“Oh Superman, where are you now? When everything’s gone wrong somehow?”
That lyric from the 1986 Genesis song “Land of Confusion” suits our current predicament. Many things seem to be going wrong all at once. The COVID pandemic, lockdowns, economic devastation, political polarization, civil unrest, violence in the streets. Anxiety levels rise as these crises collide and combine into a perfect storm of social distress.
If only Superman could save the day.
Of course, as a fictional character, Superman can’t physically save us. But he can provide us desperately-needed inspiration, as he has done many times before. Indeed, Superman was created in times much like these.
The Man of Steel made his sensational debut in 1938, nearly a decade into the Great Depression, inspiring millions of kids as they and their parents struggled through the last of these grueling years.
During World War II, Superman’s popularity soared even higher. He was immensely popular among young troops, lifting the spirits of thousands as they faced the deadly perils of war.
Fast-forward to 1978, when Superman’s blockbuster movie inspired yet another generation of Americans as they emerged from the doldrums of the past decade.
We could surely use that kind of inspiration today.
Sadly, Superman won’t be saving our spirits at the cinema anytime soon. Movie theaters remain shuttered due to COVID-19. But even before the pandemic, Dani Di Placido reported at Forbes that, “with no script or director attached, insiders believe that a new Superman film is unlikely to appear before 2023.”
With superhero movies having made billions of dollars at the box office, you’d think Warners’ DC films would be eager to capitalize on their monopoly over the most iconic superhero of them all. But the studio has been disappointed with Superman’s audience reception in recent years. His last big-screen appearance was in Justice League, which was considered a failure. And his depictions in Man of Steel and Batman V. Superman were met with decidedly mixed reactions.
“DC Films still doesn’t know what to do with Superman, the studio reportedly is unsure how to make the character ‘relevant to modern audiences,’” said Forbes’s tweet of Di Placido’s article.
Why is Superman failing to connect? Di Placido posited that Superman’s “godlike powers and righteous attitude” are “too alienating for modern audiences.”
That has long been the prevailing theory: that Superman is a problematic character because he is too powerful and too good. This charge has been made on multiple grounds.
One common claim is that it leads to boring stories. Good stories, it is said, need challenges and perils for the hero to overcome. A hero who is unstoppable and invulnerable to harm therefore is boring. And morally righteous heroes are also boring, because they have no internal demons to overcome, and thus no room for growth.
But Di Placido didn’t say “boring.” She said “alienating.” Why would power and goodness serve to alienate?
Maybe it’s because mere mortal readers have trouble identifying with such a perfect character.
But I think it’s more than that. After all, audiences in 1938 and 1978 were just as mortal as audiences today. Why would “modern audiences” be “alienated” by power and goodness when past audiences were not?
Maybe it’s the way we have been taught to regard “being super.”
According to a common worldview, many forms of “being super” are often considered, not admirable, but suspect. Not worthy of emulation, but of resentment. Not a source of inspiration, but of envy.
Entrepreneurs who achieve super-success in business are regarded as villains, even by those who benefit greatly from their products and services.
People with high-functioning virtues like industry and frugality who dare to encourage others to work and save are denounced for “poverty shaming.”
Even fit people who promote healthy habits in others are bashed for “fat shaming.”
With such an attitude, it’s no surprise that some might find Superman alienating. Superman, as traditionally conceived, is a Platonic ideal of human excellence: of health, vitality, self-discipline, and heroism.
If you look at excellence in others as something to envy, resent, and attack, then a symbolic figure like Superman will be a standing insult that only makes you feel worse about yourself.
But if you look at human excellence in others as something to admire, celebrate, emulate, and aspire to, then you will more likely see Superman as inspiring and uplifting. You know you can never achieve his superhuman perfection, but you embrace the fantasy as a symbolic ideal, a guiding star.
That being said, I think it’s the filmmakers, not the audiences, who are to blame for not appreciating what Superman has to offer.
Superman’s copyright-holding custodians have long bought into the theory that classic Superman is too powerful and good, and so they’ve tried to remedy that by giving “modern” Superman feet of clay. They have powered him down and made him vulnerable to getting knocked around, even beaten to death.
But more perniciously, they have weakened him morally. Over and over again, they have depicted Superman as a morally compromised government stooge or a power-mad would-be dictator. Zak Snyder’s Superman is a mopey, tormented figure whose inner conflict and hesitancy lead to catastrophic failure and mass casualties.
The more pertinent question is: why is that version of Superman failing to inspire audiences? My guess is that they are not intimidated by his strength, but bored and even disgusted by his weakness.
A testament to that interpretation is the enormous and enthusiastic popularity of Captain America in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Captain America, as depicted in the MCU, is every bit the “boy scout” that Superman used to be. Throughout every film, he is firm and resolute in his ideals, even when they are tested by his closest friends and allies, and outlawed by the government he once served. He does evolve, learn, and is even disillusioned at times. But he never truly falters in his core inner convictions. Unlike Snyder’s “Hamlet” version of Superman, you’d never see this Captain America bellowing in self-recrimination.
Did audiences find this “morally righteous,” almost pure version of Captain America “alienating.”
In movie after movie, they found him thrilling. Every time his stalwart, even stubborn devotion to moral principles were validated, audiences cheered. And when, in Avengers: Endgame, he proved to be worthy enough to wield the enchanted hammer Mjolnir, Thor spoke for many of us when he exclaimed, “I knew it!” Just listen to how one audience viscerally reacted to that moment in a clip that went viral in April:
Captain America’s popularity is a hopeful sign that, in spite of envy and cynicism toward virtue being drilled into us by media, academia, politicians, and activists, a core part of the human spirit will always be drawn to, and be able to learn from, stories that inspire us to become better versions of ourselves. And this inner core is as impervious to deconstruction as Superman is to bullets.
So, DC, if you want to make Superman relevant to “modern audiences” (and make a lot of money in the process), reconnect him to what has always made him relevant to the human heart that beats in all audiences. Make him virtuous, resolute, and strong, inside and out.
These are times that call for heroism. To rise to that challenge, we need stories of heroes who act like heroes to inspire us.