Several years ago, I ranked the most important hero characters in American/Western culture. It was another example of things I do to occupy my brain without any promise of reward. Anyway, it featured the expected names, from Batman, to James Bond, Sherlock Holmes, and so forth. Sitting at the top of it was Superman. I think there is no character that better symbolizes the American ideal. For most of the twentieth century, he reigned as one of our greatest icons (second most recognizable character in the world behind Mickey Mouse). So why is it he can’t get any respect now?
DC is in the middle of another Superman overhaul. I think this is their forty-seventh one in the last ten years. The attempts have included both comic books (Birthright, Superman: Year One, Jeph Loeb’s run, and now Superman: Earth One) and movies (Superman Returns). The most successful one, Smallville, is a TV show that doesn’t even feature him in costume.
Why is a character representing our ideals not connecting any more? I’ve heard many opinions. They range from “he’s too powerful” to “he’s a boring boy scout”. I cringe when I hear these, but I do understand where they’re coming from.
The source of these critiques is the Silver Age version of the character. From the fifties through the sixties, Superman was a god who lorded over men. He was powerful enough to whiff out a star and could fly faster than light. He was also a bit of a dick. He spent numerous stories screwing with Lois Lane and Lana Lang, egging on cat fights over who would marry him, with him spurning them both in the end (usually with a smile). As drawn by artists like Wayne Boring, he was far superior to anyone who stood near and the look on his face said “I’m way better than you.” This carried over, in a subdued way, to the George Reeves TV series.
This was him at his most popular and it’s really to bad. Originally, Superman was the daydream of the less powerful. He was created during the Great Depression. At a time when the regular person felt bullied by a world indifferent to their suffering, driven on by powerful businessmen and politicians who lived it up while the world headed south, Superman represented someone who could fight for the little guy. He fought corrupt politicians, slum lords, lynch mobs, etc. Even Lex Luthor started his life as an arms dealer. When WWII came around, he took the fight right to the Nazis.
When the war ended and America took the driver’s seat, we felt an unparalleled surge of confidence. We were now the most powerful country in the world. The status quo was good (probably not, but I’m talking about perception for most of the buying public, not reality). Superman changed to fit in. His stories were now about preserving good ole American values and keeping Metropolis the safe, clean place it was. They also revelled in his superiority. For those unfamiliar with the history of superhero comics, this is The Silver Age (the late thirties through WWII is The Golden Age).
When the public mood changed again in the late sixties, Supes starting having problems. The Silver Age version of him was now firmly rooted in the minds of both readers and creators. They just weren’t able to let it go and adapt him once again.
He got a brief reprieve in the late seventies. Things had been dour for so long movie audiences were hungry for optimistic stories of good versus evil. Star Wars delivered it first, then Superman: The Movie. One of the things Richard Donner and Christopher Reeve brilliantly pulled off was taking the character’s old-fashioned optimism and blending it with a more emotionally human portrayal. It’s why the movie still works today. That didn’t last, though.
By the time we got a few years into the eighties, Superman was out of touch again. A cooler, darker Batman better represented the public mood. In Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, we see Batman square off against a Superman who would “say yes to anyone with a badge.”
About the same time Miller wrote those words, John Byrne revamped the character in the comic series The Man of Steel. In it, Superman had his powers turned down and they put the emphasis back on his human upbringing. He was still super powerful, but thought of himself as a regular guy. One of the best parts of the series is the transformation of Lex Luthor from a criminal scientist to a corrupt business man who owns over half of Metropolis. Superman was back to fighting against the status quo!
Well, not for too long. For some reason, both comic readers and creators can’t let go of The Silver Age Superman. Over several years, his powers increased again, all the old gimmicks (like Krypto the Superdog) started to return, and Luthor even turned back into an evil scientist in a robo-suit. Worst of all, the character had a chance to make a huge impact on the public again in a new movie. Unfortunately, Superman Returns was about the Silver Age Superman moping about how the world didn’t need him anymore.
We find ourselves now at a point in history much like the one Superman was first created in. People feel bullied by a world run by people out of touch with problems at the street level. DC Comics probably now has their best opportunity to once again make him the “hero of the oppressed”.
But what have they delivered? A new origin series (Year One) that returns him squarely to his Silver Age self. He has the humanity of the Christopher Reeve version, but it’s more a celebration of who he was instead of who he could be. Also, we had him leaving the pages of his regular series for an off world adventure. Not only has this been done endless times, but it’s again focusing on “Superman the alien god”. It moves him further away from what a modern audience wants to see. They’re now trying to address this by having Superman walk across America, reconnecting with regular folks. The thought’s nice, but it’s a bit too ham-fisted. He’s a fantasy character and he fights battles that represent real ideas. What’s he going to do in this story? Reverse unemployment in the rust belt? I’d love to be proven wrong, but I dont’ see much hope.
So what we need is a Superman closer in spirit to the Golden Age version, but attuned to modern sensibilities. I’ll share my thoughts in the next couple of days (maybe even tomorrow) on how I think they can do this, plus talk about two projects (a graphic novel and movie) that show a glint of hope.