In amongst the cataclysmic action of 2013’s Man of Steel, there’s a standout flashback sequence. In it, a young Clark Kent fashions a makeshift cape out of a red towel, and stands — with the family dog, Hank — hands on hips in classic Superman pose. It’s the kind of fun yet touching moment any Superman interpretation worth its weight in Kryptonite should be adept at crafting. And yet, almost five years later, we find ourselves in an era where inspired and inspiring takes are few and far between.
This standalone scene serves to highlight a general lack of such moments for the DCEU version of Superman. And this dearth of warm and inventive sequences for the Kryptonian is all the more striking when you consider that they’re there by the bucketload for Jason Mamoa’s oceanic prince, Aquaman, whose recent solo outing was peppered with fun bits. It’s surely no coincidence that the James Wan-directed Aquaman has proved a hit with audiences and critics. Who knew that a comic-book movie that pitches a superhero struggling in the face of adversity before ultimately emerging triumphant, at the same time as delivering a certain amount of levity — and FUN — would better connect with audiences, over the dour tone of previous DCEU offerings?
Aquaman, 2017’s Wonder Woman and the forthcoming Shazam! all point towards a refreshed tone for DC’s cinematic offerings going forward. Henry Cavill’s reported exit from the role of Superman is further evidence of this. (Though it’s a shame if he does depart, in some ways — given the right material Henry Cavill is a perfect Man of Steel.)
DC Extended Universe — Far from the Beacon of Hope
Indeed, things quickly turned sour for the DCEU’s Superman — largely due to Warner Bros.’ eagerness to share in the success the Marvel Cinematic Universe had achieved in building a shared universe. Man of Steel is a decent enough movie, one that does a good job of demonstrating what it would be like if an Earthbound alien was forced to wrestle with his identity while working out which side he wants to fight for. The Superman story has acted as a metaphor for migrancy numerous times, and in 2013, it was placed front and centre.
But, where the DC Extended Universe goes wrong post-Man of Steel is in its insistence on building up Superman as a figure to be feared. And not just that, but one where drastic action apparently needs to be taken against him. Scenes of Superman saving people should be thrilling, and ultimately full of joy and excitement – 2006’s Superman Returns got this right – but these moments are rare in the DCEU, and often played as overly serious in tone. Couple this with the fact that Supes is given increasingly less screen time in the DCEU in favour of other characters, and you’ve got a seriously underdeveloped and misinterpreted version of the red-caped superhero.
It’s not just on the silver screen where the Superman mythos is taking a beating, though. DC’s small-screen efforts and video game incarnations are also doing the last son of Krypton a disservice, making DC’s most inspirational hero one that’s becoming increasingly difficult to aspire to.
Injustice — A Vengeful God
Throughout the years, the portrayal of Clark Kent’s oh-so-human relationship with Lois Lane has been critical in eliciting empathy for the character. That’s true of the Christopher Reeve-Margot Kidder pairing in the original movie series as well as the Dean Cain-Teri Hatcher match in ’90s TV series Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. Heck, humanising Clark is even the core purpose of Amy Adams’ Lois in the Snyderverse.
Over time, Lois has consistently transcended the stereotypical love interest role. She is what grounds Superman at the worst of times, and acts a reminder of his humanity by becoming both his strong-headed equal and conscience. NetherRealm Studios’ Injustice series of games does away with this to instead ‘fridge‘ Lois. This version has Superman mistakenly kill his betrothed as part of an elaborate trick by the Joker. Leading to the establishment of a new world order, where DC’s cast of characters is forced to fight against a tyrannical Superman who has been pushed to the brink of murder in search of revenge. It might be a decent conceit for a game that sees you pit your favourite heroes and villains against one another, but it’s yet another glum interpretation of Supes in contemporary culture that is, frankly, disappointingly far-removed from the comic books.
Sidelined in Supergirl
The Arrowverse shows have their problems. Namely, how convoluted and “monster-of-the-week” most can often feel. The characterisation of Superman in Supergirl is, however, a success — in part. Here, Tyler Hoechlin’s incarnation is presented as the bright spark of hope and beacon of positivity previously embodied by the likes of Christopher Reeve and Dean Cain. But, actually, this makes it all the more disappointing that his appearances are so rare within the show, even if his cousin does share his optimistic outlook.
Given how well-loved Smallville was during its impressive 10-year run, it’s 100% understandable that focus has shifted to an ancillary protagonist. Particularly, a female one. But while credit is due for actually making Superman a fully fledged three-dimensional character when he appears on screen (check out the treatment of Batman in Titans for an example of the opposite), his sidelining would be a far easier pill to swallow if the character was interpreted well elsewhere in one of the modern iterations. Let’s hope that with DC’s apparent new tack, we’ll see a modern interpretation of Superman exemplifying the mythos soon.