Does Superman need to change?

Dark? Seb believes that the Man Of Steel is doing just fine the way he is, and offers some more imaginative suggestions for a Superman film...

A good question, Superman...

As a longstanding Superman fan myself, it’s hard for me to entertain the notion that he needs to be changed in order to make him successful – because in my book, he’s fine just as he is, and recent series such as Mark Waid’s Birthright or Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s stunning All-Star Superman show that it’s still possible to tell great stories with him. But it’s clear that, although he endures to this day as an icon, people are simply less interested in the values he espouses and the image he represents – so that even in a world where comic books provide by far the most lucrative source of movie material, a movie about the greatest comic book character of them all simply won’t wash with the general public unless he’s somehow tweaked – he needs to be “dark” like Batman, angst-ridden like Spider-Man, or “cool” like Tony Stark.

But the accusation that he’s old-fashioned has been aimed at his comics for decades, and yet his titles still sell, and his status still endures. My advice to anyone making a Superman movie, therefore, would be not to mould and shape the character towards preconceived notions of what makes a “good” or “exciting” hero – but instead to challenge those very notions. I believe that Superman is a hero that we don’t even really know that we want (as Batman once put it, the last time he really inspired anyone was when he was dead) – and hence I’d suggest taking that attitude and applying it to a narrative.

First of all, make sure you get the right threat/villain. Brainiac would be good, because the other thing that needs to be remembered about Superman is that his stories have to be big, and they have to be quite sci-fi – he’s the Man of Tomorrow, he’s from another planet, and he deals with things that nobody else can. So let’s not think street level, because Batman has that covered – let’s go cosmic. And while we’re looking at the superficial details, on the casting front I have no problem with Brandon Routh as Clark, but this time Parker Posey really needs to be given the job of playing Lois.

So with a technologically advanced alien attacking the planet, we’ve got a genuine threat for him to handle. But let’s have him fail to do so. Another accusation that people level at Superman is that he’s boring, because he’s pretty much indestructible. It leaves filmmakers falling back on endless instances of conveniently-placed Kryptonite, which isn’t actually necessary – Superman draws his power from the sun, like a battery. Pound him into the ground sufficiently while denying him access to the sun’s healing rays, and eventually he’ll go down. It shows the world that he’s not infallible – and instantly makes him a bit more identifiable without falling back on magic bits of rock. And, you know, people have tried to introduce “angst” to Superman before – Bryan Singer made the bizarre misstep of having him turn into a stalker as a result – but really, the one psychological issue of his worth tapping into is his fear that he won’t be able to save everyone.

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Worse than simple defeat, however, we have a new hero on the block – a darker, more violent character – who “takes care” of the problem. Superman is yesterday’s news, the general public don’t think his outdated values and principles can hack it any more. He has to win back the faith of Earth’s population – which, of course, he does, by eventually defeating Brainiac for good (probably in the face of this other hero’s cowardice/failure/duplicity) and showing that – in his world, at least – the true hero always wins out in the end. It’s a metaphor for his “real life” situation: flash-in-the-pan cybernetic gun-toting vigilantes will come and go, much as they did in the ’90s, but we’ll always have Superman. The idea that you have to make him “relevant” is a misnomer – as a vessel for the modern age’s ideas about pure heroism, the continuation of a tradition going back as far as the Knights of the Round Table, Beowulf and Aeneas, he will always have relevance. Unlike Nolan’s Batman, who can “lose” at the end of The Dark Knight because his world reflects present-day paranoia and pessimism, Superman and his themes are more timeless, and they rely on hope and inspiration.

Although if you’re not going to go down that route, then as an entirely left-field suggestion, I’d recommend possibly adapting Kurt Busiek’s wonderful “Secret Identity” story. Set in the “real world”, it’s about an ordinary guy named Clark Kent who has to deal with the obvious jokes for much of his life, until he discovers one day that he actually has super powers. Dressing up in a Superman costume (going by the rationale that no-one will believe someone who says “I was rescued by Superman!”) he becomes a covert superhero on the run from the government – and even marries a girl called Lois. It’s an enchanting tale, and would be a brilliantly metafictional way of “doing” Superman in a contemporary context, touching on all of the above-mentioned themes but in an entirely fresh manner.

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