Zack Snyder was handpicked by "The Dark Knight" director Christopher Nolan to helm the latest incarnation of Superman, "Man of Steel." That might sound like an amazing opportunity if you're Snyder — with God-like powers, the visual stylist of 300 and "Sucker Punch" could let his imagination run wild. But the hook was having to deal with a Superman as a character. Clearly, Nolan knew when to stay far enough away.
Because Superman has a drama problem.
When Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster conceived Superman character in 1938, he was thin and archetypical, which was sufficient for the adventure-first stories of the comics. He earned the title of the Big Blue Boy Scout for serving the Truth, Justice, and the American Way without batting an eye. As the character expanded into other mediums, like Max Fleischer's 1940s cartoons and the George Reeves-starring, live-action series "The Adventures of Superman" from the 1950s, allotted time put pressure on the writers to prioritize thrills over internal exploration. Having never seen Superman fly off the page and into real life action, the audience was satisfied and Siegel and Shuster's creation grew into the icon he is today.
Running underneath the popularity of Superman was a desire to turn the hero on his head. Even two years after creating the Man of Steel, Siegel felt a push to cripple his all-powerful alien visitor. In 1940, he wrote "The K-Metal from Krypton," a story that introduced an early version of Kryptonite, Superman's only real weakness, and evolved the relationship of Lois Land and Clark Kent by having the mild-mannered reproter reveal his true identity to a woman he loved. Fearing it would throw the book into a downward spiral, the comic was never published.
Richard Donner's acclaimed 1978 adaptation mostly sidesteps any character complication in Superman (played by the lovable Christopher Reeves), continuing the trend of basking in the majesty of Superman's otherworldliness and demonstrating his powers. It's set in a real place — although it's called Metropolis, every New York City landmark makes an appearance — but Clark Kent/Superman's arc is simply to be as fantastic as he is and woo Lois Land (Margot Kidder). Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) is never a threat.
Unlike Batman, a mere mortal relying on technology and craftiness to help him save the day, there's little that can challenge Superman without seeming extravagant. To avoid strictly having the Man of Steel battle giant robots and bloodthirsty alien invaders, writers in the '70s and '80s attempted to muster up internal drama. There are comics where Superman's greatest adversary is embarrassment. He's faced self-imposed exile. Alan Moore famously pitted Superman against his own dreams in "For the Man Who Has Everything." There was even a run where Superman defied his own mantra and killed General Zod. Eventually the whole DC comic universe imploded with the infamous Crisis on Infinite Earths, paving the way for the writers to go bonkers with Superman's origins. Anything to squeeze a bit of introspection out of the character.
Does it work? In the end of these arcs, Superman is still a character who can conquer any problem. He has to be — he's a comic book character. But there are heroes who walk away from a problem changed because they're dimensional in their world views. Superman is always good and he's strict about it. Any deviation feels "out of character." In the last 15 years, comic writers have responded to that by making Superman's origins more important than his career as the hero we know and love.
Mark Waid's "Superman: Birthright" has its fair share of action, but it wisely begins with Clark Kent's travels across the world as reporter, talking to real people and helping where he can. We see him in West Africa witnessing a violent conflict and there's grand about it. He can't take to the clouds and spend days questioning his existence and right to interfere. He has to act. Quickly. He eventually makes his way to Metropolis to fight a big bad, but not without the weight of the world around him.
Establishing Superman as a real human being instead of one simply standing at crossroads is essential. In "Superman for All Seasons," the character is presented as a product of Smallville, near-bumpkin levels of hometown complacency and close ties to his local church. He thinks he should stay at home, get married, have kids. Only when a problem on the necessary scale hits Smallville is he shaken up and forced to confront his powers. Even bolder is "Superman: Secret Identity." What if a person with Superman-like powers lived in a world where society salivates over superhero movies? That's Kurt Busiek's angle and it presents the larger than life character as one of us, reading the book.
There have been strong stories on the other end of the timeline. In "All-Star Superman," Superman confronts his slow death. Not a giant-beast-crash-lands-on-planet-and-rips-Superman-in-two setup (like the first "Death of Superman" books that had malicious Doomsday doing exactly that), but a contemplative demise. Superman realizes his molecular structure is giving way. With all the knowledge an audience has of Superman, writer Grant Morrison didn't have to focus on origins or exposition. Superman could be a hero day to day, but his death lingered in the background.
"Man of Steel" makes a strong attempt to challenge the inherent difficulties in making Superman, a character without flaws, into an emotional vessel (although as Film.com's Senior Editor David Ehrlich declares in a recent discussion of the film, Nolan, Snyder, and writer David Goyer fail big time). It tries lifting from "Birthright," showing reflections of Clark Kent's biggest decisions and how his biggest decision wasn't becoming heroic, but becoming Superman, a hero that could live in the public eye. The movie asks a lot of questions and this writer thinks it works.
In reaction piece on RogerEbert.com, Sean Burns makes an interesting point: Does a new Superman movie need to embrace the emotional, dramatic side of Superman being explored in the comics? Does he need to be relatable? Burns makes a strong case for why we could return to the days of the Fleischer adventures, films that stuck to the awe-inspiring moments without digging too deep. It's possible — perhaps it's time to give up on dramatizing Superman's story and start looking at the people around Superman. Lois Lane is a person. Jimmy Olsen is a person. Ma and Pa Kent are people. All of them observe Superman and are impacted by his actions, just like the audience. If Superman has a drama problem, then find humanity in the actual humans in his life.
Or Superman can fight Muhammad Ali. That also works.