The most recent Superman film was Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, a relatively low-budget bit of anti-nuclear finger-wagging which was shot in no lesser location than Milton Keynes. It came out in 1987, which seems especially prehistoric when you tot up all the superheroes who have made it to Hollywood in the meantime. There have been five Batman films, three X-Mens, two Spider-Mans, a Hulk and a Fantastic Four, and even such second-raters as Daredevil, Catwoman, The Punisher, Blade, Elektra and Hellboy have had their own movie or three. The superhero blockbuster is now one of the entertainment business's most reliable investments, with both of Sam Raimi's Spider-Man films sitting in the all-time top 20 box office list, having grossed $822m and $784m respectively. How unfair that the original costumed crimefighter, the progenitor of an entire industry, has had to wait until now for his turn.
It hasn't been for want of trying. All plans for further Superman films were put on hold after The Quest for Peace flopped, but Warner Bros bought the rights to the character in 1993, and the company has been commissioning scripts ever since. An early effort was the work of Clerks' writer-director, Kevin Smith, who now dines out on the tale of meeting the film's producer and being told that there were just a couple of conditions: Superman wasn't allowed to fly, and he couldn't wear his blue and red costume. Smith nonetheless completed a draft entitled Superman Lives, which for a time had Tim Burton attached as director, and Nicolas Cage in the starring role. Burton proceeded to bin Smith's script and employ first one new writer and then another, but he still couldn't agree on a budget with the film's financiers.
Burton and Cage are said to have walked away with $25m between them, and Cage proved there were no hard feelings by christening his baby son Kal-El - Superman's Kryptonian name.
The millennium came and went. There were further screenplays by Andrew Kevin Walker (Seven) and J J Abrams (Lost), while the director's baton was passed from Wolfgang Petersen to McG to Brett Ratner and back to McG, before finally arriving in the hand of Bryan Singer, director of The Usual Suspects, in what was almost a convoluted job swap. Brett Ratner, having dropped out of Superman, went on to direct X-Men 3. And Singer, who had directed the previous two X-Men films, took over on Superman. The sorry saga had reached a happy, and no doubt lucrative, conclusion.
Why it took so long to get there isn't a simple matter of contrary producers and eccentric directors, however. It's reported that Warner Bros spent $50m on scripts and contracts, even before Singer came on board. And while some of that waste can be put down to individual awkwardness - McG dropped out for a second time because his fear of flying over open water wouldn't let him do any shooting in Australia - the sheer depth of this money pit is a symptom of something more fundamental: an uncertainty about what to do with a character who's in danger of falling terminally out of date and out of fashion.
Superman The Movie was a massive hit when it came out in 1978. Partly, this was because Christopher Reeve (inset) could have been born to play the dual role of the bashful reporter and the modestly virtuous demi-god. Partly it was because of Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, not to mention Marlon Brando's $4m cameo as Kal-El's Kryptonian father. But Richard Donner's film also delivered as a nostalgic tribute to a more innocent America. The bustling Daily Planet scenes pay homage to the newsroom comedies of the 1940s, while Clark Kent's golden boyhood in rural Kansas harked back to The Wizard of Oz. After a period of challenging and pessimistic cinema, much of it charged by memories of Nixon and Vietnam, audiences were ready for some flag-waving. And with Ronald Reagan galloping towards the White House, a hero who was the genial embodiment of Truth, Justice and The American Way was perfectly in tune with the times.
But times changed. In the mid-1980s, a new generation of comic writers, most notably the UK's Alan Moore and the US's Frank Miller, re-imagined superheroes as emotionally unstable vigilantes. Both Miller's The Dark Knight and Moore's Watchmen were based on a cynical, complex vision of crimefighting which was closer to Taxi Driver than to Superman The Movie. They were enormously influential. Moore and Miller may have portrayed Batman and co as fascistic perverts who hospitalised their enemies, but fascistic perverts were just what comics' largely teenaged audience was after - the more screwed-up, the better.
"The stuff that was important to me about Watchmen," says a rueful Moore, "was the storytelling and the worldview - trying to present reality in a kind of non-linear way - and that's what I'd hoped people would take from it. But I think what the comics industry took from it was that one of the characters in Watchmen was violent and psychopathic, and therefore violent psychopaths must be the new level that comics aspire to. Suddenly, all comics had violent psychopaths. And not just the villains. This was the heroes and the heroes' girlfriends."
Moore's misgivings notwithstanding, he and his peers had turned superhero comics into big news, and the shockwaves didn't take long to reach cinemas. Tim Burton's first Batman film came out in 1989, just two years after the calamitous Superman IV, but the two movies could have been decades apart. One had a square-jawed crusader campaigning for nuclear disarmament in Milton Keynes. The other, heavily indebted to Moore and Miller's graphic novels, introduced us to a brooding nocturnal loner in a gothic dystopia. Burton's films were a grim riposte to the colourful campiness of the 1960s TV series, and although the franchise collapsed when Joel Schumacher chose to bring back that campiness for the third and fourth instalments, a new mood had been set for celluloid superheroes.
The latest wave of superhero films began with Bryan Singer's X-Men in 2000, and since then they've been defined as much by their protagonists' personal problems as by their ability to knock down walls with their bare hands. Batman is obsessed by the murder of his parents, Daredevil is enraged by the murder of his father, Spider-Man is guilty about the murder of his uncle. The X-Men are outcasts, persecuted by a frightened majority. One of The Fantastic Four is depressed by his monstrous appearance. And on and on it goes. For a genre built on escapism for children, the superhero story has become awfully dependent on adolescent angst.
Then there's Superman. In among all these flawed avengers, the Last Son of Krypton stands calcified as a Mount Rushmore-sized symbol of decency, as impervious to self-doubt as he is to heat-seeking missiles. If Batman is smoking behind the bike sheds, Superman is a head prefect.
He just doesn't seem very cool to today's teenagers, as Mark Waid, one of the comic's recent writers, admits. "Their world is one where capitalism always wins, where politicians always lie, where sports idols take drugs and beat their wives, where white picket fences are suspect because they hide dark things - and to them that's the world Superman represents and the status quo he defends." It's a perception which his publishers, DC Comics, have to bang their heads against every few years. Stuck with a figurehead who comes across as a goody-two-shoes at best, and a poster boy for US militarism at worst, they revised his "origin story" in 1986 and again in 2004, and they killed him off in 1992, before bringing him back to life with a new costume and a panoply of electricity-related powers. But whatever changes are imposed, Superman always has to revert to his classic self, as befits an American icon. There's not much room for reinterpretation.
It's no coincidence that in the character's two major television outings since the demise of the Christopher Reeve films, the emphasis has been firmly on the "Man", not the "Super". In Lois & Clark, starring Dean Cain and a pre-Desperate Housewives Teri Hatcher, the superheroics went on in the background, while the foreground was given over to the screwball comedy of Clark Kent and Lois Lane's relationship. And the current TV series, Smallville, features Kent as a schoolboy, living on the family farm in the days before he moves to Metropolis and starts wearing his pants over his tights.
Even Brandon Routh, the previously unknown actor who has the title role in Superman Returns, acknowledges the part's strict parameters. "People ask me what's different between my Superman and [Christopher Reeve's] Superman," Routh has said. "But there's no need to change anything that Chris did, because Superman doesn't have a big range, insofar as he can't be crazy, he can't be too boastful, he can't be too weak." The question is: what can he be?
The irony is that while a tag-team of screenwriters and directors have wrestled since the Nineties with the puzzle of how to give Superman an edge, the one tactic they didn't try was the simplest one. They could have drawn inspiration from the very first Superman comics, as written by Jerry Siegel and illustrated by Joe Shuster in 1938. Siegel and Shuster were Jewish schoolmates from Cleveland, Ohio, who made a name for themselves by penning two-fisted police adventures called "Radio Squad" and "Federal Men" for such boys' magazines as More Fun.
When their most famous creation debuted in the pages of Action Comics, he slotted into the same urban pulp milieu as a "champion of the helpless and oppressed". His extra-terrestrial origins mentioned only in passing, 1938's Superman was a merrily destructive vigilante who terrorised the trilby-wearing racketeers and corrupt officials of Depression-era New York (the city of Metropolis was yet to appear) by breaking down their office doors and dangling them out of skyscraper windows. This Superman didn't foil maniacal plots to take over the world. He exposed inhumane prison conditions and shoddy building practices. Regularly shot at by the police and the air force, he combated careless driving by smashing the cars of anyone who committed a traffic offence ("Yes-sir-ee! I think I'm going to enjoy this private little war!"), and he forced the government to improve housing for the poor by demolishing a slum district. And when his foes were accidentally killed, he didn't lose any sleep over it. "If he hadn't tried to stab me, he'd be alive now," he shrugged, after dropping one gangster from a great height. "But the fate he received was exactly what he deserved." It wasn't long before Superman was a reformed character.
When America entered the War, the comic's editors deemed it inappropriate for such a popular role model to be so anti-establishment, and soon a less controversial, more patriotic Man of Tomorrow was concentrating on super-powered foes as outlandish as he was. His upstanding, law-abiding image was solidified by the TV and radio serials which followed, and reached its apotheosis in 1978's Superman The Movie. From the poster slogan, "You'll Believe A Man Can Fly", to Christopher Reeve's straight-arrow performance, Richard Donner's film refused to send-up the character, or to complicate his earnest desire to behave righteously at all times. It was this respect for Superman as noble paragon which made the film almost definitive - and, therefore, almost impossible to remake.
Bryan Singer's method of wrinkling the character's smooth surface is to emphasise the sadness of an adoptee who never knew his parents. "I am adopted, I'm an American and an only child," Singer has said. "Superman was these three things." The director has also decided that if Superman himself can't be too troubled, then the people around him can be. "There's a lot of angst-ridden superheroes," he's said, "and it'll be interesting to see a genuinely good guy in an angst-ridden world."
But Singer's brightest idea is to connect his Man of Steel to the Christopher Reeve incarnation. Superman Returns carries on from where Superman II left off (episodes III and IV have wisely been swept under the carpet), and Singer pays homage to Donner's achievement in other ways, too. Among the references to Superman The Movie, there are themes from John Williams' score on the soundtrack, and 30-year-old footage of Marlon Brando as Superman's dad has been rescued from the cutting room floor. It's as if, after years of near- and not-so-near misses, Warner Bros have concluded that the only way to do a Superman film is to do just what Donner and co did in the first place.
American reviews of Superman Returns have generally been enthusiastic, but devotees of Siegel and Shuster must be wondering how else the film might have turned out. If Peter Jackson can set his King Kong remake in 1930s New York, why couldn't Singer have done the same? Wouldn't it have been fun to see a grinning Superman ripping apart gambling dens and roughing-up the state governor? Maybe in another 20 years...
'Superman Returns' is released on 14 JulyReuse content