Keeping an invulnerable hero from getting too boring
Superman is boring. I don't mean the Superman stories are boring. Some of them are, some of them aren't. I mean that Superman himself is boring, with his invulnerable command of everything from ventriloquism to time travel. Having granted the character godlike powers, his writers have had to go through incredible contortions to give him fresh challenges. It's like trying to write a spy thriller about a unipolar world with near-perfect homeland security.
Yet Superman has lasted nearly 70 years, not just in comics but in radio, movies, TV, books, and lunchboxes; his most recent vehicle, Bryan Singer's film Superman Returns, debuts this week. You don't survive so long by boring people. Krypton's favorite son has defeated hundreds of aliens, monsters, supervillains, and falling pieces of debris, but his greatest accomplishment has been to surmount his own superiority and keep people interested in his adventures. Roughly speaking, he has done this in four ways:
1. Starting over. If the fully mature Superman is too perfect to be interesting, you can always turn back to the beginning of his career. Not only is the novice superhero more fallible, but he comes bundled with a tried-and-true plot: Whatever you might think of the yarns that followed it, Superman has a mighty resonant origin story. It's so resonant, in fact, that we get to hear it over and over. Christopher Reeve's first Superman movie updated the tale for the '70s. Six years after that four-film series ran out of gas in 1987, the TV show Lois & Clark rebooted the story yet again, this time set in the '90s. After that one sputtered out, it was just four years before another program, Smallville, showed a teenaged Clark Kent coming to terms with life in the early twenty-first century. Those last two shows made their hero even more human by focusing on Kent, not his caped alter ego.
Hollywood can and probably will do this forever, but it still has to keep coming up with stories for its star reborn, as do the more lowbrow purveyors of comic books and TV cartoons. And then the problem of Superman's invulnerability comes back, leading us to method number two:
2. Finding a good villain. Every actor knows it's more fun to play the bad guy than the hero. That's especially true if you're cast opposite Superman. He's the ultimate straight man, Abbott and Bert and Margaret Dumont rolled up in one blue and red costume. Everyone knows he'll defeat you, but you'll get all the good lines.
So Superman's memorable opponents are never as dull as he is. Lex Luthor is probably the least interesting of the rogue's gallery, a classic pulp-fiction evil genius. You're better off with Brainiac, a "living computer" with a collection of shrunken cities; or Mr. Mxyzptlk, an imp from the Fifth Dimension who's more interested in pranks and chaos than in conquest and crime; or Bizarro Superman, an inverted duplicate of our hero who lives on a cube-shaped planet with upside-down rules.
Not all of those villains are evil in the proper sense of the word (what does "evil" even mean to Bizarro?), and most of them, you'll note, are kind of silly. That's the secret of the Superman stories at their best: They might exude an image of action and straight-arrow values, but the world they're set in can be as absurd as an Alfred Jarry play. And it only gets goofier when you get to method number three:
3. Going back to Krypton. Originally, Superman was the sole survivor of his planet, sent here as an infant in a solitary capsule right before his world was destroyed. Before you knew it, though, the Earth was littered with the residue of his birthplace: not just a seemingly infinite supply of Kryptonite, the one element that can weaken or kill our otherwise unassailable hero, but a series of fellow survivors: a Supergirl, a Super-Dog, a Super-Monkey, even a swarm of tiny supermen who live in a bottle.
This had two general effects. First, it allowed Mr. Kent either to be robbed of his power, via the Kryptonite, or to fight an enemy of equal ability, when a less benign native of Krypton comes calling. (It's no surprise that the only watchable sequel to the Christopher Reeve Superman stars a trio of Kryptonian villains.) The other result was to increase the baroque weirdness of the Superman universe. As if the Super-Monkey wasn't odd enough, there were new forms of Kryptonite, with new effects. The most unpredictable was Red Kryptonite, whose various consequences are listed in that unimpeachable source, Wikipedia: "being turned into a dragon, a non-powered giant, a dwarf, an ant-headed humanoid, a lunatic, and an amnesiac; being made unable to see anything colored green; growing incredibly long hair, nails, and beard; being rendered totally powerless; gaining the ability to read thoughts; losing his invulnerability along the left side of his body; being split into an evil Superman and a good Clark Kent; being rendered unable to speak or write anything but Kryptonese, the language used on Krypton; growing an extra set of arms; becoming clumsy when trying to help out; swapping bodies with the person nearest him upon exposure to it; rapidly aging; and multiple personality changes."
I wasn't especially fond of Superman comics as a boy. But there was an encyclopedia of the Superman mythos, priced too high for me to buy but always available for browsing, that I adored. I liked it because it was filled with strange, Borgesian lists like that one.
Eventually, the bosses at DC comics decided the Superman world had grown too ridiculous, with its Super-Horse and Super-Cat and Legion of Super-Pets. Most of those strange offshoots were pruned out of the canon, for fear that the comic was devolving into self-parody. Apparently it never occurred to them that those surreal supplements to the Superverse might be the most interesting thing about it.
That leads me to method number four:
4. Embracing the comedy. You want to hear about the best Superman story ever? It's "Superman, Cartoon Hero," published in 1942, and it's about Clark Kent taking Lois Lane to the movies. Sounds like a relaxing evening for Clark, but he's alarmed to learn that the feature will be followed by a Superman short. "How did I ever get into this fix?" he asks himself. "Lois is liable to see something that will give away my true identity!"
For the rest of the story, he desperately distracts Lois whenever the movie threatens to reveal his secret. (My favorite approach: Exclaiming, "LOIS, YOU DROPPED YOUR POCKETBOOK!") Of course, the rest of the audience watches the entire cartoon without interference.
Hollywood has been afraid to make a full-fledged Superman comedy. The closest it came was Superman III, more widely known as "the one with Richard Pryor in it," which also recycled the idea of splitting the hero into an evil Superman and a good Clark Kent. If I had the courage of my convictions, I would defend this as the best of the series, but as far as I can remember they forgot to include any good jokes.
If those are the four ways to make Superman interesting, the new picture hits all the bases. It doesn't retell the hero's entire origin, but it has flashbacks to his early days. Kevin Spacey has fun hamming it up as Lex Luthor. Superman literally goes back to Krypton, and an enormous slice of Krypton finds a home on Earth as well. And there's no shortage of self-referential jokes. All that's missing is the out-of-control absurdity, the imps and super-pets and Red Kryptonite. Instead we get action set pieces and a lot of Christ symbolism, some of it by way of Mel Gibson and some of it by way of Dan Brown.
It's an entertaining movie. It certainly isn't boring. But don't expect me to get excited until Mr. Mxyzptlk and Bizarro get their names on the marquee.