2020 is almost upon us, and as we soar into the future, there’s one notable person who seems to be having trouble keeping up when he should be leading us.
In a recent Forbes article making the rounds (which it itself lacks the understanding of the character if read), it’s being said DC and Warner Bros. are up in arms about what to do with Superman in the Golden Age of Superhero Cinema.
“IS HE A BIRD? IS HE A PLANE? SOMEONE FIGURE THIS SHIT OUT!”
Somehow, the original superhero, one of the most beloved and recognizable characters of, well, EVER, is having trouble being represented in modern media. It certainly isn’t from a lack of trying. Brandon Routh’s performance in the soft reboot of the franchise SUPERMAN RETURNS was generally loved while the movie was…not. He’ll be getting a much anticipated second go, but on the small screen during the CW’s CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS event.
The latest big screen actor, Henry Cavill, has had an uneven start himself, playing the big man in three films thus far (MAN OF STEEL, BATMAN V. SUPERMAN, and JUSTICE LEAGUE) and still not finding a steady spotlight. Cavill himself has even gone on record recently and expressed his own wishes to portray Superman in a fitting story. So why is it so hard for WB to make a solid Superman film? And why does fucking Aquaman have a better foothold?
Back when live action superheroes were still being treated as kid stuff, the miracle that was SUPERMAN:THE MOVIE was released in 1978 and, for many today, is still the version many point to when they talk about Supes. For good reason too. Christopher Reeve, while apprehensive of being attached to the character at first, grew to accept, embrace, and love being synonymous with the alter ego, later going on to tell future Superman voice actor George Newbern that it was the best thing to ever happen to him. Reeve would go on to play him on the big screen four times in total, but by the last go, audiences and screenwriters alike had left the Man of Tomorrow in the past.
SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE is an interesting place to start though. Say what you want about the film (and my God, people do), but even here there are examples of Superman’s character being understood. The key one to me is Superman’s reaction to the world’s increasing violence. In the 1987 sequel, Superman is put on the spot when asked by an elementary student “Why doesn’t he just step in and rid the world of war?” It’s a question often asked, even answered in the early animated shorts.
There was quite a line to punch Hitler back then, but I digress.
Kal-El is forced to evaluate his powers, his ancestry, his moral code, everything he had learned and meditated upon up to that point in his life, and try to decide whether or not he should step in and essentially better the planet by force.
To which, after much soul searching, he responds by showing up to the United Nations and states he will rid the world of Nuclear Weapons, and THAT is exactly what his greatest enemy, Lex Luthor, expected him to do.
YOU BEAUTIFUL, BALD BASTARD.
Long story short, Supes nearly dies and puts the entire world in greater danger by doing what he thought was right, and only by undoing that damage and severing his last lifeline with Krypton (his home world now long gone) does he come to terms with his role on his adoptive planet.
Superman realizes he cannot lead by force, but by example. He tells the people of the world that, well, I’ll just let him speak for himself:
So why am I talking about this? That was over 30 years ago in one of the more poorly received Superman films, and it still BOOMS with relevancy, but more importantly, inspiration.
Superman made a mistake in a misguided attempt to better the world because he is still learning to be a human, not a God. That, to me, is Superman’s true power. His greatest strength and weakness. His goodness. Christopher Reeve got that because when asked about playing Superman, he, well, again, I’ll let him tell you:
He’s a friend. Kal-El was orphaned, (mostly but that’s ThunderNerd talk) his entire planet was destroyed, and he was raised by another that, more often than not, feared outsiders. He was grateful, and had the vision to see the world not as divided groups, but as human beings. A singularity. One that had the greatest potential to be just as good, noble, honest, and helpful as he was because he learned it from them. Superman always sees the good in people, and strives to be just that. Good.
I asked the people of Twitter specifically what it is about Superman they love, and I got some great answers:
The Grey Rooms Podcast even posted a link to an excerpt from the comics.
And going back to that out of touch Forbes article about making Superman relevant? The most beautiful thing happened. Retweet after retweet, fans came to the defense of Superman, still wanting his return to the big screen.
And one in particular caught my eye:
Being good is the most difficult thing to be sometimes because selflessness is needed in abundance, and reward never expected. Plus people have one of two reactions when confronted with genuine, sincere goodness in people. Either they’re inspired to better themselves and those around them, or they doubt and ridicule because they themselves lack in character, only to inevitably stress test that very thing they are missing. Skepticism in its most dangerous form.
So what happened then to the point the general public view Superman this way:
It’s easy really. This is how Superman is inevitably written. In fact, this is one of writer Alan Moore’s (Watchmen, V for Vendetta) biggest pet peeves with the genre. In a 2016 interview with Variety, Moore had this to say:
To Moore, comic book heroes represented the best of a childhood. Imaginative stories to keep our brains curious and filled with wonder. But Moore also thinks that where they should stay, and his time with working on these classic characters was just a job in the industry. One he never sought. With this mindset, it’s easy to see how he would want to break down the ideas and perceptions we have for superheroes in works like WATCHMEN, but that’s another article.
One Alan Moore is dying to read, I’m sure.
So let’s say, much like the toy and video game industry, that comic book audiences have shifted to the older crowd, thus changing how Superman is written. This very much carries with it a couple of problems that have been seen in recent attempts on the silver screen.
First off, because Superman’s powers have changed so much from inception (seriously. He couldn’t even fly at first.), unless you do the research and have an understanding of his powers, it’s VERY easy for them to reach obscene levels. And they often do, as another tweet pointed out:
Superman’s powers solved the problems. Not Superman. Again, the Max Fleischer shorts and Timmverse series understood Superman was powerful, but had limits. To compare, while most movies have Superman breathing in space fine, The Animated Series had him wearing a space suit.
Even in the comics, Green Lantern would have to pop a dome over his head. Superman, even with his powers, has to have limits, and kryptonite shouldn’t always be the excuse. If we can’t achieve the work of Superman on some level, as a group, then what is he truly inspiring? Worship? Nah man. He wouldn’t want that, so don’t make him out to be a God that can do anything.
Like, I dunno, this.
Another thing most screenwriters and executives have failed to notice is Superman’s rogue gallery is basically individualized tests against his character. Brainiac challenges his ancestry and logic. Parasite threatens his powers. Metallio defies the humanity he loves, his heart replaced by kyrptonite. Darkseid flat out stands against everything Clark does by ushering in war and death.
And yet NONE of these have made it to the big screen yet. And look, I get it. Lex Luthor IS Superman’s biggest threat because he thinks:
- Kal-El is both undeserving of and selfish with his powers
- An alien capable of ruling shouldn’t be allowed to exist, even as a do-gooder
- He’s better simply because he’s an American citizen who rose to power sans superhuman abilities
- Goodness and hope is a falsity to exploit for money and power
He is the anti-Superman. The worst of America. The other side of his coin, and he should be the main villain dealt with because Lex hides amongst us with more deception than Clark ever did.
But every. Fucking. Movie?
Literally. From 1978, there have been 8 films starring Superman. Lex has been a featured villain in 6 of those.
SUPERMAN III took the bold choice of going with a rich, white entrepreneur as its villain.
But the biggest belief that seems to be the problem as of late is that, to make a superhero believable, he must be “dark and gritty.”
Again, SUPERMAN III. Bold.
To argue this point quickly, all I ask is that you compare Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man to Tom Holland’s.
No. Damn it. Wait a second.
What I mean is Maguire’s portrayal relied heavily on the pressure to be a superhero. (I’m sure there’s some way to sum up that feeling he had.) Because of that, his Spidey was more emotional, stressed out, and it constantly drove him to want to be rid of it.
Holland experiences the same pressure of responsibility, but not once does it occur to him to quit. In fact, he loves being Spider-Man. It’s who he really is inside.
Now I dare to ask. Which Spider-Man is more popular in the general consensus?
I stand corrected, but this only proves my point more.
While the pros and cons of responsibility play heavily in any superhero’s life, Superman never strays from the path his parents set him on, though he knew his life was his own.
To me, Superman isn’t dark. He can have darkness in his life, but his life isn’t darkness. That’s The Batman’s territory. Superman is the light of hope. He is someone who chooses to walk among us as an equal, despite being a literal superman and adopted as an American icon. You telling me you can’t write a character who has to wrestle with his powers, his responsibilities, his ancestry, and his obligations to ideals laid upon him, all while staying true to who he is at his core? Fighting for truth, justice, and the pursuit of happiness in a melting pot?
I know this article has got out of hand, so let me wrap it up by saying this.
I love Superman. I dream of him, being him often. To be able to travel the world and bring it together by showing everyone all it takes is believing one another long enough to help.
Superman will be immortal as long as goodness is sought, and it’s nice to have someone to point to, fictional or not, and say be like that guy. To wear a symbol and show your beliefs in all that is good.
Ok. He was a decent guy too.
Yeah, Superman hasn’t had much luck on the big screen, but he has been soaring triumphantly on TV. Though there are many to name, for me it’s Superman The Animated Series, and then later Justice League & Justice League Unlimited. It’s no coincidence that’s where you’ll find a top notch Lois as well.
Tim Daly and George Newbern both had their time voicing the character (Newbern would take over during the JL years), and from the very beginning, the writers embraced the sci-fi of Superman’s lore, the incredibly epic but equally underrated rogues gallery, the understanding that kryptonite wasn’t his only weakness, that Superman’s powers had limits AS LONG AS YOU WROTE THEM. They understood, above all, that character dictates story, and not the other way round. They knew Superman.
So when Alan Moore, who unapologetically dislikes superheroes, can write some of the singular best Superman stories of all time (For the Man Who Has Everything, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?), there really isn’t an excuse.
And that ultimately brings me to the point of this article. Superman is the story of an alien survivor of a world, jettisoned into the galaxy by his parents like a space Moses and lands on Earth where he was raised by humans, learns our sun gives him powers and radioactive pieces of his homeworld weaken him.
And what does he do in response?
He decides to repay the debt by protecting the planet, no, the UNIVERSE, from alien gods, evil sentient computers, cyborgs, robots, mutants, and evil men of power. Oh, and he does all this while trying to have a normal, human life with the woman he loves and stay humble, and not once does he reject who he is and what he must do.
I don’t know if I’ve ever said this publicly, but I mean it. ANY writer who complains Superman is “too hard” to write for is fucking lazy.
I want to leave you with a piece of music that, when I close my eyes, I can be Superman too. I hope it lets you fly as well.
I wanna thank all the people on Twitter who contributed to this article, and of course to Jerry Siegal, Joe Shuster, and all the other talented individuals who keep Superman alive.
If you happen to like what you read, I have written stories myself. Links to all my work can be found in the Menu. Thank you for reading this. Have an awesome holiday season, and I hope to see you next year.