Building a New Superman

While superheroes like Batman and Iron Man currently rule Hollywood, Superman hasn't quite shared their luck. The Man of Steel's last film, Superman Returns, was something of a creative and commercial disappoint. Attempts at delivering a Superman reboot to theaters have met with a variety of troubles in recent years.

Luckily, things may finally be looking up for DC's most iconic hero. The Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan has been brought on board to supervise the reboot project. Recently, we learned that Zack Snyder (Watchmen) will direct the film. New story details are already emerging, including the possible inclusion of General Zod as the central villain of the movie.

In this feature, we're exploring the ways in which WB can craft a more satisfying Superman experience. We've broken this feature down into specific elements the film needs to include, and we provide numerous examples of how DC's Superman comics have done just that. In some ways this article is similar to our Fixing the Superman Franchise feature from earlier this year. The points made in that article certainly hold true still. However, know that we know more specific details about the reboot, we can tackle specific elements like Superman's origin tale ad General Zod's role.

As always, we welcome your thoughts. Tell us what you want from the Superman reboot and whether you're excited about these recent announcements by posting in the comments section below.

One of the things we tend to harp on in these movie-related articles is that filmmakers should be reluctant to rehash familiar superhero origin stories. This is especially true for Superman. DC's signature hero has perhaps the most iconic and widely recognized origin in comics. A baby boy is rocketed from a dying planet. After crash-landing on Earth, he uses his impressive powers to fight for truth, justice, and the American way.

With this new film serving as a reboot, there will likely be some attempt to showcase that origin story and set it apart from what viewers have seen in the Richard Donner films and in Smallville. What this new film should do is focus on those aspects of Superman's origin that haven't been well explored in other adaptations.

The recent mini-series Superman: Secret Origin offers some food for thought. The early issues of Secret Origin focus on an awkward, teenage Clark Kent as he struggles to come to grips with his powers and the general pains of puberty. Here the filmmakers have a chance to distinguish their Clark and make him more identifiable right off the bat. Secret Origin humanized young Clark in various ways. It established that his glasses weren't just a disguise, but initially also a means of protecting others from his out-of-control heat vision. It showed Clark who was initially very resistant to the idea of suiting up and playing hero. Few would argue that Superman's costume isn't at least slightly ostentatious. Having Clark acknowledge as much would go a long way toward endearing him to modern audiences.

Another useful mini-series to borrow from is Superman: Birthright. Birthright begins in the years following Clark's departure from Smallville. Early issues showcase him learning the ropes of investigative journalism and confronting the realities of battling the world's evils. Birthright shows Superman in a wider context and as a worldwide hero, not just an American one. It can't hurt to get Superman out of Metropolis for a while and prove that he's a man for all the people. More importantly, these two stories feature a Clark who is less polished and more unsure of his actions. Past movies have given us the squeaky clean version of Superman. The time has come for a character modern audiences can relate to a little more, and much of that work should be done in the origin scenes.

Amid all the complaints regarding Superman Returns, one that most viewers shared was that it didn't showcase enough of Superman in action. The lone fight scene in Returns involved a powerless Superman getting kicked, beaten and stabbed with a Kryptonite shank. As the average message board poster might put it, that's pretty weaksauce, Supes.

Perhaps the most obvious benefit of having Zack Snyder on board is that this will no longer be an issue. Snyder is well known for his stylish action sequences in past films like Watchmen and 300. Superman is one of the most powerful heroes on Earth. He can rip tanks apart like they were made of paper and circle the world in mere seconds. To not put these abilities to their full visceral potential is a waste.

One necessary move will be to include villains who can go toe to toe with the Man of Steel and offer him a physical challenge. In addition to the main villain, Snyder should include one or two of Superman's lesser rogues. Villains like Parasite and Metallo might not have the potential to carry a movie on their own, but they are extremely useful in providing Superman with something to hit and allowing for cool action sequences.

Again, Secret Origin offers a proper template. Both of the aforementioned villains appear in this story in support roles. All-Star Superman is another mini-series that provides a whirlwind tour of Superman's rogues gallery, offering a number of memorable battles, but also not losing sight of the larger conflict. Whomever serves as the primary villain of the new Superman movie, it's important that their rivalry with the hero be at least as much psychologically and emotionally based as it is physically. These lesser villains need not adhere to the same standard.

It's also important that Snyder not make the mistake of going overboard in terms of style and visual flair. Snyder's love of slow-motion and exaggerated fight scenes is apparent enough that it was parodied in an episode of South Park. Care must be taken so that Superman achieves its own sense of choreography and visual style. Superman isn't Batman. He doesn't spring from the shadows or unleash complicated martial arts moves learned from monks in a remote monastery. The fight scenes in this new movie should be all about power and grace. One of the best Superman artists to look to for inspiration is Gary Frank. In "Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes" and "Brainiac", Frank depicted action sequences that brimmed with power and cinematic style. He conveyed the scope of Superman's abilities without resorting to needless, graphic violence or overly stylized shots. We hope the new movie can do the same.

At the moment, rumors seem to point to General Zod as the central villain of the new movie. This is a bit disappointing in a way, as Zod was already showcased in the first two Superman movies. On the other hand, the comics have adopted a similar take on Zod in recent years while also greatly expanding his back-story and fleshing out his motivations for antagonizing Superman.

The "real" version of Zod didn't appear in the Superman books until 2006 as part of Geoff Johns and Richard Donner's "Last Son" storyline in Acton Comics. Zod's origins were similar to that of his movie counterpart. He was the leader of Krypton's army who was banished to the Phantom Zone after rebelling against the government. Having escaped along with his allies Non and Ursa, Zod seeks to rebuild Krypton on Earth and sway Superman to his cause.

One of the key aspects of this modern portrayal of Zod is that he isn't pathologically evil or inherently opposed to Superman. Like all good villains, Zod is simply doing what he feels is for the greater good of his people. He doesn't want Superman to kneel before him so much as willingly join the cause. That he can't understand Kal-El's devotion to Earth and its notion of justice is the primary source of their rivalry.

"Last Son" also served to flesh out Non a great deal. Rather than being the simple-minded brute he was in Superman II, this Non was once a great scientist and mentor to Superman's father Jor-El. Non's brain was lobotomized by the Kryptonian government when he spoke out about the planet's impending destruction. This created a sense of guilt in Jor-El that is passed down to his son. The entire conflict between Superman and the Phantom Zone criminals takes n a more personal and intimate edge in the comics, and this dynamic would work well in the new movie too.

Ideally, focusing on Zod would allow the filmmakers to include scenes of Krypton's past. The original movie opened with a few scenes of the planet in the hours before its destruction. Flashback scenes through Zod would enable both Superman and viewers to learn more about the unique culture of Krypton.

Finally, Zod's presence could also be used to tease the arrival of Brainiac. As established in Geoff Johns' Action Comics storylines, Zod's great failure as general was his inability to prevent the brilliant villain from stealing the city of Kandor and causing the eventual destruction of the planet. If Brainiac won't be appearing in this upcoming film, hopefully the path can be laid out for his appearance in a sequel.

Lex Luthor is unquestionably Superman's greatest enemy. The two are polar opposites in many ways and always diametrically opposed. It doesn't sound as if Luthor will be serving as the main villain of the new movie, and fr that we're somewhat grateful. Luthor has had ample time to menace Superman in film and in television, and the time has come for other villains to step up to the plate.

That said, we'd be surprised if Luthor were left entirely out of the equation. Even if he won't be the source of Superman's misery this time, it's important that Luthor's presence be established so that he can eventually step back into the spotlight in future sequels. If nothing else, we hope to see the early beginnings of the Lex/Superman rivalry explored as both character grow up in Smallville.

Perhaps the most inspired change Smallville has made to the Superman mythology was playing up the relationship between these two characters as teens. This same relationship has crept its way into the comics in various ways. Superman: Birthright serves as almost a loose sequel to the earlier seasons of Smallville. Here, Lex and Clark were friends in Smallville, but an older Lex living in Metropolis sees to have repressed all memories of their friendship. Secret Origin took a simpler approach to their relationship. Though Lex and Clark only interacted a few times as youngsters, these scenes were enough to lend a more personal edge to their rivalry when an older Clark moved to Smallville.

Unless WB drastically alters its plans for this movie, Superman will not be presented as a continuation of Smallville. Still, we hope the filmmakers will look both at that series and the comics in terms of how it develops Luthor. As with Zod, this focus on the past and connections to Superman's early life can help to humanize the villain and render his motivations more clear.

Every hero needs a good, solid supporting cast. Superman has his in the form of his adoptive parents and the crew at the Daily Planet. These characters have received varying degrees of attention in previous Superman films, with Lois Lane playing a central role but Clark's parents largely sitting the movies out altogether.

Another lesson Smallville has to offer is that it's wise to flesh out the supporting cast as much as possible. Lois remains the obvious point of focus. She serves as a professional rival to Clark, an ally in Superman's rise to prominence, and a romantic interest to both. We hope to see the next movie play up the romantic angle without resorting to the familiar damsel-in-distress role Lois has so often been saddled with. In recent decades, Lois has moved far beyond her role as the woman who always fell off skyscrapers and become a strong, capable character in her own right.

Another character that deserves a stronger focus is Jimmy Olsen. Jimmy has often been relegated to the position of beleaguered intern at the Daily Planet, an served as little more than light comic relief in the older movies. In the comics, Jimmy has enjoyed a long career as "Superman's pal". He frequently battles villains of his own and experiences all sorts of bizarre transformations. At his best, Jimmy is a compelling hero in his own right. The recent New Krypton crossover showcased Jimmy as a crusading reporter, far removed from his original role as photographer. Handled properly, Jimmy can be a much more active participant in Superman's crusade.

Finally, we hope to see more of Superman's parents. In the original 1978 Superman, Pa Kent died early into the film, and Ma Kent quietly disappeared after Clark's decades-long sojourn at the Fortress of Solitude. The movies missed out on vital character building material by ignoring the Kent family. In the current comic book continuity, Pa Kent only recently died, and Ma Kent still resides on the family farm in Smallville.

Obviously, keeping Clark's parents around longer will pay off if future movie sequels do elect to kill one or both of them. But more importantly, Clark's parents provide him with an outlet no one else can. Fans of the Kill Bill movies probably remember David Carradine's speech about Superman. According to the character Bill, Superman's disguise as Clark is his critique on the human race. Unlike a hero like Spider-Man, Superman is the real person, while Clark is his mask.

This is not true in the slightest. The reality is that neither Clark Kent nor Superman are representative of the true man. As Superman, he is a defender of truth and justice. For the good of the public, Superman must remain pure and unblemished by flaws. In his public persona, Clark is forced to put on an act, masquerading as a clumsy, unreliable oaf in order to prevent anyone from making the connection between Clark Kent as Superman. The true Clark Kent lies somewhere in the middle. Though unquestionably good at heart, the real Clark is sometimes morally conflicted. He has wants and needs and desires that the folks at the Daily Planet or his allies in the Justice League can never see. Clark's parents are the two people on Earth that enable him to be just himself. It would be foolish to eliminate them from the story and rob viewers of a side of Superman that might not have seen before.

One of the most common complaints among casual comic book readers and moviegoers is that they can't relate to Superman. He's too strong and too powerful for any villain to offer a true challenge. Therefore, he must not be as interesting as more grounded heroes like Batman.

Previous sections have demonstrated how this doesn't have to be the case with Supes. There are villains who can offer a physical challenge to Superman. Clark does have conflicted emotions and desires that emphasize the "man" in Superman. However, some comics have tackled the topic of Superman's relevancy and appeal in a more direct fashion.

Perhaps the best of these is Action Comics #775. Subtitled "Whatever Happened to Truth, Justice, and the American Way?", this comic saw a new trio of heroes appear on the scene in Metropolis. Far more brutal and direct than the Big Blue Boy Scout, these three threatened to steal away Superman's adoring public. In the end, Superman was forced to defeat the three in open combat when their methods proved too extreme. Superman proved himself to be the better hero, and Metropolis was reminded why it needs truly good men to defend it.

This lone issue is too short to form the basis of an entire movie, but the core of the conflict would make for a very interesting and dramatic Superman movie. As darker and more flawed heroes rule the big screen, viewers need to be reminded that Superman is more than a relic of a simpler time. Batman may be the hero Gotham City deserves, but Superman is the hero we all need.

Another method of focusing on these themes is to adapt the Death and Return of Superman storyline. In this extended crossover, Superman is killed in battle by a rampaging monster named Doomsday. The entire second act of the crossover focuses on the impact Superman's death causes across the world. This is a concept that was very nearly broached at the end of Superman Returns, when it appeared Superman might have died from Kryptonite poisoning. WB actually attempted a more direct adaptation of Death and Return in the '90s when Kevin Smith was attached as director.

While that project was shelved for very good reasons, it doesn't mean a second try with a leaner, more effective script wouldn't be a good idea. Superman is a character that works best when bathed in an aura of tragedy. Whether confronting his impending death in All-Star Superman, facing the twilight of his career in Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, or failing to protect his loved ones in "Brainiac", Superman thrives on good drama. And the best way of reminding audiences why they love Superman is to play up that tragedy. As The Death and Return of Superman showed, you don't know how much you loved your favorite hero until he went away.

Source: Jesse Schedeen, Building A New Superman, IGN Comics, 5 October 2010