In defense of the traditional Superman

The Adventures of Superman main title

The Adventures of Superman main title

It’s not cool to be Superman in the 21st century.

Batman — in particular the more grim and gritty versions of recent decades — is more popular. Zack Snyder, director of the upcoming Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which has a darker take on the iconic character, says, “There’s no winning anymore for Superman.” 

Others say Superman is too square, not appropriate for a darker time.

What follows is a defense of the traditional interpretation of Superman.

Superman is an orphan — not only of his parents but an entire planet. While he grew up on Earth, he is not *of* the Earth. His Clark Kent identity gives him a respite, a pause, from the responsibilities of being Superman. But he can’t withdraw to his Clark persona indefinitely. He know he has to fufill those responsibilities.

That’s just the way it is. He can no more abandon one or the other.

One of the best comic book examples of this dynamic is mostly forgotten now. In the 1970s, Cary Bates and Elliot Maggin wrote a four-part Superman comic book story illustrated by Curt Swan where Superman is forced to confront which persona he truly is.

When he tries to be Clark alone, he’s not complete. But when he tries to be Superman full-time, he gets no chance to take a break, no chance to catch a breath.

It’s not that Superman is a Boy Scout. Rather, he simply has more abilities and powers — more of an opportunity to act on what needs to be done. He’s still human, despite his birth on Krypton, and has the same needs, wants and desires as anyone else.

That’s a big burden. But when done well, it’s still compelling.

When it comes to adapting that for other media, you’ll find enthusiasts for all sorts of interpretations of the traditional Superman, including the (low-budget) 1950s Adventures of Superman television show with George Reeves and the 1978-1987 (initially big budget) Christopher Reeve movies.

With 2013’s Man of Steel and now Batman v Superman, Warner Bros. and director Snyder have opted for a darker direction. That’s in vogue and perhaps to be expected. Still, people shouldn’t disregard the traditional interpretation.

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2 Responses

  1. I still appreciate what the late Christopher Reeves did with his interpretation of the Man of steel. he gave us Fans the traditional DC comic book Version on the Silver screen. and strikingly looking like that version was Reeves Success. The late Christopher Reeves R.I.P.

  2. I am an enormous fan of the “traditional” Superman as you call him, but I do think the Zach Snyder version from Man of Steel is a valid interpretation of the character as well. Superman has ALWAYS been an outsider. Scroll through the comic book covers of Action or Superman in the 50s and 60s and you’ll see constant examples. Supes’ greatest fear isn’t being unable to physically defeat a villain or overcome a threat; it’s that his adopted family and adopted planet will one day turn on him and reject him. I think the darker tone and the more grounded realism is perhaps the biggest difference rather than anything they have specifically done to his characterization.

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