Upon hearing about the now officially upcoming Man of Steel 2 , I reworked a piece I'd written before about why making Superman more flawed and worrying about his relatability is such an unwise and symbollically destructive move. (ICYMI, you can read it here.) But as the attention shifts to what creative direction might be taken for the sequel, it also seems wise to address the kind of complaints and concerns that led to that sort of take on the character being employed in the first place. In other words, the unwavering attachment to his traditional identity that I advocate so passionately, on its own, still doesn’t get us away from the apparent challenge writers, artists, and directors have been facing since around the 1970s:
What do we do with a character like this in today’s world?
I’ve mostly rejected this question, because I’ve read and watched many stories rise to the challenge right properly (e.g. Superman: Red Son, Kingdom Come, Injustice: Gods Among Us, Superman vs The Elite, and especially All-Star Superman, just to name a few). But for the purposes of being constructive, let’s play out this premise: If we really wanted to place the classic Superman character in today’s modern world, how could we go about doing so in a way general audiences would find both engaging and entertaining? How do we get an awesome trilogy of full-length, live-action features from a character who seemingly never needs to grow or adapt, without it getting boring? It’s a fair question (even for someone like me who can no longer hear the words “Superman” and “boring” in the same sentence without my eyes twitching out of instantaneous frustration).
So here’s what you do: You take the narrative focus off of Superman, because Superman is Superman, and he's always going to do Superman things. And since this noble reliability is his most defining characteristic, there just isn't a whole lot you can do with that over the span of three movies, other than deepen it. This is that titular riddle of the classic Superman in the modern world that just can't seem to be solved.
So how about we finally stop trying?
(Note: From here on out, this piece will play out like a thought experiment that imagines a possible trilogy of movies that could exist, and not the actual sequel to the actual movie that does. The goal here is to get you outside of your head, so as to hopefully see that the classic Superman could totally work when given the right set up, and then apply that vision to our thinking about the sequel. Again, I'm well aware these movies I'm about to describe aren't on the table at the moment, so you'll just have to play along if you're gonna get anything out of this.)
Nothing About Superman Is Really About Superman
Where should this focus go then? If we're conceding that Superman as is, by himself, may no longer be a viable centerpiece for what is still a billion dollar franchise, then who should be that centerpiece? Well, hold onto your butts here:
I mean, remember for a second that this whole dilemma comes down to our issues with Superman, not his issues with us. So you don’t fight that, you use that. And to their credit, this is the one aspect of the take on the character offered up by Christopher Nolan, Zack Snyder, and David S. Goyer I would compliment (aside from the fact that it was barely developed over the course of the two movies they gave us): the idea that he becomes a divisive figure among us humans, no matter what he does, simply because of his very existence — that is, because of how his presence in our world makes us feel about ourselves.
Do you see it already? Can’t you just picture it now?
1. The blogs- “Superman: The Pinnacle of White Male Privilege?”
2. The listicles- “13 Times Superman Actually Hurt the People He Was Allegedly 'Saving'”
3. The punditry- “It’s so clearly obvious that Superman is a ploy by the liberal establishment to begin the process of granting amnesty to all illegal immigrants currently residing in the United States. I mean, underneath it all, that’s what he is! Am I right!? Look, you may see some kind of perverted savior in an effeminate leotard with a baby blanket wrapped around his neck, but I see a Trojan Horse filled with Mexican illegals!”
4. The “debates”- “Tonight we discuss Superman’s most recent omitting of 'the American Way' from his comments regarding truth and justice. Was this an honest mistake on his part? Or rather the first sign he intends to use his 'above the law' status to subvert the Constitution, and even possibly become some kind of figurehead for an alien coup d'état?”
5. The ironic detachment- What’s the over/under on months before hipsters start wearing some kind of kitschy “Superman Saved Me and All I Got Was This Stupid T-Shirt” shirts? Two? Three?
This all sounds about right, doesn’t it? Superman shows up to help us out, also proving that we’re not alone in the universe... and we all run around like children, wondering what all this means for our frail sense of personal significance — complete with lots of pouting, lots of tantrums, lots of whining, and lots of cynicism. Not from everybody, of course, but a lot — just way, way too many.
The Consummate Grown Up
And what’s Superman doing through all of this? Being the adult, of course. He doesn’t pout back, or throw vengeful fits of his own, or ever lecture. He knows you don't get down on a toddler’s level while they’re having one of their episodes, or give grand inspirational speeches to slouching, disinterested emotional teenagers who would bash the “I Have a Dream” speech if it came from someone they felt threatened by.
And yea, it bums him out that so many of us are being so bratty, and he wasn’t quite ready for the job to be so thankless — so much so that he struggles with it internally over the course of the first movie — but he doesn’t let it infiltrate his sense of self. He rises above this, continuing to be himself regardless of what everybody else is doing.
And guess what? That, right there, is your first movie; that’s his arc. While he’s protecting us from and defeating Zod or Brainiac (with a bunch of epic action, of course, because these movies can still be exciting while managing to genuinely be about something), he learns to just be who he is and do what he does no matter what. The work is hard, quite obviously, but it sincerely fulfills him, all by itself.
He accepts he’s the grown up here, and doesn’t worry about our pissing & moaning at all anymore. He continues to save the day happily, even though we’re — for the most part — just as ungrateful and poopy-faced about it as before (which is why, for the first film, the problem needs to be Kryptonian, so any supreme act of heroism he performs is viewed through the lens of "Well none of that would've ever even happened if he hadn’t shown up!"). By the end, we haven’t changed, but he no longer frets over whether or not we do, because “he learned to live with it... he didn’t care.”
Where We Come In... And Grow
Our change would come in the second movie, when Lex Luthor freaks out and wreaks havoc on the entire world just to get at Superman — due to his own insecurity and mistrust — and our hero saves us all again, at tremendous personal cost to himself. We watch our metaphorical adoptive father get the crap kicked out of him by the bully (i.e. whatever minions or machines Luthor devises) he’s busting his ass to protect us from, and we finally relent.
We become that crapped-on-by-life kid who’s routinely been disappointed by everyone else so far... who then gets a new guardian... and puts this guy through the ringer because we’re just waiting to be disappointed yet again... before finally being proved wrong by the actions of this new protector as he keeps on coming through for us over and over and over again. We realize this guy’s the real deal: an actual, real-life rewarder of faith.
That’s the close of the second movie: He loved all of us, and now we — voluntarily unified through inspiration and gratitude — love him. And if we can indeed learn to stop fearing and love an alien with that much power, then how hard would it now be to love and learn to trust our fellow mere mortals? I mean, it doesn't really seem like so much of a stretch, now does it?
The Ultimate Test
The third movie could then be the culmination of all this by bringing in the human-race-threatening, all out alien attack from Darkseid (with the full force of Apokolips behind him). Now that we’ve finally begun to come together as a global people, our burgeoning utopia is subsequently invaded by pure evil and destruction, serving as a final exam of sorts for us. We are thus tested as a species like never before — forced to fully fuse together, rise up as one, and meet that challenge.
And you know what? We start looking out for and protecting him too. We shield him from Darkseid at his weakest moment, willing to defend with our very lives the man who did it so many times for us. Through the example and love of our greatest hero and surrogate parent, lighting the way for all of us, we became like him. He made us better without ever making us do anything — without even a single moment of sanctimonious preaching.
We get taken to the absolute brink of despair but rally, power through, and win... with him. He saves us, from both the bad guys and ourselves.
The best example of how to use whatever power you’ve been given: that’s Superman. That’s always been Superman, and that should always be Superman.
Unless we keep screwing it up.