Superman is a strange character in terms of pop-culture. He’s one of the most well known superheroes in the world and yet most people pillory him and point out his lackluster cinematic record. There’s probably no easier A-list character to make fun of than the man of steel. He’s a boy scout, I hear. He’s boring. He’s too perfect. He doesn’t have an edge. People like Zack Snyder will counter these criticisms with his own material by adding a tone as dark as Batman’s. And all of these responses miss the point of, and problems with, Superman entirely.
The way I see it, Superman underwent a forced conversion that began in the early 90s. When Superman first came to us in Action Comics #1 he was a very specific type of hero.
Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two first generation Jews, he was a reflection of their own world. Superman came from a foreign land with a strange name and is adopted into the heartland of his new country. Kal-El is bastardized Hebrew for voice of god, much the same way that Yoda’s name can be translated as to know. Clark/Kal/Superman then struggles with a dual identity. He tries hard to fit in to this world of humans, but also struggles to stand out. As Clark he works hard, keeps his head down, and aims to be as good a reporter as he can while not being noticed. As Superman he presents himself as the best version of a person possible, Kryptonian or Human, to inspire others. Later on he gains stronger and stronger powers, such as flight and invincibility, but early on he was just a very strong man with odd abilities. He wasn’t actually a god, but was clearly beyond the average man. His ideals weren’t vengeance or personal justice (as we get with Batman), rather Truth, Justice, and the American way. These are all capitalized values, selfless and written down by others but fought for by him. In short, Superman tries to become the best citizen possible.
As he gains more strength and nearly godlike gifts, the question is raised “why does he not simply stop all crime?” But that was never Superman’s modus operandi. If he did that and then stopped for one day, where would the world be? No, his biggest gift is inspiration. When he stops to rescue a pet or talk a jumper off of a building it can be seen as him being the ultimate boy scout. That’s not how I see it, and that’s not how he was written. By stopping threats as large as nuclear war and as small as one person ready to take their life in a lonely moment in the city, he’s showing that he may not be everywhere at once but there’s always someone somewhere that can make a difference. A bystander may not be able to pull a train to safety but surely anyone can talk to someone in danger if they care enough. It’s not his strength that makes Superman what he is, but his attention to people.
That changed with the 1992 Death of Superman arc.
This was a dark moment, even in the comic era known as the Dark Ages. Heroes had died and come back before, but this was sold as something different. In the end it turned out to be more of the same, but with an insane marketing campaign behind it. Nearly everyone and their father collected this run in its various plastic bags. White, black, and platinum were sold, differing only in the quantities shipped. It was a clear moment where the comic was explicitly not meant to be read, but to be saved, unopened, in a box somewhere. People have always collected comics since they’ve been published, but this was a huge push only for collectors, where reading was a secondary consideration at best.
Beyond being a blatant money grab, with the intention of taking one title and spreading it out into five: Superman, but also The Man of Steel (Steel), The Man of Tomorrow (Cyborg Superman), The Metropolis Kid (a teenage clone), and The Last Son of Krypton (a modified piece of alien technology meant to spread Kryptonian culture).
This whole death and rebirth is a cliche/trope in comics, but at the time Superman was the one character that would never die. When he came back that was now a huge change to what he had been. No longer was he an immigrant trying to make his new homeland a better place by example. He was now a Jesus figure. Superman had been converted from Jew to Christian, and that’s when the trouble began. As an immigrant he tried to exemplify the best parts of humanity. He nearly always succeeded but he always, without fail, tried. As a Christ figure he was no longer an example for people. He was a god, a supernatural being that took on the sins of humanity. His primary trait was changed from Example to Endurance. With death a core aspect of the new Superman, he was a darker figure, both weaker and infallible.
Jimmy Olsen used to be a weird sidekick to Superman. He’d get in trouble for attempting heroics, at times even gaining powers. But this nearly ended with the new Super Christ. Superman was no longer someone to try to be, he was something you expected to be there for you. The Jewish version of Superman tried to inspire by fighting for ideals codified by other people. With the advent of Christian Superman he was the ideal to be both feared and revered. He wasn’t a part of something bigger. He was the alpha and the omega, the everything.
That’s the Superman of the Zack Snyder universe. But I don’t blame him for that version’s creation. He’s just pushing the Superman he like best, a Superman where Super is the focus and man is negligible. Superman to him, and now to the general public, isn’t a character. He’s a caricature at best, a force at worst. It’s hard to write dialogue for an element instead of a person. When that happens you don’t end up with dialogue in film. There’s no exchange of ideas if one side of a “conversation” is an unstoppable force. Instead of a drama you end up with a disaster movie. We can’t blame Zack for wielding Superman like Thor’s hammer rather than Thor because that’s all he can see of Superman.
And I understand that people can interpret different versions of the same character. With comics especially, with their revolving writers and reboots, it’s actually a boon. Different parts of one character can be parsed out and explored at depth, for years at a time. But it’s also important to not throw out all of the other aspects when exploring one particular piece. I find it telling that the darkest hour of Superman, both in tone and in quality of concept, is precisely the foundation that Zack Snyder lay for the Superman of the DC cinematic universe. I’m not worried that he’s tackling this part of the character. I’m worried that this sliver of Superman is the only part of Kal-El’s identity he can see. Maybe it’s time to lay the resurrected Superman to rest, at least for a bit, and bring Kal-El back home to Metropolis.