In the wake of the relatively disappointing box-office results and sharply critical reaction to SUPERMAN RETURNS, Warner Brothers Pictures decided to go with a kind of re-boot for their next Superman film. THE DARK KNIGHT’S Christopher Nolan will produce, with his brother Jonathan Nolan directing, with a script by David Goyer.
In a 2008 interview in The Wall Street Journal, Warner Brothers Pictures Group President Jeff Robinov revealed that the studio wanted to make better use of the DC Comics characters, and said: “We’re going to try to go ‘dark’, to the extent that the characters allow it.”
The implication was that any new Superman film would follow this plan of operations.
Some might react negatively to this idea, maintaining that Superman is not a dark character. Well, admittedly, he’s certainly not as complicated on a psychological level as the Dark Knight—but there’s plenty of darkness within the Man of Steel’s world and the character’s history.
In a recent interview with Empire Magazine, Christopher Nolan gave some hints about the direction they might go, relating his reactions to writer David Goyer’s concept of how to bring Superman to the screen.
“It was the first time I’ve been able to conceive of how you’d address Superman in a modern context I thought it was a really exciting idea. What you have to remember about Batman and Superman is that what makes them the best superhero characters there are, the most beloved after all this time, is the essence of who they were when they were created, when they were first developed. You can’t move too far away from that.”
While it’s premature to speculate exactly what Goyer and the Nolan’s take might be, let’s put the matter into historical context.
Siegel and Shuster’s hero, in the early days of the comic, was not always known for a sunny disposition. Superman was a mysterious and sometimes alarming figure. He was quite willing and able to threaten wrong doers—and occasionally uncooperative officials—with shows of force. This included abducting suspected criminals and using the implied threat of death to intimidate them into revealing information or confess to their crimes.
The cover of Action #1 features Superman smashing a car that belongs to terrified, fleeing hoodlums, as a subtle reminder not to force pretty girl reporters into your automobile. In the same story, he breaks into to the governor’s mansion, manhandles his secretary, tears down a steel door and forces the governor to review evidence to avert a wrongful execution by the state.
Superman’s ire and iron will were perfectly natural, but his reactions were not always limited to destruction of property. In plain point of fact, in the early years of the comic book Superman sometimes allowed criminals and others to die in their attempts to destroy the Man of Steel or those under his protection. From time to time he outright killed people whose activities enraged him, such as executioners and torturers in the military service of other sovereign countries.
He would warn some wrong-doers who seemed protected by the law to leave Metropolis—or else face his brand of justice. The Man of Tomorrow’s occasional use of lethal force didn’t end until sometime in 1943, by direct editorial edict.
His actions were not those of a “boy scout”, as he is sometimes labeled. The Boy Scouts are a commendable group, but within the context of the Superman comics and recent animated cartoons, the term boy scout is used as somewhat pejorative label; that Superman is the guy who plays too much by the rules, too nice for his own (and potentially other’s) good.
“A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.”
Superman is many of those things, some of them consistently. But we know he is not always truthful; he tells many white lies to protect himself and others.
Metropolis’s underworld would not describe him as cheerful and friendly—and in all likelihood, neither would a number of the city’s officials. It’s been seen in the animated series that the federal government doesn’t entirely trust him, either.
Superman did not or still does not always bend his will to authority, he sometimes uses his own judgement about who he will obey, who he will aid, and whose plans he will thwart.
Personally, I’d like to see something akin to the hard-nosed Superman of the first season of the George Reeves ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN series.
You want dark? That season of the show, as produced by Superman radio series vet Robert Maxwell was just about film noir in style, on average. His Superman was no boy scout, despite likely sharing some of their values.
Maxwell made him aggressive, coldly contemptuous of crooks, more than willing to use force as he deems fit, and not overly concerned with legal niceties.
For an extreme example, in The Stolen Costume, he expresses no observable remorse when the crooks who’ve learned his secret die attempting to escape the mountain cabin he’s imprisoned them in, without trial. The Man of Steel has acted as sole judge and jury in this rare case. It has a surprising whiff of realism, and adds a hint of fear about what might happen if this strange visitor from another planet went rogue.
Of course, this is not what the comic book character and even the 50’s TV version evolved into: a softer, more reasonable and almost paternal figure. But he never quite lost that ‘avenging angel’ side.
So a ‘darker’, more realistic version of Superman is quite within the boundaries of the character.
Remember, Superman is what The Batman pretends to be: a superhuman, nearly unstoppable justice figure—and he should be just as feared by criminals. He should be a mystery to people, his identity unknown and exact motives unclear—at least at first. His sudden appearances and amazing abilities should be a source of wonder and speculation. Superman could be something of an urban legend, with reporter Lois Lane hot on his trail, eager to prove the caped wonder’s existence to doubters like Perry White and that annoying Clark Kent.
Kent, by the way, needn’t be a stuttering milksop—just a guy who might be more talk than action, possibly a bit of a coward, someone who seems to run away from trouble.
George Reeves’ Kent was a slightly cynical and sarcastic investigative reporter—Bud Collyer’s milder-mannered radio version was equally effective at that job, and actually worked with the G-Men and military intelligence during World War Two.
SUPERMAN RETURNS depicted the character as a ‘savior’, and seemed to saddle the Man of Steel with a bit of a martyr complex. Over the years, he has been sometimes been portrayed as having nearly limitless powers.
This is, I think, a mistake in film adaptations of the character.
The scaled-down abilities of the earlier comics, radio and TV series could work better in a film intended to be more based in the real world . Some actions need to be difficult for him, and other things beyond even Superman’s abilities. Everything is then more of a challenge for the hero, and the character becomes less god-like, more human and fallible. It’s an angle worth considering.
Lastly, Metropolis is a big place; a city of many contrasts, rich and poor living just a few streets away. It has clean commercial areas and posh well-lit districts, as well as seedy areas, such as ‘Suicide Slum’ and the waterfront, where both valuables and people are known to disappear. Organized crime and secretive scientific research labs are common, interwoven with seemingly legitimate businesses.
Seems to me that after nightfall, Metropolis would be nearly as dark as Gotham City. And as long as there’s crime and corruption, injustice and tragedy, there will always be a job for Superman.