When the Warner Bros. film “Man of Steel” opens one year from today it will be flying in formation with history, which is a source of considerable excitement for director Zack Snyder.
“The thing that’s really special and hasn’t really been acknowledged is that ‘Man of Steel’ comes out on the 75th anniversary of ‘Action Comics’ No. 1,” the filmmaker said just before a stage appearance at the recent Hero Complex Film Festival. ”That’s the very first appearance of Superman. I haven’t seen people talk about that yet.”
Well, that diamond anniversary will probably be mentioned a few times by DC Comics and Warner Bros. between now and June 14, 2013, when Snyder’s movie arrives with Henry Cavill (“Immortals,” “The Tudors”) wearing the cape, Amy Adams (“The Fighter,” “Enchanted”) as Lois Lane and Michael Shannon (“Revolutionary Road,” “Boardwalk Empire”) as the ruthless General Zod. The cast also includes Russell Crowe, Diane Lane, Kevin Costner and Laurence Fishburne.
Of the seven actors just mentioned, the 29-year-old Cavill is the only one without an Oscar or Oscar nomination on his résumé — a hint of the resources going into the project that is now in post-production. The movie is Warner’s bid to reenergize Superman as a feature film property (especially now that Christopher Nolan is in the Batcave packing his boxes) and the studio will begin the public side of that process next month with a panel and footage preview at Comic-Con International in San Diego.
That footage will show the brawniest of all Superman actors to date (a Snyder priority was matching up his star visually with the way he’s depicted in more contemporary comics) and the first foreign-born Superman (a Brit, he hails from the tiny isle of Jersey off the coast of Normandy, France). Although hasn’t the hero always been the ultimate immigrant?
In June 1938, the refugee from another planet landed at newsstands that were full of headlines about the mighty Joe Louis knocking out Max Schmeling, the German fighter who many feared would be taking the heavyweight championship home to Adolf Hitler (who was about to start a very different fight in Czechoslovakia). With all the newsprint gray, the bright yellow-and-red cover of the inaugural “Action” issue seized young eyes — as did the blue-and-red figure who looked like a circus strongman or Hercules in long-johns.
The issue is prized like no other for comic fans; there were 200,000 printed back in 1938 but, by most estimates, fewer than 100 copies are still in existence. An auction gavel came down in December 2011 and one nearly pristine copy was sold for $2.16 million. And what was the newsstand price on that issue when it arrived? Just one thin dime.
Comics are only made of paper (or, now, pixels) but that collector was investing in the best fossil record of something even more valuable: A perfect idea. That’s what writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster may have had on their hands when they came up with a red “S”-symbol and put it over the heart of a man who could leap tall buildings in a single bound.
The idea ricocheted around the globe. It still does, according to Grant Morrison, the Scottish writer who is working on “Action Comics” these days. ”Our greatest ever idea as a human species, if you ask me,” said Morrison, whom the New York Times recently dubbed the ”vulnerable Virgil in the underworld of geek culture,” of the character.
There have been more than 900 issues of “Action” published and the hero has been in every one of them (it’s not the only Superman title, either, the series simply called “Superman” surpassed 700 issues last year). But in a big jolt, DC started “Action” (and every other series) with a new No. 1.
The “new” “Action Comics” No. 1 presented a Morrison tale of a younger Kal-El, who showed up for crime-fighting with the old familiar cape but with work boots and blue jeans. It was still Superman, who remains recognizable even if he never stays the same — like a beach that holds its shape even as the sand is in constant flux. It’s the great genius of Siegel and Shuster, Morrison says, to find a costume that can fit anyone and any story as long “as it looks to the sky.”
Siegel and Shuster’s creation didn’t get any love when they first shopped the character around as a comic strip — it was too strange and too sci-fi. The first fan may have been Sheldon Mayer who was working for the McClure Syndicate — he recognized the allure of Clark Kent’s secret identity.
“I was crazy about Superman for the same reason I liked ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel,’ ‘Zorro’ and ‘The Desert Song,’” Mayer said years later. “The mystery man and his alter ego are two distinct characters to be played off against each other. The Scarlet Pimpernel’s alter ego was scared of the sight of blood, a hopeless dandy: no one would have suspected he was a hero. The same goes for Superman.”
Mayer’s endorsement was part of a series of events that got the strip rescued from the “slush file” and on the cover of a new venture called “Action.”
That’s all it took and the hero quickly went up, up and away with a syndicated newspaper strip starting in 1939, a radio series in 1940 and a silver-screen serial in 1941.
Siegel and Shuster, two former classmates from Glenville High School in Cleveland, watched that trajectory with mixed emotions because (like the hero’s parents on Krypton) they knew they weren’t going to be along for this ride.
In March 1938, Siegel and Shuster cashed a $412 check from Detective Comics Inc., giving up the rights to a hero that is rivaled only by Mickey Mouse when it comes to the world’s most instantly recognizable fictional characters. Shuster died in 1992 at age 78, Siegel died four years later at 81 and, needless to say, they were haunted by that transaction into their twilight years.
Their heirs continue a long legal quest to be part of Superman’s future but an April appellate ruling appeared to be a setback for their cause and, adding insult to injury, it arrived the same day an auction house sold the original cashed check from 1938 for $160,000.
Snyder has been too busy building his new Metropolis to dwell too much on this history. That might be wise considering that the most recent Metropolis movie, 2006′s “Superman Returns,” proved how difficult it can be to fly forward while simultaneously looking back.
“Superman Returns” was director Bryan Singer’s valentine to filmmaker Richard Donner’s version of the hero, which took flight in the 1978 smash. That film mesmerized a young Singer, and his movie was steeped in tie-ins to the past (he used a vintage John Williams score, added a cameo by the late Marlon Brando as Jor-El, etc.). The $250-million movie was remote and tentative — like a museum visitor who heeds the instruction to look but, please, don’t touch.
In an interview early last year, Snyder made it clear that if he makes mistakes they will be new ones.
“We’re making a movie that finally goes with the approach that there’s been no other Superman movies,” Snyder said. “If you look at ‘Batman Begins,’ there’s that structure: there’s the canon that we know about and respect, but on the other hand there’s this approach that pre-supposes that there haven’t been any other movies. In every aspect of design and of story, the whole thing is very much from that perspective of ‘Respect the canon but don’t be a slave to the movies.’”
There’s been so many versions of the hero — Christopher Reeve and George Reeves , the Fleischer cartoons and “Smallville,” Kirk Alyn in serials and Bob Holiday on Broadway, etc. — you wonder if even Superman can carry the weight of all that mythology.
Seventy-four years ago it was different — it was uncluttered. There was one superhero in the world and, in his first 12-page story, he was stopping the execution of a woman framed for murder (and crashing through the door of the governor’s mansion to do it), cracking the jaw of a wife-beater and gleefully spooking a kidnapper with a rooftop view of the city (which was Gotham before there was a Gotham).
In a world without supervillains (at least none outside Berlin), Superman was defined by the need of others and call of duty: “Early Clark decided he must turn his titanic strength into channels that would benefit mankind and so was created..Superman,champion of the oppressed, the physical marvel who has sworn to devote his existence to helping those in need.”
In a way Superman is the one in need now. He’s watched Batman and Spider-Man fly to greater heights in recent years — and those heroes can’t even fly, technically speaking. In an age of irony and antiheroes, he’s also a little stiff and painfully wholesome (although Captain America has shown that red, white-bread and blue isn’t a total deal breaker at the box office). But a 75th anniversary might be a piece of cake for a guy that can crush coal into diamonds with his bare hands. Snyder likes the sound of that — and he’s fine with history as long it shows up in the nick of time. ”It’s like a date with destiny, if you will, or a date of destiny.”
– Geoff Boucher
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