How to Really Save Superman

Geek nation is breathing a satisfied sigh of belief today, with the news that Christopher Nolan, the man who made a certain Caped Crusader relevant in a contemporary, real world setting, would be “godfathering” yet another reboot of the languishing on life support Superman franchise. With a track record that includes Memento, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Prestige, the iconic alien from Krypton couldn’t ask for a better creative chaperone, right? Well, not so fast, guardian angel givers. Sure. Nolan brings more to the Clark Kent table than the supposedly inspired previous choice of Bryan Singer, but the truth remains that Superman is a very difficult character to contemporize. That makes him even harder to film.

For many, Superman is stridently stuck in a certain time and place in pop culture. He is a pre-World War II savior, a beacon of blatant pro-American light in a world rapidly disintegrating into fascism and chaos. When he was created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster in 1932, his array of skills (“faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive”) were seen as Olympian and God-like. Even better, he often fought for “truth, justice, and the American way”, virtues that played well in a burgeoning national mindset. Indeed, Superman could easily be tagged the first “superpower” symbol. Like the label given to Dr. Manhattan by Alan Moore in Watchmen, comic readers discovered that a much higher power did indeed exist, and luckily he belongs to us. USA! USA!

Superman also played directly into the immigrant experience of the turn of the century. He was (and remains) an outcast, a very strange stranger in equally confusing land. He is lost among a rabble constantly reinventing itself. Such isolation and disconnect were seen as ultra-complicated seven-plus decades ago, psychological structures that would help establish the difference between his heroic self and his secret newsman ID. And don’t let that nerd glasses and press pass appointed hat fool you. Superman wasn’t really trying to hide so much as assimilate. In retrospect, the whole Clark Kent concept was about rejecting your old country ways in an attempt to play within the meaning of the melting pot. Besides, allowing readers to speculate that, perhaps, among the current crowd, lived a marvel of sci-fi superiority helped fuel the fantasy.

It’s no wonder then that the character flourished during the ’40s and ’50s. In a nation desperate for defenders, Superman was the champion of choice. No Axis alliance could compete with the Man of Steel – and rightfully so. Even during the suburban sprawl boom of the post-A-bomb Eisenhower era, the new medium of television transformed the pen and ink patriot into something far more flesh and blood friendly. While it is arguable laughable in its dated designs, the initial TV version of Superman got a lot of what made the character so popular – his spirit, his nobility, his sense of right and wrong. Yes, the funny book romance angle with Lois Lane was also present, but pre-pubescent boys hungry for a role model didn’t cotton to such mushy stuff – and so that facet was almost always played for comedy.

It’s confusing then that it took so long to bring the symbol to the big screen. Perhaps it was the need for more advanced special effects or the inevitable invention of the blockbuster, but Hollywood had been flirting with characters that were ‘larger than life’ and capable of out-of-this-world feats of derring-do. Heck, everyone from James Bond to Billy Jack borrowed something from Supe. Yet the disappointment surrounding the whole Richard Donner/Lester look at character was clearly a combination of high levels of anticipation and a surprisingly scattered amount of return. While huge hits, both Superman and Superman II remain incomplete visions, hemmed in by the times in which they were made as well as the shifting mindset within the audience itself.

Demographic is key to Superman’s successful and/or failure. As young readers mature, they want more complex material. They adore their original icons, but quickly gravitate toward more ‘personally’ meaningful material. The Man of Steel is still seen as a child’s champion, the beginner baby steps in appreciating the narrative magic and artistry in comic. Sure, throughout the course of the ’80s and ’90s, DC tried pitching directly to the inconsistent needs of the readership. Superman even ‘died’, if only to secure some much needed four panel publicity (he didn’t stay dead for long – no cash cow ever does).

That’s why it was incredibly penny foolish for Warner Bros. to try and reboot the series with Singer. While a questionable filmmaker in his own right, using the Donner/Lester films as a backdrop, the failed romance with Lois as a lynchpin, and a tussled haired Superbrat as a surprise plot twist just wasn’t the right way to go. That’s not what the kids want. Superman is not a character who needs to pay homage to the past. Instead (and maybe this is the reason Nolan is being brought on) he needs to be completed updated and modernized. Goody Two Shoes just doesn’t work in a TMZ world, and the guy from Krypton could sure use a make-over. Singer just stuck to the standards, hoping that casting and CG would solve his problems. He’s now back to bringing the teen origins of the X-Men to life, which shows you how successful his take on the material was.

No, what Warners really needs to do is step back and – with Nolan’s help – think of how it can bring a tired old, yet clearly popular comic book icon into the 21st Century. Of course, they’ve already rejected one idea outright – completely radicalize and rethink the entire concept. Tim Burton’s Grand Guignol Goth imagination was prepared to do just that (whether or not Nicolas Cage was the right choice for the lead). His Terminator meet Edward Scissorhands design for the character remains the ultimate unrealized creative question mark. So don’t expect to see a Clark Kent by way of Transformers any time soon. Some have suggested going purely traditional, and that would work, up to a point. Audiences don’t really cotton to period pieces, so taking Superman back to the ’40s might be a mixed blessing. Nolan himself specializes in taking the fanciful and making it factual. But that may not work within a domain that is dominated by the unbelievable.

In reality, the studio first needs to sort out what Superman is and isn’t. He’s not a super secret agent leading a double life to defeat smarmy supervillain injustice. He’s an extraterrestrial being who believes in doing what’s right (that’s what a farm-raised Midwestern Kansas childhood will earn you). He’s also not a smooth, sexy, secure ladies man, no matter what Smallville and Lois and Clark would have you believe. That works on the small screen, and in much smaller doses. On paper, he’s the most proactive of all the heroes, hiding his identity but ready to step into a nearby phone booth to address disasters, and he’s pure and honest. He’s not psychologically deep or complex of personality. Yes, he is still struggling to fit in, but that’s the only scent of defeat surrounding his otherwise indestructible self.

What anyone who wants to reinvent Superman has to do is recognize what the character truly offers. The iconic image of a blue suited, “S” wearing man flying through the air is emblematic of a whole level of epic that few of the films even try to embrace. Superman can literally rebuild mountains, redirect tsunamis, and correct the course of planets. Having him rescue cats and stopping subway cars is pointless. Human do that all the time. The best bit in Singer’s semi-success was the space shuttle/airplane crash. Superman needs more or that – MUCH MORE. He needs a Roland Emmerich level of catastrophe to prove what he’s really made of. We need meteor threats, nuclear terrorism, Biblical natural apocalypse. Yes, he can stop a bad guy’s bullet or two along the way, but in the case of this one character, much bigger is much better.

Then there is the whole “heroism” thing. Superman strikes a chord with audiences because he’s the seemingly regular Joe who steps out of the shadows, into the secretive, and out to save the day. He’s everything we wish we could be, but lack the power (and the chutzpah) to achieve. We want to – nay, NEED to – see him vanquish evil, to undermine wickedness, to stand up for ethos, and set the balance of moral power right. What we don’t need is to have him hound dog and depressed, wondering why Lois Lane would opt for a dipstick as drippy as publisher Perry White’s son Richard. If you combine spectacle with the special, outsized of imagery and events with a similar ‘super’-sized sense of valor, you have the start of something wonderful.

The key word here is “start”. Nolan got away with turning Batman into the Godfather saga with supervillians because, at his core, the Caped Crusader was a day-to-day crimefighter. He didn’t have a larger agenda, nor does Wayne Enterprises or Lucius Fox possess the technical wizardry to halt hurricanes in their path. Superman does. He could keep the sun from going supernova or battle a rampaging horde of interstellar monsters. He could clean up a dirty bomb or slay an entire salivating zombie nation. He is endless possibilities and yet several sane limitations. He can’t be turned into a symbol of social corruption gone vigilante or youthful adolescent webslinging un-sprung. Nolan may be nothing more than a financing figurehead, a way to get the suits interested in investing in the character once again. But until the basic issues surrounding the superhero are addressed, this may be another case of a potential right fit finding little purchase for his input.