So, the Gollancz/Gateway team was sitting round a table recently, trying to work out the coming weeks’ blog posts (yes, these things really are planned. Mostly) and someone mentioned the new Superman move, Man of Steel, which opened last week.
‘OK, so who’s our resident Superman expert?’ came the leading question.
Silence. We’re all too experienced to get caught out that way.
‘Come on! This is a room full of geeks – someone must be a Superman fan!’
Cue a series of head shakes or ‘I’ve only read Red Son‘ or ‘Only really seen the movies’ as your brave editorial staff desperately tried to back away from this clearly hazardous mission into No (Super)man’s Land.
‘How about you, Darren?’
‘Me? No! Well, I’ve read a bit, but wouldn’t call myself a massive fan. I’ve read John Byrne‘s post-Crisis reboot and the series that followed after – Byrne’s Superman, Jerry Ordway’s The Adventures of Superman, Action Comics Weekly. I kind of drifted away for a while, then, but Geoff Johns’ and Gary Frank’s pre-New 52 version was good – particularly his Legion of Superheroes story arc. Of course, the problem is that Superman, himself, isn’t really a very interesting character – his power set is too vast. There’s so little he can’t do that you end up with either wildly over-powered villains or ridiculously contrived situations to negate his almost unbeatable advantage that the stories inevitably suffer. The best writers have recognised that Clark Kent is a much more interesting character than Superman because he faces a constant battle to keep himself from tipping his hand and displaying his abilities. That’s why Smallville and Lois & Clark worked so much better than most of the movies, because they recognise . . . why is everyone looking at me like that? . . . d’oh!’
And thus was a digital publisher undone by his own hubris.
So, it looks like I’m our resident Superman expert – and you know what? I’m really looking forward to Man of Steel. From what I’ve seen of trailers, it looks very good. Or maybe I’m just mentally comparing it with Superman Returns, which would be . . . now how does one put this politely? . . . setting the bar low. Let’s face it, Superman Returns was dreadful – a fatal mix of dull story, poor script and actors who, with the notable exception of Kevin Spacey, were simply not able to bring sufficient charisma to their roles. And now we await a new Superman film with the sort of once-bitten-twice-shy sense of dread that must be all too familiar to Star Wars fans after the debacle of the three prequels.
At the time of writing this, I still haven’t seen Man of Steel yet, so I’m not sure whether this latest episode of the great Superman story is an Empire Strikes Back or a Phantom Menace. I hope it’s the former, but if it’s the latter, it won’t be the end of the world. Because the thing about Superman is that he’s not really a character; he’s a symbol. And as such he can reinterpreted in new ways for new generations. Some have said this new film is too dark. Well, take a look around. Global recession, illegal surveillance, civil wars, catastrophic climate change, rapidly mutating viruses, species-jumping diseases – a real barrel of laughs, isn’t it?
If we want a return to light-hearted four-colour hi-jinks, we may have to wait until the world around us is in better shape than it is now. They say every generation gets the leaders it deserves; maybe that’s true of superheroes, too.