Not his Superman

superman78While reading through an old issue of Cinefantastique the other day (the Forbidden Planet double-issue, from Spring 1979, I assume) I came across a capsule review of Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie which I hadn’t noticed before, and which, while I’m accustomed to the somewhat po-faced attitude of that mag’s editorials, quite took me aback. With due deference to its writer Robert Stewart, I quote the following:

“The film fails to explore the possibilities of having a new and modernized Superman tackle the real problems of the world in the late 1970s- assassinations, mass suicides, mindf–kers, famine, the CIA, sexism, racism, provocateurs, ageism, unemployment and economic collapse, corporate takeovers, bureaucratic  psychopaths, etc. Instead, he confronts villains not much different from those of the Batman television show…” 

My initial thoughts were that this guy probably loved Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman: his review seems more a manifesto for Snyder’s films than anything to do with Richard Donner’s film (clearly Donner’s respectful approach to the original comicbooks went right over Mr Stewarts head). It’s one of those reviews which criticises a film more for what it is not, than what it is.

But it did set me thinking, which was probably the point of the review (so bravo, Mr Stewart, wherever you are now). I’ve noted elsewhere that I’ve really not been a fan of the recent Spiderman films and much of this -and it applies to all three ‘versions’ of the character, the Tobey Maguire films, the Andrew Garfield films and Tom Holland’s films- is simply that none of them have really captured what I loved as a kid growing up reading the 1960s/1970s Spiderman comics by Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, John Romita, Gerry Conway and Ross Andru. They are perfectly fine films as they are (well, to varying degree anyway) but none of them capture the characters and mood/spirit of those comics, so its inevitable that, for me, they are lacking something. They are probably more faithful to the comics of the past twenty years (that I have never read, although I did read part of the J. Michael Straczynski run of Spiderman comics drawn by John Romita jr. which are likely indicative) which is fine, and I should maybe give them the benefit of the doubt there. But my question is, am I being fair? Is it a case though of me disliking films more for what they are not than what they are?

Well, not exactly. I do think there are very real issues with the various films; retconning bad guys to be more sympathetic victims of misfortune than genuine villains is one of my pet peeves, likewise I utterly detest all the various Spidey suits of the Tom Holland films, all that nano-tech/Iron Man rubbish, all that metal arms out the back etc that defy reason, physics and gravity. That’s not any kind of Spiderman I want,  just further evidence of the Marvel films increasingly playing fast and loose with comics canon etc (as far as I know, as it could be something featured in the comics, but I doubt it). Likewise some of the writing feels pretty dire, with some fairly shocking leaps of logic, but that’s something evident in much film and television now; the talent pool is pretty weak now because there is just so much content being produced across film/television streaming etc. And yeah, in defence of writers, maybe its all those producers and executive producers interfering with the material- some films and shows I see now have as many as twenty and more producer credits, and I often wonder if the time will come when the number of producer credits will outnumber that of the cast.

I won’t even watch The Eternals; Jack Kirby’s 1970s comicbooks are amongst my very favourites. They possibly haven’t aged very well in some ways, but they were so bold and imaginative, full of the Chariots of the Gods stuff that excited me so much as a kid and was quite popular in that decade. The film, from what I have seen of it in trailers, has nothing in common with those comicbooks other than name (to be more faithful to Kirby’s work, it surely should have looked and felt more akin to 2017s Thor: Ragnarok film, which really captured the feel of a Kirby strip). I do know Neil Gaiman wrote a reboot/continuation and suspect the film has more in common with that than original creator Jack Kirby’s opus but I may be giving the film too much credit even there. Maybe I’ll get to watch it eventually but certainly I have little if any interest in it; the film was made to be something else, not something faithful to the original comics, and that’s surely true of much current Marvel Studios output.

Which is true, indeed, of what Disney is doing with Star Wars. They are making Star Wars tv shows and movies that are increasingly removed from the original film trilogy I grew up with, and they are as much not ‘my Star Wars’ as anything Marvel Studios films and tv shows are- and the same is true of the current crop of Star Trek tv shows. That being said though, some of these shows, certainly the Star Trek stuff that I have watched, are really woeful, regardless of how ‘faithful’ they aren’t in spirit and subject. The second season of Star Trek: Picard is especially diabolically poor, an absolute nadir for the Star Trek franchise.

Mind, even Star Trek: Discovery and Star Trek: Picard have their fans, I suppose, although those viewers must be especially forgiving of terrible writing, huge plotholes, leaps of logic (and illogic). Indeed I think the shows are fundamentally unforgivable in how crass and stupid they are, and seem to have been written by soap opera and tv sitcom writers rather than anyone actually skilled or knowledgeable of both science fiction or indeed the particular franchise canon (I can’t help but feel this is largely true of the Star Wars and Marvel stuff too, and I don’t know if this is from laziness, ignorance or simply an intent to strike off to pastures new on the back of established IP).

Thank goodness Blade Runner 2049 was sincere and respectful of the original film and extended upon the 1982 original film’s themes and mood thoughtfully, rather than just go the other, easier way, instead making a film about with a Roy Batty Mk.II or an action-based film about a new Blade Runner battling Nexus 7 or Nexus 8 improved, nastier Replicants. After all, it could have been, easily- look how generic the Terminator films became. I may not live to see any more Blade Runner movies, but at least I don’t have to witness what happened with Alien, its Lovecraftian alien creatures turned into spacesuit wearing bald guys in Ridley Scott’s ill-judged Prometheus. The more I think back on Prometheus, the more it actually seems a story about Space Gods akin to Jack Kirby’s 1976 Eternals comics repurposed to fit within the Alien franchise in order to get made (I can well imagine Ridley wanting to make a high-concept Space Gods movie and having to sell it as an Alien movie in order to get it greenlit).

Which I suppose means I should remain absolutely fearful regards that Blade Runner tv series which Ridley is producing. Maybe my luck is going to run out; and certainly, I will feel much more aggrieved regards something spoiling my appreciation and adoration of the 1982 film than I am by some Spiderman film not really being the web-slinger that thrilled me when I was seven years old.

5 thoughts on “Not his Superman

  1. Matthew McKinnon

    Well, I think you nailed your own prejudices there but then seem to run with them.

    When something has been running for over half a century and accrued more detail and developed somewhat, then you can’t just cancel all that and go back to the very earliest issues for the sake of purism.
    And if comics readers of the last 20 years are more used to the wisecracking Brian Michael Bendis Spider-Man, then I don’t think we’re obliged to give them a gloomy Stan Lee one just because (however, wasn’t Garfield’s Spidey a gloomy version? I haven’t seen those but No Way Home seems to riff on that idea quite a bit).

    I don’t think any contemporary film adaptation can stick solely with the core concept of the source material when that source is half a century old and rooted in the time and place it was created: the best thing you can do – which Superman The Movie did – is to distil the essence and translate to present-day as best you can. Which is how Man Of Steel failed, because it didn’t want to retain a noble, confident, benign Superman from the 1930s – it wanted a grumpy, alienated Clark Kent wandering the world like Bruce Wayne and then trashing Metropolis because that would look cool.

    To be honest, I think the latest Spider-Man films do use the original concept: how does a very young, innocent boy juggle the incredible powers he’s been gifted/cursed with and retain the real life he’s also trying to build for himself? For Peter to sacrifice so much at the end of No Way Home is one of the most shocking endings I’ve ever seen – he loses EVERYTHING: but… he doesn’t lose hope: that’s the take-home message.

    The super-suit was fine with me – and it felt like an essential escalation given the fights Marvel had him involved in in the Avengers films – and even in the first film they take great pains to make sure Peter learns it’s not the suit that makes him who and what he is (and he loses it halfway through Homecoming to make that point; it’s also lost for good now).

    I’m no comics-movie super-fan, and I have learned to trust my instincts with them: I was reluctant to watch Wonder Woman and Black Panther because the trailers made them look crap. But then after they became so important for so many people I gave them a go – and whilst I’m very happy they meant so much to people and would never try to take that away, they did actually turn out to be crap films. So I’m not watching The Eternals because it looks crap. But… having just read the original Kirby comics I wouldn’t really want to see an adaptation of those either; Kirby could do great splash-pages and spreads, but his writing was just as make-it-up-as-you-go trashy as 90% of 70s comics.

    Question: are Marvel and Star Wars striking off into new pastures? One of the things I’ve noticed is with Star Wars that they’re absolutely not doing that. The recent trilogy tried to literally remake the conflicts from the OT (despite someone bravely trying to subvert that in Last Jedi), and everything else seems to be filling in gaps that don’t need filling in: Rogue One, Solo, Mandalorian, Boba Fett and Obi Wan are like the work of an obsessive doodler who can’t leave well enough alone.
    Marvel manage to riff on the original ideas and storylines whilst making them feel fresh and contemporary, but I can’t think of an actually original Marvel movie…?

    1. Oh yeah, I absolutely agree regards what you describe as my prejudices, I can’t help it, and its been clouding my thinking for the past year or so, particularly since Disney’s Star Wars trilogy but also from when JJ Abrams made his Trek reboots. I’m beginning to just accept that so much of what is getting made now is simply not aimed at me or made for me; its all getting made for a younger generation, and any enjoyment/irritation I get from it is wholly incidental.

      This is quite natural; I can’t expect a Blade Runner tv series to be aimed at me or my generation (those of us who were wowed by the film in 1982) although maybe there is an argument that it should, else why bother returning to the franchise after so long? I think its the inherent danger of reverting to old IP (the Alien, Terminator, Predator franchises etc) rather than doing something new. Was there any film as pointless as the new Matrix film last year? I quite enjoyed some of it but even though I did, it felt quite redundant.

      We don’t NEED a new Star Wars or Star Trek or Blade Runner or Alien. Sure they have a nostalgic appeal, but I’d be more interested in new material, new franchises that properly speak for the current generation of viewers. Marvel are sort-of slipping into a similar trap as the apparently endless parade of films begin to betray tiresome structures and tropes and resort to ever-more spectacular CGI spectacle.

      But its simply where we are. Disney resort to so much Star Wars and Marvel stuff because its how they sell Disney+, and that’s true for whatever HBO/Warner own and can see as unique to their service or Paramount+ likewise. Its not that they have fresh stories that need to be told. Its that they have IP unique to themselves that they can sell. What I’m especially curious about here is regards just how much that IP stretches beyond the geek/genre audience, how robust or long-lived some of it is, or how niche and limited it is. Star Trek was never hugely popular, the films were never continuously massive box office, so I do fear Paramount might come unstuck being a Star Trek channel thinking that will suddenly appeal to everyone.

      Maybe Disney might find that Star Wars isn’t quite as universally beloved as it might think. Maybe the young ‘uns (children, teens, young adults) don’t really care as much as they expect, and maybe us old ‘uns are actually becoming a bit weary of it too.

  2. To pick up on something discussed more in the comments, one of the things that baffles/amuses me is that the studios’ reliance on IP has reached a point where it objectively makes no sense. “IP = good, original = not worth the risk” is such an ingrained attitude that they’ll return to a failed IP again and again and again rather than give up on it and shift attention elsewhere. Case in point: Terminator. We’ve had four Terminator 3s now, and while I don’t believe there’s one in active development, you know it’ll happen someday. I mean, they’re doing Predator again, and how many Predator films beyond the first one are actually well-liked? (I thought Predators was pretty good, but plenty of people dislike it.) Of course, original ideas are always an unknown quantity and therefore a risk; but at this point, I’d argue that an unknown quantity that sounds good is less risky than a once-popular IP that’s been shown to fail repeatedly!

    1. The thing is, they justify being risk-averse by the huge budgets they waste on the films, but those high budgets are largely just a con to facilitate producers and actors and directors taking wheelbarrows of cash. They’ve had a right royal time during the Netflix silly-money days: how can anything going straight to streaming be justified at costing $200 million, unless everyone is on the money-train and out buying new yachts and penthouses afterwards?

      I’ve noted before that BR2049 had no right to have cost $185 million, that was insane. I love the film, but it would have been perfectly fine made for $85 million with the cast on less money and on a smaller scale. It would have actually made some money!

      1. It’s funny that they’re still prepared to lavish silly money on star names, when it’s been consistently shown/complained about for a decade or more that IP rules now. Sure, people get attached to Downey Jr as Iron Man or whoever over time, but, at the start out, it barely matters who they cast — so why are they paying someone $20 million or whatever?!

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