Back in April, the US media whipped itself into a frenzy after Superman threatened to renounce his citizenship.
Dubbed a tool of Barack Obama’s foreign policy by the Iranian government, Supes said he was going to hand back his US passport in Action Comics #900.
Right-wing commentators erupted faster than a bottle of Coke stuffed with Mentos: “It’s disturbing that Superman, who has always been an American icon, is now saying, ‘I’m not going to be an American citizen’,” Republican politician Mike Huckabee told Fox News. “It’s part of a bigger trend of Americans almost apologising for being Americans.”
Superheroes have always been a uniquely American phenomenon. Created by Jewish- American immigrants running scared of European fascism in the ’30s, the first comic book crusaders were strong, virtuous men prepared to use might to fight for what was right.
Superman, the last survivor of doomed planet Krypton, was the most patriotic of them all, a proud symbol of “truth, justice and the American way”. Or as Richard Donner, director of Superman I and II puts it, “It’s apple pie, it’s Americana.”
Superman: The Complete Collection, an eight-disc Blu-ray boxset, ports over the commentaries and extras from the Ultimate Collector’s Edition DVD boxset for a bumper Blu-ray collection of all four movies, plus Singer’s reboot and the expanded edition of the original Superman and Donner’s cut of Superman II.
It also plays up Supes’ impact on the American psyche with fascinating extras that put Superman in historical context: did you know that the FBI visited DC Comics in the ’40s, worried that an atom-splitting Superman storyline was too close to the US government’s top secret Manhattan Project?
That all-American allure made Superman a box-office hit for Warner Bros back in 1978. The decision to cast unknown, square-jawed Juilliard student Christopher Reeve (instead of a star like Burt Reynolds or Robert Redford) tapped into the sense of Supes/ Clark Kent as an American everyman, a “last boy scout”: strong, invincible. It also launched the comic-book blockbuster as a genre, a feat Donner rarely gets props for.
Following the previous year’s Star Wars model, Warner Bros licensed Superman across lunchboxes to bedspreads. But nobody protected the brand on-screen.
A spat between Donner and producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind saw the director fired mid-way through filming Superman II and replaced by Richard Lester, giving the sequel an uneven tone; meanwhile, camp-fest Superman III had Superman eclipsed by Richard Pryor’s shameless mugging as an unlikely computer nerd.
Yet the true bomb of the series, if you don’t count spin-off Supergirl, was Superman IV: The Quest For Peace. Cinematic Kryptonite, it killed the ailing movie franchise.
Holding out for a hero
Released by Cannon after the Salkinds sold the rights, SIV was the first time the Man of Steel positioned himself as outside America’s shining light – and thus as box office poison.
Addressing the United Nations, Superman defies his adopted nation’s politics to state his intention to end the Cold War by destroying the world’s nuclear stockpile: “I just wish you could all see the Earth the way that I see it,” he tells them. “Because when you really look at it, it’s just one world.”
One world, but many Supermen. The Man of Steel’s had more quick changes on-screen, radio, page and stage than a Lady Gaga concert. Despite this billing itself as the “complete” collection, only a handful of Superman’s varied outings are here from the ’40s Fleischer Studios cartoons to the 1961 TV pilot for The Adventures Of Superboy.
Thankfully, top-notch, feature-length doc Look, Up In The Sky! brilliantly charts the evolution of the character. It covers landmarks, like the mysterious death of TV Superman George Reeves or DC’s “Death of Superman”, at a brisk pace. It also makes a smart observation: Superman is bigger than any of the mediums he appears in.
He’s an icon, reinterpreted through the ages as he deals body blows to Hitler and Hirohito in ’40s comics (“I’d like to land a strictly non-Aryan sock on your jaw,” he tells the Führer) or prances around in a dog costume in 1958 TV pilot The Adventures Of Superpup (a surreally hilarious abomination).
Unlike DC stablemate Batman, Superman is still waiting for his Dark Knight moment, the grown-up blockbuster that will redefine the man of tomorrow for today’s audiences. Bryan Singer tried to deliver it in Superman Returns (HHH), rebooting the franchise and turning Superman into a tortured, post-9/11 Christ figure. “Most people believe in that kind of integrity and virtue, they want to see goodness,” reckons the X-Men director.
Sounds good on paper, but literally dropping the American way may explain why Returns failed to go up, up and away at the box office. When Zack Snyder, currently prepping his own re-reboot, The Man Of Steel, sits on his sofa with this top-notch boxset, let’s hope he gets the message: when it comes to Superman, you’re dealing with an American.
As Donner puts it, “Run for president, Supey… God knows, we need you!”