The William Bradley Prize for the Essay is dedicated to the memory of essayist and scholar, William Bradley and intended to honor his legacy and his commitment to the essay form--its literary history, dynamic present, and promising future. In addition to being a nonfiction scholar, William wrote essays about academic life, pop culture, family, and illness; and with particular heart and grace about his own long-term battles with cancer. He was a passionate advocate for social justice, a caring friend to many writers, and supporter of disenfranchised populations. Deadline for submissions is March 15, 2018.
“You may think you’ve seen it all,” these taglines essentially say, “but when you watch this movie, you will believe in the hope that this flying legend represents.”
The recent PBS documentary Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle showed footage of a young Christopher Reeve talking about Superman’s continued relevance, as part of the 1980 television documentary The Making of Superman: The Movie. “We all know that the Man of Steel could leap over tall buildings, but the question is, could he leap over the generation gaps since the early Jerry Siegel / Joe Schuster days? We wanted to know if the man from the innocent thirties could survive in the post-Watergate seventies.” Then, looking directly into the camera, Reeve told the viewers, “Well, thanks to all of you, he’s doing just fine.”
Superman was a massive success, despite a famously troubled production (the movie went over budget; its release had to be delayed several months, missing the fortieth anniversary of the character’s first published appearance; Marlon Brando thought his character Jor-El should appear as a green bagel). The film grossed $300 million in its initial theatrical run at a time when the average movie ticket cost under $2.50. Critical response was generally positive. “Superman is a pure delight,” Roger Ebert wrote, “a wondrous combination of all the old-fashioned things we never really get tired of: adventure and romance, heroes and villains, earthshaking special effects and wit.”
Donner’s Superman is not a perfect film. The special effects for Superman’s time travel (originally conceived for the ending of the concurrently filming Superman II) are confusing, leading some people to think that Superman was able to turn back the clock by making the earth rotate on its axis in the opposite direction (this is not the case—the rotating earth simply illustrates the fact that Superman is travelling through time). The most prominent African-American character in the film is a jive-talking pimp who compliments Superman on his “baaaaaad outFIT!” And far too much time is devoted to terribly miscalculated comical business, usually centered around the film’s primary villains. Gene Hackman’s performance as Lex Luthor is quite strong at times—he comes across as arrogant, greedy, charming, and downright psychopathic in some scenes—but any time he shares the screen with Ned Beatty’s bumbling henchman Otis, it becomes impossible to believe that these guys could successfully pull off jaywalking, let alone a scheme that involves taking control of a nuclear bomb.
For all these flaws, though, Ebert is right. This is a charming film, succeeding much more often than it fails. The romance between Superman and Lois Lane is believable and engaging. The supporting cast— particularly Hackman, Brando, Margot Kidder, Terrence Stamp, and Jackie Cooper—are all strong and play their characters straight, without camp, but also without a self-important seriousness. Most impressive is Reeve. You not only believe a man can fly when he eventually takes to the sky at the end of the film’s first act—you also believe he’d wear a bright costume, rescue kittens from trees, and talk about “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” without a hint of irony. He’s as serious in his fight against injustice as George Reeves’s Superman, but without that conservative paternalism. He seems to represent the imagined kindness and sincerity of what the nostalgic among us believe is emblematic of our country’s imagined past, but with none of the cruelty or white-male entitlement that most of us realize was part of our country’s actual past. He is, in the end, what we all might aspire to be, and he remains relevant—perhaps even more so—during our country’s dark times.
While Reeve played the character—and played him well—in three sequels, filmmakers never quite got the character right again. The films’ producers, Ilya and Alexander Salkind, fired Donner and replaced him on Superman II with Richard Lester, director of A Hard Day’s Night. Lester put even greater emphasis on comedy in the two Superman sequels he wound up directing, going as far as making Superman III a Richard Pryor vehicle and casting Robert Vaughn to play a villain who seems to be based on Ted Knight’s performance as Judge Smails in Caddyshack. And the less said about Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, the better. Perhaps the most important thing to know is that it was so terrible it killed the franchise for nearly two decades, before Bryan Singer brought Superman back in his 2006 film Superman Returns, which was better than the last two Christopher Reeve films but still ultimately disappointing. Brandon Routh’s performance as the title hero lacked the warmth and charm of Reeve’s version of the character. The film’s box-office performance was okay, but nothing great—nothing like the Batman movies Christopher Nolan was directing to critical acclaim and commercial success. So, with a script by The Dark Knight’s David S. Goyer, and with creative input from Nolan, Warner Brothers began the process of re-launching the franchise.
Which brings us to Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, the most recent cinematic Superman adaptation.
I find Zack Snyder fascinating, in the sense that I have felt compelled to watch all of his movies even though I haven’t liked a single one. His remake of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead jettisoned all of the original’s social commentary and wit, yet had some truly intense moments and disturbing visuals. His adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel 300 makes about as much sense with the sound turned off, but some shots are oddly beautiful. His version of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen—largely regarded as one of the greatest, most sophisticated graphic novels the mainstream comic-book industry has produced—was so insipid it’s clear that Snyder simply did not understand the source material he was trying to adapt. Yet some of the musical choices for certain scenes seem brilliant. And again, the visuals are amazing. In the end, he turned a very smart deconstruction of comic-book tropes into a stereotypical superhero slugfest, but it was a fucking beautiful stereotypical superhero slugfest.
To put it simply, every time I hear Zack Snyder has a new movie coming out, I joke to my wife, “I wonder if it’s gonna suck?” And then the trailer comes out, and I find myself saying, “Okay. Maybe this time he’s finally done it. That looks great.”
And every single time, I get mad at myself for getting my hopes up, because the movie is inevitably terrible.
So it was with Man of Steel. When it was announced that the new Superman movie would have nothing to do with anything that came before, I said, “Okay. Sounds good.” When it was announced that Snyder would be directing, I groaned. Then, when the first trailer was posted online, I watched it and thought, “Okay. Maybe . . .” To be honest, though, I made a conscious decision not to see Man of Steel in the theater once I learned how the movie ended.
I don’t necessarily have a problem with graphic violence. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is one of my favorite movies; I thought the opening twenty minutes or so of Saving Private Ryan were very powerful. I don’t get squeamish at the sight of blood. And I don’t have a problem with the fact that the villains in most superhero movies wind up dead at the end, sometimes because of a decision the hero is forced to make to survive the final battle. But I feel very strongly that Superman shouldn’t be turned into a killer, and that’s exactly what Zack Snyder and David Goyer have done in Man of Steel, depicting him ending General Zod’s destructive rampage by deliberately snapping his neck.
To be fair, it’s not like Superman has never killed before. In fact, it’s not like Superman has never killed General Zod before. When I was a kid, the Superman of the comics decided that Zod and his fellow Phantom Zone villains were too much of a threat to be left alive and actually executed them with Kryptonite. The end of Richard Lester’s version of Superman II removes the scene of police officers arresting the de-powered Zod and accomplices that Richard Donner had filmed, creating at least the possibility that Superman’s final fight with the villains resulted in their deaths. So it’s not like the idea of Superman killing is entirely unprecedented.
However, it’s important to note that the comic book execution was followed by a storyline that depicted Superman tormented by guilt and eventually in a self-imposed exile from earth for several months. Also, the execution itself is presented more as Superman’s logical solution to a potentially genocidal threat, and not as the cathartic climax of a forty-five-minute devastating urban super-battle. It’s also important to note that the comic book execution itself was fairly controversial, and was—if you ask me—a terrible idea then, too.
It isn’t just the killing itself that bothered me, though, when I finally got around to watching Man of Steel once it was available to rent. The truth is, the movie itself is not particularly good. Although there are, as you’d expect, some lovely visuals throughout the film, they’re not as incredible as some of the things Snyder has done before. Much of it looks like Terrence Malick by way of George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic. But the pacing seems way off, and individual scenes don’t quite come together to tell an engaging story. Diane Lane has some nice moments as Superman’s adoptive mother, and Kevin Costner is convincing as the farmer who raises the orphaned alien boy and worries for his safety in a world that’s not ready for him (although he basically repeats the same lesson about the importance of secrecy and being cautious every time he appears on screen). Laurence Fishburne is a terrific actor, but he doesn’t have much to do in this film. Amy Adams’s Lois Lane is strong and capable, and, to their credit, Snyder and Goyer do a good job of emphasizing her strength without making her unpleasant (too often in action movies, “strong woman” seems to translate into “pushy, sarcastic bitch”), but she has absolutely no chemistry with Henry Cavill’s Superman, who is likeable enough because he saves people in danger but who never evinces the sense of humor or pleasant demeanor that has traditionally been associated with the character’s depictions in comics, television, and film. He is the alien—a little angsty as a teenager, but otherwise lacking in personality.
That is one way to depict the character, but it’s not the most interesting way. He did grow up in Kansas, after all. He’s not Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth or John Carpenter’s Starman. He ought to have a personality that is recognizably human, but he doesn’t.
Since his earliest appearances in the comics, Superman has always been about protecting people. In his first appearance in Action Comics, he saves a wrongfully convicted death-row inmate, fights a wifebeater, and exposes a corrupt elected official. In the first episode of Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, he prevented Lex Luthor from destroying a space station. He “died” in a 1992 comic book protecting the city of Metropolis from the monstrous Doomsday’s devastation. In Superman II, he flees the city in order to take his battle with Zod and his minions to the Fortress of Solitude, where innocent people won’t be injured or killed. We don’t really see that concern for human life and property in the climactic, forty-five-minute-long battle throughout Metropolis. Instead, we see Superman and Zod throwing each other through buildings. We see skyscrapers falling and dazed employees of The Daily Planet wandering through the wreckage of a gray, dust-filled urban landscape. The devastation seems designed to evoke our contemporary concerns about terrorist attacks in America’s cities as surely as The Dark Knight was designed to explore our fears of the Patriot Act and the growing surveillance state. And that, I guess, is the main reason I disliked Man of Steel. If it was merely boring, or lacking in romance, or too focused on the alien rather than the superhero action, I could have at least enjoyed the experience of seeing a new interpretation of my favorite superhero from childhood. I liked Superman Returns well enough, and it had all of those flaws. But if the assault on Metropolis is designed to mirror our post-9/11 fears in the Global War on Terrorism or extremist ideologies, then it stands to reason that the film also posits the hero’s violent killing of the villain as the most hopeful possible outcome of the conflict we find ourselves in. The only way to neutralize the threat and feel safe again is by slaughtering the enemy bare-handed.
Well, that may be reality. It could be that I’m naïve, to wish for a better world and to still believe that maybe we can build one. There’s certainly enough terrible shit in the world— terrorist attacks, racial profiling, extraordinary rendition, student athlete rapists, school shootings—to indicate that we’re a terrible race of people and any other conclusion is pure stupidity. But if that is true, then I wholeheartedly reject the idea that this problem is a recent development. History tells us that we’ve always had crusades, inquisitions, “enlightened” revolutions, terrorism, corruption, hate crimes. And Christopher Reeve’s video ghost still exists to tell us that, not too very long ago, people thought the world was too dark for Superman’s type of hope and optimism. Richard Donner, Mario Puzo, and Christopher Reeve proved those people wrong in 1978. I wish Zack Snyder, David Goyer, and Henry Cavill had been as ambitious in 2013.
William Bradley authored Fractals, a collection of personal essays published by Lavender Ink. His creative and scholarly work appeared in a variety of magazines and journals including Salon, The Mary Sue, Utne Reader, The Bellevue Literary Review, Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Fourth Genre, Passages North, College English, and The Missouri Review. In addition to being a nonfiction scholar, William wrote essays about academic life, pop culture, family, and illness; and with particular heart and grace about his own long-term battles with cancer. He was a passionate advocate for social justice, a caring friend to many writers, and supporter of disenfranchised populations.
"Panel Discussions: Look! Up in the Sky!" was originally published in The Normal School, Vol. 7, Issue One