Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Death of the "Big Blue Boy Scout"?

"“Superman Returns,” the 2006 Bryan Singer dirge, didn't fail because audiences no longer resonate with a super being that can fly, shoot heat from his eyes and is immune to bullets. It failed because Superman is the epitome of good morals and justice, which today's audience find boring and childish...Perhaps if Clark picked up a crack whore and painted her with feces, then he'd be approaching "cool" again. "The Big Blue Boy Scout" as he is called by cynical fanboys and Guy Gardener, only works in a patriotic America. Changing him through some sort of rebranding effort or Warner reboot won't make things different."

--Erik Buckman, "Superman Is Dead And We Killed Him"

Your thoughts?


  1. The casual equivalence made between an audience accepting a purely heroic character and a "patriotic" society, is a bit on the pat side.

  2. I have to agree.

    It's far more likely that the film did not met expectations because it spent far too much bowing and genuflecting to the Donner films, forgot that there needed to be a compelling story to go with all the nice visuals, spent too much time on the precocious kid, and verged a bit too far from continuity (Lois raising Superman's illegitimate love child comes to mind).

    In short, a les than stellarly executed film, not a problem with the character per se. By that same logic Batman should be dead and buried because of the Schumacher movies, but then we have the Nolan films.

  3. Call it Dark Knight Syndrome. Money talks. The same thing happened to comics in the 80s with the whole grim and gritty movement. More ticket sales/comic sales = more of the same.

  4. I think that the problem with Superman is that too many artists (and I mean artist by writers, directors, etc...) have a need to either try to change the character or to humanize him by showing flaws.

    However, the best versions of Superman showed that he wasn't superior in just his strength and super-abilities but the way the character can out-think his opponents. Sure, I could cauterize his brain but wouldn't it be better just to arrest him? It's the restraint and the judicious use of his powers that make the character of Superman a hero.

  5. I'm not sure I buy these arguments. Sure that blissful naivete we as a country had in the fifties is gone; that doesn't mean all of our children are growing up to become drug dealers and murderers. Perhaps we're over-thinking it. Maybe Superman Returns was bad because the acting was wooden, the effects were lame, and the story was stupid? I for one thought the Incredibles was fantastic, and that was a family friendly movie. Watchmen had a lot of that "grit" going on for it, and that movie was laughably bad.

    Another thing: I hate it when these arguments presuppose that Americans are unpatriotic. I hate it. What is he basing this on? Was there some poll that asked people if they loved their country? What, 80% of the people said no? I think the last election proved that many Americans who are considered "unpatriotic" are in fact quite patriotic. So bring on a Superman movie, and do it right. I'll be first in line to see it.

  6. See, I disagree.

    I think more than ever, we NEED a hero who doesn't kill or even maim. Superman is the opposite of Batman (and even Bale's Batman stops shy of killing)and SHOULD be. We just need better scripts and better movies.

  7. I have to agree with the last couple of comments. I really wanted to like the last Superman movie, but the script itself just didn't do it for me.

  8. I've heard a lot of this kind of stuff for years about why Supmerman can't work anymore and I think it's all BS. It's trying to blame the audience. There is no socio-politcal-ecnomic-patriotic reason that Superman Returns was not a smash hit. Superman Returns failed because it was a boring movie. Boring movies are seldom smash hits. You don't get to blame the audience because your movie was boring. You never get to blame the audience.

    (Plus it had a little girl playing Lois Lane. Lame.)

  9. Um, yeah, I'm gonna agree with Jeff and say the reason Superman Returns wasn't successful was because it was a crappy movie.

  10. I've never bought into the "darkening" of a hero such as Superman.

    The problem with Singer's film -- and remember, Singer is used to "dark" or "odd" fare such as The Usual Suspects, House, etc. -- is that it wasn't iconic enough! Superman should be mythic, grandiose, exemplifying the best of humanity without ... being human.

    The real Superman puts the interests of all others before his own. This is why his character for so long worked by keeping his desires (such as Lois) at arm's length: He cannot be tied so closely to one person without sacrificing his duty to the world.

    I like how in Smallville, he has to learn these lessons the hard way. Perhaps an ideal Superman film would take more of a "year one" approach, maybe adapting "Birthright," in which we get to know Clark intimately and yet still be stunned and awed by Superman's heroic first appearance.

    Or something.

  11. You can be a "good guy" & not be an idiot-- Grant Morrison showed that with All-Star, didn't he? The next Superman movie that will be successful is one that plays up on his alienation, WITHOUT being teenage about it.

  12. The Superman of Superman Returns was a creepy stalker and a bit of a dirt bag. Oh, I'm gonna leave without telling the woman I love for a few years and then come back and stalk her to see what's going on with her life. Meh. The movie failed because it was a bad movie, not because we're so jaded with life that we want dark, brooding heroes.

    The movie forgot to be a movie. The most super thing he does is save an airplane full of people in the beginning of the film! The rest of the time he's trying to stop Lex Luthor's grand real estate scheme? That's just stupid.

    If the movie showed us a Superman that was full of awesomeness and a Boy Scout to boot, damn straight it would have been a hit!

  13. "It's a Bird..." explores many facets of Superman.

    I think the 1970s were a much lower nadir than current society... free "love", drugs, head shops in shopping centers, a fragile economy for most of the decade, once taboo subjects publicly discussed and/or accepted, an unpopular war... and yet Superman and Superman II were very successful.

    One could argue that the more pessimistic the zeitgeist is, the more optimistic people wish to be. If Superman is no longer relevant, than why was such an iconic politician elected President?

    Superman's weakness? His friends and family. Kryptonite. His morality and desire to do too much.

    When Superman is restarted, the fundamental question should be: if he's the only superhero on Earth, what challenges him?

  14. 'No, though I think Superman is a conservative. Hell, he was raised on a farm in Kansas by Methodist parents. What do you think? (I don't think he'd be in favor of gay marriage, but I bet he'd let you keep your assault weapons. Yeeee...HAW!)' Oh for God's sake. . .Harlan, help me out here:

    'He is more than the fanciful daydream of two Cleveland schoolboys. He is the 20th-century archetype of mankind at its finest. He is courage and humanity, steadfastness and decency, responsibility and ethic. He is our universal longing for perfection, for wisdom and power used in the service of the human race.' That is the core of Superman's character. The flag he might've been raised under may have possessed stars and stripes, but the character has a following spanning the globe who believe in the idea of using one's gifts for the benefit of others. Political rhetoric need not apply.

    Superman Returns was a deeply flawed film that did little more than retread the same beats of the original film while doing nothing to advance the character or make him relevant to the contemporary world. I know the hoi polloi were eager to see how Superman would be made 'relevant' in the post 9/11 pop culture landscape, but that's just not a good idea. Trying to make a heavy-handed commentary on Superman as an allegory of American feelings of powerlessness in a complex world strips all the fun and fantasy out of the character. He's meant to be an escapist fantasy, not a metaphor for any particular policitcal agenda. Why have him be some ponderous, inept analogy when you can have him do positive things, be an idealistic character, and punch out giant robot dinosaurs all at the same time?

    It seems to me of late that we're all to eager to make our entertainment seem 'all-growed up', as if we're seeking validation for the characters and stories we love in the face of the greater public/media's scrutiny and I for one think it's a highly stupid move. Yes, Superman has elements of his mythos that are innately silly; multi-colored kryptonite, imps from the 5th dimesion in bowler hats, cowboy aliens riding flying horses with blaster six-guns, bottled cities, robot doubles, a dog who wears a cape and can fly, friends from the 31st century, a disguise that is laughable at best. And I love every last bit of it.

    It doesn't have to be Serious Business all the time. Sometimes all you want is a moment of joy, a momentary respite from the world as it is and maybe, just maybe, the briefest glimpse of the world as we'd like it to be. Even if it's only for 22 pages and ads.

    Fun shouldn't have to be justified, it should just be had. Otherwise what's the point?


  15. There's a great radio propaganda style radio program called "I Was A Communist for the FBI" based on the best selling book. It was an anti-pinko patriotic series that followed a young person in deep cover in the communist conspiracy.

    Rumor has it that there was a series in development for HBO from David Milch which would follow an FBI agent assigned deep undercover to a communist group. This was also based on a best selling true story book. The twist? The agent began to sympathize with the cause.

    So the relevance?

    The difference between, say, the 1960's Batman and the Dark Knight is sophistication. The 60's Batman is fun, entertaining, campy. The Dark Knight is brooding, vicious, and forced to kill in this last film.

    The attempted difference between, say, the 78 Superman and Superman returns was sophistication - but it didn't work because it didn't do its job.

    This isn't an audience acceptance question. This isn't about patriotism vs. "...and all that stuff." Fanboys, if letter columns are to be believed, aren't any more or less cynical then previous years (they're just louder).

    This is about storytelling.

    Clark doing the "cool" punisher thing doesn't fit the character, much like having a kid and running off doesn't fit the character either.

    Batman killed a man because he was powerless to not to. Superman won't kill a man even though he had the power to do so. That has always been his "cool" factor.

    There is an adolescent view of power fantasy that involves plenty of gore and evisceration. Whether it's Dirty Harry threatening to throw a potential suicide off of a wall or Wolverine cutting a villain to shreds, or The Punisher, that'll always appeal to somebody.

    Superman is about moral choices, no0t about brawn vs. brains.

  16. I think that Smallville has done a good job (and after last week's finale, I never thought I'd use that phrase again) of making Clark a "good guy" in the big blue boy scout mold, and also make him an interesting character with flaws and foibles. I think in some ways his character is deeper and better-defined than all the movie versions; but of course, he's had a good deal of episodes to do it!

  17. My biggest thought after seeing that film was "Why did I need to see a hammy Luthor... again?"

    There's got to be *something* in the Superman mythos other than Luthor that can be brought to the screen. Good god, give us Bizarro (the artificial Superman that is as low as Superman is high) or Brainiac (all of Superman's mental abilities and more but without his humanity to temper it) or Metallo (the ordinary human who can kill Superman, but whom Superman cannot even approach).

    A significant chunk of movie sales is apparently repeat viewers. (I say apparently because there aren't but 2 or 3 films I've paid to see more than once in the theater.) With Superman Returns, there wasn't enough "new" to warrant going back again, I think.

  18. What Jeff said, mostly.

    Also, on TV here recently, they were advertising their mid-week movies. One was Superman Returns, one was some flashy computer animated movie that I can't remember. What was remarkable, though, was that side by side the animated movie looked more real than Superman. They photoshopped a live action film right into the uncanny valley. I suspect that had a massive effect on people's subconscious reactions to the movie and the character.

  19. Anonymous5:39 PM

    Jeff Robinov has now stated that Warner Brothers will not be making films with Superman in the lead.

  20. The problem with the Superman Returns version of Superman was that he wasn't inherently heroic. It takes no measure of heroism to be a politically-correct zombie parroting the idea of a potential global utopia, but actually standing up and saying you're proud of America without crowbarring in a caveat takes nuts of steel that the last movie Superman didn't have.

    Plus, Superman breaking into someone's house and crawling around a small boy's bedroom? Not cool.

  21. "Jeff Robinov has now stated that Warner Brothers will not be making films with Superman in the lead."

    good god.

  22. V, I hope you put this up for debate because you wanted to see us rip it apart. The column summarized: Superman I worked because Ronald Reagan was president in 1978, two years before he was elected. (When Superman was released in December '78 Carter's approval was about 51%, disapprove 34%). Superman Returns domestic gross of $200M was a box office bomb, revealing political truths about a nation of traitors.

  23. "Superman Returns failed because it was a boring movie."

    A nice random robot fight would have made about as much sense and would have added a little life to the film.

    People don't "need" dark but they do "need" good.

  24. Personally, I think the lacklustre reaction to 'Returns' can in many ways be summed up by the fact that it's big, climactic ending-showpiece essentially boils down to "Superman lifts up a really really big rock and throws it away." Granted, a rock the size of a small continent made of Kryptonite, but a rock nonetheless; wrought with symbolism it may be, but it's hardly the most dynamic or action-filled sequence involving this character that can be imagined or wished for -- I sincerely doubt that Superman's ability to lift really heavy things is the key draw to the character. Donner at least had him chasing nuclear missiles about the place.

    This sums up quite a fair bit of the problem with 'Returns' -- not so much issues with the character as pomposity and self-indulgent homage drowning out the possibilities available. And, you know, the importance of giving him a conflict to deal with that is a bit more charismatic than a rock.

  25. Addition: Furthermore, the tone of the last Superman picture was hardly light and upbeat, which tends to work against the article's central thesis -- thinking back, it strikes me as having been quite drab and dour. Look at the scene where Lois and Superman go flying; whether by intention or just a lack of chemistry between the actors, the entire scene gives the impression of two awkward, uncomfortable people who clearly want to be somewhere else, which isn't exactly the upbeat tone that I'd imagine most audiences would associate with and expect from the character. I'd also argue that 'Superman Returns' didn't do so well not because audiences can't handle a hopeful, optimistic character, but because the movie ultimately wasn't really that optimistic or hopeful in tone; if anything, it kind of clashed with the nature of Superman. Make a Superman movie which actually is optimistic and upbeat, and we'll see what happens.

  26. So much about this is flat out wrong.

    1. Michael Caine's comment about Batman and Superman. The rest of the world doesn't see us as a dark vigilante. They see us as a lumbering giant.

    2. Superman can only work in Reagan's America. Height of idiocy. The character works in any long as he's written for that environment.

    3. Superman Returns failed (if you can truly say it did, after all, make back its budget plus) because of a lack of action, not because it was too idealistic.

    4. Mr. Buckman (who's photo at the top of his blog seems particularly narcissistic) suffers from something I'll call "recency bias." This is the feeling that "the time we're in, now, is different from any other time." By definition, "now" is different from what the past was and what the future will be, but this thinking gives far too much prominence to today's events. Movie theater ticket sales are up...just like they were during the Great Depression and WWII. Why? Because people want escapism. You want patriotism? I don't think I've seen a more patriotic moment in my life than when Obama gave his address in Grant Park on election day. Talking about the "kryptonites" that exist today ignores that they've been there all along. Bad economy? Superman was BORN during the depression. Obsession with celebrity? Have you ever seen the Time Marches On newsreel footage of the 40's and 50's? 90% of the coverage went to what celebrity was doing what.

    This whole "article" comes across as one person talking out of his ass through a megaphone. It's a half-baked idea designed to hit tender spots that might incite link backs.

  27. Superman Returns failed because it was LOUSY de-constructionism.

    There's this scene from WAAAAY back in Avegners #148 or so when Thor fights Orca the Killer-Whale. I know - lame - but what is so telling is when Thor admits the reason it took so long to defeat Orca was that he's been running around using 1/2 of his strength - afraid to kill anyone.

    In the DCU animated, Supes under Bruce Timm also showed this same problem and FINALLY cuts loose on Darkseid.

    Superman had BETTER be good - just like Spock had BETTER be logical. Otherwise, a bloodbath will ensue - and baby, if you think you WERE aliented before, try finding buds when you have smeared the last 40 villains into goo...

    Superman: Birthright should be used as the NEW 'Source material' for Superman's next movie. What Mark Waid did for the Man of Steel is comparable to what Frank Miller did for Batman: Year One.

    There's even a HUGE Kryptonian - ehr - spider - in it. ;) (Sorry, Kevin Smith would be laughing, I'm sure...)

    Anyway Superman is about as unbounded by politics as any messiah figure could be. Mark Waid wrote somethign along the lines of "Kal - Clark - is genuinely good. He'd be your best buddy in the world. But heaven help you if you are his enemy!"

    Superman is not an adolescent fantasy. It is an adult fantasy about a man who cannot be stopped by the world and who loves mere mortals like us with great passion.


  28. This guy is full of shit (based solely upon the excerpt you provided; not sure what else he had to say).

    Singer's film failed because it wasn't fun. It was a fucking dirge. Spider-man 2 and Iron Man were fun.

    I could say a lot more, but that's what it boils down to.

  29. 'Superman is not an adolescent fantasy. It is an adult fantasy about a man who cannot be stopped by the world and who loves mere mortals like us with great passion.' And flying dogs in capes.

    Just keeping things in perspective. ;p


  30. Anonymous8:24 AM

    that movie failed because it wasn't a very good movie.
    why mentally masturbate over the goodness of characters and anti heroes and all that stuff.
    a bad movie is just a bad movie

  31. I've always said, there's no better way to both make a good Superman movie while re-establishing his "relevance" than to adapt What's So Funny 'Bout Truth, Justice & The American Way? for a film. Clive Owen as Manchester Black, anyone?

  32. To Laidoff, Reagan was a very intelligent man. During his term we came out of severe recession (worse than now) and won the Cold War. I know you lefties hated that. What so patriotic about Obama being elected? Have you see the people he associates with and what they think of this country? Sorry, reading some of that left-wing bilge mad me ill.

    The reason Superman Returns failed is what others here have written. He was a jerk for leaving Lois and not telling her. Then he stalks her the rest of the movie. They yet again have Luthor has the main villain. Get someone else. Lex also has the same plan he did for the first Superman movie.