Superman is back on the big screen again in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (BvS). This is not about that movie or at least not entirely. Although, one can expect lengthy discussions on the subject for years to come or until Justice League Pt. 1 starts dropping trailers. I find it ironic that the same internet personalities who reviewed the teasers for the film, thus adding to the hype, were then devastated when the movie wasn’t a revelation. Nerd culture repeats this cycle over and over. Ever hoping and ever being Phantom Menaced by their own expectations. I digress. No, this is about a conversation I had (via text) with a family member after BvS. This person is obsessed with Superman to a degree often questioned by those who love him. He loves everything to do with the character and thoroughly enjoyed Man of Steel. To each their own. He enjoyed BvS more than me and defended the choice to keep Superman a brooding and sad character. It was then that I realized that there is a generational divide between comic book, movie, and Superman fans. Leaving me to wonder, do modern audiences and filmmakers miss the point of Superman?
After Man of Steel came out and I opined this listless version of Clark but my family member told me to relax. After all, he concluded, this wasn’t a fully realized Superman. Of course he’d be developed more in the next one. He’d get closer to the truth and justice part of the iconic character. Maybe not the America way deal, as there are global dollars to not alienate, but he’ll get there. Give it time. I brought his rebuke up after BvS and how he was wrong and that there was no development from sad Supes to heroic Man of Steel. It was then that he told me, “I agree that he needs to be more upstanding. But I don’t think he has to be overly cheesy like Christopher Reeve was.” Ouch. This comment just days after Honest Trailers called Superman (1978) campy. Double ouch.
This all got me wondering, how does a movie go from instant classic to trash in less than a generation? Any person born before 1990 will tell you that at the time Superman ’78 and Batman ’89 were two of the best popcorn movies ever made. Christopher Reeve is Superman to many people and John William’s score is the definitive sound of the last son of Krypton. Yet to younger fans these movies are campy? Christopher Reeve is cheesy? That Superman just isn’t glum enough for them.
Let’s deal quickly with the comedy of Superman ’78. It is a product of both the time the move was made, what was happening in the comic books, and the version of Superman Richard Donner was bringing to the screen. Never mind, that the movie was made for families and not exclusively 30 year old fan boys (like me) who obsess over source material. Also, 1978 was BEFORE Frank Miller and Alan Moore remade superheroes in their own grim images. Something isn’t retroactively bad simply because it is of a different time.
How about Reeve himself? It’s easy to dismiss his performance because of some of the slapstick happening around him. But his Superman may be the most complicated to ever grace the screen. Reeve was a classically trained actor. A man of the theater. A man of intellect and art. There is a subtly to his performance that is often overlooked because of the colorful world in which he exists. For instance, the Reeve Superman is actually 4 people. On the one hand he is the invulnerable Superman. The ever hopeful crusader for truth, justice, and the American way. A man so noble he discloses his own weakness to the world to make it feel safer. On the other hand there is Kal-El. The orphaned son of a destroyed world. The man left in solitude in a frozen tundra to commune with the ghost of his ancient father. Then the artifice of the bumbling Smallville reporter Clark Kent. An intentionally goofy character meant to do more than mere glasses ever could. Lastly, the Clark who watches his father die. The most powerful being on earth unable to stop our mere mortal frailties. Yet which persona is the real one?
You see Christopher Reeve isn’t the cheesy Superman the 21st century would lead you to believe. He is sad. The sadness of his Superman is that there is always distance between him and humanity. He feels it everywhere and with everyone. He loves humanity because he desperately wants to be human. He wants to belong. Thus giving him a true weakness, people. After all, this is the Superman willing to give his power away to love a woman. Say what you want about Reeve’s Superman but underneath the boy scout and the nerd there was Kal-El a vulnerable alien looking to be loved. Heartbroken over the death of his father and his complicated relationship with Lois Lane. Take for instance, this scene from the worst and cheesiest Superman movie ever made.
How about this scene from the Richard Donner cut of Superman II
These aren’t even the two best examples of Reeve and yet they underscore the point. There is a real person underneath the “boy scout”. There is vulnerability and sadness in the performance. In fact, it is more perfectly balanced than either Singer’s or Snyder’s Superman. William’s score even underlines the sadness of the character. I’d argue that what modern movie makers fail to capture is the right tone for Superman. He should stand in contrast to the dark and cynical world around him. He should be an anachronism. Raised by older mid west farmers. A touch of sadness sure. Some vulnerability most certainly. But overall truth and justice. Not unlike Captain America. The conflict in and around him should be the clash of classic ideals versus the despair and paranoia of the present. What if a guy from the 50’s woke up today? That is the v in BvS. The clash of worldviews. If Zack Snyder wants to use 9/11 imagery than Superman ought to be pre-9/11 hope and Batman post-9/11 fear. Those ideas need to be driven as a through line in the story. Clark/Kal-El can lament his woes in private. He can confess his fears to Lois Lane or Ma Kent but to the world he must present a different face. Superman. What makes him alien isn’t just his origins or his powers. Superman is an alien because he believes what we used to believe. He is the last true believer. A man from the greatest generation living in the me generation. The last man of faith trying to keep the light while we want to snuff it out.
Both Christopher Reeve and the description above point out that you don’t need to strip the Man of Steel of his iconic traits to make him “relatable”. I’m not a psychotic billionaire orphan playboy who dresses like a Bat but I get Batman. Similarly, I don’t need to be a superhuman alien saint to get Superman. I’ve felt alone. I’ve felt distance between me and my fellow man. We all have. We all hide parts of our true selves out of fear. We all put on a idealized versions of ourselves and feel inner conflict. We all remember a better time in the world. We are all nostalgic for something more pure and more innocent. Superman should be that and could represent those longings all at the same time. Superman ought to be a contrasting mirror turning back our agitation and 21st century angst back on us. Convicting us of our selfish self obsession and hidden darkness. Instead, modern audiences want to make him miserable just like us. Maybe we don’t want to strive toward ideals anymore. Maybe we don’t want to become better people anymore. Instead, we want to bring our icons down to earth and make them messy like us. No better than us. That makes for not just a sad Superman but a sad world. It does however prove that we still need the Light to show us the way.