Why Is It So Hard to Get Superman Right in Movies? (When TV Does It So Well!)

'Superman & Lois'Credit: CW
Superman is one of our most beloved characters, so why are people afraid of seeing him happy? 

There are lots of characters that are created for pop culture and then stand the test of time, but one that people try to put their own spin on and fail over and over is Superman.  

This week, Superman & Lois debuted on the CW, and the first thing that struck me is how well they understood who Superman is. He's a beacon of hope who has a huge heart. He's protecting humanity because he cares about us, not because he thinks he's better than us. 

When push comes to shove, he's one of us. 

And audiences have responded by putting Superman & Lois into landmark ratings. 

One of the things the show gets right is the source material. Check out this tweet from the show's writer assistant. It shows them using Superman for All Seasons, easily my favorite Superman story. I really hope they give us a shot of him and Lois flying over the cornfields, but maybe that's for another day.  

If you're going to adapt Superman, you have to use your heart. The character cannot be subverted—that would make him cynical. And there is nothing super about that. 

If you've read a lot of Superman comics, then you know there are lots of iterations of the character, but few are as dour and sullen as the movies we've gotten in the last 20 years. While I know gritty comic movies were all the rage, Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, and Justice League take Superman and focus on him as "the other" instead of as one of us.

The only time Superman is human is when they have him making the impossible choice to break someone's neck. Something that felt decidedly not like Superman. What makes us believe in a character like this is that he's supposed to be the best of us. Someone who can do anything, but continually makes the sacrifices it takes to make our lives better. 

I guess my major beef with Superman in movies these days is how humanity gets forgotten. And when it comes back, like with the "Martha" moment, how much it feels forced. 

Even when Superman died defeating Doomsday, it felt like we never had a grip on what he meant to people. We saw them see him as a god, which I guess sort of works, but this wasn't a god they cared about. It was one they feared. I suppose if Luthor's dark plan was to subvert Supe's image, that's a good story. But you have to show his light side and the light side of the way people love him for that to work. 

We never got it. 

Henry Cavill Credit: Warner Bros.

I know the age-old debate—Batman is tortured and interesting, but Superman is just a hokey farm boy.

How is there any depth? There are no stakes for the guy who can do everything! People have been whining about Superman since the comic debuted in the newspaper, but one thing that struck me is how confusing it is that movies continually get superman wrong, when TV consistently gets him so right. 

Maybe I'm just a Smallville stan, but that show got it right. The movies I've seen lately, not so much. 

In fact, outside of the original two Christopher Reeves/Richard Donner Superman movies, the others have really struggled to capture the ethos of the character. It's like they focus way too hard on what makes him unlike us, and forget that what makes Superman so special is how much he's like us.

The purity of the Superman comics, of an adopted kid trying to get to know his parents and also his destiny, is so often ignored in these movies. There's a Pixar element to the story that they love on television but that for some reason, recent movies forget to take seriously. 

I have no answer as to why this happens. 

Richard Donner's Superman II got this right. When Superman gave up his powers it was to be a human, when he got them back, it was because he cared so much about humanity. 

As an adopted person trying to make my way in this world and understand both the family I was born into and the genetics given to me at birth, Superman will always have a huge place in my heart. I'll watch anyone tackle him. And I truly do appreciate some of the leaps the recent movies take. From the Singer version where he lifts the car, even to the Costner and Diane Lane stuff in Man of Steel, that's handled well. Especially the younger Clark years when he's saving kids from busses. 

But I think what movies forget is that those themes should permeate through the rest of the story. The TV shows have understood that in a way, Superman should always be a coming-of-age story. He should always be learning what makes us human, and embracing those ideals. 

It is interesting to see him fail, but it's not interesting to see his failures become what defines him. If the "S" on his chest stands for hope, then we have to feel that as an audience.

EDITOR'S NOTE...As I was writing this article, news that Ta-Nehisi Coates will be writing a new Superman film for DC Films and Warner Brothers just broke. What a crazy turn of events! All I can say is how excited I am for this perspective. I think shaking Superman up is exactly what's been needed, and I think Coates' point of view will take what I've been talking about in this article and help bring it back to the big screen. 

Let me know what you think in the comments.      

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2 Comments

people have different ideas of what he's supposed to be.
A majority seen the animated series and the Donner movies and thing thats it.
But what is disregarded are the numerous darker toned stories from the comics where Snyder is digging through like in Else-World stories that have been popular.

March 1, 2021 at 1:46PM, Edited March 1, 1:46PM

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Vincent Gortho
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Good Post

March 1, 2021 at 8:09PM

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