Its hard to miss there’s a new Superman film out. Given the budget of the film (around $170 million according to some reports) it’s easy to understand why there is such a big push to advertise the film and make sure as many people possible go see it. Cinematically Superman is great material, he can fly at supersonic speeds, smash mountains and in one previous film reverse the flow of time. Whatever else Superman offers as source material the opportunity to offer extavagant spectacle to its audience in an era of big special effects driven films must be hugely attractive to filmmakers.
The big question must be however, ‘how do we make this guy interesting?’
For any dramatic movie, the hero must face challenges and obstacles to overcome on his way to becoming a hero. There should be the very real danger of death to make the hero’s struggles seem interesting and the ultimate triumph all the more of an achievement. So when the hero can withstand a direct nuclear assault, and defete the worlds armed forces in less than a day, how exactly do you drum up a challenge thats worthy?
The first thing to go for is the Achilles heel. American comic books didn’t invent the seemingly indistructible hero able to power through his enemies with ease. The greek myths are full of such beings, and they always had a weakness. Achillies was said to be invulnerable aside from one weak spot on his heel. Superman, possibly one of the most iconic characters in comics this eras Greek myth equivalent, is invulnerable save for two things, magic and Kryptonite.
Kryptonite is a radioactive material from Supermans home planet of Krypton. It was introduced as a plot device in the Superman radio show and was popular enough to make it back into the comics. The standard green Kryptonite weakens superman and makes him vulnerable to attack. Pretty soon every villain going would somehow get hold of a piece and give the man of steel problems. Eventually though, Supes would find a creative solution to the problem and evil would be punished.
However. Reusing the same plot device over and over became boring for audiences and writers alike so new variations of Kryptonite emerged with different effects, from making superman temporarily evil, robs him of his powers or even cause him to go insane. Essentially a new colour of Kryptonite could be created by writers to justify whatever the latest plot required and seemed to offer a helpful plot device for writers. While the comics eventually marginalised Kryptonite (though it never goes away, it resurfaces every so often) in the comics, the TV series Smallville, about the early teenage years of Clark Kent used it as a frequent plot device to create various dangers for Clark and to justify common humans gaining superpowers.
Magic would also be used on occasion in Smallville, and in the comics Mr Mxyzptlk, an inter dimensional trickster would give Superman plenty of troubles with it though this weakness was never as widely exploited as Kryptonite. Strange really as DC comics had an excellent array of occult characters to draw from including The Phantom Stranger and John Constantine.
Personally however, I have always felt a great hero should be defined by his villains. The upcoming Man of Steel has one of the more popular villains General Zod. Previously seen in Richar Donners Superman 2, a sequel to the massively successful first film. Zod is also a Kryptonian, which means unlike most other villains both he and Superman are matched in powers. Zod was a militerist blamed for the destruction of Krypton and an enemy of Supermans father Jor-el. Zod has also turned up in Smallville and still crops up in the comics on occasion. Man of steel isn’t a continutation of the Donner film, or the Bryan Singer film from a few years back that tried to continue/pay tribute to the previous films but fell a little flat to say the least. Its easy to see why Zod was chosen for the first new Superman films. Physically Supes has a real fight on his hands, and Zod may even have the advantage with his military training as Superman has little experience of fighting someone of equal power.
But where to go after that?
I’m going to presume the studio wants a sequel. I’m also going to prsume that they won’t want to repeat the first film and at least offer the audience a different threat. My first bet would be Brainiac http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brainiac_(comics)
Brainiac would be an interesting choice. Done ‘properly’ it would be a full on alien invasion movie with a villain capable of fighting superman on equal terms, even offering a real threat to our hero.
That said though I do hope LEX LUTHOR makes a comeback. People unfamiliar with the comics will probably be most familiar with Gene hackman’s portrayal in the Richard Donner movie. The self proclaimed ‘worlds greatest criminal’ of the film originated from the mad scientist of the comics and was the main villain that pitted intellect against supermans might. His mad science often created problems for Superman who would eventually overpower them and Luthor would end up in prison until the next time he escaped.
My favourite depiction of Lex Luthor is the revised version created by John Byrne for the Man of steel comics in the eighties, and used in Smallville later on. This Lex luthor is a wealthy and powerful industrialist. Smarter than Superman he’s a corporate thug who is able to maintain a facade of respectability to the world. This villain is the most interesting threat to superman in my opinion. He offers a challenge that Superman cannot fight easily regardless of his godlike abilities. This Luthor sits behind a desk, is on the cover of newsweek. He dontates large sums to the mayors reelection campaign and dines with presidents. He’s a corporate titan with influential friends.
Superman walks a fine line between hero and vigalante. He’s accepted because its clear he’s trying to do good. He’s also the 500 pound gorrilla in the room that sits where he wants. With all his influence the eighties Luthor resents Superman because he didn’t earn his power. As a self made billionaire, his loathing of inherited ‘wealth’ ties in with the eighties ethos and gives him reason enough to hate Superman. The fact that he’s totally crooked gives him reason to fear him.
Supermans dilemma with this Luthor is clear. He KNOWS Lex Luthor is a villain. The trouble is he can’t just fly to Lex’s office and pummell him. He needs to prove Luthor is a villain, and when the villain has an enourmous IQ and wealth and influence to match this isnt an easy thing.
This to me is why LEX LUTHOR makes superman interesting. He offers a creative challenge to a hero who is probably too overpowered otherwise.