Superman is an idea.
OK, fine. Technically he's an intellectual property—a set of data points slammed together by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in the 1930s, sold for $130 to National Allied Publications (later DC Comics/TimeWarner), and subsequently transformed into a nugget of multivariously exploitable content that has netted entertainment conglomerates trillions of dollars via cross-platform revenue-stream transmedia synergy or whatever.
Yet the bond that nerds like me feel to our internalized idea of Superman is potent and abiding. That's the nature of early onset passions: Each new comic mainlined a fresh bolus of super-wonder (Lori Lemaris! Luma Lynai! Jewel kryptonite! Beppo the Super-Monkey!) into our childhoods; we pored over and debated his adventures like so many Talmudic scholars in Toughskins.
But that's us.
Your idea of Superman—by which I mean the conception of him that floats in the cultural ether—is different. It's simpler, cleaner. And it was shaped, overwhelmingly, by the movies.
Put it this way: There's a reason my sweet, silver-haired, 79-year-old Aunt Fay asked me, upon hearing I was writing a cultural history of Superman, if my book would have General Zod in it. And that reason had nothing to do with the minor-league 1960s comic book villain, who made a handful of appearances before getting eclipsed by Jax-Ur, another Kryptonian criminal with a higher Q rating. It had everything to do with Terence Stamp in leather thigh-high boots.
It's the movies that define Superman in the public mind, while the comics merely serve up internecine backstory and endless reboots (thus ensuring that the DC Universe remains a rigidly Newtonian one, eternally defaulting to factory presets) for a small, ever-aging, ever-shrinking readership.
Which is why, like the films that have preceded it, Zack Snyder's Man of Steel has the potential to shape an entire new generation's perception of the character—for better or (see: Superman IV: The Quest for Peace) for really, really, oh my god you guys, worse.
Superman: The Movie (1978)
What it's about: Your basic bildungsroman of steel, divided into three tonally distinct acts: origin story (John Ford epic); first adventures (screwball comedy); climactic confrontation ('70s disaster film).
Best bit: The interview scene between Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder, which points up the power of Reeve's performance. His Superman is centered and calm, while Kidder's Lois is the '70s incarnate—a frayed nerve.
Worst bit: The words that greet the Man of Steel upon his first appearance are not the canonically appropriate "Look, up in the sky!" but rather, "Say, Jim! That's a bad out-FIT!" They are spoken by a pimp who makes Huggy Bear look like Jim Gaffigan.
Contribution to the zeitgeist: Christopher Reeve = Superman. Also the notion that an oft-dismissed piece of junk culture intended for children could be taken (semi-)seriously, dressed up, and turned into a blockbuster.
Super-power the filmmakers pull out of their asses: The whole spin-the-Earth backward thing. Understand, the Superman of the comics broke the time barrier on the regular. But the movie's screenwriters employed it as a cheap cop-out, engendering much dismay and debate among the type of people who care overmuch about such things. (See Superman: The Unauthorized Biography for much, much more.)
Superman II (1980)
What it's about: Just as a trio of Kryptonian super-villains in fetish gear arrive on Earth, the Man of Steel gives up his powers to get his super-freak on with Lois. Basically: You will believe a man can fuck.
Best bits: Stamp's vain and juicily imperious General Zod. Sarah Douglas's icy, proto-punk Ursa. Thigh-high boots.
Worst bits: Director Richard Lester, who took over for Richard Donner, evinces a weakness for weak slapstick, as when the villains use super-breath on the Metropolis populace, causing toupees to fly off heads, roller skaters to skate backward, ice cream scoops to fly hilariously from cones, etc.
Contribution to the zeitgeist: "Kneel before Zod!"
Super-power the filmmakers pull out of their asses: White, zappy, entirely non-canonical rays erupt from the tips of Zod and company's fingers. Superman throws a giant, S-shaped Fruit Roll-Up at various and sundry.
Superman III (1983)
What it's about: Richard Pryor is a computer programmer who invents synthetic kryptonite that (eventually) splits the Man of Steel into an evil Superman and a good Clark Kent.
Best bits: The junkyard fight between the two super-selves still holds up.
Worst bits: "Richard Pryor is a computer programmer."
Contribution to the zeitgeist: Grievously wounded the Superman film franchise, and made everything about the Man of Steel seem small, low-rent and risible.
Super-power the filmmakers pull out of their asses: The whole splitting-in-two thing actually bears a long comics provenance. So, shockingly: none.
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)
What it's about: Superman decides to rid the world of nuclear weapons, just as Lex Luthor creates an evil super-powered being who sports a blond mullet and a gold lam codpiece.
Best bits: . . . Um. Gimme a second.
Worst bits: Put it this way: Jon Cryer as Luthor's totally bitchin' New Wave nephew, Lenny Luthor, is a highlight. A HIGHLIGHT. Superman takes Lois for another flight—this time across the country—and both Reeve and Kidder spend the scene seeming embarrassed, lost, and ultimately defeated.
Contribution to the zeitgeist: Delivered a death-blow that would keep the Man of Steel off the silver screen for two decades. Also helped drive producers the Cannon Group into Chapter 11.
Super-power the filmmakers pull out of their asses: Superman repairs damage to the Great Wall of China by . . . staring at it. Spackle-vision!
Superman Returns (2006)
What it's about: Superman returns to Earth after five years away to find that Lois and the rest of Metropolis have moved on. Also, Luthor's got a real-estate scheme. Yes, another one—shut up.
Best bits: Some nice super-set pieces: Superman saves a space-plane, stops bank robbers, etc. One last Superman-Lois nighttime flight across the city strikes an interesting mournful note.
Worst bits: Director Bryan Singer's tone and imagery are so beholden to the Donner film that Superman Returns never steps out of the 1978's film shadow, and devolves into pastiche. Also, Luthor's got a real-estate scheme.
Contribution to the zeitgeist: The notion that a film can be successful (the film cost $209 million and made nearly twice that globally) but still be considered a franchise-killing failure (the studio had hoped for a final take upward of $500 million or $600 million).
Super-power the filmmakers pull out of their asses: None. Though they sure do hit the Christ imagery—something Donner introduced lightly—with an evangelical fervor.
Man of Steel (2013)
What it's about: Origin story, first adventures, Kryptonian villains. Once more, with feeling.
Best bits, anticipated: There's a lot in the trailers to make hardcore fans hopeful: the flying effects look great, as does the shot of the kid with the towel around his neck putting his hands on hips, aka The Superman Shot. Also good: the quotes lifted straight from such high-water comics stories as Grant Morrison's All-Star Superman ("You will give the people an ideal to strive towards.") and Mark Waid's Superman: Birthright ("On my world, it means ‘hope.'")
Worst bits, anticipated: Those first, fishing-boat-centered trailers looked a lot more like Superman VI: The Quest for the Deadliest Catch than anyone was expecting. Plus, the choice of Snyder—a filmmaker who makes great-looking trailers and emotionally empty movies—remains worrisome.
Contribution to the zeitgeist, anticipated: Snyder's Superman is already everywhere; merchandise featuring Henry Cavill's lantern jaw has been pumped into stores for months. This version of the Man of Steel will be the one that a generation of kids will embrace, that the popcorn-chomping multitudes will unthinkingly accept, and that the small subset of hardcore fans will passionately debate for years to come.
Super-power the filmmakers pull out of their asses, anticipated: Too soon to say, but given Snyder's penchant for displays of hypermachismo, look for Superman to stop a crime by flexing his glutes in its general direction.
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