Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Canon fire

As it happens, the first review I read of the new Superman movie was the one by Peter Travers, which I saw on the Rolling Stone web site. I found it telling that he felt obliged, in addition to actually giving his opinion on whether the movie was any good (he seemed to think it was), to include a sentence explaining how the movies fits in with Superman continuity or “canon.”

In the olden days, the only question a comic book fan really had about a film adaptation of one of his favorite superheroes was: how faithful is it to the comic book? But, over the years, the question has increasingly become: which comic book does it follow? As years and years rolled by, and the comics had their “golden age” and then their “silver age” and then whatever age they are into now (platinum, anyone?), comic book legends have increasingly been born and reborn. At first, the Flash was a guy with a funny helmet with wings, like the Roman god Mercury. Then he disappeared, and eventually a new Flash appeared with a new backstory and a mask that covered most of his head. Something similar happened with Green Lantern. Superman was one of the few who was published continuously through the decades, but eventually the writers felt compelled to deal with the fact that a superhero with no gray in his hair in the 1980s or 1990s had spent his youth being Superboy in Smallville back in the 1950s. Or that Batman’s protégé Robin was still a teenager after so many years in the sidekick role. (Michael Jackson, call your office.)

More to the point, writers and editors had a natural need to update superheroes that were creatures of an earlier era. Even kids who read comic books have become increasingly sophisticated over the years and expect more than two-dimensional hero figures. And, beginning more or less with the baby boomers, some kids maintained their comic reading habits well into adulthood. So we began to the see phenomenon of comic book sagas being reborn, or to use a term that seems to have applied more recently, rebooted. Like a computer that had too much of its dynamic memory clogged with junk to do anything effectively, comic book series were suddenly stopped and then started again. The new writer would basically proclaim, let’s pretend that none of the stuff in the old comic books ever happened. Let’s pretend that the story is starting again for the first time today. Let’s move it to today’s world. And we will not merely retell the story. We will tell it better.

Sometimes these reboots just happened, with no particular explanation or with the most perfunctory nods to continuity. Sometimes they were chronicled in a new comic books series that co-existed in parallel with, but ignoring, the old one. Sometimes these new storylines were explained as taking place in alternate universe. Superman got a major reboot in 1986 by writer/artist John Byrne. A number of details changed in the familiar story, a notable one being that his earth parents, the Kents, did not die before he moved to Metropolis and became Superman.

This is why I say, when a new superhero movie is released, fans want to know which version of the comic book it is going to follow. When Tim Burton was directing the 1989 movie Batman, fans wanted to know if it would be the old Bob Kane version or Frank Miller’s Dark Knight version. But then things get really complicated as more and more comic book superheroes get adapted for the big screen and the small screen multiple times. For then you not only need to worry about which comic book storyline it is following but also how (or whether) it fits in with other movie and TV versions. And no comic book hero has been around longer or been adapted more times than Superman. So that is why Peter Travers felt obliged to let his readers know how Bryan Singer’s new film fits in. For the record, this is the same Superman that Christopher Reeve played in the series of movies that began in 1978, and it is apparently a sequel to Superman II, which was credited to Richard Lester. (Reportedly, footage was shared liberally between the second movie and the first one, which was credited to Richard Donner, but Lester seems to have made the best bits.) But wait, shouldn’t this movie be called Superman III then? But wait, wasn’t there already a Superman III, with Richard Pryor in it? Singer, writes Travers, “wisely ignores the two other film sequels in the S-man canon.” That is, let’s all pretend that the Richard Pryor movie and the fourth one—subtitled The Quest for Peace, in which the Man of Steel solves the nuclear proliferation problem—never happened. Kind of like that whole year of Dallas that turned out to be just a dream.

Note the use of the word “canon.” Merriam-Webster’s first definition of this use of the word is as follows: “an authoritative list of books accepted as Holy Scripture.” There are other, more liberal meanings of the word (“the authentic works of a writer” and “a sanctioned or accepted group or body of related works”), but I think it is no coincidence that serious fans of comic books and science fiction frequently use the religiously charged word “canon” to describe works that should be taken as “real,” as opposed to those that can be ignored. During the glory days that the series Babylon 5 was on TV (to pick a case I happen to be familiar with), a series of novels based on the characters and universe of the series was published. Fans of the show wanted to know if these books were canon. Fortunately, Babylon 5 has always had a high priest or prophet or whatever you want to call him (J. Michael Straczynski, or JMS), who has ultimate creative control. The word came down. Those first novels were not canon. They were written under license from Warner Bros. but were not creatively supervised by JMS. A later series of novels were, and therefore could be considered canon. If only real deities could so clear about things.

Anyway, we seem to have an answer as to how the new Superman movie fits into what Travers calls “the S-man canon,” at least as far as the movies go. But that doesn’t exactly answer the question of how it relates to the comic books, since the 1978 movie, with which it is continuous, predates the major 1986 comics reboot. Another question important to fans is: how (if at all) does the movie connect with the TV series Smallville, which chronicles Superman’s days as a teenager? At one point there were even rumors that the show’s star, Tom Welling, was being considered to star in the movie. The trailer I saw recently, particularly in its focus on the Fortress of Solitude, did seem consistent with the TV series. But the series, which has made Lois Lane a regular character already at this point in Clark Kent’s life and even had him bring her to his high school prom, is not particularly consistent with the first two Superman movies.

Actually, the casting on Smallville has been one of the most interesting things to follow. Clark Kent’s mother is played Annette O’Toole, who played Lana Lang in Superman III. The voice of Superman’s father, Jor-El, is supplied by Terence Stamp, who played the villainous General Zod in the first two Superman movies. And, as of the season-ending cliffhanger, General Zod has made an appearance in Smallville, inhabiting the body of young Lex Luthor. (No word on whether anyone will be cast to do General Zod’s own voice on the TV show.) In the early seasons, the late Christopher Reeve himself was featured as a guest star. And even Margot Kidder had a brief appearance before she had to be killed off because she proved to still be as difficult as she was back when her Lois Lane was largely written out of Superman III and replaced by the Lana Lang character. The movies’ Jor-El, of course, was the legendary Marlon Brando, who was famously paid $3 million for a few minutes of screen time. The late Brando seems to be the only actor from the original 1978 movie to reprise his role. And, given what the studio paid for him, you can’t really blame them for wanting to get a bit more mileage out of their money.

Comic books and movies are not the only media which experience reboots, of course. Battlestar Galactica was rebooted recently and the remake has been more successful than the original series was. That gambit was dicey enough for a show that had a surprising number of die-hard fans, many of whom wanted to see the original surviving actors star in any new version of the series. So imagine what the reaction might be if a really major TV sci-fi franchise were to get a reboot. As it happens, we might have found out. Recently Bryce Zabel, who produced the TV series Dark Skies shared on his web site a document that he and Babylon 5’s JMS had written up in 2004, proposing to reboot the whole Star Trek universe by remaking the original William Shatner series with new scripts and a new cast. The idea was intriguing, especially given how Star Trek seems to have been run into the ground by its most recent creative masters. The described storyline, about the five-year mission being about looking for older races beyond the edge of the universe, was perhaps a bit too reminiscent of B5, but somehow I suspect that JMS could have made it all seem fresh and new.

Anyway, the proposal came to naught. As good as that series probably would have been, it looks as if we will have to wait for our Star Trek reboot, in the form of the movie to be written and directed by J.J. Abrams. Make it so.

-S.L., 29 June 2006

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