Superman has appeared on the big and small screen many, many times. You’ve got the Fleischer cartoons, the Superman movie series, a handful of TV series, 6 (soon to be 7) movies, a musical, and even a Toyota commercial. Unfortunately Superman has suffered a much worse fate in his adaptations than Batman. Quite frankly, most of the times Superman shows up in theaters or on your local channel, you’re in for a treat. A treat made of garbage… Confusing, awful garbage.
Hey! Warner Brothers and DC, here are some tips on how to make Superman relevant and, y’know, good:
Powers: Give Superman his powers, for one. Don’t have a series that runs many, many seasons (see: Smallville) where Superman never flies. The entire point of Superman is that he flies, bullets bounce off of him, and he can lift cars over his head. There’s a kink in this armor, though. Superman has had a ridiculous number of terrible powers that fall under the deus ex machina. Super-ventriloquism? He’s had that. Tiny copies of him that come out of his fingers? Uh, yes. Somehow. Super-weaving? Just… Just stop, DC. But make sure he is still recognizable AS Superman. Keep it simple but not overpowers: flight, heat vision, invulnerability, and super strength are a good place to start.
Villains: Superman has hundreds of villains. Many are kind of stupid or terrible, like Titano the giant ape or the Prankster. Fortunately, Superman has a myriad of cool bad guys that can work well on screen. An evil alien/robot bent on world conquest? How about Brainiac or Mongul. Want some dangerous humans? Throw in Toyman. You’ve got evil androids in Metallo, horror movie fodder in Parasite, an evil duplicate in Bizarro, and a throw away gag to start your movie in Mr. Mxyzptlk. Really, everyone is probably sick of Lex Luthor and Zod at this point. Just use anyone else. Probably don’t use Terra Man. He sucks.
Origins: No more origins. Superman has been in pop culture for 78 years. Seventy-eight years. Everyone knows the basics.
Politics: Superman isn’t apolitical and he isn’t a fascist. If anything, Superman is the liberal populist antithesis to Batman’s hardline conservative. Superman is an illegal alien raised by poor farmers in Kansas who works his way through school to take a job as a reporter, seeking the truth and working hard to expose an evil businessman. Check out some of the old Superman PSAs to see what I mean. Superman calls people out for racism, teaches people to work together, and frequently talks about charities. Why not bring out these qualities into the movies, showing Superman talking to the UN or helping to eliminate the roots of crime. He does this in the comics, so why not on screen?
Immigrant: The Superman is Jesus meme is tired. Replace this with the fact that Superman is a literal alien desperate to fit into our culture, just like the two Jewish sons of immigrants who created him.
Happiness: There’s one thing the last two (and it looks like Batman v. Superman) movies have missed entirely. Superman is happy. Superman has two loving adoptive parents, plenty of friends, pets, and all the other things that normal people enjoy but characters like Batman and the Punisher go without. This makes Superman a different kind of emotional hero. Superman shouldn’t be moping and glum, running around in muted colors and filmed in the dark. Superman is a bold person who feels that humanity – and he – can achieve far greater things. This happiness drives him to a much different place than a lot of heroes in that he wants to be a hero and help people, instead of feeling a need to do so.
Intelligence: Superman is smart. Clark Kent graduated college and works as a reporter in the best newspaper in the country. I’m not saying bring in his Silver Age super-genius abilities, but rather something much simpler. Superman solves problems with his mind first and allows his fists to be a last resort. Both he and Lois Lane also investigate crimes and nefarious activities. Imagine an action noir starring Clark and Lois rushing to solve some mystery while fighting bad guys.
Friends: A few of the TV shows have attempted to bring in the supporting cast. I think it’s time the movies go full comic book and have fun with it. As I said, Superman is a happy person with friends and family. Let’s show that on screen. The world is bigger than Clark, Lois, and Lex. The world needs Krypto and Streaky.
Comics: Superman has 78 years of stories. Some of these stories are outstanding and worthy of their own movies. Instead of making up some so-so story out of nowhere where Superman is a deadbeat dad or a drifter who kills someone, how about we just take the preexisting ideas that made everyone like this character? Start with a great read like “For the Man Who Has Everything” where Mogul traps Superman in his own mind. We can ask some hard hitting questions on if power impedes progress with “Must There Be a Superman?” We could learn the importance of Superman to the world in “For All Seasons”. Go bonkers with a crazy, fun standalone story like “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” or “All-Star Superman”.
Try Something Different: One of the best benefits of characters like Superman, Batman, or Spider-Man is that they have overreaching pop culture relevance. You can try new and fun things with characters everyone knows. I suggest doing this but still keeping the important personality traits that make Clark Kent a superman. Try a film where Superman’s exploits are told through the love and friendship of Lois Lane. Use Superman to illustrate the lives of people around the world that his actions have touched, for better or worse, through a series of connected shorts. Show us an aging Superman in the future or “Red Son” Superman or dig deep and find some great Elseworld idea.
We are in the Golden Age of superhero movies. Deadpool, an R-rated movie starring a character few outside of the nerd community really know, is making a ton. It’s the perfect time to experiment and make a really, really great Superman movie. Superman created the idea of the modern superhero, kept it alive in the twilight of the Golden Age of comics, and brought it into Hollywood in the 70’s. We all deserve a truly great film starring the last son of Krypton. Just be sure to make it the Superman everyone knows and understand. Oh, and take a page out of the comics and end it with a knowing, friendly wink.