Ever since I can remember, I've been fascinated by Superman. As a small boy, I bought all the comics I could lay my hands on and longed to see the live-action version. I got my wish when I was 14, when on a trip to the US,I saw the Superman TV show which featured a paunchy middle-aged guy in a creased costume who stood for “Truth, justice and the American way”.
After that, I lost interest in the live-action stuff, but my love for the comics continued. Then, as now, the world was divided between people who loved DC (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc.) and Marvel (Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, The Hulk, etc.). I found the Marvel stuff extremely tiresome (do you really care that Spider-Man can't impress his girlfriend when he doesn't wear his costume?), but my fascination with DC and Superman continued.
Then, in the late 1970s, Superman finally got the screen treatment he deserved, when Richard Donner made the first Superman movie, starring Christopher Reeve. The film was a smash hit and set the trend for the comic-book movies that followed.
I was thrilled because I thought Reeve made a perfect Superman (Gene Hackman as a non-bald Lex Luthor? Not so sure about that). He was completely unlike the disappointing TV Superman of my youth and the flying sequences were as convincing as could be expected in an era before computer-generated imagery.
Richard Donner fought with the producers of the series and was not allowed to complete Superman II. Richard Lester (who made A Hard Day's Night) took over and directed a poor comedyesque Superman III. And by Superman IV, the franchise was dead.
Oddly enough, even as the movies sank, the comic books revived. John Byrne was asked by DC to re-imagine Superman in the 1980s and the company made the then unprecedented decision to start all over again.
The old Superman continuity was dead, it said. We had to forget Superboy, Smallville, Supergirl, Krypto the Super Dog and all the rubbish that had clung to the character. This was a new Superman and the story began now.
I enjoyed the reinvention of Superman and as soon as the first Batman movie became a hit, Hollywood set about resurrecting the Superman franchise. A $150 million movie starring Nicholas Cage (wearing false hair—but then, Reeve wore a wig in Superman III and IV) was announced and many directors came and went (among them, Kevin Smith and Tim Burton).
Though the movie took a long time to get off the ground, Superman suddenly began cropping up all over the place. There was a new animated series. TV produced Lois and Clark (with Dean Cain as Superman and Terri Hatcher—the Desperate Housewife—as Lois) and a Superboy series (even though, in John Byrne's reinvention, there never was a Superboy).
I didn't think any of the new stuff was very good and waited for Hollywood to come up with something deserving of the character. Instead, the studios came up with an off-beat idea: the Smallville TV series.
The show buys into the John Byrne line that Clark Kent did not really become Superman till he got to Metropolis (in other words: no Superboy), but it focuses on the teenage Clark as he learns to come to terms with his superpowers. The producers added a new dimension to the story. When Superman's home planet, Krypton, exploded, the debris fell on Smallville and because it was radioactive, it caused all kinds of genetic aberrations and engendered bizarre behaviour.
The beauty of Smallville lies in the fact that the audience knows that one day Clark will become Superman— even before he knows it himself. The overall effect is akin to the X Files because of all the weird behaviour and the basic idea—of a seemingly ordinary person with incredible powers, but no superhero costume—has been stolen for this year's hit U.S. TV series, Heroes.
Eventually, the studios got their act together and the Superman movie (starring Brandon Routh and not Nick Cage—thank God!) was released last year. I thought it was terrific, in clear line of descent from Richard Donner's first Superman movie. And though Routh is no Christopher Reeve, he makes a worthy successor. (Shame about Kate Bosworth's Lois Lane though—most of the time, you hope that Lex Luthor kills her and rids us of her irritating presence).
But even as the official Superman movie was making waves, Hollywoodland was released. Based on the life of George Reeve, the original TV Superman (the middle-aged guy in the creased costume), it tells us how much Reeve hated the character, the costume (“my monkey suit”, he called it) and the hoopla surrounding Superman. Though Ben Affleck, who plays Reeve, wears a Superman suit for part of the movie, DC Comics have forbidden the producers from releasing stills of Affleck as Superman for fear of confusing people who think that Routh is Superman.
Any way you look at it, Superman is back. Post the reinvention, DC gained more publicity by “killing off” Superman (no, no, he didn't really die—they brought him back after six months) and sales of the comic book soared. The TV shows have had a similar impact and the Routh movie has been one of last year's biggest international hits. It's all a little odd for me—the boy who used to long for a live action Superman. These days, there are four Supermen. There's Routh. There’s Affleck (as George Reeve). There’s Tom Welling in Smallville and there's Dean Cain on the TV show, which is still repeated all over the world every single day.
While Batman tends to get better press and Spider-Man has made more money (the crap movies starring Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker/Spider-Man are huge grossers, apparently), it is Superman who now dominates our consciousness. It is a tribute to the character that while his various avatars fit into no kind of continuity (the Dean Cain Superman leads a completely different life from Routh's Superman), the world still has room for them all.
So, you can keep your James Bond and your Jason Bourne. I think Superman is still the ultimate hero.
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