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Watching the Future
by Derek Johnson

[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Watching the Future columns.]

Installment 26
Do We Need Another Hero?
Superman: The Movie
Man of Steel going ten rounds with Muhammad Ali
The Amazing Spider-Man
Fortress of Solitude
The Shadow
Detective Comics
Captain America
Doctor Strange
Tim Burton's Batman
The Phantom
Marvel's The Avengers
As my mother, sister, and I walked out of Houston's many movie theaters on Westheimer Blvd., I was absolutely certain that my life couldn't get any better. It was December 1978, and, impossibly, a movie I was convinced couldn't possibly exist (even at ten years old I could be cynical) not only proved extant but also exceeded every conceivable expectation I might have had. I'd learned the term "agnostic" some time ago from a discussion with my father, but what I had just witnessed, for me, took the form of a religious experience.

I had just seen Richard Donner's Superman: The Movie. And it breathed life into the four-color sequential art I'd been reading for over four years.

Although I didn't read much, if any, science fiction or fantasy until I was fourteen, I did read comics. I absorbed DC and Marvel indiscriminately, thrilling to the adventures of costumed heroes either saving the world (or the galaxy, or the entire multiverse, depending on what I was reading at the time) from domination or annihilation by powerful villains or simply solving bizarre crimes committed by sociopaths with colorful tics. By the time I turned eight, I knew the identities, powers, and nemeses of most of the major heroes, and grew familiar enough with the minor ones to pick up the occasional issue at a newsstand if I'd already read the most recent Detective Comics or The Fantastic Four. My excitement overflowed at the appearance of the giant-sized issues, from the Superman/Spider-Man team-up to the Man of Steel going ten rounds with Muhammad Ali. (No, I'm not making that up.) As much as the adventure stories of Arthur Conan Doyle, Kenneth Robeson, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Ian Fleming would in my tweens, these paneled stories formed the building blocks of my private mythology.

Being a product of a media-saturated generation, of course I caught the adventures of my favorite heroes on television whenever they showed up. Granted, Adam West's spandexed Caped Crusader bore almost no resemblance to the Batman envisioned by Neal Adams, the serialized Captain America used a gun against The Scarab (with no Red Skull in sight), and George Reeves's television adventures as Superman struck me, even at such a young age, as somewhat pedestrian when compared to his comic book counterpart's battles with Lex Luthor or Mr. Myxlplyz, but at the time they satisfied, though never completely sated, my appetite for seeing these heroes in a live-action format. They had to; back then, superhero movies simply didn't exist.

It didn't always work. The networks attempted to bring several comic books to prime time during the 1970s, though always with middling results. I watched The Incredible Hulk with the rest of my classmates, though it never seemed to match what I remembered in the comics; would Bill Bixby's gamma-ray scientist actually run around like Dr. Richard Kimble? (And what was with the name change to "David" Banner?) I tried watching The Amazing Spider-Man, but couldn't believe somebody as pudgy as Nicholas Hammond could possibly climb up walls or spin a web strong enough to swing between buildings. I hoped for great things with the made-for-TV movies of Doctor Strange and Captain America (hey, I was ten), but switched off the television after watching both feeling dismayed. Sure, I wanted to see these characters brought to life, but not like this.

Superman: The Movie changed all that. Finally, a movie not only understood what made the character great but also confronted the necessary challenges to make him credible for the screen. From the casting of Christopher Reeve as the title character to Gene Hackman as Luthor and Margot Kidder as Lois Lane, I sat enthralled as I visited Krypton and Smallville, and gasped when Superman first took flight to rescue Lois from a falling helicopter.

Of course the transition wasn't completely successful in my view. Why, I wondered, was the Fortress of Solitude a crystalline palace instead of the high-tech bunker jammed full of Kal-El's trophies? As I watched Jeff East as the young Clark Kent explore the newly-built structure, I wondered where he would place the bottled city of Kandor when the time came. Why was Luthor wearing a suit instead of his purple-and-green outfit from the costume? Even more confusing: why did he have hair? As a ten-year-old comic geek, I saw these as major flaws, but even then they hardly mattered because Mario Puzo's script and Donner's deft direction got everything else so right that I almost had to put aside any reservations.

I forget how many times I saw Donner's canonical take on Superman, but I'm sure that number leapt to double digits because I pleaded with my mother to see it one more time before it concluded its Houston run. I must have seemed like a junkie begging for a fix, and in a way I was. Nobody made comic book movies then; the few that existed were decades old, and now looked their age. Though I would have loved to see a movie featuring Batman or Spider-Man (or even an Incredible Hulk movie where the Hulk actually smashed, or at the very least talked instead of grunted), I decided not to be greedy. Superman: The Movie, at that time, was enough.

I thought.

I grew older and consequently away from comics for a while, though when Superman II and III and, eventually, IV made their way to multiplexes I purchased tickets and waited for them to work on me in the same way that Richard Donner's classic picture did when I was ten. They couldn't, of course; yes, I was older, but the series suffered diminishing returns. The high sustained by Superman's battles with Kryptonian thugs degenerated into a Richard Pryor vehicle and then, worst of all, a heavy-handed message movie. I shrugged. Well, I thought, it was a good run.

Then came Tim Burton's Batman in 1989, and suddenly I was transported. Burton's vision of Gotham City and the Dark Knight may not quite have been Neal Adams's renderings, but it contained enough of the grotesqueries of the early Detective Comics to at least stay my criticisms. I was so amazed that the movie actually existed, and how well it pulled off so many things, that I forgave it its glaring plot holes, listless action, and often disjointed screenplay. It had been two years since the last superhero comic book movie -- and eight years since the last good one -- that I decided to take what I could get.

As with Superman: The Movie, the Batman franchise overstayed its welcome by two pictures, but by then the powers that had kept superheroes out of the movies no longer possessed the keys to the studios. Even as Joel Schumacher's Batman & Robin induced vomiting in so many theaters that ushers had to sprinkle sand on the auditorium floors after each showing, I heard rumors of a new Superman movie (to be directed by Burton), a Spider-Man movie (to be directed by James Cameron), a Hulk movie (scripted by GoldenEye scribe Michael France), the X-Men, and so many others. Moreover, classic heroes like Dick Tracy and The Shadow and The Phantom found time to star in their own features -- with often middling results, yes, but still -- that for a change I felt optimistic.

Today, comic book movies crowd the summer movie calendar. From Ang Lee's Hulk to Louis Leterrier's The Incredible Hulk, hardly a month goes by when a movie doesn't introduce a hero or group of heroes to a much-wider audience, or reinvent a well-known hero for a more modern audience. (This year alone sees the release of Marvel's The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, and The Amazing Spider-Man, which reboots Spidey a mere ten years after his first cinematic appearance.) Some, such as Iron Man and The Dark Knight, have become classics; some (The Fantastic Four and Daredevil) have missed by pretty wide margins. But for me, good or bad, even if they never quite measure up to their print cousins, they exist. It's a situation the ten-year-old whose jaw dropped at the opening bars of John Williams's score to Superman: The Movie never would have anticipated, whose brain would have melted at the slightest hint that somebody might make a movie based on Thor or Captain America. As an adult, I might be disappointed that the scattershot, incomprehensible script of X-Men: The Last Stand or the lumbering pace of Superman Returns, but when a comic book movie is done right, I can almost feel that rush I felt when I believed, for the first time, that a man could fly.

Copyright © 2012 Derek Johnson

Derek Johnson's critical work has appeared on SF Site, SF Signal, and Revolution SF. His first novel, the erotic thriller, Murder, Most Likely, written in collaboration with SammyJo Hunt, is forthcoming from Rebel Ink Press. He lives in Central Texas with the Goddess.

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