Friday, June 30, 2006
And man, I have been going back and forth on what I think of it. I think I'm suffering through a little bit of Star Wars: Episode I syndrome, where just the sheer spectacle of my first ever all-new Superman movie on the big screen made me want to love this movie so badly. When the movie began, when the DC Comics logo flashed on-screen, when the old-school opening credits rolled as John Williams' majestic score blared in the IMAX theater - I had chills, I was more pumped than I'd been in a long time at the movies. I forgot all about every reservation and bit of anxiety I had about the movie going in. Bryan Singer had me in the palm of his hand and I was freaking ready to have my mind blown. This was IT. This was something I've literally thought and dreamed about my entire life - a concept whose very potential has probably been a driving force in getting me to where I am today professionally - a Superman movie on the big screen.
At least with Star Wars Episode I, the process of coming down from that initial high took me days, even weeks. With that movie, only on second viewing was I really able to shut off the geek-out center of my brain and look at the movie objectively in any way and kind of sober up so to speak from the drunken euphoria of seeing a new Star Wars movie.
With Superman Returns though, all it took was that first scene.
The credits end, I'm pumped, the adrenaline is flowing - bring on Superman! We get a little opening title card explaining Superman's absence from Earth for five years. He heard Krypton might still be around or something. Okay, kind of lame, but whatever. Bring on Superman.
Cut to a gothic mansion. Lex Luthor, wearing a wig for some unfathomable reason, is forcing an elderly woman on her deathbed to sign away her fortune to her lover, Lex Luthor, who had apparently "shown her pleasures she'd never known," in a bit of reverse Anna-Nicole Smith-ery.
What. The. Hell. Is. This Crap?
Okay, okay, so the movie opened with a weird sort of gothic camp. Odd, okay, but whatever. Bring on Superman.
Things started to get a little better. We're in Smallville, Kansas. Sweet. Ma Kent does Ma Kent-like things, when a rocket crashes. She runs out to see what happened ... and there's her son! Clark! In the black Kryptonian regeneration suit from the comics! Very nice, cool imagery. I love the whole idea of Superman REALLY just being a down-home farmboy from Smallville who is who he is because of two adoptive parents who raised him right and made Clark, an alien, more human than most regular people, despite not exactly being from around here.
But sadly, this was all we saw of Smallville, or of the real Clark Kent - the real guy who isn't a bumbling idiot but who isn't quite Superman. I guess the only place to find THAT guy is on TV's Smallville, which can be very hit and hit and miss quality-wise, but provides a great overall take on the Superman mythos that Bryan Singer sadly never really acknowledged.
What we got from this point on in the movie was an odd sort of homage to the original Richard Donner movie, mixed with a number of strange and conflicting elements and tonalities. And strangely, I actually kind of agree with Roger Ebert's review in some respects - it seems like Bryan Singer had a very specific movie that he wanted to make - a tragic romance between Superman and Lois Lane with the central theme of Superman as being alone and an outsider - and that everything else seemed mostly tacked on and workman-like, in what amounted to an overly serious and mostly joyless affair.
Before I commence the bashing though - let me first say this: Superman Returns, as many have pointed out, is a beautifully filmed movie, with a number of epic shots that are pretty breathtaking. In fact, I think that where this movie most succeeded was in an area in which I worried it might fail - its visual representation of Superman. Brandon Routh, mostly, looked the part. And the action and flying shots in particular looked spectacular - this was simply the best, most seamless, and most visceral depiction of superheroic flight that we've seen captured on screen. Some of the shots were suitably iconic and memorable -- Superman floating in space looking down on earth, Superman literally doing his best Atlas impersonation and carrying the Daily Planet globe on his shoulders, Superman flying into the Sun to absorb its energies and recharge, Superman falling from the heavens ... all of these were beautifully-filmed, grand, sweeping shots worthy of an Alex Ross painting. They even included a very nice representation of the classic, Superman-lifting-a-car pose from the famous cover of Superman's first ever appearance in 1938, Action Comics #1.
The problem is that all of these amazingly-done pieces of cinematography were ultimately about all that the film had to offer. For a hero who appears in Action Comics, there was precious little action in Superman Returns. Superman barely DID anything except for lift a lot of really heavy stuff, which to me kind of negates the whole point of Superman. To me Superman is all about the "never-ending battle." He's about taking the worst that the world can throw at him and coming back for more. Here, he was by no means the man of action that I was expecting. I mean, the Man of Steel does not throw a single punch the entire movie!
This lack of action is taken to almost absurd levels, to the point where it really detracts from the story-structure. There is a pretty intense scene about 3/4 of the way through the movie where Superman, weakened by Kryptonite, is beaten silly by Luthor's thugs to the point where you as an audience member are almost gasping in disbelief at the sight of seeing this group of muscleheads kicking the crap out of the World's Greatest Superhero. One of the best, most effective dramatic scenes in the movie. But then, what the hell happened? Superman is thrown to the ocean, saved by Lois, and does ... NOTHING?!?! The Superman I know would save as many people as he could and then promptly return to give Lex Luthor some payback, or at THE LEAST, to take him into custody. Just this week, I read the great conclusion to Geoff Johns' and Kurt Busiek's latest Superman storyline, where a powerless Superman goes mano e mano with Lex - no powers, no tricks, just two rivals duking it out after a long and drawn out battle. In the comic, this scene was great. Why? Because it showed that the powers are NOT what make Superman a hero - it's his never-say-die attitude, his sheer willpower, and his overwhelming selflessness and dedication to fight the good fight.
Here, we had the perfect setup to an amazing scene. Superman is weakened, beaten to a pulp, maybe even near death. BUT HE KEEPS ON FIGHTING. But wait, that's not what happened. He is a total pushover, a wuss, a nobody. Bryan Singer's Superman is, apparently, able to get soundly thrashed by a group of hired muscle without even getting in a decent punch. Singer never gave us what we were all waiting for - he never gave us the big comeback or the climactic confrontation - he never gave us a reason to stand up and cheer.
And that kind of touches on a larger problem with this movie. Tonally, it was just, well, OFF. It was dark in all the wrong ways and light and campy in all the wrong ways. I appreciate that Singer tried to bring a real sense of gravitas and almost biblical grandness to the movie, and the film's sweeping, epic cinematography that I just mentioned earlier helped give it that sense of bigness. But almost never did Superman Returns look or feel like a SUPERMAN MOVIE. Instead, the whole thing looked and felt like a BRYAN SINGER MOVIE. It was dark, gloomy, shadowy, and it just felt wrong. Look at what Sam Raimi has done with the Spiderman movies - he's perfectly captured the look, the feel, the essence of the old Stan Lee and Steve Ditko universe. It feels like those movies take place in the bright, colorful, crazy world of Marvel Comics. Superman Returns just feels cold and bland. Metropolis has no real character as Gotham did in Batman Begins. Smallville is only briefly glimpsed. The one scene that gets it most right is the semi-spectacular airplane / baseball stadium scene, which offered an all too brief promise of bigger and better things that never quite materialized.
But even as the movie FELT too dark and grim and cold and bland, it inexplicably kept the ONE element of the movie that SHOULD have been dark and cold light and campy and well, LAME. Because I'm sorry to say it, but ...
... Kevin Spacey is terrible as Lex Luthor in Superman Returns.
Sure, those merely expecting a reprieve of the Gene Hackman, used-car-salesman Lex Luthor will be amused by Spacey's antics. But anyone who knows how evil, manipulative, cunning, and BADASS Lex Luthor is and has been in the comics, cartoons, or on Smallville, where he is expertly played by Michael Rosenbaum - hell, anyone who wanted Superman to have a decent, formidable nemesis in this movie, is going to be supremely disappointed in Spacey's Lex Luthor. I mean, think about it: Lex Luthor is just a human being, yet he is the ONE guy on the whole planet who isn't a monster, alien, or Batman who can really pose a threat to Superman. And so you'd think that this one guy must be one hell of a smart, evil, cunning bastard to be Superman's greatest enemy. Look at the animated JLU to see a version of Lex that IS that guy. Look to Superman Returns for a version of Lex that is a total joke. In a way, it's almost worse than Hackman in the originals, because at least Hackman you knew upfront was a joke character played for camp value. Singer's vision of Lex is totally schitzofrenic, alternatively hammy and over the top one minute, yet cold and sadistic another minute. But mostly, this Lex is just goofy, and it's clear that little to no effort was made into building him up as a proper villan. We never get any real sense of rivalry or hatred between Superman and Lex, it rarely feels personal between them. And Lex's scheme? Absolutely stupid. Makes no logical sense, is lightweight, and by no means worthy of a Superman movie, let alone of Lex friggin' Luthor. While a few moments of sadism HINT at an attempt to make this Lex darker than Hackman's version, this Lex is still rather pathetic. He wears wigs, he lives on a boat, he is a known criminal, he has a crew of two-dimensional, worthless flunkies, and his evil schemes involve freaking REAL ESTATE. This Lex utterly pales in comparison to nearly EVERY OTHER INCARNATION. The John Byrne businessman-as-villain from the comics, the young heir to Lexcorp of Smallville, the former President of the United States and hero-to-the-public Lex of current comic book continuity, and the cold, driven supervillain of the seminal JLU animated series.
Yes, Lex Luthor was the single worst thing about this movie, which is amazing because fanboys everywhere were excited about Keyser Soze himself taking a stab at Lex Luthor. But let's be real here (SPOILERS FOR USUAL SUSPECTS) - Kevin Spacey didn't PLAY Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects - he PLAYED Verbal Kint. All of his horrible deeds as Keyser were merely implied. Spacey does sniveling, creepy, meek well (see Usual Suspects and Glengary Glenn Ross). But has he ever done evil genious badass? Can he effectively do evil genious badass? My impression from this movie is no, he can't. Spacey has a rep as a great actor, but this movie needed its own equivalent of Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart in X-Men, who brought that classical and powerful sense of gravitas to every scene they were in.
Bottom line: the writers totally missed the boat with Lex Luthor in this movie, and Kevin Spacey was not the right actor for the job.
And just a quick mention of how useless and derivative Lex's flunkies are in this movie. Two great comedic actors, Parker Posey and Kal Penn - both utterly wasted and pointless, serving only to detract from Lex's character. At the least they could have been funny comic relief, but they are pretty much just THERE as some kind of weird homage to the campy Lex of the original Donner movies.
Otherwise, I thought the casting was okay. I was surprised that I didn't mind Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane, overall. But she lacked that certain something, that sense of spunk and moxy that Margot Kidder kind of had, that Teri Hatcher had on Lois and Clark, and even Erica Durance on Smallville kind of has going for her. Her Lois was decent, but just not all that likable - it is hard to see why of all people Superman loved HER. Which lead me to another problem ...
... the movie's whole outlook on Superman / Clark Kent is just wrong, and kind of makes you wonder how Clark could really be in love with Lois. Because essentially, Superman IS Clark Kent - he grew up as Clark, was raised as Clark, and in the comics, he always wanted Lois to fall in love not with Superman, but with Clark. How can Superman in this movie pine for Lois when she essentially ignores his REAL self? In the first movies, it was okay - that was the early stage of their relationship, Clark was the oddball new guy who was easy to brush off. But now, after all this time, Lois refers to Clark as "just some guy she works with?" If that's the case, how can she have any real, deep connection with Superman if she still has no clue that he is Clark and that, in all likelihood, Clark is closest to his real personality? This in my view is a fatal flaw in the movie, and really undermines the believability of the Clark-Lois romance in the film. In the modern comics, John Byrne and his successors in the 80's and 90's got this essential point - that for the romance to work Lois has to fall in love with Clark Kent, not Superman. Even Lois and Clark got this right. So it's just odd to have a movie that is basically telling us that Lois is in love with a guy who she knows nothing about to the point that she is oblivious to his alter ego, and not only that, but she had a kid with the guy.
So basically, the entire movie is centered around a romantic plot makes little sense, and gives no real reason for us to believe that Lois ever really legitimately loved Superman beyond the level of a schoolgirl crush.
As far as Brandon Routh goes, he was in a way a pleasant surprise because he was, I think, pretty good as Superman and Clark Kent. I say pretty good because he had very little to do here. I was able to transplant my own ideas of who Clark and Superman are onto his portrayal, but for a newcomer, I don't know if they ever get a real sense of Clark's true personality here. At one point Perry White asks his reporters if Superman still stands for Truth, Justice, All That Stuff (conspicuously leaving out "The American Way .."). And I found myself wondering the same thing. Does he? I never really got an answer - instead I got the most emo version of Superman ever - a brooding, mostly silent, celestial figure whose dialogue mostly consisted of recycled lines from the first movie. And watching those original movies, Christopher Reeve really did an absolutely remarkable job of shifting his whole demeanor when he transitioned between Clark Kent and Superman. Routh never really gives us those same seamless yet jarring transitions in his performance. Routh SEEMS like a decent actor, and looks the part (though he still looks kind of lanky and effeminate from some angles) ... I just got no real sense of his range of acting skill from this movie, since he was mostly stoic and expressionless. Singer played him up as being distant, alien. Again, that's too bad because it contradicts the recent and best and most relatable interpretations of Clark vs. Superman - that Clark is the reality and Superman a role that Clark had to reluctantly grow into and accept as his destiny - a theme that Smallville has been steadily exploring throughout its run on television.
Again, the supporting cast was pretty good, but rarely given anything fun or substantial to do. One of the best aspects of Batman Begins was the way in which every side character had their moment to shine. In Superman Returns, there's never, for example, that one Jimmy Olsen moment that makes you think "sweet, Jimmy Olsen rocks!" No signal watch, no unlikely acts of heroism, nothing except a few comic-relief lines of dialogue from Superman's Pal. Perry White is not given much substance either, except an utterance of "Great Ceaser's Ghost" that had my audience cheering at the Daily Planet editor's classic catchphrase. On a sidenote, I was pleasantly surprised to see Peta Wilson of La Femme Nikita show up, only to do approximately jack #$%& in her small cameo.
And then there's the addition of some new characters to the Superman mythos - a controversial move on principle alone, but something I was willing to accept if done right. Unfortunately, nothing about Richard White as played by James Marsden or Lois' young son was so great as to justify the tough narrative corners that their existence paints this franchise into. I've heard reviews that call James Marsden as Richard the standout character in the movie, but frankly I don't see it. He comes off as the same semi-annoying, alpha-male type as he did as Cyclops in X-Men, and he again was just kind of there - once again, no real chemistry between him and Lois, and no real sense of rivalry between him and Clark.
As for the kid ... the child actor was mostly fine, but I just don't see the real narrative value of placing this kid into the mythos. I could see it as something that happens later on down the line -- the logical conclusion of the Lois-Clark romance is that they have a kid. But a kid, now, when realunching a franchise? Raise your hand, folks, who is looking forward to the further adventures of Papa Superman and his nuclear family in parts 2 and 3? And if you're going to have the kid in this movie, at least give him something to do - give him his big moment, put him in danger, something. As it stood, he was, again, just kind of there.
Which is why, structurally, this movie had problems. Way too long by at least a half-hour, and shoddilly edited, this film made a number of baffling narrative choices. Why start on that weird scene of Lex and the old woman? Why have the best set-piece action scene by far (the airplane rescue scene) so early in the movie, and then have nothing in the second half that could come close to topping it? Why insert a number of overly long, visually bland, been-there-done-that scenes of Superman stopping rather ordinary crimes? Why end with Luthor stranded on an island, with Superman happily flying into space and not even giving a damn that his supposedly greatest enemy, who just gave him the beatdown of his life, was never brought to justice? So much of this movie was simply Superman flying around, brooding and floating like some kind of super-powered voyeur. Cool to look at sure - as I said the cinematography was often spectacular. But ultimately, the story, what little there was, moved forward at a snail's pace.
Where Singer excelled, again, was in the visual imagery and iconography. The arc of Superman returning and the public's reaction was done well. The crowd scenes captured the feeling of awe that seeing a Superman in real life would evoke. The sense of scale and motion and power and grandeur of Superman's various feats of strength made for some captivating scenes. But the plot that tied all of these scenes together, ultimately, was weak. This was not a well-scripted movie by any means. And tonally, it was too glum, too self-serious, and too tied down by the outdated representation of the Superman mythos as presented in the Christopher Reeve movies. In addition, Singer really missed an opportunity to revamp Lex Luthor from the earlier movies, instead, sadly, sticking to the lame, cheesy version that Gene Hackman portrayed. Finally, the whole movie is centered on the Superman (not Clark) and Lois romance, which never felt convincing enough to really make you believe in it beyond the power and iconography of the characters themselves. To that same point, I think most of the legitimate thrills that I did get from this movie had to do with the power of simply seeing Superman on the big screen. Take away the Superman character from this movie, and you have nothing. But give Brandon Routh those red and blue tights, play that classic John Williams score (nicely arranged by John Ottoman), and you have yourself something that has weight and symbolism and pathos - a character who embodies our hopes and dreams and ideals. Superman is the best, the original. Now Singer - give him something to do! Challenge him! Put him in the fight of his life! Show us something we've never seen before! Make us care!
I came away from this movie with an overflow of conflicted emotions. I was excited but dissapointed, hyped yet already anxious about future sequels. I mean how do they do the Superman movies we all really want with this Richard character running around and a kid for Superman to watch over who may or may not be developing super powers? I say bring on Darkseid, Doomsday, Brainiac, Bizarro, bring on Superman vs. Batman (for the first time DC has both in viable movie franchises) -- but now I don't know if I trust this franchise to deliver on the promise of those storylines. I don't know if Singer is the right guy for these movies, and I am pretty confident that screenwriters Dougherty and Harris are completely wrong - they clearly are not big on the source material and are reluctant to draw on any interpretation of Superman other than the original movies. Spacey as Luthor shocked me in terms of how much I disliked his interpretation of the character. You have a solid Superman in Routh, a solid Lois in Bosworth, a solid Jimmy and Perry. Now get these beloved characters a story befitting them, and get Superman a villain that does him justice, whether its Lex with an attitude adjustment or someone else. Man, I kind of wish DC had stolen away Sam Raimi from Marvel rather than Singer. I know that Raimi could do Superman right - the fun, dynamism, and depth that he brings to the Spiderman movies would be perfect for Superman.
What we have with Singer at the helm though, is a visually stunning but ultimately unfulfilling movie. Singer chose to focus on his central theme of alienation at the expense of all other aspects of the movie, to the point where the action, characters, and plot seem tacked on and forced - an afterthought, for the most part. Some of the action scenes are indeed quite spectacular, noticeably that one plane-crash, made all the more visceral in IMAX-3D ... but I was left wanting more, left asking "is that all you've got?" The power of Superman is that I am still buzzing from those opening credits alone, and I still feel like I'm sitting here, waiting for the REAL Superman to return after the infinite promise of those opening credits, those credits that promise a bright world of super-powered heroism and idealism, of dastardly villainy, of monsters, aliens, spaceships, romance, and great adventure - a world where you can believe in truth and justice and the American Way, where you can believe that a Man Can Fly. I wanted THAT movie so badly, and what I was left with had its moments, but was weighed down by too many glaring flaws to overlook. Don't believe the hype - this is not quite the Superman we've been waiting for.
My Grade: C+
NEXT: What I would do for Superman Returns: The Sequels ...
Wednesday, June 28, 2006
The reviews for Superman have been pretty interesting. I notice that those who hold Donner's movies in the highest regard - aka those who were between 5 and 15 when the first Superman was released in theaters - have almost always given Bryan Singer's latest effort excellent reviews, often invoking nostalgic feelings for those old films that the new one evoked. Roger Ebert today gave the movie a fairly mediocre review, although at this point, Ebert's opinion is almost hard to take at face value - the guy seems to just be kind of marching to the beat of his own drummer at this point, and I don't mean that in a good way. Harry Knowle's hyperbolic review on Ain't It Cool was predictably laced with over the top fanboyish love for Superman Returns. His reviews are always fun reads, especially as a way of getting hyped up for a movie, but Harry's reviews are often totally written within such a specific context - in line with his own unique fetishes and sensibilities - that rarely on a movie like this one do you get a balanced review. Which is, often, great. I wish more reviewers would allow themselves to geek out on occasion and just rave about the utter coolness of a movie when appropriate. But with Superman Returns, I knew right away that Harry Knowle's love for the Donner movies would put his sensibilities in conflict with my own desire to see a reimagined Superman for the big screen that reflects the post-John Bryne/Man of Steel comic book era - the era that I've grown up reading and the one that taught me to love all things Superman.
So I have a pretty strong feeling that my own opinion will line up more with that of Aint It Cool's most balanced and sensible reviewer, Moriarity, who liked the movie but found a number of issues with its plot and overall direction that it set up for the relaunched franchise. I doubt I will dislike it as much as Ebert, but I already have enough issues with the characters and plot (Lex Luthor played for camp, the son, ties to the Donner movies, Bosworth as Lois, lack of action / superheroics, etc) that it will take a lot to win me over completely.
But dammit all, it IS Superman. When I hear that iconic John Williams score and suddenly believe again that a Man Can Fly, in 3-D IMAX no less ... well, that alone is gonna freakin' rock.
So anyways, as I did with Batman last year in honor of the seminal Batman Begins, I wanted to run down some of the best ever Superman writers and artists - pay tribute to the men who kept the Superman legacy going strong all these years. Unlike Batman, may of Superman's most memorable stories were published well before I was born, and many have a particular fondness for the strange and often surreal Superman stories of the 50's, 60's, and 70's (see Grant Morrison's current All-Star Superman for a modern spin on this era). So this list will definitely have more of a modern slant to it, though I will try to acknowledge some of the greats of the past whom I am familiar with.
THE BEST SUPERMAN WRITERS OF ALL TIME:
10. Joe Kelly - While Joe Kelly's early 00's run on Superman could almost be said to be more miss than hit, Kelly skyrocketed to the top of the Superman canon with the insta-classic Action Comics 775, one of the Best Superman stories -- ever. Kelly is a global thinker, interested in politics almost to a fault, but he created Manchester Black, the best new Superman villain of the last decade, and a worthy ideological opponent for the Man of Steal. With Action 775, he singlehandedly reminded us why we should give a damn about Superman in a post-9/11 world.
9. Mark Waid - Waid hasn't written much Superman - he is better known for his lengthy, acclaimed run on The Flash. But Waid went from cult fave to bonafide superstar with his work on Kingdom Come - the best Superman story ever, in my opinion. Waid wrote Superman as conflicted, losing touch with the times, but ready to reassert himself and reclaim his greatness. His Superman was, simply, awe-inspiring.
8. Jeph Loeb - After writing one of the best modern Batman stories in The Long Halloween, Loeb did the same for Superman with For All Season, one of the most heart-filled, character-driven, simple-yet-powerful Superman stories ever. While Loeb's widescreen, action-packed run on the mainline Superman titles had its ups and downs, his For All Seasons was a testament to his full potential as a writer able to humanize a character as iconic as Superman.
7. Karl Kessell - Kessell on Superman was simply rock solid. For years in the 90's, Karl Kessell was the most consistent, the most imaginative, the most fun to read of any of the many Superman writers of the era. With a love for the old Kirby-created characters, Kessell embraced Superman's crazier elements and ran with them. His ability to reinvigorate old characters like Guardian and the Newsboy Legion, while creating fan-fave new ones, like the cloned Kon-El, the latest version of Superboy, was unmatched. And in his great Final Night series, Kessell did one of the best ever depictions of a powerless Superman who was a hero with or without superpowers.
6. Dan Jurgens - Say what you will about Jurgens - his clunky dialogue, his participation as writer of a number of lackluster, event-driven "events," but the man knew what made Superman, and us as Super-fans, tick. Few others could have driven the Death of Superman and made it as epic, as attention-grabbing, and as, well, huge, as it was. It's funny though, because soe of Jurgens best work was in his smaller-scale, one-off stories. But he'll be remembered as the man behind the revival in Superman's popularity for the modern age.
5. Roger Stern - Like Kessell, Stern was simply a rock-solid writer. He was the lead writer of Superman comics for much of the 80's and 90's, and after John Bryne's departure he basically shaped the modern Superman canon. The modern takes on the Eradicator, Supergirl, Superman's first forays with time travel ... hell, Superman's relationship with Lois Lane and eventual engagement / marriage -- all stemmed from Stern's steady guidance of the superman mythos. For an excellent non-comics look at Stern's grasp of Superman, check out his great novelization of the Death and Return of Superman - the man knows his Superman, plain and simple, and knows how to make modern mythology in comics form.
4. Elliot S! Maggin - I admit that I haven't read a great deal of Maggin's work. But what I know of him tells me that he is one of the great writers of Superman from the 70's and 80's, a guy who wrote the kind of simple, iconic tales that kids will forever remember as being their favorites long into adulthood. Maggin was a real story guy, a guy who for years put Superman in new situations, introduced him to new and strange characters, and was a real creative force that elevated Superman stories to an as-of-then unprecedented quality and sophistication.
3. Jerry Siegal - What can one say about one half of the team who started it all? The writer of the Siegal-Schuster duo, Jerry Siegal crafted one of the most enduring characters of all time, up there with Odysseus, Zorro, and Moses himself.
2. Alan Moore - Again, what can one say about Alan Moore? The man is bar none one of the best WRITERS of the 20th century, and we as Superman fans are lucky to have his contributions to Superman. Moore simply understands good storytelling - how to conjure emotion, to draw on nostalgia, and yet how to give us something we've never, ever seen before. Moore's "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tommorow?" is an amazing piece of storytelling - for many the best Superman story ever told. In fact, the handful of Superman stories Moore has written are all among the character's best and most memorable. If you've never read "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tommorow" or "For the Man Who Has Everything," go to a bookstore, buy the Best of Alan Moore DC Universe collection, and enjoy.
1. John Byrne - Byrne is a controversial guy of late. But in the 80's, the man could do no wrong. As a writer and artist, he came off of the definitive run on X-Men and then made it his mission to reinvent Superman in 1986. And twenty years later, John Byrne's Man of Steel miniseries is still THE definitive template for the modern day incarnation of Superman. Who is Superman vs. Clark Kent? Lois Lane? Lex Luthor? Lana Lang? Jonathan and Martha Kent? How does Superman feel about Batman? Byrne gave new answers to these questions and totally reshaped Superman ... for the better, giving us a more relatable, cooler, Superman - where Clark Kent was the real guy and Superman the facade. Where Lex Luthor was a power-hungry businessman. Where Lois was a modern woman who could hold her own. Without John Byrne's Man of Steel, there'd be no Lois and Clark, no Smallville, and Superman would still be stuck in the 1930's.
Honorable Mentions: Mark Millar, Grant Morrison, Marv Wolfman
THE BEST SUPERMAN ARTISTS OF ALL TIME:
10. Stuart Immonen - In the 90's on Action Comics and to this day, in works like Superman: Secret Identity, Stuart Immonen presented an almost photo-realistic Man of Steel with a hint of painterliness. With realistic forms yet almost etheral textures, Immonen is one of the defining modern artists when it comes to Superman.
9. Ed McGuinness - Combining traditional American comicbook style with the exaggerated proportions and kinetic energy of Japanese manga, McGuinness has been a breath of fresh air to Superman in te last several years. Often teaming with writer Jeph Loeb, Ed's over the top style suits Loeb's blockbuster action-movie storylines to a T.
8. George Perez - As penciller of the original Crisis on Infinite Earths, Perez drew hundereds of characters with an unprecedented, almost insane level of detail. But he also got to draw some of the all-time iconic and memorable Superman scenes and covers. His Crisis cover with Superman holding a slain Supergirl, as tears roll down his eyes, is one of the greatest and most imitated comic covers of all time. And his depictions of Supermen of multiple earths are classic. Perez's classical, quintissential comicbook style is perfectly suited for the quintessential comicbook character in Superman.
7. Max Fleischer - not a comicbook artist, but one of the artists responsible for some of the most amazing Superman art of all time - the original Superman animated series from the 1940's. using ahead-of-its-time rotoscoping techniques, Fleischer gave his Superman ultra-realistic animation, but infused his cartoons with an ultra-stylized, art-deco aesthetic that to this day, is simply mesmerizing to behold.
6. Joe Schuster - Again, what can you say? The man created one of the most iconic images of our time - the classic red and blue costume, the spit-curl, the origin, the green planet krypton with its red sun. Superman was the artistic template by which countless other heroes come. Visually, Schuster pretty much invented the modern superhero - one of the great American artistic creations of all time. Though his art could be crude and simple, Schuster's skill as a cretor and artistic visionary is indisputable.
5. Tom Grummett - Grummett, in my opinion, is one of the great underrated artists. Perhaps it's because his style isn't particularly flashy, almost a throwback to an earlier era - but for my money, this guy along with Dan Jurgens is perhaps not only the definitive Superman artist of the 90's, but maybe the definitive DC Comics artist. Look at his work. It's so smooth, so seamless - with the pristine qulaity of a Disney animation cell, yet the detail and cool factor of the best modern comic artists. His Superman is just right - traditional yet modern, realistic yet perfectly cartoony. During the 90's, Grummet had to draw all kinds of crazy stuff, yet always brought a workmanlike consistency and quality. It's a testament to how good the guy is that he was literally the ONLY artist who could actually make the electro-blue Superman suit look cool, and THAT is quite the achievement.
4. Dan Jurgens - Like Grummett, Jurgens was consistent as hell in the 90's. But Jurgens gave his superman that little extra oomph that Grummet lacked - a little more muscle, a little more energy, and a real sense of kick-ass coolness. Superman never looked cooler than when Jurgens drew him in the 90's. Jurgens made Supes' fight to the death with Doomsday a truly epic event, all because of the larger than life art and sense of scope it brought to the story. Jurgens' art was just crackling with power. When he drew Darkseid preparing to fight Doomsday in Superman / Doomsday, Hunter / Prey - it was a real holy $#&% moment. And Dan Jurgens did those huge, intense moments better than anyone.
3. Alex Ross - At this point, for me, THE definitive image of Superman is Superman as painted by Alex Ross. Ross' dramatic, iconic style is perfect for the Man of Steel, and his paintings of Superman in works like Kingdom Come and Peace on Earth are simply awe-inspiring. PErhaps my all-time favorite Superman comic book panel was the Alex Ross painting on the last page of Kingdom Come # 1. Talk about Superman Returns - if there was ever a moment in a comic that gave me chills from the ART ALONE - this may have been it. Nobody does Superman like Alex Ross - he paints Superman with the same reverence and gravitas that the great renaissance painters reserved for any of their subjects.
2. John Byrne - Yup, not only was Byrne the reshaper of Superman's mythos as a writer, he also drew those same stories himself and was one hell of an artist. For many, Byrne's cleanly drawn, dynamic version of Superman from the 1980's is THE definitive rendition. Byrne redefined Superman, Lex, Lois, Smallville, and Metropolis not only as a writer but as an artist - putting a modern, yet timeless, sheen on the classic characters. Take a look at the Man of Steel by Byrne ... the bold design, the iconic character designs, the clean lines, the personality inherent in the characters -- this is a canonical version of Superman, no question - an artistic template that would stand for years and stands to this day.
1. Curt Swan - Think Superman. Think classic. Think of Superman talkign with Jerry Seinfeld in that TV commercial from a few years back. More than likely, you're now thinking of Superman as drawn by the late, great Curt Swan. Swan just had that classic sense of dynamism and motion - that simple, elegant, yet instantly identifiable take on Superman that became closely associated with Superman to the point of practically being THE artistic depiction most recognized around the world. Before I discovered Alan Moore's "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tommorow," I mostly though of Swan as an old-school penciller whose Superman was dated and not for me. But after seeing how amazingly Swan's art fit Moore's dark yet nostalgic, hopeful yet melancholy epic, I changed my tune ... this guy was the real deal, then or now - THE Superman artist of the 70's, 80's, or any age for that matter. Curt Swan's Superman is a classic that will forever be associated with the world's original superhero.
Honorable Mentions: Dick Giordano, Jerry Ordway, Jim Lee, Bruce Timm
PREVIOUS SUPERMAN WEEK ENTRIES:
Alright - good times. Tommorow is the day, Superman Returns.
Thursday, June 22, 2006
I freaking love Pixar. I know, so does everyone else, but what can I say -- these guys are the Walt Disney Animation Studios of the 21st century, both figuratively and literally. They are churning out movies that are of such high quality that they are almost instant classics. I think the only thing that really limits the perception of their movies is that they come so frequently, unlike the old Disney movies that were years apart in release. But give Pixar credit - while Disney's animated classics mostly had the advantage of being adapted from already-classic stories, Pixar is going out there and coming up with NEW MATERIAL. Amazing, isn't it? In this day and age, where seemingly every high-concept movie is an adaptation of some kind, here is Pixar, creating all-new stories that nonetheless have nearly the power and timelessness of the old Disney classics.
Do I wish that the Disney animation studios were still going strong, producing a steady stream of hand-drawn, traditionally-animated movies? Hells yes - the fall of traditional 2-D animation, especially at Disney where the artform had truly been mastered, is one of the biggest tragedies of modern cinema. And there's no doubt about it - there is an absolute glut right now of computer-animated movies, most of which are crap. During the previews for Cars alone, I saw at least three or four previews for upcoming CGI releases (nearly all featuring talking animals), that had generic art styles, lame pop-culture refernces, and a grating need to be cool and hip, something that the classics were never concerned with.
But amidst that glut of CGI garbage, there is Pixar. Their quality of animation, of voice-acting, and above all story-telling is just amazingly and consistently good. While it can be argued which of their movies are better than others (Monsters, Inc. = underrated, The Incredibles = overrated), all of their movies have that special quality that elevates them above most.
And Cars is no exception.
To be honest, I was never all that excited about Cars. I'm not really a car afficionado, and I have zero interest in NASCAR or any kind of racing. And I'm generally resentful of American car culture and how we insist on these big, polluting vehicles that damage the environment and turn our country into a giant series of highways. But Cars instantly accomplished something that changed my tune. Like walking through the gates of Disneyland, Cars took everything that was fun, cool, nostalgic, and by-God American about cars and presented a whole world that was like some crazy 1950's-tinged themepark ride that could have come right out of the mind of Walt Disney himself. The retro-futuristic neon signs, the utopian visions of the ultra-sleek racetrack - this wasn't a reflection of the world we live in at all. No, Cars is a nostalgic look at a time when cars represented the Great American Ideals of progress, futurism, and good old-fashioned innovation. And suddenly, as I watched the movie, nearly every once of cynicism I had about the movie's premise, the automotive industry, or anything else vanished, and I felt like a little kid visiting Tommorowland. Damn, Pixar is good.
The voice cast of Cars is awesome. Owen Wilson is great as the fittingly named Lightning McQueen - he does his usual Owen Wilson cocky drawl but it fits the character to a T, and Lightning's gradual progression from self-centered racing star to compassionate hero is pretty seamless. Paul Newman - what can I say, he's a legend playing a legend, and he's basically perfect for the part of the old speedster who chose to finally slow down. All the other voices are excellent, even Larry the Cable Guy who provides both the comic relief and the heart and soul of the movie.
My one character complaint: It was a little bit wrong, in my mind, to have so many of the supporting characters be simple caricatures of cultural stereotypes. You had the hippie car, the Hispanic lowrider car, the sassy black woman car, and the over the top Italian car. I wish these supporting characters were a little bit more well-rounded, so to speak. But hey, if you're going to have Mexican and Hippie stock characters, you may as well go all out and get Cheech Marin and George Carlin to voice them. See, even when Pixar does somewhat lame, stock cultural stereotype characters, they do them better than the competition.
Otherwise, Cars was just magic, baby. The racing scenes were some of the most dynamically-directed action I've seen this summer. The visuals were brimming with detail and character. I mean, think about it - they got us as emotionally invested in TALKING CARS as if they were real people. That's no easy feat.
Thematically, I loved this movie's message. I've always been interested in the notion of small-town America, and some of my favorite stories (many by the great Ray Bradbury) deal with this same theme - the nostalgia for the idyllic, small-town America of yesteryear. Being here in the fast-moving world of Hollywood, I definitely felt some parellels with the plight of Lighting McQueen - the conflict between big city livin' and the simple life that lies in some quiet 'burg just off the beaten track. Cars just had this great sense of retro-nostalgia-futurism that brought out the little kid in me. I was legitimately sad when Lightning sees the town of Radiator Springs as it was in its 1950's heydey, and wishes he could have seen it in its prime. I think we, as a country, all feel that nostalgia for the golden age of post-war America, where the future seemed bright as sterling silver and idealism reigned supreme, before the realities and harsh toll of progress and modernity set in. And that's why the Car is so appropriate a metaphor for these characters -- the great symbol of innovation and invention, now a symbol of traffic jams and commutes to work and smog and greenhouse gasses and greedy oil companies. Cars is all about these contradictions, and amazingly is more thematically rich than most live action, "adult" movies I've seen.
Again, few complaints from me. The running time was a little long, and there were some sections that dragged a bit towards the middle of the movie. As I mentioned, some of the characters seemed a little two-dimensional (no pun intended).
But in the end, I came out of Cars thoroughly wowed and impressed -- Pixar had done it again. Cars made me think, it captivated me with its visual spectacle, and invested me in its characters. It had me dreaming of neon signs and small towns and big races - and that's what movies like this are all about, right?
My grade: A -
Tuesday, June 20, 2006
And as I peruse one of my new favorite blogs, thecompanybitch.blogspot.com, I wonder what is going on. Here I am, coming to work wearing khaki pants and a button down shirt, sitting in an office staring at a computer, "managing" things for a large corporation, doing such tasks as making Excel charts, cc'ing people on emails, and trying to figure out the best position for my computer monitor.
Nevertheless, I can't complain too much right now. In a way this could be just the interim position I need to be in before I take some as of yet unknown next step into the Hollywood wilderness. I'm not really doing typical assistant tasks, like rolling calls or anything like that, which is great, as I really can't say I'm a fan of, or particularly skilled at, handling high volumes of phone traffic, especially when the people on the other end are the typical, you know, showbiz types.
This office really is kinda funny though. It's an odd mix of buttoned-up new media people (weird as I think of new media people in the silicon-valley, let's-have-fun with Google! in our funky new-agey office-spaces stereotype), along with the crew from Bravo. 'Nuff said. Not that there's anything wrong with that ...
Anyways, it is what it is. It's too early to really comment, I guess. Today is already much better than yesterday, where I had to arrive at Universal at 8 am to give the movers the go-ahead to move my stuff to Pinnacle. I was totally wiped out from Sunday's NBC Page Bonfire. Even if I hadn't had to wake up so early, I would have been out of it. The early start time combined with the usual weariness that comes with starting in new surroundings made yesterday the longest day ever. I could not wait to bolt out of work and rush home to collapse on my bed and seize all physical / mental function.
On one random note ... I saw JOAN RIVERS, followed by a small crew of assistants, entering the Pinnacle building yesterday, on my first day at work there. OH! OH! Haha, very odd. By all acouunts - the way she walked, moved, her posture - she was every bit the 70-something elderly Jewish woman she actually is. Just one who happens to have a freakishly smooth face. Presumably she was there to meet with Bravo or something, but who knows.
But getting away from all this work crap ...
- Sad, I know -- I LOST THE GREAT NACHO LIBRE BET WITH ABBY.
What does this mean for YOU?!?! Well, it means that, as an added stipulation to our wager, ou will soon see a special edition of the blog that is written by special-guest contributor Abby! I know, I know, it should be interesting ...
But, about Nacho:
Nacho still took in a nifty 27 million or so, but I admit that 40 mil was a bit of a bold prediction on my part. With something that attracts a cult audience, it's really hard to tell just how big that audience actually is, because all the internet chatter, t-shirt sales, etc can at times lead one to overestimate something's actual fanbase. I think Nacho probably did perform VERY well in its targeted demo of kids and teens. It's problem was that unlike, say, the Wedding Crashers, most people over 35 probably have no clue why Jack Black in a lucha libre mask is supposed to be funny. Napoleon Dynamite launched with little fanfare and soon became a cult, near-mainstream hit. Nacho had all the expectations of a post-Napoleon landscape riding on its shoulders, and the starpower of Jack Black to boot, so it definitely carried with it a lot of hype. The funny thing is that critics and even audiences seemed surprised to find not a "Jack Black movie" (whatever that is) but a Jared Hess movie -- quirky and simplistic, anything but conventional, and unique in its deadpan style of humor.
So yes, I lost the bet, but I think that Nacho is a great second effort from Hess that will have pretty good legs at the box office and do great on DVD as well.
And now, on to the REVIEW ...
But first off, a word on critics.
Every critic has moments where they win or lose you. Of course, you can't agree with a particular critic 100 % of the time, but sometimes a critic's particular review is either so in line with your own sensibilities, or so out of whack, that you look at them in a whole new light. For years growing up, I would read the Hartford Courant's movie reviews and HATE what I saw. The hack critic at the Courant, I believe he was named Malcolm Johnson, was TERRIBLE. He basically hated everything unless it was a classic, Oscar-baiting white-collar piece of cinema. He gave all action, sci-fi, horror, and kids movies bad reviews. Of course, he didn't like most comedies either. And his reviews spent three quarters of the allotted space detailing the movie's plot, even if it was, say, Judge Dread. He never placed movies within the context of their genre, and never really explained why he did or didn't like a movie except in brief sentances praising the acting or direction. So yeah, Malcolm whatever-his-name-was lost me at a very young age.
But then I discovered Gene Siskel. Yes, of Siskel and Ebert. Siskel gave a little known movie that I loved called Dark City a great review - one of the only critics to do so at its release. At that moment, I was a Siskel fan.
Ain't It Cool News had my loyalty from the moment I discovered where it was coming from. A bunch of geeks who got so mad with the atrocities that Joel Schumaker committed to the Batman franchise that they vowed to scrutinize all genre films to the Nth degree.
Anyways, I have always been an Owen Glieberman fan from EW. He seems to be a real "pop culture" reviewer, recognizing when something is cool, new, different, or just plain exciting in terms of filmmaking. He is one of my go-to reviewers for mainstream drama, action, or scifi movies because his assessments are usually fair and well-explained. But now, I think Owen has lost me. Just as I don't know if I can look at Roger Ebert quite the same way after his recent, totally insane, in-character-as-Garfield review of Garfield 2, I don't know if I can trust Glieberman on comedies anymore.
His review of Nacho Libre was just terrible. He gave the movie a D+. What?!?! On what grading scale is Nacho Libre a D+ ? And his reasons for disliking it were completely inane. He compared it to movies like Tommy Boy that he disliked but then went on to appreciate once he caught them on late-night cable. Except he predicted that even repeated late night cable viewings of Nacho would not change his opinion. Owen came at his review from the completely wrong angle, and it leads me to believe that his comedic sensibilities are just not very good.
Just one more elaboration on why you can rarely trust critics when it comes to certain types of comedies.
- Now, SUPERMAN RETURNS ... it's getting stellar reviews from numerous sources, which in a way is getting me more excited to see it. BUT. Here's the thing with superhero movies. Most mainstream critics want their superhero movies to be as un-superhero-y as possible. They don't care about the source material, or the expectations of the fanbase (action! actual superheroics! a great villain! kickass-ness!). Still, recent superhero movies like X-Men, Spiderman, and Batman Begins, have been able to please both fans and mainstream critics by working as mainstream films AND being true to their source material. It's been a while since there's been a GOOD superhero movie that was a GOOD MOVIE but NOT in line with fan expectations. The Hulk might be an example. Or Tim Burton's Batman. Or yes, Richard Donner's SUPERMAN films.
So that's what Superman Returns is shaping up to be -- a good, maybe great movie in and of itself, that still, is not even close to what I want a Superman movie to be.
Right, back to Nacho ....
NACHO LIBRE Review:
I honestly thought that Nacho was a great comedy. Was it perfect? No. Was it the same blast of new-style comedy that Napoleon Dynamite was in the summer of 2004? Nope. But was it a funny, heart-filled, enjoyable comedy from start to finish? Hells yes.
I love this style of comedy. It's light-hearted, kid-appropriate, and innocent without losing its bite. Some have called Jared Hess' pension for oddball characters condescending, but I don't think that's the case at all. I think Hess' affection for his characters always shines through. And as one review I read puts it, what Hess does, in a way, is that he creates offbeat, slightly surreal worlds for his characters to inhabit that are probably not too far off from how the characters themselves see things through their eyes. In Napoleon Dynamite, the entire movie takes on the cartoony nature of one of Napoleon's quirky notebook doodles. In Nacho Libre, the entire movie, similarly, feels like a storybook that Nacho himself may have cobbled together for the orphans that he looks after. And I don't think that's condescending, just having a unique, funny, quirky vision for your movie's universe and characters.
Like Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho is filled with lines that are funny just because of how they are said. Jack Black's eyebrow-raising as he tells his nun friend about "lucha libre." His mopey angst at having no good "duties." You want to repeat every line after it is said just because the actors are having so much fun with what they are saying.
"I believe in Science."
"It is true ... I am Nacho."
"I was in ... the wilderness."
Just the way that Hess, writer Mike White, and the actors have so much fun playing around with words and ways of speaking is great. It makes dialogue that looks flimsy on paper instantly quotable, and every line infinitely memorable. The simplicity with which Hess and co create comedy is really pretty amazing.
Now so many critics say Napoleon Dynamite had no heart, which I don't see at all. I think that movie is full of heart, in its own way. But Nacho wears its heart on its sleeve. This movie is all heart, but not in a way that is disagreeable. It's all heart in the manner of Doug, or Pete and Pete, or the other classic Nickelodeon shows (this is a Nickelodeon film, after all), where its quirkiness and simplistic, kid-friendly charm wins you over and you begin to unapologetically root for the hero as if you've never seen another underdog-does-good movie before.
Jack Black is very funny as Nacho - his bombastic, flashy ring persona is constantly pushing to escape his subdued, restrained humble orphanage cook persona. Like all of us, he dreams of a better life of fame and fortune, not by being a movie star, but as a luchador - a participant in the high-flying, free-form style of Mexican wrestling known as Lucha Libre.
I love the absurdity of Lucha Libre. In Mexico, there is a real air of legitimacy around wrestling in that it's stars are treated as real-life superheroes, and the identities of masked wrestlers are kept completely secret. Losing one's mask is considered as being shamed, and so masked luchadors never remove heir masks when in public. Nacho plays up the absurdities of lucha libre, but revels in its fun. Obviously, Jared Hess has a real passion for the strange world of lucha libre, and that passion comes through throughout the movie. Like with Napoleon, he is pointing out the inherent absurdities of this world, but in a way that is so filled with passion so as to negate any perceived meanness.
Again, this movie was not perfect. The build-up to Nacho's climactic wrestling match was pretty short, and his archrival Ramses was not given much personality except as Stock Badguy #1. Some of the scenes fell a little flat, but that's to be expected in a movie where practically every word or twitch of Jack Black's eyebrow is a potential punchline. Also, Nacho's lust for his long-lashed nun friend seemed almost tragic -- we are happy for their friendship but the lack of possibility for romance is kind of an odd way to setup these two characters. I guess it's the mormon version of a romantic subplot ...?
Anyways, I had a ton of fun with this movie, and look forward to seeing it again and reliving all the funny lines and moments. I hope that more of these comedies come down the pipeline, as they are a great alternative to the latest Obnoxious Guy-Woos-Woman-And-Wins-Us-Over frat pack comedy. I'm happy that kids have movies like these to enjoy, that inspire and excite without the usual endless stream of PG-13 sex jokes.
D+? No way. Gliberman, come out of your cynical cave of poor comedic taste and embrace your inner luchador. I know I have.
My Grade: A -
- This past weekend was good times all around. KC, Whitney, and Megan's party on Saturday was most excellent, and the 2nd Annual NBC Page Bonfire (my first as a former page) was great times, even if the traffic to and from Dockweiller Beach near LAX was horrendous. Still, it was great to see all the old-school NBC peeps this weekend, as well as to meet the new class of NBC Pages (by new class I mean anyone who started after I finished). Footballs were thrown, sandwiches were eaten, stories told 'round the bonfire, and good times for all. Have I mentioned it was good times?
- NBA FINALS tonight .... daaaaaaaaamn. It's on now.
- Long entry, I know. I've got more to say but no more time to say it. Peace out for now.
Sunday, June 4, 2006
Well, the weekend is almost over and, as I alluded to in my previous entry, this week is going to be a very interesting one at work. Change is coming on the job-front, so stay tuned here for updates.
But what I want to talk about now is Superman. As you readers can probably tell, I am kind of a Superman nut. So I, like many fans of the Man of Steel, am anticipating the upcoming big screen return of the original superhero with a mix of dread and excitement. Excitement because, hey, it's Superman. At his best, it's a character that is an inspiration - a symbol of our hopes and dreams and ideals. An adventurer in the tradition of Ulysses and Hercules. As much a symbol of Americana and our pre-war ideals as George Washington or Uncle Sam. As much a pop cultural icon as anyone. And a walking morality play as a character who constantly demands of us, in each new era, to reexamine the meaning behind his credo of "Truth, Justice, and the American Way." So yeah - to see the Big Red S on the big screen, in live action, is an event. Especially in a time like this one, with so much political uncertainty and desire for heroes, I think there is a desire for Superman to, well, return, in a big way.
But there is that dread to. Dread because Bryan Singer and his writing team seem poised to deliver a Superman that is not the one we want. They seem to be going for an homage to and continuation of the Richard Donner-directed movies that have their roots in the late 70's. They seem to have cast an effiminate lead to play Superman, a too-young Kate Bosworth to play Lois Lane, and Kevin Spacey seems to be channeling the goofiness of Gene Hackman in his latest take on Lex Luthor. The script seems to be focused on angst, romance, and inner turmoil - and short on big action and big themes.
But who knows, maybe the movie will come through. It's still too early to know. In the meantime though, here is my list of the best Superman stories ever written. Stories that paid tribute to the character's past and laid the groundwork for his future. Anyone looking for some good Superman stories should definitely check these out as we inch closer to the movie's release date. It's interesting though -- there really have not been that many GREAT Superman stories. There's been a lot of GOOD stuff, and a lot of that good stuff is found in a number of random single issues strewn throughout the character's decades of being published. Some of those I've read, some I haven't. Unlike Batman, who has had many deconstructionist, adult takes from the likes of mature-readers writers like Frank Miller, Superman has mostly worked best as a larger than life adventure character, and has never really had a story told with the mass appeal, mainstream critical acclaim, and classic status of "Year One" or "The Dark Knight Returns."
For me, the story that got it all started was The Death and Return of Superman epic in the early 90's. For me as a then-preteen boy, the story had everything I could want from a comic book. A huge serialized adventure that had me bracing for each new issue, awesome artwork, a huge cast of characters ... it was a perfect introduction to the DC Universe and its years of history and thousands of characters. Post-Death, the Superman comics kept me hooked even though the quality was up and down, with numerous attempts to recapture the spectacle that was the Death of Superman, which at the time fueled a huge speculator boom in the comics industry and nearly collapsed the entire market. Even in the midst of some poor attempts at "event" stories, the superman comics at thie time had some great self-contained tales, and great art from the likes of Dan Jurgens and Tom Grummet and Stuart Immonen, among others. But the fact was that half the fun of that era came from the focus on the supporting cast of characters, whose supblots continued weekly from title to title. Obviously, it's hard to maintain a great ongoing Superman saga over a long period of time, considering that with the way the stories are told you can't do anything to drastic to alter the characacters from the classic versions - but I think that that 80's-90's era, beginning with John Bryne's Superman re-defining Man of Steel series and ending sometime in the late 90's, did a remarkable job of making Superman / Clark Kent, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Lex Luthor, and the rest feel like REAL people, even when the plotlines weren't up to par.
And again, it's hard to tell good, ongoing Superman stories when you can only do so much to change the character. Perhaps this is why some of the best Superman stories deal with alternate versions of the character, where the familiar is placed against a backdrop of the unfamiliar - the future, alternate timelines, "imaginary" stories, etc. Other great Superman stories focus on Superman's role in the larger DC universe, and are effective by showing why, even in a fictional world overpopulated with heroes, Superman is the best of the best. And of course, a few of the best Superman stories are by Alan Moore ... because he is just that damn good. What doesn't work? Well, Bryan Singer take note -- at least one otherhyped-up Superman story in recent years fell totally flat and was slammed by fans for showing a weak, ineffectual, angsty Superman. Superman: For Tommorow, written by Brian Azzarello (known for his talent with hard-boiled crime fiction -- sound familiar?), was gobbled up by fans due to the pairing of Azzarello with legendarily kick-ass artist Jim Lee. But the meandering, confusing plot turned off fans attracted by the high-profile creative team.
So will Superman Returns take it's place next to classic Superman tales like these, or be the second coming of For Tommorow? Remains to be seen ... but for now, here's the Best Superman stories of all time. Happy reading.
THE BEST SUPERMAN STORIES OF ALL-TIME.
20. Superman: Time and Time Again - (writer: Roger Stern, etc., artist: Jerry Ordway, Dan Jurgens, etc.) In modern continuity, Superman never lived during World War II, but in this time-travel story, the modern Man of Steal gets caught up in a time-traveling adventure and visits the stone age, Camelot, WWII, and the far future! A lot of fun situations for Superman, and a great science fiction story from one of the best modern eras of Superman stories by some of his best creative teams.
19. Jimmy Olsen: Adventures by Jack Kirby (by Jack Kirby) - There's a reason Kirby is called "King." He's one of the greatest creative minds and most dynamic artists of all time, and when he lft Marvel in the 70's, the cocreator of the X-Men, Hulk, Fantastic Four, and others brought his energy to Superman, populating the DC Universe with an entire world of strange new characters and concepts. And of all the odd places to do it, Kirby picked the kind of obscure Jimmy Olsen comic - a spinoff of Superman focusing on Clark Kent's danger-prone pal. It was in this comic that Kirby staked his territory at DC, planting the seeds for his Fourth World - including the introduction of one of Superman's greatest villains - Darkseid. While the stories are pretty dated, the artwork and overall sense of fun and adventure remains.
18. Superman: They Saved Luthor's Brain (writer: Roger Stern, artist: Butch Guice, etc) - Another series of tales from the 80's / early 90's era, this collection of Lex Luthor-centric stories presents the classic villain at his best - aka, at his worst. We see a Lex Luthor who is so paranoid of Superman that he always wears a kyptonite ring to ward off his enemy - a move which ultimately infects Luthor with a deadly form of cancer. But even impending death can't stop Lex - desperate to beat his illness, Lex fakes his own death, disappears, and, well ... read the story (though the title may give some hints). A great collection of Lex Luthor showing why he is one of Superman's greatest foes.
17. Superman / Doomsday: Hunter / Prey - (by Dan Jurgens) - following the Death and Return of Superman, DC often tried to replicate the can't-miss, big event feel of that much publicized storyline. Most of the efforts fell flat, but surprisingly, the direct follow-up to Death, featuring the first rematch between Superman and Doomsday - the beast that killed him, was legitimately exciting. With perhaps the best artwork of Jurgen's stellar career, and an epic story filled with characters like Waverider and Darkseid (Darkseid vs. Doomsday!), that fleshed out the orgin of Doomsday with a pretty shocking (at the time) twist -- this was nothing if not a pretty kickass book. Doomsday has since been brought back many times ad nauseam, but really, only this first return carried with it the impact that the character should really have.
16. Superman / Aliens - (writer: Dan Jurgens, artist: Kevin Nowlan) - Jurgens has always been a great artist, and as an "idea guy" he is great ... but as a pure writer? Well, he ain't exactly Alan Moore. But he does excel at the big epics, which makes him a natural for a battle between Superman and the Aliens (aka the big nasty monsters from the "Alien" movies). Surprisingly though, this story captures much of the intensity, cluastrophobia, and character of the original Alien film, and is a damn good read, which is a rare thing for an intercompany Superman crossover. This is a hidden gem that is a lot better than it has any real right to be.
15. Superman: The Wedding Album (by Dan Jurgens, Karl Kesell, Tom Grummett, and more) - Supposedly, the long-awaited wedding between Clark Kent and Lois Lane was rushed in the comics to coincide with the wedding taking place on the Lois and Clark TV Show. But in the comics, the wedding had been a LONG time in the making, in a way. There was only, what, 60 years of history between Clark and Lois? And in the modern continuity, their engagement, in the monumental Superman #50 (preceded by Clark finally revealing his secret ID to Lois), seemed to indicate that a wedding was on the way. But a little thing called DEATH interrupted the plans. So while there wasn't much build-up in the comics to the wedding immediately preceding this special issue, the special itself was truly a joy to read, with an all-star collection of artists and writers paying tribute to Clark and Lois. While the followup issues, ie the "honeymoon," were underwhelming, the wedding itself was a comics moment for the ages. I said before that the writers of this era (the 90's) really made you feel like you knew these characters -- well it's a testament to them that this felt less liek the marriage of two icons of pop culture and more like the wedding of two people you knew as friends - friends who have Batman on their guest list.
14. Superman: Emperor Joker (writers: Jeph Loeb, Joe Kelly, etc., artists: Ed McGuiness, Duncan Roulou, etc) - The modern, late 90's -to- present era of Superman has seen a number of high profile writers take on Superman, but overall, the stories just lacked the fun and continuity of the 80's and 90's. But when the "new" era of Superman FIRST came about, it seemed to have a ton of promise, as one of the first "big" stories from Jeph Loeb, Joe Kelly was a near-classic. Sadly, this group would rarely again reach these same creative heights during their run, but what we have here is an epic tale of an altered univerese where nothing is what it seems ... because the force behind this strange reality is none other than The Joker, granted omnipotence in a sick, cosmic twist of fate. Oddly, this story has not yet been collected into trade paperback form, but I'm sure it will happen eventually, as it remains one of the most fun and sprawling Superman tales of the last ten years. Also, it was the breakout story for Ed McGuinness, whose classic-meets-anime take on Superman was one of the key artistic takes of the decade.
13. Superman: Red Son - (writer: Mark Millar, artist: Dave Johnson) There have been many "Elseworlds" Superman stories throughout the years - "what if?" style tales where Superman lives in other times, has his origin changed, and even whole stories that are simply about "what if Superman never existed in the DC Universe?" But of the altered-origin Elseworlds, this one is likely the best - a dark, mature take on Superman by Mark Millar that asks: "What if Superman's rocket landed not in Smallville, Kansas - but in Communist Russia?" This is a surprisingly kickass story, that examines what makes Superman well, Superman, and has a lot of interesting political subtext. It also features the best Superman vs. Batman fight outside of The Dark Knight Returns, which is worth the price of admission alone.
12. Superman: Eradication - (by Roger Stern, Dan Jurgens, George Perez, Jerry Ordway, etc.) - Yet another story from the 80's / 90's era of Superman, this is the ultimate look at the question of - Superman: earthman or alien? When Superman finds a strange artifact from Krypton - the Eradicator - he soon finds himself caught up in the machine's edict to preserve Krypton at all costs - even if it means remaking Krypton on Earth. Possesed by the device, Superman forsakes his Clark Kent identity and resumes his role as the Last Son of Krypton! This story introduces a ton of elements into the modern Superman mythos - the Eradicator would pop up in a number of later stories - and is also a great story in and of itself, one of the highlights of the post-Crisis (aka post 1986) era of Superman.
11. Superman: Peace on Earth - (writer: Paul Dini, artist: Alex Ross) - With just a select few projects, Alex Ross has established himself as one of the all time great, iconic, and definitive artists when it comes to Superman. Ross' paintings capture the awe, the majesty, the iconography of Superman better than anyone, and in this oversized graphic novel, the beautiful artwork of Alex Ross is combined with the simple, breezy words of Batman: Animated Series wunderkind Paul Dini to make for an elegant read that basically sums up what Superman is all about. No big fights, no supervillains - just a message of peace and hope and the most stunning Superman artwork one could ask for.
10. Superman: The Fall of Metropolis - (writers: Dan Jurgens, Karl Kessel, Roger Stern, artists: Jurgens, Ordway, Grummett, Guice, etc) - I'm not sure how others feel about this one, but this was probably the first big event story after Death and Return that I felt really lived up to the hype, and was kind of the climactic moment for the "Triangle" era of the 90's, during which all four Superman comics were linked weekly by a numbering system, so that stories continued week to week. Basically, this was the ultimate battle between Superman and Lex Luthor - Lex's tight control of his public image began to slip away, and Lex slowly became exposed to the public for the criminal and fraud that he was. So with nothing left to lose, with his health slipping and loyalists deserting him, - Lex, a beaten man, says to hell with dignity and vows to take down Metropolis with him. An epic story that was really well done, this was one of the most fun Superman vs. Lex Luthor stories that I can remember reading.
9. Superman: Panic in the Sky - (writers: Roger Stern, Dan Jurgens, etc, artists: Jurgens, Grummet, etc.) Just as Fall of Metropolis was the big Superman vs. Luthor story of the 80's / 90's, this was the big Superman as general-in-a-cosmic-war storyline of the same period. This story was just a hell of a lot of fun. It's Superman leading an army of heroes against an invading alien armada, led by one of Superman's greatest foes - Braniac (currently featured on SMALLVILLE). There are unlikely alliances (Deathstroke?), moments of heroism, of tragedy, and plenty of high adventure. Great artwork as well, with Tom Grummet and Dan Jurgens doing lots of great group scenes. While this doesn't have the sophisitication of more modern comic book stories, it has that classic feel that you just don't see anymore.
8. Superman: For The Man Who Has Everything - (writer: Alan Moore, artist: Dave Gibbons) - What happens when you take the creative team behind Watchmen and have them do a Superman story? Duh, you get one of the best Superman stories ever, of course. Recently adapted into the Justice League cartoon, this self-contained story has intergalactic despot Mongul inflicting the ultimate pain on Superman - showing him, through a hallucinegenic plant, the life he COULD have had. A life on a Krypton that never blew up- normal, happy, carefree, in love, with family. And when Superman wakes up, and realizes that he just lived out a life that could never be, well, let's just say he is PISSED. A classic story and one of the best ever.
7. Superman: Secret Identity - (writer: Kurt Busiek, artist: Stuart Immonen) - Another Elseworlds story, this is another somewhat dark, realistic take on the Superman mythos. Acclaimed writer Kurt Busiek asks: "What if, in OUR world, the REAL world, someone who happened to be named Clark Kent somehow developed all the powers and abilities of the comic book hero Superman? What would happen? How would his parents, friends, the government REALLY react?" Now the realistic take on Superman is cool, but what makes this story great is that Busiek gets inside the head of this version of Clark Kent and really makes him come alive. We follow Clark from his childhood, to young adulthood, to middle age, and more than anything this is a story about growing up and living life as much as it is a story about Superman. This stroy is poignant and unpredictable, and the art by Immonen is realistic, graceful, and some of his best ever.
6. The Death and Return of Superman Saga - (by Dan Jurgens, Roger Stern, Karl Kessell, Tom Grummett, Louise Simonson, etc.) - Well, this story has its detractors, and sure, when read by a discerning adult it has some obvious flaws. But to me as an eleven year old reading this, alongside Batman: Knightfall, in 1992 and 1993 -- wow, this was IT. This was the story that got me into comics. This was the story that got me looking everywhere, anywhere, for the next issue - often scouring the bookstores of CT for the next chapter of this epic saga in the absence of real comic stores in my area. First there was the Death -- the sudden coming of Doomsday and the epic fight to end all fights as Doomsday took out the entire Justice League, with only Superman left to stop him. Superman made his final stand in Metropolis, and as Jimmy, Lois, and the world watched, Superman defeated Doomsday with his last breath, giving his very life saving the world. The story had larger than life art by Dan Jurgens, perhaps the definitive Superman artist of the 90's, with each new issue of the story having less panels per page, until the infamous Death issue, Superman 75, was comprised solely of full-page panels that depicted Superman's chilling final moments. And now, sure, it was naive to think that DC would really kill off Superman forever, but the eleven year olds across the world sure thought that our hero was a goner. We read the following Funeral For a Friend storyline, saw the other heroes mourn their greatest champion, saw the continued machinations of Lex Luthor, and finally, the emergence of Four would-be Supermen - Steel, the Cyborg, Superboy, and the Eradicator - each claiming to be the real-deal Man of Steel. But the real highlight, storywise, was the Return - aka Reign of the Supermen. It was good vs. evil, new characters, old characters, mystery, action, all told weekly, WEEKLY, on a grand stage. And all the time wondering if, when, the legit Man of Tommorow would return. This is the stuff that makes boys into fanboys, that creates fans of the Superman. Say what you will, but this story was the bomb.
5. Superman: For All Seasons - (writer: Jeph Loeb, artist: Tim Sale) - While the pair of Loeb and Sale are hailed mostly for their work on Batman, they also teamed up to create on of the great Superman stories -- For All Seasons. The story takes a look at Clark Kent, growing up in Smallville and venturing out to Metropolis, expanding on John Bryne's Man of Steel in the same way Long Halloween expanded on the world of Frank Miller's Batman: Year One. Loeb takes us inside the heads of Clark, Lana Lang, the Kents, and even Lex Luthor - giving us a Superman origin story that is more about character than most Superman stories we've seen. Tim Sale's art is lush, pastoral, vivid, stylized. Odd at times, but ultimately effective at bringing Loeb's story to life. This is the best aspects of TV's Smallville combined with the classic elements of Man of Steal - and a great look not so much at Superman, but at Clark Kent.
4. Superman: The Man of Steel (by John Bryne) - This is the definitive origin story of Superman, and the story that revitalized Superman creatively in the mid-1980's and set the tone for all Superman stories to follow TO THIS DAY. In a way, though the tale itself is good, its almost more signifigant for WHAT it accomplishes rather than HOW. It makes Superman a viable, modern character - it makes Clark Kent a rounded individual, a personality that is the reality of Superman, the real person behind the costume, and not the other way around. We have Clark's adoptive parents, the Kents, still alive and playing a prominent role in their son's development, making him human even if his origins are extraterrestrial. We have Clark as a teen struggling over how to use his powers - does he tell his childhood sweetheart Lana Lang? Does he go out for football? As the story progresses, Lois Lane enters the picture - a snappy, independent, modern woman, a star reporter and a match for any man, not merely a damsel in distress. And most of all, Lex Luthor. No longer is Luthor a simple mad scientist or cartoonish supervillain. From this point forward, Luthor was a modern form of evil - a businessman, CEO of LexCorp. Bryne reinvented Lex Luthor as someone whose evil was hidden and covert, who was above the law, who resented Superman because he overshadowed Lex's rightful place as Metropolis' favorite son. Bryne totally changed the Superman - Luthor dynamic, updating the mythos for the modern day in a manner that was so well thought out that it holds up to this day. Even the Superman-Batman relationship was redefined here, with the two as reluctant allies with similar goals but opposing methods, no longer the super-chums of old. While others have attempted to re-redefine Superman over the years, see (Mark Waid's contrived modern take on the origin story, Superman: Birthright), Bryne's story endures because it got things right, fixing some of the key elements of the Superman legend and essentially setting the stage for a new era of stories. (Sidenote: Also highly recommended are the subsequent John Bryne Superman stories, collected in the Man of Steel series of paperbacks, that have a number of great stories from Bryne's mid-80's relaunch of the core Superman titles, where his new take on Superman, his vilalins, and his supporting cast is further explored.). It's too bad that even as Lois and Clark, Smallville, and the animated series have borrowed from Bryne and his successors, Bryan Singer and co seem to still be living in the pre-Man of Steel era.
3. Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tommorow (writer: Alan Moore, artists: Curt Swan and George Perez) - Knowing that John Bryne was set to reboot the Superman titles following the DC universe-shaking Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1986, legendaey editor Julius Schwartz decided to say goodbye to the Superman continuity that had existed since Action Comics #1 in 1938 with a huge, "farewell" story to the classic version of Superman. When you have the best comics writer ever, Alan Moore, teamed with perhaps the definitive Sperman artist of all time, Curt Swan, along with then-up-and-comer (and now legendary in his own right) George Perez ... well, you know you're in for something special. This two-part story is a giant tribute to al lthe great Superman stories of the past, with a slightly darker undertone indicating the modern era that Superman was about to enter. In any case, there is certainly an air of finality to it - this really is the "last" Superman story before the cosmic reset button was hit, and Alan Moore goes out with a bang. Superman is attacked by man of his old enemies, once his secret ID is exposed to the world. Barricaded in his arctic Fortress with Lois and other loved ones, Superman fights a desperate battle against Luthor, Braniac, and the deadly Krypton Man. The surprise ending is a classic, but a fitting end to decades worth of stories. Then again, as was said about this story - "It's an imaginary story, but then again, aren't they all?" A classic.
2. Superman: What's So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way? (writer: Joe Kelly, artist: Doug Mahnke) - It's funny, this single issue Superman tale, from Action Comics 775 from a few years's back, really came out of nowhere. Joe Kelly was a good writer, sure, but he is incredibly hit and miss. He often goes for huge concepts and seems to have more going on in his head than he can coherantly fit onto the page. His stories are often confusing to the point of frustration, complex to the point of ridiculousness, and often unsatisfying in conclusion. But man, when he hits it out of the park, he REALLY hits it out of the park. With this story, Kelly did what few others have been able to do -- he showed why Superman is relevant TODAY, in the post 9/11 era, in a world where the very idea of Truth, Justice, and the American Way seems outdated and anachronistic - of an earlier, more naive, more innocent time. In a flash of brilliance, Kelly creates a great setup - a new team of anti-heroes, The Elite, is on a rampage, stopping crimes with violent aplomb and disregard for their means. Superman confronts the Elite, led by their charismatic leader, Manchester Black, and is drawn into a battle that he cannot hope to win. But what starts off as a fight of strength soon becomes a battle of ideals, and with the world watching, Superman dismatles and humiliates the Elite, and does it HIS way, showing that no, there isn't anything funny about Superman or what he represents. When I first read this story, I was totally surprised and blown away - where did this come from? Wow. And quickly, word spread, that this right here was maybe the most important Superman comic book of our time. In the wake of 9/11, many Superman stories tried to inspire patriotism, but few were really effective, as Superman at the time was caught up in a largely pointless crossover story called Our Worlds At War that coincidentally mirrored 9/11 but also existed in a comic book fantasy-world vaccuum. What Joe Kelly did here, backed up by the raw, gritty art of Doug Mahnke, was to write an utterly kickass Superman story that is also the definitive reason and justification for why, exactly, this character persists into the new millenium, which is a pretty damn remarkable feat.
1. Kingdom Come - (writer: Mark Waid / Alex Ross, artist: Alex Ross). Sure, this isn't strictly a Superman story. It's another "Elseworlds" story that deal with a future, dystopian vision of the DC Universe. But when I think about the most powerful images of Superman that I've ever seen, the ones that made me stand up and cheer, that gave me chills, that made me love Superman - a good number of them can be found here, in this modern-day masterpiece, not only one of the best Superman stories ever told, but one of the best comic stories, in the tradition of Watchmen and the Dark Knight Returns. For the uninitiated, Kingdom Come is a four-part series featuring stunning painted art by Alex Ross, that looks at a DC Universe where all the old heroes - Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, have retired or otherwise hidden themselves fro mthe public eye. In their place, a new generation of heroes emerges - heroes who don't adhere to the old ideals od justice or morality - heroes who are barely distinguishable from the villains they fight. When the leader of these new heroes, Magog, carelessly leads his troops into a fight that triggers a nuclear explosion in Kansas, a retired Superman must reemerge to show the young 'uns how it's done. But the world that Clark Kent returns to is a far cry from the world of heores that he left. You want to talk about Superman Returns? Never have I seen a more awes-inspiring depiction of Superman than his dramatic return at the end of Kingdom Come's opening chapter. A streak of yellow and red and blue in the sky, a woosh of air - a bird, a plane? No, as you turn the page the striking work of Alex Ross hits you right between the eyes. Superman is BACK - greying hair, lines under the eyes, yes, but man, the Man is back, and the black and red "S' on his chest indicates that he means business. I don't want to spoil the twists and turns of Kingdom Come for those who haven't read it, but it is another example of Superman at his best. This story, the story that put Alex Ross in the map, is pure magic from start to finish - the most powerful and epic and awe-inspiring depiction of Superman ever put to screen or page.
Alright - whew, that was quite a list. Hope you liked it. Back with more soon - until next time.