Celebrating The Death Of Superman

Thirty years ago, one of the most monumental events in comic books took place with the release of DC Comics’ Superman #75. As comic book fans know, the issue was the finale to the epic “Death of Superman” crossover storyline that ran across several other Superman titles, Action Comics, The Adventures of Superman, and Superman: The Man of Steel. Superman met his physical match with the alien monstrosity called Doomsday that escaped from an unknown prison and rampaged across the countryside.

During the rampage, Superman and his allies desperately fought the hulking, grey behemoth, but were unable to stop Doomsday as he finally made his way to Superman’s home, the city of Metropolis. It was in that fictional city that Superman made his last stand against the creature and ultimately killed him, but not before Doomsday killed him, as well.

It was one of the finest Superman stories ever told, it was a true epic full of action and heart. It demonstrated why Superman was one of the greatest superheroes ever conceived, as he used all his strength and drive to stop Doomsday before making his greatest sacrifice.

Before the storyline came out in 1992, the creative team behind the Superman titles, which included Dan Jurgens, Louise Simonson, Roger Stern, Jerry Ordway, Tom Grummett, Jackson Guice and Jon Bogdanove, were following in the wake of John Byrne’s run with the character in Superman, Action Comics and The Adventures of Superman. Byrne radically revamped and modernized Superman in the 1980s, which raised the superhero’s profile to an extent. But when Byrne left the titles it was up to this small army of writers and artists to continue creating quality storylines. The creative team at that time often would get together in a so-called “Superman Summit” to map out and brainstorm ideas for Superman.

Marriage & Death

During this period, they were developing the concept of Superman/Clark Kent marrying Lois Lane. But they came upon a huge stumbling block in that the same story was being used by the TV show Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. This postponed plans to marry off the two lovers in the comic books because the TV producers wanted to be the first ones to play with the marriage concept and have the comic books coincide with the TV event. This frustrated the creative teams because this decision by the higher ups disrupted their carefully planned stories for the year.

It was back to the drawing board as the creative team held another meeting to conceive an alternative plot for Superman. Despite their efforts, they could not come up with a story that was as good as marrying off Superman. On a frustrated whim, it was suggested by Ordway to kill off Superman. At first, the idea was dismissed because he often would bring this idea up as a joke in previous summits. But this time, the joke began to germinate as the creators wondered what if Superman was killed, and their brainstorming led to the crossover event.

Pending Doomsday

The “Death of Superman” garnered so much media attention because many who did not follow or understand comics actually wondered if this event was a publicity stunt to generate sales or if DC actually intended to kill off its flagship superhero.

When the storyline first debuted in Superman: The Man of Steel #18 (where all readers saw were fists thumping through reinforced walls at the end of the issue), interest in Superman was already percolating as fans latched onto the storyline and wondered themselves how it would play out. After all, for the first time one of the most prominent comic book icons was going to be killed off. Sure there were big deaths in comic books before such as Supergirl and the Flash in the Crisis on Infinite Earths mini-series and lesser known heroes like Invisible Kid and Ferro Lad, both from the Legion of Superheroes died, as well. But this time it was different. This was Superman we were talking about. By the time Superman #75 came out the storyline morphed from a media event to a pop culture event.

At this time, the story played out weekly as each title advanced the plot. It was a slow burn as each tightly coordinated issue advanced the plot, which enticed readers to come back to the stores the following week to find out what happened next. This generated a lot of interest not just with readers, but with trade magazines like Wizard. By the time the story culminated in Superman #75, the confrontation between Superman and Doomsday took up entire splash pages and concluded with a multiple page spread featuring Lois crying over Superman’s lifeless corpse.

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Still Flying: Firefly 20 Years Later

“We have done the impossible, and that makes us mighty” – Mal Reynolds

The TV junkyard is littered with dozens if not hundreds of gems that are shows that were killed off too early by dim-witted TV executives. Everyone’s got a favorite show that they loved but apparently no one else did, hence the quick cancellation. Firefly is a prime example. But unlike many of these forgotten gems, Firefly continues to shine 20 years after its debut on television.

Created by Joss Whedon, the man behind the Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and of course, the first two Avengers films, Firefly premiered in the 2002 fall schedule on Fox and was quickly canceled after only fourteen episodes were filmed (fifteen if you count the original pilot episode “Serenity” as a two-part show). In fact, not even all the episodes were aired. But the show found a new life after cancellation in the world of home media. Word of mouth quickly spread and a cult following not seen since Star Trek blossomed.

For the uninitiated the show is basically a science fiction western taking place in 2517, showcasing a group of renegades and smugglers who eke out an existence on board a Firefly-class space freighter called the Serenity. This is the back story; humanity has used up Earth’s resources sometime in the future. Eventually, people abandoned Earth, traveled to another solar system and terraformed dozens of planets and moons to make them habitable. Now the original terraformed planets are the Core Planets and have the latest in technology and resources and are considered the center of the universe or ‘verse as said in the show. The outer planets in the system are known as the Border Planets or Outer Planets and don’t have access to the latest technologies. The people living there are left to fend for themselves with basic tools. In these backwater worlds, the highest level of technology is on the level of the nineteenth century with horses being the common mode of transport. This is why the show has that dusty and rustic Western look.  Basically, the show is set in an interplanetary society of haves and have nots.

In the pilot’s opening scenes, viewers witnessed a brutal battle in the civil war between the Alliance (the main governing body of the Core Planets) and the Independents, which was comprised of the Outer Planets. The Alliance won the aforementioned Battle of Serenity Valley and the war. During that battle the show introduced one of the soldiers who fought for the Independents, Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds (Nathan Fillion). According to interviews, Whedon stated that this was an allegory to the American Civil War with the main characters standing in for former Confederate soldiers.

Several years later and now a jaded cynic, Mal owns a beat-up freighter ship that he uses for smuggling operations. His crew is comprised of loyal first mate Zoë Alleyne (Gina Torres), another Independent war veteran; carefree pilot Hoban “Wash” Washburne (Alan Tudyk), who is married to Zoë and loves Hawaiian shirts, dinosaur figures and his wife; Kaylee Frye (Jewel Staite), the whimsical ship’s mechanic and Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin) a greedy and not-too-bright muscle man. The rest of the cast are the passengers on board the ship for various reasons. Inara Serra (Morena Baccarin) is a beautiful and cultured prostitute who rents a small shuttle on board and is attracted to Mal and vice versa. Their unrequited romantic tension was a major sub-plot. Reverend Book (Ron Glass) is a spiritual wanderer with a mysterious past with hinted ties to the Alliance. The final two passengers provided much of Firefly’s conflict; Simon (Sean Maher) and River Tam (Summer Glau), two sibling fugitives on the run. River was a gifted student who was forced to undergo deadly experiments by the Alliance and became a deadly psychic killing machine masked under the guise of a gentle and mildly mentally challenged teenage girl. Her brother Simon, a successful rich doctor, risked everything (including his wealth) to free her from the Alliance. In the pilot, Mal decided to allow them to remain on board, provided Simon took a job as the ship’s medic, and kept an eye on her. 

Throughout the series, they faced dangers in the form of cannibalistic savages called Reavers, other smugglers, criminals, the unscrupulous upper class and the Alliance itself. The stories were usually about capers and the mishaps they would get into. They were well written with witty dialogue that had an interesting touch; the characters would often speak Mandarin. Whedon surmised that in the future both western and American culture will blend with Asian cultures and great pains are taken to show this in the series. Signs and view screens show Asian and English script, while many crowd scenes had a multicultural ambiance with people wearing outfits influenced by various cultures.

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The Legacy Of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial

Forty years ago this month, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was released in theaters and captured the collective hearts and minds of moviegoers everywhere in 1982. To say it was a cultural phenomenon is certainly an understatement, yet it can be hard to believe for those who were too young to remember or were alive at that time. That is because unlike other culturally relevant properties from that time period like Star Wars, Star Trek, Alien, etc. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial did not have the staying power in our collective minds.

Regardless, the sci-fi film by legendary director Steven Spielberg is a bonafide classic that knows just how to hit a viewer in the feels. Spielberg was in top form (and remains so to this day) and received a well-deserved status as a master storyteller with his tale of a stranded alien being in the forests of California who befriends a lonely boy, Elliott (Henry Thomas). As Elliott introduces the being he calls E.T. to his suburban lifestyle and pop culture, he does what he can to keep E.T. hidden from the outside world while E.T. tries to contact others of his kind to rescue him. The film boasted many classic Spielbergian tropes and themes, such as a reverance for middle-class childhood while exploring family trauma, examing a magical sense of wonder about the world through the use of lighting, pop cultural references, and of course, those famously long natural takes that define a Steven Spielberg film.

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is a fairly simple tale about an unlikely interstellar friendship or as a sci-fi version of a boy and his dog tearjerker, but the film excels in emotion and Spielberg pulled out all of his skills to wrench our heartstrings. He was aided by an exemplary filmmaking team which included special effects guru Carlo Rambaldi, a deeply emotional script by Melissa Mathison, genuine acting by the cast, breathtakingly beautiful cinematrography by Allen Daviau, and John Williams brilliant score. The master composer won a well-deserved Oscar for the film as the film won several technical Oscars. Unfortunately, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial failed to win the major Academy Awards like Best Picture or Director because by the time the awards ceremony came around, the allure of the film had worn off and the Academy instead bestowed the major awards to more standard fare like Gandhi. Go figure.

Perhaps if E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial had won the major awards it may have been more remembered these days. Another reason could be because the film was overhyped by media and in-your-face marketing and merchandising during that time and it finally burned out its good will after some time. It may be hard to imagine today but think of the constant merchandising of Star Wars, the Marvel and DC films, and Jurassic Park and picture that for one film that dominated the box office for 16 weeks straight. This is something that would be nearly impossible to pull off today in our fractured society. Many films released that summer in 1982 fared poorly because E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial sucked out all of the air from the competition. What is ironic is that many of those films are better remembered today and are considered classics in their own right. These include Blade Runner, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Tron, and The Thing.

Yet, another factor that probably impeded E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial’s legacy is that no sequel film or reboot was ever made to keep the film in the public consciousness. The closest instances it received for follow ups were a sequel novel by William Kotzwinkle called E.T.: The Book of the Green Planet, a well-received 2019 Xfinity commercial featuring a now-adult Henry Thomas, who is reunited with E.T., and then introduces the alien to his family, and a theme-park ride at Universal Studios Florida, Japan and Hollywood (the Hollywood and Japan versions closed down years ago).

As to why Spielberg did not adapt this novel or went ahead with a film sequel, the answer is that E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial holds a special place in his heart and he did not want to dilute it with follow ups. However, he did consider it. He and Mathison wrote a treatment in 1982 called E.T. II: Nocturnal Fears, which would have had Elliott and his friends kidnapped by evil aliens and E.T. rescuing him. But as we all know, Spielberg abandoned the idea and moved on to other projects. The last time E.T. was actually seen in theaters was when he and members of his race appeared in a gag cameo during Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

Even though the film is not in the forefront of the public these days, it is still fondly remembered and still commands attention as seen with the positive word of mouth from the 2019 commercial and successful re-releases in theaters and home media. During its 20th anniversary the film was re-released and Spielberg altered the film with improved special effects, deleted footage and digitally altering a scene where federal agents who originally brandished guns and threatened E.T., Elliott and his friends, now had walkie-talkies instead. Spielberg has changed his mind about the alterations and encourages that only the original film be viewed.

With so many properties commanding our attention these days, it is so easy to overlook E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, which would be foolish. The film is a cinematic wonder that should be required viewing for film buffs, genre fans and families. Simply put, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is a perfect showcase for the artistry and magic of Steven Spielberg.

Looking Back At Silent Running

Fifty years ago this month, Silent Running was released in theaters. Right away, the sci-fi eco-drama stood out back in the 1970s thanks to its innovative special effects, set design and the ecologically driven storyline that struck chords with environmentalists everywhere.

Silent Running takes entirely onboard a spaceship near Saturn called the Valley Forge that serves as an environmental ark for the last remaining Earth ecosystems encased in giant geodesic domes that act as greenhouses.

Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) is a botanist and one of the four crewmen who care for the ecosystems, along with a trio of robotic drones called Huey, Louie and Dewey. The crew receives orders to destroy the domes and return to Earth, but Freeman is mortified by the orders even though the others are eager to go back home. During the operations of jettisioning and blowing up the domes, Freeman mutinies, kills his crewmates and hijacks the Valley Forge. With one dome remaining on the ship, Freeman heads out to deep space to continue caring for the last ecosystem with help from the drones. During his voyage, Freeman has to deal with loneliness, guilt and the logistics of caring for the fragile plants and small animals in the dome.

Elevated by Bruce Dern’s passionate and sensitive performance, and superior special effects, Silent Running is a contemplative and quietly emotional film. Despite its short run time and the over-the-top environmental message, the film is quite effective and leaves you thinking about it long after it is over. The late special effects guru Douglas Trumbull made his directorial debut with this film, though the only other film he directed was Brainstorm, which is a shame as he showed a lot of promise as a director. The effects truly stood out from practical effects, such as the drones which were performed by bilateral amputees, to excellent and intricate model work. The footage of the Valley Forge would pop up in other films and TV shows such as the orginal Battlestar Galactica.

Kudos has to go to Bruce Dern who largely spends the film by himself. He was able to project a kinship with the drones who despite not able to speak demonstrated emotions like bravery and loyalty. Of course, he is guilty of murdering his colleagues and his environmental rantings come off as too extreme, yet his passion for the last remaining plant and wildlife is sincere and relatable.

One nagging fault about the film has to do with unanswered questions about the domes and the film’s simplistic script. What exactly happened to the Earth and why was the Valley Forge crew told to destroy the domes and return home? What we know about the importance of plants in our complex enviroment with creating oxygen and food would mean that these domes would not be casually discarded. Did the environmental situation improve on Earth to make the domes unneccesary? In one exchange between Freeman Lowell and his crewmates, it is pointed out that humanity can now duplicate the benefits of plants. Does this mean air and food can now be easily created without vegetation? Based on the level of technology shown in the film, this does not seem likely. Even if this was true, why discard such precious resources so casually? It’s hard to imagine that all of humanity except for Freeman would be fine with this. If a remake is ever made for this film, these issues can be addressed or its premise should be updated given what we now understand about ecosystems.

There is also an unavoidable fault with Freeman’s thinking that honestly makes him out to be a complete fool. At some point, the plants are withering and the botanist spends significant time trying to figure out why, while the cause and solution are quite obvious.

Still, in spite of these lapses in logic, Silent Running truly was one of the best sci-fi films released in the 1970s and should be seen at least once by sci-fi fans. The film is a true gem with resonating message and images. The best example is Silent Running’s very last scene, which is very emotional and serves as a fitting allegory for our own fragile and special planet in the vast cosmos.

The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring 20 Years Later

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is celebrating its 20th anniversary this month and looking back, it’s clear now, how influential this highly successful film has become. Peter Jackson’s epic start to The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogy paved the way for a fantasy film revival that is still going strong today and led to similar adaptations such as HBO’s Game of Thrones, Amazon Prime’s The Wheel of Time, and other fantasy-themed films and shows. The Fellowship of the Rings’ success wasn’t a sure thing though, as author J.R.R. Tolkien’s massive novel was deemed unfilmable due to its intricate plot and long back story which spanned thousands of years.

The earliest film version was the animated adaptation from Ralph Bakshi in 1978. Tje animated version of LOTR was well received, but due to time constraints the film only told half the story. Jackson’s take is a fully fleshed out world that showcases his native New Zealand’s beautiful landscapes and scenery that show the viewers what Middle-earth would look like if it really existed. He also takes his time in setting up the tale of the diminutive hobbit Frodo Baggins and his quest to destroy an evil mystical ring created by the sorcerer Sauron. His journey would culminated in casting the ring into a volcanic pit in the dreaded land of Mordor.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring starts off by showing some of Tolkien’s back story and the history of Middle-earth where the rings of power were created for men, elves and dwarves, as well as the epic battle against Sauron where he is defeated, but only temporarily. After the battle, the all-powerful one ring was lost and found its way to the distant land of hobbits known as the Shire.

Frodo’s journey begins when the wizard Gandalf arrives at the Shire and enlists him and his companions Samwise Gamgee, Merry and Pippin to accompany Gandalf to Mordor to destroy the one ring which Sauron needs to conquer the world. Along the way, the group encounters the heroic ranger, Strider (later to be known as Aragorn) and the stalwart dwarf, Gimli and his rival the elf, Legolas as they all join forces to become the Fellowship of the Ring. Together they vow to end the threat of Sauron once and for all.

Their journey through the elf kingdom Rivendell and the mines of Moria are all classic set pieces that are fully brought to life and culminate in an epic battle against swarms of orcs (Sauron’s minions) and a final clash between Gandalf and a massive demon known as a Balrog. Fate has the fellowship splinter and go their own way as Frodo and Sam are left to go on alone to Mordor while Strider, Legolas and Gimli race to rescue the other hobbits who were captured by orcs. This sets up the excellent sequel, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, which was just as successful as The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.

The success of The Fellowship of the Ring was crucial as it paved the way for the subsequent films and established LOTR as a huge cinematic franchise that spawned further adaptations of the earlier Middle-earth book The Hobbit, as well as a new TV series coming from Amazon that will explore the earlier time periods of Middle-earth. It also led to the groundbreaking success at the Academy Awards of the third film in the trilogy The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, which won 11 Oscars including Best Picture. This was the first time a genre film won this honor and led to increased respect and awareness for genre films as valid, cinematic art. It was also a blueprint for how book adaptations can be done, even for complex works, such as the recently released Dune or even earlier films like Watchmen.

The film studio New Line Cinema committed to Jackson’s vision and gave him the required financial resources and time to have his ideas come to life and Jackson committed to filming all three LOTR movies back to back, which was a massive undertaking and spanned multiple years. This was seen in throughout all three movies as the details of the imaginary world are incredible to see and experience. Of all three movies, I think The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is the best one as its story is paced very well and has elicits a whirlwind of emotions for viewers. It has moments of terror, such as when Frodo first encounters the ring wraiths who were hunting him and the ring; instances of wonder when the group arrives at Rivendell; and pure excitement when the Fellowship has its last battle in the mines of Moria. It is also the only time you see all of the main characters together until the end of the last film as they are separated at the end of the first movie and go their own separate ways. Their interaction as a group is a highlight as their differences in personality and stature are humorous and flesh out their characters.

Overall, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is a masterpiece film, not just in the fantasy genre, but in all of cinema with superb storytelling mixed with unforgettable characters and stunning visual effects. Its impact is still being felt and will continue to be enjoyed and imitated for decades to come, as will its sequels. Hopefully the upcoming Amazon series will be able to recapture some of the magic that was apparent as soon as Frodo walked out of his home and we saw the Shire and Middle-earth in live action for the very first time.

C.S. Link