The James Clayton Column: Superman to the slaughter

Nicolas Cage's head on the body of Superman? Isn't it time someone stuck up for the man? Good job James is here, then...

All it takes in the modern age is a fast Internet connection and some Photoshopping skills and you can have the whole world in hysterics. Last week as the globe started to get bored of Kanye West-inspired memes off the back of the MTV Awards, eyes were averted to uncovered images from the Tim Burton Superman movie that never was. Amongst the concept art was a photo of Nicolas Cage in the iconic costume and, upon viewing what could have been, the Internet reacted with a strange mix of abject horror and amusement. I’m-a let you finish Kanye, but Nicolas Cage as Clark Kent was the greatest almost-cast-catastrophe of all time!

The prospect of Cage playing Superman appears set to go down in the ‘In-Hindsight-That Would-Have-Been-Horrible Hall of Fame’ alongside Justin Timberlake as the Green Lantern and, going way back, Tom Selleck as Indiana Jones. Yet, is this fair? On the strength of the dubious image that’s done the rounds on the web – most likely as a comic tag-on to the genuine Tim Burton concept designs – I feel that perhaps the reaction was irrational and ill-considered.

For a start, the picture looks like someone has got a grim mugshot and cackhandedly pasted it over an old photo of a cheap Superman action figure. Of course no one’s going to be impressed when faced with a comic book hero who looks slightly stoned, tired and, erm, plastic.

In truth, the uproar isn’t about the ropey-looking photo or the fact that Metropolis could’ve gone the way of Gotham City in Batman and Batman Returns and been turned into another of Burton’s gothic toytowns. It’s really all about the fact that the man in the cape would be Cage: an actor who’s appeared with an unchanging carbon-frozen expression in such uninspiring material as Knowing and the National Treasure movies.

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Despite the fact that anyone associated with The Wicker Man remake can never have my total respect, here I feel sorry for Mr. Cage. Deep down, I’m sure that he’s a nice guy with no desire to ruin people’s childhoods. Cage is also a comic nerd as well, so to see the backlash against him for a superhero part he never ended up filling is upsetting.

As well as playing the eponymous flame-headed lead figure of Ghost Rider, Cage’s adoration for comics extends to creating his own print series (Voodoo Child) and naming his child Kal-El. His devotion to Superman is imprinted on the birth certificate of his baby boy and yet the world, it seems, would rather gut him with shards of kryptonite than see him cast as the quintessential comic hero.

The news that Cage will no longer be appearing as the lead villain Chudnofsky in Michel Gondry’s fresh take on The Green Hornet was greeted with similar jubilant sighs of relief by the masses. No one wants poor Nic. Considering he’s received with such disdain, it’s a wonder that he manages to last a day with an iota of self-esteem intact and doesn’t decamp to a Fortress of Solitude to self-piteously live out his days as a dejected hermit.

Ignoring the photo image (read: Photoshopped image), the Burton/Cage Superman Lives collaboration could, actually, have been something fascinating and fantastic. The much-maligned actor may have many dud blockbusters dangling around his neck, but when he’s not wearing a hangdog expression and plodding through pedestrian popcorn pay-cheque roles he can do great things.

Before he was the star of many-a Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster, Cage specialised in playing quirky oddballs in indie flicks, excelling in roles like that of H.I. McDunnough in Raising Arizona. It’s that kind of eccentricity and offbeat edge that could have really raised enthusiasm for the franchise in the new millennium: a feat which Superman Returns doesn’t appear to have achieved.

At first, an idiosyncratic hillbilly like H.I. McDunnough may not seem to have much in common with Superman or alter-ego Clark Kent, but take a step back and you can see similarities. The Man of Steel is ultimately an outsider: raised and defined by the all-American values of rural USA, yet awkward and unable to fit in with the norm. Cage would be perfect to portray such a personality.

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Despite this, common consensus figures that Superman should be an unflappable two-dimensional emblem of the American Dream. Any essence of ‘oddness’ or weakness unnerves the idealisation of the über-hero, which is what makes Superman boring. I suspect that a great many of those within the comic fan community who can’t abide the idea of Nic Cage as Clark Kent are also the kind of people who picked at the promotional photos of Brandon Routh’s costume for ‘devious sacrilege’. Such antagonistic anal probing and anxiety over the sacred source material is, quite frankly, insane.

The problem here is that Superman is seen as a symbol of perfection who must not be defiled, yet myths and stories are made to be messed around with. Taking a trip to China you only have to look how deified folk heroes such as Huo Yuanjia (as played by Jet Li in Fearless) and Wong Fei Hung have been handled in a variety of ways as multifaceted characters in film. Wong, for example, has been the idolised martial arts master as made flesh by Jet Li in the Once Upon A Time In China series, yet he was also represented as a reprehensible idle youth by Jackie Chan in Drunken Master and no one minded. In the West, with an icon like Superman, such twists in the myth aren’t accepted.

The conservative mindset of nervy fanboys and reactionary movie moguls prevents creative adaptations and inspired manipulation of established ideas, which is a great shame. Until attitudes can shift a little, future Superman movies will remain bland if they can even get beyond the drawing board.

Because the abandoned Cage-led Superman Lives won’t be launching the franchise afresh, I’d suggest that the next attempt to adapt Superman to screen takes Mark Millar’s comic Superman: Red Son as its core. I reckon it’s high time we slaughtered the sacred Supercow and set about getting iconoclastic on the all-American superhero. What better way to start over than with Superman as an indestructible communist icon serving the Soviet Union?

James’ previous column can be found here.


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