Posted by: Doc Comics | October 9, 2010

Superman Rebirth, Reboot, RetCon: Why the world needs Superman

Snyder doubts it’ll be Smallville’s Tom Welling or Singer’s Brandon Routh.

Wonder Woman isn’t the only superhero icon being fast-tracked for an update: After news broke that Christopher Nolan was being given the reins and reign on the new Superman movie, and that his younger brother Jonathon and David Goyer (scribes for his Batman films) were at work on a script, we now know Zach Snyder (300, The Watchmen) will be directing.  Warner Bros. is racing a 2011 deadline from the Superman copyright lawsuit and the script is “a mess.”  Insiders say the storyline seems to be exploring themes familiar to Mark Waid’s BIRTHRIGHT retcon, which alongside Morrison’s ALL-STAR SUPERMAN has emerged as an instant classic, but these details orbit the more pressing “Superman Problem: Is this superhero still relevant to cynical 21st Century audiences? Are “darker” morally-ambivalent superheroes like Batman and Iron Man what audiences crave?

Comics fans hear this complaint a lot: Superman is boring, and Singer’s emo Superman-as-deadbeat-dad melodrama did little to dispel such perceptions. And while a comics fan might reach for one of the above graphic novels as refutation, popular audiences who remember Lois & Clark or Smallville and Superman Returns often have a more ambiguous impression due to frequent meddling by executive trend-followers.  Comics fans have pretty strong opinions about what the next Superman movie needs to avoid disaster, and a few recurring themes emerge: stick with the core character and confront him with epic threats from super-powered enemies, yet draw inspiration from successful stories while telling new tales.  These contradictions between the iconic familiar and fresh stories problematize RetCon reboots, frustrating producers and audiences alike who demand a visionary update. As myth, Superman should inspire, but as media commodity this icon must conform to accepted formulas for target demographics. Fans and gamers alike have been impressed with the teaser trailer for the DC Online game and its epic apocalyptic militarism.

Yet epic threats and F/X mean little without a compelling character at its core.  Grant Morrison explains his vision of the Man of Tomorrow as a man of steel living in a world made of glass:

“My entire approach to Superman had come from the way that guy had been sitting; so easy, so confident, as if, invulnerable to all physical harm, he could relax completely and be spontaneous and warm. That pose, sitting hunched on the bollard, with one knee up, the cape just hanging there, talking to us seemed to me to be the opposite of the clenched, muscle-bound look the character sometimes sports and that was the key to Superman for me…. I felt I’d really grasped the concept when I saw him as Everyman, or rather as the dreamself of Everyman. That “S” is the radiant emblem of divinity we reveal when we rip off our stuffy shirts, our social masks, our neuroses, our constructed selves, and become who we truly are. … The thing I disliked about the Superman Returns movie was the American Christ angle, which reduced Superman to a sniveling, masochistic wreck, crawling around on the floor, taking a kicking from everyone… The “Superman as Christ” thing is a little too reductive for me, and tends to overlook the fact that Superman is by no means a pacifist in the Christ sense. Superman would never turn the other cheek; Superman punches out the bully. Superman is a fighter.”

Christ figure, Queer identities, and Everyman ethos… Could the Smallville mythos empower a single-bounded leap into a new movie?

Mark Waid’s explanation is elegant in it’s simplicity: “Gods achieve their power by encouraging us to believe in them. Superman achieves his power by believing in us.” As others have noted, what makes Superman such an extraordinary everyman Übermensch is not his awesome alien powers, but his noble restraint and democratic ethos as a crusader for social justice with no agenda beyond protect and serve.

The movie’s creative team have a superheroic task ahead of them, but I don’t think today’s challenge is making audiences believe that a man can fly; Rather, it’s answering WHY he would… convincing us that any decent person in an age of media frenzy and divisive politics would risk everything for the greater good.  Oddly enough, today’s conditions are very similar to those of the Depression Era that gave birth to this hero: Gilded Age corruption of profiteers, terrorizing threats abroad (and Red Scares at home), and a population in need of hope. The Big Two are now imagining a new HEROIC AGE of Brighter Days amidst dark times, and the movies would do well to take a cue from comics rather than the movie trends that echo the grim and gritty ’90s. Seriously, Team Nolan, GET OVER THE SAME OLD SAME OLD… Singer’s only mistake was his slavish fetish to what’s already gone before cinematically (and his innovation, superlovechild, was a bomb despite other cool innovations). I myself trust Goyer and Nolan the younger with the script, and hope that Snyder can capture some of the pathos of All-Star Superman, Birthright, and Secret Identity that have proven to comics fans that the inspiration of this iconic archetype is needed now more than ever. As the ultimate illegal alien immigrant who is himself inspired by America’s most noble and virtuous aspirations, Superman continues to be a powerful symbol of utopian futurism for Truth, Justice, and the American Way. If there is to be a NeoHeroic Age, of inclusive tolerance and bravery and re-commitment to Civil Rights globally, we need a Superman who can lead it by super-example.  Indeed, America needs Superman now more than ever.

UPDATE: Snyder and Nolan have picked Brit Henry Cavill as the new Superman and the story looks to be inspired by Geoff Johns’ “Secret Identity” story.

Will Snyder’s “Man of Steel” be a dark knight? Or Champion of hope in tomorrow?



  1. Superman Rebirth, Reboot, RetCon…

    I found your entry interesting, I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…

  2. If someone can do it it’d be Nolan. But Snyder?

    • Snyder makes it pretty, and his WATCHMEN is as good as a translation gets. Comics are better, sure, but he turned Gilliam’s “unfilmable” into watchable… screw the haters.

  3. Apparently Snyder can handle action, which is what a Superman film needs. It’s kind of too bad Welling won’t get the role…

  4. Superman vs. The Elite… adapting a classic story from Action Comics #775 “What’s so funny about Truth, Justice, and the American Way?”

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