The perfect Superman movie
For the last few months, I have been reading my way through the earliest appearances of Superman, in chronological order. These stories, collected in the great SUPERMAN: THE GOLDEN AGE digital collections, are a treat. The issues feature the work of creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two Jewish artists from Cleveland, Ohio who envisioned Superman as a social justice warrior.
Superman, in his earliest days, used his fists to fight against the parasites whose evil had a detrimental effect on society. War profiteers, gambling tycoons, real estate moguls, and corrupt politicians were more often the villains of early issues of ACTION COMICS rather than a mad scientist or alien monster.
Reading these issues, I can’t help but imagine what a movie would look like that was set in the early ‘40s and influenced by the first five years of Superman comics. This is never going to happen, of course - but it’s fun to dream. So, in keeping with dreams, here is my dream Superman movie.
Joel and Ethan Coen write and direct, IT’S SUPERMAN - a loose adaptation of the novel by Tom DeHaven. This book, released in 2005, was set in the ‘30s and followed Clark Kent as he left Smallville and moved to Metropolis to become a hero. Along the way, he learned about racism, tried his hand at being a Hollywood stuntman, and fought Lex Luthor and robots. The book is a perfect blend of everything fun about the gee-whiz Superman as best adapted in the Fleischer cartoons. I would love to see the movie lean into a lot more of the plots of the early Superman comics, though. The film’s big climax can see Superman fighting robots, but I also want to see him being paid by a dying rich man to help make his son a more responsible man, disguising himself as a boxer to help a fallen champ make his comeback, or helping an orphan escape from a corrupt boy’s home that abuses its wards.
Superman as an alien should be a footnote - I don’t want to see any more films where Superman is torn up by the fact that he’s the last surviving Kryptonian. At its heart, the story of Superman is an immigrant’s story and Superman should be proud of his Kryptonian heritage, what little of it he knows - but he should also be a hundred percent dedicated to his new home, Earth. Watch a few episodes of the fantastic AppleTV show LITTLE AMERICA for a glimpse at the intoxication many immigrants often have with their adopted country.
Because I know this is a dream project that will never actually happen, I’m not limiting my casting picks to the fabric of reality.
The perfect Clark Kent/Superman is Brendan Fraser, plucked from the late ‘90s. Shuster and Siegel’s Superman is a big goof, often enamored with his own strength and prone to pulling pranks on bad guys. He’s dedicated to journalism nearly as much as he is to stopping crime. He’s smitten with Lois Lane and will stop whatever he’s doing to help out the little guy when he sees somebody being picked on or being taken advantage of. He’s inherently a good guy and is almost always smiling, except when he’s threatening to kill somebody.
And we should talk about that - ‘40s Superman kills.
I guess we all owe Zack Snyder an apology.
I’ve lost count of all the gangsters and thugs that Superman has killed in the first four years of published Superman comics. It’s not like he’s snapping their necks or incinerating them with his heat vision but Superman just doesn’t bother trying to save criminals when they fall off cliffs or explode in planes. But this Superman also doesn’t fly so Warner Brothers can take some liberties when adapting the character.
My ideal Lois Lane is Jennifer Jason Leigh, plucked straight from the set of THE HUDSUCKER PROXY. Lois Lane is such a badass in these early comics. She’s brave, fearless, gives Clark Kent ample shit for his cowardice, and is always up for putting herself in danger to break a story. If you’ve never seen THE HUDSUCKER PROXY, Jennifer Jason Leigh slays as Amy Archer, a no-nonsense reporter who goes undercover as a receptionist to break a story. Seriously, go watch THE HUDSUCKER PROXY.
Perry White and Jimmy Olsen aren’t a huge part of these early Superman stories but I feel they are an intrinsic element to the character and I would love for my hypothetical IT’S SUPERMAN movie to have a huge focus on Superman’s journalistic exploits. Cast Andre Braugher as Perry White and ‘00s Justin Timberlake as Jimmy Olsen and call it a day.
For villains, I would take a page out of John Bryne’s GENERATIONS mini-series. Lex Luthor actually wasn’t introduced into ACTION COMICS until the series’ second year. Before Luthor, Superman frequently tangled with the Ultra-Humanite, a bald mad scientist who plotted to rule the world. Superman kept killing this dude (see above) but the Ultra-Humanite would keep reappearing. Eventually, when his body became too weak from constantly escaping death, he had his henchmen put his brain into a beautiful female movie star. Now with sex appeal, the Ultra-Humanite kept doing villainous acts, including seducing a scientist to steal his earthquake machine. Eventually, he settled on an albino gorilla as his go-to body and that’s the way the character has more often than not been portrayed since.
In Byrne’s out-of-continuity mini-series, though, the writer/artist depicts a scenario where the Ultra-Humanite escapes death by putting his brain into his lackey, Lex Luthor! Yep, that’s right - the Lex Luthor that battled Superman throughout the ages was actually Kal-El’s original arch-enemy in disguise! I dig this concept so, in my hypothetical IT’S SUPERMAN, Ultra-Humanite would be played by John Malkovich and his lackey Lex Luthor would be played by ‘70s Ned Beatty, basically playing Otis before his transformation and then, once he has his brain swapped with Ultra-Humanite, playing the character as Arthur Jensen from NETWORK.
This is all a dream, I know - but it’s fun to dream.
What would your ideal Superman movie look like?