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Classic Hollywood Movie Spotlight: 'Superman'

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Oct 11, 2010 | 11:57am EDT

REDSo Red comes out this week, and I say right-on. Red is based on a comic book written by Warren Ellis, one of my favorite writers. He writes comic books, yes, but you must understand, comic books are a medium, not a genre. Folks tend to associate comic books with capes, power fantasies gone wrong, and women drawn with gravitationally improbable chest areas. Burn this onto your brain: Comic books are a medium, not a genre.

Warren Ellis writes superhero comic books, for sure -- a man’s gotta eat -- but Ellis is best-known for gritty, fiercely intelligent stories that elucidate and entertain. He’s always political, always writing about the bleeding edge of technology, always telling stories about people on the margins of society, and always, always challenging his readers to think about the future in which we all live. You won’t see any of that in the movie Red, which was bought and reimagined Hollywood. Which is awesome. Congratulations, Ellis.

Red got me to thinking, though: Is there a movie based on a comic book that can be called a classic movie? Successful movies based on comic books tend to be either pop entertainment or smaller indie fare, like Ghost World. The big popcorn comic book movies tend to be light, even if they’re entertaining: Fantastic Four, Elektra, Ghost Rider, that sort of thing. Some are better, but not quite classics. Michael Keaton’s Batman comes close. Time will tell about The Dark Knight. Watchmen, From Hell and V for Vendetta might have been, but weren’t. History will be kind to Scott Pilgrim as a cult artifact, but it would be hard to convince most people that it’s a classic movie. I’ll put money on the upcoming Spielberg/Jackson Tin Tin movie being a great piece of popular entertainment.

The smaller indie and non-superhero movies have been nice, but none have had the heft to push them into classic range for me: Ghost World, Road to Perdition, Art School Confidential, A History of Violence. If a great director ever gets a hold of Charles Burns’s Black Hole, that’ll be something special.

It is, of course, arbitrary what constitutes a classic movie. Does it mean something that has changed the history of film? Something without which film could not exist? Or does it just mean a must be a really great movie? For me, it just means a movie that changed my life. The comic book-based movie that looms largest in my personal canon is this week’s classic movie:

Superman1978’s Superman: The Movie.

Yeah, yeah. He turns time backwards by flying around the Earth. Spoiler alert. Foaming idiocy alert. And that’s not even the hardest thing to swallow about the movie. The hardest part about the film is the character of Superman. Superman’s boring. Why do you think Batman has worked far better on film than Superman? Batman’s a deep, emotionally damaged individual who beats the crap out of bad guys because mommy and daddy are dead. Batman fits into our cynical and decadent world.

Superman’s about truth, justice, and the American way. He’s about hope in the face of darkness. It wasn’t just Bryan Singer’s fault that a Superman movie released during Bush II era America fell flat. Truth, justice and the American Way seem like mutually incompatible ideas. For a Superman movie to work today you’d have to conjure up a character that could resurrect those ideals for the 21st century, inspire hope and belief and love that didn’t collapse under the sheer weight of irony. That’s exactly what Richard Donner did in 1978.

1978. Trouble in the Middle East, stagflation, unemployment skyrocketing, the cultural upheaval of the '60s giving way to the consumer cynicism of the 70s, the hope of a new face in the White House bringing respect back to a besmirched office. Richard Donner’s Superman didn’t fight Lex Luthor, he fought cynicism.

Grounding the script in reality, recreating Lois Lane as a no-nonsense career woman and playing lines about “truth, justice and the American way” off of the dirty desperation of a near-bankrupt New York for the '70s, Donner told the absolute truth about the world at the time, layering cynicism and irony in equal measure and throwing it against the earnest demeanor of a corn-fed alien orphan. It might not have worked, but luckily for Donner, irony is no match for Christopher Reeve.

SupermanReeve is certainly the best actor to be destroyed by over-identification with a role. It’s his own fault. We identify Reeve with Superman so deeply because no one has done it better than him. Reeve built a physical performance that got at the truth of Superman: both Superman and Clark Kent are roles that corn-fed Iowa boys play. At heart, he’s an alien orphan who so loves his adoptive parents that he genuinely believes in the American dream they gave him.

Somewhere between the grittiness of the world, Reeve’s thought-out performance and the triumph of life over death, I believed it. I believed it totally.

I believed that Superman could defeat death, cynicism, irony, and hopelessness.

And that’s something I’d like any classic hero to be able to pull off.

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