Copyright by DC Comics
“You’ll never be Superman. Because you have no idea what it means to be Superman ... It’s not about where you were born. Or what powers you have. Or what you wear on your chest. It’s about what you do. It’s about action.”
Superman to Superboy Prime on Infinite Crisis.
I have short patience for people that love making excuses for what they do and don’t do. There seems to be have been a trend in our society where people love to point to someone or something else as the one responsible for their misfortunes or their mistakes when the reality is that we’re all responsible for what we do and its respective consequences on our existences and to others.
That brings me to the topic in hand: Forbes recently published an article stating that Warner Brothers doesn’t know how to make Superman relevant in modern-day and that is why they have been struggling to make another film in recent times.
And I’m here to say that the “Superman problem” is completely false and nothing more than an excuse by lazy producers, board members, and writers to come up with a high-quality product.
Copyright by DC Comics
These comments about Superman not being relevant enough or that he is too powerful and too “perfect” have been thrown around for many years, but it’s always the same empty arguments that show a complete misunderstanding of Kal-El’s mythology, his core values and what he is supposed to represent. It’s the writers’ lack of imagination that hurts the character and not the character himself.
Superman is, by and large, an inspirational character. He is the archetype of the character that has a strong sense of morality and he does heroic things because it is a natural trait of his personality and what was installed in him due to his parents’ morals in Smallville. He doesn’t need a trauma like Spider-Man or Batman and doesn’t need to be chosen like Wonder Woman or Green Lantern. He chose to be a hero and he chose to be good because he believes in people and believes in doing the best he can to help others.
Of course, this couldn’t work these days. I mean, how can a character with such a strong sense of morality, kindness, and willingness to sacrifice himself for others be realistic and loved by others in 2019? There’s not a single example of that worki…
Copyright Marvel Entertainment
Yeah, I’m not buying it, Warner.
In a world where Captain America has thrived in media and has reached unbelievable levels of popularity, there is no excuse for Superman to be stagnant or struggling given that, at their core, they are extremely similar aspirational archetypes and men with unmovable moral values. The main difference is that Marvel did the smart thing: they understood that there was no need for Steve Rogers to change because there was nothing fundamentally wrong with him. That’s why I love Captain America: The First Avenger before he gets the super-soldier serum: it shows us that Steve was already a hero and a good person before gaining his powers and that it was his unshakeable sense of right and wrong what made him the right guy for the role that was bestowed upon him.
There is nothing wrong with the Superman character. He represents the best of us and he is supposed to inspire the world to be better. Superman is both a character and an ideal, which is part of the reason that he has become a cultural icon: the big S is something we directly relate to truth, justice, and the American way, like it or not. Clark Kent is a guy from Kansas who was born with the capacity to make a difference in the world and he tries his best to make that happen.
But here we go to the bottom of the problem with Hollywood: they don’t care about the Clark Kent aspect of Superman and that’s why they don’t feel that the character is relevant. That is why there are so many stories about alternate takes where Superman is evil or why so many writers take the archetype and decide to make their own morally ambiguous version of the Man of Steel, with Garth Ennis’ Homelander being one of the most known examples thanks to The Boys series. Hollywood doesn’t understand Clark Kent and they deem him as boring or as a “goody-two-shoes”, as if that last part is necessarily a bad thing.
So, of course, their solution, based on multiple rumors that have been spread around, is that Warner is going to fire Henry Cavill and hire Michael B. Jordan to have their black version of Superman in order to make him “relevant” again (because apparently white people are no longer relevant, for some reason). Let’s leave aside the fact that the alternate universe versions of Superman that are black have extremely minor roles and are more of a footnote of the DC Multiverse; let’s focus on the fact that if Warner really wanted to make a black Superman movie and have everybody happy, they would use Milestone’s Icon.
Icon. Copyright by Milestone Media and DC Comics.
Icon was created based on the Superman archetype and he has always been a fan favorite throughout the years, so if Warner wanted to, they could have their cake and eat it too: they could have their black Superman who is an actual original character with his own traits (Icon is 200 years old and has lived for almost two centuries on Earth, for example) and still have the classic Superman. But of course, they are never going to do that: they want to use the popular property to claim how “inclusive” they are instead of focusing on a good story. And the original minority characters are just forgotten.
It’s this constant need of changing the character that stops him from having an actual good run of films. Ever since Richard Donner’s first two Superman movies with the great and late Christopher Reeve, the character has been struggling on film despite the best intentions and efforts of great casting choices such as Brandon Routh and Henry Cavill because Warner has never fully bet on Superman as we know and love him (that means inspirational and aspirational).
I would like to take a moment to discuss Henry Cavill’s portrayal of Superman. When director Zack Snyder took the character back in the early 2010s, he decided to shift things around a bit by making Superman darker, more tortured and with a somber feel to his stories. And while I personally enjoyed 2013’s Man of Steel and most Superman fans agree that Cavil had the looks and the charm to be a great interpretation of the character, I think the film struggled to really hit home the Man of Tomorrow’s ethos and values, often trying to add traumas to Clark’s life in order to justify his transformation to Superman.
I think Man of Steel is objectively a good movie and it has a few strong moments, but I don’t think it was the right call at the time, but after Christopher Nolan’s success with Batman, Warner wanted more of that and they tried to make Superman darker, just like DC tried to make him more impulsive and alienated from humans with the 2011 New 52 reboot. Both versions never truly resonated with the viewers and readers.
Copyright DC Comics and Warner Bros.
The problem that Snyder and many other writers had by making Superman darker is the fact that it goes against the nature of his archetype. Superman, much like Captain America or pre-New 52 Captain Marvel/Shazam, is an aspirational archetype: he is designed to be the best of us and to inspire us to be better human beings. When you try to make him a cathartic archetype, which is the one that needs a traumatic experience to grow into the heroic role much like Iron Man or Batman, it never completely works and it’s usually cast aside.
To be blunt about it: Superman doesn’t need to be grim or dark. That’s Batman’s job.
It’s no coincidence that the four most popular versions of Superman outside of the comics (Christopher Reeve’s portrayal in the Donner films, Tom Welling in Smallville, the Superman animated series of the 90s and the Justice League animated series of the 2000s) all showed the Superman that we know and love. That is because those are the versions of the character that feel more real and honest to the audience.
Because no matter what, it’s that boy from Kansas who makes Superman work and that’s why I respectfully disagree with Snyder when he put too much emphasis on the alien side of Superman and never focused on Clark Kent, who is even more important: we never see the good things about his life in Smallville, we don’t see him wanting to be a reporter, we never understand how he got his job at the Daily Planet and we never truly see him beyond feeling tormented by the fact that he has these powers. That actually makes the character a bit one-dimensional.
Copyright by DC Comics
Superman is kind, noble and cheesy. He is a country kid who loves his parents, goes to church on Sundays and enjoys working on the fields with his pa. He is a loving father to Jon and a devoted husband to Lois. He always sees the best in people and feels part of humanity. That’s why I love this line in the Super Sons comic written by Peter Tomasi where his son Jon quotes him, saying: “Good people get involved.”
In fact, I strongly recommend Tomasi’s run on Superman because I think he is one of the few writers in the modern comic book industry that truly gets the character and adds a layer of progress to him by turning Clark into a father, slowly becoming more like his own father, Jonathan Kent. Tomasi shows him doing good, helping people and also raising his own son in the process, all through very uplifting and inspirational lenses.
We need that more than ever. We need a reminder, in this cynical world, that there are still a lot of good people and that we should strive to be the best version of ourselves. In this day and age, Superman’s values and morals are more important than ever before. So it’s not that he is “outdated” or not “cool enough”; it’s that most modern writers have such nihilistic and postmodernist views on morality that they just can’t comprehend a good guy that uses his great abilities for good and I feel extremely sad for them. There are a lot of awful people out there and humanity has committed a lot of crimes and mistakes, but we have also done a lot of good and I think Superman is a reflection of ourselves in our best moments.
Copyright by DC Comics
In the end, writers, Warner and Hollywood as a whole should not be looking at classic Superman as a problem, but rather as an opportunity. An opportunity to send a genuine message of truth and justice. Of showing a hero doing his best and inspiring others to do the same. Because, at his very core, Superman is just Clark Kent: a small-town guy who was born with the ability to help people and tries every day to do so.
There is no need for a massive revamping or a reboot. There is no need to twist his mythos around or try to make changes in order to sound “hip and modern”. This is mythology what we’re talking about here; we’re talking about one of the culture’s greatest Western icons and a symbol that transcends comics or movies. A character that has existed for more than eighty years and one that is very likely to outlive all of us.
So there is no such thing as a Superman problem; it is just the excuse of people that don’t want to understand the character and believe that there is something fundamentally wrong with Superman when the reality is that he has always shined the most when he is being the most honest version of himself. No darkness, no race swaps, no torment, and no moral ambiguity: just a guy with a suit that his mom made for him, dreams of becoming a big city reporter and someone who is deeply in love with his wife and loves his son.
Seriously, how difficult is that?
“That’s the heart of Superman: the genuine love of people and that you always know that he is your friend.”
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