It’s that time of year again. Like all circular internet arguments, we find ourselves back at discussing whether or not Superman is relevant in today’s world. This latest round comes courtesy of two recent events. The first being the resurgence of the Twitter hashtag #releasethesnydercut, which is DCU and Zack Snyder megafans’ insistence that the director’s cut of Justice League is superior to the theatrical release.
While that trend was dying down, an article on Forbes caught my eye in which it discusses how DC doesn’t know what to do with Superman on the big screen (Forbes link with lots of ads, FYI), especially in the wake of other films in the DCU being both profitable and critically acceptable. The article does make some good points. It is hard to make a Superman movie, and we haven’t had a good one since the Christopher Reeve movies. The article is relatively even-handed in the landscape of superhero cinema, but I still found myself disagreeing with conclusion, one that ultimately argues that Superman should be shelved for a time.
Again, there might be some truth here as there can be fatigue of seeing the same characters over and over. But then again, we’re on our third interpretation of Spiderman…
Or maybe Superman is too unrelatable. But…then there’s mega-rich dudes Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne, Thor who is a literal god, Wonder Woman as a daughter of Zeus, all of them have connected with audiences. Why not Superman?
It could be easy to argue that the Superman from the late seventies and early eighties was an appropriate movie for a simpler time, one where the country was still aglow from the tail end of winning the space race, one where Reagan could opine about America being the shining city on the hill. Y’know, just as long as you didn’t look too close and notice all of the problems. The argument goes that Superman is comically overpowered, incomprehensible to modern audiences, and therefore neigh impossible to portray to an audience who wants heroes they can identify with. This sounds eerily familiar to a “likeability factor” in politics. Who wouldn’t like to have a drink with bad boy Aquaman, or be goofy with Shazam, or be goofy and drink with Thor. Those characters have had a recent makeover and audiences love the new heroes. However, Superman is still seen by many as a relic of the past, faded idealism which has no place in modern movies.
Personally, I think they’re starting from the wrong place. To me, the hero isn’t Superman at all. The hero is Clark Kent. Superman is nothing but his alter-ego.
Superhero origin stories are almost a overworked trope. Do we actually need to see how Batman or Spiderman became who they are? But it can introduce audiences to a particular mythos, and it can also establish the character’s primary motivation throughout the movie, sometimes even for the entire series. Within a Superman movie, the development here is rushed to get to the “good stuff”, often a world threatening event with lots of fights and special effects. Considering the Synder interpretation, those movies start with a fundamental misunderstanding of the character, one born from a cynical point of view about how one deals with alienation and practically unlimited power. Superman is portrayed as god amongst men…well, of course identification is going to be difficult.
What we miss is Clark Kent. We don’t get to see the influence of the Kent parents who guide Clark in his youth, and ultimately give him the tools and mindset to be an idealistic hero. Synder’s take had Jonathan Kent’s wisdom reduced down to “you must hide because people will fear you”. His Kryptonian father’s message is that he is being sent to guide people of this backwards planet. How are these messages, in any way, relatable to movie audiences? But this is where we are. These themes of dealing with self-centered use of power are perhaps better handled in HBO’s Watchmen series or Amazon’s The Boys.
“The big blue boy scout is boring,” is a common refrain. “Where’s the tension? Where’s the challenge if you’re overpowered?” To me, the best Superman stories are the ones about having the power but being judicious in its use. Clark’s greatest super powers are not his strength, his speed, heat vision, flight, you name it. It is his superhuman restraint, his compassion, his empathy, and yes, love for his adopted home and its people.
I’m not entirely sure I’ll ever see the Superman movie I would love because it would largely be about Clark Kent not only learning important lessons, but also exploring the love Jonathan and Martha have for their child. Clark is a great hero because of his tremendous empathy, not because his powers. Superman is the alter-ego to protect his family and friends from harm, but he is ultimately a man from Kansas doing the best he can. Would anyone besides me want to see a much more personal movie, with smaller but more intense stakes, without the overt threat to the entire world?
This movie only exists in my head and would have obvious nods to Morrison’s All-Star Superman. Superman does what he can and is a symbol of optimism and idealism. Perhaps many consider it naive, mocking his ernestness, but he carries on. Superman is the outward projection. But we also see Clark, struggling with difficult questions: Is he doing enough? How should he use these gifts? Can he deal with the guilt of not being able to save everyone? How does he manage restraint with the amount of power he possesses? Those are real questions, real conflicts, and something that is missing in the modern movies.