Saturday, May 11, 2013

Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero

Larry Tye's Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero, is a very interesting book until about two-thirds of the way through. What began as a pretty straight-forward history of the most iconic comic book superhero ever created -- which is something none can dispute -- runs off the rails right about the same time the Man of Steel "died", which is to say, in the early 1990s.

There is a more recent book, Glen Weldon's Superman: An Unauthorized Biography, which purports to describe how the character has morphed throughout its history to reflect the times. Tye's book already illustrates this rather successfully, as the pro-downtrodden hero of the thirties becomes the anti-Fascist of the 40s, and all of the successful radio, television and film adaptations that followed through the decades.

However, following a description of the sad de-evolution of Christopher Reeves' series of films, this historian shows signs of having consumed his own Kool-Aid, returning to the comic books themselves, and straining to describe a variety of late 20th century comic book story arcs as important, relevant or iconic in and of themselves.

Just a tip: Never describe the plot of a comic book in a historical text and try to make it sound original or interesting writing. I like comic books, but its just embarrassing. He also quotes a number of die-hard, latter-day Superman enthusiasts, who have eschewed more popular figures, like Batman, or anyone in a Marvel comic.

One was quoted as saying, "Spider-Man tells us that even heroes are human and can be hurt ... Superman is here to say ... I'm not going to preach to you.'" Tye then proceeds to preach, and preach, insisting how Superman is unique, and that he is and always will be the best superhero ever created.

And I do not believe him. It's not just because he glosses over the fact that Superman (The Movie) is embarrassingly dated, that Superman II has really terrible dialogue, a whiny protagonist and a horrible plot (he seems to think the "Kiss of Forgetfulness" is a totally brilliant Deus ex Machina) that Lois & Clark was good for one season and horrible for the rest, and even holds up the much-maligned Superman Returns as an example of Superman's exceptionalism.

Really. A 76% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a paltry $391 million in box office (foreign + domestic) for Superman Returns had not "once again demonstrated why (Superman) belonged as a summertime Hollywood blockbuster." 71% percent of the audiences on Rotten Tomatoes liked Jack Reacher.

In the world of this book, every Superman story idea is a good story idea -- in fact, a great one. The idea of Superman, it is true, is greater than the sum of all the pulps, and shows and actors and writers and everybody. The origin story is solid, and mythic, and biblical, and that's why they retell that same story, over and over again, every time they get the chance. They're doing it once again this summer with Man Of Steel.

But once you've gotten past the myth, the day-to-day act of just being Superman can seem entirely mundane.


  1. I'd like to know your criticisms of Superman Returns.

  2. Me? Never seen it. That's not the point.

  3. I'm not gearing up to defend the movie. You wrote that the movie is 'much-maligned' and I was interested in your thoughts, but the mention was simply of second- and third-hand criticisms of the film. And me asking the question doesn't mean I don't understand the point, nor does it mean we can't branch off into another topic of conversation...unless that's a faux pas in the blogging world (I don't blog so I'm not up on the etiquette).

  4. Sure. I would actually be interested in seeing it -- more so than MOS, which looks a little they are trying to "Batman Begins" the Superman saga. Which is to say, overwrought. I liked the Batman reboot, but that character can withstand the weight of portent in a way I do not believe Superman can. "Superman Returns" actually looks like fun.

    My point is there is nothing special about the character of Superman anymore, there are no new stories to tell. This author insists there is and that there are, and I just don't think he makes that case very well.