As I write this article, I’m currently working my way through a re-watch of the entire DC Animated Universe, or DCAU. This refers to a collection of animated TV series based on DC superheroes that ran from the early 90s to the mid 2000s, including the likes of Batman: The Animated Series and Justice League among others. I just finished up Superman: The Animated Series.
Superman was my favorite superhero as a kid and to this day he remains my favorite across both DC and Marvel. The DCAU is what fostered this love but I never quite found that same attachment in the movies. In the age of franchises like The Avengers making over a billion dollars per film, Superman seems to have oddly missed the boat. He’s had plenty of films, but hasn’t seen the same success as various Marvel heroes or even his DC co-star Batman.
When thinking about Superman on the silver screen, a lot of people’s first thought goes towards the Christopher Reeve films. Initially appearing in 1978’s Superman, Reeve would go on to play the character in a total of four movies. The first two films are generally regarded as classics and helped cement Superman’s image in pop culture. The character had gained popularity from TV serials and cartoons as well as comics obviously, but Reeve’s warm presence and charm really resonated with audiences. When Superman flies through space and smiles directly into the camera, it’s hard not to smile back. In interviews, Reeve would describe his philosophical interpretation of Superman as a “friend.” A simple description, but a powerful one. Someone that anyone could turn to. While characters like Batman lurk in the shadows and strike fear into the hearts of criminals behind a mask, Superman flies unmasked in broad daylight with a smile on his face and a friendly attitude towards everyone.
Despite the critical and commercial success of the first two films, the third and fourth entries were met with harsh critical backlash and less than stellar box office intakes. They ventured even further into the campy tone and suffered the fate that befalls many sequels– a lack of passion and creativity. After Superman IV: The Quest for Peace bombed in 1987, Superman took a hiatus in film, and wouldn’t be seen again until 2006 with the release of Superman Returns, this time starring Brandon Routh in the titular role. It ignored the events of the third and fourth films and served as a sequel to Superman II. The film was better received than the last few attempts to portray the character but despite its closeness to the original Reeve duology, the film just didn’t stick with audiences the way that earlier films did and sequel plans soon fizzled out.
Superman Returns released at an awkward period of time. Iron Man and the modern superhero boom were still a few years off and the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films remained the gold standard for 21st century comic book films. However, Superman Returns’ problems were less about premiering too early, but more about what had come just the year before; Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. Batman’s cinematic legacy had followed Superman’s relatively closely.There were two well regarded films with two more poorly received, campier films, with the fourth installment effectively killing the franchise. What Batman Begins did however, was completely reinvent the character. Straying as far away from the goofy tone of Batman and Robin as possible. Nolan created a gritty, realistic take on the caped crusader that strove to make Batman as serious as possible. Superman Returns instead opted to capture the nostalgia of the Christopher Reeve films. Which approach is better remains subjective, but it was clear that at the time audience were hungry for darker, grittier stories. This isn’t unique to superheroes, the blockbusters of the mid-2000s are known for their muted colors and “serious” tones, a trend that continues to this day.
After DC struck critical and financial gold with the Dark Knight trilogy, they had their sights set on establishing a fully connected cinematic universe and would ring it in with a new take on Superman. With past Superman films underperforming and Batman getting bigger and bigger, DC decided to recapture that success by simply turning Superman into a more Batman-like character, and thus Man of Steel was born in 2013. The modern Superman and superhero films of the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) are a major source of contention among comic book fans with people either seeming to unabashedly love them or despise them. At the center of this controversy is Superman himself, portrayed by Henry Cavill. Right off the bat, Cavill is a strong choice for the role, possessing great acting chops and the level of charm and charisma associated with the character, and most people on both sides of the argument like him as the character. The directing and writing of Zack Snyder and David S. Goyer is where the controversies lie.
With a character as old as Superman, there are hundreds of different interpretations that all do different things with his personality and characterization. That being said, there seem to core aspects that always stay true. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic and completely subjective, I don’t think Zack Snyder and David S. Goyer understand the character of Superman at all. In Man of Steel and its follow up, Batman v. Superman, there seems to be an overall level of contempt for Superman and his mythos. Pa Kent being a bitter old man who thinks Clark should sooner let people die than expose his secret identity already feels out of place and cynical but the biggest point of contention comes at the end of Man of Steel where Superman is forced to kill the evil General Zod to stop his rampage. A core aspect of Superman’s character is that he will not kill people. Yes some incarnations do away with this but many of the well-known versions keep this trait. The issue comes less from the actual action of killing Zod and more from Snyder’s comments from The Empire Film Podcast where he states since the film is an origin story, things like Superman’s job at the Daily Planet and his aversion to killing are things that are unexplained and needed their origins shown.
My main issues stems from the idea that Superman needs to kill someone before he learns that it’s wrong to do so. This doesn’t even get into all the civilians that Superman ends up killing in the battle with Zod. Inadvertently or not, civilians still died. Other incarnations like the DCAU always show him prioritizing the safety of the people over just punching the bad guy, moving the fight elsewhere if need be. His peaceful demeanor and kind nature don’t need whole explanations, he got them from being raised by kind people, simple as that. Superman is the story of a god like being who is a purer human than most. He is an immigrant from another planet who grew up in a kind household and would go on to lead a modest life while balancing the fate of the Earth. Superman is supposed to embody the best of humanity and be an ideal to strive towards. Having a brooding Superman who fights with little regard for the people’s he’s protecting feels incredibly out of character.
So where does Superman stand now? Zack Snyder seems to have little to no involvement with the DCEU these days aside from his own cut of Justice League coming to HBO Max. Henry Cavill has gone back and forth about his involvement but as of right now it sounds like he’ll be returning to the DCEU, even if only for a small cameo. As for if DC will make another Superman film, that remains uncertain. Ideas for Superman films and Man of Steel sequels have been pitched but none have moved forward. There seems to be an aversion to adapting the character, with the fear being that there’s no interest in Superman or fresh ideas to be done, or that he’s too unrelatable. Personally, I find this notion silly. Superman has a reputation for being unrelatable and too invincible to write stories about. But is Superman unrelatable? Sure he has god like powers, but he’s an immigrant who grew up in a small town, leads a modest life, and cares for everyone. Is that not more relatable than a billionaire who spends his days dressed as a bat brutally beating up street criminals? Superman’s greatest adversaries are greedy corporate businessmen like Lex Luthor and galactic authoritarians like Brainiac and Darkseid. Despite how over the top they are, these are very real evils, perhaps even more so than psychotic clowns and riddle makers. Superman stories aren’t about becoming the strongest man alive, they’re about reflecting humanity in the face of the impossible and doing the right thing. Lastly, the idea that the goody two shoes, boy scout nature of Superman wouldn’t fly today falls apart when one considers that Captain America is one of the most beloved fictional characters of all time now with his films grossing over a billion dollars.
There will always be good ideas for Superman stories. Henry Cavill is passionate about the character still and is pushing for these stories to get made. Even beyond Cavill, other actors like Michael B. Jordan, another amazing choice for the role, have put forth their own pitches to Warner Bros. If one extends their horizons beyond the world of feature films, they’ll see Superman enjoying continual success in the world of animation. The animated film Superman: The Man of Tomorrow is set to come out this year and looks incredibly promising. On the small screen, Brandon Routh returned to play Superman in CW’s Crisis on Infinite Earths in a performance that has garnered much praise. As I stated at the beginning, Superman is my favorite comic book hero and even if I haven’t liked every interpretation put to film, I remain confident that as long as there are passionate fans out there, we will continue to see inspiring stories about the man of steel.