When I was 10, my dad took me to see SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE. At the theater, I met Superman. He gave me a coloring book. He was really, really, super cool, and I was beyond excited. In my 10 year old head, I was meeting a true hero. I mean, I knew that Superman wasn’t real, but at the same time, there he was, in the flesh. In my brain, I was meeting a god. A gracious and caring god who watches out for us, who shows us the way to a better world, to a world where all can be happy.
In my mind, to this day, it was Christopher Reeve that I met. Considering this was a random multiplex in a suburb of Chicago, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Reeve, but my brain still won’t let the idea go.
I’m lucky, I grew up with a great Superman. A Superman who helped get cats out of trees, who smiled when he saved people, who brought his enemies to justice, not to the grave. I grew up with a Superman kids could look up to, a Superman who had movies that kids could see.
Now, I don’t have kids, but my friends who do all made the same decision – that BATMAN V SUPERMAN is not appropriate for their kids. It looks too dark, too violent, and too angry. Thing is, they’re right – the movie isn’t for kids. I’m sure some of you are OK with that, that you don’t see a problem with a movie starring The Man of Tomorrow that is too gritty for children. You’re wrong. You’re horribly wrong. There is a very big problem with this. Superman has been taken over by angsty adults, and we need to save him from them.
To put one argument to rest right away – yes, Superman used to kill in the comics. When he showed up. Supes killed rather often. Pretty quickly, DC Comics realized that this was a terrible idea. They saw that having their two biggest characters, Superman and Batman, killing people was sending the wrong message to kids. These were heroes, not vigilantes. The world of dastardly criminals and the noir detectives who hunted them down didn’t work for a guy in bright tights. Superman needed to be different from them, he needed to hold himself to a higher standard. Before the end of his second year in comics, Superman’s days of killing were over.
So, yes, Superman’s early days include him killing (as do Batman’s) but this was seen as mistake very quickly, and the powers that be got rid of it. Think of it like the BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER movie and how it connects to the TV show – yes, it happened, but only in the most broad of terms. The specifics are ignored to build a better story.
This is why we need a smiling Superman – to build a better story. Yes, he’s so strong he can move a planet out of it’s alignment. Yes he can fly so fast that he can circle the Earth in less than a minute. Yes, missiles and lasers bounce off his skin. That all makes for great images, but the story of Superman is a guy who always sees the good in us. Created at a time when it looked like the whole world was going to end in a vicious war, creators Siegel and Shuster took their original concept (an evil super-man who looked more like Lex Luthor) and redefined him to be the hero the world needed. These days we mistakenly look at Superman as a Christ figure – he isn’t. Two Jewish kids don’t create stories based on Christ. Superman is Moses, leading us to the promised land. His ways, his beliefs, will show us how to be better, as long as we never forget who he is.
We have forgotten. More and more, Superman has become a dark figure. Writers, artists, and directors in comics, television, and film, have looked to give us a “real” Superman. As much as I love it, I think a lot of this starts with Richard Donner’s SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE. Donner made his movie, still one of the best superhero movies, with one word as the driving force – verisimilitude. Donner even had a sign made that hung in his office:
What Donner meant was that the movie could not make fun of the ideals of Superman – it needed to be true to the character and the universe he exists in. At no point in SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE does anything happen that makes fun of Superman and his Boy Scout ways. Coming at the end of the 70s, a decade where the American people lost faith in their government through the one two punch of Watergate and Vietnam, Superman stood on the silver screen and declared “I’m here to fight for truth, justice, and the American way” without a spec of irony. The crazy thing is, audiences cheered. They loved it. Why? Because Superman is better than us.
Still, that idea – verisimilitude – seemed to be taken out of context by those who followed*. It started with the comics, where DC decided that Superman had become too cheesy and needed to be made more, for lack of a better term, human. TV followed up with LOIS AND CLARK: THE NEW ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, which focused more on the “real” relationship of Lois Lane and Clark Kent. The show had some Superman action in it, and it didn’t really change Superman as a hero, but the focus was put on the idea of “when are Lois and Clark going to bang?” This show wasn’t for kids. It was barely for the whole family. It was for adults. It was also pretty bad in my opinion.
Once Lois and Clark got their sex on, the show lost the audience and was cancelled soon after. It didn’t take long for Superman to get back onto TV though, this time as a teen drama on the WB in SMALLVILLE. The most iconic shot from SMALLVILLE, by the way, is this:
A crucified Clark Kent in a corn field. Ugh…
SMALLVILLE was all about teenaged Clark Kent running around being unsure if he should use his powers to help the world. It was a superpowered version of DAWSON’S CREEK. Clark was moody and felt like he didn’t belong. The creators of the show swore to audiences that they would never have Clark put on the tights or fly, you know, just the two things that Superman is best known for. Why couldn’t he wear the costume or fly? Because this show was “real”. Sigh.
At the same time, Bryan Singer made his own Superman movie, SUPERMAN RETURNS, where he wanted to bring Superman back to the Donner style. The movie underperformed at the box office. Apparently, execs figured that the film failed not because it is pretty boring (and Superman is real emo in it) but because Superman was too corny for today’s audiences. I suppose word went out – make Superman “today.”
The comics followed the lead of TV. More and more, Superman became “real.” It became common for DC to push big, company wide, events by showing Superman like this:
It got to the point that readers started goofing on crying Superman. DC’s answer, it seems, was to go with angry Superman. We knew he was angry because his eyes were always red.
All the time.
And now, we have the Zack Snyder Superman. I’m not here to bag on Snyder – I like every movie Snyder has made except for his two Superman films. I’ll even stand up for SUCKER PUNCH to an extent. But Snyder doesn’t get, and has no interest in getting, Superman. He, like so many before him, think Superman’s 30s style of “good” is outdated and corny instead of seeing it for what it really is – needed.
Superman is being turned into a “grim and gritty” hero for adults. This is the real Kryptonite – the more we pull the Man of Steel away from kids, the more we try to make Superman “real” the more we destroy him. He isn’t real guys, and I have no interest in a real Superman. We have enough “angry” and “gritty” heroes. We need Superman to be better than them. Mark Waid and Alex Ross warned us of this back in the 90s with KINGDOM COME, but many people seemed to miss the message.
There is hope. Just this week, it was announced that Tyler Hoechlin had been cast as Superman for the SUPERGIRL series. The SUPERGIRL series is built on a foundation of optimism, and the mentions of Superman on it have been positive ones – the people in that world love their Man of Steel. Maybe, with a bit of luck, this Superman will remind Warner Brothers that angry red eyes do not a hero make.
This isn’t to say that there should never be Superman stories where he is angry, or even evil. DC’s Elseworlds books have done some amazing things with a darker Superman, but those are not “canon” Superman stories, and they should not be the Superman that is presented to the larger world. An angry, screaming Superman is not how children should see him.
In SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE, there is a line that always bugged me. Superman is about to take Lois off for her first flight with him, and she mentions Peter Pan. Superman smirks and says “Peter Pan flew with children, Lois. In a fairy tale.” It bugs me because Superman, when he works best, is for children. We shouldn’t take him away from them.
*All Photos: DC Comics, Warner Brothers, The CW