Cover Story: Just Super

10 July 2013 Anthony Morris

Cover Story: Just Super

Henry Cavill in Man of Steel/courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures

Anthony Morris, Ed#435, July 2013

Another movie is upon us; another chapter in the long and convoluted tale of the original superhero. Batman is now cool; the Avengers get the action; but Superman still has the best backstory…except for the character’s creators

Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s…
Iron Man?... What? Not so long ago, it was Superman who ruled the skies and cinema box offices. He was a pop-culture colossus who was the first and only character people thought of when superheroes came to mind.

Batman, a fellow DC Comics crime fighter, has recently punched his way through a highly acclaimed trilogy. Rival publisher Marvel Comics has teamed up with Disney to turn some of their characters – Iron Man, Thor, The Hulk and Captain America – into the biggest money-making movie franchise around (The Avengers). But Superman has been lying low since Superman Returns (2006). 

Now he’s back, with a new feature film, Man of Steel, due for worldwide release this month. Henry Cavill is pulling on the tights as the last son of Krypton, while Russell Crowe plays his father, Jor-El, and Kevin Costner his adopted dad, Pa Kent. Plot details are sketchy, with the first trailers looking more like one of Terrence Malick’s visual tone poems (think The Tree of Life) than a superhero slugfest, but with Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road) playing the evil Kryptonian, General Zod, it’s likely there’s going to be a lot of punching taking place.

A great deal rides on the cape of this film: these days, Superman Returns (2006) is generally considered to have been a serious misfire for the character, despite strong reviews and global takings of $US400 million. Perhaps that’s fair enough: if Marvel, (now wholly owned by corporate titan Disney) can turn B-listers like Iron Man and Thor into box office successes, how bad does it look if DC (owned by rival titan Time Warner) can’t wring a measly billion dollars or so out of the superhero who started it all?

The biggest problem the Big Blue Boy Scout has faced over the past few decades hasn’t been villains Lex Luthor and Brainiac or even Kryptonite. Those he can shrug off: he even came back from the dead in the 1992 comic series The Death of Superman. His real never-ending battle since the 1980s has been the fact that his brand of cheery optimism has increasingly fallen out of fashion. Batman is meant to be grim and brooding and tortured; Iron Man is a smarmy jerk brought low by his own weapons of mass destruction. But Superman, despite being the last survivor of his race, looks resolutely ahead. One of his taglines has always been ‘The Man of Tomorrow’, but it has been a future full of shining cities and world peace. These days, our tomorrows don’t seem like quite so much fun, and so Superman – a positive figure who appeals to the best in us – doesn’t symbolise tomorrow the way he once did.

If the creative types at Time Warner are seeking a darker edge to the character, his origins could be a good place to start. Created by Jerry Siegel (writer) and Joe Shuster (artist) first as a bald telepathic villain, then as a hero visually modelled on swashbuckling actor Douglas Fairbanks Sr, the duo spent most of the 1930s trying to find a publisher before DC Comics (then National Allied Publishing) took them on. Having added super-powers and a costume based around a cape and underwear over long johns à la circus strongmen, Siegel and Shuster’s character made his first appearance in Action Comics #1 (cover date June 1938). If you find a copy lying around the house, congratulations: one sold in 2010 for $1 million.

Siegel and Shuster’s artistic influences were many and varied, ranging from cheap pulp novels to (supposedly) Moses. Siegel said in an interview 40 years after the fact: “I had crushes on several attractive girls who either didn’t know I existed or didn’t care I existed. It occurred to me: what if I had something going for me, like jumping over buildings or throwing cars around or something like that?” Others have suggested the shooting death of Siegel’s father in a robbery in 1931 may have been a factor. “Your father dies in a robbery, and you invent a bulletproof man who becomes the world’s greatest hero,” said American thriller writer Brad Meltzer in 2008. “I’m sorry, but there’s a story there.”

Superman was a smash hit, but his creators were soon elbowed out. Shuster’s eyesight deteriorated, making it impossible for him to keep up the artistic workload. Siegel was drafted into the Army in 1943, but other writers had been brought in even before his departure. While Siegel and Shuster had sold Superman to DC for $130 (the actual cheque for $130 sold in 2012 for $160,000), they also had a contract to supply the rapidly expanding stable of comic titles with material. The Saturday Evening Post claimed that arrangement had made them $75,000 in 1940. 

Meanwhile, Superman was raking in millions from comic sales – more than 1.5 million copies were being sold per month in 1942 – along with merchandise and licensing. A radio serial was wildly successful; a series of animated shorts followed. In 1947 the pair, angry over how they’d been shut out of the profits from their own creation and over the ‘Superboy’ spin-off created without their permission, took DC to court. They eventually accepted $94,000 to drop all claims; Shuster would never work for DC again, while Siegel was later hired at a basic wage to write some Superman titles.

In 1975 (three years before the release of Superman: The Movie) Siegel and Shuster were doing it tough. Siegel was writing low-level comics in between working as a clerk typist in Los Angeles on $7000 a year; the nearly-blind Shuster, who’d been working as a messenger in New York (he reportedly once delivered a package to DC Comics, where embarrassed staff asked him not to return), was in a nursing home.

Angered by reports of a big-budget Superman movie in the offing, Siegel wrote and sent out a nine-page press release outlining the poverty, failing health and economic exploitation of Superman’s creators. As he put it: “Joe Shuster and I, who co-originated Superman together, will not get one cent from the Superman super-movie deal. Superman has been a huge money-maker for 37 years. During most of those years, Joe Shuster and I…got nothing from our creation, and through many of those years we have known want, while Superman’s publishers became multimillionaires.”

Siegel’s press release was picked up by the media – there was clearly merit in a story about a much-loved character committed to righting wrongs raking in millions while his creators struggled in poverty. This was not good publicity for the coming movie, so DC Comics and its parent company, Warner Communications (later Time Warner), bowed to public opinion. They returned the creators’ by-lines to the comics and gave them each a $20,000 yearly pension and medical coverage for life. The first movie alone made $US300 million dollars and generated three sequels: Superman himself is estimated to have generated more than a billion dollars in merchandising and licensing fees alone during his 75-year history.

Shuster did more than outline his case against DC in that effusive press release. He put a curse on the film itself: “I, Jerry Siegel, the co-originator of Superman, put a curse on the Superman movie! I hope it super-bombs. I hope loyal Superman fans stay away from it in droves. I hope the whole world, becoming aware of the stench that surrounds Superman, will avoid the movie like a plague.”

This curse might not have put much of a dent in the movies’ box office takings, but for many years there have been rumours of a curse on anyone playing the role of Superman. George Reeves was Superman in the successful 1950s television series: he was found shot dead in suspicious circumstances in 1959, just days before he was supposed to be married. 

Other actors who have played the part have been unable to find further work due to being too closely associated with the character, while Lee Quigley, who played Superman as a baby in the 1978 film, died of solvent abuse aged 14. Supporting characters supposedly aren’t immune either. Richard Pryor, who played the villain in Superman III, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis a few years later.

But it’s the fate of Christopher Reeve that has cemented the idea of a Superman curse in pop culture. After playing the Man of Steel in the 1978 film and its three sequels, he was so closely associated with the character he never branched out into other roles. Then he broke his neck in a horse-riding accident in 1995, and remained paralysed from the neck down until his death from associated heart failure in 2004.

Like many supposed curses, this one seems surprisingly arbitrary. Dean Cain, who played Superman in the 1990s television series, seems to be doing just fine. Brandon Routh, who played the lead in Superman Returns, hasn’t exactly seen his career take off, but he’s had a range of movie roles since. Actor Gene Hackman was Lex Luthor in the 1978 film and it didn’t seem to do him any harm. And Ben Affleck, who played George Reeves in the movie Hollywoodland (2006), doesn’t seem to be struggling at the moment – certainly not with this year’s Best Picture Oscar for Argo on his mantelpiece. Then there’s DC Comics, which is still raking in money from the character of Superman.

If screwing over his creators and a curse that kills actors isn’t dark enough for Hollywood, there’s yet another option for an edgier take on Superman. Before he was cleaned up by DC Comics, his first year of comic book adventures gave people a Superman more interested in righting real-life wrongs than averting natural disasters and battling super villains.

He carried arms dealers to the frontlines to fight the wars they started, trapped slum lords in their own derelict buildings, terrorised wife beaters, menaced corrupt politicians, tossed gangsters around in a presumably fatal manner and threw mine owners down their own dangerous mineshafts. Meanwhile, Iron Man is a billionaire arms dealer and Batman is an affluent playboy who dresses up in a costume so as to go out at night to beat up thieves and muggers. 

At a time when gaping extremes of wealth and social inequality are, once again, growing issues (not least in the US), who better to balance the scales than Superman – a character created during the Great Depression to be a living symbol of truth, justice and the American way? Or he could once again fight some villains from outer space while his corporate owners amass even more money. 

Anthony Morris is The Big Issue's DVD Editor.