Superman should have kept his underwear on.
Despite his status as the oldest, most iconic comic book character, few seem to be able to do Superman justice when it comes to the big screen. Internet buzz among the DC fan base revealed a high level of anticipation for Man of Steel (2013). It had disaster written all over it before the project even started. It would seem obvious to anyone except film executives: co-writer and producer Christopher Nolan has a reputation for excruciatingly complicated narrative, which promised to be a case of oil meets water for a very simple, very old, and very well-known story. This was the first bad sign. The second, even more predictable omen of failure was in the choice of hack directorZack Snyder. His one-dimensional 300 (2007) was a new, crude lesson in soulless, video game stylized juvenilia. Sucker Punch (2011) actually strove to be even worse and, incredibly enough, succeeded.
There have been only two solid cinematic treatments of this solemn American myth: Superman And The Mole Men (1951) and Superman II (1980). Superman and the Mole Men depicted Superman in exactly the way he is supposed to be, as envisioned by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. He’s a barrel-chested, steadfast believer and proponent of Truth, Justice and the American Way even in the face of social bigotries. (Though he had a lighter side, too; Superman was probably at his zaniest, funniest and most surreal in Jack Kirby’s spinoff “Superman’s Pal: Jimmy Olsen”). It works, despite the film’s being undeniably dated, and despite the threadbare budget which resulted in clunky makeup and special effects (such as a souped up vacuum cleaner subbing for a ray gun). It is in Superman’s very first feature film that the filmmakers (a ragtag team of assignment types, including director Lee Shalom, who went onto work in television) captured the rudimentary essence of a decidedly unpretentious character. Preceding the Man of Steel’s first feature were the art deco Fleischer Brothers animated shorts (1941-1943), the noirishradio show “The Adventures of Superman” (1940-1951, starring Bud Collyer as the voice of Superman) and two 1950 theatrical serials, Superman (1948) and Atom Man vs. Superman (both starring Kirk Alyn). All of these productions were true in spirit to the original “Superman magazine.”
The first season of the televisions series “The Adventures of Superman” (1953-1958) continued the edgy noir flavor of the radio show from which it took its name. Like Superman and the Mole Men, the series starred George Reeves as the quintessential Clark Kent and Phyllis Coates as the equally quintessential, feisty Lois Lane. Possessing virtuous fire, Coates’ Lane still has not been surpassed. Unfortunately, the show’s producers, believing virtuousness was not compatible with fire, decided the way to make the show more “kid friendly” was to replace Coates with the hopelessly “Leave it to Beaver”-styled virgin Noel Neill. That wasn’t the only change. While the second season did have a few good episodes, the saccharine quickly began to set in. The series, low budget to begin with, dissipated into embarrassing Ed Wood territory in budget, writing and acting. Mercifully, it came to an end, albeit through the tragedy of Reeves’ suicide.
The next screen incarnation came with the mega hit Superman (1978) starring Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder. It was, by and large, a bloated, unimaginative affair, although it did have fleeting moments of charm. Superman II was far better for having bypassed the redundant origin narrative. Superman II has a host of great villains (Terence Stamp as Zod, the underrated Sarah Douglas as Ursa, and Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor). Clark Kent, stripped of his powers for the sake of love (the priestly Superman must remain celibate, of course), is far more than a bumbling oaf, and succeeds in winning our empathy in his fight to regain what he has lost.