Last week while shining a spotlight on Supergirl, I mentioned that the CW show is far and away the best live-action Superman related media since Superman II. It’s not quite as good as the best episodes of animated series from the 1990s, but overall it’s probably more consistent. Compared to what Zack Snyder and David S. Goyer have been giving us, it’s practically a godsend for me. With a handful of texts, they already managed to make their Superman a more likable, interesting character than Henry Cavill’s version. I can’t wait to get to Season 2 and see what they do with him in person.
Between binge-watching Supergirl and taking advantage of Netflix to check Superman: The Movie’s sequels off of my bucket list, I’ve had Clark Kent on my mind quite a bit lately. Last year, I chose Superman to be at the top of my52 Greatest DC Heroes List. As you can imagine, this caused some serious dissent. Since then, I’ve been meaning to do an “In Defense Of” article. While watching all this media, it also sort of became “How Supergirl Makes Good Superman Stories Look Easy”.
So… this is that column. This is…
Building A Better Superman Story
#6. Consistent Limits
One of the most common complaints about Superman is that he is too powerful to be relatable. Personally, I find this to be nonsense; with very few exceptions, any superhero story is going to have the hero win, or at least survive to fight the next time. That said, Superman does have to be in peril, and having a consistent set of rules for what he can and can’t do is important for creating drama. To me, the gold standard for this is Superman: The Animated Series, which consistently depicts Superman with the following vulnerabilities; kryptonite, a red sun, magic, electricity, and needing to breath oxygen. It’s also worth noting that Superman has a wide variety of enemies that can put up a fight; Bizarro, Brainiac, Metallo, Parasite, Mr. Mxyzptlk, and Livewire come to mind immediately. Why nobody has bothered to use Brainiac or Metallo in a movie yet is beyond me.
#5. Feats, Not Battles
One of the many sins that Zack Snyder’s movies commit is a disproportionate emphasis on Superman’s ability to punch people really hard. In Man of Steel, Superman barely spends any time rescuing people, and spends a lot of having Dragonball Z-style fights with General Zod and friends. Superman is a hero. He saves people; this is his primary function. Catching falling planes, holding up falling buildings, etc. Because Superman is practically invincible, having vulnerable civilians to rescue is one of the best ways to create drama. Superman is at his best when he is straining under the effort of a great feat, and then finds the strength inside him to pull it off.
#4. Superman Inspires People
One of Superman’s defining traits is that he brings out the best in other people. Clark’s optimism is meant to inspire people when things are looking down, and to find their own strength to do good in the world. This seems like it would be easy to do, but I see it done wrong so often. Usually it comes down to creative teams that really want to lean into the Jesus metaphor, something that I feel is a mistake 99% of the time. There’s nothing inspiring about Superman: Christ Figure. He’s a superhero, not literally God. To use an example of how to do this right; in Human For A Day Supergirl getting personal and talking down a would-be robber by encouraging him to be a good person. Another example: Justice League: Doom sees Superman talk a journalist out of suicide. These are the human moments that are missing in Man of Steel and its sequel.
#3. People Inspire Superman
Here’s the flip side of this. Clark Kent is not a perfect beacon of inspiration. He gets beat down by the futility of the human condition. He loses his way from time to time. In those moments, he needs people that remind him of what he believes in and why he fights to protect them. It’s a symbiotic relationship. Perhaps nowhere is this more important than in Clark’s relationship with Lois Lane. Lois is a character that dives headfirst into any situation, no matter how dangerous, because she has news to discover and report on. And she would do it even if Superman wasn’t there to save her. She is the kind of person Clark wants to be, and she’s always pushing him to be better than he is. Having characters to bounce off of allows Clark to be less perfect, and thus more interesting. The real human drama is always going to connect with people. It’s why the Supergirl show is as enjoyable as it is, and it would help Superman too. He needs Lois, he needs Perry White and Jimmy Olsen, and I’ll even go so far as to say he needs Supergirl and the Kents. They all help make him a more interesting person.
#2. Challenge His Morality
Superman cannot do everything. He can’t be everywhere at once. Not everything has a straightforward solution. Lex Luthor won’t be convicted of every crime. He may have to make a choice between saving one or one hundred. Forcing a moral dilemma on Clark and making him deal with the repercussions is the easiest way to introduce drama into a story without compromising his power. Look no further than 1978’s Superman for a great example of this. Weird time travel aside, the moment when Clark realizes he didn’t have time to save Lois is heart wrenching.
#1. More Human Than Alien
A lot of this column has been building to this one point. Something I absolutely hate about recent Superman comics, movies, and media in general is the emphasis on his alienness. While Krypton and its lore has always been a part of Superman comics, Clark Kent is not a Kryptonian at heart. He was raised in Kansas by human parents and taught human values. When we focus on Clark as an alien, we distance ourselves from him and say “We can’t be that perfect.” One; Clark isn’t perfect. While he always ultimately makes the right choice, he has his own selfish desires. He gets sad, he gets angry, he feels loss. Two; being more like Superman is, in fact, an achievable goal. The notion that humans can’t be good at the core of their being is just nonsense to me. That’s what Clark represents; the human ideal.
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Check me out here to see my star ratings for almost 690 films. I have reviewed every movie I’ve watched since last August, and recent additions include some real doozies: Alice Through The Looking Glass and Superman IV: The Quest For Peace. If you’d rather read about a good movie, I also recently watched Before Sunrise.
Check Out From Under A Rock!
Michael Ornelas and I write weekly on 411, taking turns introducing each other to films the other hasn’t seen. Last week, I introduced Michael to The Big Lebowski. This week, he returns the favor with another 1990’s comedy; Bulworth.