It has been almost 40 years since the release of Richard Donner's Superman. The film saw the theatrical debut of Superman after various television serials and independently made films. The film transformed the already popular hero into an American Icon, with many movies and television shows going on to honor the character's legacy.
Later shows such as Smallville and Superman: The Animated Series succeeded in doing something that not many adaptations can do — they made the Man of Steel relatable. Smallville showcased a young Clark Kent learning the true extent of his powers while living through high school, whereas Superman: The Animated Series showed Superman trying to balance his life as Clark Kent with his crime fighting alter ego. Both series showed the vulnerable side of Superman, while also making him the beacon of hope that he should be around the world. It is a real shame that this feat has yet to be repeated. The once relatable 'Boy Scout' is now viewed as a god, and all the hope that he inspired has since been replaced with fear in modern screen adaptations. Where did it all go wrong?
The Fall Of Superman: From Light To Dark
In 2008, Warner Bros. hired David S. Goyer to write a script for a new Superman film and hired Christopher Nolan to produce based on the success of Nolan's The Dark Knight. This was a major mistake on the studio's behalf. While The Dark Knight may be the greatest comic book film of all time, hiring the people behind it to make a Superman film is absurd. What worked in The Dark Knight wouldn't work for Superman. The Dark Knight was a dark and gritty retelling of Batman that was a very much grounded film. Superman simply can't be dark or gritty, he needs to be the bright and colorful superhero that the world looks up to, so Batman is without a doubt the worst character to base a Superman film off of. Of course, Warner Bros. wanted to replicate the success of Nolan and Goyer's The Dark Knight, and thus, Man of Steel was born.
Zack Snyder and Henry Cavill were later brought on to direct and star, respectively, in the reboot, with Cavill being the 16th actor to portray the superhero in live action. With a Superman who was very reminiscent of the late Christopher Reeve, and a director who was known for his outlandish and visually compelling cinematography, the film looked as if it could replicate the success of the original films. If only we had been so lucky.
The hope and color of the original Superman films have been replaced with a dark and gritty retelling of his origins. The relatable character that we have known and loved for many years is gone, and in his place stands this god-like figure that has destroyed half of Metropolis and killed the only surviving member of his planet. The film is saturated with religious symbolism, with Superman being portrayed as a second coming (at one point he floats in air in the same position as Jesus' crucifixion) that is to be feared, not trusted.
Batman V Superman Only Made Things Worse
Many hoped that Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice would be the solution to the problems of Man of Steel, but it only made it worse. The film showed our beloved Kal El as a (literal) illegal alien who is standing trial for the destruction of Metropolis. To add insult to injury, he's viewed as the villain in his fight against Batman, as the film is clearly more sympathetic to Batman's point of view than Superman's. The film closes with the rushed and unearned Death of Superman storyline as Superman is killed by Doomsday and ends with a funeral scene that just falls flat with the audience. After two whole movies of the world hating Superman, we are meant to believe that the world genuinely loves him now. But it doesn't work, and it goes to show that Death of Superman should have been the basis for a true Man of Steel sequel.
Now this isn't an attack on Man of Steel, Batman V Superman or Henry Cavill. I am actually a huge fan of both films, and I feel that Henry Cavill does a wonderful job as Superman; this is simply my critical response as a fan to the way Superman is being portrayed in the DCEU. With Geoff Johns in charge of the DCEU for the foreseeable future, we can hopefully expect a true comic faithful adaptation of the Man of Steel.
Now, a true Man of Steel sequel is pretty far away. DC are busy putting out standalone films for the rest of the Justice League, and most likely the sequel to Justice League, so Man of Steel 2 is still at least 5 years away, if at all. This isn't necessarily a bad thing though; it may very well turn out to be a blessing in disguise. This gives DC time to prepare, gives them time to write a script for a comic faithful Superman. It will take a lot to repair the damage that has been done, but I believe that the key to restoring the status of Superman in the DCEU is actually a villain.
Can Brainiac Help Rehab Superman's Image In The DCEU?
Brainiac was rumored to be the main antagonist for the Justice League film, but with Darkseid confirmed to be the League's main antagonist, Brainiac is sure to be the villain for a Man of Steel sequel. Zack Snyder has even spoke of the possibility of Brainiac appearing as the villain of future Superman films. With Johns on board, and most likely penning all future DCEU scripts, expect the Man of Steel to be an adaptation of John's acclaimed Superman story arc: Brainiac. The arc is notable for reintroducing the bottled city of Kandor - The last remaining city of Krypton - and Brainiac, while also killing off Jonathan Kent. The arc saw Superman and Supergirl pitted against Brainiac, who has bottled Metropolis and attempts to shrink the city and add it to his collection. If the future Man of Steel sequel adapts the Brainiac story arc, then expect the Superman that we all deserve.
DC and Johns will want to avoid the controversy that arose from Man of Steel regarding the destruction of Metropolis. What better way to avoid said controversy than to shrink Metropolis down into a bottle and essentially take it out of the equation? Introducing Brainiac will give Superman a villain that can equal him in brute strength and also beat him mentally, presenting the son of Krypton with a challenge he has never faced before.
The introduction of Kandor and the bottling of Metropolis presents a situation that was vaguely touched upon in Man of Steel: Will Superman save Krypton or Earth? This will create a conflict within Superman that will push him to new limits as he tries to save his new planet while attempting to salvage his old. The film will become what Man of Steel should have been, a movie that showcases all the good Superman can do, and all the hope he inspires.
Also, with Brainiac being a collector, it would be a appropriate time to revamp the Fortress of Solitude into something more akin to its comic book counter part. It would be pretty awesome seeing alien creatures protected in the Fortress as well as various alien technology - possibly even a hint at the Phantom Zone projector - housed within it.
As stated before, this isn't an attack on the DC Extended Universe, it's just a critical observation on how Superman is being written into its story arcs. Man of Steel 2, which I hope is based off of Brainiac and Superman: Unbound, will hopefully reinvent the character for the DC Extended Universe. While many fans of the comics will know that Geoff Johns will bring about a new day for the Big Blue Boy Scout, many casual moviegoers have been left with a bad taste in their mouths after Man of Steel and Batman V Superman and will be put off of going to see another Superman film. It is time to change that, time to change Superman and the DCEU and we can only hope that a true Man of Steel sequel, one we deserve, will bring about this change.