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Superman & Relevance: (Yet) More Thoughts on Snyder’s Superman…

March is Superman month here at the m0vie blog, what with the release of the animated adaptation of Grant Morrison’s superb All-Star Superman. We’ll be reviewing a Superman-related book/story arc every Wednesday this month, so check on back – and we might have a surprise or two along the way.

Dear Hollywood,

I am a movie fan. I am not an American. I didn’t read too many comic books as a child, and those I did never featured Superman. I say this as a means of introducing myself. I’ve been somewhat frustrated that you have been consistently unable to produce a good Superman film since Richard Donner was unceremoniously booted off the set of Superman II over 30 years ago. I know you’re working on a new film, so I thought I’d pen this open letter.

I’m sure David S. Goyer is a great writer, and look forward to his screenplay. After all, I appreciate his work on Nolan’s Batman Begins trilogy and his work with James Robinson on Starman (plus he helped kickstart this whole “superhero movie” business with Blade). Still, I can’t help but be a little concerned about this new Superman reboot you have to produce by the end of next year, lest the rights revert to the creators of the character.

Anyway, I want to talk to you about the relevance of Superman, as I’m sure it’s something you’ve talked about quite a lot, and perhaps it’s something you’re still concerned about.

You could argue Superman is hard to relate to for audiences. He’s a superhero who is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and can leap tall buildings in a single bound. That’s great for the members of your audience who do that sort of a thing on a daily basis (they finally have someone to relate to), but perhaps it’s not so easy for regular people like you and me. After all, my great dilemma in the morning isn’t to save my girlfriend or a helicopter full of innocent people, it’s whether I have full-fat or low-fat milk in my coffee. I don’t wrestle against gigantic space monsters for the sake of the planet, I take on the office printer to get my notes for the 3pm meeting.

There’s a notion that Superman is a character who needs angst or ambiguity in order to seem “relatable” to modern movie-goers. It seems that he only appears “human” if he has serious flaws or problems, because ordinary people like me need to deal with those sorts of things. You planned to give him a silly black costume in Tim Burton’s aborted Superman Lives!, and gave him an illegitimate son in Superman Returns. I’ve never understood that notion, because it suggests that we can only recognise ourselves in Superman in his flaws.

At his core, Superman is the best in us. He’s the best we can ever be. He was originally written not as an alien, but as a hyper-evolved human – the literal “man of tomorrow” who we could aspire to be. He’s the guy who, despite having no stake in our little problems, always takes the time to say “Hey, guys, I’m here to help.” He came here with nothing and he made himself in the land of opportunity. He’s living the dream, as silly as that might sound. Contrary to what we seem to want to tell kids today, Superman is happy that he isn’t a millionaire or a celebrity, he’s just a guy who has the capacity to help a lot of people. He might have been born on another world, but he saw the very best in us – our virtue and our strength – and he reflected that back.

You might suggest that it’s a childish fantasy. You are entirely correct of course, but what’s wrong with that? Bruce Wayne’s idea of dressing up as a bat to fight crime is a childish fantasy, and it made a massive amount of mulah. Not everything needs to be so dark, though. Scottish writer Grant Morrison makes the case that the Superman fantasy is inherently less childish than the fantasy of Batman:

Superman grew up baling hay on a farm. He goes to work, for a boss, in an office. He pines after a hard–working gal. Only when he tears off his shirt does that heroic, ideal inner self come to life. That’s actually a much more adult fantasy than the one Batman’s peddling but it also makes Superman a little harder to sell.

In Kill Bill, in that famous monologue, Bill argues that Clark Kent is Superman’s commentary on our humanity. I’d argue that Clark Kent is how we are on an average day – we’re decent, hard-working folk who love our fellow men, and don’t really get noticed despite our hard work. Superman is what we are when we are exceptional. He’s us at our prime. He’s us on our best possible day, when you can pick up the world on our shoulders and run with it.

If we live in a world where a fundamentally decent human being who just wants to do what he can to make this world a better place isn’t “cool” or “hip” or “edgy”, well… then we’ve got a problem bigger than the next Superman reboot. Your focus groups and your consultants might tell you that the Man of Steel isn’t relatable to the kids today, but I say we see him everyday. He’s the firefighter who rushes into a burning building because there’s still somebody inside; he’s the stranger in your apartment block who takes an hour out of his day to help you move, even though you’ve never seen him before; he’s the person who knows that you’ve had a bad day and dares to ask, “how are you?”

He might not be lifting a car over his head or juggling planets, but that’s who Superman is. He’s that anonymous person you never look at twice, but who is capable of the most amazing feats you could ever imagine. I’ve probably met two or three of him today, without even realising it. I really wish I was one of those guys, you know. That’s Superman, right there. Just because the planet Krypton doesn’t exist and there’s no killer robots rampaging around doesn’t mean that he’s not real.

Don’t be afraid of him. Don’t try to change him. For the love of all that is good and decent, don’t you dare be ashamed of him. The moment that we need to be ashamed of virtue and community spirit is the moment we need to seriously evaluate where we are.

You might argue that this means the character is shallow or he lacks depth, I disagree. Sometimes to be optimistic is a far braver move than to be cynical, because it involves putting your neck out on the line at taking a chance. It means you risk looking “uncool” because you aren’t as snarky as those around you. It’s more challenging to sell hope and aspiration than it is to trade on fear and gloom, but I think you underestimate audiences if you don’t think they’ll react to it. The 2008 US election demonstrated there’s a pretty strong market for “hope” out there right now. The world could certainly use it.

So please, this is me writing as a man who has grown to harbour a deep and genuine affection for the Man of Steel. You only get so many shots at a character like this, please don’t mess him up. I wrote before that you need to let Lex Luthor be Lex Luthor, but you also need to let Superman be Superman. Don’t try to make him “a flying Batman” or a superpowered deadbeat dad or anything like that. Let him be the best that we could ever be, and trust your audience.

I am really looking forward to this, and I hope you can pull it off.

Cheers,

Darren

8 Responses

  1. As much as I enjoy your posts about Superman, I feel like you’re understating the difficulty of making a “contemporary” Superman.

    I don’t buy the argument that we just have to accept that Superman does what he does because it’s “the right thing to do”. His motivation has to be personal in some way, like in Spiderman or Batman (without, obviously, the darkness and edginess of those characters). I think his relationship with his parents and how that informs his ideology is probably key. Maybe a key event in his life or something?

    Other than that, I think the legitimacy of Superman as a plot would be a great idea. What if Superman wants to save the world, but the world doesn’t want his help? Thus, the conflict is not whether Superman is “defeated” but whether he can show the world that he is their friend.

    Maybe I’m just spitballing, but the movie can’t just be about Superman flying around punching bad guys. It can work in a comic book or cartoon, but it won’t work on screen.

    • I agree entirely that the movie can’t just be Superman hitting things. But equally, the character isn’t about angst – you can’t turn him into a lead from the Twilight films, like Singer tried.

      I think relevance is a key thing – as you said, a movie about Superman would be great if it followed him trying to prove to everyone that he was all he appeared to be (that he’s sincere and not cynical, not an invader or a conqueror). My dream Superman movie has Luthor making legitimate criticisms of Superman as a concept, claiming he’s outdated and out of touch; his very presence makes us complacent; one of my favourite lines in any Superman comic comes from Mark Millar’s Red Son, when Superman observes that, because of him, people have stopped wearing seatbelts. Basically, Luthor’s deep-seated mistrust of Superman is anchored in the fact that he’s alien and all-powerful, but also (in a union of the two ideas) because belief in him holds us back – from Luthor’s perspective, why would you try to be the best at anythign when Superman is better by default?

      That’s not altruism on Lex’s part, by the way, as much as he may like to believe it is – Lex would, in his own version of events, be the man leading humanity in our boundless quest for knowledge. And Lex is wrong, because by thinking of Superman as some sort of divine power isn’t what he intends at all – he simply is “the light to show us the way”, as it were. Superman is, despite his powers to move planets, at his best when he’s at his most human, showing mercy or compassion or love or optimism. I love that scene in All-Star Superman where – even as he’s dying and has so much to do – Superman still finds time to talk to a suicidal teen on the ledge of a building. “You’re so much stronger than you think you are,” he tells her.

      I honestly think a move which dares to play with (and rebuke) the cynical criticism of the character would do remarkably well.

    • You can obviously tie Superman’s desire to “do the right thing” back to his parents – however I think dwelling on it too much anchors Superman as a very conservative character (coming from Middle America, where conservative pundits would have you believe that the values are so much “stronger” than the big city). I don’t think Superman being Superman is in anyway selfish, like being Spider-Man or Batman is to Peter Parker or Bruce Wayne.

      Here’s where I get controversial. Being Clark Kent is the selfish act (as much as anything is). I’m not arguing that Clark Kent is a phony persona or anything (I think he was raised as Clark), but that it allows Superman to pretend he’s normal when he clearly isn’t. Bill in Kill Bill suggests Kent is a scathing critique of humanity. I’d argue he’s a loving homage. If Clark didn’t have a perfect moral compass and the ability to do good, then he could have that life. Instead, he feels a moral obligation to be Superman. I’d argue that he could easily just be Superman all the time and save god knows how many more lives that way. But he doesn’t – he plays Clark Kent.

      As much as I love Donner’s Superman, the one moment which really got me – and yes, it’s corny – is the moment when his father dies and Clark has to accept that he can’t save everyone. That’s perhaps (with a lot less angst) my ideal Superman dilemma: everytime he goes for a picnic with Lois or has dinner with his parents, somewhere somebody is committing a crime he could stop, so how does he find that zen-like peace – when does he realise that he does all he can? Batman will never find a peace like that, but I think it would be fascinating to see Superman feel comfortable in his own skin.

  2. i thought i was the only one, the only person who cared and thought of Superman as much as the creators and Donner and Reeve. Its nice to hear someone else like you join us and to put this letter so perfectly out there, good going, really nice job, i teared up reading this and i wish that people would all feel this same way as we do about the greatest hero ever.

    By the way i still want and wish Tom Welling to be Superman in the new movie. and may Christopher Reeve Superman live forever for he will allways be the one and only SUPERMAN!

    • Thanks, I’m a big Superman fan, perhaps because optimism and hope are such rare commodities (and, as Justin noted, hard to do right). I’m not convinced of Welling, to be honest.

  3. I hope that the new superman reboot must have the same emotions like the first Superman movie of Chris. Furthermore, the fans love the same costume as what Christopher Reeve wore in his Superman movies. Pure blue and pure red. You can make a little change but please don’t touch the original colors.

    In my opinion, Christopher Reeve has the best Superman Costume in all other superman movies.

  4. I actually really like Synder’s Superman even though the Batman V Superman Movie didnt turn out so well. I’ve been reading some Superman essays and saw some other good opinions on his character if you want to check those out.

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