It may sound counterintuitive to pity a superhuman with near-godlike abilities, but Superman just can’t catch a break.
DC Comics has tacked on one gimmick after another to string along comic book readers for decades — de-powering him, killing him, turning him into a blue energy being, changing his costume, giving him a badass attitude with a serious chip on his shoulder… they’ve tried it all.
Meanwhile, the films have been similarly schizophrenic, indecisive in their reverence towards the original 1978 Donner film or the Christopher Nolan Batman films, never considering there might be a third option.
And on television, the Superman IP has been pigeonholed into cheesy soap operas like Lois and Clark or Smallville that choose to focus more on relationship issues or teen angst than the blue-and-red tights source material. Heck, even on the show Supergirl, Superman’s televised appearance is relegated to being unconscious for two episodes so that Kara can save the world on her own. What do we actually see of the Last Son of Krypton? His red boots in the background.
But here’s the thing: Superman can be great character if DC wants him to be. They only lack the light to show the way.
Well, they better put on their sunglasses. It’s about to get bright in here.
All that arrogance to the contrary, I should mention that I have the utmost respect for the plethora of great artists who have been involved with the Superman property over the past seventy-seven years. I’m not saying I’ve got it all figured out better than the folks who have actually creatively struggled with the character, but I do feel that some of the best iterations of Superman have been largely ignored in pursuit of trying to update him for a new generation… a.k.a. make him more like Batman.
The trick is to identify what exactly works about the Superman concept and what doesn’t, and how creators have often broken things in their attempt to fix some part of the concept that really didn’t need fixing.
Superman first debuted in 1939 as a righteous crusader of the downtrodden. In his first appearance in Action Comics #1, creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster depict the Man of Steel confronting crooked politicians, domestic abuse, and criminal thugs. He inserts himself wherever he damn well pleases, tearing down the barriers between the rich and powerful and the everyday Joes. No one is beyond Superman’s reach or too important or well-protected to prevent our hero from righting a wrong.
When we think about what we love about this character, this original depiction is a huge clue. It’s a power fantasy, it’s wish fulfillment. We all feel downtrodden, we all feel persecuted to some extent. There’s always someone bigger than us, always someone with power over us. But what if we had the powers of Superman? Nobody could tell us what to do, nobody could push us around.
Adult men and women all over the world wear the S symbol on their chest as a statement. And that statement is one of invincibility, of pride and self-worth. Children wrap red blankets around their necks and put their fists on their hips because they see in Superman the ultimate adult figure to aspire to be.
Imagine you’re Superman. You can make the world a better place. You can travel anywhere. You can do anything. Imagine all the things you could discover if you didn’t have to worry about injury or pain or death. Imagine a life lived entirely without fear.
Of course, the flip-side to all this and the common complaint about Superman is that someone who is all-powerful isn’t a very compelling character. The purpose of all storytelling is to introduce conflict and that becomes tricky when your character has no weaknesses.
Superman’s creators addressed this problem by introducing two crucial weaknesses that they could exploit. Let’s start with kryptonite, a radioactive meteorite remnant of Superman’s home world. When it lands on Earth and Superman becomes exposed to its radiation, it weakens him. Prolonged exposure could kill him.
I don’t know that it’s ever been explained to my satisfaction exactly why a radioactive piece of Superman’s home world would be deadly to him, but I suppose it makes as much sense as Superman having powers on Earth because our sun is a different color than Krypton’s. It’s not really important that it make sense, any more than it’s important to understand how a pair of glasses could disguise Superman’s secret identity.
Regardless, kryptonite is a messy storytelling crutch. By turning Superman into a complete invalid, it doesn’t exactly set the stage for a cool action sequence for our hero. Instead, it robs him of agency and forces the storyteller to introduce someone who can swoop in to save Superman by ditching the kryptonite down the nearest storm drain. If The Flash or Batman or Spider-Man is involved in a action sequence where their lives are at risk, there are countless possible threats. They could fall to their deaths. They could be shot. They could be stabbed. They could be crushed. They could be caught in an explosion.
But Superman is stuck with that glowing green rock and just lying there until someone helps him.
Superman’s other weakness is the better of the two by far. But it’s not a physical weakness; it’s an emotional one.
Superman wants to belong. He wants to fit in.
He doesn’t have the Clark Kent persona because he physically needs it. He has the Clark Kent persona because he wants to be around people and be accepted by them in an identity where he is treated as an equal rather than some celebrity god. Superman’s greatest fear isn’t being killed; it’s being alone. And let’s face it, it’s lonely at the top.
If you think this element of the character is just some angsty flavoring added in recent years, it’s time to dissuade you of that notion. The Superman story has always been about this longing to fit in, to be accepted. Think about his relationship with Lois Lane.
Lois is in love with Superman but looks down on Clark, and Superman can’t accept Lois as long as she is only interested in him in a superficial way. He wants to be with her, but only if she’s willing to accept him as Clark first, not just a buff, handsome dude who can crush coal into diamonds.
In the 50s and 60s, Superman comic books would delve further into this idea of Superman being concerned about fitting in, of feeling out of place, of being an outcast. As much as we think of Superman as a paternal figure who rights all wrongs and never makes mistakes, the core of that character is someone struggling to belong.
The conflict in these comic book stories was rarely whether he would beat the bad guy du jour; in fact, Superman didn’t really have that many enemies outside of Lex Luthor. The real question posed by any Superman story was how he would deal with whatever trouble was threatening to ruin his relationships with both the people closest to him and humanity at large.
Now here’s the thing. That kind of story about Superman being lonely and not accepted by humanity could be a pretty big bummer if you play it straight and grounded. When you look at Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel or Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Superman lives in a very grim, grounded world where he (and his Kryptonian brethren) are the most outrageous things that exist.
To be fair to Snyder and to address the critics who insist that Superman stories shouldn’t dwell in such territory, he is definitely telling an authentic Superman story in these films by asking these larger questions about how that character fits in and where he belongs in this society.
But the problem is that by grounding the Superman story so concretely in reality, you’re missing the whole point of the character. Superman is wish-fulfillment. He’s fantasy. And so, the world around him and the tone of the story has to represent that. There should be a level of absurdity and imagination to his world; the idea of Superman calls for a larger-than-life approach that has at least a hint of whimsy.
That’s not to say there can’t be high stakes or danger or that these films need to be comical or silly or filled with snarky one-liners.
Rather, consider the old Grimm’s Fairy Tales before Disney got ahold of them; consider Jules Verne adventure epics; consider the trippy magic realism of something like Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth or Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Consider the Star Wars films.
Things don’t have to be grim or dingy or grayscale to be serious or smart. I am an enormous fan of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy and I think Zach Snyder did the best grim-and-gritty Superman film possible with Man of Steel, but ultimately, I think that stylistic approach only leads to diminishing returns when you’re developing that character and world in subsequent entries.
For Superman to be a compelling character, he needs to live in a world of heightened reality and endless possibility, of alternate dimensions, of countless inhabited star systems, of science fiction meets futurist fantasy, sprawled out in strange and unusual directions. The storytelling needs to be bold, innovative and imaginative, and concern itself less with pointing out all the reasons a super-powered god couldn’t function in our society and extrapolate instead on all the wondrous possibilities of a world where Superman does exist.
Once you have that imaginative world to set your story, you ground it by focusing on a character who, despite his impossible powers, still copes with very relatable problems of being alone and yearning to belong. The trick is finding a way to couch those relatable problems in a larger-than-life metaphor or conflict or villain.
In the old Silver Age comics, Superman would be exposed to the random, temporarily physical or mind-altering effects of Red Kryptonite and it would turn him into a giant bug, or a total jerk, or cause him to become clumsy or stupid; his friends would start to doubt him, to reject him, and he would have to find some way to fix the deformity or function with it until the effects wore off.
I’m not saying the film franchise should adapt those old stories literally, but they should take a look at their intent and their message. Superman as a character, as an idea, and as a storytelling muse works beautifully, but he is more than just a list of powers and a misguided Christ savior analogy.
Unlike Batman for instance, Superman just isn’t endlessly malleable. Batman can be played grim or silly and everything in between. Superman requires a commitment to certain kinds of material and a more narrow range of tone. The common ingredients to all great Superman stories are imagination, wonder, and heart. And the very best Superman stories extrapolate upon reality in weird and wonderful ways, weaving clever parables and morality tales that manage to work on multiple levels.
I happen to think that a Superman movie could be great, because I’ve enjoyed tremendous Superman stories in the comics. And because the original Donner film gets a lot right, even if it started this whole Christ savior analogy. I would love to see a filmmaker who feels a real affinity for the character and his unswerving morality tell a story that’s suitably epic and fantastical. A great Superman story requires thinking outside the box of normal blockbuster summer fare but that doesn’t mean it belongs in the same box as the Nolan Batman films or any of the other boxes that Marvel has created with their characters.
The minds over at DC owe it to the character to open a new box and look to other genres outside the superhero realm for their inspiration. Look to E.T. or Clone Encounters of the Third Kind. Consider Back to the Future I and II. And think about a leading man for the character who can convey the moral certitude and masculinity of Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird.
And then consider all the great material in the archives. Look at Grant Morrison’s All Star Superman, Mark Waid’s Superman: Birthright, Alan Moore’s story “For the Man Who Has Everything” (and don’t get distracted by that big fight with Mongul). Explore Darwyn Cooke’s interpretation of the character in New Frontier, Steve Rude’s depiction of him in World’s Finest with Dave Gibbons. Revisit the Silver Age comics and don’t be afraid by Superman’s early encounters with Bizarro, Mr. Mxyzptlk and Red Kryptonite. Watch the Fleischer cartoons and Bruce Timm’s animated series.
Superman can work in the modern age, but that doesn’t mean you have to make him wallow through modern anxieties. He’s a timeless character who should be defining our times rather than reflecting them. He should be an inspiration for a way forward, not a meditation on being stuck in the past or chasing current trends.
How much longer will DC stumble and fall before they finally take flight with a classic Superman film?