to handle Superman. A Superboy TV show was directed at children. Another TV show, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman focused more on the chemistry between the leads than on the Superman legend. And the comic books struggled. John Byrne was brought in to re-invent Superman in a mini series but most of his innovations were quickly forgotten by later writers. And the only bump in sales came when they killed off Superman for a few months. (But he came back to life, natch!)
In the meantime, two directors had huge success with Batman. Tim Burton launched the franchise with a dark, conflicted Bruce Wayne at its centre and made a well-recieved follow-up. Two later movies (not directed by Burton) introduced the irritating demon-child Robin (a character who is only marginally less annoying than Superboy) and finished off the series till another director Christopher Nolan rebooted the franchise, returning to the dark Batman of the Burton movies. And Marvel heroes (The X-Men, Spiderman, Iron Man etc.) became box-office stars even as poor old Superman was forgotten by the studios.
Somehow, Hollywood just could not come to terms with Superman. Though a TV show called Smallville about a pre-cape and costume Clark Kent ran for ten seasons, the movie studios came up with one idiotic concept after another: Batman vs Superman, Nicolas Cage as Superman (shudder!), Superman vs Flyboy, an all black-costumed Superman etc.
Finally Bryan Singer made Superman Returns in 2006. The film was a homage to the first Donner Superman movie. Brandon Routh who acted as Superman did a Christopher Reeve impersonation and Kevin Spacey played Luthor like a camp Gene Hackman. Some fans loved it. But the movie made only $400 million or so compared to say, The Dark Knight or the Spiderman movies which grossed twice as much. The reason, according to Alan Horn, the studio’s president: “we should have had a little more action to satisfy the young male crowd.” (In Hollywoodspeak, this translates as “lots of fights for teenagers”)So now we have Man of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder with an assortment of TV stars. The Duke of Suffolk from The Tudors plays Superman and the crazed Prohibition agent from Boardwalk Empire plays General Zod. The theory about the need for more action has been taken seriously: every four minutes, there is an explosion; they ask you to wear 3-D glasses but earplugs seem more suited to the bang-boom-crash noisiness of this picture; everybody fights everybody else all the time, often for no good reason; and the overall effect is more that of a computer game than a movie.
The problem about how to handle Superman’s boy-scout persona in these cynical times is resolved by the simple expedient of having very little Superman in the movie. About one-third is bad science fiction set on Krypton (so bad that you expect Captain Kirk to kiss Lieutenant Uhura in the next scene) and the recurring character is Russell Crowe playing Superman’s father who is killed by General Zod but then turns into a computer virus. (At one stage he tells Lois that she loaded him into the mainframe. At this stage, I laughed out aloud in the cinema hall at the sheer absurdity of the plot and its premises.)
The rest of it is stolen from Smallville with a young Clark coming to terms with his powers while helping people till finally the computer virus played by Russell Crowe turns up to hand him a Superman costume. No sooner has he worn this, then the guy from Boardwalk Empire arrives in a spaceship and the film turns into an Independence Day rip off. As you can tell, I hated it. I thought Zack Snyder had vomited all over the Superman legend and as filmmaking goes, it was loud, crass and entirely derivative. (Can this really be the same guy who made Watchmen?) Even the emotional depth that Nolan gave Batman in the Dark Knight movies is missing. This Superman is no more than a Jack Reacher-like do-gooding drifter who wanders onto the sets of a science fiction film.
But, hey what do I know? The film is a hit. There will certainly be a sequel in which, no doubt, Superman will reveal himself to be deeply disturbed by the death of his father and will live with his butler in a cave. (The Dark Knight’s Christopher Nolan is the executive producer of the Man of Steel and writes this rubbish.) And Henry VIII will send the Duke of Suffolk on another mission. They’ve stolen from so many sources for the first movie so they’ll probably keep stealing – from other comic books, from TV shows and old movies and from video games. About the only thing they won’t touch is the real Superman legend.
Yes, it is truly the death of Superman
From HT Brunch, June 30
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