men in tights

Superman Doesn’t Have to Be Dull

HENRY CAVILL as Superman in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “MAN OF STEEL,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
Man of Steel. Photo: Clay Enos/Warner Bros

Comic-book movies are packed with CGI flash and make a bazillion dollars at the box office, but let’s face it: compared to the low-brow pulp insanity from which they sprung, these films make up a middlebrow, predictable genre. Some may be done with more flair and wit than others (The Avengers), but they all follow the same, increasingly tiresome template: origin, self-doubt, epic battle with super-villain, sequels, reboot. And now, six weeks after Iron Man 3 and six weeks before The Wolverine, we get Man of Steel, another take on the most iconic hero, one reflexively deemed “dull” by many who like their tights-wearer edgier, and the movie is about as novel as a pair of blue-and-red socks. (New York magazine film critic David Edelstein wrote that though the film “isn’t dead on arrival … it’s pleasure-free.)

This is a shame, because Superman is awesome.

As a child, I gravitated toward Batman, the millionaire without superpowers who became the Dark Knight Detective, and Spider-Man, the Hero Who Could Be You, with your aunt in Queens and lousy job as a freelance photographer. But as I got older, my thoughts on Big Blue changed. Indeed, far closer to 40 than not, I submit that Superman is not only not the most boring superhero around, he is, after 75 years, still the most interesting, the most versatile. So it feels like a waste of perfectly good pixels that his new movie, Man of Steel, is yet another retelling of the same basic beats, folding in an old villain (General Zod) and flashbacks to his lonely youth with a Hallmark-wisdom farm family.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Like Jesus and Hercules and anyone from another planet who can write a note on the moon with his eye beams, Superman is only boring when we make him boring.

The character’s corporate origin is well known. An entire industry has been built on it: DC Comics bought the character Superman from creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster for $130 in 1938. Superman has been a work-for-hire enterprise ever since and, between comics and books and movies radio shows and TV series, hundreds of writers and artists have worked on his mythos over the years, with DC tweaking the character every fifteen or twenty years.

In his nascency, Superman was an immigrant made good, a two-fisted New Dealer smacking around union busters and Nazis and Mr. Mxyzptlk. In the fifties and sixties, his adventures became often cosmic and usually batshit insane, with bottled cities and lion heads and Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen getting powers just because it was Tuesday or something. As overseen by famously unpleasant editor Mort Weisinger, the adventures of Silver Age Superman followed a dream logic that packed galaxy-spanning stories into twelve pages. They were plotted like a little kid talks: “And then … and then …. and then.”

In the seventies, he became something of a self-questioning demigod, an “invincible Space Jesus” as some have called him. One-time Superman writer Elliot S. Maggin (who tends towards the Space Jesus reading) introduced such psychedelic lunacy as Miracle Monday, a holiday in the future where the universe celebrates the hero’s very existence. (Frankly, the only thing preventing Superman from being an actual myth is the fact that myths aren’t subject to copyright.)

In 1986, John Byrne rebooted him to look like a linebacker in a sitcom and powered him down a bit. In the nineties, he died, sported a mullet, and turned into blue lightning for a while. All I know about the newest version is that he no longer wears his underwear on the outside of his pants, has only been around for five years, and sports a Nehru collar on his outfit.

There are countless ways to write him. If he’s boring, it’s because writers aren’t doing their job. Instead of breaking new, weird ground, Man of Steel makes some superficial tweaks to a standard Superman story: There’s no real Jimmy Olsen, Perry White is a graver editor, young Clark Kent is terrified by his evolving powers. And one could sub in any number of overpowered heroes (Thor, Hulk, etc.) in the final throwdown with Zod. It is destruction by numbers.

Come on, Hollywood, this is a guy who can do anything; let him do anything. Superman is pure potential energy. Make the adventures universe-spanning! Make them mythic and huge and span centuries! To me, he is most fun when he isn’t dealing with stuff that, say, the Avengers could knock off in an afternoon. He should be singing a special note to stop an intergalactic dictator named Darksied from enslaving the universe, as seen in the admittedly self-conscious-but-bonkers 2008–2009 series “Final Crisis.”

On the other pole, one of the most effective recent readings of the character was the first few seasons of the TV show Smallville, which focused on Clark Kent dealing with high school and being a young god. Man of Steel cursorily touches on Clark’s unpleasant youth scaring classmates with life-saving power fluxes and his father insisting that he turn the other cheek, but Smallville was television, which is episodic like a comic book and therefore able to devote whole seasons to exploring Clark’s pre-tights growth. (This sort of thing worked almost too well; one of the more depressing developments in superhero comics since the massive success of the first Spider-Man movie in 2003 is the extent to which too many comics now have the same story beats and ping-pong quips as Sorkin-style TV.)

As for Superman’s allegedly stodgy moral code, well, imagine how terrifying Superman could be if he weren’t a nice guy. If he brooded. Imagine God sulking and floating above the United States, looking at our petty bickering and our brutal economic inequities and wondering why he shouldn’t just pass judgment on the whole planet with his heat vision and start over with the microbes. In 1996, DC published an end-times-ish story called Kingdom Come, written by often-brilliant superhero scribe Mark Waid and Alex Ross and illustrated by Ross, whose Rockwell-ish realism has its own cult. In the story, Superman has long since retreated to the Fortress of Solitude, unwilling to make ethical compromises, unwilling to kill his enemies. Time has passed him by. Without his moral vision, superhumans run roughshod over humanity. After a complicated, appropriately epic story, Superman is colossally pissed. Scores have died. He has had it with humanity and goes to the U.N. to lay waste to the leaders of the world. A minister named Norman McCay, humanity’s POV in this story, suggests to Superman that his greatest power is his instinctive knowledge of right and wrong. Superman ponders this, considers his legacy and the weight of moral leadership, and spares us.

Here’s another good one: Garth Ennis, a Scottish writer best known for the terrific Vertigo series Preacher and the staggeringly cynical, violent, and brilliant superhero satire The Boys, also wrote one of the very best Superman stories of the past decade in a two-issue arc called “JLA/Hitman.” Near the end Superman is flying into the upper atmosphere and his thoughts deserve a long quote:

Daydreaming. Night-dreaming now, on the darkside long before I know it. I shrug myself awake, go hypersonic over The Aleutians. Go up.

Up here, where the air is razor-thin. Where men believe themselves invisible. I take a last, sharp, frozen breath — and hold it.

The seas are sapphires, the fields & forests emeralds. The Himalayas gleam like diamonds. The strange blue world to which my father sent me.

If you knew how you are loved, not one of you would raise a hand in rage again.           

It is right on that line. It is just this side of corny. It is pure Space Jesus.

I understand that this sort of unblinking earnestness is hard to script and harder to act, that this stuff works far better in four colors than on the big screen. And I understand that it is much easier to swallow a character who has everyday problems, who can’t make the rent, whose indestructible skeleton has knives that come out of his knuckles, and also he is a ninja.

But don’t tell me it’s boring. Don’t tell me that a spit-curled demi-god near-immortal who can hear snails move across leaves and fly into a sun is a snooze. Don’t tell me that a hero who is designed to embody our smartest, kindest, best, most ethical selves and punch a bad guy across a state is dull.

Look, we know the guy’s origin cold; God knows we don’t need it again. And tentpole filmmaking has been selling us the idea that CGI really can make anything we can dream up resonate on the screen, that movies have finally caught up to the dream logic of those Silver Age comics stories. Stop retreading. Stop thinking small and morally compromised. Let Superman be Superman.

Joe Gross writes about books, movies and popular culture for the Austin-American Statesman

Superman Doesn’t Have to Be Dull