I’m not writing about wading through Batman Vs. Superman‘s many flaws, but it’s a good place to start. The very title, in fact. What was meant to have been a sequel to The Man of Steel then added Batman to the mix. The Dark Knight knocked poor Superman off the top billing, and the extra, useless, Dawn of Justice sub-header found the once-titular hero floundering in a sandwich of grimdark edge. Which characterises his movie portrayal to a tee. For a film so focused on delivering a clumsy revelation of Superman’s humanity as an Act 3 plot twist, there’s not an awful lot of humanity throughout.
Going back to Man of Steel, one of the film’s saving graces is doing quite a bit with Clark Kent growing up. There’s a lovely scene with Martha Kent comforting her young son in school after his powers go crazy. There’s a scene of joy at the discovery of his flight. This is a character who enjoys his powers, who broods very little, who knows exactly what is right and good and kind. He knows this because his parents, the ones who actually raised him, taught him to be this way.
None of this exists in the current Superman movie incarnation. He is morally grey, endlessly lost. He mopes, he brutalises, he is quick to judge and punish. The messianic overtones are rife, because the director thinks he is being oh so clever. It is obvious Zack Snyder wanted to make a Dark Knight Returns film, and they should have let him. We need Superman more than ever, and the Superman we need is integrally tied to Clark Kent.
So, who killed Clark Kent? Whoever thought of Clark Kent as the disguise and Superman as the reality. I’m not sure who really drove that point home, but I’m willing to go with Frank Miller. In The Dark Knight Returns, Superman is a government superweapon. Unquestioning, obedient, and completely the sum of his powers. It’s very clear Frank Miller thinks of Superman as completely uncool. This is where the backlash begins. Superman is boring, they whine. He’s too powerful. He’s too decent. He’s just a big boy scout. All the while lapping up Peter Parker’s life as Peter Parker, Captain America’s heroism.
We get Tarantino’s rant in Kill Bill, delivered by David Carradine but essentially a mouthpiece for Tarantino himself. A thousand film school students jizzed their pants when Carradine talks about Clark Kent as being weak and a coward, how it’s obvious Superman is resentful of humanity. Superman is just his powers, everything else is dumb.
Even further back, Richard Donner’s Superman The Motion Picture has him obsessed with Krypton. Those scenes always leave me cold. The Fortress of Solitude looks terrifying. I would much rather be on a Kansas farm with the people who actually raised me, thank you very much.
Here’s what I think makes Superman so great. He is Clark Kent. What makes him so special is he survived his home planet being blown up, because the people on his home planet were arrogant and ignorant and kept their power unchecked. Now he has power, and he had the good fortune to be found by a loving down-to-earth (literally) couple who instil him with real American values. They teach him to be compassionate, to give back, to always seek the truth and do what is right. Everyone waxes lyrical about Batman because he’s an Everyman who works himself up into a superhero. Except Batman isn’t an Everyman, he has unlimited wealth and quite frankly, unbelievable luck.
I find Clark Kent’s story more realistic. That an adopted immigrant raised in rural America has terrific power, and he has been taught to use them for good, not for wealth or fame. Yet he loves his family, his wife, his job. He is respectful and decent. He is modest and hardworking. Yet he also has fantastic adventures. What’s so boring about that?
I guess this doesn’t appeal to the hyper macho wet fantasy that is so prevalent these days. Clark Kent doesn’t have beautiful set-piece women hanging off his arm. He doesn’t get to grit his teeth and be terrifying. He doesn’t have a tricked-out car. He doesn’t hang out with a teenage boy…hmm.
That moment when Superman saves the cat may be cheesy, but it symbolises everything that’s great about the character. His Clark Kent identity doesn’t exist just to hide from the world, these are the things xenophobic, power-hungry and paranoid Lex Luthor thinks. His Clark Kent identity is his identity. Superman becomes an ideal, someone to look up to, someone to teach you to be a better person. That there is always a way out that doesn’t involve murder and destruction.
When the character first appeared, he didn’t have supervillains. He fought against injustice, quite literally a proud social justice warrior. He intervened against domestic violence, he exposed corrupt slumlords and crime bosses. He revelled in his powers. He was confident, and happy. This is the Superman we need, not the murderous brooding Christ-figure with no sense of fun. I would mention the time Lex Luthor became President, but that seems low-hanging fruit right now.
If you fancy reading or watching a happy and inspiring Superman, here are a few recommendations. Superman Birthright by Mark Waid & Leinil Yu is a great self-contained series dealing with an updated origin story. The Man of Steel movie rips off the bits when Clark Kent goes globetrotting, but they should have ripped off a bit of the humanity too. All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely is a fun romp through some of Superman’s more outlandish concepts. It also has a lot of heart. If you don’t fancy delving into the Golden Age, Grant Morrison’s DC Comics New 52 run on Action Comics incorporates a lot of the social justice concepts from the early days, with a more futuristic slant. Superman Secret Identity by Kurt Busiek & Stuart Immomen explores the concept of Superman existing in the real world, proving that Superman can be realistic without being gloomy.
If reading words without pictures is more your thing, Superman: The Unauthorised Biography by Glen Weldon is a comprehensive look at Superman’s life. If fiction is more your thing, Superman: Last Son of Krypton by Elliot S! Maggin remains a classic, as does anything written by Maggin. If you are really fascinated by Krypton and don’t like the utopian angle, The Last Days of Krypton by Kevin J. Anderson is a Dune-esque look at Kryptonian society. Finally, Men of Tomorrow by Gerard Jones is a look at Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s lives, and the formation of DC Comics, which is every bit as interesting as the Man of Steel himself.