Wednesday, June 9, 2010


This is no fantasy, no careless product of wild imagination.

Superman is almost single handedly responsible for the way superhero movies are made. The cost of the movie (due the absence of computer generated graphics), however, prevented anything like it from being achieved until X-Men, 20 years later. Only a few intervening movies were any good: Superman II, Batman, and Batman Returns is the entire list.

Batman and it’s sequels are not made in the same style as Superman is. For one thing, Gotham doesn’t look like any city in North America. For another, it has a very different story structure, with Batman and the Joker have intertwined history. Indeed, Batman’s distinctness from Superman is considered to be a strength of the movie. I remember reading an interview in a magazine helpfully called Comics Interview where some of the writers who worked on the movie talk about how the early scripts followed the Superman formula. (It’s a great issue with interviews of Bob Kane, Sam Hamm, and many others.)

The Superman formula is thus:

  • First show the superhero growing up
  • Second: show the defining moment(s) of why he or she is a superhero
  • Third: A training montage or it’s equivalent
  • Fourth: The superhero finally gets to interact with the supporting cast we already know about. They meet everyone for the first time again.
  • Fifth: At some point during all of this, the main villain begins plotting and starts execution of the plot. Superman introduces Lex Luthor fairly late in the movie. Today though, we recognize the importance of a good villain and introduce them earlier. Sometimes, they’re seen on screen before the hero is.

Many superhero origin stories barrow elements from this formula. Batman Begins plays with time (showing events out of order via flashbacks), but it has the first, second, and third elements. Live action filmmakers don’t like (or don’t have permission) to use Batman’s supporting cast (their mostly other costumed vigilantes with complicated origin stories) so the forth element isn’t as prominent because only two of Batman’s supporting cast manage to make it to all the various live action adaptations: Commissioner Gordon and Alfred Pennyworth.

Superman, however, has faithfully followed this format. Admittedly, in his first appearance his origin was was a panel. However, he got an expanded origin (a whole page!) in the first issue of Superman (which was otherwise a compilation of his Action Comics appearances.) The newspaper strip spent a week on it, and it became the template for the first episode of Superman’s radio adventures, the opening to the first Max Flesher cartoon, the first episode in the movie serial, and the first TV episode of the George Reeves series. And when John Byrne revamped Superman in the 80s? It started with a mini-series detailing his origin. (To be fair to Byrne, it didn’t have quite all the elements of the formula described above.)

While I’m at it, Superman: The Animated Series started with a three part origin story following the formula above. And Smallville, a live action TV series dedicated the Superman formula, is going to start it’s 10th season this fall.

I’m not a big fan of the formula, but the Superman movie does it well. I a big Superman fan and I gotta tell you, when I watch that movie I really do believe a man can fly. The effects are so superior to everything that happened before in live action. The montage of Superman being a badass works great. Lex Luthor’s plan is, frankly, so freaking crazy it just might work. (O.k. that’s not true. Seriously, if he actually owns that must property east of the San Andreas fault, doesn’t he think people will catch on? I’m not even going to bring-up geology. I don’t expect Superman to follow physics, I don’t expect Luthor to follow geology.)

The strict chronology of the movie (no flashbacks, no B storyline requiring moving back and forth in time), delivering crazy dialogue earnestly is probably the hallmark of the formula. You either by into the premise, or you don’t. Me? I buy in. Repeatedly. Why? Because it is done well. If someone wanted to create a new superhero using the Superman formula, it’s be a commercial and critical flop. But Donner understands that parodies are a dime a dozen. Ernest adaptations of Superman done in a naturalistic style were nonexistent. Naturalism is the predominate style in American cinema, if you want to be taken seriously while still making a fantasy movie, naturalism is pretty much your only option. (Just watch the old Superman movie serial where many of the special effects are animated. Because of that, many of the special effects pop out at the viewer and it can be quite jarring.)

So ernest is the way to go. Donner filmed on location in New York, making use of the New York Times. He used established actors like Marlon Brando to great effect. Hackman hams it up as Luthor, but otherwise delivers a fairly good performance. What saves Hackman is Reeve. They act on different ends of the spectrum.

How it should have ended

First, we need to get the Youtube clip out of the way. Second, we need to understand that not only are they right, but Richard Donner agrees with them. (Well, sort of.) Apparently the original plan was to have Superman stop both missiles. Flying around the world backwards to change time was going to be in Superman II. (And, as lame as flying around the world backwards to change time is, it’s still better than the “superkiss.”) I’m going to take a stand and go on record that stopping both missiles is the better ending. (It’s the right thing to do.) First, it doesn’t require, late into the movie, that we buy a hereto unknown superpower. It only requires that Superman uses the powers we all agree that he has.

The new era

Back in 2000 when X-Men came out, me and all my friends knew that the movie was going to suck. Marvel had a particularly poor track record with live action. (Anyone remember that Spider-Man TV show? Yeah, me too…) Comic book movies suck, it was axiom. Superheroes were regulated to animation. The X-Men cartoon from the 90s, Batman: The Animated Series, it’s DCAU offspring, all of those were acknowledged masterpieces. But, being the geeks we are, we all knew we were going to see it. Heck, I went to see it and I hate the X-Men with a blind seething passion typically reserved for Microsoft products.

As it turns out, the only time I went to the San Diego Comic-Con was when X-Men was out. I saw it a second time at one of my favorite theaters, the UA at Horton Plaza. There I remember seeing Harry Knowles at a panel (oddly, I’d never heard of Ain’t It Cool News at the time. I learned about it from seeing him in person) and he described how stunned he was when X-Men was good. He might as well been reading my thoughts on the movie out loud.

X-Men is the antithesis of Superman. Superman is an origin story. The X-Men were created so Stan Lee wouldn’t have to come-up with origin stories. Superman was about a single powerful superhero in a world without them. The world in X-Men is populated by hundreds of people with superpowers. Superman’s costume looks the one in the comic book. The X-Men went from yellow spandex in the comics, to black leather in the movie.

X-Men rejects the Superman formula (because it wouldn’t work) and uses a typical “let’s introduce the new guy into the group” plot that works so well for large ensemble casts. (Heck, it’s the plot to the first X-Men comic. Though the new guy is Marvel Girl Jean Grey.)

Ironically, Spider-Man follows the Superman formula. I say ironic because Spider-Man is a Marvel superhero (like the X-Men), but he’s often Superman’s opposite. That said, he’s the most like Superman. The one element of the formula that’s significantly different is the introduction of the supporting cast. All of them, except the Bugle staff, is introduced prior to Parker become Spider-Man.

Superman is my favorite superhero. It wasn’t always thus. I first started reading him when in high school. I followed the Death of Superman in the comics and even wore the black armband a few days. But this movie remains my least favorite interpretation of the character, in part because the Clark Kent character is so boring. This makes the movie hard to watch, because Clark gets so much screen time compared to Superman. My favorite interpretation of the character remains the first season of Lois and Clark. In that show, Clark was a fully developed character and interesting to watch. It’s great to watch.

You can imagine my dismay when I found out that Superman Returns would be an continuation of the original movie. I don’t want to dump on Routh, he did a great job considering what he was asked to do, but I just didn’t want to see the Reeve version of the character resurrected. Read one of the many, many reprints of Superman #1 and you’ll see a character very different from what was on TV in the 50s or on screen in 1978 or 2006. When that Superman is paired with an interesting Clark Kent like the one from Lois and Clark, you have a very interesting superhero.

It is now time for you to rejoin your new world and to serve its collective humanity.

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