Whether it be Spider-Man swinging across the skyline of New York City, Iron Man rocketing into chaos, Batman gliding through the shadows of Gotham City or even Captain America brutalizing his way to righteousness, superheroes are resonating with people like never before. Yet, someone is missing from the grand obsession with superhero culture. In a world where superhero cinema dominates the box office, pop-culture and more, it’s worth wondering why the greatest hero of them all hasn’t reached the same heights as some of his contemporaries.
The character of Superman is one of the oldest and most popular entities in the world, yet modern renditions of the character failed to live up to its standards. Superman, otherwise known as Clark Kent or Kal-El, debuted in 1938 as part of the first Action Comics run. Since then, there have been 10+ big screen adaptations of the character, yet all of them failed to capture the true spirit that makes this character so special. Why is it that contemporary audiences struggle to engage with this character?
It is quite ironic that the most attractive dimension of superheroes is their ability to be relatable. There’s a certain spark about some of the world’s favorite heroes hitting close to home in ways that other, more realistic characters could rarely hope to accomplish. At face value, it’s the powers and the action that pull people in. It’s the lasers coming from their fingertips, the massive explosions and fiery scenery or the intensity of a famous hero and famous villain standing off. But more than anything, it’s the struggles that make these characters what they are.
Beyond the crashes, booms and bangs, these characters are just like every one of us. We can empathize with characters who struggle with poverty, trauma, depression and carrying the world on their shoulders. That is exactly what Superman is missing: The movies stray too far away from his humanity and focus too much on his physical power.
Yes, Superman can shoot lasers from his eyes that can burn a hole through the center of the Earth. He can fly around the world so fast that he causes the entire planet to rotate faster. He can punch a criminal into space. He can level a city in the blink of an eye. He can destroy everybody and everything. The most integral piece of Superman’s character, though, is that he doesn’t. Don’t take it from me; take it from Batman:
“Even more than the Kryptonite, he has one big weakness. Deep down, Clark is essentially a good person. Deep down, I am not.”
While audiences have seen the level of his power in the newest Superman movies and his intrinsically corny qualities in the old ones, the combination of his power and willingness to be a good person has yet to be balanced properly. Superman garnered many critiques over the years. Some complain that Superman has no real challenge, no real personality, no real struggle. While this may be true for the movie adaptations, this couldn’t be further from the truth in the rich history of Superman comics.
As directors searched for a way to make Superman “darker,” they failed to realize that darkness does not equal complexity. Superman does not need to be a brooding, serious character for audiences to absorb him. Superman doesn’t need to be a campy, happy-go-lucky, super smiley figure to be seen as positive. What Superman needs to be is the ultimate leader and example of compassion that he is in the comics. Because he, too, experiences the emotional and mental weaknesses that each and every person on this Earth face every day.
There are some things the movies do get right. Zack Snyder’s realistic take on the character was refreshing, and the way he articulated society’s apprehension of his power is an interesting view on how the world would react to someone like Superman if he were real. The 1978 version of Superman, directed by Richard Donner, was held back by the limitations of its time and its simplified take on the character — perhaps forgivable for one of the first superhero movies ever. Yet, Superman’s good-hearted nature and inspiring bravery were very present. Making a great Superman film is not impossible. Perhaps, creators just need to start thinking outside of the box.
Throughout his greatest comic book runs, cartoon shows and moments in movies, Superman flourishes the most when he’s not the only character on the screen. It is not Superman that makes Superman great — it’s his heart and mind. It is dichotomy that serves as the most important part of making a great Superman film. We need to see Superman face off against somebody that is not just his power equivalent, but an opposition to his good spirit. Somebody or something that is more determined to break Superman’s mind than his body is something we have yet to see in the movies.
With Superman, it may also serve his stories well to make the threats in his solo movies less global or catastrophic. Superman is at his best when things are personal and the people or things he loves are at risk. While he wields the power to save the world, Superman does not need to prove it to anybody. The contemporary Superman just needs to show that he is a good person; although he can freeze a bus with a single breath of air, he’s capable of the purest love and compassion in humanity.
Perhaps, the world has simply changed. Maybe Superman is not a character made for solo movie ventures, but rather an X-factor type character meant to lead the Justice League. One of the most popular and beloved versions of Superman came from the “Justice League” animated series and is a great example of how Superman benefits from being around conflicting morality and perspectives.
Maybe, Superman isn’t meant to be a superhero today’s world — and maybe he isn’t a hero at all. Just as Zack Snyder shined a light on how Superman is capable of being a darker type of character, people have also found that one of the most compelling versions Superman can be found in the “Injustice” comic book run and video game. Although many didn’t like the darker tone of the character in Snyder’s films, maybe he just didn’t go far enough. I would tell him to go all the way. Make Superman a good man turned dictator because he was forced to mistakenly kill his wife, which set off a nuclear bomb in his city of Metropolis. It worked brilliantly with characters like Omni-Man and Homelander from other superhero series. Maybe, there just needs to be a bit more of a spin and creative juice injected into the character.
Sadly, there are no plans for Superman in at least the next few years. Rumors swirled for awhile that an African American Superman could come to the big screen, but that’s the only hope fans currently have of the next adaptation of the character. Creators, writers and directors of this incredible character have been close. It is possible, and one day there will be an incredible Superman that flies across our theater screens. As Superman always taught me, never give up on hope. I will always hope to see a Superman that represents the brilliance the character emulates in the comics and animated series.
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