Friday, 8 November 2013

Hip to be Square

The dubious rubber-fetishism of 'the Bat' has never been for me, I've always been a blue tights kind of guy...

Superman is 75 this year, so it’s almost impossible to imagine a time when he wasn’t leaping tall buildings in a single bound.  The ‘Man of Tomorrow’ has had his highs and lows throughout the decades, but it’s good to be able to write about this particular pop culture icon now, at a time when he seems to be flying higher than ever. 
I've already written about the extreme relief which Man of Steel's success has been this year, and I can never suppress a wry smile when I see the current preponderance of the 'S' symbol on street wear when I'm out and about in our own Metropolis.  It's as if the old fashioned values of Superman, which had seemed to disappear under a bat-shaped shadow of cynicism and vengeance some time ago, (or was it actually a huge ‘M’ for Marvel?), have finally emerged back into the sun.  Perhaps newer generations are less inclined to shuffle uncomfortably when faced with words like truth and justice; righteous outrage and intolerance of societal ills are apparently Y-Generation traits and we should all be grateful for that.
However, the direction Man of Steel's marketing took seemed initially at odds to this proud new attitude.  Not only did we seem to have a film without the character’s name in the title and a shy teaser poster which barely even shows the ‘S’ symbol, but a trailer which cut Amy Adams off before she can even say “Superm…”  As we now know however, this apparent coyness turned out to be nothing of the kind, and all for good reason.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  I'd call myself a fan of the character, but at the same time feel somewhat fraudulent in doing so in doing so because Superman is a creation of the DC comics world, and I never read them.  With a scant few exceptions, my experience of Superman is almost exclusively through what are strictly called adaptations - in film and television. 
George Reeve was Superman when I was growing up in the mid-seventies, even if Adventures of Superman actually first screened in 1952. It wasn't unusual to have shows of this vintage screened in prime viewing slots back then, and the fact that it was one of the very first series ever to be filmed in colour probably helped (not that any of us had colour TVs yet). We didn't know or care that it was horribly dated even then.  The rushing wind sound as Superman took to the air (in the same special effects shot every time, which looked as if it had been matted with a black felt pen) and the unforgettable introduction (“ it a bird, is it a plane..”) were the most exciting thing our 15 inch black and white screen ever lost its vertical hold on.

 In years to come, a little film by George Lucas absolutely hypnotised and entranced me to the exclusion of almost all else.  So when I heard that a Superman film was coming out the following year, which according to the inevitable hype was going to be 'better than Star Wars' , I vowed to hate it there and then. I probably wouldn’t even have gone to see it, except my family, (once again, I recall it was Mum who was especially keen) dragged me along while we were away on holiday.
I’d love to report that I loved Superman the Movie on sight, but I stupidly wouldn’t let myself. I knew it was good, I could see that Christopher Reeve was the Man, but instead I picked and niggled at this magical film like the brat I was.

But two years later, we all went to see Superman II and that experience transformed me into a life-long fan in the space of 127 minutes. Yes, it’s a fabulous film (although even I came to realise not as fabulous as the first) but it was more what happened at this particular screening.  During the climactic battle in, under and above Metropolis, the whole cinema audience went crazy for Superman. Perhaps it was a little ironically intended, or maybe this spontaneous release of enthusiasm could have happened at another film - but that night everyone clapped and cheered and yelled for all they were worth.
I’d never experienced an audience responding to a film like that before and I doubt I ever will again - walking out of that cinema, with John William’s beloved score still blaring from the speakers, I felt like I wanted to fly.  “We used to cheer the cowboys at the pictures” said my Dad afterwards, “Now they’re cheering Superman!”

By the time Superman III arrived, friends and I took our girlfriends – the days of tagging along with our families were past. It was fun, but if we felt like being analytical we could see that it was very far from a good film.  And when Superman IV limped into cinemas four years later I couldn’t even find anyone prepared to see it with me, and only caught it myself many years later on VHS (not the best use I ever put my membership card to).
These were the dark years, but while everyone flocked to see Batman at the cinema, I rediscovered Superman the Movie through VHS, and with the maturing of what passed for my critical faculties I could finally appreciate it for the modern masterpiece it was.  Of course it has its faults, but the tone is absolutely right.  The world believed a man could fly back in 1978 because everyone involved in this film believed it too, particularly Director Richard Donner and his Star.  Even Brando, overweight, overpaid and unrehearsed, turns in a performance of almost preposterous gravitas and dignity.

I never really invested in Lois and Clark: the New Adventures of Superman on TV, as it always struck me as little more than a thinly-caped vehicle for Teri Hatcher’s debatable talents.  It certainly had its fans though.  When Christopher Reeve’s tragic 1995 accident was reported and someone at work gasped that Superman had broken his neck, another very young colleague cried: “Oh no, poor Dean Cain!” Similarly, Smallville never caught on with me – ten years of foreplay – really?

What did excite me was the news that the ‘Godfather of the modern superhero film’ and massive Superman fan, Bryan Singer was bringing ‘Big Blue’ back to the screen.  Everything about it sounded perfect – John William’s music: tick, a sequel which follows on from the second Reeve film and over-writes the last two: GREAT idea, a digital Brando cameo: could it get any better?
It might be surprising to contemplate that, takings–wise, Superman Returns was a huge success and there was much talk of a sequel.  However, what we saw on screen was proof that you can be too much in love with something, as Singer clearly was with the 1978 film. His ‘sequel’ actually comes across as an infatuated remake (coining the expression ‘re-quel’), as he lovingly re-crafts key scenes and even lines of dialogue from Donner’s film.  The title sequence, a 21st century reworking of the original opening, is great, and when the rare action is delivered, it hits the spot.  However, with his annoyingly undersized ‘S’, Brandon Routh comes across as more of a ‘Superboy’ and this rather ‘emo’ film has been labelled the world’s first ‘Superhero weepie’.
A limited market, to be sure…

Seven years later, Man of Steel took the exact opposite approach to Singer, treating the subject as if it had never been filmed before.  So there are no 'kisses to the past' in terms of previous films, but I'm assured that there are plenty to the mythology of the comics. And with that, I'll move on as I've probably written quite enough about this year's film in these last two posts.

I think I’m a Superman fan for two reasons, apart from three very good films.  Like Kal-El, I’m adopted and although my own special powers seem limited to emulating the creature this blog is named after, the concept of being raised by parents who didn’t bring you into this world but love you all the more for it strikes a chord with me.  Trying to adapt to a strange new environment at a very young age, as I did when we immigrated, also has resonance.
And secondly, despite my unspectacular personal record, I think it’s important to constantly strive to be better than we are. To hold yourself back from simply responding in kind to unthinking aggression and prejudice, to help others whenever you can and never give in if you believe your cause is a just one.  Man of Tomorrow is an apt name for this ‘strange visitor from another planet’ because I also believe that if we strive to live up the same ideals, we can all be super men one day.
The above images of  George Reeves, Christopher Reeve and Henry Cavill are taken from Zack Snyder's
wonderful 75th anniversary animated short - enjoy it here:

And here is my own 75th anniversary tribute (magnify to read):

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