Those Blue Tights Look Awfully Familiar

I admit proprietary feelings toward Superman. I knew him in older days, the 1960s, when a normal American boy couldn't afford not to buy the monthly edition of each of the Superman titles—Action, Adventure, Superman, Superboy—and, for domestic peace, share them with his siblings. In my case, I also had to share with my mother, who read every issue prior to her daily nap and enjoyed discussing the disappointments over dinner. Superman didn't marry Lois and have Superbabies flying around their extremely suburban house as promised on the cover? It was just a dream? Not again! What a cheat!

Our house was 100% Superman. Batman—and, God forbid, Marvel comics—were as verboten as Ford motor cars, Republican candidates or colas other than Coke. My mother knew all the varieties of kryptonite and their effects&mdash;red kryptonite caused the best plot twists, because it didn't kill or take away Superman's powers, it just screwed things up temporarily—and she had the added prestige of having met the television Superman, George Reeves, at some showbiz party.

The whole family sighed when Mr. Mxyzptlk, the series' Rumpelstiltskin, made his too-frequent appearances. Bizarro World, Superman's Planet Id—which had an odd resemblance to North Korea—was an irregular treat. To her dying day, my mother regretted throwing out those brown paper shopping bags filled with comics clogging the basement. Unlike other mothers, however, she didn't dispose of them with disapproval. Mom knew the worth of Superman as moralist, myth, and master of a clean narrative: she simply didn't anticipate the collectors of the future.

Superman: The Movie, released in 1978, was a challenge for Superman diehards. Living in Hollywood at the time, I went to the theater quickly, as Los Angelinos do at the scent of a hit. I approved. From first shot to last—who can forget that final smile from space?—Christopher Reeve was an astonishingly successful Superman (and Clark Kent). The cameo by Noel Neil, our beloved Lois Lane from the 1950s television series, was appreciated. (She's also in Superman Returns, the latest incarnation that opens in June.) Mario Puzo's script nailed the Superman mythology from Krypton to the American Midwest to Manhattan. As with Jay Gatsby, there was only one true destination for a Midwestern boy with such abilities, "Metropolis," and that too set Superman above Batman: Gotham was clearly some Second City like Chicago or, shudder, Boston.

Margot Kidder's Lois, drifting in chiffons above New York's skyscrapers with a Man of Steel, brought a spunky silliness and romance no earlier Superman adaptions had. At the end of the film, when Reeve turns back time to save Lois's life—which Superman wasn't allowed to do in the comic books: Could this be a dream sequence? Another red kryptonite trick?—the filmmakers proved they had full grasp of their material. They altered the old Superman forever, giving him real power and emotion, and affected cinema future too: the Wachowski brothers purloined the idea for the climax of The Matrix Reloaded.

Superman: The Movie did fiddle with its material and occasionally disappoint. The comedy of Gene Hackman's Lex Luthor was good for the film, strange to traditionalists. (Of the pneumaticValerie Perrine—why complain?) The sets for Krypton and the Fortress of Solitude, Superman's arctic sanctuary, were pure '70s plastic-fantastic. (Although the planners of Singapore seemed to have learned from them.) For Jor-El, Superman's father, we got Marlon Brando, who was entirely wrong. In the comic books, Jor-El looked like Superman 20 years on, with that virile blue-black hair, existing on an enlightened planet obviously well equipped with vegetables and gyms. Pinewood Studios' Krypton seemed incapable of supporting organic life of any sort, and Brando's white-haired Jor-El obviously drank too much Tang, or its powdered alcoholic equivalent, after which he made very long speeches that his son was doomed to listen to for the rest of his life. Dr. Freud might have identified a different villain in the piece.

Now Superman Returns. That's the title of the latest movie, which debuts 19 years after Reeve extricated himself from the red boots. Here's the strange news: the 1978 movie has become the source of the myth. John Williams' score is revived, as are the Lucite crystals of the Fortress of Solitude. Marlon Brando continues his role as Jor-El, which may now be considered an inspired piece of casting. Jor-El speaks from the grave: Brando, of course, died two years ago.

Superman Returns will fly or flop on the performance of newcomer Brandon Routh, and, of course, the current generation of seamless and thrilling special effects. (It's hard to imagine a reshoot of the charming scene in Superman: The Movie in which Reeve rescues a cat caught in a tree in Brooklyn Heights not by swooping down, but by being lowered by wires oh so gingerly.) What seems certain is that the Superman of my youth is entombed in collections, memory, and possibly the basement of some pack-rat great-grandmother. So too are Brainiac, the arousing underwater romance between the Caped Crusader and Lori Lemaris (a mermaid), and all those masked bank robbers with swag bags that Superboy and Krypto the Superdog managed to foil crossing the state line. (Puzo sagely included a couple of the robbers in the first film and Nearly 70 years after he was created, Superman's Golden Age has been set—at 1978.

Anthony Spaeth is a senior editor of the Asia Sentinel