The recent big screen Superman movie represented an opportunity to reinvent the Superman franchise in a way similar to what Batman Begins did to that particular character. Instead X-Men director Bryan Singer decided to play it safe and rather present Superman Returns as a sequel to the original 1978 Richard Donner movie . . .

While we liked the movie as much as anyone else, it was however a bit of wasted opportunity when one considers the clever way in which the Smallville TV series played around with the now familiar Superman story.

Personally I would have liked a hyper-stylized Superman set in the 1930s (when the character first appeared), a sepia-toned mixture between Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and the city designs of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Then again I’ve always been the type of architectural fetishist who gets off on movies with fantastical cityscapes like The Crow, Tim Burton’s Batman Returns and the anime Metropolis.

However, when one considers the crazy ideas that were thrown about in the 1990s when the Superman project was in development hell I suppose that one should be grateful for the Superman movie we got in the end. These ideas included: a cape-less Superman in a black uniform with chains that had a life of their own (what!? did they watch Spawn soon before coming up with that one?); a gay robot sidekick; and Superman battling polar bears in his arctic Fortress of Solitude.

"Nice touches abound: the Superman costume was designed for an unfilmed sci-fi flick titled Saucer-Man from Saturn!"

Still, Superman Returns represents a bit of a wasted opportunity. Perhaps the film-makers should have bought the rights to author Tom De Haven’s It’s Superman, a clever re-invention of the Superman mythos that takes the character back to its roots, namely Depression-era New York. Not only does De Haven’s novel have Superman battling it out with giant robots (called “Lexbots”) invented by crime boss Lex Luthor, but adds a tough social realist veneer to the proceedings.

This isn’t an idealized 1930s; instead it is one probably closer to the historical truth – brutal gangsters, racist mob lynchings and Hoovervilles (shanty towns) dot the novel’s imaginary landscape. Regular Superman characters such as Lois Lane and the Kents make an appearance along with a glut of new characters from a new photographer sidekick (no, not Jimmy Olsen) for a teenaged Clark Kent and colourful henchmen for Lex Luthor, who is a criminal mastermind holds political office (so what else have changed? one can hear the cynics ask).

In this version of the tale, a slightly morose Clark Kent goes on the road with a new buddy before ending up as a hack at a New York newspaper where he finally meets Lois. Nice touches abound: the now familiar Superman costume was designed for a B-grade sci-fi flick which was never filmed (titled Saucer-Man from Saturn!) by a girlfriend of Clark’s in Hollywood where the indestructible Man of Steel briefly works as a stuntman!

Superman purists might fume, but I found It’s Superman to be loads of fun. The book is surprisingly literate and in true “magic realism” fashion mixes a wealth of fictional detail with historical trivia. (De Haven is a 1930s buff and tends to show off his encyclopaedic knowledge of the era, sometimes to the detriment of the book.)

If you had liked The Adventures of Kavalier & Klay, then you’ll definitely enjoy It’s Superman and one can only imagine what kind of movie this book would have made if, let’s say, it was scripted by Frank Darabont of Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile fame and directed by Peter Jackson who recently made his own Depression-era flick, King Kong . . .

It's Superman
by Tom De Haven

Paperback: 432 pages
HarperCollins Entertainment (19 Jun 2006)
ISBN: 0007236301




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