Man of Steel, scheduled for a June release, promises to be a brooding retelling of the Superman story, not very different from Christopher Nolan’s Batman films or, to go back to the real beginning, Tim Burton’s late 1980s Batman that seemed to draw more from the so-called Dark Age of comics—the mid-1980s, when gritty, dark, serious comics such as Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns first made an appearance—than the campy Adam West starring TV series.
Brooding works for Batman but I am not convinced it will for Superman, whose celluloid persona has suffered greatly from almost all the Superman films made thus far (Zack Snyder may well break the trend with Man of Steel).
In some ways, this may well be because Superman is an alien who is born the way he is—superpowers and all. Various writers, including some comics A-listers, have tried their hand at Superman comics, but the results have usually fallen short of the depth and literary quality of the Batman comics. It could be the fact that Batman is human, which means he usually ends up fighting not just what confronts him, but also himself. Or it could be that Batman’s character has shades of grey.
Superman, by contrast, is the alien all-American hero. Tall, smooth-complexioned, dark-haired, blue-eyed and well-behaved, there’s nothing not to like about Superman. Nor is it easy to dislike his alter ego Clark Kent, who strives to be inadequate in almost every aspect in which Superman is extraordinary. A familiar trope in science fiction is that of the wise alien race seeking to protect and save humanity, but most Superman writers have steered clear of this, maybe because this could involve more active interference by Superman in human affairs.
Instead, Superman is content to remain the lackey of the administration; perhaps the best demonstration of this comes in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns where Superman, representing a corrupt and wrong administration, takes on Batman. And when he does interfere, Superman’s alien nature somehow seems to prevent him from seeing the eventual implications of his actions—which is entirely understandable because this involves an understanding of human nature.
In Mark Waid’s Kingdom Come, for instance, Superman’s effort to control out-of-line meta-humans (other superheroes) through the use of force backfires and it is left to Batman, who initially refuses to play any part in the affair because he thinks Superman’s way reflects intellectual arrogance, to save the day.
The references to Kingdom Come and The Dark Knight Returns may make readers think this writer likes Batman (actually, he does), but it only serves to demonstrate the difficulty most writers have had in going beyond the popular image of Superman exemplified by: “Faster than a speeding bullet; more powerful than a locomotive; able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Look! Up in the sky. It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s Superman.”
Some writers have managed to break the mould, though. Grant Morrison’s All Star Superman, which chronicles Superman’s last days, infuses the alien superhero with human emotions and ends with him flying into the sun (as opposed to walking into the sunset). It is only apt then, that Snyder has paraphrased Morrison’s words from All Star Superman (as first pointed out by the website Bleeding Cool): “You’ll give the people an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you. They will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun. In time you will help them accomplish wonders.”
For Superman himself, though, the ordinariness of human life is the biggest wonder of all and Alan Moore’s 1986 miniseries, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow ?, doesn’t just tie up all the loose ends—Superman triumphs over all his enemies; the secret identity of Superman (as Clark Kent) is revealed to the world; and he dies—but also (SPOILER ALERT) sheds some light on what happens after and how the alien superhero manages to achieve his ultimate objective: to be a man.
R. Sukumar is editor, Mint.