Are Superman Films Kryptonite?

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Do you want a Man of Steel, or do you want a man that’s real?

 

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Written by Barry Benintende, a man who loves his wife, Sharon, his Terrier, Jack, jangly guitar-based power pop and insanely strong coffee. Essentially, he’s harmless

First off, thank you Peter Case for the headline (it comes from “Steel Strings” a song that will make your heart weep. If it doesn’t, go lay down, you’re most likely dead inside). I grew up reading Superman comic books. Watched the black and white TV show on Saturday mornings. Loved a superhero who was both super and a hero. In short, I want the Man of Steel. No brooding, no internal conflict. No dark soul seeking justice. Leave that stuff to the Dark Knight, Batman.

Too often, well, always actually, Hollywood gets it wrong. It’s as if the people writing, acting and directing Superman films have no clue who he is or where he is from.

He’s from Krypton originally, but that place blew up. He was raised in Smallville. On a farm. With the Kents. People who believed in “Truth, Justice and the American Way.” Superman is the good guy. He’s the squeaky clean, All-American defender of the innocent and weak against the strong and the evil.  There are people who believe he is a Christ figure, which is pretty far-fetched since the two guys that created him were both Jewish. Writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster probably had a smaller-scale savior in mind. But Clark Kent’s hidden identity is that of a man, errrr, son of Krypton, who wants to make the world a better place. The guy who everyone can turn to in their moment of need.

It’s a pretty simple formula that keeps getting bogged down in the long line of adequate to dreadful Superman films. There is a big difference between the DC movies versus their Marvel counterparts. With DC, there seems to be a constant parade of brooding superheroes who seem to spend too many nights alone, writing in their feelings journal while listening to way too much Smashing Pumpkins. With Marvel, you get a wise-cracking raccoon and a talking tree laying waste to a prison and seeming to enjoy every minute of it all. One of these is much more fun.

But I grew up favoring DC over Marvel comic books. Superman is my favorite. I have a bookcase full of graphic novels invested in Superman. I’m as close as you can get to the built-in audience that DC is looking for. But the casting has consistently been poorly chosen. Also, the scripts are bad and the villains are repetitive.

Lex Luthor is bad. Got it. General Zod is very bad. Okay. They’ve been covered, move on. Each time, the gang responsible for filming DC Comics thinks if they make it bigger, more CG-heavy, louder and with a higher body count, people will finally love us and ignite a franchise. Not with those two villains we’re not.  There’s a long history of Superman, and plenty of bad guys from which to choose.

Mongol could make for an interesting adversary. A deposed tyrannical despot, roaming the galaxy for worlds to conquer. He’s hideously strong, ruthless and he laid waste to Coast City, so he needs to pay for his transgressions. Mongol would be a solid choice.

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Brainiac in Action Comics

Brainiac would be amazing. Brainiac is the seething embodiment of artificial intelligence created by the computer tyrants of Colu. That’s an alien world where logic and knowledge reign supreme. Kind of like if Spock’s home planet of Vulcan had a violent side. But that’s a different universe. I digress. Brainiac captured an entire city, Kandor, and shrunk it down and stuck it in a bottle. He does the same thing to all of the worlds he destroys. He’s a bad guy and he does hideous things to entire planets. He’d make a great nemesis for Supe on screen.

There is also Doomsday, the guy who killed Superman. Doomsday left destruction in his wake, en route to the showdown that killed Superman. He’s evil, mean and a whole lot more menacing than than yet another round of Lex Luthor. What is left for Luthor? Put him in a more expensive suit? Make him balder? There are plenty more baddies to choose from, but only serious comic book nerds (myself included) would recognize or care to delve into those options. Suffice to say there is a real need to switch up the enemy and the challenge facing the ultimate good guy.

There’s a pressing need to have a good script. A script with some conflict and resolution that is befitting Superman. Plenty of people I talk to argue that he is too much of a good guy, too much of a Boy Scout. Some argue that he’s too difficult to play on screen. Sadly, one of them is Henry Cavill; the guy who is getting paid to play Superman. Okay, Man of Steel was too much a brood-fest with too high of a body count and not enough entertainment among all the death and destruction. Cavill looks as if he was cast because the suit fit him best.

But I can’t just pick on Man of Steel. Superman Returns was downright awful. Brandon Routh was no Clark Kent. But in fairness, Lois Lane could not have been more wrong if they hired the head of Thomas Jefferson from Mount Rushmore to play her. Instead, we got Kate Bosworth. The only worse Lois Lane was the wooden Margot Kidder. I’m going to state the obvious and say that too many times, Hollywood does a horrible job of writing roles for women. Well, in the entire Superman canon the only well-acted, decently-written Lois Lane was Phyllis Coates. She was also in the only Superman film to come close to getting Superman right: Superman and the Mole-Men.

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Superman’s First Full-Length Feature

Shot on no budget in 12 days back in 1951, Mole-Men has no special effects and was made as a lead-in to the TV series. It centers around the small town of Silsby where the world’s deepest well is being drilled. The drilling upsets an underground race of small people, who surface at night to have a look around. There’s the torch-wielding town mob lead by Luke Benson (played by Jeff Corey), with only Superman (George Reeves) standing between the little folks and the angry horde. Mole-Men has an appeal missing in all the Superman films that followed. There are actual lives at stake, actual drama that is worth investing in, and a Superman worth watching. It was also Corey’s last film before he was blacklisted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

Previously, I mentioned how Superman, and his alternate identity Clark Kent, were pretty much Boy Scouts. Well, he is, but he’s not without internal conflict. Watch Mole-Men and see a superhero having to think on his feet. A guy who has to weigh letting the invaders live, even though the folks up top are the ones who did the disturbing.

With the upcoming Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, I am hopeful they’ll finally get Superman right. At least from the trailers, it looks like Wonder Woman may finally have someone worthy of the role. Gal Gadot looks stunning in an evening gown, and bad-ass in the Wonder Woman costume. Plus, Gadot is a veteran of the Israeli Defense Force, so she can kick some real life ass. Despite all my petty whining, I will line up, plunk down good money and go see the next Superman film. And the one after that. And then another until they stop making them. I’m a sucker for superhero movies, and I pray that Hollywood gets it right.

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Author: Barry Benintende

Barry has spent his entire adult life watching movies, listening to music and finding people gullible enough to pay him to do so. As the former Executive Editor of the La Jolla Light, Editor of the South County Mail, Managing Editor of D-Town, Founder and Editor of sQ Magazine, Managing Editor of Kulture Deluxe, and Music Critic for San Diego Newsline, you would figure his writing would not be so epically dull. He has also written for the San Diego Reader, the Daily Californian, the Marshfield Mail, Cinemanian and too many other papers and magazines that have been consigned to the dustbin of history. A happily-married father of two sons and a daughter, Barry has an unhealthy addiction to his hometown San Diego Padres and the devotion of his feisty Westie, Adie. Buy him a cup of coffee and he can spend an evening regaling you with worthless music or baseball trivia. Buy him two and you’ll never get rid of him.

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