Reading Versus Watching: Whither Superman?

Superman Returns.

What a joyless, uninspired, heavy-handed and dead thing this new movie turned out to be. What we wanted was something that returned the franchise to its solid foundations, both corollary and flip-side to the excellent Batman Begins. What we got instead was one scene after another lifted directly from the original movies in what seems intended to be an homage, but instead comes off wearyingly unoriginal. Scene after scene of Superman bearing things cross-like on his shoulders, overdubs of Marlon Brando from the first movie ("And so I gave my first born son..." et al), Superman getting stabbed in the side, falling through space in a crucified posture, dying and being reborn, the whole Jesus analogy so unsubtle it's almost surprising the movie isn't in Aramaic. Scene after scene of long, drawn-out shots of characters on the verge of tears. We get Superman as a creepy guy who loiters outside Lois Lane's house, spying on her and listening in on her conversations. We get a "mad genius" scheme from Lex Luthor that doesn't even pretend to make sense. We get at least a dozen tiny plot-holes. About half-way through I just wanted god-like Superman villain Darkseid to show up out of nowhere, laugh at this annoying pussy calling himself super and lay waste to the Earth.

You see, once upon a time there were these two Jewish boys from Cleveland who created a superhero that was more powerful than a locomotive and could leap tall buildings with a single bound. In the midst of the Great Depression, this hero was a friend to the little guy, fighting slum lords and capitalists. As time passed, Superman became more powerful, flying, shooting lasers out of his eyes, getting much, much stronger. As he did so his stories became more fantastic; eventually he had a Fortress of Solitude in the Arctic with a key so big and heavy that only he could lift it, a shrunken city complete with shrunken city-dwellers that he hoped one day to be able to un-shrink, a demented clone who lived on a square planet and said the opposite of everything he meant, and so on. There was a sense of wonder intrinsic to these stories, the feeling that anything could happen and probably would.

Unlike Batman, where one could actually imagine some crazy millionaire dressing up like a bat and setting out to fight crime, Superman is not a remotely realistic character. Not the least of the reasons for this is that he supposedly disguises himself with simply a pair of glasses. Thus, the more seriously one treats the Superman concept, the less well he comes off, and the proof of this is in the revamp DC Comics did in the '80's, where they jettisoned all of Superman's history and let writer/artist John Byrne start over. Byrne made him less powerful, more grounded in reality, more serious and many times less fun and interesting. The comic proceeded to be less popular than ever. Since then there has been a trend towards making Superman at once more real and more Christ-like, seizing upon the idea of Superman-as-savior that first floated to the surface in the seventies. This combination culminated in both this recent movie and in the consistently mediocre TV show "Smallville," whose premiere in 2001 featured numerous promotional images of Clark Kent stripped half-naked and tied to a post. Recently, DC has revamped Superman again, managing somehow to make the situation even worse.

For a really interesting look at the Superman mythos, one must go outside of Superman itself to Alan Moore's run on the comic Supreme. Moore, who's better known as the author of Watchmen, V for Vendetta and From Hell, took what was originally someone else's cheap knock-off of the Man of Steel and turned him into a Superman Po-Mo kaleidescope. In Moore's hands, Superman becomes not a stand-in for Jesus, but instead a metaphor for our collective 20th century disillusionment. For instance, in a flashback to the fifties (drawn in the fifties Superman style) Supreme's allies are shown a future in which instead of being plagued by powerful supervillains, the world is threatened by drug abuse, racial intolerance and fear of nuclear annihilation. After this, most of them decide to give up crime fighting; as one puts it "We fight super-foes, not social nightmares! Let's go home!"

As for the authentic Superman, to see what he can be like when freed up of the baggage of being "real" or messianic, one must look not to the movies, not to the comics, not to the live-action television shows, but instead to "Superman: The Animated Series." Here we find Superman in his element, fighting giant gorillas and robots, hanging out with New Gods and saving the world over and over again. When Superman goes toe-to-toe with Darkseid, races The Flash to see who's faster, or tricks Mr. Mxyzptlk into saying his own name backwards, you practically want to applaud.

What's that you say? Superman: The Animated Series was targeted mainly at children? Well, of course it was. It's Superman, ferchristssake. What's wrong with you people?