Opinion: What Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? (And Why We Desperately Need Him Today)

Last month, the new trailer for THE BATMAN came out. Robert Pattison will become the third incarnation of the caped crusader in less than ten years. In the last twelve, we’ve also had three Jokers. Seems like people just can’t get enough of Gotham’s most famous residents. And that now includes Harley Quinn. But what about Superman? Isn’t he just as beloved as Batman? Where’s the clamor and excitement for him? Hell, even Aquaman is a box-office behemoth. Aquaman!

So where did Superman go wrong? The man can fly, see through walls, shoot laser beams from his frigging eyes, bend steel with his bare hands, travel through space, and do almost anything, in fact, except make for a decent movie. Yet, Warner’s have gotten Batman right more than once, so why is Superman – the oldest and most famous of all superheroes – so difficult to get right? What keeps going wrong that we are left with Iron Man (playing for the other team!) becoming the most famous superhero who can fly, instead of the original aviator—the one and only, Man of Steel!

Upon closer inspection, it seems that filmmakers simply don’t know what to do with him. I don’t necessarily blame them for this; I can see how it happened. They know he’s a great commodity. They want to do something special with him, but they can’t get their arms around how to make him modern. How to make him viable and valuable to the modern audience. He’s a bit too “vanilla”. Too nice. Too hopeful and optimistic. Gullible even. Too much 1950s and not enough gritty 1970s, let alone 2020. He’s bland. Not sexy. You can’t have Robert Downey Jr. as Clark Kent trading sarcastic barbs with Batman the way you can Tony Stark taking the piss out of Thor.

You can’t have Robert Downey Jr. as Clark Kent trading sarcastic barbs with Batman the way you can Tony Stark taking the piss out of Thor.

No, the fact remains that The Man of Tomorrow is very much the Man of Yesterday. A relic from our parents’ generation. From our grandparents’ generation. When the bad guys wore uniforms and America stood for something. Post 9/11, all bets are off. Bryan Singer was already buckling under the weight of how to fit Superman into this new world back in 2006. Post Donald Trump, it’s nigh on impossible.

And yet, surely if there was EVER a time when the world needed Superman it’s now. Even though he came to life in 1938, America didn’t really need him in WW2. We had it covered and everybody knew where they stood. We were good, the Nazis were bad. In fact, Superman was pretty much kept out of the war in the comics for good reason; having Superman fight and easily overcome the Germans would’ve been belittling to the real GI’s getting shot down and killed on the beaches in France and the deserts in Africa, and so they kept him back in Metropolis where he belonged. Ironically, America hasn’t needed him since then either. Even at the worst of times, the world always knew what America stood for (or was meant to have stood for). But now, for the first time in its history, the very notion and concept of what America is, is being shattered into a million pieces. So surely now, when the world is such a dark and dismal place; now is the moment when we need hope the most. When we need some genuine good, with all the corniness that that might entail.

So how can Hollywood get it right?

First off, by not confusing Superman with Batman or any other superhero. (Let’s make him darker! Scarier! More brooding. Sulkier. NO NO NO!) It’s been 42 long years since audiences first believed a man could fly and yet Richard Donner’s seminal 2 1⁄2 hour epic SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE is still far and away the best Superman on celluloid, and one of the main reasons for this is verisimilitude—a word the director even stuck to the wall of his office. Verisimilitude: To treat the subject as real/natural/literal. In fact, Donner spends over an hour setting up this reality, giving the film’s first act (Krypton, Smallville) an epic sweeping tone befitting its subject. This is essential because Superman is about myth. Not the myth of Superman – anyone should be able to do that (although MAN OF STEEL screwed it up royally) – but the myth of humanity. The myth of what we can be. The myth of America. Everything else is just window dressing, but the Zack Snyders and Bryan Singers and – most of all – the Dick Lesters of the world seem to have missed this point entirely.

Superman belongs to the world of David Lean, NOT the world of A HARD DAY’S NIGHT. Play Superman for laughs, and the whole thing falls apart. Suddenly his values are outdated and silly and the magic is lost. At the same time, play Superman too somber, and the whole thing feels emo and pathetic. Again, the magic is lost. By spending so much time in Kansas, Donner helped the cynical, jaded audiences of 1978 forget the world as it was and imagine a world as it should be, so that by the time Superman rescues Lois Lane from a helicopter crash atop a skyscraper (a full hour in), the audience is fully believing that a man can fly. It is depressing to state that this is still the best set-piece in any Superman movie. It is 42 years old.

The other thing SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE got spot-on was the casting of Christopher Reeve. This is a little unfair to bring up because it’s something future filmmakers can’t replicate. But taking aside his underrated and genuinely good acting abilities, what makes Reeve such an effective Superman is that he conveys the good in him. The honesty and the decency. Donner and Reeve understood that what made Superman special was his love for us as human beings. (I’m sorry, but Tarantino is wrong.) Superman loves us. That’s what sets him apart. Batman doesn’t. He’s driven by revenge. Spider-man doesn’t. He’s a teenager driven by guilt. Iron Man doesn’t. He’s driven by ego (and alcohol). But Superman isn’t driven by any of those things. He’s driven by a profound love and sense of duty he has for his new world and the people who have taken him in, in a way that only an immigrant can. And that’s important to remember too, that unlike other superheroes, Superman is an immigrant.

By spending so much time in Kansas, Donner helped the cynical, jaded audience of 1978 forget the world as it was and imagine a world as it should be.

The kind of immigrant who loves his adopted country (or in this case, adopted planet) so much that he believes in its values unwaveringly. And who better to defeat everything today’s America stands for than an immigrant! Superman doesn’t question his duty because it wouldn’t enter his mind to do so. He’s not moody, or petty, or wanting to remain anonymous (MAN OF STEEL). Or a jealous eavesdropper who leaves the planet for five years (SUPERMAN RETURNS). Superman would never leave us. THAT’S THE POINT! He’s not Batman or Spider-Man or Iron Man. They’d leave if they had to. They do leave—often. Superman doesn’t take breaks. He doesn’t need to. He doesn’t get tired. He won’t stop. He won’t give up. And that’s the biggest point filmmakers seem to have missed: it’s not his powers that makes Superman special. It’s his will, his love, and his decency.

Which brings us to a recurring problem with all the films – including Donner’s – the Christ factor. Superman as savior. Superman as the only son that a God-like being sent down to save us. Film after film is layered with Christian imagery. To quote Jor-El in SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE, written by Catholic-raised, Italian-descendent Mario Puzo: “They could be a great people, Kal-El. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I’ve sent them you. My only son.”

Oy vey. 

And it gets worse. By the end of the film, Superman is bringing Lois Lane back from the dead. In fact, the Christ theme is so prevalent from this point on, that Zack Snyder actually believed it to be part of the myth—as he told CNN: “The Christ-like parallels, I didn’t make that stuff up. That stuff is there, in the mythology.”

Except that it isn’t. Superman was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster—both children of Jewish immigrants. Like most poor immigrants, they drew on what they knew. His birth name, Kal-El, for instance, is derived from Hebrew which means Voice of God. His super strength comes from The Golem, a legend in Jewish folklore that both men would have been very familiar with. If Superman has commonalities with any biblical character at all, it’s Moses—put in a basket by his parents to escape the destruction of his home and certain death; sent down the river Nile – sorry, through space in a comet – to be saved and taken in by a foreign people, to live among them, but not as one of them.

Unlike Christ, Superman is not here to save our souls. He’s not here to judge us. We don’t need to love him to be saved, and he’s certainly not here to bring us back from the dead. He’s here to fight injustice and to show us a better way. A way WE can be—here on earth, now, not after we die. By boxing Superman into a Christian-only mindset, it not only limits our understanding of the character, but it also sidelines the immigration aspect of it all. After all, Jesus may well have been sent here by God, but he wasn’t an immigrant. Moses was. Kal-El certainly is. And even Clark Kent is to a degree, emigrating from the small town in the countryside to the big fast-talking city of Metropolis. His whole existence is based on being from somewhere else. This makes me think Zack Snyder didn’t bother to do much research at all (and certainly Dick Lester didn’t do any, but neither did Singer it seems, outside of some iconic images he recreated). But with so many writers involved and so many executives and so much money at stake, it seems odd that so many misunderstandings of what makes Superman Superman keep getting committed to film.

And what if Luthor’s protected by a system which has been completely corrupted through the years to protect the 1% and disregard the 99% (and being a farmer’s boy, Clark Kent is very much a 99 percenter). 

Which brings me to the final point. The villains.

Batman has all the best villains. There’s no getting around that. But when done right, Lex Luthor can be pretty effective too. And let’s stick with him, because General Zod is approaching Marvel territory with superheroes scrapping it out and punching their way through buildings and lots of CGI destruction of city blocks, and it all gets very tedious indeed. If Superman is about being on a human level, then let’s bring it down to the human level. Lex Luthor is meant to be the greatest criminal mind of our time. Alan Moore – that brilliant genius, writer, wizard, northerner – depicted him as a man criminals go to for help. They have a problem such as, let’s say, how to break into Fort Knox; they pay him ten million dollars, and within 30 seconds he’s hashed out a plan for them and shows them how to do it. Yes, he’s meant to be THAT BRAINY. Einstein and Hawking brainy. After all, Superman is the son of a scientific genius and is himself extremely clever, so Luthor has to be even smarter if we’re going for the brains vs brawns thing convincingly.

Lex Luthor should be a towering figure in society with more wealth than God, NOT some silly criminal living underground by a subway station hanging out with complete nincompoops like Ned Beatty (a misstep so egregious in the first film that it almost derails the whole movie. That it was then doubled-down upon in SUPERMAN RETURNS is beyond logical comprehension). By making Lex Luthor a rich and powerful genius, you finally give Superman a worthy adversary. Obviously, Superman could defeat him in a battle, but can he outsmart him? And what if he’s protected by a system which has been completely corrupted through the years to protect the 1% and disregard the 99% (and being a farmer’s boy, Clark Kent is very much a 99 percenter). 

By making Lex Luthor incredibly rich and influential, we remove his need for petty crimes. His infatuation with real estate (SUPERMAN / SUPERMAN RETURNS). His wanting to rule Australia—Oh Jeez (SUPERMAN II). If we make him a Charles Foster Kane type, a man who perhaps even thought he was doing good or intended to, but lost his way somewhere along the way. Then the very existence of an alien-like Superman – a person who can do all these things with such ease, who is beyond the realms of what is humanly possible – would be the very anathema of everything Luthor believes in. Someone like Superman goes against the very fabric of human existence. And a supposedly great, self-made giant of industry as Luthor would be insulted by his very presence. So what if, drawing from today, Luthor unleashed a plague upon Metropolis and the world. A Super flu, the kind one might find in THE STAND. A plague that he alone might be able to solve if he so wished. How would Superman be able to cope with death on a massive scale? 

You see, nobody wants to see Superman fight other Supermen. We want him to do daring feats in real situations. Stop an earthquake and save a train from going over a collapsed bridge. Keeping things set in some form of reality raises the stakes for us. Fighting other superhero baddies is boring. But put Superman in situations that could happen to any of us (9/11, a natural disaster, a nuclear blast, a super virus) and suddenly the odds are raised against him. Suddenly there’s real conflict. The worst thing you can do with Superman is to adapt him to the times. The world he inhabits can be dark and brooding and violent and even scary, but he cannot be.

The times change, but Superman doesn’t. Superman must remain a constant. It’s his greatest gift. It’s why we need him now more than ever. It’s what truly makes him, if no longer the Man OF tomorrow, then surely, the Man FOR Tomorrow.