Is Superman boring? It’s a question comic book fans have been debating among themselves for years, and new rumours about the Man of Steel have reopened discussions about just how interesting an all-powerful farm boy can be.
First came the reports that Henry Cavill, considered shelved as Kal-El after a series of unlucky breaks onscreen, might be back in the role. Then on the seventh anniversary of 2013’s Man of Steel came whispers that movie studio Warner Bros still wouldn’t give the character another solo film, the implication being that the clean-cut Superman couldn’t make a splash in today’s varied, overstuffed superhero marketplace.
Whether either of these rumours are true or not remains to be seen, but the latter suggestion soon had fans online re-trialling the ancient “is Superman interesting” question – because arguably, his background as a refugee, champion of social justice and keen journalist make his story uniquely appropriate for these times.
And no, this is not an opinion I have alone.
It’s easy to see why Superman gets so much flack. One of the earliest “superheroes” in comic books and undoubtedly the first to popularize the genre, to some fans he still feels a little unevolved – a little basic. He can do anything! He’s beloved! He’s indestructible! How much room is there for depth, really?
But this does feel like a blinkered view. Many of the criticisms of Superman stem from fans’ tendency to see superheroes as top trumps characters – a stats sheet of powers and abilities, vs those of their enemies – and on those standards compared to his rivals and counterparts, Superman is less of an underdog, more a Krypto the Super-Dog.
Beyond having his powers constantly stripped away by magic rocks, it’s hard to imagine Superman facing the kind of struggle we now expect from our heroes who get knocked down, get up again and fight against impossible odds.
But as various Superman comics have proved again and again (many of which fans have been sharing on social media), there are plenty of ways to put Superman through the wringer without having to rely on kryptonite – as well as stories to tell about him that go beyond a personal or physical struggle.
Even if he is faster than a speeding bullet, how can one man eradicate deep-seated injustice and cruelty? How much does saving lives actually improve them, long-term (apart from the whole “not being dead” part)? And what responsibility does Superman have to the establishment versus ordinary people?
In many ways, there’s never been a better time for an interesting Superman movie – and not just because of the movements and increasing division many of these tweets allude to that Superman could be involved with.
Thanks to the rise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and similar movies from Warner Bros and Fox, audiences are more well-versed than ever in superhero stories, and have responded to projects (like the Deadpool movies) that begin to deconstruct them. Once upon a time, Superman may have been one of the only superheroes the general public had a firm awareness of – now, he’s put into a wider context that can be played against.
As many, many others have also noted, in times that seem darker than ever (remember the pandemic? Still happening) a character who represents hope and optimism is also more subversive than any number of more openly troubled heroes. Why not show that on-screen?
Whether Henry Cavill is the Superman to make that happen is another question – while I’ve always felt he was unlucky with the dour material he was given, I was also quite intrigued by the stories from a few months ago about Michael B Jordan being offered the role – but whatever happens, I hope that the last son of Krypton gets his chance to soar onto the silver screen once again for a story that uses the full potential of the character.
If nothing else, it’d give Superman fans something new to argue over apart from Zack Snyder and whether he should still have pants on his costume.
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