5 Easy Ways To Make Superman Relevant Again
Recently, Variety reported that DC Films is having trouble figuring out how to make Superman relevant to modern audiences. This brings to mind the immortal words of Marvel Comics head honcho Joe Quesada, who in 2002 eloquently said:
That article sent the nerdiest part of the internet into a long debate about whether there's a way to make Superman "work" today. Well, I know a little bit about the character, and it's my professional opinion that no, there isn't a way to do that. There are shitloads of ways. And despite the fact that Warner Bros. isn't paying me millions of dollars (yet), I'm going to go ahead and volunteer a few. Take notes, DC.
Play Up The Fact That He's A Journalist ... For Better Or For Worse
I'm not the first or the 500th to point this out, but Superman's origin story reads like a Mad Libs filled out with topical 2019 stuff. He's a refugee orphaned by a natural global catastrophe who comes to America illegally and becomes an embattled journalist trying to take down a corrupt rich egomaniac. If Superman didn't already exist, someone would have invented him this year.
Remember how Captain America: The Winter Soldier was basically a political thriller starring jacked people in colorful costumes? A Superman movie could do the same with the investigative thriller genre. In previous movies, The Daily Planet is pretty much a plot device to get Superman to hear about earthquakes before undressing in the broom closet and flying off. But in the comics, there are plenty of examples of Clark Kent taking down villains through reporting work instead of just punching them. Or, you know, before punching them. That part's important. He's still Superman, come on.
Of course, any movie about journalism made today has to acknowledge the dark side (Darkseid?) of the profession: the fake news, the manipulation, the infuriating auto-play ads, etc. That's where Morgan Edge, one of Superman's most neglected villains, comes in. Edge is the owner of a major TV network (and at one point, The Daily Planet) who moonlights as the leader of Intergang, a criminal organization created by evil space gods to destabilize Earth. While investigating Intergang, Clark Kent could stumble upon the Edge connection, realize the role the media has played in a sinister space plot, and question his professional calling. Spacegoddamn, I can taste that Oscar already.
And speaking of wacky space stuff ...
Give Us A Completely Bonkers Superman Space Opera, You Cowards
A common (bullshit) complaint about Superman is that he's too powerful, so there's nothing you can do with him. But the solution is obvious: Simply put him in a context where everyone is stupid powerful and he's just a regular chump. In fact, there's already a good example of a Superman movie that takes this approach. It's called Thor: Ragnarok.
See, Ragnarok bears a striking resemblance to Superman's "Exile In Space" saga, in which he ends up in deep space, gets kidnapped by aliens, loses most of his powers, is forced to compete in an intergalactic gladiator arena, and eventually takes down the crazy space despot ruling that place. Oh, and he has a sweet beard. That's essential to the plot.
Marvel may have beat DC to this particular story, but the Superman comics are full of crazy concepts like that. It's no coincidence that Ragnarok draws heavily from the work of Jack Kirby, the artist famous (but not famous enough) for creating half the Marvel Universe in the '60s. After ditching Marvel in the early '70s, Kirby went to DC and was offered any series he wanted. He picked the lowest-selling comic, Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen, and proceeded to go absolutely nuts on it, creating an entire mythology featuring deranged genetic experiments, a group of mega-smart hippies who live in a motorized mountain, and the aforementioned space gods.
All that stuff is fun, and movies like Ragnarok and Guardians Of The Galaxy have proven that *gasp* people like it when superhero movies are fun. But there's also a ton of dramatic potential. One of the greatest Superman stories ever told is Kirby's Forever People #1, in which Superman sees a portal to the space gods' super-city and, for a brief moment, allows himself to fantasize about living among equals for the first time in his life. He wants to be a "regular chump," it turns out. At the last second, he remembers his responsibility to the people of Earth and stops himself, but there's more pathos in Kirby's rendering of Superman's anguished posture than anything Zack Snyder has ever shot.
The technology finally exists to do these stories justice on the big screen. All that's missing is filmmakers brave enough to embrace that cosmic insanity. Or you could go in the exact opposite direction ...
Go Back To The Origins: Angry Young Superman Punching Social Injustice
The other solution to the "Superman's too powerful" problem is also in the comics -- the way, way older comics. The ones where Superman was a (relatively) regular dude who went around tossing cars, beating up street-level criminals, and, uh, smashing the occasional neighborhood to the ground.
Superman's earliest stories centered on whatever pissed off his creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two Jewish kids from humble immigrant families who came of age during the Great Depression. The first Superman villains ever weren't telepathic gorillas or mad scientists trying to shrink entire planets; they were wife-punching misogynists, greedy businessmen, lying politicians, and of course, fucking Nazis. Don't know why, but something tells me this sort of thing could once again strike a chord with audiences today.
Back then, Superman was just powerful enough to beat the societal problems Siegel and Shuster were raging against. Maybe that's as powerful as Movie Superman needs to be. Give him super senses to see the dirty secrets of the corrupt establishment, inhuman strength to force them out into the open, and bullet immunity to get away with it.
Superman had evolved into more of a sci-fi character by the time the first cinematic adaptations came out, so we never got to see a live-action version of Siegel and Shuster's cathartic anti-establishment fantasy. When you think about it, it's nuts that the freaking Joker got a film in which he inspires an uprising before Superman did. A movie or show about Superman as an unstoppable, intimidation-proof activist could fuel the character for another 80 years. Or it could flop horribly. In which case you could try ...
Show Us Superman's Small Acts Of Kindness, Dammit (The Other 90% Of His Life)
Then again, any discussion about what powers Superman should or shouldn't have is ultimately pointless, because they're not that important in the end. A guy who can fly and see through walls and uses that to spy on teenagers in the toilet isn't Superman. No, Superman is defined by what he does with his powers, whatever they are. And that's help as many people as (super)humanly possible, whoever they are.
This is an aspect of the character his latest movies don't show enough, or straight up ignore. They show him preventing big disasters, which is good, but not the dozens of smaller, personality-revealing acts of kindness that would fill his days. Here's a good Twitter thread about it by former Cracked writer / current famous YouTube person Karl Smallwood:
I'm not saying they should do a whole movie of Superman helping old ladies cross the street, but it would be a nice change of pace if this central part of his personality also played more of a role in one of his films. Again, there are all types of examples of this in the comics, from "The Amazing Story Of Superman-Red And Superman-Blue" (Superman splits himself in two to get more shit done), to the acclaimed All-Star Superman (Superman is dying and must accomplish 12 labors before he croaks), to the many stories where he loses his powers and still manages to be all Superman-like, even if it kills him.
Exploring Superman's almost pathological compulsion to help humanity also provides a good excuse to dig a little deeper into his relationship with Lois Lane. In most of the movies, Superman appears to fall for Lois because, well, she's there. It was her or Perry White. But there's more to it than that. When Clark Kent meets Lois in the 1977 movie, she's rude, distrustful, professionally jealous, and judging from her spelling, appears to have serious learning disabilities.
We later learn that she smokes, so she's also self-destructive. In short, she's human. She's everything Superman is not and can never be, and he can't help loving her, just as he can't help loving humanity in general a little too intensely. Except he doesn't eventually marry and impregnate humanity in general, I don't think. I'd have to check the DC Wiki. Point is, Superman's impulse to save humanity at all costs seems particularly worth exploring at a time when humanity seems intent on doing the opposite.
Now, if you work at DC Films, you're probably thinking "How do I decide which of these brilliant takes on the character to plagiarize?" Easy ...
Just Do All Of The Above
Superman is complex enough, and strong enough in the public consciousness, to withstand multiple interpretations, even within the same continuity. Or within multiple continuities, but the same movie. Into The Spider-Verse showed us that the concept of parallel realities won't make the entire audience's heads automatically explode, as science once feared. Give us a movie where various different versions of Superman team up to investigate intergalactic injustice while constantly stopping to save kittens from trees. And make it in stop-motion or something so people don't say you're ripping off Spider-Verse. Why do I have to think of everything here? Sheesh.
For more, check out Why Superman Will Never Be Cool:
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