How to Fix Superman


Some Batman v Superman spoilers!


Ever since the disappointment (to most) of Batman v Superman I have heard lots of talk (oh so much talk…) and one thing I’ve heard repeatedly is ‘Superman is a boring character. You can’t do him right in a modern movie’.  When I first heard this I agreed.  On the surface it seems obvious.  He’s a near-Messianic character (especially in the Snyder movies) who only has one physical vulnerability of kryptonite.  Perfection can be interesting in a way but it is more about the way that perfection is responded to not the character himself.  But the more I thought about it the more I wondered if this was too easy an answer.  If you think about Superman’s enduring appeal over the years there has to be more to him than his similarities to Jesus.  Surely a boring character can not be consistently popular since 1938? So what went wrong and how do we make Superman interesting again?  I have some ideas.

Now I should start by saying I am not a comic book expert but I have consulted a few, and I have seen all of the Superman movies. I know there are different eras in the comics and my friend at @howtolovecomics  helped enlighten me a little bit on the character, but I am mostly going from a movie perspective.

superman returnsSuperman Returns is a flawed film but one thing I noticed on my recent viewing is he isn’t all brawn, and he isn’t all emotion either.  He has to be smart in order to succeed.  For example, in the great plane sequence he can’t just fling the plane around because there are people on board. And he can’t save each person individually because he’s still only one person.  There are also multiple pieces breaking off and crashing at the same time so deciding what to fix where requires some smarts.

According to my friend, Superman was a smarter character in the 60’s comics.  @Howtolovecomics explained “There were a lot of stories in the 60s where Superman had to use his brains to get out of a situation, which I like. He still used his powers, but he had to use them in a way that solved a puzzle.”

batman-v-superman-trailer-096If you think about it this element of Superman’s intellectual abilities is completely missing in both Man of Steel and Batman v Superman. In MofS he is confronted with brute strength and barely eaks out a victory. If anything Zod is actually smarter than Superman with some sound logic to what he is trying to do. Superman has the emotional weight of the film but most of the movie he gets advice from people. He doesn’t figure out much on his own (there’s not much to figure out just be bigger and stronger than your opponent and fight/hide at the right time).

With Batman v Superman, Superman is again completely disengaged intellectually.  Lex, who can challenge Superman in terms of brain power, is solely focused on manipulating Batman into confronting the God-like power of Superman. Nearly every time he is confronted by Lex, Superman is caught off guard. For example,  he doesn’t expect what happens to his Mother or put together anything before the Senate incident.  Basically Superman in these films is a ‘big lug’- a sweet, big guy who is very sincere and strong.  He’s like the Michael Oher or the Wreck-it Ralph of comic books. (In fairness Batman can be very easily manipulated in this world also but he is at least putting pieces together).

I guess this type of character can work but again it is usually because the things around him are interesting or the quest they go on is engaging.  None of that happens to this modern Superman.  He stands around a lot, saves people in montages and we are told contrasting views on how to think about him.  No wonder the character seems boring!

smallvilleOne of the things that made Smallville a good show is there were constantly things that Clark Kent couldn’t control despite his massive powers.  In addition, he was confronted with a smart enemy who challenged him in the best portrayal of Lex Luthor by Michael Rosenbaum.  This is obviously easier to do with a Superman who is growing up and going to high school but not impossible as an adult.  There are plenty of things that Superman can’t control as an adult that if we could see into his mind  would make the character very interesting.

For example, in Batman v Superman we get a scene where he is rescuing a woman at Day of the Dead.  Why did he pick that woman?  Why not the surely hundreds of women in car accidents right there in Gotham/Metropolis?  From what we see there is plenty to keep Batman busy.  We are given no motivation and so we assume it is because Zack Snyder thought a Day of the Dead rescue would look cool.  You see what I am saying?  He’s still only one person and this modern version treats him like he can part the Red Sea and bring down plagues upon the entire world. He must make choices and those choices could be really interesting.

superman2Not only can he not be everywhere and save everyone but he can’t control the choices of other people. He can give speeches at the UN (Superman 4 reference! Oh no!) but in the end he can at best be a symbol that hopefully will motivate a ripple effect of good choices.

Last year I did an Adventures in Reading segment over on my other blog.  This was an attempt to dive into genres of literature that I hadn’t experienced.  I still need to do graphic novels but did comic books and manga.  It was a lot of fun and for the comic book segment I came across a Superman issue entitled DC 507 Adventures of Superman Bloodsport.

bloodsport1In this story a Vietnam vet looses a job to a black man in an affirmative action type situation.  This causes him to become very bitter.  He justifies his hatred by claiming those in the in a poor neighborhood called Hob’s Heights are ‘taking not giving people’.  He only see’s them as welfare drains and addicts and thinks the world would be better if they were done away with.

While this type of villain could become very preachy, in the talented writers hands it could be very interesting.  Hate is completely out of Superman’s control.  The man in the wheelchair could have become this kind of character in Batman v Superman, but he is again used more to manipulate Batman than Superman.  The thing that is interesting with Bloodsport also is that he is a trained army sniper, military veteran who takes over an entire project development- making it harder than you might think to get rid of him.

bloodsport3There is also an emotional heft to the story with a little boy who is murdered at the beginning.  The Mother then turns to alcohol and Superman has to try and help her as well.  Again, could be very saccharine but in the right hands it could also be another thing that Superman can’t control.   You have this loss, grief, and addiction that he can’t make go away with his powers.  There’s something there that could be interesting.

Now I can hear you saying ‘Boy Rachel, your Superman sounds like a real downer.  Isn’t that what you didn’t like in Man of Steel?’.  At least to  me, in Man of Steel there wasn’t a moment of inspiration, a moment of hope- which is what Superman is about in the end.  If he is able to use his powers, intellect and empathy to help make things better would that not be a more rousing hero movie?   I mean that is ‘truth, justice, and the American way’ if I’ve ever heard it!

bloodsport2And you can make it a little bit fun as well.  Throw in some quips and give Lois some moments of witty banter with Superman but the film would feel inspirational, heroic, instead of dark and dismal.

superman3So in summary, if someone asked me to fix Superman I would give him obstacles he can’t control.  Make him use his intelligence, not just his powers, to make decisions and win.  I would present him with a villain like Bloodsport who truly hates for definable reasons. Not just being bad for the sake of being bad.  This throws in more elements he can’t control.  Give him characters he loves who make poor choices like addiction and then show him grappling to help those loved ones.   This makes the character interesting instead of simply a God-like edifice we don’t care about.

What do you think of my idea?  Anything there? How would you make Superman interesting or do you think he is an inherently boring character?

31 thoughts on “How to Fix Superman

  1. I don’t find Superman boring at all. In fact, I would argue that — when written correctly — he is the most interesting of all superheroes. Why? Because he is basically all powerful, yet sacrifices his own happiness in order to improve the lives of others. That is the definition of a hero, no?

    Batman is a vigilante and, depending on perspective, that makes him something of an antihero. He is also vain and self-absorbed. Yes, these are interesting character traits, but they aren’t heroic. Superman could live a life of luxury doing anything he pleases, yet he chooses a different path … again and again and again. In my mind, that’s where the drama is. Snyder gets to that with the ending that you don’t like, but I agree that it could have been better fleshed out. And the plot holes don’t help.

    I agree that Superman is better when written smarter, but I think it’s his unfailing moral code that is far more interesting. Usually, when Superman finds himself in trouble it’s because he lets himself get in trouble, not because he’s stupid but because he wants to believe that others can be as good as he is.

    The thing is, everyone reads movies differently. I, for instance, didn’t think Batman was the least bit manipulated in the new movie. I thought he had an agenda that was pretty clear from the start. Lex Luthor set the stage for a showdown, but I never thought he caused it. That was a foregone conclusion when Superman first confronted Batman, scaring him out of his wits. But, again, Superman allowed Batman to plot against him … not because he was stupid, but because he was hopeful that Batman would be better.

    Of course, we all read movies differently, but that was my takeaway. I don’t think the new movie is about Superman. I think he is a supporting player in a story about Batman losing his compass and finding his way back home.

    1. That’s a really good point about Superman being complex because he has to chose to serve and condescend in a way to the humans. That is kind of the Messianic part of his character in a way. I think if you give him more things that are out of his control the more interesting he becomes but that is a good point.
      You really didn’t think that Lex manipulates Batman allowing him to get those files from his house. And then he sends those letters to Bruce with things like ‘you let your family die’. Fair enough. You are definitely right that people take things different ways and have their own interpretations. I agree it is more of a Batman movie than Superman and think there are things they could do to make a decent Man of Steel 2. He’s definitely not a boring character under the right hands. What do you think of the Bloodsport idea?

      1. I came away from “Batman V Superman” thinking Lex was trying to manipulate Batman, but that it was more like he gave a guy who was already on the edge a little nudge. I think the early conversation between Alfred and Bruce Wayne underscores the main theme. Alfred says something to the effect that Bruce is becoming a monster because he’s lost trust in even the good guys. Bruce disagrees because he’s seen so many good guys go bad.

        Truthfully, I don’t think Lex was very well utilized, but Eisenberg’s portrayal has potential depending on where they go from here.

        I haven’t read the Bloodsport comic but the idea sounds really interesting. I think the stories that put you inside Superman’s head are always the most interesting. But, again, I think that’s because he always sacrifices his own happiness to do what’s right … to the point that he will sometimes beat himself up for making the “wrong” decision.

      2. I can see what you mean. A side of me wants to see it again because it’s hard to grasp everything on one viewing. It will be interesting to see what they do with Lex after this. But that sacrificial element is a great element I hadnt really considered.

      3. I’m seeing it again tomorrow. I’ll be curious to see how much I like it a second time. There are some definite plot holes and inconsistencies that bothered me. And, like you, I think the resolution to the big battle was pretty abrupt and silly. With all that build up, viewers needed more than that.

    2. And isn’t the whole point of blowing up the Senate to manipulate Batman into killing Superman? It’s never discussed again by any other characters and Lex doesn’t seem to get any other benefit from doing it. It seemed to me that Lex did it just to convince Batman that Superman was a serious threat and needed to be taken out. Anyway, that was just the way I saw it but I see what you are saying too that Bruce didn’t like Superman from the start also.

      1. … or to convince mankind that Superman is the enemy. Remember that the Senate was already troubled by Superman’s unchecked power. I think the move seems targeted at Batman because Snyder is moving back and forth between the two heroes. But the real-world impact of the explosion would reach far beyond Batman. To me, it seemed that Lex and Batman had similar motives (defeat Superman because he is too powerful).

      2. I guess that would be more believable if we saw any fallout on the public but you dont really here about it again. But certainly a valid interpretation. I also figured with Lex letting Batman steal the kryptonite that was manipulating him but I guess it’s just different perspectives on the same events. To me it seemed like Batman had been played but I see what you are saying too.

      3. I think either reading is valid. There is no doubt Snyder could have handled it better. I like the movie overall, but it’s far from perfect.

      4. I think particularly Superman could be done better in next one. That’s what got me thinking 🙂

      5. I agree. He’s always been one of my favorites, but there aren’t very many good Superman movies. I love the first Christopher Reeves film. Superman Returns and Man of Steel were OK, but not great.

        I like that you mentioned Smallville. I think the early seasons of that show demonstrate how great the character can be if handled correctly. I also like the show’s reading of Lex, particularly in the first few seasons.

      6. Out of the Superman movies my favorite was Superman 2 but I watched the Donner Cut so maybe that made a difference. Superman: the Movie was great once Reeves’ was on screen. I love Smallville!

  2. Superman has the same “problem” Captain America has (who happens to be my favourite Avenger): He truly is as good and straightforward as he seems to be. And on top of this, there isn’t much he can’t do. Imho there is only one way to deal with a character like this: Surround him with an interesting supporting cast to interact with, so that he is humanized and set up an equally interesting foil who constantly questions his actions, but in a way that he kind of has a point.

    1. Good points. What do you think of this idea of surrounding him with things he cant control and really getting to the bottom of his choices? Seems like that could be interesting. But I see what you mean about the Cap comparison. He’s definitely challenged intellectually in Winter Soldier and asked to make emotional choices too. Interesting stuff.

      1. Well, Cap is mostly used in a political context…the Russo Brothers do two things with him. On the one hand they attach a personal tragedy to him, with him being the “man out of time”. Above all, though, they use him as political commentary. He stands for the ideal of America which was never reached and now he clashes with our cynical society. In this conflict, there is a lot of food for thought. You can do something similar with Superman. Superman can practically do everything he wants. But all of his actions have consequences, too. And he can’t be everywhere at once. Let’s be realistic here, even Superman won’t be able to know in advance that a catastrophe is about to happen. He couldn’t have prevented the planes crashing into the twin towers. But he would have been able to catch the people who jumped off in their fear. Exploring those limitation would be interesting.

  3. This is a really great post. I will admit that I do find Superman a bit boring compared to other superheroes: in most of the adaptations I’ve seen him in, he doesn’t have that much baggage to deal with and he’s so powerful that it’s hard to challenge him except in select ways like kryptonite. Ultimately one of the keys to a good story and a hero that we root for is conflict – giving the hero a challenge that they struggle to overcome and that we want them to overcome – and your ideas on making a good Superman story would certainly do that. The facts that a) he is a good person with a strong moral code and b) he can do an awful lot and yet not everything, can certainly come together to give him emotional conflict without making for a completely depressing story.

  4. Fun post. I actually like Superman and have for a long time. I think when put up against certain other heroes he tends lo look a bit bland but I’m not sure the comparisons are fair especially considering the stark contrasts between some of the many heroes.

    1. Yeah there should be room in the DC cinematic universe for all kinds of heroes. They just have to present him with things he cant control. What do you think of this Bloodsport idea? It will never happen because he’s too obscure but I would be interested in this more realistic hateful villain to take on a hopeful Superman.

      1. That’s intriguing and I’m always interested in something new. You’re right though, it all comes down to how he and his story is presented.

  5. This was a very interesting thoughtful piece. I think you illustrated well why Superman failed in Man of Steel. I think the main problem for Superman films is that Superman is such an inspirational icon – and if you watch the 50s TV show and 70s movie, his adventures were so tongue-in-cheek and upbeat – that the modern generation of superhero films doesn’t really know what to do with him. I don’t know what’s being done with him in the comics, but it’s easy to make Batman work for 21st century movies. Superman is hard to do while still creating a film audiences will take seriously and still portray all of its moral values without being too preachy.

    I think the key might be to take all your ideas about showcasing his intelligence and honor – explore more why he is that way and how important that is – rather than just putting him in situations where he has to kill someone and the best we can get is that he’ll be sad about that.

    1. I know you dont say things like that lightly so I really appreciate it. It’s interesting how easy it can be to accept the easy answer of say “Superman sucks” but when you take the time to dive in there is so much there. It’s so easy to criticize but more enlightening to see how you would do it differently. Anyway I like your using the word honor because I think it would be interesting to dive into that aspect of Superman.

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