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Sunday, April 25, 2010

Superhero Sunday: Superman

Above art by Jim Lee and Scott Williams.

Where better to start Superhero Sunday than with the hero who started it all, Kal-El known to his adoptive family as Clark Kent and in his public persona, Superman. But what person who loves superheros doesn't know this trivia? Superman's influence is pervasive. His creation is the basis for all future mega-males. No Superman means no Batman or Spiderman or . . . obvious, eh?

And, yet, in the last decade or more Superman's importance has waned and I believe this is primarily because he has been portrayed as weakened and a loser. I really think trying new approaches to superheroes is important, but in the instance of Superman, fucking with the formula means failure. Adaptation yes, overhaul no.

My hope is that the great kahuna of superheroes returns to his former days of glory. I didn't think the Brian Singer film, Superman Returns was so poor it deserved such a bad reception and the forcing of Warners to reconsider the franchise built around the character. If a film doesn't take in half a billion bucks the studio says fuck it. The unfortunate development, IMHO, is the reworking of a some of our most beloved superheros as if their histories don't exist and we need to get back-to-basics through their origin stories and their youth. This is what is happening to Peter Parker AKA Spiderman now that Sam Raimi and Toby McGuire are out of the picture. If the water isn't as sweet as you expect, go back to the well. But how many times can you go back to the beginning with one character and an audience. Would we deny Magical Mystery Tour by The Beatles and force audiences to continually hear reworkings of Meet The Beatles? Hell no.

Above art by Brazilian artist, Julio Cesar.

There is only one Superman, yes I know about the permutations, but when all is said and done--just one. Not like Green Lantern or The Flash or even Capt. America. One Superman, one Hulk, one Spidey, so there is no wriggle room to create new histories and new origins, etc. You are stuck replaying the same scenes over and over because everyone except the youngest audience--the ones the studios use as an excuse for constant refreshment--knows the character and where he came from. So what to do? As with life in general, move forward. Get a good story and run with it. Remind viewers why they are loyal to the brand of Superman and make him real again for them. We've had so many different versions of the product that the history of Clark Kent is almost inescapable.

What Superman represents is power and potency and an overall abiding belief in the goodness and worth of mankind that completely colors his character and sense of justice. He is Jesus in tights and a cape. A muscular, flying, super strong, heat-visioned, ice-breathed messiah for the mass pop market. In his early days he was as unlike normal men as was possible. Yet, he was still identifiable as someone for boys to use as a role model no matter how fantastic his feats. If you think about it, that is very much like Jesus and Hercules and Gilgamesh and every other important heroic or spiritual figure. They all share that ability to do what mere mortals can't and the strength of good character used against the chaos of the world and the consistent challenges of life. Especially, as regards man's inhumanity to man and the forces of nature.

Making Superman almost a cipher to bring interest and freshness to his story was a super mistake. We get value from the ancient heroes because their stories--legends--have tested time and won. No one owns Hercules or Perseus, but no one can base any new product using them on stripping those legendary heroes totally of their histories. So where does that leave us? On the one hand, we need to make Superman virile again and not a fuddy-duddy Goody Two-shoes in a market that overwhelmingly supports the darkness of Batman. We need the character to have the solid support of a good new story. And we really don't need to entirely reboot the franchise as if he is a teenager again. Smallville is fine, but I'd really love to see Superman, not Superboy (here, too), for a change.

Above art by Mike McKone. 

Superman is a character for the ages. Constraining and limiting his power only makes him more fallible and, in an 'at odds' with his purpose for being, turn him into a mere cartoon instead of the iconic symbol of America he had become.

Disney is retooling Mickey Mouse. Mickey came along almost a decade before Superman and he was very popular from the very start. Most notably because he starred in the first important sound enhanced animated films. Mickey, too, has lost his gleam in recent times. But the major difference between Mickey and Superman is that Disney doesn't have to rely on a history and origin story for Mickey. He is what he is. A slight, sweet and funny concoction that carries little to no heft. He is made solely for entertainment purposes and occasionally a little lesson for the kiddies. There is no overt political agenda for Mickey except as a standard bearer for the Walt Disney Company. He is like a goodwill ambassador for America. The best of what a 2D creation can offer: Honest happiness.  

Above art by Nowakoski.

Superman, on the other hand, is no longer just a few colored-in line drawings. The character has an impacting purpose just as Captain America has. He may be of alien origins, but he grew up in the heartland and was instilled with those core values, of decency and helping those in need. He is a symbol of what we are always lead to believe America and its people stand for. He has an overt political agenda. He's dressed in the two primary colors of the American flag. What he represents is our might and force and the concept that justice is, above all things, what we stand for. (Though the Bush Administration made folly of that ideal.) It isn't just ironic that as Superman has been failing, so too, has the USA. 

It would be wonderful to have the "real" Superman make an appearance on the big screen again. I'd love to be reminded of how I felt when I first saw Christopher Reeve play him at Mann's Chinese in Hollywood all those years ago. I'd love to be reminded of how I felt watching the 50's TV show. Wonder. Awe. Respect. Admiration. Excitement.

It's a bird! It's a plane! It's Superman!! Not a buffoon in blue and red with a huge "S" on his chest.



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