How Many Supermans Is Too Many?

Another Superman movie is set to be released.  It’s called Man of Steel, and it promises to show more extraordinary feats by the first superhero of them all.

I’m sure the new movie has spectacular special effects, but I’m suffering from a profound case of Superman Fatigue Syndrome.  I’m old enough to remember when the cheesy George Reeves Superman TV show episodes — “faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive” and standing for “truth, justice, and the American way” — were rerun on cable TV.  I enjoyed the first two Christopher Reeve Superman movies, and particularly liked Superman II, where Superman gives up his powers then returns to defeat General Zod in a movie filled with classic comic moments.  I thought Superman III sucked, though, and after that I lost interest in the Superman story.  I didn’t watch Superman IV, or the Smallville TV series, or Superman Returns.

To tell the truth, Superman is kind of boring.  He’s indestructible, flies faster than anything, can lift anything, can survive in the superheated conditions at the Earth’s core, etc.  What’s the challenge?  So long as he avoids that hidden piece of Kryptonite that makes him like a mere mortal, you know he’s going to win any battle.  Any superhero who can reverse the rotation of the planet and thereby change the course of time and bring the dead back to life, as Superman did in the first film, isn’t going to struggle with any villain found on Earth.  How do you top that feat in later films?  (I’m sure, of course, that the new movie will try to do so.)

More basically, how many Superman, Batman, and Spiderman movies can be made, and remade, and remade again?  There’s so much copying, so much formula-driven film-making, and so little creativity in the movie industry that it’s remarkable when a truly new and creative hero film, like The Matrix, gets made.  Hollywood should be embarrassed to keep churning out the same characters in the same settings, over and over and over, and audiences should be embarrassed to keep buying tickets.

Anachronisms In A Digital Age

Last week, at a rest area along I-87, far north in upstate New York, I encountered this anachronistic scene.  It was like stumbling into some exhibit at the Museum of Modern American Culture.

I can’t even remember the last time I saw the mini, open bottom public phone booth — and here it was, not only available for use but also side-by-side with the even older, full-fledged, classic telephone booth, in all its Clark Kent changing into Superman on a concrete pad glory.  And, to complete the sense of absolute historical accuracy, the phone booth lacked any sign of a phone book.

I’m not sure there is a full-length phone booth left anywhere in the Columbus area, much less one that is right next to the abbreviated version.  I wonder how often these public phone booths are used in our cell phone age?

Seeing these signs of days gone by was jarring, and made me think about how what was once commonplace can vanish seemingly overnight, without anyone really even noticing.

Let the Heroes Rest

Well, they’re making a new round of Superman movies. This news comes right after the announcement that Hollywood will also be rebooting the Spiderman franchise.

When I was a columnist for the Daily Northwestern, I wrote that I thought Hollywood should make fewer sequels and more movies with original plots and characters. I used the latest Terminator movie as an example of an uninspired sequel that strays from the vision of the original.

The new Superman and Spiderman movies are an even greater offense to our film tradition. At least the new Terminator broke new ground within the franchise. Like it or not (I did not), the new Terminator movie explored a different aspect of the Terminator universe than its predecessors. In the first three movies, we only saw Terminators sent back in time to kill humans who would end up playing a role in the future war. We never saw much of the war itself until the latest movie.

The new Star Wars and Indiana Jones films also get passes. The Star Wars prequels showed us an era of the Star Wars universe that we hadn’t seen before. “The Crystal Skull” gave us a different Indiana Jones – growing old,  even ready to settle down with a wife. And heck, at least they were made by the same talent that made the originals.

There’s no new perspective to shed on the Superman and Spiderman stories. Both franchises have been done recently. The Spiderman franchise was rebooted in 2002. I remember the excitement around it very well. There were sequels in 2004 and 2007 – less than three years ago. The series’ stars, Tobey Macguire, Kirsten Dunst, and James Franco, are still young. The Spiderman story has already been told for our times.

Same with Superman. “Superman Returns” came out in 2006, not that long ago.

Maybe someone can revisit these franchises in a few decades, when special effects have improved, memories of the last movies have faded, and our society has changed a little bit. I didn’t mind the current Batman series, which began in 2005, even though the previous one only ended in 1997. Special effects technology progressed dramatically between “Batman and Robin” and “Batman Begins”, but more importantly, we changed. September 11th made us more paranoid and self-doubting, and as a result the new Batman movies are darker than the old ones. Jack Nicholson’s Joker in the 1989 “Batman” was obnoxious; he liked to spray paint on classic works of art. Heath Ledger’s 2008 Joker was evil and perverted, taking delight in disfiguring and murdering people. He took advantage of our society’s weaknesses to confront us with difficult moral choices.

We haven’t undergone any changes since 2007 significant enough to justify rebooting these two franchises. Leave them alone for a while. When the current Spidermans look as dated as the 1960s Batmans, then you can reboot. (OK, maybe you don’t have to wait that long.)

The sad thing is that these pointless movies occupy lots of valuable talent. Christopher Nolan, who directed “The Dark Knight” and the innovative “Memento”, shouldn’t waste his time acting as a “mentor” for the new Superman. He should be making another “Memento”.