4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch

“I just want you to meet a super guy” — Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman

Superman has always been a trailblazer: besides pretty much singlehandedly starting the notion of superhero comics when he was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in 1938, the first radio and animated adaptations of superheroes, and one of the first live-action ones, featured the man of steel, and the first TV show based on a superhero was The Adventures of Superman starring George Reeves. The first superhero feature film that wasn’t tied to television was 1978’s Superman, and in the 2010s, Superman would lead off DC’s attempt at a cinematic universe with Man of Steel (which we’ll cover next week).

In the midst of the revived interest in the 1990s in DC’s characters in cinema (the Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher Batman films), animation (Batman: The Animated Series, Superman: The Animated Series, Justice League), and television (Superboy, The Flash), ABC gave us Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.

In 1986, Superman was one of many DC characters who was rebooted and revamped in the wake of Crisis on Infinite Earths. That landmark miniseries by Marv Wolfman and George Pérez was designed to clean out the cruft, as it were, in the DC universe, streamlining everything into a single timeline and starting over to some degree.

To that end, John Byrne wrote and drew the Man of Steel miniseries, aided in the development by Marv Wolfman. In that six-issue series, Byrne made several changes to the mythos, including eliminating the character of Superboy, with Clark Kent not taking on a heroic identity until adulthood; making Kent less of a klutzy milksop and having a strong personality of his own; changing Lex Luthor from a mad scientist to a wealthy and powerful industrialist, who is viewed by the public as a good guy; and, perhaps most significantly, having Jonathan and Martha Kent continue to be alive into Kent’s adulthood, allowing his adoptive parents to continue to be part of the narrative.

Inspired by DC president Jenette Kahn wanting to get Superman on television (following the moderate success of the half-hour syndicated Superboy series that ran from 1988-1992), Deborah Joy LeVine created a show that emphasized the relationship between Kent and fellow reporter Lois Lane, using the revamped continuity as a springboard. Dean Cain was cast as Kent, with Teri Hatcher playing Lane. Reflecting the new status quo, John Shea played the new version of Luthor (the only live-action interpretation that truly follows the post-1986 comics version; all others have either been the old mad scientist version or a mix of both versions), while K Callan and Eddie Jones were cast as Martha and Jonathan Kent. The pilot also features Elizabeth Barondes as Lane’s sister Lucy (intended to be a regular, though she’d be written out after three episodes) and Kim Johnston Ulrich as Dr. Antoinette Baines, plus a cameo by Persis Khambatta in what turned out to be her last role before her death in 1998 as the Congress of Nations Chairperson. Lane Smith, Tracey Scoggins, and Michael Landes round out the main cast as Kent and Lane’s fellow Daily Planet folk Perry White, Cat Grant, and Jimmy Olsen, respectively.

The pilot was a success, and the show lasted four seasons on ABC, though there was a certain amount of upheaval after the first season ended. Shea left, with only a few guest appearances in subsequent seasons, Scoggins was written out, and Landes was replaced by Justin Whalin. In addition, LeVine and her entire writing staff was dismissed, with Robert Singer taking over as show-runner. The show also ended on a cliffhanger when a planned renewal for a fifth season was rescinded by ABC, leaving viewers hanging. Both Cain and Hatcher have appeared on the current Supergirl series, the former as the title character’s adoptive father, the latter as a Daxamite queen.

 

“I like your costume!”
“Thank you—my mother made it for me…”

Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman
Written by Deborah Joy LeVine
Directed by Robert Butler
Produced by Robert Butler & David Jacobs
Original release date: September 12, 1993

Screenshot: ABC

Reporter Lois Lane returns to the Daily Planet in disguise as a bearded man, having landed a major scoop. The next day, they celebrate her triumph, though editor-in-chief Perry White eventually makes them go back to work, while refusing Lane a raise by pulling the empty pockets of his pants inside out to show how broke the paper is.

A bus arrives in Metropolis and a young man gets out with a very battered suitcase monogrammed with the initials “CK,” which means either this is Clark Kent or we know what cologne this guy prefers. He sees another bus coming down the street with nonfunctioning brakes. He steps in front of it and stops it with his hand. There’s only one witness (plus there’s a hand-shaped indentation in the front of the bus), and she’s stunned.

Kent has an interview with White. While White is impressed with his recommendation from an old colleague, and with the breadth of Kent’s experiences travelling the world, he doesn’t have a job for him.

Kent returns to his crummy hotel, calling his parents back home in Smallville to tell them the disappointing news. His father offers to wire him some money, and warns him about using his powers in public, lest he be taken by government scientists who try to dissect him like a frog. He also paces around the room on the walls and ceiling, and uses his powers of flight to tighten the flickering light bulb.

Walking around Metropolis, he sees that an old theatre is being demolished, despite protestors. There’s an old woman wearing an absurd hat inside the theatre reciting lines from Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard while the demolition crew is blithely about to knock the building down. Kent uses his heat vision to sabotage the wrecking equipment and then talks to the woman for a bit. He then writes a rather clichéd puff piece about how sad this poor old woman is who is reciting Chekhov after a long career in theatre (no mention in the article of the hat, which strikes me as a wasted opportunity). Somehow, this prompts White to give him a job as a reporter.

There’s a space shuttle launch that is going to link up with the Prometheus space station, where important zero-g research is being done. However, the project has been fraught with problems, and there is concern that they’ll have to scrub the entire project. A crazy homeless guy comes into the Planet insisting that the shuttle is doomed—doomed!—and they need to expose it. Further investigation reveals that he’s Dr. Samuel Platt, who worked on the project, and who claims his reports of problems with the shuttle were ignored.

White reluctantly lets Lane run with the story, but instead of a task force, he gives her Kent. She’s not thrilled, but they do investigate. Dr. Antoinette Baines of the Prometheus Project has no recollection of any reports of problems.

Lane has been trying to get an interview with the reclusive industrialist Lex Luthor for years now. She’s attending his annual gala, and is hoping to corner him there. She does, however, need a plus-one. She eventually asks Kent, emphasizing that it’s not a date. (Though she was somewhat charmed by his finding really good Chinese food—he actually flew to China and brought it back.)

Kent saves a man trapped in a sewer. His father is concerned about him exposing himself, and he hits on the notion of a disguise.

At Luthor’s gala, he announces his own privately funded space station, which he’s offered to the Congress of Worlds in place of Prometheus. Upon realizing that Lane is incredibly hot, he decides that maybe he should return her phone calls, and he starts hitting on her. At one point, Lane and Kent sneak into his back office, and Luthor is surprisingly blasé about it. He shows Kent a sword that supposedly belonged to Alexander the Great, with Luthor saying that Alexander’s secret was to always have the high ground. He also shows Kent and Lane the balcony and the amazing view, as he has the tallest skyscraper in Metropolis—he likes the notion of everyone looking up at him.

Luthor is also sleeping with Baines, who is sabotaging Prometheus on his behalf so he can have his private space station. Baines wants to get Lane, Kent, and Platt out of the way, but Luthor says that he’ll deal with Lane. His method of doing that is to invite her to dinner, at which he tries to sleep with her and she tries to interview him, and both of them wind up frustrated. Kent also follows them discreetly from Luthor’s place back to Lane’s apartment, and then he hovers outside her window, which isn’t at all creepy (it’s totally creepy).

Lane and Kent find Platt dead in his home, a seeming suicide, but neither reporter believes that. Lane decides to check out the Prometheus base, taking Jimmy Olsen with her. They miss a staff meeting, and Kent decides to investigate.

Olsen is clubbed from behind by Baines’s pet thug, and while Lane is able to take him down temporarily, Baines shows up with a gun. Kent arrives soon thereafter, but decides not to use his powers so openly, and so he and Lane are chained to a pole. At one point, Baines makes a comment about having the high ground which sounds very much like what Luthor said at the party.

Baines lets loose a gas that will kill them. However, Kent breaks his bonds (claiming to Lane that there was a missing link in the chain), and gets himself, Lane, and the semi-conscious Olsen out before the place blows up.

When they get out—Kent using his flying powers to bring them clear of the blast, though he credits the force of the explosion—they look up to see Baines in a helicopter, which then explodes. Luthor watches security footage of the helicopter exploding with glee, as he ordered it done. Luthor also at one point stares down a cobra put in his sitting room by a turban-wearing employee.

Despite the explosion, the Congress of Worlds announces that they are going forward with Prometheus, which pisses Luthor off no end.

There’s a celebration at the Planet, as Lane has written the full story of Baines’s mendacity. The shuttle launch is going ahead, with lots of folks going to the space station.

Kent goes home to Smallville asking his mother to fire up her sewing machine. He wants a separate identity, one that can show off his powers to the world without endangering Clark Kent’s real life. After several false starts, they settle on a red-and-blue outfit. She puts a stylized “S” medallion that was amidst the stuff they found with him when his rocket ship crashed on the chest of the uniform.

The shuttle launches, but there’s a hold because a circuit is broken. It was broken by Lane, as it happens, who snuck on board the shuttle and found a bomb. She cut a wire to stop the launch.

Superman arrives and swallows the bomb. He then flies the shuttle to Prometheus, since the rockets can’t be reused so soon after the abortive blast-off. Superman then flies Lane back to the Planet from the orbital station (how he did that without her dying of asphyxiation in orbit is left as an exercise for the viewer).

Lane insists on an exclusive interview as he flies off. Later, Superman shows up at Luthor’s window, saying he knows that Luthor was responsible, even though he can’t prove it. He adds that if Luthor wants to know where he is, to look up. (Burn!)

 

“You are a strange one, Clark Kent”

Screenshot: ABC

Mainstream Hollywood has always been a peculiar mix of progressive and conservative. On the one hand, we saw a U.S. president that wasn’t a white male on our TV and movie screens way before we saw one in real life, and screen productions’ integration of the first half of the LGBT community into the mainstream was a big help in getting the average American to accept homosexuals. But most family relationships on screen are almost depressingly traditional, and the BT part of LGBT is still marginalized, forgotten, and/or used as code to show that someone is depraved and evil (ditto the BDSM community).

Lois & Clark is an interesting look at where sex relationships stood in the “post-feminist” 1990s, having gone through the women’s lib movement of the late 1960s and 1970s and the conservative backlash of the Reagan years: to wit, a big ol’ mess. On the one hand, Teri Hatcher’s Lois Lane is portrayed as a go-getter, as a hard-willed, takes-no-prisoners reporter who is as tough as any man—tougher, even. On the other hand, we see her alone in her apartment crying while watching a sappy romantic movie, and people around her, particularly her rival Cat Grant and her sister, keep trying to convince her that all she really needs is a man, and her life will be complete. Part of it is, of course, the very premise of the Superman mythos, the “love triangle” among Lane, Kent, and Superman. And it’s not surprising that in the Ally McBeal era of television, we see this dichotomy between the traditional woman who only needs a man to be complete and a woman who’s an accomplished person in her own right and that really should be enough for society, dammit. (Ironically, the star of Ally McBeal, Calista Flockhart, would go on two decades later to play a much more compelling version of Cat Grant than the unsubtle “man-eater” sexually prolific living stereotype played very poorly by Tracey Scoggins here.)

Lois & Clark threads that needle very clumsily, and 25 years on, it’s almost painful to watch.

Having said that, the movie and its followup series do have their charms, starting with the two stars. For all that Hatcher has a mess to work with, she makes Lane surprisingly compelling. And Dean Cain is charming as heck as Kent (and briefly Superman). A lot of why the show worked for so long was the spectacular chemistry between the two, with Cain’s relaxed charm a good match for Hatcher’s biting commentary. In addition, I like that they lean into the fact that Superman isn’t just faster and stronger, but also smarter—and we get a Clark Kent who’s travelled the breadth of the world he’s sworn to protect. Cain’s Kent isn’t just a bright smile and a great physique, he’s also intelligent, and not in an overbearing way.

We also have in Lane Smith and John Shea, the best interpretations of Perry White and Lex Luthor in live action (with the possible exception of Michael Rosenbaum’s Luthor on Smallville). Smith gives White a Southern drawl that softens the character’s bluster a bit, but still has the avuncular mien and hardass journalistic instincts that make him a good chief. And Shea truly embodies the Byrne/Wolfman version of Luthor that has been the comics’ norm for thirty years: the businessman who is publicly good but privately evil. Shea’s charisma is perfect for the role, oozing charm and menace in equal measure—you have no trouble believing that most people think well of him, but you also have no trouble predicting that he’s going to kill Baines and enjoy watching the footage over and over again.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the truly fine performances of K Callan and Eddie Jones. The best thing John Byrne ever did in a storied comics career was to change Superman’s mythos so that his parents remained alive and part of his life into adulthood. In both the comics and the on-screen adaptations, this has mostly been a boon to the character and to the storytelling. (Why I qualify that with “mostly” is something we’ll get into next week.) And Callan and Jones are a magnificent double-act of concern, love, and affection.

The script devolves into camp on more than one occasion, from the extreme stakes of the Prometheus station and the consequences if one shuttle doesn’t take off, to Luthor staring down a cobra provided by his ethnic stereotype henchman, plus the only reason Baines doesn’t kill Kent, Lane, and Olsen directly is because they’re the stars of the show and she’s not allowed to. Having said that, I love that Kent regularly uses his powers as part of his everyday life, not just when he’s superheroing, something we see far too rarely. He unconsciously floats into the air when he’s agitated about Luthor flirting with Lane, he flies to adjust a light bulb, he flies to China for takeout.

This is a flawed movie in many ways, problematic in several ways, but a lot of fun in a few other ways. It’s rather aggressively a product of its time, with both the good and bad that entails.

 

Next week, we shift from the 1990s interpretation of the man of steel to the 2013 movie Man of Steel, as we inaugurate our look at the DC Extended Universe.

Keith R.A. DeCandido will be at Planet Comic-Con in Kansas City from the 29th to the 31st of March. He’ll be spending most of his time at the Bard’s Tower booth, so come by and say hi, and buy lots of copies of his books, especially his new releases A Furnace Sealed (debuting a new urban fantasy series) and Mermaid Precinct (the latest in his fantasy police procedure series).

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