Our SUPERMAN on Film Saga Continues:
DEATH, MARRIAGE AND REBIRTH VIA TELEVISION BUT A SORRY STALEMATE ON FILM (1992-2006)
MOVIES COULD NOT CRACK THE SUPERMAN CODE. TELEVISION HELD THE FORT. COMICS KILLED HIM OFF..THEN BROUGHT HIM BACK..MOVIES TRIED AND FAILED TO FOLLOW SUIT..
After the QUEST FOR PEACE flopped, it seemed that cinematic Superman was destined to squat in the Phantom Zones of obscurity and development hell. But you cannot keep a good hero down and, hot off BATMAN‘s success in movies, around 1992, noises were made about a return by Christopher Reeve as the Man of Steel. If that seems a stretch? Consider that he was JUST hitting his 40s so was still of the age where he could just about have pulled off the look of an older yet still vital last son of Krypton. And he had things to say about the character, coupled with an ambitious work ethic and a curiosity about directing movies. It’s no accident that Tom Cruise was sometimes compared to Reeve: that same earnest zeal to just get the work done and enjoy the magic of movies for audiences.
Whilst he was also experimenting with smaller, more diverse character roles (though Reeve turned down certain parts of note, such as the lead in American Gigolo: which went to Richard Gere, instead); it’s equally fair to say that a return to the cape and tights was by no means beyond the bounds of possibility. His star was rising again, with stand out turns in diverse genres, including the Merchant/Ivory period piece, Remains of the Day.
But every major actor likes to have a secure franchise and why not return to the one that made your name? Plus, he’d surely be given greater budgets to play with, via Warners’ consolidating ownership of the FULL production AND distribution rights to the Superman character, (having reclaimed things from the Salkinds and then Cannon Films). We were hitting peak Warner Bros 1990s power, with Bob Daly and Terry Semel in charge, when they nurtured talent, in house and thrived on the marketing magic of big, blockbuster, franchises.
Superman was waiting to come back. And Reeve WAS Superman. Or so it seemed..
..We all know of the tragic accident that changed Reeve forever. Falling from a horse, he was paralysed by the mid 1990s, thereby sadly precluding any return to his SUPERMAN franchise as leading man. His bravery and legacy will never be forgotten.
In any event? The brand had been refitted. There was a bold experiment in the comics, whereby DC did the unthinkable and KILLED the Man of Steel, c/o an unstoppable killing machine called DOOMSDAY. Whilst he was of course, resurrected; it was a new era for comic books and the worldview surrounding them. The previously untouchable God now required a more human, vulnerable, dramatic weight to his adventures.
And so, a fate worse than (a fate worse than a fate worse than..) death awaited: MARRIAGE! And TELEVISION?!
LOIS AND CLARK: THE NEW ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN (1993-7) put the emphasis squarely on Clark Kent and his romantic relationship with Lois Lane.
Dean Cain was excellent as both Clark and Superman; his was a new take whereby Clark was in effect the secret identity and Superman a kind of disguise. He has a physical presence: this is NOT a guy you’d want to fight! But there is also a sensitive humanity at work; without compromising the character’s strength. It makes his morality all that more accessible and endearing, evolving the old school ‘boy scout’ sanctimony yet thereby updating/saving its essential spirit.
The series was a highlight of the Saturday afternoon /evening slots, years before they resurrected ‘family’ viewing c/o DOCTOR WHO.
The plots were not always great and there was a failure to harness the DC mythology to its fullest potential. There was also the problem that a weakness is an overdone strength. If the hook of your show is : Clark must somehow win Lois’ heart yet hide his identity AND topple the power-base of Lex Luthor (set up so well in series 1), you inevitably take a fall when you lose Lex and Lois marries Clark (see also: MOONLIGHTING when Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd’s Dave and Maddie get together: show..sorta dies?).
But there was more to this Superman take than just its titular pairing of ‘Lois and Clark’. Founding Producer , Deborah Joy Levine just knew that and she had cast things with creative and commercial genius. It’s inspired in each case. Lane Smith (RIP) was always a terrific Perry White: convincing as a Watergate era hard nosed reporter when needed (even citing his own resemblance to Richard Nixon), whilst providing comedic relief and paternal advice to Lois and Clark as punctuation to the action beats in most episodes.
John Shea is the best Lux Luthor we ever had: playing it as a corporate, smooth, self improving, charming, Machiavellian menace who sometimes even wins your sympathy. Farrah Forke was adorable as DA Mason Drake; Tracy Scoggins delectable as Cat Grant. LOVE the way they kept Clark’s parents as integral players, too : K Callan and Eddie Jones made a great comedic and indeed, romantic, double act whilst honouring the mythology whereby the Kent family = Superman’s guiding inspiration.
There was a reality to all the characters in the show and a warm, endearing chemistry to the group dynamic. It’s a terrible shame that the network served the brand poorly, scheduling it in a manner that ensured the show’s destruction by 1998. At its peak, in the first two seasons? This was like a mini movie each week: screwball comedy of the Katharine Hepburn variety, fused to plush, stylised, heightened reality 1990s aspiration aesthetic: an immersive, warmly inviting ambience.
Lois and Clark.. was all about that magic balance of tone and pace and colour and shade. At once of its time (very Clinton/Blair era in its social politics: see also, the Brosnan Bond films, in which Teri ‘Lois Lane’ Hatcher also featured) and timeless (a glossy visual sheen and paradoxical mix of costume and tech styles keep things fresh with each viewing). It’s all very third way in its ethos. Something for everyone, whilst remaining distinctive and avoiding any outright parody. There was a sense of Capraesque purity to the basic vision but tempered with a sophisticated sense of material need and worldly sex appeal, though always remaining moral and family friendly.
Cain himself wrote and directed a few episodes and you can really see him mature as an actor as the story arcs progress. Quite WHY they did not simply cash in at the time the show was at its peak of popularity and cast Dean as a big screen Superman is beyond me? He often played Basketball on the Warners lot against then Batman/ER star, George Clooney (who won? we will never know!). Their loss: Mr. Cain has gone onto great things, not just as an actor but also activist and conservative political pundit: a truly impressive and dare one say a ‘super’ man! His Twitter feed is inspirational.
There has been talk of a revisiting the Lois and Clark show 20 years on, perhaps as a standalone else-worlds style TV movie /mini series on the new DC network / within the ‘CW’ universe(s). Let’s hope they can make it happen. Heck, I can pitch a take on it, myself. Dean: let’s team up and take it to Warners? In any event: I really hope the project ‘flies’! Oh and thank you for reading /re-tweeting this piece: an honour, Sir.
So, if Lois and Clark was so great and doing so fabulously well for a time.. why the stalling of Superman on film back in the 90s? Well, same stalemate as today, frankly: a muddle over tone /content and therefore, an inevitably indefinite delay in definition/ direction and ultimately, activation/production of the right script. WHAT to DO with the Man of Steel? Fans can pose answers on paper, easily. Finding the correct production team, writer, director and cast to make that happen and within a sensible yet generous budget to match is another matter, entirely. Good Luck with that!
The problem lay in Hollywood’s near obsession with reinvention of the myth. They KNEW that they HAD to visit BOTH the recent trends in the character (Superman marries /dies/ is resurrected). But the sheer rush to cram such events into one mega movie, whilst allowing for sequels AND facilitating some auteur vision? It proved impossible to reconcile what were by their nature, logically incompatible aims and methods. Warners made what on paper must have seemed a shrewd and sensible move, joining forces with Jon Peters as Producer.
But Peters, despite brokering huge successes for the BATMAN brand in 1989 (then in partnership with Peter Guber), was more myopic when it came to the Superman mythology. He had rather specific and eccentric demands; something for which he had a reputation on other projects, too. If Peters had an interest or specialist hobby, he tended to graft that to the writing process, even if the characters and plot and genre were entirely at odds with the visual schemes and motifs he was demanding. But it’s also fair to say that for all his foibles, Peters was not a bad guy and he genuinely did want to make the project work, provided he was teamed with the correct personnel to both execute and refine his vision.
Kevin Smith wrote a draft for SUPERMAN LIVES, which was set to see Superman take on Brainiac and Lex Luthor AND face death / resurrection. Casting rumours flew round, including Kevin Spacey (remember him?). Director Tim Burton was hired to helm the movie and Nicolas Cage signed onto play Superman. Out went the Smith script but the core motifs were retained. Sadly, when BATMAN AND ROBIN under-performed, so Superman was grounded; and so died what would have been a daring, innovative and visually arresting take. This would have been iconoclastic stuff and yet very much in line with the favoured tones of the times.
Cage’s long haired hero would have necessitated a hyper-nerdy alter-ego as Clark yet a stoic, strong, action man Kryptonian alien as Superman. Visually that would have suited his and Burton’s wilder ideas whilst honouring the aesthetics in the comic books of the time (Superman had a Rambo like mullet). The lighting would have been ultra bright in contrast to the darkness of Batman’s Gotham City and there was talk of Michael Keaton making a cameo AS Batman; thereby initiating shared universe crossovers years before Marvel.
Indeed, blink and you will miss it, but there is a postcard from ‘Metropolis’ (Superman’s city of choice) on a board at the Gotham Globe HQ in 1989’s Batman (though Kim Basinger as Vicki Vale, legs on desk, MIGHT just distract you from noticing said in joke nod!).
The late Jon Schnepp made an excellent documentary on the missed opportunities for Burton’s take and that could be viewed in a way as a possible blueprint for an animated realisation of the aborted movie? There is certainly enough there to play with.
Other directors actively considered directing Superman reboot films, once Tim had jumped ship. Notably: Oliver Stone, Wolfgang Petersen and Shekhar Kapur. JJ Abrams wrote a draft entitled SUPERMAN:FLYBY and actors were tested for the lead, including a young..Henry Cavill! Anthony Hopkins was all set to play Jor-El (he’d settle for Odin years later) and Robert Downey Junior was touted as Lex Luthor (he would have aced it; Tony Stark is basically Lex, turned good?).
But nothing flew onto film. The core problem was HOW to ‘do’ Superman, on film, in such a way that the mythology was respected and softly rebooted at once. UNTIL..2006..FINALLY the code had been cracked. Or HAD it?
TO BE CONTINUED!