The Superman problem: Can he still fly in the 21st century?


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Thirty years ago, the Man of Steel was flying high at theaters. But will he ever get off the ground again?

Richard Donner‘s ‘Superman,’ released in December 1978, was a box-office triumph and critics were, for the most part, cheering right along with the fans. Roger Ebert called the film ‘a pure delight,’ while the late Jack Kroll wrote in Newsweek that Donner had pulled off ‘a major feat in filmmaking.’


It was by nature a sunny film, sentimental and playful, never embarrassed while soaring with its John Williams score and (literally) with its special effects. But show it to a teenager today and he or she will snicker and roll their eyes. These are kids who have sat in dark theaters with Wolverine, Hellboy and Heath Ledger’s Joker. If they’re holding out for a hero, you can bet he’s not going to be plucking kittens out of trees, reciting patriotic mottos and chasing down bumbling bad guys named Otis.

This brings us to the Superman problem. Warner Bros. just pulled in half a billion dollars in the U.S. alone with the relentless nihilism of ‘The Dark Knight,’ and the other hero films of the summer (‘Hancock,’ ‘Iron Man,’ ‘Hellboy 2,’ etc.) presented troubled protaganists who struggle as much with themselves as they do with bad guys. So, of coruse, Warner now wants Superman to tone down the Boy Scout stuff.

Lauren A.E. Schuker had a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal that quoted Warner Bros. executive Jeff Robinov (who, by the way, is apparently the man who came up with the idea of postponing the sixth ‘Harry Potter’ film until next year) about the plans for the Man of Steel’s next flight in Hollywood:

Like the recent Batman sequel — which has become the highest-grossing film of the year thus far — Mr. Robinov wants his next pack of superhero movies to be bathed in the same brooding tone as ‘The Dark Knight.’ Creatively, he sees exploring the evil side to characters as the key to unlocking some of Warner Bros.’ DC properties. ‘We’re going to try to go dark to the extent that the characters allow it,’ he says. That goes for the company’s Superman franchise as well.

We’ve heard this before. There was a series of Superman projects announced that had the hero dead, dying, powerless and, perhaps worst of all, portrayed by Nicolas Cage in a suit of armor. The thing is, Superman has always been a daytime hero; he’s not Batman prowling the gutters of Gotham looking to exact revenge on every street punk in the world.

Over at Splash Page, the MTV blog about comics and films, Kevin Smith weighed in that Hollywood shouldn’t assume that the hero of Metropolis needs to be dipped in Gotham muck to be viable on the screen.


“You always have to always keep Superman very distinct from Batman,” he related. “Batman can be brooding and bleak and dark but Superman — if you want to take a realistic approach to him that’s fine, but I don’t think you can turn him into an angry character. Superman is about the hope in people, the good in people, whereas Batman is about the more driven, hungry for justice angry side of us. [So] I don’t know if doing a dark Superman is the approach, but I’m all for a reboot.”

Jeph Loeb also cautioned against forgetting the core character of Superman, an enduring pop-culture figure that dates to the summer of 1938.

“Superman, the character, inspires hope, as opposed to Batman, who inspires fear,” elaborated Jeph Loeb, who added that his “Superman for All Seasons” (which he created with frequent collaborator Tim Sale) could be a proper approach for a possible revamp of the franchise. “‘Superman for All Seasons’ is about Clark Kent trying to deal with the fact that he has this incredible power and responsibility, and that was an interesting concept to me. And one of the other things that I find interesting is that he’s set out to perform a job that will never finish, a never-ending battle. Is that dark? I don’t know.”

The last time the hero was on the screen wasn’t that long ago, of course, and it was a movie that (in the mind of the filmmakers at least) was tinged with some darkness. Bryan Singer’s ‘Superman Returns’ in 2006 ended up being respected more than it was liked. It was, sadly, a fairly flat and windy affair. It’s a shame, I was really rooting for the film. I went down to Australia in 2005 to do a set visit for a long feature in the Calendar section of the Los Angeles Times and I had high hopes for what everyone assumed would be a major new franchise.

In my opinion, the problem with Superman is his villain. Who wants to see Lex Luthor trotted out again? Kevin Spacey was fine in the role and Gene Hackman was fun to watch, but can we just get someone else in one of these movies? The reason that Batman, the X-Men and Spider-Man have thrived in theaters is their parade of quality villains. Superman’s list is stunningly short. (And, a note to Rabinov: Please note that Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man was hardly a brooding, dark hero; he was fun and brightly colored, which was true to his story heritage.)

To my mind, the best thing Warner Bros. could do with the next Superman film is to go cosmic, not gritty. Take Superman into space, have him fight off an alien invasion of earth or grapple with Darkseid or Mongul. The movie can be fun (a la ‘Iron Man’) without being corny or campy, and you can make his enemies as dark and dangerous as you want. But leave the pure heroic nature of Superman intact, or don’t bother putting that famous costume on him. Batman succeeded not simply because he was dark, but because director Christopher Nolan found the authentic heart of the character. The movie broke box-office records not by copying the approach of another film, but by daring to go its own way. Do the same soul-searching for Superman. Instead of bringing him down to street level, let him fly higher than ever.


-- Geoff Boucher

Clark Kent artwork by Gary Frank from the cover of upcoming Action Comics issue (#870, on sale October) courtesy of DC Comics.

David James photograph of Brandon Routh as Superman from ‘Superman Returns,’ courtesy of Warner Bros.

Superman tussles with Mongul, artwork by Ryan Sook from the cover of ‘DC Universe Special, Superman: Mongul,’ from June of this year.