Superman: How To Rescue a Rusting Man-of-Steel

Posted by Michael Pinto on Dec 1, 2009 in Comic Books |

Action Comics #366: A reality TV show isn't the way to fix Superman!

Above: A reality TV show isn’t the way to fix Superman…

he Superman LogoSadly the Superman franchise is on hold as Hollywood waits for the legal chaos to clear up. But the larger issue facing our superhero a creative one: The seventy year-old franchise is in desperate need of a makeover.

The first problem that you notice with Superman is that he always performs better on the small screen than in theaters. If you look back at the 50s TV show with George Reeves they had time to have fun with the characters; and if you look at Smallville today the series has been running since 2001 and is well loved. This gives a vital clue: The danger of Superman is that within the limits of a few hours the man-of-steel runs the danger of becoming a flat character devoid of any substance.

Entering the No-Fly Zone

Having Superman Fly Like Peter Pan is a Bad IdeaThe trick with making a Superman film fun is to focus on his flaws rather than on his superpowers — in fact the smartest thing a writer might do is to strip a few of those powers away to make him more realistic. Start off with killing his ability to fly, a power comes off to modern audiences as just a bit too Peter Pan. Instead allow him some raw strength, but make him just a notch the above average human. And while it’s fun ad in the back of a comic book, drop the x-ray vision. In other words make him the equal of the Six Million Dollar Man minus the cybernetics.

Although the one strength to play up is his brain power. Criminals take shortcuts and can be dumb, so why not emphasize his brain power? In fact let him fight a bad guy as Clark Kent holding back his superpowers and play up his secret identity issues. Also Clark Kent is more sympathetic when he’s not such a winner in the real world, in fact he’s at his best when Lois Lane is blowing him off.

Don’t Skimp On the Supporting Cast

Casting a great character actor like Gene Hackman cast as Lex Luthor was a brilliant move.

Above: Casting a great character actor like Gene Hackman cast as Lex Luthor was a brilliant move.

Noel Neill as Lois Lane, 1948Another important thing about Superman is that the comic book isn’t just about him — to pull off a film you’d have to reinvent Lois Lane. Lois needs to shake off the damsel-in-distress routine. In fact maybe give her Perry White’s gig as the boss, let her wear the pants for a change.

And while we’re at it Jimmy Olsen needs to graduate from being a flunky second stringer. Yes allow him to have flaws, but if you’re going to capture a twentysomething audience you can’t portray your demographic as comedy relief. To make Superman work you’ve got to reflect the world of today — and yes, if it’s now the year 2009 maybe the gang should be at least working at a cable news network instead of an old fashioned newspaper?

Let’s Do The Time Warp Again

Superman: The Mechanical Monsters (1941)

Above: Superman: The Mechanical Monsters from 1941 has an amazing steampunk feel — so why not play these retro qualities up?

In fact even assuming that a film should take place in 21st Century America might be a mistake. The comic book was first published in 1938 so a great way to get back to basics might be to set a film at the worst point of the Great Depression. Superman in the context of a world without hope just makes much more sense — in a world of cell phones there aren’t any phone booths to get changed in the nick of time.

The Max Fleischer Superman cartoons inspired anime directors years later.The other reason you’d to reinvent Superman is that there is a glut of too many superhero special effects films, the market is just too crowded and that makes ticket buyers jaded. You need a new angle to stand out, in fact one of the best Superman films weren’t even live action — if you look at the animated Max Fleischer cartoons from the 40s they still hold up in so many ways. In Japan a great comic book always winds up as an anime film or TV series, so why not do a full length feature animated film with Superman? But instead of making it for kids, focus on an older audience and do somethng on the level of sophistication that you see in an anime film.

Saving a Superhero Requires Risks

What's needed is the sort of risk taking like we see in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller

Above: What’s needed is the sort of risk taking like we see in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller.

Of course I’m just a lowly fanboy with an opinion who holds a humble day job in Metropolis, but it’s obvious that Hollywood needs to get back and refocus on the creative aspect of the franchise. To save Superman you’ve got to find a way to engage the everyman, and his sidekick fanboy who will drag him and his buds to the theater on opening night. It’s not enough to assume that the name Superman is a license to print money, in fact a bad film could do more harm to our caped hero than all of the kryptonite in the world.

Below: In Action Comics #386 from 1970 poor Superman settles in for a cranky retirement.

Action Comics #386

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