As anyone will attest, I’ve always been a huge Batman fan. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t love Batman. It was as if I came out of the womb with a Bat-insignia emblazoned on my chest. However, I’ve always shared an affinity for DC’s other significant superhero: Superman. Even though I might prefer Batman, I also grew up admiring Superman for his good-natured altruism and his innate desire to do good. Character traits that are desperately needed today.
For most people, when they talk about the Superman they grew up with it almost immediately starts with Christopher Reeve. For me, my first introduction to Superman was actually the comics. My uncle loaned me issues from the “Death of Superman” run in the early 90’s and I still own those comics to this day. This Superman had wavy long hair and was just coming back from an uncertain period in the comics. When Superman came back from the dead, he wasn’t really himself for a while. So when I was introduced to the character, it felt like a transitional time for the superhero.
Even though that period of the comics was full of doppelgängers and uncertainty, I felt like I had a true handle on who Superman intrinsically was: he cared for people, he wasn’t perfect but his desire to help others was as innately a part of who he was just like his Kryptonian powers. So when the other impostors came around, I knew they couldn’t be the real Superman. For the real Superman was full of hope, optimism and the wherewithal to stick it out even if the situation or outcome seemed grim.
After the comics, I started watching Superman: The Animated Series on the Fox Network. It was featured as part of the Saturday morning cartoon block. I was already a fan of Batman: The Animated Series and while I never got into the Superman animated show as much as I did B: TAS, I thought it was an incredibly entertaining and faithful incarnation of the character. It felt true to the spirit of who Superman was. I watched pretty much all of the animated incarnations of the character until my babysitter introduced me to Superman: The Movie when I was around 7 or 8.
Like any Superman fan, I was completely and utter entranced by Christopher Reeve’s portrayal. I’ve seen others explain it better than I ever could, but there’s a reason why Reeve is considered (to this day) as the definitive Superman. It’s not nostalgia, either. Reeve intrinsically understood who Superman was: he was a kind, sincere and honest individual who truly believed in doing what was right. There was not an ounce of deception or fraudulence in Reeve’s characterization. As easily as he was genuine and kind, he could also exude great emotion, sadness and even anger when he needed. He was multi-faceted in every sense. He wasn’t perfect, but he tried to be. He just tried to do the right thing.
There is an effortless quality to Christopher Reeve’s portrayal that hasn’t been copied or duplicated since. I don’t say this as someone stuck in the Silver Age or someone who unabashedly loves the Richard Donner movies, either. Yes, I think Donner’s Superman: The Movie is a timeless classic, but it’s not without its flaws. I think the first hour is a stunning slice of Americana, with gorgeous vistas and some truly nuanced acting. However, the moment the film gets to New York – or, rather, Metropolis – I feel like the film falls apart at the seams. While the film is of course held steady by Reeve’s performance, Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor was always far too silly for my tastes, addled with even sillier sidekicks.
When Superman came back to the silver screen in Bryan Singer‘s Superman Returns, it captured some of the spirit of the character but almost none of his charm. Brandon Routh was a fine Clark Kent/Superman – he had the buffoonish quality traits of Kent down pat and he was an imposing and regal presence as Superman. However, Routh’s Superman was also full of doubt, melancholy and uncertainty. Yes, that is an important part of Superman’s character, but what makes Superman – well, Superman – is his ability to overcome his feelings of self-doubt and (sometimes quite literally) rise about the situation. The Superman I know would never succumb to depression or sadness – he would always find the positive outcome to any situation.
In many ways, I also feel the same about Henry Cavill‘s Superman in both Man of Steel and Batman v Superman. In those movies, Superman is an untouchable God. He’s not approachable and he’s constantly filled with self-doubt. At a certain point in Batman v Superman, he even questions the validity of Superman’s very existence. As I mentioned before, I think these characteristic traits are very important to the character, but I think his ability to overcome those traits are even more important. At the same time, I never feel like Cavill’s Superman actually gets to be Superman.
Whether he’s worried about his actions having long-lasting political consequences or whether or not he should actually even do the right thing, Cavill’s Superman feels like a proto version of the character. Even Tom Welling‘s Clark Kent – who arguably never became Superman, even though he damn well got close toward the end of Smallville – rarely felt weighted down by consequential decision-making, at least in the later seasons. His parents taught him to do the right thing and that’s what he did. In Man of Steel, Jonathan Kent basically instructs a young Clark Kent to let a bus of drowning children die.
This is why I think Tyler Hoechlin‘s Superman is the perfect modern update of the character. Even though we’ve only seen him in a supporting role in the second season premiere of Supergirl, Hoechlin’s Superman exudes all of the traits that I’ve come to associate with the character. He’s charming, unlike Cavill or Routh’s portrayals. He’s also exceedingly confident, helping his cousin save an aircraft as well as smiling & interacting with civilians with definite ease. He can also be serious when he needs to be – like when he disagrees with J’onn J’onzz regarding the use of Kryptonite. He’s not endlessly brooding or sullen, like Cavill’s Superman, and he’s not constantly asking himself if he should do the right thing. That underlines my biggest reason why I love Hoechlin’s Superman so much – he instinctively does the right thing without ever questioning it because, well, that’s what Superman is supposed to do.
He also doesn’t talk down to Supergirl or undermine her, which is an important aspect of his characterization – something I was afraid the writers were going to do whenever a character like Superman gets introduced. Sometimes writers or producers feel like they have to make one character look worse in order to make another look better – something a certain recent DC superhero movie can be easily accused of doing. Not in the case of Supergirl, where both characters help each other out and are equally effective at their jobs. If anything, Clark Kent/Superman is a great model for Kara/Supergirl, who is struggling to balance her life as both a superhero and as someone trying to figure out what exactly she wants to do in her life.
Yes, Hoechlin’s Clark Kent is a little goofy and buffoonish, but not nearly as buffoonish as Reeve’s portrayal or Routh’s version. As I’ve seen noted elsewhere, Hoechlin’s Kent is even a little cool. He has clearly mastered almost every facet of his life – as a reporter at the Daily Planet, as a boyfriend to Lois Lane and as a superhero. There might be some people who claim that makes Hoechlin’s Superman impervious to conflict, but his disagreement with J’onn J’onzz shows that’s not the case. That’s what makes Superman who he is – he knows who he is and what he stands for and sometimes that brings him into conflict with others. That’s how you create conflict in a successful Superman story – not by giving Superman himself conflict, but by forcing him to interact with characters that disagree with him on sometimes fundamental levels.
There’s a reason why I think we need a Superman like Tyler Hoechlin’s. I don’t need to remind anyone of the current election cycle we are currently experiencing – in what undoubtedly feels like a rancid reality show that will hopefully end very soon. We live in a contemporary social-political society where racial and gender conflicts make up a majority of the news and where police brutality has made us take a second look at our nation’s ideals and forces us to question the very authority of those who we are supposed to trust. In an election year where one presidential candidate outright threatens to jail his opponent and speaks cavalierly about the use of nuclear weapons, the idealism and altruism of Superman has never been more relevant and needed than it is today.
I find it saddening that much of our younger generation is being subjected to what they see on the news. With the advent of social media and technology, it is becoming more and more difficult to ignore the injustices around us. When male adult figures have to justify having female members of their family against vile language suggesting sexual assault, it doesn’t even hit the tip of the iceberg of the societal and inhumane imbalance we are currently facing not only as a country but as a species.
Now, I fully recognize that Superman is a fictional character. I also realize the power that fiction can sometimes have, especially in what appears like fictitious times. If we can recall, Superman was created by Jerry Siegiel and Joe Shuster in 1938. They were two young, Jewish high school students who created this mythic and other-worldy character at the height of the Great Depression. I find it most interesting that Donald Trump talks about deporting Muslims and immigrants when Superman himself is seen as an immigrant, having come from Krypton to Earth and being raised by a kind farmer and his wife, echoing the story of Moses. He is the ultimate outsider, someone whose powers come from the very planet he swears to protect.
Many people are quick to dismiss Superman as being “boring” and too much of a “Boy’s Scout”. However, I’ve never understood those criticisms. The Superman that I grew up watching on TV, in the films and mostly when I was reading comics was universally empathetic. He not only represented the best of us, but he reminded us who we could be if we aspired to become something bigger and better than ourselves. Superman is not just an ideal, but he is an example. An example that we don’t need superpowers in order to do the right thing. If you strip away Superman’s heat vision and his bulletproof skin, I firmly believe Clark Kent would still be saving lives and helping others.
Donald Trump talks about “making America great again”, but Superman is a reminder that we’re already great. It is a quality that I see imbued in Tyler Hoechlin’s performance. He doesn’t question whether or not to save a family from a deadly drone or what the consequences to that action will be. He believes in his cousin and he supports her. He doesn’t talk down to her or question her methods or her lifestyle. He gives her pointers and tips on how to be both Kara Danvers and Supergirl. He knows you don’t have to choose one or the other – you can embody both.
In Superman Returns, Lois Lane wrote an editorial called “Why the World Doesn’t Need a Superman”. I would argue, more than the movie already tried, that this world needs a Superman more than ever – even if he is a fictional superhero. Not only that, but we need a Superman like Tyler Hoechlin‘s Man of Steel – a superhero who represents the best of us and makes us believe we can aspire to be anything we want to be. A superhero who is charming, heroic and innately does the right thing because, well, that’s what needs to happen.
Our kids and teenagers need a Superman like Tyler Hoechlin’s Superman, too. They need a Superman who isn’t fraught with self-doubt and conflict, but a Superman who will stand up for what he believes and wears that red and yellow “S” proudly and defiantly. In a world already full of so much conflict as it is, Tyler Hoechlin’s Superman is a bright reminder that our heroes don’t need to be glum or conflicted in order to be relevant. The writers & producers of Supergirl understand this fundamentally well and it is why I am such a huge fan of the portrayals of these characters on that show.
There’s always going to be room for different characterizations and different interpretations. I am sure I am going to come under fire by some DC purists who are fans of the current DCEU movies. Let it be known that while I disliked Man of Steel and the Theatrical Cut of Batman v Superman, I am actually a fan of the Ultimate Cut edition of the film. If anything, I am excited for the future of Superman on film. I think Henry Cavill is a great Superman, even if I disagree with how he’s been written and portrayed. I think Justice League presents a great opportunity to give the character a much-needed rebirth and I cannot wait for that. If anything, the future is bright for the live-action trajectory of the Man of Steel.
There’s really no where else to go but up, up and away.