Since his introduction in 1938, Superman has proven to be one of the most recognizable superheroes in pop culture history. Multiple actors have portrayed the character through various mediums for over half a century. Perhaps the portrayal that maintains the most favorable reception though is Christopher Reeve’s interpretation of the character in the 1970s and 1980s. His performance maintains a charisma and tenacity that has remained unmatched to this day.

Of course, the brief era of Christopher Reeve’s more acclaimed Superman films was a long time ago. Since this time, films such as SUPERMAN RETURNS and MAN OF STEEL have attempted to define the modern Superman in a bid to breathe new life into the franchise. Overall, there are aspects these films excel in. Despite this, there are arguably more areas in which these films ultimately missed the mark. So, let’s delve into the past. Let’s discover what has made creating a Superman for the modern generation such a daunting task.

Live and Let Die

modern superman
A costume test featuring Nicolas Cage as the titular hero.

SUPERMAN II, released in 1980, is often perceived as one of the greatest superhero films. Unfortunately, its two sequels fail to meet the quality of its predecessor — because of this, another Superman film did not hit theaters until nineteen years following the critical and commercial failure of SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE.

Within this gap, several Superman-centric films reached the development stage, only to reach eventual cancellation. Perhaps the most notable abandoned film is SUPERMAN LIVES. The development of this particular project is so remarkable, in fact, that a documentary detailing the film’s production was released in 2015 called THE DEATH OF “SUPERMAN LIVES”: WHAT HAPPENED?

According to this documentary, producer Jon Peters prompted screenwriter Kevin Smith to detail a story in which Superman was incapable of flying. The vision was to depict a new, powered-down Superman that would subvert the perceptions audiences had formed of the character through previous films.

By stripping one of the most influential figures in comic book history, you force his character to rely on his own will rather than his superior abilities. This idea is similarly approached in films such as SPIDER-MAN 2 and IRON MAN 3.

modern superman
Christopher Reeve as Superman

To Be Human

Just like the aforementioned Marvel movies, the creative decision to humanize Superman begs the question: what defines Superman? We often picture the superhero flying through the sky, absorbing the suns rays to strengthen himself. We often picture Superman wielding missiles over his head with ease and using his heat vision against his foes.

So, how would one make a Superman film without any of these defining abilities? Sure, Superman is not solely characterized by his superpowers. He has grown into the embodiment of the virtuous, archetypal hero who will not hesitate to sacrifice himself for the greater good.

However, his superpowers are what provide his character with an idealistic condition. He is the virtuous, near-invincible hero an ordinary person would aspire to be. Superman is not necessarily meant to be a realistic superhero; he is an ideal. Whether or not stripping him of his abilities would have translated successfully in SUPERMAN LIVES, the decision would have altered the modern perception of Superman. Then again, isn’t that what the filmmakers were going for?

The Return of the King

modern superman
Brandon Routh in SUPERMAN RETURNS (2006)

Despite its release 19 years after the last Christopher Reeve-Superman film, SUPERMAN RETURNS maintains the same timeline — because of this, John William’s iconic score, as well as Brandon Routh’s performance, are all aspects of the film’s nostalgic air. Though the film certainly isn’t bad, it does not provide audiences with anything particularly new. Sure, it is not necessarily a reboot. Rather, it is an innovative story that maintains heavy influences from prior films.

Unfortunately, though, this method of prioritizing nostalgia marginalizes Superman’s character to what is familiar to us. It also suspends Superman’s character in a static state of development — because of this, nothing necessarily intriguing is derived from Superman in SUPERMAN RETURNS.

We understand he is a notable figure outside and within the context of the film mainly because of the film’s nostalgic overtones. The film itself though struggles in exemplifying why Superman is so iconic and influential in the real world. So, though the film serves as a worthy homage to the Christopher Reeve films, it would have been more enjoyable to see a more original interpretation of Superman for the modern audience, a feat MAN OF STEEL attempted in 2013.

The Man of Tomorrow

modern superman
Henry Cavill in MAN OF STEEL (2013)

Zack Snyder’s 2013 film, MAN OF STEEL, addresses thematic elements that had not been emphasized in previous adaptations. He presents Kal-El as an individual ultimately experiencing an existential crisis. He does not feel as though he is home on Earth. You can see this particularly when he maintains powers that isolate him from the rest of the world. The Superman of MAN OF STEEL is a little broodier than what audiences are usually familiar with. The film maintains a tone of realism that is certainly new and shatters the perception of the character as an ideal.

Despite these character-centric aspects, the film tends to lose track of its characterization of Superman. In some moments, he seemed angry and confused about his destiny on Earth. Other moments depict him with an assertiveness in his role as the Man of Tomorrow. His character development takes place too rapidly. He advances from an individual who is self-conscious about his abilities and status as an outcast to someone who has suddenly found their place as a hero.

Superman’s journey into establishing himself as a confident hero doesn’t end with him putting on the suit. It should be a process that continues into his interactions with those he loves and those who oppose him. Despite experiencing loss early in his life, Superman still maintains a pretty optimistic view of humanity.

It ultimately would have been interesting to see Superman battle his own internal conflicts. Particularly conflicts related to the evil he faces as well as his status as an alien who is protecting those who come from a different world than him.

The Future of the Last Son of Krypton

modern superman
From the incredible Alex Ross

Rumors have been swirling regarding another standalone Superman film for some time now. Talks of George Miller directing the film with Brainiac serving as the primary villain have circled the web over the past few years. Of course, there is no way of knowing what is true until Warner Bros. makes some announcement.

Until then, we can hope that the next Superman film truly embodies his character while also providing audiences with something innovative and exciting that will stay with us for generations to come.

Show ComicsVerse some Love! Leave a Reply!