Some Thoughts on Superman

It’s been a while since I had a big, long, over-the-top rant about comics, so… For anyone who’s not up to date with the latest entertainment news, Zach Snyder is rebooting the Superman movie franchise. This is a good thing – I liked Brandon Routh in Superman Returns, but looking back it was something of a missed opportunity, being too much in love with the Christopher Reeve movies than the character’s mythos as a whole.

Because as a pop culture icon, Superman needs to get his mojo back. I don’t think that’s fundamentally the fault of the character (there should always be a market for the boyscout-type heroes), but the response to Superman by the people in charge of creating his adventures is sometimes… Well, odd.

DC Comics are the worst offenders here. We’re in a strange situation where Superman is hardly in Superman comics. Last year the character was taken out of his own titles and put into a miniseries which divorced him from Earth and his supporting cast, which lead to a weird set-up where Lois Lane’s sister and presumed-dead dad were big bads, where two supporting characters (including franchise mainstay Jimmy Olsen) were violently taken down with no clear information as to whether they survived or not… And where it looked as though the biggest, most compassionate hero DC has got didn’t really give a damn about any of that. People say that Superman can be something of a one-dimensional character, but that’s always going to be the case when opportunities for character development are squandered.

Anyway, now Superman is only in one of his two main titles – he’s stuck halfway through a storyline that should have been abandoned when a big name writer quit, so now we’re enjoying watching him have a crisis of confidence as he walks across the US and meets ordinary Americans. And it’s not that this is necessarily a bad idea, more that it feels like this is less about Superman and more about views of what America should be in the 21st century. Again, there’s nothing wrong with using the character as a metaphor for the US (Superman is all that’s good about the American dream while Lex Luthor is its darker side), but that gets messy when the other title, the one that currently stars Luthor as the lead, is way more fun, epic and dynamic.

(Strangely though, this is cause for hope, as it’s written by Paul Cornell, a writer who came up through Doctor Who fiction and who therefore knows all about the importance of keeping a long-running character relevant. I’d argue that the Doctor and Superman share a similar place in the pop cultures of their respective countries, but while Doctor Who has recently been through a much needed reinvigoration, Superman’s still struggling. Cornell should have some good insight on this when he comes to write the character regularly.)

(It might also help that Cornell is British, and Brits have a strong history in writing Superman – no-one can deny that Alan Moore and Grant Morrison know what they’re doing. Maybe it’s a bit of an outsider thing – Superman is a classic immigrant story after all.)

(Incidentally, there was a very minor storm when British actor Henry Cavill was cast as Supes in the forthcoming Snyder movie. Frankly, it doesn’t matter if Cavill is British as long as Supes is played as American. That idealised American-ness is essential to the character, but again, maybe it needs an ‘outsider’ who can take a step back to really bring that out.)

(Although, talking of movies, DC is all about Green Lantern at the moment, and the unintended consequence of that is Superman looks like an also-ran in the company’s publicity. All the effort seems focused on the Lantern titles as well.)

So I’d argue that someone, somewhere, should be tasked with breathing new life into the character. Superman is a character with a huge amount of public love (check out my post on what happens when you wear a Superman t-shirt) but it feels like that’s taken for granted; it often seems as though he’s seen as an icon for superheroes in general rather than a viable character in his own right. That’s a problem; heck, maybe it’s a deeper issue than that, all tied up with modern perceptions of heroism, ambiguity about America’s role in the world and more cynical attitudes towards altruism, all factors that potentially have a philosophical impact on any future Superman project.

See, the core values of the mythos are easy to lose in naval gazing. But then you look at stories like those of firefighters on 9-11, like this one from the New zealand earthquake, like these stories from the recent Japanese disasters. Those are the stories any Superman writer should be trying to evoke, stories of courage, compassion and selflessness. Sure, they need to be translated through an epic, mythic sci-fi framework, but at his core, that’s what the character is all about – helping others and standing between the innocent and the monsters. Get that right and you’re on the right track. Rant over!

For now!

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