Making Superman Super Again


Nestled snugly away on the Batman Begins special features DVD is an interesting moment in which some DC big cheese, whose name evades me at this point, remarks that Batman is a difficult character to get wrong. It seems to me that Superman, Batman’s big DC brother, has the opposite problem: he is a very difficult character to get right. The problem is simple. Everyone, basically, knows who Batman is. He’s a dark character, in a dark world. He’s a vigilante stung by his childhood brush with violent crime, and obsessed with fighting back. People get the point of Batman. But what of the earnest Superman? Well, um, he’s invulnerable to nearly everything on planet Earth, he can only be killed by a glowing green rock, oh, and his archenemy is an overweight middle aged bald man. Riiiiight. To quote a certain Mr. Bond: ‘Not exactly Christmas, is it?’. Superman is seen as a character with a catalogue of random, seemingly unconnected powers, and an array of strange supporting characters and foibles, but with no real glue holding the man and his world together.

What I’m about to say may be heresy to some, but I’ve never particularly cared for the Christopher Reeve franchise; granted, I haven’t seen the last two instalments, although I gather there’s little point as the last one is decried as a cinematic Anti-Christ that makes Batman and Robin look like Lawrence of Arabia, but I know the original two films are remembered fondly. However, CGI over-saturated good for nothing upstart that I am, I never quite felt the magic as I watched Reeve soar over a grainy back-projection of 1970’s New York. I will admit, however, that John Williams’ score is one for the ages – iconic, inspiring, timeless, blahdy blah blah – and Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder melt my heart. But even so, the world presented in those films is just not interesting to me, it seems too campy, and I don’t think Superman is a campy character. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.

We all know the story. After nearly twenty years off the screen, having collapsed under the weight of its own silliness with The Quest for Peace, the franchise returned with Superman Returns. The film was technically brilliant in a way that the originals never could have been: breathtaking cinematography, staggering effects and John Williams’ original theme nicely augmented with a stirring score. But the film itself felt to me like a cinematic Easter egg: fantastic to look at, hollow on the inside. Brandon Routh had the Superman look, but he was given very little to work with, whilst Kate Bosworth’s shrill and petulant Lois Lane reminded me of that fly that keeps landing on you whilst you’re trying to read, the one you can never quite swat. Kevin Spacey was a serviceable Lex Luthor but could have been better with a better script. The whole thing didn’t so much fly as jump desperately in the air for a few seconds and then crash down on the concrete with a sickening THWACK. The production values made the original’s drab visuals and wobbly sets look like a child’s stick man when compared to the Mona Lisa, but the film still left me cold, like I was sinking into an ice cream bath in the middle of the Fortress of Solitude. Where were the laughs? The tears? The suspense?

So could Christopher Nolan, no walk-over he, resurrect another unfashionable superhero relic in the same way he’d successfully given new life to the Dark Knight? Unfortunately not. The task proved too great. Man of Steel gave it a go, but in the end it was a failure, not least because it seemed to try to rectify Superman Returns‘ lack of WHAMBANGPOW by overdoing the Boom! Boom! in the final act, as if a crazed Michael Bay had blundered into the editing suite and started pressing lots of buttons. The filmmakers also seemed to have convinced themselves that by replaying endless flashback scenes of little Kal-El’s first day at school, they were creating a three-dimensional, empathetic character. Of course, showing the backstory is an effective part of constructing a flesh-and-blood character, but it doesn’t constitute a job well done. The film, despite its early promise, fell short. As the credits rolled, all it had given me was a splitting headache and a crushing sense of disappointment. Now, like a failed Euro-zone state, old Supes needs Batman to bail him out in his new film, and the filmmakers seem to have accepted that the Big Blue Boy Scout alone can’t put those longed-for posteriors on cinema seats next time.

This is a truly sorry state of affairs for the so-called grandaddy of all superheroes. For a character created by two good-for-nothing schoolboys in 1933, Superman is the purest, simplest form of the hero. In this complicated world of moral greyness, he represents the primary colour of unambiguous good, and that’s a unique commodity. Even his name has entered the lexicon as a by-word for a person who does good deeds. What people don’t understand is that Superman is not like any other superhero. Viewers, myself included, complain that they can’t relate to Superman, but I’ve since realised this isn’t a blind spot of the character’s conception, it’s intentional. Superman isn’t supposed to be relatable. People assume this makes him boring, but being relatable and being understandable are two different things. A character can be unimaginably foreign to an audience, and still easily be understood, hated or loved if they act or emote in a meaningful, human way that we recognise. The films before have explained the what of Superman, the powers and mythology, but they’ve never given an explanation of why he does what he does. Just why is he so goddamn selfless? Why does he pull on that costume from the planet Krypton and save his adopted planet? Who is this man? This is the missing ingredient. This is the ‘why’ that Batman and Spider-Man have demonstrated in their films, and that’s why they’re so successful.

So why does he do it? This is a man who feels aggrieved by the loss of his home and wants to do some good, by paying back the planet, and a couple of farmhands, who took in a mysterious baby in a spaceship. He has a moral code as strong as Batman’s, a world as colourful and fun as Spider-Man’s, and, as the ultimate immigrant, the existential isolation of the X-Men. And he accomplishes all of this whilst wearing his underpants over his trousers. That is a potent cocktail. But his problems are human and understandable. Who hasn’t had that moment of complete isolation, where you glance at your peers and feel completely different? Try being a man from another planet, who has no home to return to. Have you ever been bullied for some real or artificial difference, either miniscule or inescapable? Everyone has. Superman is no stranger to prejudice, and he’s singled out because of his difference. He’s the most alien of all heroes. Most potent of all, the Superman mythology speaks to that timeless notion that inside any person, old or young, black or white, inside any pathetic looking Clark Kent, there is a person who on the right day could do something wonderful (forgive me for slipping into syrupy Disneyfied rhetoric, but on this occasion it’s justified). All of these experiences are human experiences, and the character of Superman is no stranger to them. He may be hard to relate to physically, but the problems he faces are one hundred percent human. The guy is an alien, but he shouldn’t be alien, if you see what I mean. It’s all there, waiting to be put on screen.

Once the understanding of the central character is there, all of the good stuff follows, and any film-maker worth his salt can go to town in this incredible universe. The Big Blue Boy Scout’s adventures are intergalactic in scope. He has a multitude of alien worlds to get lost in, and offers potential for escapist cinema in a way no other superhero does. This is another failure of the previous films. Who wants to spend all their time on boring old Earth in a film about a kick-ass alien? Would you go on holiday to Vegas and spend all your time admiring the wallpaper in the hotel? Imagine a Superman film played out on an epic, Star Wars style canvas, with worlds as diverse as those in Lucasland like Kashyyyk, Coruscant and Mustafar. The character offers potential for a real blockbuster, in the truest sense of the word.

And what of the big man’s adversaries? I’ve heard it sniggeringly said before that Superman’s rogues gallery pales in comparison to his comic-book peers, and a look through the previous films would seem to bear this out. However, in the comics Superman has a lineup of Big Bads that could puts other heroes to shame, if only they were portrayed onscreen correctly. Consider Brainiac, the telepathic, ruthless scavenger. I’ve always envisioned him as a compendium of HAL from 2001 and Prometheus’ David, with a heady injection of pure robotic savagery thrown in for good measure. It’s criminal that he (it?) has never been put on film. Then there’s Darkseid, the ultimate dictator, and ruler of the volcanic, North Korea-like planet Apokolips. He’s the personification of political extremism and terror, with near omnipotent levels of power; a kind of intergalactic Bane, if you will. My geek senses are tingling. Or what of Lex Luthor, Superman’s ultimate nemesis? He is not, as the films would have you believe, the real estate agent from hell, but the ultimate xenophobe, a human who despises the alien who protects HIS, the great Lex Luthor’s, planet. He’s motivated by the belief possessed of all dictators worth their salt that society deserves to be led by one as visionary and benevolent as he, and possessed of unlimited resources, a genius intellect and the manipulative skills to become President of the United States. There’s a reason Lex is known as Superman’s arch-enemy. Let’s see it.

This Superman upstart could be something special on the big screen, if only he were done right. There are vast untapped reserves of awesomeness in this ancient character, in the huge universe he inhabits, and the unique struggle of an alien left on this cold, unfamiliar rock and deciding to protect the people who live on it, not for revenge or thrills, but because it’s right. I keep thinking of J.J. Abrams’ first Star Trek film for some reason, and imagining a Superman film with as much heart, humour and excitement. It’s scary, funny, fast, and spectacular – a wise-cracking, technicolor shot in the arm of pure sci-fi cinema. That’s how to make Superman super. Maybe another reboot is needed, or maybe, just maybe, Nolan can pull it off next time. I don’t know if he was suffering Bat-withdrawal symptoms during the making of Man of Steel, but he misfired. If Superman’s about anything, however, it’s faith. I have faith in you, Chris. Just make Superman soar.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. MOS didn’t “fix” a single problem from SR! In fact, the ONLY time MOS complete changed something from Superman Returns were the parts of the movie that WORKED and elements that audiences enjoyed (the opening credits and theme music from Returns, Routh as Superman, the GOOD CGI effects in the Fortress of Solitude, etc.) They didn’t “make the opposite of Superman Returns”, They made the opposite of what they should have made to IMPROVE Superman Returns. NONE of the studio suits or Nolan/Snyder/Goyer “listened to the fans” OR “give us what we wanted”, unless you’re going to believe the MOS fanboy history revisionism that audiences “wanted” to see crappy CGI fights where Superman throws people into building constantly.

  2. Clifford Lloyd

    I want far less crummy CGI action sequences in future superman instalments.

  3. I wish there would’ve made a Superman trilogy first, an establishment of at least 2 main Superman villains (one per sequel), and THEN a crossover with Batman.

  4. Tamara Page

    Man of Steel was better than given credit to. Other than the first superman movie from the 70s, the rest are pretty bad. Especially Returns, which was just an awful movie. But this had great pacing, effects, back story, etc. I expected almost nothing because Snyder is so hit or miss (love dawn/dead remake, hated sucker punch & that stupid owl movie), but this turned out WAY better than I expected!

  5. Ricardo B.

    So long Superman… It was a truly wonderful 75 years.

    We loved you in Action Comics, in Max Fleischer cartoon shorts, Kirk Alyn serials, George Reeves television, and finally, the Christopher Reeve big-screen treatments. Even when those last ones missed the mark, they still possessed the spirit that made Superman the beloved icon of America and the world. Bryan Singer and Brandon Routh paid tribute to this vision of Richard Donner’s, too, with their one shot.

    But no more.

    We’ve done away with what made Kal-El our Super-man. We’ve accepted mindless carnage, action and computer-generated effects that belong more in a video game in place of a real story with depth, character, humor and heart. And somehow we’ve allowed the one truly immutable trait of the Man of Steel (thank you, too, John Byrne) to be changed: Superman Does Not Kill.

    World War II couldn’t hurt him, as he parachuted in with our troops. Doomsday (sad 90’s stunt that it was) couldn’t keep him in the grave. Neither could Lex Luthor or Kryptonite–not ever.

    It took Hollywood, Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder to do that, with their “modern” notions of darkness, grittiness and nihilism.

    I’ll miss the Big Blue Boy Scout. I’ll miss the decades-long love affair with America that this last survivor of a doomed planet represented. I’ll miss the good-natured charm he once used to fight for truth, justice and the American way.

    And when, like Alan Moore and Curt Swan, people ask “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”, I’ll point to this summer.

  6. Taylor Ramsey

    The biggest problem of writing Superman has always been that writers tend to ignore the elephant in the room: the fact that in a real world setting, which is what MOS and SR tried to use, isthat Superman is a terrifying concept.
    Writers like Grant Morrison, Mark Waid and JMS have tried and at least partially succeeded, but Superman is inherently hard to believe without accepting some of the very scary potential of the character.
    MOS only hinted at it with the amazing level of destruction and countless unseen dead, but you never feel what anyone (other than maybe Zod) is really going through.
    That coupled with the fact that Superman IS so very human never seems to work. It is an either/or proposition for most writers. What makes him more than simply a Nietzsche-esque Overman nightmare is that very Human part of him that holds him in check, and most stories in film and print today seem to about either that or the ‘punchy powers’ aspect.
    Chris Reeve made the combo work entirely based on an astoundingly subtle performance, Brandon Routh got close and Cavill is not out of the running yet to my mind. But in failing to get the character’s essential formula right, the films and books are loosing the fans every day.
    It is so much more then the basic origin story…

    • Sean Hodges

      And yet, despite this, whenever Alan Moore got his hands on the Boy Scout he was able to tell stories that reflected both Superman’s immense power and his human goodness. I suppose it’s a bit of a cliché in comic book fandom to once again lay praise at Moore’s door, but I think you’re right. So few writers seem to get that it’s the balance between the Super and the Man that’s so integral to the character.

      I suppose, in my mind, that at least one writer understood this is a sign of hope; perhaps, next time, someone else will too, and we’ll have a truly great series of stories (whether film or comic) about the character again.

    • Another way of saying this is that Superman has Christ-like features without the true aura of the divine. This makes Superman more difficult in terms of making believable to any outside of a core audience.

  7. Man of Steel… Character set up for the first half, then mindless CG violence for the second half. You just sit there waiting for the CG to finish so the characters can hug and kiss and roll the credits.

    Despite its age and lesser-quality effects, the Chris Reeve Superman movie was far more emotionally satisfying. That moment when he knew Lois was dead and he freaked out and flew up into the sky and the memory of his father confronted him – so powerful!

    Man of Steel, though technically slick just lacked any real emotional punch.

    It’s just the way Hollywood is now – cram the movie with explosions and action and CG and that’ll be your insurance that you (the studio exec) won’t lose your job.

    In the end the audience are the losers. We get the bang for our cinema buck, but ultimately we come away with an empty experience.

    • Taylor Ramsey

      The best way I have heard to describe this is that the film lacked joy.
      Particularly when you compare it to the Reeve ones, this is very tre.

  8. Geraldine Sanchez

    A friend of mine practically begged me to watch Man of Steel, and even though I knew it wouldn’t be my cup of tea, I searched it out, out of respect for my friend. I just watched the first 42 minutes online, and had to shut it off. The first 20 minutes were like a Reign of Fire ripoff, and the next 20 minutes almost put me to sleep. I don’t know WTF this movie is, but it sure isn’t Superman. I tried to give it a chance, but man, it’s BAD. It did not engage me at all — the acting is wooden, and the whole vibe of the film just seems off, almost surreal in places. It is not true to the real spirit of Superman.

    Superman is my favorite hero of all time and I am so embarrassed and disappointed by what I saw of this movie.

  9. Nicola Kahler

    Apart from the beautiful Henry Cavill playing Superman, Man of Steel was a real let down. I found it pretty empty, which was a shame as many people associated it with the Dark Knight Trilogy!!

    Even the hype around the film wasn’t as high as the Batman Trilogy… this could easily have been helped if they had put in even half the effort Batman did with their transmedia and marketing campaigns.

  10. The thing with Superman is that, for the film to be compelling, it can’t be about his heroism or putting him in danger. That, for certain, is one thing Superman Returns got right. Giant Kyrptonite Island aside, putting Lois and his son in danger was the right (and only) way to go about it.

    Man of Steel, though, fumbled pretty much every thematic element. Firstly, the Jesus allegory is already blatant, they didn’t need to make it worse. But more importantly, the way that Zod was handled was embarrassing. Not because they didn’t do the character justice or something like that, but because it makes Superman the bad guy.

    None of the problems happen if it isn’t for Superman. That’s a question that’s inherent in almost every superhero, but the first film shouldn’t make it so easy to answer. In other words, there should be a conflict, and the hero should be the answer to the initial conflict. In Man of Steel, the conflict came about because of Superman, and that’s not a good way to start.

    Further, the way Zod’s death was handled was atrocious. He should have been killed and I don’t have a problem with that. Superman’s moral absolutism never made much sense. The problem was that he didn’t kill him earlier. Clark Kent is a bright guy. And he wasn’t arrogant. He should have recognized the futility of fighting him earlier.

  11. Jordan

    This was a really interesting article. I am one of the few who haven’t read the comic books, but Superman character -does- seem really drab in the remakes. I agree that if we knew more of the “WHY’ he does things, rather than just random flashbacks, it could make him a superhero we want to root for.

  12. Man Of Steel was a grittier and more serious take on Superman. I don’t think it’s perfect, but over all I liked it. Nevertheless, I also enjoyed the more boy scout or more campy version of Chris Reeve’s Superman. I do agree Superman is a hard character to get right for a movie audience because unless someone is already a fan and knows details of the mythos, the casual moviegoer will not relate to Superman easily either due to preconceived notions (eg., Superman doesn’t kill, a pre-Crisis On Infinite Earths trait in comics) or certain expectations (eg., Superman stories should always have feel-good tone-as Superman stories were presented during the silver age of comics).

  13. The First 2 Superman movies directed by Richard Donner are not campy at all?Fun.?.sure but not campy.When Richard Donner was fired and WB hired Lester that’s when they got campy.Mario Puzo who you might knowhim as writer of The Godfather contributed heavily to the screenplay of the first two.

    Richard Donner took the character of superman seriously,grounded him via Clark Kent with relationships with his parents,Lois , the Daily Planet and of-course Humanity.The first movie is all about establishing him while the second one is all about deconstructing him while not loosing Sense of what makes Superman resonate.He gives up his powers just to be with the woman he loves only for him to fin out that Earth is under attack by Zod.He sacrifices his happiness to save humanity.

    That is why with however outdated the effects might be the first 2 Superman movies hold up cause they are like Greek tragedies

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