Is Superman Really Damaged Goods?

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One of the more troubling things to come out of the Siegel/Warners/DC lawsuit decision this week was the feeling that everyone involved in creating Superman stories has already decided that the character is broken. Is Superman's failure a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Perhaps the most damning part of the decision document was the revelation that executives at Warners shared fans' cynicism about Superman's potential (Remember, Warners and DC were the defendants in this case):

Defendants' film industry expert witness, Mr. [John] Gumpert, termed Superman as "damaged goods," a character so "uncool" as to be considered passe, an opinion echoed by Warner Bros. business affairs executive, Steven Spira... Indeed, Mr. [Alan] Horn [Warner Bros. President] admitted to being "daunted" by the fact that the 1987 theatrical release of Superman IV had generated around $15 million domestic box office, raising the specter of the "franchise [having] played out."


Almost as surreally, DC and Warners apparently argued to the court that

Superman was equivalent [in terms of public recognition and financial value] to a low-tier comic book character that appeared mostly on radio during the 1930s and 1940s and that has not been seen since a brief television show in the mid-1960s (the Green Hornet); an early 20th century series of books (Tarzan) or a 1930s series of pulp stories (Conan) later intermittently made into comic books and films; or a television, radio, and comic book character from the 1940s and 1950s, much beloved by my father, that long ago rode off into the proverbial sunset with little-to-no exploitation in film or television for decades (The Lone Ranger).


And these are the people in charge of the character?!?

There was, of course, legal value in downplaying Superman's status for WB and DC. But it's hard to shake the sense that even the character's owners don't understand the value and potential of Clark Kent's alter ego, or who (and what) he is and could be. But should we really be surprised, considering that these are the same people behind the pedestrian Smallville and almost-there-but-what-the-hell-is-with-the-stalker-thing Superman Returns?


Superman should, by rights, be up there with Batman. Certainly, he has the longevity and the high-concept, if not the moral ambiguity - and maybe that's one of the problems, that Superman's "goodness," his moral character and status as a reminder of our own potential, puts people off - to match Gotham's broodiest citizen. But what he lacks, and not necessarily for want of trying, is the pop cultural impact that Batman has had; it's not that Batman is necessarily a better character, but he's definitely one who has, at four specific points in the last decades (and, for the most part, in different ways), perfectly synched with the cultural zeitgeist to gain a weird standing as some kind of cultural avatar with a cape.

(Those points, for me, in case you're wondering: The 1960s TV show, which was less to do with Batman as a character as comic books as a medium, taking the "low art" trappings of the character and milking them for all their worth as pop art was doing the same. 1986's The Dark Knight Returns and 2008's The Dark Knight, which both used the character to embody and express paranoia and fear about politics and society in the real world, and 1989's Batman movie, which showed the power of branding, making the movie and the character foremost in everyone's minds by sheer force of making sure that no-one could turn anywhere without seeing a reminder of it.)


Superman, by comparison, is almost never allowed that level of contemporaneous value by the people telling his (mass media) stories, instead finding himself portrayed as either an anachronism due to his values or a naive outsider who doesn't fully understand the darker side of human nature (I have to separate comics from this; many comic creators such as Geoff Johns, Kurt Busiek and Grant Morrison have tried to demonstrate how Superman can and should work in modern, cynical society); I don't know whether it's that those making the stories think that that's how everyone else views Superman and that they should match that, or whether they see the character as someone out of step with modern times, but simply by taking that approach, they limit the impact Superman can have, and prevent him from becoming the success he should be.

(There's also a third route, as Bryan Singer's Superman Returns demonstrated: Superman as Jesus. But the problem with that is that, in order for the story to work as a superhero story, he has to stop turning the other cheek at some point. If you dropped a couple of "I am floating outside your window" scenes and added some more scenes of derring-do, Returns would've been a much better movie.)


Here's the thing: I firmly believe that now should be Superman's time. As The Dark Knight took all of our Bush-era worries and concerns and made them into an action movie, so should Superman be around right now to embody Obama's (still-resonant, even a year after campaigning) message of hope and positive change and being the best we can be. Instead of using Superman's inherent positivity against him, or thinking that it pushes him out of step with today's world, focus on the way in which he personifies that which we want to believe in, and the people that we want to be. If we elected a president because we believed in the ideals of Yes We Can and Hope and Change and all those buzzwords, I refuse to believe that we wouldn't want to see a movie that sold us the same message but with added punching, flying and action.


(I've said it before, and I'll say it again; Star Trek's success comes as much from it being positive and colorful and optimistic escapism as it being a good movie, this time around. Superman has those qualities in spades.)

Is Superman damaged goods? To an extent, yes, but he shouldn't be; there's nothing wrong with the character, or the concept, when done right, and I think that the audience is more ready for what he's selling now than they have been in years. What damages him most, perhaps, is the attitude from his owners that he's a problem that they don't know how to solve. The first step to stopping him being damaged goods is to stop treating him that way.