Does the ‘Man of Steel’ Have To Be So Glum and Gloomy?


I have to admit that as much as I like the idea of a new Superman movie that isn’t trying to walk in Christopher Reeve or Richard Donner’s boots (looking at you, Superman Returns), the more I see and hear about Man of Steel, the more it bugs me.

Yesterday, I was Wal-Mart, killing time while waiting for an oil change for my car, and of course, Superman merch is in full force.  It’s Wal-Mart, and there may be no better embodiment, good or bad, of ‘the American way’.

And I noticed something — in none of the merchandising for this film, even — and especially — the toys and action figures, is Superman smiling.

Kal-El isn’t looking stoic in this images, he just looks kind of . . . well, miserable.  Maybe that armor-like suit is riding up and a bit pinchy in places it shouldn’t be, or he’s just not used to not having his trunks on the outside, I don’t know.

I’ve been watching early reviews of Man of Steel come in, and they’re not all good.  Which reinforces my feeling that this is going to be a long-winded, boring attempt at putting deep psychological drama in a story that doesn’t really need that gravitas.  It’s Superman: if any superhero film should be fun, this should be the one.

This should be all about bright, primary colors, a sense of optimism, and action spectacle the likes of which the Avengers, en masse, can’t touch.

Instead, we get this:


Seriously, even this shot, which seems to be in broad daylight, looks washed out and drab.


Listen, I respect Christopher Nolan for his work with Batman (except Dark Knight Rises, which was pure meandering indulgence with no oversight), and I like Zack Snyder as a director, too.

But really, guys, this isn’t Batman IV.  If this is your way of setting the DC films apart from the Marvel ones — which are fun, bright, and loud, like their pulpy counterparts, because we all know what HUGE flops those were — then you need to come up with a new gimmick.

Then I came home, flipped on the computer, and ran across this image, the cover of apparently the newest issue of Superboy:


So that’s the New 52 version of Krypto, Superman’s beloved pet? Well, I guess when you’ve got armored Superman dry-humping a sword-wielding, half-psychotic Wonder Woman who gives Wolverine a run for bloodlust on a cover, that just about makes sense.

I could go on a long rant about everything that’s wrong with the New 52 and DC Comics in general, but I won’t.  I gave up on that horse — or at least the modern incarnation of it — a long time ago.  I can take misguided Hollywood types making questionable decisions and mucking up the characters to sell movies to a mass audience, but this is supposed to be from people who have a little more respect for what they’re doing.

Since the saying is a picture is worth a thousand words, I’ll just save a few keystrokes:


Okay, enough with that.  Let’s have some fun and a few laughs with the Man of Tomorrow, because I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of that in the multiplex this weekend, thank you Mr. Nolan.

People seem to think Superman is too goody-goody and too Boy Scout-ish to be interesting, but the truth his, the Man of Steel did have a dark side, especially when it came to his inner circle.

You try being the most awesome being in the universe but have to spend half your day bumbling around pretending to be the penultimate nerd and see if you don’t need to let off some stream and mess with people once in a while.


Sometimes, he even got his Super Friends in on the gag:


Of course, it’s a wonder anyone really wanted him around the Hall of Justice to start with:


Superman and Batman were usually BFFs, but even a jealous wage slave Clark Kent has to voice his opinion on his 1% pal and his attempts to stimulate a sluggish economy in the Giant-Death-Robot sector.


Five bucks says Batman dropped his smarmy sidekick trussed into a pit of ninjas when they got back to the Batcave. “Where’s your buddy Clark now, Dick?”

Those poor stiffs who work in the killer-mechanoid plants gotta eat, too, Clark.   And it’s not like Lex Luthor or Brainiac always make their payments on time, especially on the models you crumpled up like an oversized tin can and hurled into the heart of the sun.

However, Superman seemed to have a special disdain for the lesser-known heroes, and really messed with them:


Because, you know, more powerful than a locomotive but can’t pull apart an ordinary PHONE CORD.

And Clark apparently truly had a beef with Aquaman, and saw the opportunity to nail two flying fish with one stone:


Is it just me or is being ‘Superman’s Pal’ not what it was cracked up to be?

Even later on, when apparently there was some mishap with a de-evolution ray, notice that Cave-Clark is smart enough to beat down the rest of the Justice League — presumably including Robin — and save Arthur for dead last, almost as an afterthought:


And even when Superman’s not actively trying to crush Aquaman’s larynx, he still manages to insult the King of Atlantis:


Did you get the putdown there?  He just compared Aquaman’s powers to that of a MERMAID.

So he’s got a good singing voice and looks great in a seashell bra.

No wonder this eventually went down:


You can’t see Bruce’s smirk behind that diving gear.  Or the fact that he’s going to count to fifty backwards before intervening.

Superman reserved his biggest and best mean streak for his supposed ‘girlfriend’, Lois Lane.  Lois’ own comic pretty much revolved around the conceit that once a month, Lois, who was an otherwise intelligent, modern career woman, would suddenly lose every scrap of dignity she had in order to trick, beguile, or otherwise cajole Superman into putting a ring on it.

And sometimes Clark would go along with it just to get a laugh before finding a way to get the union annulled faster than a hungover Britney Spears in Vegas:


Despite being a brilliant and deductive investigative reporter, Lois didn’t quite get that Superman sort of wanted his space.

This was why his man cave was in the Arctic Circle.

Still, regular hijinks like this went on:


To be fair, Lois did usually treat Clark like she stepped in one of Krypto’s deposits on the front lawn, so maybe she had it coming, just a little.  But she also went from being awfully headstrong to completely co-dependent and desperate, like the time Superman just happened to casually mention to her that he’d stopped off at a Metropolis grindhouse theatre and caught Foxy Brown and thought Pam Grier was *very* attractive:


I’m kind of shocked that they haven’t thought to do this in the New 52 yet. Ah, give them time, I’m sure it’s on a list somewhere.

Occasionally, Clark’s little pranks would backfire and Lois would get tired of seeing him making out with Lana Lang (who despite her midwestern Smallville upbringing seemed totally cool with being a swinging Super FWB) and actually go get herself another marriage-minded man.

Like . . . oh, Satan.  (This must have come around the same time as The Exorcist was originally popular — never let it be said DC missed a cheap marketing ploy.)


Or this guy:


Clark would later regret that one, as after spending a wedding night with ol’ Titanman and his ‘alternative’ sort of lifestyle, Lois picked up a few ‘quirks’ she couldn’t seem to get out of her system:


Some sort of voodoo and S & M.  Takes a lot to make a guy with X-Ray vision blush, but boy, Lois pulled that off nicely.

You know, when I was a kid, I always thought the Lois Lane comics were just for girls.  Appears I may have been too hasty on that call.

Or maybe they *were*, and that explains the whole Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon.

Anyway, after that, then things just got progressively weirder.  Like taking a break from using Lana to torment Lois and switching to being awfully chummy to his cousin adopted daughter:

Hey, if intergalactic smooching is okay with the Skywalker clan, it's good enough for the House of El.

Hey, if intergalactic smooching is okay with the Skywalker clan, it’s good enough for the House of El.

But the absolute pinnacle of this strange and dysfunctional  relationship had to be when Lois somehow got turned into a baby yet retained her adult consciousness:


Because that particular story ended with this:


Superman bottle feeding his infant girlfriend while said infant has murderous thoughts while his childhood sweetheart looks on and smirks.

As a wise man once said, ‘Nuff Said.

Superman’s pal Jimmy Olsen really didn’t fare much better on the romance front:


That explains a lot about Jimmy’s constantly shifting identity crisis:


Because shaving his head and doing his best impersonation of a freckle-faced Agent 47, going undercover in a devil-worshipping cult while Superman grins, and crossdressing for gangsters doesn’t seem out of the ordinary for a cub reporter.

Robin was probably glad at least all he had to wear was Underoos in public.

All in all, maybe Superman hasn’t been the best role model.  Like the time he went on that Quarter Pounder bender:


When Mickey D’s said they served 250 billion, they don’t say 150 of that was in Metropolis alone.

And then he chugged that tanker truck of Diet Coke to wash it all down, didn’t brush his teeth properly, and this happened:


Then Superman told us not to smoke (because it’s not like he was able to catch up to this guy because he was the second fastest man on Earth after the Flash, it was because the guy smoked three packs of unfiltered Luckies a day and was to the point where Professor X could’ve caught up to him if there was a slight downhill slope):


But if you smoked Perry White’s magic cigars, you could be just like Superman:


“Power to rival the mightiest gods” . . . “majesty as great as the mightiest emperors”.

Who needs Joe Camel when you’ve got the Last Son of Krypton making lighting one up sound that sexy?

So, no, let me tell you, anyone who has the impression Superman is ‘boring’ and too ‘vanilla’ has *no* idea what they’re talking about.  Because outside of maybe R. Crumb’s underground comix work, there wasn’t stuff that was much more subversive — or just plain @#$%ing weird — than Superman comics:


This was the part where Lana slooowly started to back away and hoped someone tougher than the Elongated Man was on monitor duty at JLA HQ.


And you thought the violent crime rate in Gotham City was bad …


All well and good, but it better not have singing teapots and candlesticks, Clark, or you’ll be hearing from Disney’s lawyers.


There’s no end to Kal-El’s strange fetishes. And this was decades before the Internet. No wonder they called him the ‘Man of Tomorrow’.

Then there was the time in the late 70s that DC realized just how much money Marvel had made off their KISS comic book, and decided they’d one up the House of Ideas by teaming Superman with a famous rock star.

But the DC guys were a bit stodgy and behind the times, so by the time they were just about ready to put the finishing touches on Superman vs. Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars in 1981, they realized  it was a little out of date and cancelled it.

Which was a shame, because they even made up a special Superman action figure to commemorate the crossover:


Ground control to Major Clark …

Well, all things considered, I’m not too worried about Man of Steel.  Superman’s been around long enough that he’s weathered any number of awkward attempts to make him hip (remember that 90s post-Doomsday mullet?).  You can put him in ridiculously ugly futuristic armor with a throwback Victorian collar:


Make him as badass and grim as you want so the kids will think he’s ‘cool’:


And none of it will stick.  (Although at this rate, with a sequel to Man of Steel almost certain, if the Superman movies are going to be this dark, I imagine the Justice League film will end up looking like Sin City.)

Superman is timeless.  And yes, he’s a throwback.  You can’t really reinterpret him so that a new generation can try to claim him, because he’s beyond that.  He, along with Batman, are the only two comic book characters to have been continually published through multiple ‘ages’, even when the superhero genre fell out of favor and lesser supermen and women went by the wayside.  Superman was the first one in the door and he’ll be the last shutting out the lights if it ever comes to that.

And here’s the thing: the Batman movies that were the best were the ones that were the most true to the character’s roots.  Man of Steel is just lazily applying the basic stylistic bits of the Batman formula to Superman so that it can be sold by using ‘from the creator of the Dark Knight films’.

You don’t bend the Man of Steel to the cultural whims of the day, he bends you and makes you appreciate him for what he is, the first and in many ways, even after all the retcons and strangeness and baggage, the ideal best.  Someone, whether it’s in comics on the silver screen, will come along and realize that you don’t need gimmicks and will restore him to his former lustre.  This lame armored grimness will someday too, pass.

Not fast enough for my tastes, but …

— mal

Thanks for stopping by Public Domain!  I thought it strange that no one really tried to capitalize on this new darker Superman by doing a videogame tie-in, then I realized, they already did . . . in 1992.


The kids will love it, it’s so angsty, like that whats’ his name, the one with the skull on his chest.  Or the one with claws that smokes a stogie.



  1. Great post! That was my first thought when I saw the trailers as well – why is everything is drab? I get they were trying to go for the dark and gritty look, but this is Superman we’re talking about! I just don’t see it. It looks suspiciously like Batman IV to me too.
    I do think that they were trying to give DC movies a different image to Marvel’s bright, fun superhero movies, but Superman’s just the wrong hero to do that with. As you said, he’s not the boy scout that people often assume, at least not all the time, but the darker side of him doesn’t manifest itself so overtly as it does with Batman, for instance. I’m reserving judgment until after I see the movie, but I am pretty concerned that they’re going to suck the life and heart out of the Superman franchise and to me, that’s what makes Superman so amazing.

    • Thanks! I was honestly just going to keep grumbling under my breath about this, at least until I’d had a chance to see the movie, but then I saw that whole image of feral Krypto and that just set me off.

      I do actually hope the film is good — they’ve certainly got some stellar talent both in front of the camera and behind it. I think I’m going to catch it at the local drive in, since they’re playing a double bill of Man of Steel and Star Trek Into Darkness, which sounds like a good time to me.

      I don’t really think Superman has a dark side (although he was a bit more rough and tumble in the very early days), but I can’t help but notice that when it came to the Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane solo comics he was portrayed in an odd and sometimes almost negative light — of course you can’t judge a book by its cover, and DC was pretty brilliant sometimes in their choices of what images to put on them to sell the book. Sometimes the cover was the best thing about the comic back in that era, and they almost seemed to reverse engineer the story from whatever they thought would catch people’s eye — which has a weird sort of charm all its own.

      It seems to me that Warners really doesn’t seem to have much of a plan in place, and that the holy grail is going right to the Justice League and hoping it’ll do as well as the Avengers — which is the exact sort of lowest-common-denominator Hollywood thinking, it’ll do as well because they’re both films about a group of superheroes.

      And it very well could, if done right, but without the proper build up, and Green Lantern being kind of meh, Batman kind of being up in the air (and the need to undo the mess Dark Knight Rises left of Batman retiring — sorry, the Batman in a JLA movie has to be Bruce Wayne — maybe not Christian Bale, but it’s got to be Bruce, not his ‘heir’) they’ve then got to try to think ahead and figure out what they’re going to do with Flash, Wonder Woman, and whomever else debuts.

      I actually sort of like the idea that we get to meet some of the characters for the first time in a JL movie rather than following the Avengers model, brings a little excitement to it, but they’ve got to make the solo stories mesh. Warners seems like everything is dependent on a film-by-film basis and if one of them doesn’t do well (which is bound to happen and sort of already did with GL) then they may just pull the plug on it. And they seem to have unrealistic expectations that just because it’s the same ‘brand’ that will carry over from picture to picture — they way overspent on Green Lantern and tried to make that bigger than it should’ve been, because someone, somewhere, thought it was going to match Nolan’s Batman films.

  2. […] Superman goodies as Tom Spurgeon talks TALES OF THE BIZARRO WORLD, Michael Allan Leonard explores Superman’s Silver Age, (I love that ‘collecting tears’ gag that appeared in SO MANY SA stories. Such a strange […]

  3. Great post as always, although I never read comics (I always had difficulty with following the ever changing storylines and cross overs and different universes etc etc) I guess I still had a strong interest in the art and illustration style of comics. As a kid I would remember walking into a book store, seeing a really cool/bizarre/intricate comic cover, admiring it, flicking through the book then daring to read the first few pages, then getting very confused with what they were talking about and putting it down again haha! But yes, you’re right in saying that DC were pretty brilliant at what they put on the front covers, and some of those covers in your post made my day, especially the Lois Lane ones. I always like how you explain the context and backstory whilst adding a bit of humour in your posts. Makes someone like me who has a interest but never felt like they could get a foot in the door understand.

    And wow, erm, so that Krypto.

    • Thanks, Jenny. I think there’s an excellent point there, which is something I’ve been thinking about a lot — comics aren’t particularly accessible and there’s no reason for them not to be — all it takes is a little extra work to incorporate little reminders within the story, or a new readers page that summarizes what’s going on. There used to be a ‘rule’ that writers were told to adhere to, that every issue you do is going to be someone’s first issue.

      I kind of like doing the historical posts — I’ve been reading quite a bit about the history of the medium lately, and it’s fun to share and look at some of the oddball, fun stuff.

  4. I have to say I really really enjoyed the movie. Okay, not really really! But I tend to hate live action Superman movies, or simply not care about them at all. This was like the world you see in gritty video games where the heroes and evil clash beneath a Scottish summer night! Maybe it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I like my movies dystopic and my comics Silver Age. Man of Steel was fine, in my opinion. I actually wrote a piece comparing the movie to Fem Freq videos that has really taken off, also. So maybe I have a soft spot for the film when it really boils down. Not to mention that Henry Cavil actually looked like Reeves in a lot of shots. Kind of creepy and cool all at once.

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