Happy 75th birthday, Superman! You don’t look a day over…well, how old is Henry Cavill, anyway?
That’s right. We’ll use Henry as our benchmark as he’s the most recent actor to portray the world’s most recognizable superhero in the sure-to-be-a-blockbuster film, Man of Steel, opening in wide release this coming Friday. That means, as of today, only three more sleeps to go. And just so you know, Henry is thirty. So says Wikipedia.
With every new mass media incarnation of Superman, be it film or television, one can’t help but reflect on what’s come before – both in terms of visuals and in their corresponding auditory illuminations. Opening scenes of films and opening themes of music for those same films, I think, not only showcase the times in which those pieces of art were produced, but they’re also representational of what you’re likely to experience over the coming two hours of cinema viewing.
Walk with me, then, through the first few moments of the characters broadcast origin and through two previous Superman films – comparing the differences and similarities of works of cinematic art separated by over five decades of human history. We’ll take a short respite in the realm of television, and then continue on our journey, making our way to the opening scene and musical theme of the brand new Man of Steel film.
It’s 1952 and the physically gifted George Reeves, an actor who at one time enjoyed participating in amateur heavyweight boxing matches, is to become a certified hero to thousands of children throughout the United States of America. In the Adventures of Superman, Reeves would muscularly fill out the blue and red suit of one of pop culture’s most iconic characters, bringing him to television for the very first time. Superman, moving in black and white, was more real than he ever had been on the four-colour printed page.
Superman and the Mole Men (1951) was originally a film that was edited down to become a two-part tale that closed out the first season of Adventure of Superman. Think of it as a proof of concept – and that “proof” begat 26 first season episodes and a series that would last six years.
Predating the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union, the introductory visuals of the Adventures of Superman television program showcase planets, comets and stars found in both science and science fiction. Here was the origin of Superman: a baby from the dying planet Krypton, rocketed to earth by loving – but alien – parents. The sound of a pitching harp might make for an unusual thematic today, but in the 1950’s it was a common instrument. In the Adventures of Superman opening theme, it sounds wondrous and dreamlike. Surely Superman is no ordinary human. Can’t you hear the triumphant horn section in the music telling you so? Queue the narration over rolling drums describing to us that Superman is indeed different, someone with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. And, just in case you weren’t listening to the voice over, the image montage reminds you of that fact.
Excitement and heroics and strange science fiction, all rolled up into sixty seconds of black and white programming.
Twenty-five years later, director Richard Donner would harken back to an early nostalgia. He opens his 1978 film, Superman, in black and white amidst visuals of a drawing curtain that reminisces the Saturday afternoon serials that were prevalent through the middle of the twentieth century. A boy, turning the pages of an issue of Action Comics again reinforces the melancholy of a day gone by – a visual meant to elicit emotion in both child viewers as well as their grown parents!
And here, now, is one of the greatest pop culture musical scores of the last one hundred years by the acclaimed composer, John Williams, his famous Superman theme. It comes in soft with a lonely horn, an echo of Superman’s uniqueness on this planet, perhaps. There’s the soft plucking of a harp! A sound of strangeness to be sure! All of that changes with the quick rolling of drums and the deep bass sounds of brass instruments though, doesn’t it? The sheer triumphant romanticism of Williams’ score is forever engrained upon the mind once listened to. Its fanfare is immediately identifiable on its own merits. The musical piece was nominated for an Academy Award, though it didn’t win. I’m not suggesting one is better than the other, but can anyone out there quickly whistle the melody to Midnight Express, the winner of the Oscar for Best Original Score at the 51st Academy Awards?
Still, going back to the beginning of the Superman film, who could forget the visuals in the opening sequence? The credits, stretched by light rays into a stylized 3-D effect, are a visual metaphor for the time and space that the young baby-survivor of the planet Krypton has travelled. Any doubts to this claim are reinforced by Donner’s choice of background visuals: moving stars and coloured ripples signifying planetary explosions, shockwaves of undetectable matter, and spiralling galaxies and time itself! This is the visual poetry of Kubrick’s 2001, visuals seen again a year later in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It may appear slicker while sounding more in-line with classical composers such as Wagner, but in the twenty-five years since his debut on television, Superman still plucks the minds of science fiction fans, young and old.
The 1990’s, on the other hand, bring us back to that medium of television. Jay Gruska (who went on to compose for television series’ such as Charmed and Supernatural), the son in law of John Williams, composed the Emmy-nominated theme song to Lois & Clark, a Superman premise that lasted four seasons between 1993-1997. Here, the musical theme, back dropped by clips for the series itself, is lighter and quicker, racing to a conclusion, trying to finish under the 60-second mark that the format demanded. The sense of heroic triumph, however, is still ever-present, as are sweeping horns, deep brass – and the occasional plucking of a harp, adding not a sense of strangeness, but of majesty now. Everyone knows about Superman’s otherworldly origins. This show is about the love affair between Clark Kent and Lois Lane. There should be majesty in that, no?
In terms of television pop-culture, the decade that started the twenty-first century belonged to Smallville. The Superman storytelling bible was turned on its head here, attracting brand new demographics: the teen, the tween and the soccer Mom. How do you capture those markets? First, you cast a strong, handsome young man as the high school aged Clark Kent (Tom Welling) and surround him with a beautiful supporting cast. Then you grab a clip from a popular college alt-rock band that many were dubbing as the “next big thing” and make it your show’s theme song. At the height of the band’s popularity, Remy Zero’s “Save Me” had the right guitars, the right drums, the right bass, and the right vocals – not to mention the perfect title for a Superman-themed program.
Once again, the visuals were clips from various episodes, but Smallville blazed its own trail, tying itself to the mast of the rebelling teenager, telling stories that veered from Superman cannon, in the process lasting ten seasons between 2001-2011, successfully perfecting a template inherited from television shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dawson’s Creek. Weird. But it worked.
You could argue that the success of Smallville had a large part to play in the making of director Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns film of 2006. Fans even wanted Tom Welling to play the more grown-up Clark Kent, now working at the Daily Plant, a seamless transition from the near decade of small town cornfield high school and college storytelling.
It’s interesting to watch the opening of Superman Returns now. Beginning with three sentences of back-story, the first visual we see is of the doomed ice-planet of Krypton alongside narration by the deceased Marlon Brando, taken from the original 1978 Donner film. Indeed, Singer decided to use the original John Williams score as well, deeming it much to all encompassing of the Superman character to simply dismiss. Everyone in the world associated that rousing piece of music to Superman. How could anything new be created that would replace the Williams score in the hearts and minds of fans and moviegoers?
The graphics and special effects here are also a twenty-first century rendition of what Donner did in his 1978 opening: the science fiction of Superman returns to the fore with imagery of light-shifting credits, exploding planets, supernovas, moonscapes, and nebulae. Superman Returns took its very title too seriously – and what was to be a great continuation of the original two Superman films, became Singer’s kryptonite. There was little originality at play here. So slavish is Superman Returns to Richard Donner’s vision that this film ceases to be new work by Bryan Singer. That’s been the long-held complaint of the film – and it’s found right here, in the four-minute opening. A wasted opportunity.
But all that is about to change. Friday, June 14sees the release of visionary director Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel. In a few short days, we’ll be able to compare opening sequences of this 2013 version to films that have gone before. What does our current day and age tell us about how we view Superman? Is it much different from the Superman Returns of a few years ago or of the Superman of 1978?
Man of Steel. The title alone, for one, is different, and that should mean something.
Although we don’t have the visuals to go by at this point, we can listen to the opening music of composer Hans Zimmer’s score and make some deductions based on instrumentation and the emotions elicited by the sounds we hear. Entitled “Look to the Stars”, it signifies that the science fiction elements inherent in the Superman origin are still present. The trailers that we’ve seen would indicate that, to a certain degree, it’s actually front and centre as the planet Krypton is prevalent in many visuals. The opening keyboard work of Zimmer in this piece does seem otherworldly. Who needs a harp, when you have a synthesizer?
And then there’s the percussive beat, echoing again and again, a harbinger of something monumental. Suddenly, we heat the sounds of a low, slow and warm pulse of brass, cascading and then issuing forth, louder, rising taller, joined by a chorus of ethereal voices that reach crescendo – and then the colours change entirely. Quick moving and incessant strings take over – a change of imagery in the film, surely. Perhaps it’s a move from the otherworldly to our first scenes of cinematic action here on planet earth?
Hans Zimmer has gone on record as saying he was quite intimated to write the score for such an iconic character as Superman – and that he was also afraid of the world-renowned John Williams score. He procrastinated for months before starting work. Beyond “Look to the Stars”, which contains the notes we’ve all heard in the various Man of Steel trailers, the motifs we hear in this one, singular piece are echoed again, grown and shaped in other pieces throughout the entirety of the score. In the music of Man of Steel, a super man is built, note upon note. “Look to the Stars” is a beginning, a promise made by Zimmer to us and to Superman. For a composer who is quite at home working with more…industrial sounds (give his The Dark Knight score a listen), Zimmer promises something entirely different and yet completely familiar with this first piece. It’s a music that breathes slightly now, but will fully exhale later, in heroic and triumphant fashion.
The soundtrack for Man of Steel is available today. Hans Zimmer, stepping outside of more traditional music-making for this film, put together an orchestra of some of the best and most interesting drummers and musicians in the world including: Jason Bonham (son of Led Zepplin’s John Bonham), Sheila E, Pharrel Williams (The Neptunes, N.E.R.D.) and Josh Freese (A Perfect Circle) not to mention many others. Expect percussion sounds to be the beating heart of Man of Steel. He also co-ordinated a unique metallic orchestra of pedal steel guitarists to play classical string compositions.
The score to Man of Steel should prove to be quite dissimilar from all that have come before, striking out in it’s own direction while still being cognizant of the emotions that are inherent in the character of Superman.
We’ll see how director Zach Snyder’s visuals match that aesthetic. I gather that we should be able to tell from the first few minutes of film.