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The Krypton Factory
Superman's Return
by J.C. Hartley

In 2006, Superman Returns took its place as a seamless extension of the original movie franchise that began in 1978. That this should have happened is surprising, considering the tangled history of the Superman films that never were and their close shadowing of events in the comic-book titles recording the adventures of the Man of Steel.

The film that had effectively killed the original franchise was the straight to the Phantom Zone disaster Superman IV: The Quest For Peace (1987), produced by Golan-Globus' Cannon Films in association with Warner Bros. The $40 million budget that Warners had given Cannon was, allegedly, siphoned off to fund other projects resulting in some of the worst special effects in the series. This film is credited with putting an end to Superman as a viable project, but the comedic Superman III (1983) had done only so-so at the box-office, and had been more about director Richard Lester having a big budget for spectacular sight-gags than advancing the mythology. Clever postmodern pieces of irony inserted into action movies maybe make filmmakers feel good but rarely work with audiences, so credit to Richard Lester for sticking to what he knew. The opening sequence to Superman III is a piece of comedy genius in which Superman is called upon to salvage an escalating scale of disaster set in motion by his own bumbling alter ego Clark Kent, but in that ironic sequence the whole preposterous conceit is questioned, to what degree may the dangerous situations the Earth faces be laid at Superman's feet? A similarly ironic disaster sequence featured in the disappointing Fantastic Four, where The Thing and the rest of the team are called upon to save lives after Ben Grimm's appearance has triggered a huge traffic pile-up. The other ironic situation mooted by Superman III occurs when Richard Pryor, fooling around with skis and a 'cape' made by knotting a towel around his neck (something in every kid's repertoire), slides off evil industrialist Robert Vaughn's skyscraper roof, only to glide Harold Lloyd-like to safety onto the sidewalk, prompting the question, later to be brought up in Superman Returns, who needs Superman?

Richard Lester had been involved with the franchise since the second picture, predictably titled Superman II. Lester was brought in when producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind fell out with original director Richard Donner, who had made the groundbreaking first movie. Donner claimed he had walked under pressure to increase the film's 'camp' factor, the Salkinds cited escalating budgets, in fact the films were being shot back to back but Donner was forced to pause three-quarters through the second film to attend to pressing post-production on the first. Lester came in on the picture, added some business, reshot some of Donner's footage (Gene Hackman refused re-shoots and Brando would have been too expensive), and did indeed camp things up a tad. Donner's version, or as much of it as could be edited together, has been released as part of the Christopher Reeve: Superman DVD boxset after fan pressure on Warner Bros. Donner is currently producing a Superman comic book story-arc with writer Geoff Johns, starting with Action Comics #844: Last Son, apparently based around a movie idea they unsuccessfully pitched to Warners during the years of creative hell we are about to explore.

Cannon hoped to continue with a fifth Superman movie, but with Christopher Reeve calling it a day Cannon ended their interest, and original producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind, who had been behind a syndicated TV show of Superboy, which ran from 1988-92, regained the rights. The Salkinds' project, imaginatively known as 'Superman: The New Movie', was to feature Brainiac as the villain and was written by comic-book writer Cary Bates and Mark Jones, and was to feature the pregnancy of Lois Lane. Christopher Reeve still declined to become involved and the rights had lapsed before the film could move into production.

By 1992 movie rights were once again held by DC Comics now a division of Warner Bros Entertainment Incorporated. What followed was a period in which myriad versions of single Superman movies, and series of Superman movies, were batted around between various producers, directors and screenwriters. What distinguished these scripts was that many of the people involved were genuine comic-book fans, including 'ordinary' fan Alex Ford, who ruefully ended up identifying the profits to be made from merchandising as one of the major reasons comicbook movies came to be made. Some major screenwriters were to be involved, including Jonathan Lemkin, who went on to write The Devil's Advocate (1997), Lethal Weapon 4 (1998), and Red Planet; writer-director Kevin Smith; and Tim Burton, whose dark Batman (1989) was the forerunner of today's psychological screen treatments of superheroes.

Jonathan Lemkin, whose previous work in TV included 21 Jump Street, remembered for jump-starting Johnny Depp's career, and rich-kids soap Beverly Hills, 90210, was brought onboard the new 'Superman' project by Jon Peters, producer for Warner Bros of Tim Burton's Batman outings. Lemkin's script for 'Superman Reborn' featured Superman's death at the hands of Doomsday, the transmigration of his soul into Lois Lane, the birth of Lois' son and his rapid maturation, Lois' death, and her progeny taking his place as the new Superman. Lemkin admitted he was going for a tongue-in-cheek approach paralleling what he saw as Joel Schumacher's 'camp' approach to Batman Forever (1995) and Batman And Robin (1997); Warner Bros were unconvinced, and Lemkin left the project. Gregory Poirier, a writer from the Warner Bros stable, was brought in to work on the script, which ended up incorporating Brainiac as well as Doomsday and still featured the death and resurrection of the Man of Steel. It was Poirier's script that Kevin Smith inherited; a genuine fan, it seems Smith was asked for input which resulted in him providing a completed script, with Brainiac and Lex Luthor joining forces, and Superman still dying at the hands of Doomsday before being revived by The Eradicator, the humanoid version of an ancient Kryptonian device which has cropped up in various story arcs in the Superman mythos.

All seemed set for a 1998 release to celebrate not only the 60th anniversary of Action Comics #1 but the 20th anniversary of Superman: The Movie. 'Superman Lives' was to be directed by Tim Burton, and bizarrely feature Nicolas Cage as Superman; however Burton's first act was to drop the Kevin Smith script and hire his own man, Wesley Strick from Batman Returns, but when Strick was fired Burton himself supervised a script written by Dan Gilroy. It was at this point with uncertainty at the box office, complaints from fans, the departure of Tim Burton following delays, and budget concerns, that comic fan Alex Ford provided his own script 'Superman: The Man Of Steel', a back-to-basics revision featuring Luthor and the Kryptonite-hearted robot Metallo. Invited to Warner Bros, Ford provided a grandiose scheme involving seven films, which would culminate once again in the death and resurrection of Superman; not surprisingly Warners failed to buy into Ford's vision but purchased his treatment to be on the safe side.

Superman projects stuttered for a while with film magazine and internet rumours fuelling the fires; there was a definite maybe with 'Batman vs. Superman' to be directed by Wolfgang Petersen of Air Force One (1997) and The Perfect Storm (2000), and written by Andrew Kevin Walker of Se7en, and Akiva Goldsman whose writing credits included Lost In Space (1998), but Petersen's helming of Troy put paid to that.

That many of these scripts followed storylines appropriated from the comics, notably Superman's 'death' at the hands of the eugenically evolved Kryptonian killing-machine Doomsday, as created by Dan Jurgens, the development of the Superman and Lois Lane romance, or featured long-term characters like Brainiac, Metallo and Jack Kirby's Darkseid, showed at least an awareness of how the character had developed since its origins, and how different the reality of comics was to its time-warped appearance on the big screen, and yet it was to be a version of that parallel postwar world that eventually made it to cinemas in Superman Returns.

By 2001 there had been more script ideas many of which reflected current fads and genre trends rather than Superman's own personal mythology, Tim Burton was out of the picture, as was Nicolas Cage, when Joseph 'McG' McGinty Nichol, fresh from Charlie's Angels (2000), was brought on board by writer and producer and comic fan J.J. Abrams, who had written Armageddon (1998). Abrams wanted Superman to be centre-stage in a new revisionist trilogy.

'Superman 1' featured an invasion of Earth by an army from Krypton, and Lex Luthor as a CIA agent and undercover Kryptonian, as well as more established characters and situations. Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, the follow-up action adventure, would have delayed McG's involvement, and as the production ball had started rolling Brett Ratner was drafted in to helm the new Superman. Anthony Hopkins of the Hannibal Lecter picture Red Dragon, directed by Ratner, was cast to give Superman's father Jor-El the necessary gravitas, and trailers featuring the Superman 'S' logo had Hopkins intoning the lines that Marlon Brando used as Jor-El, in Superman: The Movie, the quasi-New Testament tosh about sending Earth his 'only son'. The difficulties continued however, with a script leak, and negative reactions from internet fan-sites; Ratner left after arguments with producer Jon Peters. While Abrams remained, McG's return was short-lived as he refused to fly to Australia where it was planned to film; just when this latest incarnation of Superman seemed destined to follow the others, the project was saved by the timely intervention of boyish director and fan favourite Bryan Singer.

Singer has shown a golden touch in a relatively short career, the crime thriller with a twist The Usual Suspects (1995) won a sackful of awards, Apt Pupil (1998) was a controversial piece about the lure of evil through a teenager's relationship with a fugitive Nazi, but what won Singer the plaudits of comicbook fandom was his treatment and direction of the Marvel mutant movies X-Men and X2, which despite or because of Singer's lack of interest in comics managed to acknowledge the history of the source material while re-packaging it for a new audience. The films naturally didn't satisfy everyone; actor Freddie Prinze Jr (Scooby-Doo) deplored the concessions the comic later seemed to make to accommodate changes manifested by the film treatments. New head of Warner Bros, Alan Horn offered Singer the opportunity to direct 'Superman Lives' and he accepted but with a new script concept that eventually became Superman Returns.

Interestingly with Singer's departure to Metropolis, Brett Ratner took over the helm at X-Men: The Last Stand, which the former had been preparing to direct; 20th Century Fox's desire to somehow spike Singer's guns, by rushing the sequel X-Men production into early release, has been cited by some as one of the reasons for the latter film's critical shortcomings.

Superman Returns emerged to great success as an almost seamless continuation of the original two films, the third and fourth films in the sequence being tactfully ignored, as having added nothing to the mythos, and being at best comedy vehicles for the co-stars, and at worst embarrassing disasters. The decision to follow this path was certainly an easier option than having to revisit the kind of origin story that took up so much time in Batman Begins (and ended up, in the Asian sequences, resembling the 1994 movie version of The Shadow, unless this was an intentional homage to the comicbook Batman's pulp predecessor). The youthful fans that saw the original Superman films of 1978 and 1980 may reasonably be expected to be parents themselves, and appreciate the continuity, and there was a nod in the direction of Superman's origins in that, as the new film begins, Superman has been searching deep space for the remains of his home planet of Krypton, and crash-lands back on Earth in a fireball to be found, once again, by his adoptive mother Martha Kent. Having abandoned revisionist tinkering, and the 'Superman Begins' road, it seems pertinent to ask what Singer brought to the story that was new, and to what extent the film would still speak to fans of the comic.

The first major event in what we might term the 'pulp' Superman's modern incarnation, was the 'retconning' (basically reconception) of the character, that followed publisher DC's 1985 Crisis On Infinite Earths maxi-series, which itself was designed to simplify a comicbook multiverse that had grown out of control, with parallel Earths invented in part to rationalize contradictory origin myths, and plot inconsistencies, that had grown up over the so-called golden and silver ages of comics. Worlds and heroes were sacrificed to simplify DC's roster of super-beings, and following this the way was open in 1986 for writer and artist John Byrne to re-imagine Superman's beginnings. The irony of these exercises is that they are more often than not commercially driven, designed to boost readership to a flagging title or line, and the changes and initiatives introduced may just as easily be reversed by subsequent writers; in 2004 Mark Waid wrote the limited series Birthright, which restored some of the elements Byrne had modified. In 1993 Superman was killed and then reborn, in a move that boosted sales and captured the national imagination, with the American media taking the opportunity to engage in some state-of-the-nation soul-searching.

In 1996 Superman's alter ego Clark Kent married long-time sweetheart Lois Lane, after revealing his true identity, this event was delayed in the comic to allow the Lois & Clark TV series to catch up, but the storyline itself had been delayed for over 50 years. A year after his own wedding, Superman creator Jerry Siegel, in a story that introduced the K-Metal from Krypton, which would re-emerge in the Superman radio series three years later, and in the comic in 1949, as Kryptonite, had Superman reveal his identity to Lois and accept her proposal. DC squashed the story in 1940, preferring the merry-go-round of secret identities to throw up plot themes. The tie-in between the Superman comic and the Lois & Clark TV series has been repeated with the popular Smallville TV series, which shows the young Clark Kent in his non-costumed Superboy persona. The re-invention of long-time villain Lex Luthor has seen him emerge in the TV series as an old acquaintance of Clark's, which actually conforms to his 1960s' silver age origin, and elements of this TV Luthor have been shoehorned back into the comic. DC have subsequently resorted to using the character of Superboy-Prime, from the parallel world of Earth-Prime, and his machinations in the Infinite Crisis series and his continuing attempts to escape from reality, to explain the multiplicity of origin stories and contradictory plot threads in the DC universe.

With this recent history of co-operation within the media, as regards the Superman mythos, it might have been assumed that Bryan Singer would incorporate something of that backstory in the new film; that he did not do so, and chose to continue the story from Superman II, has to be seen as a missed opportunity, and having allowed the hype to settle it has emerged that critical reaction was mixed, and even commercially the box-office gross worldwide fell short of Warner Bros' expectations.

No one can blame Singer for moving away from some of the angst-ridden portrayals of Superman that have appeared in the comic, and were such a feature of the Poirier movie script. It is unlikely that movie audiences were ready for the complex, postmodern, self-referential, existential, subtext ridden medium that comics have become, at least with regard to Superman. Superman himself has presented writers with both an opportunity and a straitjacket in terms of character and plot development; as the lone survivor of a destroyed alien world, transplanted to a planet where a quirk of cosmology has bequeathed to him near invulnerability and super powers, it is alienation meets divinity shackled to a creative treadmill. It is notable that perhaps the most telling depiction of Superman is to be found in a supporting role in another character's book, in Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, where Superman is the only remaining government-licensed superhero, authorised by the US President to bring Batman to heel.

Singer recreates the Superman of the late 1970s' film series in a setting which in its sets and styles itself evokes the world of postwar America. The Daily Planet newsroom is an open-plan time capsule panelled like a venerable old library, Lex Luthor struts his acquired wealth like an arriviste bootlegger, Lois' beau Richard takes to the air in his own plane like a dashing playboy adventurer. Singer said that the enemy that the invulnerable Superman has to face is time and change, and the child Jason, whom we are implicitly invited to presume is Superman's own, is a symbol of this. In the continuity-logic of Superman Returns, Jason is the child that Lois conceived with Clark Kent in Superman II, after he relinquished his powers in favour of happiness with her, and before the arrival of General Zod on Earth forced him to take up the cape once again. At the end of Superman II, Superman kissed Lois inducing an amnesia which protected his secret identity, "What's been happening in the world?" she asks a bemused colleague. Clearly this event would mean Lois would be unaware of the identity of the child's father or, if the amnesia has worn off, aware of Superman's identity as Clark. The introduction of Jason was a bold move by Singer and his writers, but creatively it has to be seen as a cul-de-sac unless it leads to Superman revealing his civilian identity to Lois, and then following the comic-book path of marriage.

The fact is that in comics and films Superman is a character defined by his supporting cast, from his earliest origins he rapidly attained incalculable power to the extent that vulnerability had to be written in; writers were quick to ensure that the post-Doomsday Superman was not completely invulnerable. Superman was also alone, orphaned for a second time, when Ma and Pa Kent in the golden age version died; he only had a few super-friends who were aware of his identity, until in a later telling Ma Kent was spared. These facts have somehow resulted in a character less than the sum of his parts. No wonder then that John Byrne displayed such relish in fleshing out Lex Luthor, and subsequent writers have created such a complex and motivating backstory for the arch-villain; such a missed opportunity then for the film to present Luthor as a cheap conman with an obsession for real estate. In Superman Returns the only point at which Luthor scales the heights of villainy is when he sets his gang on the weakened hero, in an ultra-violent episode which jars with the family-orientated tone of the rest of the film. It is at this point that this latest depiction of the Man of Steel trembles and ultimately shivers apart under the weight of the separate forces acting upon it.

When Kryptonite was first introduced it cancelled out the effect of Earth's yellow sun, which was the source of Superman's power, Superman became as other men, no more and no less; Kryptonite in the movies kills Superman. In Superman Returns Luthor uses Kryptonian crystal-technology to grow an island seeded with Kryptonite, Superman is as helpless as a baby as soon as he sets foot on it and is brutally beaten. In an episode which pushes the Christ-analogy beyond what should be creatively acceptable, Superman stands at the edge of a cliff faced by Luthor and his gang, Luthor makes a curious gesture which may be an invitation to fly, or a limp-armed representation of crucifixion, as if to hammer home the reference Luthor then drives home a shard of crystal Kryptonite into Superman's side and the latter goes over the cliff-edge. Rescued by Lois, who removes the spear of crystal from his side, Superman returns to Luthor's deadly island, uproots it from the sea-bed and hurls it into space despite, it later transpires, still having a sliver of crystal-Kryptonite embedded in his flesh.

Singer would seem to be on safer ground paying direct homage to comic covers, in the sequence where Daily Planet editor Perry White berates his staff when bystanders' photographs have provided the paper with the 'iconic' images of Superman's rescue of a damsel in distress. The image of Superman lifting the hoods' car, from Action Comics #1, is referenced in the photo of Superman saving Luthor's girlfriend Kitty Kowalski's runaway vehicle, and him flying her to safety is an often repeated image, usually featuring Superman and Lois. This cloning of imagery, and of original matter, has a subversive subtext for anyone willing to ignore Alfred Hitchcock's dictum that "It's only a movie." Luthor's girlfriend Kitty Kowalski needs to be saved as a diversion, to distract Superman from Luthor's raid to steal the Kryptonite from the museum, but Luthor has sabotaged her car's brakes so the rescue is genuine; so Superman stopping the gangsters, from the cover of Action Comics, becomes Superman performing a rescue, but one that helps the gangsters. This convoluted textual analysis, however tongue in cheek, highlights some of the muddled thinking implicit in Singer's vision.

Singer's film promised much but didn't deliver, except as a retro homage to the first two movies and to Singer's idea of what comic books mean to people, but comic books are much more than the little grace notes that Kim Newman in Empire identified in the movie, as reference points to the Superman saga's 60 year history. Singer's version plunders a world of comics that hasn't existed for decades, it is a heist performed by someone who doesn't know what they are looking for, a ransom demand made by someone who has been in suspended animation for 30 years. In the fabulous Men Of Tomorrow (Heinemann/ Random House, 2005), writer Gerard Jones chronicles the aspirations of Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, creators of Superman, and all the other teenage geeks with over-developed imaginations, writing and drawing on what seemed like the threshold of a new world; like them, to believe a man can fly you may need the cape and the logo but most of all you need the belief.

Christopher Reeves as Superman

Lois Lane, portrait




Super logo

Lois and Clark

Lois' wedding


Superman bombs


Lane and Kent

Superman Returns

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