Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Superman at 80

It was nice to see Jerry Siegel and Joe Scuster credited in the latest adaptation of Superman.  The director indulged greatly in the origins of the super hero, spending an inordinate amount of time on Krypton, telling us all about the uprising and Zod's sentence to eternal darkness; as well as young Clark's boyhood years in Smallville, Kansas, with Kevin Costner playing his exceedingly earnest father.  Halfway into this epic tale we finally get to the action, which played out pretty much like Superman II only without Lex Luther around to stir the pot.

Superman was originally created in 1933 by two high school kids searching for something that would lift their spirits during the Great Depression.  The Reign of the Superman appeared in Fanzine science fiction in 1933.  Superman underwent a major metamorphosis from super villain to super hero before appearing in Action Comics  in 1938.  

Siegel and Shuster worked out a deal with DC Comics, which succeeded Action Comics.  This greatly increased the visibility of Superman, showcasing him at the New York World's Fair Comics.  This would eventually lead to Superman's television debut in 1952 and the rest as they say is history.  Initially, Superman battled the nation's many prejudices and seemed the standard bearer of FDR's New Deal, but television producers toned down the social message considerably, wanting him to appeal to everyone.  No indication that Siegel and Shuster were ever thinking of Nietzsche's Superman.

The Man of Steel seemed on the edge of oblivion until revitalized in 1978 by Richard Donner, who cast Christopher Reeve as Superman.  Marlon Brando played Kal-el's Krypton father and Terrence Stamp the notorious Zod in the second cinematic installment.  Gene Hackman was the memorable Lex Luthor.  There was a wonderful campy feeling to this Superman with a lot of humor that I would think even Siegel and Shuster enjoyed. Mario Puzo wrote the screenplay.

Frank Miller recast Superman as a corporate tool in his deeply cynical Dark Knight Returns, a graphic novel in which he reinvented Batman, who first appeared in Detective Comics in 1939.  Miller pitted the two against each other in a Battle Royale where the Dark Knight dons a high-tech exoframe to match Superman's extraordinary strength.   The Man of Steel had become hot property: the subject of a new television series, Lois & Clark, and a slough of new graphic novels, including one in which he dies.  All this seemed too much for Siegel and Shuster, who mounted a law suit to reclaim their super hero.

Superman has been rebooted so many times it is impossible to keep count, but the latest reboot falls flat.  Henry Cavill bears an uncanny resemblance to Christopher Reeve and holds his own, but the movie was much too brooding and long-winded with virtually no humor.  If the writers were so interested in exploring Superman's roots, they might have looked back ant Siegel's and Shuster's early conception, having him defend "Occupy Wall Street" demonstrators against the rampages of the corporate state, rather than resurrecting Smallville and Superman II .  Donald Trump would make the perfect Lex Luthor.

You can explore the 75 Years of DC Comics in this huge Taschen book, which was released in 2010.

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