2018 marks the 80th anniversary of one of the biggest moments in pop culture history, the first issue of Action Comics starring Superman in his debut. For eight decades, the Man of Steel has often been regarded as one of fiction’s greatest characters. Inspiring people from all walks of life, Superman remains an unparalleled icon that embodies truth, justice and the American way.
However, the character’s cinematic journey has been a road full of trials and tribulations. After the first two Donner-era Superman films, the character’s reputation on the big screen has been on a steady decline. Whether it’s the disastrous Superman IV: Quest for Peace, or the occasionally charming but ultimately unexciting Superman Returns, the Last Son of Krypton can’t seem to catch a break and recapture the cinematic magic that he once proudly possessed in the late 70s.
The situation seemed to be murkier than ever with the release of 2013’s Man of Steel (a film that I personally enjoyed). Much in the same vein of The Dark Knight trilogy, the Superman reboot serves as a “realistic” and “gritty” update to the beloved superhero. Directed by Zack Snyder, the filmmakers behind Man of Steel decided to paint Superman as a conflicted and burdened character as opposed to the optimistic and earnest figure that he is in the comics.
Despite its special effects-laden production, incredible cast, as well as an astounding score by Hans Zimmer, Man of Steel was released to mixed results both critically and financially. The film was criticized for its overly dark characterization of the beloved character, as well as a third act that rivals the level of destruction and chaos in Transformers: Dark of the Moon. The overall reception of Man of Steel led its audience to ask, is the character of Superman really not fit in a post The Dark Knight cinema? Or is the characterization of the character as presented in the film at fault here?
An argument that could be made for Man of Steel’s unorthodox characterization of the character is that Snyder alongside Warner Brothers was attempting to grow Clark Kent into the Superman many of us know and love. However, instead of a direct sequel that allows Superman’s character to progress naturally, the filmmakers decided that the right thing to do is to pit him against the company’s other flagship character in a “versus” movie. Enter 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
By introducing a new Batman, Warner Brothers irrevocably finds itself in a corner. Not only was the film required to establish a seasoned Batman, but also develop the story and conflict in a convincing way. Taking cues from Frank Miller’s legendary graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, whereby the conflict between Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne plays an integral part in its climax, Batman v Superman aimed to emulate that with its cinematic iterations of the iconic duo, but fails spectacularly.
In The Dark Knight Returns, or any medium featuring other iterations of Batman and Superman worked because of its ability and willingness to contrast the different heroes. Oftentimes, writers find a way or a scenario that allows the audience to identify the different ideologies and persona of the two characters. The characters are also “tonally” different in almost every way. Batman is grim, dark and intimidating, whereas Superman is optimistic, radiant and hopeful.
However, no such difference can be found between the two in Batman v Superman. Superman often resents his role as the Man of Tomorrow. Much like Batman, he’s dour and has zero regard for collateral damage and human life (he literally rams a person through two brick walls at the speed of a locomotive). In Batman v Superman, Superman’s disdain for Batman stemmed from his belief that vigilantism has no place in his view of an ideal world. Admirable? Sure. But that’s real rich coming from someone who slams a piece of military equipment into the earth that’s worth millions of dollars. Over the course of two films, Superman comes across as a cynical hypocrite, not a hero.
With such a grim interpretation of the character, the audience finds itself struggling to connect with Clark Kent in almost every way. By condescending everything that makes Superman appealing in the first place, here we have a Superman that comes across as cold, emotionless and sorrowful. Which is a shame considering that given the opportunity, Henry Cavill has the acting chops to embody what makes Clark Kent such a radiating and inspiring character.
Fast forward to Justice League, a film that’s plagued with numerous production woes. From a technical and narrative standpoint, the film is an oddly disjointed and visually inconsistent addition to the already troubled cinematic universe. Within the opening minutes of Justice League, we see the world in disarray as Superman meets his demise at the end of Batman v Superman. However, he was never a symbol of hope to begin with. Granted, the filmmakers attempted to echo the golden age Superman that audience recognize upon his resurrection, but every decision regarding the character in that bastardisation of a film is either rushed, illogical or unearned.
Superman is a spectacular character, however the current cinematic iteration of the beloved icon is tainting his important legacy. If Warner Brothers/DC doesn’t make the definitive cinematic Superman, another studio would eventually do it with a Superman archetype (The way Pixar’s The Incredibles is the perfect Fantastic Four film). In an era where Wonder Woman and Incredibles 2 are universally praised, there’s absolutely no reason to make Superman “dark” and “gritty”.
Of course, that’s not to say Superman is supposed to be abstained from having internal conflicts, regrets and struggles, but those things shouldn’t stop him from making what he perceives as the right choice. Superman serves as a metaphor of the best that we can be, representing the uncomplicated desire to do good. As comic legend Grant Morrison once said: “Somewhere, in our darkest night, we made up the story of a man who will never let us down.”
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