Bringing Superman Out of the Dark

Last week, I called DC a bunch of tone-deaf morons (or something along those lines) and said that they need to lighten up in their approach to super-hero cinema. This is because they seem to always want to skew dark in all their major efforts, something that seems to be a long-lasting side effect of people like Alan Moore, Frank Miller and Neil Gaiman using their characters for darker stories in the ‘80s and finding great success in doing so. This was most recently reinforced with Christopher Nolan’s wildly successful Dark Knight Trilogy, easily the best thing DC has produced with regards to film in the modern era of super-hero movies.

You’ve probably heard me bitch about this before, because the truth is that I bitch about this quite often. While it seems to me that Marvel is typically making brightly colored, high-flying adventure epics with plenty of lighter moments and comic relief, DC seems to always insist on everything they do being very dark. And you can’t really blame them because all their best stuff is dark, so they think the way to score big with general audiences is to go dark. To go for gritty, depressing things that remind us of how tragic life is or how messed up people are. It reminds me of that quote from Animal Man when Grant Morrison inserts himself into the comic and meets the titular hero and tells him, “We thought that by making your world more violent we would make it more ‘realistic’, more ‘adult’. God help us if that’s what it means.” That comic was written over 20 years ago and DC still hasn’t gotten the message.

So yesterday, I was treated to a glimpse of the latest poster for the new Superman film, Man of Steel, which is being helmed by Watchmen director Zack Snyder. The poster features the Last Son of Krypton in handcuffs, being marched down a hallway by faceless, oppressive, militant authority figures. This is the second poster for the movie to my knowledge, the first one being a close-up of him pouting in a dark corner somewhere.

First of all, let’s attack the obvious flaw here: “Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound! Completely ineffective against a pair of ordinary handcuffs! It’s SUPERMAN!” Yeah, right. Unless those are Kryptonite handcuffs, I’m in desperate need of some context here. This looks like either a photographer staging some kind of socio-political satire piece about the degradation of our modern myths and heroes or it looks like it belongs with a news story about a man dressed as Superman getting arrested in Times Square for molesting tourists. Otherwise I don’t know why the hell this is happening, much less why this would make for a very arresting teaser image for the film.

More importantly, this just has me worried for the overall tone and theme of the film. Why do I want to see a Superman movie, one that is supposed to herald a turning point for the franchise and possibly for DC super-heroes on the big screen as a whole, where the teaser image is him being shackled and marched away? What? Where’s the image of him skimming across the surface of the sun or taking five on a cloud bank? The poster for the original Richard Donner Superman from 1978 contained a simple red-and-yellow comet shooting across the sky with the tagline “You Will Believe A Man Can Fly.” They were daring us to believe in something. To look up, to dream big and let our imaginations take flight. In the “Man of Steel” poster, we’re simply grounded. We’re walking, our hands are bound, there are people with guns everywhere. Don’t believe in anything. It’s like a Radiohead song. “Don’t get any big ideas, they’re not gonna happen.” And trust me, it breaks my heart to compare something Zack Snyder did to Radiohead.

And yet, this seems to be what people want these days. At least, what fans want. When talking to my friends about the latest rumors regarding the Justice League film, one of them suggested that the new film should resemble the trailer for the 2011 DC Universe Online video game. Of course, I understand what he’s saying. The trailer is pretty badass and it would definitely make for a pretty epic movie, one that might conceivably give The Avengers a run for its money. But I had to disagree. The whole trailer was just the League being slaughtered by Luthor and other baddies. It’s just how they all die. And then Luthor goes back in time and talks to the League and says, “Hey, I killed you, but then Brainiac showed up, so like, we gotta stop him.” I swear, DC only really knows how to do two things with their characters, retell the origins or kill them all off in a big, cynical F-U to their fans. I blame Alan Moore for being such a damn good writer and making this a viable trope for them 25 years ago.

But honestly, enough is enough. Take the characters you have now, just as they are, and freaking move them forward. Try to find some new angles. I know it sounds like suicide, but Marvel seems to be doing a pretty decent job of it with their current Marvel NOW! campaign. And I’m not trying to sound like a total Marvel zombie either, even though I totally am. But they’re just as guilty. These big events where at least two characters from every book has to wind up dead for the next nine months only to be resurrected in some oversized deluxe issue, that stuff is tedious as hell. That’s why I don’t read it. Who was it up on the gallows this last time around? Spider-Man and Professor X? Fuck. How many times have those guys popped off and came back? It’s more like a sabbatical than a death. It’s meaningless, it’s lazy and it completely kills the enjoyability of the comic.

I started off by saying I thought DC was a bunch of morons. I don’t really mean that. They make great comics, great cartoons, and great movies. I don’t hate them. I love Batman. Batman is the entire reason I read comics, and therefore the reason I’m even writing this. Granted, it was the Adam West Batman that introduced me to all this, so I started from a pretty goofy and decidedly non-gritty, non-dark reference point for even that character. I love Nightwing, Robin and the Teen Titans, especially the stuff from the ‘80s that Marv Wolfman and George Perez did. That stuff is gold. I LOVE Superman. Everything he stands for. He’s the sun, the light, the gold in us all, the core of everything we hope to stand for. Batman dresses as a bat-winged creature and enters into the underworld, curating a gallery of mad men and lost souls. That’s his world. Putting him in a dark, serious setting usually works pretty well for him. We don’t look to him for hope as much as for courage in the dark.

But with Superman, it’s different. He’s not the man who needs to find courage in the dark because he’s not even a man. He’s beyond that. He’s the next step. He’s what we hope to become. He’s the meeting point between man and god. He needs to lift us up and inspire us. If we don’t go into Man of Steel and spend two hour transcending the bullshit that comes with being a human, if we just sit there throwing chains around our god and pulling him down into the muck with us, then someone at Warner Bros. or DC deserves to get fired. We’ve been waiting decades for a good Superman movie to come around, and with Marvel’s recent efforts we’ve seen that good superhero movies are possible without having to sacrifice the wonder and awe of the superhero concept. Now is the time. The stars are aligned. Please don’t screw this up. That’s all I’m saying.

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Mike Greear is a journalism graduate from the University of West Florida currently living in New York City. During his time as an undergraduate, he reported on everything from Presidential campaign stops to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, eventually working his way up to being the editor-in-chief of the University of West Florida’s student newspaper, The Voyager. Since graduating, he worked briefly as a reporter for Foster’s Daily Democrat in New Hampshire, reporting on crime and municipal stories in the city of Rochester as well as interviewing Republican primary candidates, before returning to Florida and freelancing for the Pensacola News Journal. He now resides in Long Island City, writing weekly columns for and hoping to break into the comics scene.

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  1. Ben Marton says:

    Amen, Mike; I could not agree more, and applaud your use of Morrison’s quote from ‘Animal Man’ that was some twenty five years ago, and an insight that Didio, Johns, Lee and their ilk just cannot seem to appreciate.


    I might just take exception to your assertion that DC’s ‘darker’ stuff has represented their ‘best.’ I could cite ‘All-Star Superman’ (which I regard as the greatest Superman tale I have ever read, and he is my favourite fictional character), Darwyn Cooke’s sublime ‘The New Frontier,’ Ross, Krueger and Braithwaite’s ‘Justice,’ the heart-rendingly beautiful ‘Superman for All Seasons,’ the ultimately uplifting ‘Flex Mentallo,’ and (now that it has been infiltrated by a generous dose of humour) the superb ‘Dial H.’ These are all books that might up the contrast setting with moments of black observation, but on the whole, they are positive expressions of human potential, told with unashamed sentimentality and real heart. That is the bright, shining DC that I love.

    And a personal note in regards to the upcoming movie: nobody could be more excited than me at the prospect of seeing Superman fly again on the big screen, but the moment he takes a single life, I am walking out.

  2. I debated with myself about weighing in on this. A few thoughts, take them for what they are.

    Superman is a character of greater archetypal significance than the other costumed vigilantes of DC. Morrison asserts his thesis on Superman in All-Star Superman, stating that Superman is a construction of Utopian idealism. That being said, Superman is therefore unrelatable, as we humans are nothing like that. So the question one has to ask is “how does one frame perfection in an imperfect world?” Savior figures are static entities. It’s the world rather that changes, and it’s the savior’s role to interact with these rogue forces. I am convinced that this film is following this theme. Superman is still perfect, but the world around him is not. I would be terrified if out of nowhere a superpowered alien arrived on earth. I would also be terrified at what to expect. Would this rogue inhuman figure seek to enslave or annex us? Or would he be the praxis by which the world arrives at the Utopia? This I believe is what the film is getting at,

    In regards to the comparison between Donner and Synder’s interpretations of Superman, I will say that it’s comparing Apples to Oranges. Now that we operate outside of a postmodern framework, we no longer trust or respect authoritarian symbols. This is the same with superheros. Donner was writing superman midst the Silver age, which still held on to the idealism of the golden age, but introduced a DCU mired in the modernizing world filled with moral ambiguity and sectarian conflict. In a postmodern cultural hegemony, savior archetypes are reviled because they assert a philosophical superiority over and against the will of the individual, which supplants the authority of structure. therefore the main push of the film is hardly a dark satire against corroding authority figures, but showing a god condescending to humanity graciously. It’s a greater statement of humility to submit to a feeble military force, than to throw off the chains and institute justice ala “old fashioned way.”

    I think your assessment, though poignant and passionate, out of fairness to Snyder and Donner deserves a second evaluation.

  3. First, I just want to state that I totally agree with your comment that both comics industries over-rely a gritty darkness within their works. While Alan Moore did start this trend, or at least was one of the most instrumental forces in bringing this atmosphere to bear, he also added a lot more resonance to these narratives with elements such as: subversions of assumed stereotypes and cliches, a deeper mythological perspective and poetic feel, more than one kind of inferred message or literary interpretation, and a grandiosity tempered by the depiction of a somewhat jaded–yet sometimes graceful–human condition.

    When I was younger, I fully supported a gritty kind of dark cynical atmosphere for all creative elements–especially when I discovered Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta and Watchmen–but after a while, I find it can get tedious when that is all that there is. I think that a lot of people take the basics of what Moore and others made and just believe–as you seem to say–that dark somehow equals realism and that realism should be the cornerstone by which all comics should be made: I do not agree with.

    Now with regards to Superman, I also agree that he is an archetype for everything that we should strive for and I can understand why you are concerned with driving this character–and ideal–into the muck of human nature (as depicted by 80s comics and so on). However, I would like to say that Superman is more than just an ideal. As I said, he is a character. He has thoughts and feelings. He also had many experiences and incarnations over the years. It is all very well and good for him to want to help humanity strive for more and be an example to it, but he also has to struggle with many of his own issues.

    I actually go into this in my own article “Whoever Hates the Man of Tomorrow?”: the philosophical influences that inspired his creation, what it must feel like to be him, and how miraculous that with all of his qualities he is who he is as an individual: namely, a good man. You can find my article here:

    Even in my darker days, I was always glad that Superman was who he was: the Apollonian against the Dionysian, the Light contrasting the Darkness. I hope that his humanity will be played well in the latest oncoming film.

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