SMBFC Movie Bites Review – Superman Lives

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s… cliché! You know the rest of this old slice of American pop culture (and comics, in general), and in 1978, the Man of Steel taught the world to believe a man can fly. Then, by 1987, he taught the world how utterly boring that can be.

“Thirty seven?!” The exasperated cry of disbelief shocked an entire culture of moviegoers with the idea that foul-mouthed Star Wars geeks earning minimum wage could be a movie. “Clerks” brought about the pop culture stoner icons Jay and Silent Bob, and critical uproar and acclaim for the dork-turned-famous-dork Kevin Smith.

If you’re a comic book or movie geek by any stretch of the imagination, you’ve undoubtedly heard the now-infamous Kevin Smith/Superman story. If not, it’s immortalized forever on the several hour Q&A formatted collection of college lectures, dubbed, “An Evening With Kevin Smith.” In it, he outlines the tale of reading Warner Brothers’ then-attempted revitalization of Superman as a movie icon. Fresh to the business, with an extensive comic book background, Smith emblazoned himself to the point of actually writing an alternate treatment for them. One of the big things Smith learned the hard (and amusing) way was, working with a big-budget studio for a multi-million dollar picture like “the new Superman movie,” he had to take inane suggestions from bizarre producers. From obligatory polar bear fights to a giant spider in the third act (sorry, “Thanagarian Snare Beast”), the once-comic fan’s wet dream became a damp nightmare.

The year was 1997. In the comic book world, it was fresh off the heels of one of the largest “comic book events” ever imagined: The Death of Superman. Time Magazine wrote an article about it. The death of an icon. The greatest “super hero” the world had ever known, not defeated in a battle of the wits by arch-nemesis Lex Luthor. Not falling prey to his own overwhelming source of power. No, you would not have seen a Sherlock Holmes/Moriarty end in this issue. No, in the end, Superman was beaten to death by a seemingly unbeatable monster from space. Hardly “classic,” the story was forgotten almost as quickly as it arrived, mired in Super-imposters, cyborgs with vendettas, and a character who was actually called “The Eradicator.” And it was clear Kevin Smith read every page before he wrote, “Superman Lives.”

That’s not to say he just plagiarized the comic and took it as his. If he had, it would have been ultimately unfulfilling in scope. First off, this would have been an extremely cumbersome script. It wasn’t. It would have been extremely epic and wasn’t. “Superman Lives” is not a comic book publicity stunt like “The Death of Superman” was. Likewise, “Lives” does not link itself very directly to the originals the way “Returns” did. In the end, “Superman Lives” stands on its own, while connecting (often times, literally) to its comic book origins. It is a late-nineties love letter (of sorts) to comic books.

Having said that, in hindsight, I’m glad it wasn’t made. It does have its issues (pun mildly intended). The main antagonists in the film are Lex Luthor (duh) and the psychotic, artificially intelligent Kryptonian robot, Brainiac. It’s your standard Superman comic, put up on the screen. Lex Luthor plots against Superman. Superman and Lois share some on-screen kisses. Jimmy takes the pictures, Perry gives the assignments, and Superman saves the day. That is, until Brainiac, searching for a perpetual Kryptonian battery called (ready?) “The Eradicator,” travels near the little, blue ball we call “Earth.”

Brainiac, along with his sassy robot sidekick “L-Ron” (get it?) discovers a space-transmission from Luthor, begging for any assistance in his never-ending struggle to destroy Superman, and make a few bucks on the sly. Brainiac accepts, and the two discern a way to destroy Superman and get the battery, with the help of a sun-blocking space canon that Luthor just-so-happened to stick in orbit before this whole thing got started.

Meanwhile, Superman and Lois are happily dating, she with the full knowledge of his dual identity as Clark Kent. In a cute scene atop Mount Rushmore, the two discuss his unknown heritage, life’s “What if” questions, and Lois’ reinvigorated belief in “the perfect man.” Superman expresses interest in taking things to the next level: marriage, kids! Lois surprisingly refuses. She has issues with Superman’s separation and unending dedication to humanity. As she puts it, “You belong to the world.”

This realization hits Superman hard, but he has little time to dwell on it, as Luthor and Brainiac hatch their scheme. They know Superman’s source of power comes from the yellow sun of the Earth, so they use their weapon to block out segments of the sun, depleting his power. Then, from a “menagerie” of different beasts and creatures from across the dozens of worlds Brainiac has destroyed in his search for perpetual power, they unleash “Doomsday,” the destructive beast from the pages of “The Death of Superman” comic book who served Superman his walking papers.

After Superman is dispatched, Luthor and Brainiac use this opportunity to seize control. Using Luthor’s space canon, Brainiac kills the Doomsday monster and appears before the world. With Luthor’s charisma, the two dupe the whole world into believing there is an impending armada of warships in space, and blocking out the sun was their way of hiding the Earth from their view. Lois is unsurprisingly dubious of this benevolence.

“The Eradicator” turns out to be another artificially intelligent creature not unlike Brainiac, built by Jor-El (Superman’s father) to safeguard his son on his alien world. The Eradicator (with a voice and, ostensibly, a face all his own) resuscitates the now-powerless Man of Steel, and the two form a quick friendship that eventually leads to what should be the climax of the story: a battle royale aboard Brainiac’s ship orbiting the Earth.

In the end, The Eradicator, influenced by Superman’s selfless nature, sacrifices himself to thwart Brainiac’s scheme of draining the core of the Earth for power. Lois and Jimmy reveal the space invader hoax, and bring back the sun. A re-powered Superman punches the hell out of Brainiac, who took the form of a giant spider (sorry, “Thanagarian Snare Beast”) in an obligatorily forced, final climax. Luthor is brought to justice, Brainiac is destroyed (sort of), and Superman learns an important lesson about being human.

With cameos by all kinds of comic book characters (including a teary “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” speech by Batman), the script is obviously a reaction to the wedge the movie versions seem to force between themselves and the comics from which they were inspired. It’s also a fanboy’s wet dream, when we were living in a world where the biggest superhero movie to come out in recent years was “Batman and Robin.” Today, it seems a little flashy, and not nearly as introspective and emotional as Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns” (2006). To many, that may not necessarily be a bad thing. It’s harmless fun, when you look at it the right way. It’s not without its problems, but all-in-all, if I went to the movies in the summer of 1997 and spend the $6.50 it would have cost to see “Superman Lives,” I would have called it the best superhero movie ever made. I probably would have been right.

~ by Crivelliman on January 2, 2008.

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