Ever since Superman Returns, fans have been complaining about how Warner Bros. handles Superman in the movies. Heck, it has probably been longer than that, but some of us were born in the ‘80s and have only the vaguest recollections of watching Superman III on a CED disc, alright? Kids under 40, you Google that. CEDs were wild. Anyway, the latest outrage comes in the form of an anonymous source reporting that Warner Bros. feels like it doesn’t know how to make the Man of Steel “relevant” and that they have been talking to big creative names like director J.J. Abrams and actor Michael B. Jordan about the problem.
This is, let's be clear, not a real problem. It is not difficult to make Superman “relevant,” if that’s what your goal is. Of course, everyone’s idea of what relevance is tends to be slightly different, but don’t worry, we’re going to cover quite a bit of ground here.
First off, let's acknowledge that yesterday, ComicBook.com's own Kofi Outlaw laid out a pretty compelling argument for why Zack Snyder's take on Superman is a take that already told a relevant Superman story with modern sensibilities. For fans who felt like Superman didn't work because of his Polyanna-ish nature, Snyder's Man of Steel grounded the hero's mission to bring hope to his adoptive homeworld and in doing so, expanded the definition of what Superman could be.
Here's the thing: that's a fine take. But it's only one of the many, many ways that Superman can be -- and is -- "relevant."
Let's start in the comics.
One of the great missed opportunities of the modern age of comic book movies is that a focus on the "shared universe" makes it harder to tell one-off stories, which tend to be an area where Superman excels. So many of the best Superman stories ever told -- whether it's All-Star Superman or "What's So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?" or "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" -- are closed-ended stories that deal with a very specific moment in time. Man of Steel felt that way. But that philosophy was almost immediately abandoned in the movies. One of the best and most popular Superman-centric stories of the last thirty years is the Death and Return of Superman cycle. In their haste to build a shared universe, Warner Bros. and Snyder brought in Doomsday far too early, and made Superman's death a story that was shared with Batman and Wonder Woman. One of the great things about the comics at that time is that because the Justice League was filled with relative unknowns, Superman could have backup in the fight and supporting characters to bounce off of...but still be the undisputed main character of the tale.
Zachary Levi, star of Shazam! and a vocal supporter of Henry Cavill's big-screen Superman, cites Kingdom Come as his favorite Shazam/Captain Marvel story of all time, and while we will talk more about that story in particular a little later, suffice it to say, it's a miniseries that focuses heavily on quiet character moments for the Last Son of Krypton.
While Snyder toyed with the idea of Superman as an outsider, who had to fight against prejudice and make a place for himself in the world -- and that's certainly a legitimate point of view -- the polar opposite could also bring some great stories to life...and it would be fairly unique to Superman.
How so? Well, in the comics (and in many versions of his live-action and animated adventures over the years, too), Superman is basically universally beloved. He is considered the greatest superhero, even in continuities where superheroes are pretty common and popular. On The CW's Supergirl, a lot of the first season or two dealt with the idea of Kara living in the shadow of Earth's greatest hero.
That brings with it expectations that would be nearly impossible to live up to. There's story to be told in a version of Superman who is widely regarded as, functionally, a god -- but who sees himself as the simple man Jonathan and Martha Kent raised. That Superman would likely not be entirely comfortable with the spotlight always being on him, but would understand the value that having a figure to look up to, provides for people who are living in a hard world. This is where you could tackle the idea that he can't always save everyone, or the idea that he might even have once been forced into killing an opponent, in a way that doesn't feel like it glorifies those struggles, but instead contextualizes them within the larger "idea" of Superman.
Because that's a thing -- Superman is an idea, more than almost any other character. One could argue that Batman goes out of his way to create a symbol that people respond to, while Superman himself IS a symbol almost without trying. And there's certainly story to be told in living up to your own hype -- or failing to do so.
In 1999's Superman #145 from writer Dan Jurgens and penciller Steve Epting, Superman deals with hate mail from a person who blames him for injuries he sustained during a previous storyline. In that case, it really was largely Superman's fault, but there was a similar story earlier in Jurgens's tenure as writer for Hank Henshaw, who turned evil after losing loved ones in a space shuttle crash that he blamed Superman for not being there to prevent. That time around, Superman was not remotely responsible for the catastophe, but he did blame himself for not getting there fast enough. When people see you as a god, they have high expectations -- and when you are trying to do the best you can for everybody, you can impose those same expectations on yourself, even when they aren't reasonable.
Smaller, more character-driven stories like that can be difficult to tell in the form of a huge, $250 million blockbuster movie. That is part of why the current wave of comic book TV series are so great. Many fans, who have been impressed with Tyler Hoechlin's Superman on Supergirl since the first time he appeared three years ago, are eager to see what happens if the planned Superman and Lois TV series goes forward. Such a show would not only provide an outlet for stand-alone or short-form stories as we alluded to above, but would also allow fans to see a more fully fleshed-out world where Superman's relationship with those around him is more fully explored than it can be in a single movie.
But TV is not the only way you can tell smaller, more character-driven stories with the Man of Steel. Lois Lane is an important component of this, especially in continuities where one or both of the Kents have died. Lois not only helps to ground Superman, but she provides him with something powerful: an intellectual equal who challenges him and forces him to be better as Clark, not just Superman. Lois is not just a Bond girl -- a pretty face to slot into the story so it can have a periodic break in the action. She's maybe the only character in mainstream superhero fiction who is essentially so built into the mythology of the hero that it would be nearly impossible to tell a Superman story without her.
And, as noted, she really is a foil for Clark as much or more than she is a foil for Superman. This means that a prominent role for Lois forces filmmakers to explore what makes Superman human -- or more specifically, what makes someone with Superman's powers feel like he needs to have a human life as well. The ultimate expression of that is the idea that he eventually married Lois and had a kid in the comics -- an idea that is coming to The CW next week in "Crisis on Infinite Earths." He doesn't need the money he gets from working at the Planet; in theory he could live at the Fortress of Solitude and cultivate all his own food. Exploring that need for connection and that need to return to the simplicity of being Clark Kent, the good-natured Midwestern kid, is another way to make the character feel "relevant" and more fully fleshed out. And that's something that can be done, really easily, even within the context of a single movie.
That good nature -- the notion that Clark is genuinely, Pollyanna-ishly, aw-shucks good -- is often cited as a reason to dismiss the character as unrealistic or unrelatable. It's why, after Superman Returns aped the Donner movies and underperformed, Warner Bros.'s next instinct was instead to imitate the success of Christopher Nolan's gritty Batman films. And there is nothing wrong with exploring a darker and more conflicted Clark. Certainly, John Byrne did it in his post-Crisis on Infinite Earths miniseries The Man of Steel, which reinvigorated Superman for the '80s. In that story, the idea of a super-strong, flying man is essentially revealed to the world without Clark meaning to, as he leaps into action to save an experimental plane that had trouble on liftoff. When he landed, not only did Lois -- a reporter, who was on board the plane -- try to stop him to get a story, but he was mobbed by people asking him for things.
"Everybody wanted a piece of me, Pa," Clark confides in his adoptive father, leading to the eventual decision to build a wall between the Superman and Clark Kent peronalities so that Clark could sometimes have peace and a normal life. That was a more nuanced and less inflammatory examination of Clark's reluctance to embrace his destiny than the infamous "should I have let a bus full of kids die?" scene from Man of Steel, but it was getting at the same idea. How do you function as a person, when everybody in the world wants something from you? That Clark chooses to create distinct identities so that he can still be a hero, rather than just hiding his light under a bushel so that he can live in comfort, speaks to his character.
And that's another thing: the notion that in an increasingly cynical world, audiences would find a deeply good person who is using his power and platform for good as something they don't want to watch is...well, it's baffling logic.
First of all, let's point out that the story about Warner Bros. struggling to make Superman "relevant" hit at the same time that Tom Hanks's movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, in which he plays children's television icon Fred Rogers, hit theaters and became a success. It didn't bring in Man of Steel numbers, but it's less than two weeks into its run and it's already made back more than its budget, so the point here is that there is absolutely an appetite for straightforward heroes who do what they do not because of some tortured obligation or desire for revenge, but because it is the right thing to do. And this is the second time in as many years that Fred Rogers has been in a movie that earned glowing reviews and made good money (the prevous being the documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor?). The notion that if you have the capacity to make the world a better place, that you should do it, should not be a controversial position to take in a Superman movie. Even that -- even the most seemingly bright and cheery notion out there, the idea of a superhuman Mister Rogers -- is not inherently something that has to be devoid of darkness and introspection and humor and cynicism. Look at Krypton.
The short-lived Syfy series Krypton took place in the distant past of Superman's homeworld and starred Cameron Cuffe as Superman's grandfather, Seg-El. While he had no powers, Seg found himself thrust into battle with forces wildly more powerful than him, and he kept fighting because that's what heroes do. The eloquent ethos of Krypton -- "keep believing in a better tomorrow" -- is a beautiful summation of what it means to be an embodiment of hope in a dark time. And the result of that clarity of vision is that Krypton was probably the best live-action Superman story since Superman: The Movie...even though we never got to see Superman. In fact, a big part of the story was a time-traveler (Adam Strange, played by Shaun Sipos) coming back in time to make sure Superman was born, because the absence of Superman would fundamentally alter Earth's -- and the universe's -- future.
That is the emotional core of Kingdom Come, a story in which Superman has abandoned the world to its own devices -- but has to come back when a new generation of heroes have done such a bad job of protecting people that the only thing powerful enough to really make things right again is the symbol of hope that is Superman. It is essentially the answer to Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, with Superman instead of Batman being the one who comes back after an absence.
That approach -- telling the story of Superman's return and how the world responds to him -- has elements of one of the best Superman ideas: exploring the question of "why do we need Superman?" In a world full of superheroes, the Man of Steel is still singular, still special, and stories that explore why that is, are among the very best stories in his long history. The "Funeral For a Friend" story, which came after "The Death of Superman," explored what the loss of something as powerful as Superman would mean to the world at large, and it was as compelling a tribute to the relevance and power of the character as you're likely to find. Somebody at DC should be sending trade paperbacks of that story to everyone who works above them at Warners.
That is one of the few things that Superman has that Captain America does not, in terms of tone. While the Captain America movies proved that with vision and good casting, you can absolutely sell a mainstream audience on the idea of a hero who seems too good to be true, Captain America's footprint, in-story, is limited. He's an exclusively American hero, and one whose absence was not really felt outside of the sphere of those who loved him personally. Something Snyder got very right is that Superman would be a world-changing event. Once a godlike being showed up and told us he's "a friend" or "here to help," there would be no going back.
So...how do you make Superman relevant?
Play up the idea that he's an immigrant who fights for justice, defending his adoptive home from Lex Luthor, an avatar of the absolute worst of the 1%, whose bottomless greed is the dark underside of the American dream. Or play up the idea that he's an aw-shucks American kid who could be, or do, anything, but who chooses to have a career where he challenges himself and makes the world a better place. As a journalist, he is fundamentally American -- a member of maybe the only industry specifically protected in the Constitution.
Play up the fact that as the most powerful being on the planet, anything that challenges him would, logically, have to be truly massive, leaning into sci-fi and spectacle. Or play up the fact that most of his best stories are about character, with the physical threats being almost an afterthought.
Play up the fact that he has the visually coolest and most unstoppable villains in the DC Universe in his rogues gallery. Or play up the fact that his physical power still can't stop an evil genius like Lex Luthor from constantly slipping through his fingers, and that this guy with no physical strength to speak of is a relentless thorn in his side.
Play up the will-they-or-won't-they element of his relationship with Lois, which dominated the first 50 years of the characters' publishing history. Or play up the stable and loving relatonship they have had more or less constantly since the late '80s.
Play up the idea that he comes from Krypton, a planet that bears virtually no resemblance to contemporary Earth. Or play up the fact that the whole reason his family crest stands for hope is that generations ago, his family helped depose a dictatorship and make their world a better, safer place.
Play up the fact that he is a character who, on the way to avert a catastrophe, has both the power and the motivation to take a moment and get a cat out of a tree. Or play up the fact that no matter how strong and fast he is, he will never be able to save everyone and that it haunts him that he might have spent a second too long as Clark and missed an obligation as Superman.
Play up the fact that he's an outsider, isolated by the loss of his homeworld and the scale of his abilities. Or play up the fact that he's a family man who is beloved and admired by all of his peers and most of the world.
Play him as a character just learning he has powers, or one who has had them since he was a kid and more or less has them mastered. Play him as someone who stops domestic abusers or as someone flies into space to save shuttles. Play him as someone who inspires the best in people, or play him as someone who enrages the worst people and emboldens them to be their worst.2comments
How do you make Superman relevant?
How don't you?