A couple of decades ago, my family were vacationing with friends in another city, and it was decided that we could go to the movies that evening. My brother and I were pushing hard for us to check out the new Superman movie, and my mom was all for it, but our friend Red, in whose house we were staying, flatly said no. He hated movies like that, because they ‘weren’t real.’
Red was a big guy, an electronics engineer, been all over the world, a very bright man. But he was cursed with a lack of imagination. No matter how brilliant the film might have been, he couldn’t make the leap. He couldn’t believe a man could fly. (Not without an airplane, anyway. He had designed a lot of airplane systems.)
Well, now it’s 2006 and my wife and I have seen Superman Returns. And we enjoyed it a great deal (especially the flying!) but there are things that have been bothering me about it, and I keep thinking of what our friend Red had said that night in 1979 about the old Christopher Reeve movie. Except, really, I think I have the opposite complaint. It’s a little TOO real in spots.
I’m not going to get into an overall review of the movie, you have the rest of the internet for that — hell, if you’re reading this you’ve probably written your own somewhere. But what I think about is the dynamic of the love story between Superman and Lois and how weird that has been over the years, and how the new movie treated it, in particular.
Superman and Lois Lane has traditionally been regarded as one of the great, timeless superhero love stories. But really it’s not. Or rather, it hasn’t been a love story very much or very often. Mostly it’s been a joke between the creators of the strip and the readers. Something like this: That Lois, what a bitch, huh? If she ONLY KNEW that shlub she’s always so mean to was really SUPERMAN! But WE know! Joke’s on HER! Stupid skirt.
Over the years this kind of got spun different ways, but that was basically it. Lois was dumb and Superman would have countless laughs at her expense. Kind of the way a rock star would mess with an especially worshipful groupie, except it all stayed very chaste. The premise that they came back to again and again was that Superman and Lois must never, EVER be together, because that would be a disaster.
It was all very weirdly S-and-M in a psycho-sexual way, read from an adult perspective.
Of course, no one was ever MEANT to read Superman comics from an adult perspective, that was Fredric Wertham’s mistake and he has been relentlessly mocked and jeered for it. Superman comics and the relationship between Superman, Clark, and Lois makes perfect sense if you’re an eight-year-old boy of the late 1950’s. Girls are icky and a little scary and always trying to horn in on cool guy stuff. Girls that keep trying to break into the clubhouse deserve to be taught a lesson.
As the years passed and the readership got a little older, the relationship began to change a little bit. Now it was more of a pining kind of love relationship. Superman WOULD be with Lois, honest, if only it was safe for her. But she would be in far too much danger if his enemies ever discovered it, so he must always keep her at a distance. It’s for her own good.
This, as an excuse, doesn’t really hold up at all and it’s a wonder we all bought it as long as we did. For crying out loud, Lois is in danger all the goddamn time. Her most common interaction with Superman is when he is catching her in mid-air. If Superman WASN’T in her life she’d have been street pizza countless times. Clearly she is much safer with him than not.
In the 80’s, with the John Byrne revamp, the relationship finally changed into something that made sense. Clark is in love with Lois. Clark Kent is the real guy. Superman is just a show he puts on for the rubes so they won’t be able to follow him home and hassle him for autographs or licensing deals or whatever. However, Lois is one of those groupie-types as far as Clark can tell, she can’t see Clark because she’s too dazzled by Superman. If she could learn to love Clark, then okay, maybe they’d have something.
This played out a couple of different ways and in different places. The best take on it was, for my money, the Lois & Clark TV series. When Deborah Joy Levine was putting together a show proposal she decided to apply the Byrne take on the relationship to a romantic comedy milieu and really it did pretty well that way. It was fun, it made actual sense, it resonated emotionally with viewers (show of hands out there, male readers — how many of you have been the nice-guy-friend to a girl that you wished, just once, would NOTICE you, instead of always swooning over these big meatheads that treat her like crap?) And in the comics it was basically the same kind of thing, just played a little less for laughs.
Except, nowadays, in series TV and in comics, these are no longer ephemeral entertainments. TV and comics are no longer disposable. We have boxed sets of DVDs and trade paperback collections. These stories are now cumulative installments.
So the storytelling style itself has to change. You can’t keep your audience dangling. You have to pay something off. The arc John Byrne laid out for Clark and Lois romantically makes a lot of sense — Lois has to learn to look past Superman to Clark, Clark has to learn to trust Lois with who he really is and that’s Superman just as much as Clark — and you can think of zillions of obstacles and ways to delay their progress. But sooner or later, you have to resolve it. Otherwise they both start to look stupid.
How do you resolve it? You give the audience what they want, what you’ve been teasing them with for year after year — you go ahead and have the happy ending. Clark and Lois finally figure it all out and get married.
…oh, wait a minute. It’s not the end. We still have to keep doing stories about these two.
There is a vociferous faction of Superman fans that think this marriage is the worst mistake DC ever made with the character. I happen to disagree. I just think it’s a huge change. It means that the story of Clark and Lois stops being about romance and starts being about life. That’s all. There are plenty of riffs left to do, there’s still plenty of romance BETWEEN them, but the story itself isn’t a romance any more. To put it in superhero terms, it’s gone from being a solo to being a team book. (Interestingly, this may be why superhero marriages always seem to come off a little better in team books, you’re not changing the nature of the strip when you decide to do a wedding. But that’s a different column.)
The writers and editors that actually UNDERSTAND that, that Clark and Lois are done with the romance story and now their relationship should be about building a life together, do fine. There’s still plenty of tension to be had there: he has a dangerous job, she has a dangerous job, how much do they tell friends or family, how do they argue, how much of their career is each one willing to compromise on to make this work, what are they giving up to be together and what do they gain from being together, and so on and so on. Your life doesn’t END when you get married. It CHANGES. There’s lots of drama to be had from the actual process of the change and how you figure it all out. Married people understand this. So do writers who know something about the human condition. The ones that don’t are usually the ones complaining that the marriage is too limiting. I suspect that what they really mean is, “I know how to plant a romance in superhero melodrama. I don’t know how to incorporate an adult marriage relationship into one, though, it’s too goddamn hard. Can’t we go back to the love story?”
Which brings me to Superman in the movies, finally.
The natural ending of the story of Lois and Clark and Superman, the one we always have assumed was there, was that they’d eventually work it out and end up together. But the movies eschewed this. They took a different option.
What if the natural ending is that Lois and Superman do get together but they don’t work it out? What if it’s a bad idea for both of them? What if they really, really DON’T belong together?
It’s a valid idea. You can make a really good case for it. Not because of the hoary old idea that Lois is in too much danger, that’s crap. But because the two of them are actually bad for each other. Then what you have is not a romance, but a tragic romance.
That was how Mario Puzo first pitched it to the Salkinds when they hired him to do the original Superman screenplay for them back in the 70’s, and though that screenplay went through zillions of rewrites and was split up into Superman and Superman II and they added lots of jokes and the movies as they ended up are a lot of fun, the core idea from Puzo is still there. It’s a tragic love story. You ever pay it off and get Superman and Lois together, it’s going to end badly. They won’t be able to work it out.
That was where we left it in Superman II. Lois was in tears, she was a wreck, because she got there before Clark, she’s figured out that it’s impossible. Clark is still trying to hang in there, but Lois explains it to him. She’s not ready to share him with the world. And the world needs Superman. And then she breaks down completely. At which point Clark is so destroyed, seeing Lois having a meltdown that’s his fault, or so he thinks, that he does the only thing he can think of — he hypnotizes her into forgetting the whole thing, hits the reset button. At least Lois will be happy, even if he can’t.
Fans have raged for years about the amnesia kiss that ends Superman II, fixating on the stupidity of it or arguing that Superman can’t do that, or that it effectively reduces everything that came before it to the equivalent of date-rape, or who knows what-all else. But these arguments are all beside the point. The real fan complaint is simply that it ends the romance story as effectively as a wedding does, only this isn’t a happy ending. And we always want a happy ending.
Now many fans are equally enraged about the Clark-Lois situation in Superman Returns, and I think it’s for the same reason. The romance story is still basically over, and Singer kept to the Puzo take on the whole thing. Superman and Lois is a tragic romance. The fans got robbed of their happy ending.
I have a hunch that most of you reading this have seen it already. But on the off-chance some have not, I’ll try not to spoil too much. Suffice it to say that Bryan Singer leaves us pretty much where Superman II left us. Lois is generally smarter than Superman about their situation, she’s moved on, or she WOULD if Superman would quit bugging her, and Superman knows she’s right but still can’t quite let it go. Both of them are clearly still hurting over it, and there are other complications.
The biggest is that Lois has found a new guy, Perry White’s nephew Richard. The amazing thing to me about Richard is that in essentially every way he is the guy that Lois SHOULD be with. He is smart, funny, supportive, heroic (more heroic than Superman himself, in a couple of places in the movie) and he loves Lois deeply. But Lois can’t quite commit to him, because she’s still dazzled by Superman. She’s still ignoring the nice guy right in front of her… it’s just not Clark this time. Meanwhile, Superman himself is still hanging around, still a little too selfish to completely let go and get out of her life like he knows he should, and by the movie’s end, still fighting the realization that he is the last survivor of a doomed planet, denied love and family simply by who he is, alone on a planet of aliens, and should try to make peace with that idea as best he can.
In short — Superman has to learn to be “just friends” with Lois, it’s what’s best for her and everyone around them, but he really doesn’t want to.
That’s a realistic, valid take on the two of them. On balance, it may be one of the best versions ever of the Clark-Lois-Superman triangle in terms of emotional impact and lending verisimilitude to a situation that is completely rooted in fantasy.
It’s just kind of, well… depressing. Superman having to make peace with the ex-girlfriend and fix what he screwed up is maybe a little too realistic for a lot of us. I think that’s what’s bothering a lot of the fans about it, whether we admit it or not. We don’t want to see Superman as the loser ex-boyfriend. We want to see him as the good guy. But in this movie, Richard White is the good guy.
It certainly works. It’s gutsy and it makes sense and it was well-rendered. My wife adored it. But it didn’t sit all that well with me, seeing Superman act like exactly every other stupid guy I’ve known (including myself at times.) Superman’s supposed to be, I don’t know, BETTER than that.
But the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that it’s my problem. Maybe we need to do a little letting go ourselves. Maybe the Superman-Lois Lane romance just is over, whether ended by marriage or, in the movies, a hurtful breakup, and we need to make OUR peace with that too and learn to enjoy a different kind of story about Superman and Lois Lane. (Or in the case of some creators, learn how to TELL one.)
See you next week.
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