I love the classic Superman, the story of a just-about all-powerful visitor to our planet who decides to use his immense abilities for good, who is all too human in wrestling with the challenge of bearing up under the great weight of responsibility he has taken upon himself, and superhuman in his unfailing desire and ability to do so. He is a purely inspirational character with no neuroses or inescapable past tragedy rendering him “complicated” or dark. There is plenty of that in the world already; Superman stands apart from all that, in the world but not of the world, a shining light. It is hard to talk about him without relying on Messianic imagery, because something akin to that is very much what was in the minds of Siegel and Shuster when they created him back in the ’30s. For me, Superman has always been primarily a great moral character.
So it is with some sadness that I have finally conceded that Hollywood either cannot or will not write this sort of Superman into the current spate of superhero movies.
Strike one was Superman Returns, appearing in 2006 after the long hiatus that followed the original Superman movie franchise’s withering in its third installment (and utterly crashing and burning in its fourth). While received in a mostly favorable light, its portrayal of Superman as a philandering absentee father was so off-base that it ruined the rest of the film for me.
Strike two was 2013’s Man of Steel. If the loving devotion to detail lavished on the Krypton homeworld and backstory had only been applied to Superman himself! Instead, his moral authority is entirely destroyed by his ultimate decision to kill the film’s antagonist. In the entire film, not one line of his dialogue carried any real weight. Just as the overuse of CGI rendered the film’s unending fight sequences incongruously bouyant and ethereal, the writing left Superman himself impotent and uninspiring. His considerable physical abilities are on full awesome display, but his moral voice is completely absent.
And strike three arrived in just the past few weeks with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. The Superman portrayed here has forgotten what he knew way back in 1978: in the pursuit of “truth, justice, and the American way” there is more at stake than life and death, and even death itself need not be the end. Instead of making the hard call to do the right thing, even if it means making a personal sacrifice, he loses control in his fight with Batman, allowing himself to be weakened by kryptonite and ultimately killed at the hands of Doomsday. The line that put the nail in the coffin of this iteration of the character? “No one stays good in this world,” he says, as he flies off to kill Batman in order to save his mother’s life from a common thug.
Remaining good in a world that isn’t, no matter the personal cost; staying above the fray even while in the thick of it — these qualities are the very definition of who Superman is. Without his moral backbone, he’s merely powerful. Without his heart, he is just another comic book character. And in a world awash with cinematic retellings of such stories, this version of the character ends up an also-ran who’s not so super, after all.