Between the blue tights, the red cape, the big S, the curl of black hair, “IT’S A BIRD! IT’S A PLANE! NO, IT’S SUPERMAN!!!” (why was anyone so excited about seeing a bird or a plane, I never understood), Superman has existed as part of the zeitgeist of our nation for over half a century. For most of that time, especially in the Cold War aftermath of World War 2, he existed as a symbol of “Truth, Justice, and the American way”, a morally simplistic hero to inspire.
He is not only one of the most widely known characters in modern fiction, but Superman is a staple of our pop culture. There are over 50 pop songs featuring a reference to Superman. There have been over a dozen animated and live-action series for the big and small screen. When Christopher Reeves first donned the spandex, the film “Superman: The Movie” became the sixth-highest grossing film of all time after its release and still lives on as one of the greatest super hero films. And, of course, Superman existed ongoing in the comic book world, published by DC Comics in such series as “Action Comics”, “Superman”, “The Adventures of Superman”, “Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen”, etc…
However, in the latter third of the 20th Century, comic books reflected a distrust of the overly simplified nature of Superman’s ideals. Stories such as “Watchmen” and “Dark Knight Returns” showed a dismantling of the entire super hero genre. Frank Miller’s “Dark Knight Returns” notably changed the idea of Superman, turning him into a soldier, nothing more than a deadly nuclear deterrent to point and shoot at the Soviets.
The 1980’s also saw the reboot of Superman’s origin and a more down to earth take on the character, especially at the hands of John Byrne. The new Superman was still the champion of justice, but more effort was put into making his story realistic and less pulp such as updating the mad scientist known as Lex Luthor by making him a more credible threat, a powerful businessman and political figure.
However, even with the changes made to Superman’s character, making him more palpable to fans, updating his costume subtly, nothing changes the fact that there is a large consensus of Superman “haters” amongst comic book fans and the general public. For some time, Batman has grown to surpass Superman’s fandom and this has, at least doubled with the popularity of the Christopher Nolan “Dark Knight” trilogy. While Batman was brought to life with one of the best super hero film series of all time, Superman got a mediocre, formulaic TV show in which Clark Kent never wore his cape, and a movie, “Superman Returns” which (although I enjoyed) reveled, perhaps languished, in the irrelevant 1970’s version of Superman.
After “The Dark Knight” there is no question that everything in comics and movies has tried to emulate the “darkness” and realism which makes that film such a success. And this applied to Superman, as well. In fact, over at Warner Bros., they have so little faith in creating a Superman movie that can match “Dark Knight” that they simply offered Christopher Nolan a truck-full of cash so that he would produce the upcoming “Man of Steel” (notice how they didn’t put Superman in the title, “It worked for Dark Knight, we should do that again!” says some executive at Warner’s) and hope that they might catch lightning in a bottle again.
My best friend, Bob Keenan, was a Superman fan for his entire life. He read all the comics, loved all the movies (well, not Superman 3, no one likes Superman 3), watched “Lois & Clark” even when it was at its worst and, like an addict who couldn’t help himself, even kept up with “Smallville” up until the “Stride Gum” episode (if you’ve seen it, you know it), which was enough to get him to kick the habit. Recently, Bob told me that he took down the Superman plushy from his rear-view-mirror. He had come to the realization that he was no longer a fan of Superman. He didn’t collect any comics anymore, hadn’t liked “Smallville,” and wasn’t looking forward to the newest film incarnation. In fact his recent email to me described the teaser trailer as “boring and dreary” and that “Every new bit of information I get on this film continues to disappoint me. Hopefully, I’ll be proven wrong.” It is sad that Superman has been disfigured to a lame “dreary” version of his former self and that no one seems to want to enjoy Superman as is.
Here’s what I’m here to say. There is nothing wrong with Superman. He is no less a great character than Batman. He can be utilized into fantastic stories and tales and be a well developed three-dimensional hero that can still symbolize everything we believe in, including subtle nuances of right and wrong.
Can I live without the red underwear? Sure. I, personally, never really minded it. However, it seems no more silly than having a yellow belt or big red boots. I’m simply not a fan of the motive for taking away the underwear. It is symbolic of the mistaken idea that if you make Superman more like Batman, then all of a sudden, people will like him more. Next thing you know, Superman will be wearing body armor.
Note: It is impossible to defend Superman without comparing him to Batman. They are two sides of a coin, a man who always does the right thing versus a man who always does what is necessary. Just like Conservatives and Liberals, I believe that the world needs both types of people to balance society.
The biggest complaint about Superman is that he is not relatable because while Batman is a regular guy, Superman is a god. It is true that Superman is almost unstoppable and he is an alien and can basically do whatever he wants. However, while Superman may be this force of nature, Clark Kent is a likeable, regular guy. He grew up in Kansas on a middle-class farm. He went to high school, played football, had girlfriends, and probably fought with his parents. If you were to meet Clark Kent, you’d think he was a nice guy who you’d like to invite over for dinner. Bruce Wayne, on the other hand, was born a billionaire, witnessed the murder of his parents and spent his entire life training to become a ruthless vigilante. If you met him as his “fake” version of Bruce Wayne, you’d think he was a rich a**hole and if you met him as his real self, you’d probably still not like him as he is basically a friendless, humorless, sociopath who regularly endangers the lives of children.
As far as Superman being a god, yes, he basically is. He doesn’t have to physically struggle a whole lot. He can carry the Eiffel tower on his back and fly into volcanoes. Without kryptonite around it is almost impossible to stop him. But that, in essence IS Superman’s biggest problem. If Superman wanted, he could stop injustice all over the world, save millions of lives and end war. It’s simple, he could kill every super villain like Lex Luthor and take over the world and force everyone to live by his rules. He could become the benevolent dictator which history has taught us doesn’t really exist. But he doesn’t do that. The struggle of Superman is to follow the rules.
Any character, no matter how silly, can be the star of a great story. Superman’s problem is not his underwear or his super powers, or lack of credible disguise, it is bad storytelling. “Smallville” could have been such a great show if it had been written well (and maybe had some better actors involved). And I’m pretty sure that putting him in the cape would not have made the show any worse or better. The fact is that if you made a great story with fantastic visual effects showcasing a spectacle of action and romance that just happened to star an old-fashioned character, people would STILL enjoy it, even the “haters.”
I hope that “Man of Steel” finds the happy medium between the noble, old-fashioned heroism of Christopher Reeve’s films mixed with a modern sensibility. I have always loved Superman as a character that represents so much to so many people; hope, liberty, heroism, the desire to do what is right and the ability to do it. I hope that I will always love Superman but to be honest I hope even more that Bob learns to love Superman again.
Oh, and by the way, the plushy hanging up in my car is Batman.