Quick question—Who is Superman’s biggest enemy?
Lex Luthor? Sure, using only his very human intellect and will, he has troubled Superman many times.
Doomsday? I mean he has killed Superman twice (once in comic books and once in live-action) he is a deadly Kryptonian monstrosity to be reckoned with.
Batman? I mean He has outwitted Kal-El many times but mostly due to prep time or Superman’s morality stopping him from drop a fucking building on top of Batman.
If you think from a perspective of whats stopped the grand-daddy of all Superheroes from growing or being adapted to different formats more frequently—that is nostalgia. Mind you, not even the kind of nostalgia which is good, but a corrupted version.
Unlike his buddy Batman, Superman hasn’t had enough spinoffs, live-action adaptations, games etc. While the reasons may vary from the inherent characteristics of both heroes (one an indestructible god, the other a smart and fearless human being) to pure profit, digging deeper to the root cause becomes necessary at this point.
GODS AMONG MEN
Superman has always represented hope, just like any messianic figure does in any culture. Horus, Apollo, Jehovah, Kal-El, Clark Joseph Kent (obvious BvS reference)…they all represent an ideal for us to strive towards (ya this is gonna be full of MoS/BvS references). That is Superman’s primary appeal and yet somehow his disadvantage. It is inevitably true that Superman can be for lack of a better word a ‘boring’ character to some. A god who cannot die unless some plot device (usually Kryptonite or sometimes magic) is brought into a story may remove the stakes from a character. The reason why many people like John McClane and not Rambo is that McClane gets hurt and has his ass handed to him often. Same reason why Superman might on paper appear ‘boring’ to the casual fan.
Not that I consider myself a Superman expert. I haven’t read every Superman comic book in existence and cannot tell you what appears on issue #58 of Action Comics in 1983 or something, but having read my share of some books and watched my share of live-action media more obsessively than the casual fan, I can say I was a Superman fan since I was a kid and continue to be one. The reasons have varied over the years. Most people like Superman because he represents something better than us. To put it in analytical terms, he represents wish fulfilment. We all wish we were either that strong and fast or that there was someone Super like that to save us in troubling times.
But the question remains of how do you make a story about a near-immortal god interesting? How do you provide him stakes that matter?
I’m sure most of us would have heard of great mythological stories like Ramayana or Mahabharata. Or the Greek epics like The Illiad or Odyssey. Coming to relatively modern ones, such as William Shakespeare’s plays like Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth which continue to have an impact on modern-day storytellers.
If your not a language or history professor or even an avid history buff. You more than likely got the story of the Illiad the war of Troy via the movie Troy, which significantly removes all the magical aspects and makes it more realistic yet not losing out its inherent spirit. Maybe you came to know about Greek mythology not through studying textbooks but through watching Disney adaptations or playing God of War. Many of you might not be able to appreciate how good Shakespeare’s use of language and poetry, but you certainly know the story of Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet through various adaptations and interpretations in all forms of media like books, movies, etc.
For any myth to endure in culture, deconstruction, re-telling adaptations is a must. Once you take a familiar character or themes and change the setting or dig deeper, it inevitably opens up these characters to a newer generation. These things happen all the time in comics, where instead of the same Wolverine existing from the 1960s, where they sometimes stripped of his healing factor or mind-controlled or put in a dystopian western setting or made a father. The essential character remains the same—A mutant who is angry and cold on the outside but has a soft heart within—the claws and costumes and eras may vary. The same thing applies to every comic book character including…nay…especially to Superman.
MAN OF TOMORROW
To answer the question from earlier, the only way the Superman myth can endure is for him to be challenged in different ways. For him to be made to lose his moral compass, or for him to die and be resurrected, for him to experience the ‘man’ part of Superman more so that we can connect with him in a better way. He needs to do more than just be an ever-smiling and saving cats out of trees type character that some zealots want him to be.
Fans who bitch and moan about any changes to classical things have probably existed since one stone age man decided to paint a bird instead of a bull. It happens all the time—Mozart, was probably criticized for being too experimentative, as were Da Vinci and Michaelangelo. But with the advent of social media, this bitterness has become more apparent. Any minor change by any creator its met with more criticism than ISIS did for destroying actual historical statues in Iraq. (Especially if the changes are in live-action adaptations of comic books. That too this particularly venomous brand of hatred is reserved for DC comics movies).
Such zealots are the ones destroying the cultural myth of Superman. It would not be entirely wrong to say that the Donner Superman movies are partly responsible for this. Creators of these films are not the ones to be blamed. They made the best Superman movie they thought possible. It’s the people who first watched these movies and would not accept any other representation that is responsible for us not getting more than 2-3 good films (emphasis on good) for the oldest modern comic book hero.
While we get it that you liked Superman smiling and being a boy scout, for a new generation to find him more interesting, he must become more than just that. Deconstructing him gives an up to date understanding of his character. If you are talking about your nostalgia fix in the guise of comic books, they have made him everything from a villain to a dying god to a de-powered human being. They continue to try and make him more than what he was in comics from 70 years ago. Movies like Man of Steel took us into the source of all that is good, about Superman and, hence the film will endure more than a nostalgia grab as Superman Returns. While all stories have to follow the same method, those that do take a different path should be allowed to do so. We are talking about an illegal alien who is the only surviving member of his race. He adapts to our planet and adopts it as his own. It is time we stop putting him in chains and let him take off.
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