Give The World a Hopeful Superman

Up, up and away in spirit and in body.

Compare and contrast the following two images:

First, we have Henry Cavill in a still from 2013’s Man of Steel.

man of steel pic

Second, we have Tyler Hoechlin and Elizabeth Tulloch in a promotional image from the newly-announced “Superman and Lois” TV show.

superman and lois pic

Can you spot the difference?

I’ll give you a hint: It involves hope.

A couple months ago Variety published an extensive profile of the future of DC Films, the division of Warner Bros. setup to manage and produce movies based on characters originating in the pages of DC Comics. That feature included updates on projects involving Batman, Wonder Woman, Harley Quinn, Green Lantern and others, all of which are apparently being viewed with renewed optimism given the success of other recent films like Aquaman, Shazam and Joker.

[Standard disclosure: I managed the social media marketing program for DC Entertainment from July, 2011 to December, 2015, including promoting the movies, shows, games and other media that came out in that period. Nothing that’s come out since then has featured my involvement.]

Part of that profile was devoted to Superman, the original super hero but one which the studio doesn’t currently have concrete plans for, at least on the big screen. Cavill’s future portraying the character is subsequently uncertain and he’s made a handful of vague comments about what he knows of the situation.

Meanwhile, Hoechlin’s take on Superman has graduated from a one-off appearance on “Supergirl” to more frequent guest spots and now his own headlining series. And Brandon Routh, who starred in 2006’s Superman Returns, donned the tights and cape again as an older version of Superman (based on the character’s appearance in the “Kingdom Come” comics series) for The CW’s “Crisis on Infinite Earths” crossover event.

The Variety story reveals that part of the studio’s position on Superman is that it’s yet to find a filmmaker who can adequately make the hero “relevant to modern audiences.”

I’m by no stretch of the imagination the first or only person to say this, but the last thing we need right now is a Superman that’s “relevant.”

That seemed to be exactly the approach taken with Man of Steel and in the subsequent movies – Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League – with Cavill’s Superman. MoS in particular wanted so much to make the character relatable by giving him a bullying problem at school, making it clear he was an outsider among the other kids, having him bear the responsibility for his father dying and more. Director Zack Snyder went overboard with the Christ metaphors and daddy issues.

More broadly, the movie didn’t seem to like Superman very much. The story did everything it could to make him feel bad about himself and have others feel the same. Indeed the dislike of Superman is what fueled Batman’s quest to bring him down in BvS. Then, to prove what a shoddy storyteller Snyder truly is, JL had Batman seeking to bring him back from the dead for no earned reason but just because the plot needed for that to happen.

Even the title Man of Steel shows a desire by the filmmakers and studio to put some distance between themselves and the “Superman” brand, something that was especially odd given the movie came out in the midst of DC’s celebration of the character’s 75th anniversary. That desire seemed to become even more apparent when the planned sequel morphed into BvS, which ended with him dying, and then his almost complete absence from JL.

For the last seven years we’ve had (off and on) a theatrical Superman that has striven to be relevant. What the world needs isn’t a Superman that’s relatable but one that’s hopeful and inspirational.

It’s that Superman that’s been on display on TV and in many of the comics over the years, especially those from writers like Geoff Johns, Dan Jurgens, Greg Pak and others. It’s that Superman that was on the big screen in Richard Donner’s movies starring Christopher Reeve.

Yes, he can be serious. Yes, he can go through some tough times. Yes, he can make mistakes and struggle with doubting himself. But in the end, the best Superman stories are those where he’s held up as a shining example of the best humanity can be. He inspires people to rise to his level and feels that, as an immigrant with god-like powers, it’s his responsibility to protect those who can’t protect themselves.

If WB wants to make Superman work in theaters in the 21st century, it should make us believe a man can fly again, not make us feel anguish over all the tough decisions he has to make about whether to save a city full of people or not. Anyone with any knowledge of Superman knows that’s a decision he would never hesitate to make, and it’s that Superman we need to see again.

christopher reeve superman gif

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