If you’ve followed pop culture at all over the last decade, it should be readily apparent that the superhero genre has now reached its zenith in terms of consumer relevance. Caped crusaders and brawling heroines have brought in billions to the box office; previously niche characters have created global trends that delve deep into socio-cultural issues. Thanks to deep catalogues spanning decades of content, there now seems to be a superhero readily available to use as a metaphor for every major societal question or discussion topic.
Which is why it’s so surprising that DC Films is allegedly struggling with what to do with Superman, the most iconic superhero of them all. The studio appears to be openly fielding ideas as to how to reimagine the man of steel in a way to “keep him relevant to modern audiences.” This is, of course, a pertinent (though still shocking) query, given that the previous few takes on Superman have either all been critical failures or commercial flops. However, Superman ought to be the most relevant superhero of all.
Superman is the story of an undocumented child refugee sent to the American midwest by dying parents in order to escape a war caused by climate crisis. Superman comes of age having to hide his true identity due to fear of social discrimination and a government that would likely persecute him. Despite all this, Superman’s adopted, Everyman father instills in him an idyllic, quintessentially American sense of truth and justice, which the boy then uses as guiding principles to protect a society that would likely exile him if they found out who and what he really was. This refugee teaches us how thoroughly a foreigner can adopt and embody our values, even as he is opposed by bigoted, native-born enemies who show no respect for those values at all.
Geez, I wonder how one could possibly make this kind of character relevant. No parallels to be drawn here. No sirree.
From a money-making standpoint, the problem may be that this kind of archetype hits too close to home. Our current refugee crisis is arguably the sort of sensitive topic that modern audiences may wish to escape from when heading to the movies. However, such concerns are easily dismissible. After all, several massively successful recent superhero films have already waded into similarly sensitive topics. Marvel’s Black Panther dove wholeheartedly into the struggles of Black identity and the damage caused to the African diaspora by colonialism. DC Films’ own Wonder Woman dropped a (literally) powerful woman into a male-dominated society and reveled in her tearing it apart. So the notion that superhero movies cannot successfully address modern-day issues doesn’t hold water.
The problem with a character like Superman might be that, despite his hyper-relevant backstory, the end result remains out-of-touch. As with Captain America and Wonder Woman, Superman punched Nazis during his World War II-era heyday. It was all so much simpler in the 1940s, when all it took was a whizz-bang-punch to knock the fascists out of their boots. A character as heroically ham-fisted as Superman felt like a natural fit to fight fascism when it was being directly opposed by his adopted culture and his government. The kryptonian’s tolerance and levelheaded patience offered a strong contrast to the slobbering ravings of Third Reich propaganda.
The times, however, have changed. People have, too. What happens when Superman’s own government appears increasingly authoritarian itself? When the very people he’s sworn to defend start to espouse many of the same beliefs as Nazis? Would it be far-fetched to believe that, if baby Superman landed in a modern-day American family’s backyard, there’d be an odds-even chance that the family would report him to the government for deportation? Even if they didn’t, could Superman stomach defending a society that even allows this to be possible?
Ultimately, this is the crux of the conundrum with Superman’s character development: in a modernized version of his story, the US itself would have to be the bad guy. Anything short of that might well feel like a cheap dodge. And I don’t simply mean the US government; DC Comics has already toyed with that scenario for decades. No, I mean the villain would have to be American society, one that is increasingly paranoid about foreigners and aliens in their midst. One that increasingly views sociopathic billionaires as the rightful leaders of society. One that view those who embody idealized morals as nothing more than phonies or a hindrance to power.
We can obviously see this change occurring in real American society — almost in real time. Many Americans view almost all of the traditional institutions of power in a negative light. Our politicians: corrupt and inefficient. Our approval of the staples of public morality, such as the police, organized religion and institutions of higher education, are on the wane. Vigilante groups roam the streets, ostensibly claiming to keep the peace, but in reality act as little more than volunteer muscle to keep the marginalized on the margins. And then there is our current president, who is so inept, buffoonish and corrupt, so needlessly cruel, that were he an actual comic book villain, he’d be derided as unbelievably one-dimensional by the critics. We are, in fact, a society ripe for saving by a superhero with a cape.
Americans have placed almost all of their faith and all of their approval in the strangest of places: its corporate leaders. C-suite executives currently enjoy a higher approval rating than America’s elected officials, but the C-suite executives to whom we have increasingly entrusted with solving societies’ problems are often those who corrupted our politicians and broke our institutions. Instead of using their considerable influence to fight rising income inequality or racial tensions, they seem content to let the country stew in the swamp — so long as they get a tax break out of it. C-suite executives could argue that it’s not their job to solve society’s structural problems (though it’s not their job to exacerbate them, either), but it’s all beside the point: We’ve replaced our traditional pillars of justice with those who seek only wealth and material gain. Put another way, in a society that has largely lost its traditional role models for truth and justice, there is no place for a superhero who alludes to these attributes. America now seems content with putting the Lex Luthor archetype on a pedestal — allegedly self-made wealth-mogul who’ll stop at nothing to accumulate power. If that is our mold for a hero, then why would we root for a lawless refugee enforcing values that we no longer identify with?
This is why Superman will now struggle to connect with modern American audiences. The age of Christopher Reeve’s good-natured savior from the sky? That’s gone — and it needn’t be reinvented. We simply no longer relate to his noble sacrifice or understand his motives. Nor am I calling for a return to faith in those traditional American institutions. Many have neither earned, nor deserve, widespread public trust.
DC Films would thus be wise to do the unexpected — to forego trying to make Superman embody an outdated symbol of the American way. Perhaps they should make a character like Lex Luthor — the ruthless capitalist businessman genius — into America’s embodiment. In such a take, Superman, the fascist-fighting all-powerful refugee shunned and betrayed by the land in which he sought sanctuary, would not be America’s savior. He would be its comeuppance. The one that we, as a society, might quietly acknowledge that we deserve.