There will, undoubtedly, be plenty of thinkpieces coming out this week about how Tyler Hoechlin is a "better" Superman than Man of Steel and Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice star Henry Cavill.
And that's not really a fair thing to say: it's more accurate to say that Hoechlin is a better reprsentation of what audiences want and expect from a Superman. Expect, because of his historical depiction on the part of smiling, all-American guys like Dean Cain and Christopher Reeve. Want...well, because of Man of Steel and Batman V Superman.
It wouldn't be unfair to argue that both Cavill and Hoechlin deliver pitch-perfect performances based on the material they're given -- that each of them is, in his way, a nearly flawless embodiment of what the filmmakers want Superman to represent. The fact that what they represent is so wildly different is indicative of a character so elastic that he can be appealing in a variety of different situations.
It was the camp, the reverence for the Richard Donner films, and the feeling on the part of many viewers and some studio executives that not enough had been done to update the charater in 2006's Superman Returns that led to the Man of Steel version of Superman.
(Well, that and the success of Christopher Nolan's Batman films. But that's a slightly different conversation.)
The new Superman was kinetic. He oozed power. He moved faster than a speeding bullet, and didn't just stand in front of them and let them bounce off. He had a hairy chest and, at times, a beard -- much like the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths reinvention of Superman that came out of John Byrne's The Man of Steel, his mid-'80s comic book reboot of Superman that was charged with modernizing a character that faced many of the same critiques as the movie version did twenty years later.
The Byrne (and Jerry Ordway, Dan Jurgens, Jon Bogdanove, and many others) version of Superman did have body hair. He bled. He sometimes had a beard or even long hair, when it made sense for the story. And while for the most part he was the same inspirational, aspirational figure he'd always been, he wasn't flawless. The decision to allow Jonathan and Martha Kent to live gave Clark a sounding board: he was able to be a little less secure in himself because he could always go back to Smallville and get what he knew would be the right answer.
You can see this in Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, particularly in the first season.
In the comics, Superman: Birthright came out in 2004, officially starting to take back ground for the pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths/pre-The Man of Steel status quo. At that point, the post-Crisis Superman had started to lose its sense of identity already. In 2000, most of the writers and artists who had been working on those titles for years were shunted off to other books or fired entirely, making way for hot names like Jeph Loeb, Phil Jimenez, and Mark Millar, who dismissed big chunks of what had come before them. Birthright formalized that, mostly rebooting the Superman origin story for the second time in about 20 years. While Birthright's take on Krypton is a big inspiration for the world Superman comes from in Man of Steel, that's about where the similarities end.
The Superman of the 21st Century has been somewhat of a directionless character at times in the comics: he wasn't drawing a lot of inspiration from the pre-Crisis characterization, and he remained married to Lois Lane (a late '90s development), but much of what was established in the post-Crisis era was slowly eaten away, replaced with either entirely new concepts or spins on pre-Crisis ideas.
The same can be said for the screen Superman of the time. Superman Returns drew primarily from the Donner films, while Smallville tried a buffet-style approach to defining the character of Clark Kent, but literally didn't even have a Superman until the last few minutes of the finale.
Then came 2011's The New 52 reboot, and it's hardly a stretch to say that The New 52 and Man of Steel share some DNA. Superman felt alone and like an outcast -- something that had occasionally provided some story fodder for decades but had not really been a major driving narrative until Smallville and Man of Steel. The stories often centered heavily on Krypton, and particularly on the recognizable character of General Zod. The public at large wasn't entirely trusting of Superman, thinking him to be basically a "living weapon of mass destruction," and a threat to national/global security.
While the Man of Steel filmmakers and the makers of The New 52 independently said in interviews that they hadn't communicated with one another about the trunks-free, unsmiling, naturalistic take on the Last Son of Krypton, it's pretty clear that they were tapping into a lot of the same Christopher Nolan-inspired, post-9/11 zeitgeist.
In both cases, the new take on Superman was a less confident character, but one without the Kents -- or Lois, mostly -- to turn to for advice or at least a shoulder to lean on. He was solitary, lost, and the same Kryptonian menaces that threatened his life and his city also tempted him with a sense of "home" he rarely felt on Earth.
Compare this, for instance, to the post-Crisis era, when Krypton was an almost uniformly menacing force in Superman's life. the projection of Jor-El that was meant to tell Clark about his origins "attacked" him and had to be destroyed (by Jonathan Kent, with a pitchfork).
The Eradicator built Superman a Fortress of Solitude, but then immediately set about trying to remake Earth as a new Krypton over and over again until Superman had to throw it into the sun. General Zod and the Phantom Zone criminals killed an entire alternate Earth and Superman had to execute them in order to keep them from coming for his own.
This was a character more comfortable with being called "Clark" than "Kal" -- by a long shot. Even the Supergirl of that era wasn't actually Kryptonian, meaning that Clark had no positive links to Krypton for most of a 20-year period.
That was the Superman of Lois and Clark -- and to a great extent, that's the Superman of DC's new Rebirth publishing initiative.
While The New 52 was inarguably a coherent direction for Superman in the way that much of the previous 10 or so years hasn't been, it wasn't a universally-beloved direction. Criticisms of its tone, of Superman's inexperience, of the lack of a meaningful relationship with Lois and a strong supporting cast dogged the stories -- and when the pre-Flashpoint (pre-New 52) Superman turned up -- along with his wife and newborn son -- in a title called Superman: Lois and Clark, it was a sign that change was on the way.
The New 52 Superman is now gone, having died at the end of The 2011 volume of Superman. A new, Rebirth-branded Superman is now in place -- a more inspirational figure, older, more mature, married to Lois and with a ten-year-old son (that same newborn, aged up during the time the Man of Tomorrow spent living secretly in the post-Flashpoint DC Universe). Action Comics, the series in which Superman made his first appearance back in 1938, has actually resumed its original numbering and is well on the way to being the first mainstream American superhero series to reach its 1,000th issue -- which at its current twice-monthly publishing schedule should happen in 2018, as Superman turns 80.
The Rebirth Superman isn't a rejection of The New 52's Superman as much as it is embracing something that audiences have been demanding. A "brighter" Superman, a more inspirational Superman, a more mature Superman, a more classic Superman -- complete with a marriage to Lois Lane. It's also more in keeping with the editorial philosophy of Rebirth, which seems to be abandoning some of the post-9/11 cynicism and WildStorm-inspired political intrigue in favor of stories that embrace family and legacy, and which reject the notion that stories written for a wide audience can't also be smart.
"To be an all-ages book, it doesn't have to be low-brow," co-writer Patrick Gleason recently told ComicBook.com. "It can be really thought-provoking and fun and deal with some big stuff. I think it's pretty well-rounded and anyone can enjoy it."
To that end, the producers of Supergirl are not, in spite of what some of their fans might like, targeting Batman V Superman as something that "misses the point" of Superman. Instead, they're building a different kind of Superman -- one that fills a different need -- and hoping that everyone has success.
"The Superman that we designed was something that you really haven't seen too much of. Usually, when you see Superman, whether it's the Christopher Reeve movies, Man of Steel or Lois & Clark, he's just starting out. We wanted to show a Superman who's been doing this for a decade and has gotten really, really good at it."
He's also a Superman who has a relationship with Lois Lane, who has a history with Cat Grant, who has a long, trusting friendship with James Olsen. This is a Superman who has backstory bubbling under his surface, who's an inspiration to the world, and who leaves those around him in awe. All of these things just feel like a response to fan demand for a different kind of Superman than audiences have seen recently, in the same way that the return of the pre-Flashpoint Superman does in the comics.0comments
Of course, the difference between the comics and the live-action versions is that when Action Comics resumed the big numbers and Superman: Rebirth came out, that was the end of the New 52 Superman -- and while that take was controversial, there are plenty of members of the audience upset that he's gone and lamenting the return of the "classic," iconic Superman -- just as there were those who lamented the return of Silver and Bronze Age tropes to the titles around the turn of the century.
In live action, fans can have both. There's a massive feature film franchise ready to drop its next installment -- complete with another appearance by the Man of Steel Superman -- on next year on the 25th anniversary of Superman's death in the comic books, and there's a TV series that just told us the story of Tyler Hoechlin's Rebirth-adjacent live-action Superman is "to be continued."