15+ Years of Mishandling Superman

Published on January 6th, 2011

15+ Years of Mishandling Superman, or, “Don’t wanna see him in the suit…looks too faggy.”

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If you’re a fan of any form of graphic storytelling, whether it be dark horror comics, contemplative indie books or your mainstream superhero stuff, you owe a debt of gratitude to one character.  He’s the first superhero, the one that started it all, the one for whom the industry was built upon, Superman.  Unfortunately, though, for the past nearly two decades he has been mishandled, mistreated and forced to squeeze into molds he was never meant to fit.

Superman was created in 1932 by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster and later sold to the company that would become DC Comics in 1938.  He premiered that year in Action Comics #1 to rave reviews.  People couldn’t get enough of this unusual new type of character, and the American comic book industry immediately had to change how they did business.

Superman is arguably the most iconic and recognizable fictitious character in human history.  He has spawned numerous movies from multiple countries, TV shows both live action and animated and has had an ongoing comic book series spanning all the way back to June, 1938.

He has been viewed as the ultimate immigrant, having rocketed to Earth (more specifically America) to escape certain death from his home world, Krypton.  Much analysis has been made about the character created by two poor, Jewish men in a time when Jews were being exterminated in Europe.  Luckily for Siegel and Shuster (and all of us), they grew up in America and Canada respectively.  Both Siegel and Shuster were children of European immigrants as well.

Superman has always been portrayed as an inspirational, nice guy, everyman character.  Much criticism has been made about the character’s lack of a mask.  “You mean to say, NOBODY has put two and two together and said, ‘Hey, that Kent guy is Superman.  He’s not even wearing a mask,’?”  In the comics though, Clark Kent’s reasoning for exposing his face is his desire for people to trust him.  He doesn’t want people thinking that he’s hidingsomething, but instead desires for people to see him, as Christopher Reeve said in 1978’s Superman the Movie, as, “A friend.”

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In a world full of mean, intense, brutal, scary superheroes, Superman is the one who flies around with a smile on his face saving cats out of trees.  No better example is made of this (literally, or otherwise) than in Superman the Movie.  The first big screen comic book movie, period, Superman the Movie showed us a superhero who could not only move mountains, but was completely relatable on an emotional level.  We watch throughout the movie as he deals with being an outsider in high school, seeing his adoptive father die in front of him and we then watch his set off on a journey of self discovery, knowing that there is something different about himself that he has to reconcile.  And that’s all before he even puts the costume on.  Quite a journey in less than three acts.

Unfortunately for Superman, comic books and media in general have become very dark and gritty over the years.  This trend has greatly helped characters such as Batman, who flourishes when given such treatment.  It has also apparently scared DC and their parent company, Warner Bros., away from giving Superman the iconic and inspirational treatment he deserves.  Ever since 1992’s “Death of Superman” story arc, DC and their Warner Bros. has tried a number of obnoxious stunts to try and make the character hip and fresh instead of just making him the classic everyman he was always supposed to be.  So, without further adieu, let’s take a look at what DC and Warner Bros. have thought would be a good idea for Superman over the last nearly 20 years.

The Super-Mullet
This one isn’t a really heinous crime, just an annoying sign of the times/attempt at 90’s relevance.  After “Death of Superman” (in which Superman didn’t really die) he spent a long time regenerating in the Fortress of Solitude.  During this period of time he didn’t manage to get a haircut.  The result was a 90’s era, shaggy hairstyle/mullet depending on the artist.  Right now you’re thinking, “So, they were trying to style him up a little!  That’s not so bad!”  Just wait my friend.  It’s gonna get weird.

Superman Red and Blue

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In the later 1990’s, DC Comics decided it would be a good idea to change Superman’s powers to make them electricity based.  He also developed the ability to turn them off, leaving him a completely normal human.  When his powers were on, though, he was forced to wear a blue and white “containment suit.”  Weird enough?  No?  Good, because we’re not done yet.  The next step was to split Superman into two separate energy beings, Superman Blue and Superman Red.  The blue Superman was a cool tempered, thinking man who’d rather use his brain to get himself out of a tight situation.  Superman Red was a brash, hot tempered man of action.  Eventually, the Red/Blue debacle did yield positive results because when Superman returned to status quo, he was back to his original, non-mullet haircut.

lives_suitSuperman Reborn/Lives
Fortunately for all of us, this particular gem never came to fruition.  In the mid to late 1990’s Warner Bros. was trying to get another Superman movie made.  They brought in writer/director Kevin Smith to do rewrites of the Superman script they had, which Smith described as completely awful.  Before tackling the project though, Smith had to meet with the films producer, Jon Peters, who had also worked on the previous Batman films.  Smith’s telling of his meeting with Peters is quite hilarious and worth a viewing.  According to Smith, Peters had a completely distorted view as to what Superman should be.  His three rules as to Smith’s script are the inspiration for the secondary title of this editorial.  Smith claims that Peter’s rules were, “1) I don’t want to see him in that suit.  2) I don’t want to see him fly…3) He’s got to fight a giant spider in the third act.”  Upon Smith’s request for further elaboration on rule #1, Peters apparently said, “It looks too faggy.”  Ultimately, Smith was dropped because Tim Burton was brought on as the director and he had his own writing team.  Burton had some unusual ideas for Superman, like making him an existentialist who sees himself as an outsider on Earth and a “beautiful freak.”  Ultimately, Burton left the project and it was scrapped.  Before completely moving in a different direction though, Warner Bros. hired aspiring screenwriter and comic book fan Alex Ford to write a new version of the script.  Although the studio initially liked his ideas, he was later let go due to “creative differences.”  After being let go, Ford had this to say about the studio and the producers in charge of Superman, “I can tell you they don’t know much about comics. Their audience isn’t you and me who pay $7.00. It’s for the parents who spend $60 on toys and lunchboxes. It is a business, and what’s more important, the $150 million at the box office or the $600 million in merchandising?”

Smallville
This live action TV show tells the story of young Clark Kent (portrayed by the absolutely wooden Tom Welling) growing up in Smallville, Kansas and dealing with his developing powers.  Credit should be given where it’s due: the first couple seasons of this show were really good.  They showed a very young Kent starting his high school career and the show’s “no tights, no flights” rule helped literally and figuratively ground the character so that you could really see how this young man could grow up to become Superman.  Unfortunately, the later seasons of the show largely abandoned the classic elements of the Superman story in favor of moremodern teen drama.

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The show would go entire episodes sometimes without even addressing his powers or ultimate destiny and would instead focus on his near sycophantic love of Lana Lang.  Later in the series (after Clark has graduated high school and is living in Metropolis, thereby negating the title of the series), they decided to start introducing other DC characters such as Green Arrow, “Flash” (due to what I can only assume are licensing disputes, he was Bart Allen instead of Barry Allen and Impulse instead of Flash), Aquaman and Zatanna.  Many of these characters even wore costumes inspired by their comic book counterparts, but Clark still ran around in his jeans and a red jacket.  At this point in the series the “no tights no flights” rule had become quite a hindrance; even though Clark is in his mid-twenties, fights crime, works at the Daily Planet and has, along with some of the other DC characters, formed an early Justice League, he still doesn’t wear a costume or fly.  Eventually, Clark starts wearing a Matrix-esque black trench coat over a black t-shirt with a white Superman emblem on it.  Just like in Action Comics #1.

Superman Returns
In 2006, the Superman film franchise finally got restarted thanks to director Bryan Singer with Superman Returns.  The film was loosely based on Superman the Movie and Superman II.  In Superman Returns, Superman has been gone for a number of years after having found what he thinks is Krypton.  He’s unsuccessful in his venture and returns to Earth to find a world that has moved on without him.  Even his former lover, Lois Lane, is now married with a child.  The movie was very (many would say overly) cerebral and introspective with a noticeable dearth of action.  *SPOILER*Eventually, Superman learns that Lois’ child is really his, the result of a night of passion shortly before Superman left Earth.*END SPOILER*  Many were annoyed at the film’s attempts to replicate the tone and feel of the older Christopher Reeve films, which included a musical score that incorporated much of the original theme created by John Williams in 1978 and archival footage of Marlon Brando as Jor-El.  Some of the casting was a point of contention as well, with the addition of Kate Bosworth playing an obnoxiously whiny, shrewish Lois Lane.  Ultimately, the film was considered a box office flop because, though it made over $200 million, it just barely recovered the $209 million it cost to make the film.

Brandon Routh
Superman Returns definitely had its problems, but the one thing they got right was casting Brandon Routh.  He truly understood the emotional core of the character and the role he plays in our society.  Routh played the character as the inspirational everyman that he’s supposed to be, but still conveyed the emotional side of the character, balanced with his confidence and ability to get his job as a superhero done.  He didn’t spend all of his time scowling at the camera, he would crack a smile whenever necessary to help people have faith in him, like when delivering the line from 1978’s Superman the Movie, “I hope this experience doesn’t put any of you off of flying.  Statistically speaking, it’s still the safest way to travel,” to the passengers of a plane he just saved from crashing.  Routh wasn’t afraid to jump head first into the shoes of this character and really show what it means to be Clark Kent/Superman and show how to do it right.  Christopher Reeve showed us what Superman was like in real life in 1978 and Brandon Routh showed us how to keep that character going in a today’s world.

The Angry Badass

In recent years, DC Comics has been portraying Superman far from the inspirational, everyman that he’s supposed to be.  He’s been shown as an angry, spiteful, badass with his eyes glowing a menacing red everywhere he goes.  They’ve completely done away with the human element of the character.  Clark Kent is rarely, if ever, referenced anymore.

He’s just Superman: the angry, jaded, badass that flies around scaring the shit out of all who gaze upon him.  I understand that comics have gotten progressively darker and grittier over time, but for some characters this just doesn’t work.  By the same token, making Batman lighter and funnier in the 50’s and 60’s was a mishandling of that character.  Superman isn’t supposed to be a badass.  He’s not supposed to be intimidating, scary, dark and/or gritty.

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He’s supposed to be an inspirational everyman.  He doesn’t wear a mask because he wants to inspire faith and hope into people and he wants them to trust him as well.  Would you trust a guy who flew around, scowling at everyone with glowing red eyes?  I sure as Hell wouldn’t!  Another strange element that is used with Superman, is the use of his name.  When he’s working with the rest of the Justice League, especially Wonder Woman, and they’re in private he’s often referred to as Kal instead of Superman or Clark.  This seems so unnatural.  He has never gone by the name Kal-El in his life.  He grew up on Earth as Clark Kent and the public knows him as Superman.

If you found out that you were adopted at an extremely young age, but your original parents called you something other than what you were accustomed to, you wouldn’t all of a sudden start going by your birth name.  It would feel totally unnatural, because it’s not the name you’ve grown to identify yourself with.  This trend serves to further distance Superman from the emotional core of who he is.  At the end of the day, the guy goes home, sleeps on a mattress, drools on his pillow and identifies himself as Clark Kent.  If I were him and Wonder Woman started calling me Kal, I’d say, “Uh, bitch, you know my name is Clark, right?”

Superman: Earth One
supermanearth-1Written by J. Michael Straczynski and published in 2010, Superman: Earth One is a graphic novel that retells the origin of Superman in a modern world.  The first problem: this is the third time DC has retold Superman’s origin in less than ten years!  In 2003 they had Superman: Birthright, in 2009 they did Superman: Secret Origin and now Superman: Earth One.  This tells the story of a moody, young Clark Kent who comes to Metropolis intent on using his powers for financial gain.  He becomes the star quarter back for Metropolis’ NFL team, he gets a job as a researcher at a pharmaceutical company and finally, tries to get a job at the Daily Planet but loses interest.  Eventually, Earth is attacked by an alien race that destroyed Krypton and they now want to find Kal-El to finish the job.  Clark reluctantly dons the Superman suit that his Ma and Pa made for him, insisting that he use his powers for good and he beats the invaders back.  This was just another in a long line of Superman reboots, but instead of the usual Superman, we got an obnoxiously moody and sad Clark Kent in a hoodie.  He doesn’t crack a smile until the last several of the novel.  He’s just sad and mopey for the entirety of the story.  It’s really difficult to get through because you just want to bitch slap Clark and tell him to grow a pair.  It’s a good thing that Jonathan Kent is dead in this story because he’d be pissed!

With all that shit-talking done, I should probably point out the few things that have really gotten it right over the past few years.

Superman: Birthright
Another of the many Superman origin reboots, Superman: Birthright came out in 2003, written by Mark Waid with art by Leinil Yu.  It was a really great, character driven story about Clark Kent in his late 20’s deciding what he’s going to do with his life, ultimately leading to the Superman we all know and love.  It gives the Superman story a very modern feel but still stays true to the roots of the character.  It’s also, CLEARLY, the basis for Straczynski’s Superman: Earth One.  ReadBirthright then go pick up Earth One, you’ll know what I’m talking about.  It’s got just the right amount of emotion and character to make it interesting without getting whiny and obnoxious.  On the other hand, when Clark finally becomes Superman, he’s confident and tough enough to be believable without being a scary, red eyed monster.

Superman: The Animated Series
From the creators of the unbelievably fantastic Batman: The Animated Series, Superman totally got it right.  They treated him not as some unemotional, ultra powerful God, nor did they make him crippled by his feelings.  They treated him as if he grew up a normal person in a small town and one day learned he had superpowers and was from another planet.  This series was about Clark Kent being Superman, not Superman pretending to be Clark Kent once in a while if the writers got around to it.  In one episode where Clark Kent is apparently killed, Superman is having a conversation with Ma and Pa Kent.  They tell him he may have to come up with a new identity, to which he replies, “But, I AM Clark Kent!  I’d go nuts if I wasn’t me anymore!”

Sadly, unless the current atmosphere in comics and the media in general changes, we’re going to see this trend of mishandling Superman continue for a while.  Hopefully, the planned Superman reboot scheduled for 2012 with Zack Snyder attached to direct will bring the character back to his roots and treat him with the respect he deserves.  Hopefully they will show us a Superman that’s not afraid to smile and save cats from trees.  And with a little luck, maybe we’ll finally get the Superman that believes in truth, justice and the American way like he’s supposed to.

Ian Candish
Ian@ComicImpact.com