The twenty-first century is home to a world that is perhaps a little darker and more complicated than the century that came before it, and our heroes should reflect that.
Or at least, that is the message that some people like to spew to justify a darker, more violent and morally ambiguous Superman. Some portion of our world has become convinced that the Superman who appeared on screen in 1978 just isn’t enough, and that The Man of Tomorrow should be just as grim and uncertain as we all feel the world has become. A simple, righteously smiling Man of Steel just isn’t compelling anymore.
Well, I’m sorry, but today I’m here to disagree. We don’t need a forbidding, morally ambiguous Superman wreaking havoc, nor do we need a Superman who is aware of his immense power.
I think I’m going to focus my argument by citing what I consider to be the best collection of Superman stories in the last twenty years.
From 2005 to 2008, a special out-of-continuity series was commissioned by DC. It was written by the great Grant Morrison (JLA, Batman Incorporated, New X-Men) and drawn by the exquisite Frank Quitely (New X-Men, Batman and Robin, The Authority). This series was called All Star Superman. It was meant to be a Superman tale without the constraints of continuity, and one that would “strip down the Man of Steel to his timeless, essential elements.”
Apparently the original inspiration for the series came from when Morrison was at a ComiCon and saw someone dressed as Superman who wasn’t posed impressively or flexing. He wasn’t menacing or snarling like the cinematic Superman of the last few years.
In this interview with Newsarama, Morrison describes how “He was perched with one knee drawn up, chin resting on his arms. He looked totally relaxed… and I suddenly realized this was how Superman would sit. He wouldn’t puff out his chest or posture heroically, he would be totally chilled. If nothing can hurt you, you can afford to be cool. A man like Superman would never have to tense against the cold; never have to flinch in the face of a blow. He would be completely laid back, un-tense. With this image of Superman relaxing on a cloud looking out for us all in my head, I rushed back to my hotel room and filled dozens of pages of my notebook with notes and drawings.”
That is what Quitely’s first cover of the series shows: a Superman sitting in the clouds, smiling serenely. It is a Superman at peace with the world. Compare this image of a breathtakingly colourful and unthreatening hero with the tiniest of smiles playing about his lips, to the character’s most recent movie posters: grim and colorless, snarling and aggressive like someone is shouting “Henry, anthropomorphize threatening masculinity!” from behind the camera.
It shows a basic insecurity about the character being portrayed.
This kind of gentle, almost alien kindness is what makes Superman so fascinating all throughout Morrison and Quitely’s book. We have plenty of dark, brooding protagonists, and sure they are interesting, but let’s be honest—they are also a dime-a-dozen. In a world that Superman has to share with Batman (a.k.a. the king of brooding), does making Superman’s disposition as dark and conflicted really do anything to make his character stand out? I think a much better way of showing just how different Superman is from Batman, and indeed from any other hero, is to really show that smiling, almost alien innocence Quitely captured on his cover.
Another problem people often have with the man in red and blue is that being invincible makes him boring in a fight. Perhaps this is why Lex Luther is so often his greatest foe. Lex is human, and Superman, being the hero that he is, can’t simply punch his way through him. But that still doesn’t solve the problem that the only way to inject tension into a Superman battle is either with another Superman (Zod) or by hitting him with kryptonite, which is also incredibly boring.
I’m realizing as I type this that movie studios seem to be terrified of letting Superman battle anyone other than Lex Luther or General Zod, and I could probably spend the rest of this post just babbling about how cool Brainiac would be in a movie, but I won’t.
Zach Snyder and many other people’s solution to this problem is to make his fights bigger, to make Supes knock down cities while battling a god to the death. I understand the argument that Superman had to kill Zod at the end of Man of Steel, but I also point out that it was the writer’s decision to engineer that situation. I would instead argue that a good Superman story is one where violence and murder would never become the only choice.
In fact, I would argue that the best Superman story is one that doesn’t come to blows at all.
Yes, I can hear how shocked and indignant you are. “A superhero without a battle? Boooo!” But you know, with Superman being the most powerful person in the world, what’s the point? I think Superman is a far more compelling character when he is just simply, honestly trying to do the decent thing.
Think back to the original Christopher Donner movie in 1978, which is the most enduring image of Clark Kent/Superman, and you’ll realize that there is actually very little violence in that movie. It is this huge blockbuster film that has stood the test of time, and it’s all about Superman saving people. He barely throws a punch the whole time. He catches a helicopter, derails a nuke, time travels, and hilariously kicks a football out of the stratosphere, but there is barely any violence. That’s because the character sitting in the clouds in All-Star Superman with that easy smile on his lips doesn’t need to be violent.
Speaking of the comic from which I seem to be pulling my whole argument, I think it’s important to share the most important page from within its story.
A teenage girl, with tears on her face, is standing on the edge of a high roof. She’s working up the courage to jump.
Then, behind her, the panel is filled with that familiar mix of blue, red, and yellow. “Your doctor really did get held up again, Regan” he says, and you can see the surprise on the girl’s face to suddenly not be alone. “It’s never as bad as it seems. You’re much stronger than you think you are. Trust me.”
And he hugs her.
That, I think, is the Superman that we need right now, more than ever. We don’t need an angry, grim goliath of strength knocking over cities or being forced to kill the villain. We don’t need a boy scout trying to out-grimace Batman.
We have other heroes to be our violent protectors, to be grim and complicated and scary.
But that’s not my Superman. That’s not the character dreamed up by two Jewish-American immigrants who were just wishing for a saviour in the form of a decent person. Superman doesn’t need to evolve to adapt to darker times. He was born out of the imagination of two young men terrified of the rise of the Nazi regime. What is darker than that?
Superman doesn’t work as a dark, complicated character, because that isn’t the point of him.
My Superman is the one sitting up in the clouds with a smile. My Superman is Christopher Reeves telling Lois Lane she shouldn’t smoke.
My Superman is the one who stops a teenage suicide, and holds us all tight. When Superman says “Trust me,” that girl on the rooftop believes him. Because who should we trust more than Superman?
-Contributed by Ben Ghan