What to do with the Superman movies

DC Comics/Warner Bros is currently stalled in the production of a second new generation Superman movie. Rumor has it that after the unparalleled impact that The Dark Knight had with cinema goers, the producers want to follow suit with the ideas used in The Dark Knight for their boy in blue. This would conceivably mean darker Superman film with more serious plot elements.

This is, to my ears, a very bad idea. However, anything that perpetuates what we have seen thus far is a bad idea to me.

After seeing the 4 films in the 1970’s/80’s Superman movies and the more recent Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, I think I know how things can be ‘saved.’ The first two Superman films work quite well in their time (aside from the strange ‘Can You Read My Mind’ musical number). Seeing as how this was the only comic book film on the block at the time and special effects were still in an early developmental stage, the tagline ‘you will believe a man can fly’ could not have been more apt. That was the selling point right there. Anything else was icing. The producers had a golden opportunity with Christopher Reeves, a talented stage actor who perfectly sold the character of Clark Kent/Superman in a way we may never see replicated (and that’s okay, there’s a reason legends exist).

However, all 5 Superman movies to date share mainly the same ideas and plots recycled over and over (aside from Superman II featuring evil Kryptonian criminals which many still think of as the best one). I swear, if I see one more movie featuring Lex Luthor plotting an evil scheme I will shave my own head. This is in no way a judgment on either Hackman or Spacey‘s performance as both owned the character completely. I’m still overwhelmed with Spacey‘s amazing performance as Lex Luthor.

However, the idea of a man flying and a charismatic character actor do not a super hero film make. Times have changed and what was once an oddity is now a genre. Audiences are used to bigger explosions and effects, sure, but each successful comic book movie has its own flavor. Dark Knight is scary and high-art in its approach, X-Men is an ensemble film replete with adolescent angst, Iron Man is a fun and action-packed film that appeals to almost everyone, Spider-Man is a modern-day serial picture almost perfectly capturing the spirit of the original… so where does that leave Superman, formerly the only show in town?

Richard Donner recently suggested that his former assistant and current comic book wonder writer Geoff Johns be approached to write the next Superman film tentatively entitled ‘Man of Steel’ (currently in what is called ‘development Hell’).

While I do hold a very special spot in my heart for Geoff Johns’ comic books (his runs on Green Lantern, Flash, Hawkman and Action Comics are absolutely superb), I think that having him on the next film would push the franchise down a path it does not need to go and frankly would not excel at- a dark action super hero flick.

One of the seminal super hero comic book characters in the industry, Superman remains unique in that there have been so many approaches to what makes him tick. From comedy to fantasy to hard sci-fi, big blue has seen it all. Most recently Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely collaborated on a series intended to entice new readers to the character called All Star Superman. A veritable love letter to the madly inventive tales of the 1960’s, the series is an utter success and has been hailed by comic book readers who would never have read a Superman comic otherwise.

This approach of ‘use what works’ had also been done as a one-off by Alan Moore (Watchmen, V for Vendetta, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) and legendary Superman artist Curt Swan in ‘Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?’ (collected in DC Universe The Stories of Alan Moore) a story that is regarded as one of the absolute best the Metroplois Marvel has starred in.Replete with out of this world adventure and nail-biting drama, Alan Moore‘s story also honors the character for what he is and the talented British writer ignores the temptation to ‘make his mark’ or ‘fix’ anything. It is also a milestone as it serves as the last Superman story before John Byrne took the character over with Marv Wolfman in 1985 and transformed the title into an homage to the 1950’s run mixed with a hard-edged sci-fi feel.

This backdrop of madcap inventiveness and absurdity played against mundane everyday life is the character’s strength, in my opinion and could easily make Superman movies a force to be reckoned with.

If you must have Luthor in the film, keep him, but do something some of the best Superman writers have done, use him in a new way (rather than a simple mustache-twirling villain coming up with a half-baked scheme that Superman puts a stop to in the fourth act).

My idea would involve Superman in an off-world adventure that got him out of Metropolis and into an eye-poppingly odd environment where he can perform super feats. While he is away, Luthor would no longer have to worry about Superman‘s interference, allowing him to completely take over for the first time. Lois and Jimmy could try and stop Luthor and could hold him at bay until Superman returned from his other adventure and got to clean house. This formula would make what has become a frankly tired franchise new again and introduce new strengths to moviegoers that are tried and true concepts to comic book readers. A solid supporting cast of Jimmy Olsen, Lois Lane and the oddball hyper-inventive ideas that could be used in a new setting would really make Superman pop out to moviegoers all over again, and honestly that needs to happen.

This is not rocket science, guys. I love the Superman films, but even as a kid was terribly disappointed by the fact that there wasn’t anything to really challenge him in any of the 5 movies. The filmmakers tried to compensate with the ‘feats of strength, speed’ etc that make him far hardier than a mortal man, but I don’t think that is enough for modern audiences.

We need a new Superman movie to make the guy on the street as excited to see it as he was to see Iron Man or Batman and that does not mean to imitate either. Superman is the blueprint for the superhuman hero and it’s for a reason. I just hope that the moviemakers don’t forget that.


DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore
All Star Superman, Vol. 1
All Star Superman, Vol. 2
Superman: Last Son
Showcase Presents Superman VOL 04 (Showcase Presents)


6 thoughts on “What to do with the Superman movies

  1. First of all, thank you for an inspired post providing your own personal insight to what is going on in the world of superhero movies. For some reason, I have found that most blogs on the topic merely relay comic book film news without much critical analysis involved. By identifying Superman as the “blueprint for the superhuman hero,” you acknowledge the fact that great care must be taken in adapting the iconic character the screen correctly. Indeed, “the idea of a man flying” is not enough to inspire awe given today’s limitless usage of CGI. I actually thought that one of the strengths of Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns was that it addressed the possible irrelevance of the character in contemporary society, illustrated in the film by Lois Lane’s article, “Why The World Doesn’t Need Superman.” However, the underwhelming response to that film proves that a modern Man of Steel movie must go even further to eradicate any public notion that Superman is obsolete and connect with viewers on a higher level. Perhaps the themes of “madcap inventiveness and absurdity played against mundane everyday life” that you mention are a step in the right direction, though I feel it needs to go even further than merely the absurd, perhaps setting the ordinary against the divine. Superman is morally incorruptible and virtually indestructable, essentially a god. I think the next Superman film must remind us why he is the hero that all other superheroes look up to, go grander with its themes yet still retain a more personal human element to which viewers can relate. That said, I was curious as to your thoughts on Mark Millar’s recent proposal for an epic Superman reboot, an eight-hour, Lord-of-the-Rings-like trilogy that would chronicle the entire life of the character, starting a thousand years ago on Krypton and ending “with Superman alone on Planet Earth, the last being left on the planet, as the yellow sun turns red and starts to supernova, and he loses his powers.” Do you believe your idea could work within the framework of Millar’s concept or is his more in the darker vein that you feel inappropriate for the series?


  2. I’m not exactly sure about a Superman trilogy as Millar would lay it out, but it definitely needs to make a big impact. The next Superman movie needs to leave viewers with a strong memory 10 years down the road of ‘remember that Superman film? THAT was a super hero movie.’

    The only real exception to Millar’s idea as written in your response is that it would need to reset at the end to present day, Clark Kent reporter, Lois Lane oblivious to his personality, etc. The reason that I say this is that an essential component to the idea of the Superman comic book is his immortal iconographic status.

    I’d be interested in hearing what you think about this and how it fits into the comic book fan entitlement as you see it.


  3. I suppose I don’t quite understand exactly what you’re saying about resetting at the end to present day, although I do agree about those elements being essential to any Superman film. As the template for all other costumed heroes, Superman definitely needs to do something fresh and leave a lasting impact like The Dark Knight has.


  4. What I was trying to say was that the Superman mythology has no real end and for a modern film to try and set one with an epic image of Superman watching the sun die comes across as not ‘getting it.’ A film can feature this event, but I would recommend that it then somehow revert back to Superman as he was (pretending to be Clark, fighting crime, etc). This would mimic the madcap style of the 1950’s era and Grant Morrison’s recent All Star Superman series as well, which has proven very popular.


  5. Well first off; about your comment regarding going bald like Lex. I’m already bald myself. 😀 But I’m more like Kingpin I guess since I’m a bit obese. XD But anyways, I think I’d honestly like to see a Superman movie with Dark Seid or Doomsday in it. I mean, so far the villains have ranged from Lex, Zodd and his merry band of nitwits, and a Superclone, then Lex again. It’d be a good change to see someone who can actually beat Superman’s ass and provide a great movie. Anyways, that’s just my opinion.


  6. Did you know that the initial villain for Superman IV was Bizarro? Would it have saved the movie from sucking? Probably not.

    For some reason Hollywood seems to think Superman movie equals Lex Luthor which is absurd. There are so many options and limiting them to just a businessman played by a character actor is failing to see that potential.


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