DC has long had a relationship with utilizing their characters in other media such as radio, cartoons, films and television shows. The Adventures of Superman was not only a classic radio programme, it was also an important staple of the early years of American television. Even if you know nothing at all about comic books, the phrase – “Look! Up in the sky!” has immediate cultural weight. Plus, since Superman was the first “super” hero, the tropes and conventions that surround him apply to all super-heroes, from the flimsy secret identity to the pesky love interest to the secret weakness.
The Fleisher Brothers cartoons of the early 40s are not only masterpieces of animation, they actually set a lot of Superman’s canon in place. In the cartoons, Lois Lane is absolutely fearless and her banter with Clark Kent is actually reminiscent of the best of the era’s screwball comedy. Lois is a damsel in distress, yes. But she put herself there because she thought she could handle it. Superman only saves her because that’s what he’s there to do.
Kryptonite was actually an invention of the radio show, not the comics nor the cartoons. So are Jimmy Olsen and Perry White. Need to round out the cast a bit on a radio show, as radio is not a visual medium. Kryptonite was actually invented because the actor playing Superman needed a vacation. So they came up with the idea that a chunk of his home planet weakened him and he could be played by a random groan while the villain gloated, That’s exactly what they did and the actor came back, tanned, rested and ready to whip the villain, just soon as you get rid of that … Green Kryptonite*. (Other varieties of Kryptonite include : Red, White, Blue, Yellow, Jewel, Pink, Black, Diet and Decaffinated , Low-Fat and Sugar-Free.)
By 1943, Batman, Robin and Alfred were well-known enough to warrant an incredibly racist serial. Robin the “Boy Wonder”, appeared to be about 35 years old. However, it later provided the seed for Batmania ’66. Hugh Hefner used to show them at parties at the Playboy Mansion and a smart producer got an idea.
Superman got his spot on television first, though. George Reeves gave Superman a rare gravitas while crushing his dreams as an actor and even his life. His mysterious death I cannot comment upon. He was also in From Here To Eternity with Burt Lancaster and Frank Sinatra but everyone knew him as Superman. There’s a story that he once did a personal appearance in costume and a kid, eight years old, pointed a loaded gun at him and wanted to watch the bullets bounce off. “Superman” talked him down, saying the ricochets might hurt by-standers. “Gimme the gun, kid.” And the kid did.
Then there’s Batman ’66 (which I honestly love) but was apparently not as much fun as the senior citizens who used to be on it would tell you now. If you believe either one of their memoirs, Burt Ward and Adam West … enjoyed their stardom a great deal. West writes fondly of sexually harassing Julie Newmar, who shot him down, every time. Holy Inappropriate Behaviour! There was a theatrical film released, too, which gave us that hilarious shot of Batman trying to get rid of a bomb. Larfs!
You wanna talk cartoons? We got cartoons. Filmation cranked out cheap, half-animated junk narrated by Ted Knight (a.k.a. Ted Baxter on the Mary Tyler Moore show) and threw everything they had at the wall to see if it stuck. They even brought Adam West and Burt Ward back to voice cartoons. And the older people among you maybe remember the Super-Friends, the watered-down Justice League. Shape of! A FIRE-BREATHING DRAGON! Form of! A BUCKET OF LUKE-WARM WATER!
There was a terrible live-action Shazam Saturday morning series in the 70s. It had a spin-off for girls, ISIS, which appropriated Egyptian culture around the time of the national tour of the King Tut exhibit. (King Tut, interestingly, was a well-remembered Batman ’66 villian played by Victor Buono.) At least they TRIED to reach out to a female audience. Nowadays, we try not to talk about ISIS and a female audience.
Wonder Woman had an early, strange tele-film starring Cathy Lee Crosby in 1974 (I remember watching it, as a little kid, going “WHAT THE HELL IS THIS?!”) before the got it right with Lynda Carter. It only lasted three seasons. It’s fondly remembered by millions. It was cheesy and dumb but Lynda Carter actually SEEMED like Wonder Woman. She sold it, the way George Reeves did, the way Adam West never could.
Then we have the Superman movie, 1978. Marlon Brando got an obscene amount of money for mumbling a bit over three minutes. Christopher Reeve (no relation) was note-perfect as both Clark Kent AND Superman. Watching it now, it drags and the effects look cheesy but between you, me, Gene Hackman and a hole in the ground, I’d say it was the best Superman movie ever.
They changed directors for Superman II. So confident of success were they that they actually shot I & II back-to-back but Donner left and Lester replaced him. The result, while very entertaining, naturally felt a bit disjointed. Don’t get me wrong, I love Superman II. Even the part when he tears his symbol off his uniform and chucks it at the bad guys. That’s the best part. That and the hypnotic kiss.
Superman III had Richard Pryor in it, for some reason. It was not very good. Little kids aren’t allowed to hear Richard Pryor talk, for a very good reason, so putting him in a Superman movie seemed an … odd creative decision.
Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, is one of the worst movies ever made.
Superman Returns. The one where Superman is a dead-beat dad? I’ve never seen it all the way through. I fell asleep.
There was also a terrible Supergirl film, starring Faye Dunaway. As the villain, not as Supergirl. If you ever think “Hey! Let’s watch a terrible movie and make fun of it!” you might as well pick Supergirl. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Batman ’89 came in the wake of The Dark Knight Returns and was informed by the new, darker sensibility of Batman. Gone was the goofy silken cape, in was the leather and the spooky voice. Michael Keaton did a fantastic job with the material he was given. He did a sequel, which was terrible and then quit the role. It fell to Val Kilmer who also did the best with what he was given. He declined to return for a sequel so they cast George Clooney, then an up-and-coming television star.
That’s not when the wheels started to fall off the bus. They’d been rattling their nuts off for two movies. The nuts sprung loose when George Clooney played Batman.
Bat-Nipples, ladies and gentlemen. Bat-Nipples. (And that elaborate cod-piece seems to be compensating for something, if you know what I mean.)
The director, Joel Schumacher, took a lot of the blame but George Clooney freely admits that he killed the Batman franchise. However, they just chucked it in the Lazarus Pit of Christopher Nolan and Voila! Batman Begins, a dour and parochial take on Batman’s origin and training, a film that contradicts itself at will and telegraphs the eventual ending. (WE GET IT. THIS IS BATMAN’S ORIGIN. HE OBVIOUSLY WINS.) I can’t say a great deal about Batman Begins because I haven’t seen it in years. I remember not liking Christian Bale as Batman but liking him as Bruce Wayne. The Bat-Voice was another … odd artistic choice.
This was followed up by The Dark Knight, the film that drove Heath Ledger insane, apparently. Not one lick of this film is really a Batman story, it’s more James Bond In A Leather Dress. It’s not really a very good movie. For all the flash and spectacle of Heath Ledger’s performance, the Joker is a weak antagonist and there are plot-holes you could cart-wheel a tractor-trailer through. The ending is both weak and ironic; Batman takes the Joker into custody but Heath Ledger died in the making of the film.
Ledger’s not the only one, either. The afore-mentioned George Reeves died under circumstances so mysterious, they made a movie about it starring Ben Affleck*. (*Ben Affleck has played Daredevil and Jennifer Lopez’s boyfriend and is soon to play Batman.) Christopher Reeve was paralyzed in a horse-backing riding incident and later died.
The Dark Knight Rises was it for me. A maniac massacred people on opening day and I honestly could not bring myself to give money to that corporation anymore. To this day, I have never seen the Dark Knight Rises and I never will. I didn’t see Man of Steel and I never will and it’s a good thing because I never want to see Superman kill anybody. Even the bad guy, especially the bad guy.
Let’s see, what else is in the DC Filmography? When Shaquille O’Neal played Steel, for some reason. Somebody thought that was a good idea. Oscar-winner Halle Berry played an off-brand version of Cat-Woman, for some reason. Again, somebody thought that was a good idea. Both of these films consistently rank among the worst films ever made.
There’s Lois and Clark. Remember that? Don’t bother. The less said about Smallville, the better.
Then there’s Green Lantern, a garish, elaborate CGI fuck-up. I didn’t see it but I couldn’t escape the marketing and they made Ryan Reynolds, a fellow Canadian and I’m sure a good chap, look like Ben Stiller. I hate Ben Stiller, why would I want to go see a super-hero movie with Ben Stiller in it? I already saw a movie with Ben Stiller in it and I didn’t like it. I’d rather stay home and wash my feet.
Then there’s Jonah Hex.
Yer “Honour”, I request we take a recess, as I’m going to need to compose myself before I unleash every flame in Hell.
NEXT! – HOO BOY.