News Column

Rescuing Superman Is a Job for Superman

Jun 10 2013 12:22PM

Jim Beckerman

This looks like a job for Superman.

The job: Rescuing Superman.

The world's dullest superhero will - with luck - get a much- needed super-makeover when he attempts a big-screen comeback in "Man of Steel," opening Friday, with the British actor Henry Cavill as the latest guy in the red cape and blue pajamas.

This after the last big-screen reboot, "Superman Returns" (2006), grossed a disappointing $200 million domestically (the film's budget was $270 million) and was widely viewed as a snooze even by die- hard comic buffs.

"It was so boring and forgettable," says Marc Ferraro, 28, owner of Comics N' Toys in River Edge. "There was no edge to it. It was like watching a big ball bounce around."

Clark Kent's PR problem was exacerbated by "Superman Returns," but that isn't where it began.

Superman, celebrating his 75th anniversary this year, has become the super world's stodgy president emeritus. Yes, he's the first of the bona-fide superheroes. Yes, he's important and iconic - a flagship character.

But he's also a costumed boy scout, whose square personality has made him remote from the modern world. His powers have become so overwhelming through the years that writers are hard pressed to put him into believable jeopardy. Hulk, Spider-Man, and the other funky, fallible heroes introduced by Marvel in the 1960s are the real templates for Hollywood's 21st century superhero boom. Superman is more like a figurehead.

"He's very iconic looking, but he's very goody two-shoes," says Corry Brown, 36, manager of Zapp! Comics in Wayne.

He's also too well-known to retire: although DC comics did try to kill him off at least once, in 1992 (he was resurrected the following year), and he's been tweaked, rebooted and "improved" many times. The most successful modern iterations of the character have been the TV shows that have fastened on this or that secondary aspect of the storyline: the romance with Lois Lane ("Lois & Clark"), or Superman's early adventures as a super teen ("Smallville").

The new "Man of Steel" film does make every effort to retrofit Superman for 2013. The costume, now minus red briefs, has been sexed- up to emphasize ab development. The storyline, retracing his origins on the planet Krypton with his father Jor-El (Russell Crowe), and his later battles with the Kryptonian supervillain General Zod (Michael Shannon), offers plenty of scope for action and eye-candy. And yes, whenever possible, it's "dark" and "edgy."

But Superman, at the end of the day, is still Superman. It remains to be seen whether this latest incarnation will connect with audiences, the way the character undoubtedly did when he made his debut in Action Comics in April 1938. Is it the character that's changed since then? Or have we?

"The only Superman fans are people 50-plus," Ferraro says. "And 4 and under -- only because the parents buy Superman comics for their kids, out of habit."

It might be worth asking what people saw in Superman in the 1930s, to help figure out why he's such a stiff today. Here are a few things you'll notice when you turn the pages of "Superman No. 1" (available in reprints):

* He wasn't that super. He had super-strength, super-hard skin and could leap one-eighth of a mile. He could run faster than a locomotive. And that's it. He couldn't fly (he gained that power in 1941, when Max Fleischer's animators decided that a leaping Superman would look like a demented grasshopper), much less move planets out of their orbits. He was not, in short, too godlike to interact with the real world.

* He wasn't so nice. "You see how effortlessly I crush this bar of iron in my hand?" he tells one bad guy. "That bar could just as easily be your neck." Or, "I'll tear out your cruel heart with my bare hands." Perhaps inadvertently, the songwriter Jim Croce tapped this thuggish image of the Man of Steel years later: "You don't tug on Superman's cape."

* No supervillains. Who was Superman fighting in 1939? Here are the first four adventures in Superman No. 1: (1) Superman breaks up a lynch mob. (2) Superman intervenes in a domestic violence case ("You're not fighting a woman, now!"). (3) Superman teaches a lesson to an arms magnate who is lobbying Washington senators to start a war. "I'll die!" whines the arms magnate, now a soldier in the trenches. "I see!" Superman says. "When it's your own life that's at stake, your viewpoint changes!" (4) Superman comes to the aid of exploited miners.

The guys Superman fought, in the early days, were not supervillains (Lex Luthor and Brainiac came later). They were the real-life bad guys his readers were all too familiar with.

Like so many other early comic-book men, the Superman's creator Jerome Siegel and Joe Shuster were hardscrabble Jewish kids from the ghetto. "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," the affectionate Pulitzer-prize-winning novel by Michael Chabon, paints a vivid picture of the Depression-era sensibility that gave rise to comic-book saviors.

So how do we get that Superman - the tough, timely Superman of the 1930s - back? Imagine this modern equivalent: Superman, in Congress, threatens to send the walls crashing down unless elected officials get down to business. "I'll show you stonewalling!" Perhaps relevance - not super villains and special effects - is what's been missing.

"He hasn't been as relevant since the 1940s and '50s," Ferraro says. "People have trouble relating to a guy from outer space who doesn't have the same problems ordinary people do."



Super timeline: Evolution of the comics' oldest superhero

1903 "Superman," a translation of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's "Ubermensch," enters the language, via the George Bernard Shaw play "Man and Superman."

1933 Jerome Siegel and Joe Shuster, two Cleveland teens, publish a sci-fi story, "Reign of the Super-Man." This Superman is a villain.

1938 Superman, retooled as a hero, makes his debut in Action Comics No. 1. He's an immediate hit.

1939 Superman gets his own magazine.

1940 The mad scientist Luthor (he doesn't get a first name until 1960) is introduced; storylines start to be more fanciful, less topical. A "Superman" radio show debuts, introducing the cub reporter Jimmy Olsen and including the iconic words: "Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive ... ."

1941 Max Fleischer begins a series of animated "Superman" cartoons, in which the Man of Steel is first shown flying.

1945 Superboy (the adolescent Superman) debuts.

1948 First "Superman" movie serial.

1949 Kryptonite - the only substance that can weaken Superman - introduced in an effort to curb Superman's ever-expanding powers.

1952 "The Adventures of Superman" TV show, starring George Reeves, defines Superman for baby boomers.

1955 Krypto the Superdog is introduced. By now, Superman is kiddie fare.

1958 Supervillain Brainiac introduced.

1959 Supergirl introduced.

1961 Supervillain General Zod introduced.

1978 "Superman," the first of the Christopher Reeve films, relaunches Superman on the big screen.

1992 Superman is killed by the villain Doomsday. He'll be back the next year. Meanwhile, he temporarily morphs into three new characters: Steel II, Connor Kent and Cyborg Superman.

1993 TV series "Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman," is launched.

1996 Clark Kent marries Lois Lane in the comics.

2001 "Smallville," a TV show about the adolescent Superman, debuts.

2006 "Superman Returns" fails to reignite Superman on the big screen.

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(c) 2013 Record, The; Bergen County, N.J.. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.

Source: Copyright Record, The; Bergen County, N.J. 2013

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