Lightning in a Bottle

Time for a change of pace this week, as I take a few moments to expand at length to a question from reader Jeff Flannigain.

Jeff, you have the floor:

As always, I look forward to your columns every week. Nice to know there are other geeks out there like me despite what my wife tells me!

I have a question for you, and perhaps fodder for a future column. My brother-in-law found a 1978, 200-piece Christopher Reeve Superman puzzle at a rummage sale, and bought it for me for $3.00. He’s out of work so I’m going to put it on Ebay for him because I figure it can fetch more than that and be put to better use than hanging on my wall!

But it made me nostalgic for the movie so I popped the Blu-Ray in and watched it (and my wife and daughter are gone so cranked up in glorious surround sound) and found myself on the verge of tears on certain scenes. The final talk between Pa Kent and Clark especially, just because my best friend’s dad is in hospice right now and it obviously strikes a chord.

So my question to you is, with the new Man of Steel movie coming out and a jacked up Henry Cavill looking more than adequate physically for the role…do you think the new movie will be able to find the heart?

I mean, I think for guys our age (I just turned 38) there’s a nostalgia factor involved when we talk about the first Superman, but I also think the two reasons the movie’s held up all these years is 1) Christopher Reeve and B) the heart. Sure, the new movie will have all the newfangled special effects and this and that…but will it be able to capture the heart that made the first one so beloved and, dare I say, eternal?

I’d be interested in hearing your take on it. And my God, with the move to make all superhero outfits allegedly “realistic” (SEE: the new Amazing Spider-Man) and with texture and this and that…can they just look at Christopher Reeve and see that simple works better? The man was a Greek god in that simple, spandex outfit — and totally believable to boot. I think we’ll be hard pressed to ever see another superhero movie where the main character looks like he walked right off the page as Christopher Reeve did. God rest his soul.

That’s a tough one, Jeff. It’s no secret how much I love Richard Donner’s original SUPERMAN film. For many years it stood, hands down, as the best adaptation of comics to film, and even in recent years with the releases of SPIDER-MAN 2, THE ROCKETEER and THE AVENGERS, it still always manages to make it to my Top 3.

But the thing about Superman that’s tricky is, that movie is an anomaly. Why did it succeed when all the other attempts have failed? Is it something about the character that the other films failed to capture, some ineffable quality. Or was it just bad luck and a series of bad movies?

SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE succeeded for a variety of reasons: it was the perfect storm of a director and screenwriter in Richard Donner and Tom Mankiewicz who really understood, loved and most important, respected the source material, combined with a cast of actors that from top to bottom looked like they stepped off the comic-book page yet knew to play the characters as real, not as caricatures. Donner also understood that the film required not just one tone, but three: cold, remote and mournful for the Krypton sequence, pastoral Americana for the Smallville section, and a snappy, more upbeat feel for Metropolis. It’s almost like three movies, but it works.


If you’ve seen one of the many documentaries about the making of the film, you’ve no doubt heard about Donner’s slogan for the production: “Verisimilitude!” Meaning that the priority was to make the world in which Superman lives seem as real as possible, so that the one unbelievable element, Superman himself, could be more easily accepted.


And of course, there was the movie’s secret weapon: Christopher Reeve. The whole film falls apart if you see him in that costume and not only don’t believe he’s Superman, but don’t genuinely like him. A character as uber-powerful, as godlike as Superman could easily seem like a jerk or a bully, but with that grin and the humility and sweetness that Reeve imbues in the character, the viewer makes a connection with Superman on a human level that makes the whole thing hold together.


Unfortunately, Reeve by himself wasn’t enough to keep the magic going. The seams start showing in SUPERMAN II after Richard Donner was fired by moron producers the Salkinds, and new director Richard Lester clearly has no interest in keeping the story real, seeing Superman as “just a cartoon.” Since Donner had filmed a sizable portion of the film already, even Lester couldn’t screw up this movie entirely; there’s enough of Donner’s influence to make SUPERMAN II enjoyable, despite some of the film’s sillier or more clueless moments.

Lester was able to show just how tone-deaf he was in SUPERMAN III, an unlikable farce that was more about Richard Pryor than Superman, dispensed with most of Superman’s supporting cast and is most notable for its famous scene of Superman fighting his own darker self in a vicious junkyard battle, a sequence which once again is more a credit to Reeve’s talent than anything else. And as bad as SUPERMAN III is, SUPERMAN IV, THE QUEST FOR PEACE is even worse, a preachy mess of poor writing, horrible effects and bad choices, in which even Reeve can’t create a salvageable moment of grace. The third and fourth films simply have no heart. Without heart, without a Superman you can believe in, you’re just watching a guy in blue tights run around in front of a green screen.

I’ll give Bryan Singer some credit for his SUPERMAN RETURNS; his heart was in the right place. He obviously loved the Donner film; maybe a little too much. But even Singer’s almost slavish devotion to Donner’s work couldn’t save a mishmash of a script whose biggest problem was that it depended on Superman doing two very un-Superman-like things: abandoning Earth for five years, and having a son and leaving him to someone else to raise. Even Christopher Reeve couldn’t make that work, and hard as Brandon Routh tried, he was no Christopher Reeve.


So with all that in mind, what can we expect from MAN OF STEEL? Honestly, it’s really hard to say. Chris Nolan as producer and David Goyer as screenwriter certainly give the film an expectation of quality, if nothing else, based on their tenure with Nolan’s BATMAN films. But as good as Nolan’s BATMAN films are, sentimentality and emotion aren’t the first things that spring to mind. And with director Zack Snyder at the helm, it’s hard to really predict that he’ll bring the heart necessary to make Superman as relatable as Donner and Reeve did. After all, while every one agrees that his 300 and WATCHMEN are technically very proficient, it’s a real stretch to call them heartwarming.

Do I think MAN OF STEEL will be enjoyable? By all means. But will it be the definitive SUPERMAN movie?

Will I believe a man can fly?

I did once, thirty-four years ago. I’d love to believe it again. Ask me again next June.

Scott Tipton knows one thing, and that is that he is here for a reason. If you have questions about Superman or comics in general, send them here.

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