The Trouble with Superman

Still of Superman from “Batman vs. Superman”

Ahead of the upcoming, awkwardly named blockbuster “Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” The Atlantic takes a look at how difficult it has proven in recent years to make the iconic superhero relevant to contemporary audiences.

The problem [Superman’s publisher] DC faced was this: You can’t fix something if you’re not sure where it’s broken. One of the issues halting a successful reinvention of Superman is a shift in the nature of the comics market. Since the 1980s, the dominant trend in the industry has been specialty comics shops replacing newsstands as primary distributors. Given this change, companies like Marvel and DC have focused their marketing toward an ever-dwindling market of adult fans, darkening their characters in an attempt to keep the interest of a readership desperate for mainstream respectability. In effect, adults were colonizing young-adult narratives and warping them in the process—an early example of what later occurred with Michael Bay’s legendarily crass ‘Transformers’ films.

In one of the uglier paradoxes of the superhero-comics industry, characters who were devised to entertain children soon became completely unsuitable for them. Leaning into this trend in an effort to entice new adult readers, DC largely abandoned its strengths as a publisher of optimistic, bizarre superheroics and fumbled for an edgier identity. Aspirational characters were hit hard by this change—Wonder Woman in particular has suffered nearly as many reboots as Superman, the latest of which has cast her as the bloodthirstiest of her Justice League coworkers, her trademark lasso of truth traded for a sword.

But the trend proved particularly damaging to the Man of Steel. The 1986 ‘Dark Knight Returns,’ one of the landmark wave of ‘mature’ superhero comics, cast him as a Reaganite stooge and ended with Batman knocking him out. The choice directly shadowed Superman’s history up until the present. The dour trailers for ‘Batman vs. Superman’ draw directly from the imagery of ‘The Dark Knight Returns,’ with several shots paralleling panels from the earlier comic. The effect is to shout for everybody watching: This is a serious film. Pointedly, in these trailers Superman never once smiles.

I largely agree with the assertion that modern culture doesn’t really know what to do with Superman, especially in film, where his impact is felt most keenly (or not). However I disagree with the dichotomy that’s usually presented in discussing how the character should be interpreted: the choices are almost always only between dark and brooding, on the one hand, and bright and sunny, on the other. The right answer doesn’t lie at either extreme.

Just as I found Zack Snyder’s 2013 “Man of Steel” to be leaden and heavy-handed, I’ve found most of the many self-referential installments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe—especially the overrated “Iron Man” series—to be pretty slapdash, a form of crass commercialism masquerading as levity. There’s so much uncharted territory between these two approaches; I long to see a breed of comic book movie that’s both “serious” in that it’s well made and thoughtful about its ideas and “light” in that it’s entertaining, funny and even inspirational. There’s no reason why we can’t have a comic book movie equivalent of Ryan Coogler’s phenomenal “Creed.”

For Superman, particularly, I often wonder why the franchise’s many different regimes of comic book writers and film producers have continually overlooked what to me seems like an obvious opportunity for interesting stories: the idea that, of all the professions he could have chosen, Clark Kent decided to become a journalist. To me, the tension between the journalistic credo to solely observe and report, and having the god-like power to literally change the course of what gets reported is a fascinating one that has never been really explored. Superman hides in plain sight as a reporter clearly because he does not want to change the course of human history (beyond what’s possible for a human being working for a news organization is capable of); and yet his very existence theoretically alters mankind’s course forever. There’s a fantastic Superman movie to be filmed with Clark Kent’s life as a journalist at its center, one that could be serious and thoughtful but also one that could be genuinely fun and uplifting. Too bad nobody put me in charge of a Hollywood studio.

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