Thursday, July 20, 2006

Look, Up In The Sky!: The Amazing Story Of Superman

Made primarily as a marketing tool to support the recent big-screen release of SUPERMAN RETURNS, the new 110-minute documentary LOOK, UP IN THE SKY!: THE AMAZING STORY OF SUPERMAN is an entertaining if not terribly deep look at one of the world's most enduring fictional heroes. I didn't learn very much that I didn't already know, but it was fun seeing all the clips and covers of Supermen past.

Just to get one big gripe out of the way, director Kevin Burns seems to believe that Superman comic books grow on trees. Outside of Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, hardly any of the editors, writers or artists who made the Superman comic books and strips rate a mention. Names like Curt Swan, Murphy Anderson, Al Plastino, Wayne Boring and even Neal Adams are completely ignored, even when (beautifully recolored) panels and covers they drew are splashed across the screen. Writers Elliott S! Maggin (who offhandedly mentions the name of Cary Bates) and Denny O'Neil do brief on-camera bits, but none of their material relates to their specific work on the character. The documentary makes it look almost as though Superman only exists on television, radio and movies, and comic books are just part of the merchandising.

Also, after an initial overview of how Shuster and Siegel came up with Superman, the creators are completely ignored. There's nothing at all about their post-Superman lives, their careers in and outside of comics, and--especially--the shameful manner in which DC Comics and Warner Communications screwed the duo for decades. Obviously, this documentary wouldn't exist if not for Siegel and Shuster, but it also wouldn't if not for the talented people who toiled over the comics and kept the character going for the past 70 years. The movie also doesn't mention that Superman comics routinely sold nearly a million copies per month on a regular basis during the so-called Silver Age.

Narrated (blandly) by Kevin Spacey, who oddly refers to himself in the third person when mentioning his role in SUPERMAN RETURNS, LOOK, UP IN THE SKY! is a colorful and well-paced look at the character over the decades. Burns recruited a wide variety of talking heads to discuss Superman and his impact on society and their lives. Some of them are fans--Mark Hamill, Gene Simmons, LOST IN SPACE's Bill Mumy. Many of them are directly involved with the Superman legend, such as actors Noel Neill, Jack Larson and Dean Cain and comic book professionals Mike Carlin, Art Thibert and Paul Levitz. The vast reach of interview subjects and perspectives leads to some entertaining segments, and each is punctuated by plenty of cool film clips from the Fleischer cartoons, the Columbia serials (starring Kirk Alyn as Superman), the George Reeves TV series, LOIS & CLARK with Cain and Teri Hatcher...even the syndicated SUPERBOY series rates a mention.

The '50s series THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN (with Reeves, Larson and Neill) and the four motion pictures starring Christopher Reeve receive the lion's share of coverage, although much room is reserved near the end for the less-interesting SMALLVILLE series and SUPERMAN RETURNS. What I really loved were the tantalizing behind-the-scenes footage that I don't recall ever seeing before. While some of the SUPERMAN screen tests appeared on the DVD (with name actresses like Stockard Channing and Anne Archer testing for Lois Lane), a lot of this stuff I haven't seen. For instance, Jeff Corey (who played the heavy in SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE-MEN) acting in a test for the Reeve movie as Lex Luthor.

Even cooler are the few seconds of outtakes--in color--from SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE-MEN. Just running the silent footage by itself would have made for a terrific Easter egg.

I also liked some of the more obscure treats, such as the clips from the failed SUPERPUP pilot (in which midgets wearing dog costumes played the roles) and the probably-never-seen-anywhere-since SUPERMAN musical production that aired in ABC's late-night schedule in 1975. David Wilson (who?) played Superman and Lesley Ann Warren 0f MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE was Lois. It looks truly awful, but I'd love to see the whole thing.

The best part about LOOK, UP IN THE SKY! is that it reinforces just how good both George Reeves and Christopher Reeve were. Though they each approached their roles differently, both were quite remarkable and most likely are as responsible for Superman's immense popularity to this day as almost any comic-book figure outside of Siegel and Shuster. It's obvious from watching this documentary that their indelible performances will endure long after the phrase "Brandon who?" has vanished from our vocabulary.


Anonymous said...

Here's Superpup. Looks painful.

Marty McKee said...

This blog entry had photos in it when I posted it last night. Where did they go? I checked the HTML and they should still be there. WTF, Blogger?

The SUPERPUP clips in the special are in color!