Superman: Then and Now

Action comics1With the Justice League Cinematic Universe’s second entry, Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice looming on the horizon, I’ve been reacquainting myself with the Man of Steel in some of his other cinematic incarnations.

Angsty superheroes are sort of par for the course nowadays, but with Superman, it seems that the angst that modern audiences crave in their heroes requires the character to be changed so inexorably that he’s basically a completely different character than that of the original. Granted, this happens a lot, especially if it’s a long-running series. Batman has changed a lot from his first appearance, for example. But with Batman, we readily accepted his darker iteration. Superman’s latest gritty reboot, on the other hand, has a lot of fans divided.

Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel is perhaps not as bad as many critics thought. The thing that stands out the most is Superman himself. He’s not really Superman. He’s a super man, but the core of the character isn’t really there. Zach Snyder’s iteration of the character seems like he’s trying to compensate for his red and blue outfit and optimistic roots by being as dour and manful as he possibly can, overcoming the fun cheesiness of his first Action Comics appearance by sheer force of will. It’s a shame the character is so overly serious because Henry Cavill does have that air of Christopher Reeve charm about him…in other movies.

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“I am too angsty to be charming.”

But then I found myself wondering if it’s even possible to make a Superman movie today that maintains the feel of the original comics and Richard Donner’s 1978 film without it becoming a self-parody.The Superman films in the late 70’s and early 80’s seem incredibly cartoonish by today’s standards. I love them, of course, but they’re enjoyable because of their camp value and their naive sensibilities. They seem too happy, if such a thing is even possible, even though they capture the feel of the original Superman comics perfectly.

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“I’m too charming to be angsty.”

In the mid-to-late 80’s, there was a shift in tone in many comics as artists began expanding outside the realm of “comic books for young people” and began aiming at telling more complex stories. This era is known as the Dark Age or Modern Age of Comic Books. This is when Batman became a gothic anti-hero in such critically acclaimed stories like The Dark Knight Returns (1986),and The Killing Joke (1988). Tim Burton also helped to deepen the character’s mystique and slightly unhinged psyche with his blockbuster Batman film in 1989. This is also when the symphonic masterpiece that is Watchmen (1986) was published which called into question the idea of letting vigilante heroes with great powers operate at all. Also, in 1985, the Crisis on Infinite Earths series wreaked havoc on the main canon of DC characters, killing Supergirl and Barry Allen’s Flash (sorry if that’s a spoiler…but it was 30 years ago…). Marvel also did their massive Secret Wars arc in 1985 which turned their whole universe upside down. The influence of this era cannot be underestimated since modern superhero films often look for inspiration in the most critically acclaimed comics from that era.

But throughout all of this upheavel, Superman remained a relatively positive character, with Christopher Reeve’s cinematic portrayal of the Man of Steel fresh in everyone’s minds. And even though things got shaky with Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, Reeve’s charisma and charm went a huge way to cementing his version of Superman as the iconic portrayal of the character in popular culture (even though a great many wonderful actors like Kirk Alyn in 1948 and George Reeves in the mid 50’s also left their mark on the hero).

So why is Superman suddenly an angsty, angry character? And I’m not just talking about Man of Steel. There are also a number of alternate universe versions of Superman in which he is stripped of his “good guy” veneer like the graphic novel Superman: Red Son (2003) or the animated Justice League: Gods and Monsters (2015) which posit, respectively, what if Superman had landed in Soviet Russia, and what if Superman had been the son of General Zod, rescued from the crash by a Mexican migrant couple. In both cases, he becomes an untrustworthy character, burdened by anger or resentment: more of a weapon than a hero.

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“Even weapons have feelings. Sad, angry feelings.”

Part of it could be our changing opinions on the effects of Small Town U.S.A on growing minds. In the 30’s and 40’s, in the tail end of the Depression, small towns in the American Midwest were associated with hard work, good values, and a lack of excess or pretention. Superman is a good guy because of the Kent’s influence. They teach him “good old fashioned American values” which allow him to both learn to control his powers and become a champion for the people. But nowadays, many folks find the idea of “good old fashioned American values” an outmoded concept. We’re far too cynical as a culture to really accept that anymore. Small towns in America also have the unfortunate stereotype of being labeled as backward places where casual racism, a lack of education, and unfulfilled dreams are common.

It could also be that we find virtuous characters boring. In the MCU, Captain America: The First Avenger is often called “simplistic” or “boring” compared to the others in the series because Steve Rogers is an upright, all-American guy fighting for life, liberty, and the American way. His conflict is purely external and his only angst comes from his inability to serve his country at the beginning. I loved it, but the film was clearly taking its inspiration from the early days of Captain America in the comics, which audiences don’t really connect with anymore. It’s a visually fun movie, but there’s really not much in the way of character-based drama. Once Rogers was brought from the 40’s into the modern age in later films where he was forced to reevaluate his old-fashioned values as they put him in danger from the corrupt government around him, he suddenly became a completely different, fascinating character who quickly rose to “favorite” status. We like superheroes with internal conflict.

The same thing is happening to Superman. If he’s always good and the villains are always bad, then we know how the story will end and we lose interest. But if he’s plagued by self-loathing or self-doubt or some such thing, then there’s doubt about his ability to overcome a villainous force. And that’s what audiences like. I do think DC’s New 52 series handled Superman well, placing emphasis on his ability to save others rather than himself. There’s some angst, but it’s realistic angst. He’s sort of the Justice League’s general, tasked with coordinating everyone to minimize threats to the people and those working with him. He’s impervious, but those he’s protecting aren’t, so there’s still a sense of actual conflict.

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“I can kill you with my brain. No, literally. I have heat vision.”

So, it seems the days of Christopher Reeve’s Superman are over with, sadly. I hope future Justice League films allow Superman to breathe a bit under the weight of all his crushing angst, especially since he’s supposed to balance out the rash impulsiveness of Wonder Woman and the gloomy cynicism of Batman in the Justice League. I’m not saying I want him to become comedy relief (that’s the Flash and Green Lantern’s job), but it would be nice to see Superman become a symbol of something great again. He’s supposed to be a character people look up to, not a moody teenager who’s sad because he feels like he being stifled by all the feelings he has to keep hidden inside. Here’s hoping.

What about you all? Do you think an optimistic Superman would go over well with the general public? Or would it get the same reaction Captain America did?

Until next week!

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