Every time a modern-day Superman movie fails to meet box office expectations, the excuse circulated amongst critics, both professional and amateur, usually goes a little something like this:
“There just isn’t a place for Superman anymore. He doesn’t fit in to today’s world.”
They make Superman increasingly dark with each film he appears in, believing this to be what audiences want, because hey, it worked for Batman, right?
Well, yes, it did work for Batman, because Batman, from the start, was a lawless vigilante who stalked criminals in a costume deliberately designed to strike terror into their hearts. He lived in the shadows, blending in with them, becoming the night.
That’s who Batman was in the beginning, and Tim Burton’s Batman resonated so hard because it restored the character’s original mythos to public consciousness. For years, people had associated Batman with the wonderfully demented, over-the-top, vibrantly colored BIF POW BAM self-aware camp of the Adam West TV series(Which I love).
Yes, I’m aware of Frank Miller’s “Dark knight returns” and I’m also aware that Batman comics had gotten dark again by the early ’70s. Comic book readers knew about all that stuff. The general public did not . Batman was Batmaaaaaaaan.
After awhile, of course the franchise went to shit, the undkindest cut of all being delivered by 1997’s Batman And Robin. The essence of the original character was completely gone by that point. The real Dark Knight’s onscreen adventures had found a new home, on TV, in the form of the now-classic Batman: The Animated Series.
Years pass by and Batman is considered dead, at least cinematically. Until…wait for it…Until Christopher Nolan makes a Batman film true to the essence of the original character. The public eats it up.
“Hey,” says somebody in a suit to some other guys in suits, “Batman is back. Maybe it’s time to do Superman again!”
First movie flops. He’s not dark enough! Make him more like Batman!
Man Of Steel comes and goes quietly, fails to re-ignite the Supermania of decades past. “Ok, let’s try this one more time, but with Batman and Doomsay and the formation of the Justice League and…” etc, etc, etc.
They don’t get it. 1978’s Superman, iconically starring Christopher Reeve, was a massive success because it remained true to the foundation of the character.
There’s an undercurrent of cheese running through that first film, but it’s intentional. It’s self-aware. It’s not “a product of its time.” 70s cinema was darker and grittier than it is even now(Taxi Driver, anyone? Death Wish? Rocky? The Warriors? Alien?), so it definitely wasn’t “a more innocent time.”
Richard Donner knew what he was doing. The film is largely nostalgia-based. He took the Superman of the golden age of comics and translated it to the modern age of film. Sure, they tossed Marlon Brando in for some extra star power, but it would’ve been just fine without him(not so much without Gene Hackman, who is absolutely brilliant in the film). The movie had heart, it had hope, and it had a hero.
Donner’s Superman wasn’t a tortured, brooding antihero who constantly questioned himself and his role in the universe. He had some of these issues, but it was an angle used sparingly, just enough to make the character relatable.
Reeve was Superman. He might have had his hands full at any given time, saving the Earth from destruction and whatnot, but he always had time to rescue a kitten from a tree.
Naturally, the studio fucked up the franchise as time went on, just as they would Batman years later.
Superman Returns and Man Of Steel weren’t great films by any means, but they were alright, and better, by far, than Superman IV: the Quest For Peace which I’m not going to spend any more time taking about.
If there is ever to be another successful Superman film, and I’m not talking respectable box office numbers, here, I mean the rebirth of a cultural phenomenon, then it must embrace the wide-eyed all-American Boy Scout wholesomeness of the character and weave it into a story that today’s audiences will understand.
There’s no need to focus on his flaws and internal struggles, his self-doubt…not everything has to be so fucking edgy. Turn on the lights, hose off the grime and make the quintessential Superman flick, already. You’ve had since 1980, for crying out loud.