Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie (1978) is an essential piece of cinematic, and superheroic, history; it made its audience believe that a man could fly. The apocryphal tale is that Donner made the cast and crew chant ‘verisimilitude’ on set, he wanted everyone involved in the production to know that in order for the audience to engage with, believe in, and indeed fall in love with, characters like Superman they needed to believe that they could exist in the real world, that they were like you and me. Verisimilitude has taken on an ever-increasing importance in superhero cinema with film’s like those of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy going to great pains to explain away the theatrical elements of comic book superheroes (the mask is inspired by noh, the Bat a symbol of fear for his enemies, the ears house radio antenna). In my opinion though, Donner left the most important ‘real’ element of the Superman mythos on the table, he never placed sufficient emphasis on the importance of ‘Clark Kent’ to the make up of ‘Superman’ as a character. Of course, the movie is called Superman, and he is the one who does the spectacle, but without Clark Kent at the heart of the story Superman is just this jolly flying guy who is using his powers as often to impress a reporter he fancies as to save anyone. The relationship between Superman and Lois has to include Clark as well because Lois ought to fall for Clark, representing the character’s humanity/personality, rather than Superman, representing the character’s powers/fashion sense. Unfortunately this massive and egregious oversight has been echoed in the flawed Superman films of Bryan Singer and Zack Snyder.
For me the Clark Kent/Superman dynamic has always been a stark contrast to the Batman/Bruce Wayne dynamic. Bruce witnesses his parents murders and then that becomes his whole life – he travels the world, he trains, he hones his skills, and he commits 100% of his time to becoming the Batman. Bruce Wayne is gone, this character is now Batman, and Batman wears a Bruce Wayne mask only when he needs to in order to preserve his resources and evade accountability (legal, vengeful, etc.). Clark Kent on the other hand is Clark Kent. His personality is directly the result of being raised by nurturing, understanding, and decent parents Martha and Jonathan Kent. Sure, his origins on Krypton inform his world view, but he is primarily the son of the Kent’s, and it is their influence that instills in him a desire to use his powers for good, truth, and justice. In order to protect his ‘true’ life as Clark, where he has a job he loves, relationships, and passions, he wears a metaphorical Superman mask. Clark alters his bearing, his physicality, and his voice, and uses the very absence of a literal mask to hide his true identity.
Both Superman Returns (2006) and Man of Steel (2013) confuse this dynamic, and create truly problematic relationships as a result. Neither film positions Clark Kent as a main character, and certainly not as one that Lois Lane (or the audience) could love. Adult Clark, when he manages to stumble his way on-screen, is only ever shown as a false persona – in Superman Returns he is used for comic effect, for a bit of character exposition, and to mislead people about who Superman really is; in Man of Steel he is a literal suit in one scene of the movie. The question worth asking here is why Superman even bothers with the Clark identity in these movies at all; he doesn’t need to be at the Daily Planet for any reason, and he doesn’t live an actual life as Clark (does he watch tv or football or have any interests at all other than hitting on Lois – Wolverine loves cigars, Spider-man is a photographer, even Nolan’s Batman loves fast cars, but there is no clue what Clark is in to). As a boy Clark is presented far more frequently, but his purpose is solely to establish back story – Clark is an oven in which Superman was baked. Both movies touch on Superman’s origin story, but it is exactly that, Superman’s origin; not the story of how Clark Kent chose to use his gifts to benefit mankind, but rather how Superman managed to escape the oppressive Clark Kent identity.
Man of Steel is especially emphatic about this point, being Clark Kent sucks. We are repeatedly shown Clark being harassed and bullied, even being demeaned and told to hide his true self by his father (yes, the paragon of virtue Jonathan Kent is reduced to telling his son not to be the man he truly is because the world has a problem with it – I shudder to think how poorly he would have handled it if Clark was gay). So Clark’s reaction to this negativity is to completely cast off the Clark Kent identity. Clark literally ceases to exist as we are shown a succession of meaningless man-suits (“Joe”) that Ka-El wears in order to wander around the Earth without paying taxes or helping people if he can avoid it. Snyder is so concerned with emphasising the alien ‘otherness’ of the character that he undermines the ‘Kent’s as parents’ part of Superman’s origin story and replaces it with excessive alien world shenanigans. The point of the film is that Superman isn’t one of us, that he never will be, and that his ‘kind’ only bring destruction. Again, if you think for a second that ‘Kryptonian’ is subbing in for gay or any other minority group then there is a reading of this film that paints Snyder and writer David S. Goyer in an incredibly negative light.
Superman Returns poses its own peculiar problems with the relationship between Lois Lane and Clark Kent, or rather Superman. Following on from the implied events of the Donner movies Superman, not Clark, has fathered Lois’ child. Let’s put aside the way in which the Lois/Richard White relationship is handled for simplicity’s sake (does he even know the boy isn’t his?), and concentrate on this fact – Superman is the father of Lois Lane’s son but Lois still doesn’t know who Superman actually is. So Superman forms a sexual relationship with a woman without telling her anything about who he is, and then he suddenly leaves the planet for seven years. When he returns he immediately sets about attempting to seduce her away from her husband and family, “Richard, he’s a pilot, he takes me up all the time” Lois says, “Not like this” refutes smoulder-man, and then he proceeds to stalk her with his creepy X-Ray powers. The fact that Superman is an absentee father makes Lois’ begrudging acceptance of Superman’s return all the more reasonable – this guy abrogated his responsibilities and doesn’t even attempt to step up when he gets back. If Clark were a part of this story the whole thing would be far more palatable, sure he would still be a father who ran out, but he would be accountable for his actions (even in as much as having a bank account from which to pay child support), and he would face the moral disapprobation of his peers in a far more real way than this ‘Superman’ guy does (because Superman has no peers).
Whether due to budget constraints or the limits of a televisual serialised storytelling Lois and Clark: The New Adventure of Superman actually presents one of the strongest iterations of the Lois, Superman, and Clark relationship precisely because they don’t focus solely on the Superman identity. Superman is important, but Clark and Lois are the protagonists of this show. In many ways Superman is an obstacle for Clark as Lois thinks she is in love with him, but the show ultimately proves that Lois loves the man underneath, not the mask. And that is the way it should be, Superman is really Clark Kent, not the other way around. At one point in the pilot episode, after he first appears in his new Superman costume, Ma Kent asks Clark “what if someone recognises you?“, Clark answers in ernest “I don’t think they will mom, because it won’t be me“. This is very much in the mould of the John Byrne Man of Steel reinvention of the 1980’s which is a good thing because this is how you make a Superman story that is compelling human drama and not just super-dudes mindlessly punching each other through buildings. Of course, the show was pretty cheesy, and fell off a cliff when Lex fell off a building, and probably hasn’t aged well, but at least they took the time to show that Superman was the best of us not because he had extraordinary otherworldly powers, but because his parents taught him well, because he was loved for who he was, because he was willing to sacrifice anything to do the right thing, and because he wouldn’t destroy Metropolis, stalk Lois, or kill Zod to save the day.
Superman Returns isn’t all bad so I wanted to note some good things about it. Man of Steel is literally all bad.
- The costume and production design is incredible in this film; not just Superman, but Clark, Lex, random civilians, and especially Lois Lane wear amazingly designed suits and dresses. The Daily Planet building is especially amazing. Singer has placed his Metropolis in the golden age of cinema and it is a great fit for the newspaper based world of Superman; Cary Grant could be walking around uttering Howard Hawks movie dialogue and it would fit perfectly.
- Speaking of which, there are actually a lot of very witty and well written scenes in this film.
- Singer and his writing team do at least take a bold decision to advance the Superman story past the status quo (what if he had a son, what if Lois got married and moved on), it is just the execution of those plot points that falters.
- I’ve already written about one of the best superhero action scenes on film that is from Superman Returns.
- Although I am utterly dismayed by the silli-/awful-/dumb-ness of Lex Luthor’s plan, Kevin Spacey is brilliantly menacing and funny in the role.