In recent years there have been many satirical subversions of the Superman archetype exploring what would happen if an evil character without Kal-El’s moral compass received their godlike powers: Brightburnhomeland of The boysOmni-Man’s InvincibleIkaris of Eternals, the list continues. Even the latest on-screen incarnation of Superman himself subverted expectations of a perfectly clean superhero with a brooding and conflicted Clark Kent. After all that “evil Superman” fuss and a few official Superman movies with an unofficially dark and gritty characterization, going back to Supes’ roots as a somewhat dimwitted benefactor with a heart of gold would actually be refreshing.
Matt Reeves’ The Batman successfully reimagined the Caped Crusader on the big screen. It’s time for Superman to be reinvented in the same way. But instead of doubling down on darkness like Reeves’ horror-tinged neo-noir epic did with Gotham’s masked protector, Warner Bros. should pump its resources into a more faithful Superman reboot that begs Superman’s ultimate question: what if an Almighty used those powers for the good of mankind?
Nearly a century after Superman was introduced as the original superhero, cementing all the hallmarks of the now-familiar archetype, the “evil superman” stories have arrived as a fun change of pace. Characters like Homelander challenged the “hero cult” of the superhero genre and drew cynical parallels to alarming real-world politics. But if the same subversion is copied again and again, it ceases to be subversive. With two Prime Video series and a slew of movies, including real Superman movies, deepening this anti-Superman notion, anti-Superman has become the norm. What would be really subversive right now is a Superman movie about the real Superman. Homelander was established as the anti-Superman; now it’s time for Superman to make a comeback as the anti-Homelander.
Christopher Nolan’s gritty and sharp Batman films injected the superhero genre with a healthy dose of darkness. Audiences responded so enthusiastically to Nolan’s style that studios ended up trying the Black Knight style on just about every comic book property they could get their hands on, whether or not it suited the source material. This darker, grittier sensibility has worked wonders for some superhero properties – like Wolverine, Judge Dredd, and the Punisher – but it hasn’t worked at all for other heroes that suit a funnier tone and light as Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four.
Superman falls into the latter category, but he received one of the toughest reboots of them all. by Zack Snyder Steel man introduced audiences to a Superman who wasn’t really interested in being Superman. This dark revamp of Superman was produced by Nolan himself and scripted by David S. Goyer, who co-wrote The black Knight trilogy with Nolan and his brother. The tone that Nolan, Goyer, and Snyder brought to the table was as bad for Superman as it was good for Batman. Henry Cavill would have been the perfect cast for a lighter, friendlier version of Supes, but his cynical, mopey Clark Kent didn’t quite work out. Cavill’s Superman is conflicted over whether or not to use his powers to help people. But Superman’s real conflict is not being able to save everyone who needs saving. He’s capable of just about anything, but he can’t be in more than one place at a time, so he inevitably fails in his quest for peace.
Modern Hollywood blockbusters tend to shy away from sincerity, as if afraid social media trolls will catch them taking themselves too seriously. The MCU uses “bathos” to undermine dramatic moments so Marvel can maintain the illusion that they’re too cool for school. But Patty Jenkins proved with wonder woman that a sincere and ingenuous tone can work wonders in the realm of superhero show. Jenkins’ heartfelt approach – paired with Gal Gadot’s equally heartfelt performance in the title role – gave audiences a truly inspiring hero. With wonder woman, Jenkins presented the perfect tonal plan for a more accurate cinematic portrayal of Krypton’s Last Son. Maybe Jenkins could even reboot the Superman franchise itself.
Warner Bros. might doubt making a big-budget tentpole on a bright-eyed optimistic hero – essentially a two-shoe boy scout with a cape – in the current pessimistic climate of cinema. But that’s precisely why a faithful Superman movie would arrive like a breath of fresh air right now. Subversive characters like Homelander and Omni-Man are great fun, but audiences need more than just the omnipotent anti-heroes they love to hate. They need heroes they can look up to, and Superman is the pinnacle of that. Its very existence and sustained longevity proved that there was a gap for it in the market. But his big-screen adventures haven’t reflected that for more than a decade. Another hopeful, brightly colored Superman movie that tricks audiences into believing a man can fly is long overdue.
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