The season two premiere of Supergirl is here! Season one was an amazingly fun ride and proved that larger-than-life heroes like Supergirl could be done right. The people involved in the show seem to understand the character of Supergirl and how to challenge a character that is physically invincible. The acting was perfect. The tone was dead-on, and even when the show took a dark turn it didn’t wallow in bleak unpleasantness. They gave us a Supergirl who is willing to make a personal sacrifice for the greater good, while still giving us a character we care about, feel for, and can relate to.
Supergirl asked some tough questions about heroes. What does it mean to be an idealist? What happens when that idealism is challenged? How does a hero stand up to an antagonist that will cross the lines that they won’t? That’s kind of the whole point of Superman too, isn’t it? That he CAN do anything he wants to, and no-one can stop him except him. It’s not about Superman’s ability to do literally anything he wants; it’s about what he chooses to do with that. It’s not about leveling 15 blocks of a busy downtown metropolis; it’s about doing what is necessary to protect the people in and around those blocks.
The Looming Shadow of Grimdark
Lately, it seems like there is a preoccupation, in films and television primarily, that the only way to tell “adult” stories is with grim and gritty, bleak, dark stories with blood and violence and death. It’s unclear when or where this started (though we have our theories), but it is patently false. Steven Universe, a cartoon that is on the surface a show for kids, tells some pretty grown-up stories with complex themes. (For more on this, read Zach’s article on Pop Culture Fallacies). That show is bright and colorful and funny, and at times heart-achingly beautiful and sad. Without an “R” rating.
That is not to say that a darker tone is never okay, or that it can’t work. Sometimes it works really well. Mad Max Fury Road is grim and gritty and violent, and it works. Marvel’s Netflix shows are very dark, and they work fantastically for those characters because of who the characters are and how they operate. Even Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy works for the most part because it’s Batman. Batman is a dark character. Batman crosses many lines that Superman won’t cross. Fear and violence are his stock-in-trade.
Superman isn’t about violence. Superman isn’t about punching giant robots in the face. (Okay, sometimes he is about punching giant robots in the face.) Superman isn’t about a “Dudley Do-Right archetype who is invincible, and nobody can harm him, and he’s boring and white bread so let’s give him some edginess and make him dark, and that will be cool.” No. Wrong. Superman is not Batman.
On a personal note: I didn’t always like Superman. I used to be one of those readers who thought he was boring. A guy that can do literally anything? How do you challenge that? He’s a goody-two-shoes. Gimme Batman any day. He kicks the crap out of guys that deserve it, but it’s okay cause he doesn’t kill them. (That makes it okay, right?) But there are some stories out there that challenge the “big blue Boy Scout” image of Superman; stories that reveal a man with an intense love for his adopted planet and its people, a man who feels an incredible responsibility to protect the innocent. One of the most powerful of these is rooted in Superman’s origin.
So Many Origin Stories
Originally, Siegel and Shuster’s 1938 Superman depicted our soon-to-be hero fired in a rocket from a dying Krypton to find himself adopted by the Kents. That was pretty much it. He discovered his powers and decided to use them for good. This original Superman was a bit of a troll. He wasn’t above going in disguise and tricking villains into incriminating themselves or even teaching them a lesson under threat of being punched in the face. Over the golden and silver ages of comics, this story was refined and expanded. We found out his birth name, Kal-El. We found out his parents’ names, Jor-El and Lara. We found out his father was a scientist, that Krypton was a utopian world, and that their complacency was their ultimate downfall. Superman evolved into a paladin, a capital-G “Good” character.
In 1986, after Crisis on Infinite Earths cleaned up DC Comics continuity, John Byrne and Dick Giordano re-told Superman’s origin in Man of Steel. This was written when the United States was deep in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, when Reaganomics capitalism was celebrated and “cold and heartless” communism was to be reviled. This new Superman origin reflected the era in which it was written. Man of Steel presented Krypton as a cold and sterile dystopia right from the pages of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Kryptonians were cold and emotionless, masters of their planet. They ruled Krypton, but their control over their world caused its destruction. One man, Jor-El, searched for a new planet where his son could live, and he found Earth. He admired Earth for its “primitive” technology and emotional nature. He was Krypton’s first (and last) hipster.
Man of Steel gave us a Superman who wholly embraced his adopted country of America. This is the Truth, Justice, and the American Way Superman. This is our big blue Boy Scout. He shrugs off his Kryptonian heritage and completely immerses himself in humanity. This Superman is Clark Kent first, and Superman is a just costume he wears.
The Dark Knight Broods
Post-Crisis Superman was buried under the tonal shift of comics that came in the late 80’s. Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns showed us a Superman who stood for the establishment. Superman was the tool of a corrupt government. Where Batman and other street-level heroes fought for the little guy, Superman fought for “The Man.” The change is quite striking. Where 1986’s Man of Steel had a Superman hunting down the Batman for being an outlaw vigilante, The Dark Knight Returns, released that same year, gives us a Batman that kicks the snot out of Superman for standing in the way of “real” justice and for being a big tool.
This is the turning point for Superman as we knew him. The Dark Knight Returns was the point when Superman began slipping in popularity to make room for darker more violent heroes. By 1992, facing declining sales, DC Comics decided to kill Superman. He came back months later in a black super suit with a gun, because Dark™. What ultimately turned out to be a sales gimmick temporarily boosted interest in Superman, but it didn’t last. That’s where Superman was stuck for much of the 90s and into the 2000s. He’s not and never will be a street level, mask-wearing, angsty anti-hero that comic readers have loved since Dark Knight. Even Alex Ross and Mark Waid’s Kingdom Come made Superman seem almost like a curmudgeonly old man clinging to “the good old days”.
It wasn’t until 2003-4 that Mark Waid, Leinil Francis Yu, and Gerry Alanguilan’s Superman: Birthright gave us a new Superman origin; one that moved Superman into the 21st century, and gave us an understanding of who Superman is and what he is about. Birthright begins with a return to the utopian Krypton. Kal-El is sent as the last hope of a dying world to inspire good in the people of Earth. We are then introduced to a twentysomething Clark Kent who is a world traveler. He knows that journalism will help keep him up with what’s going on in the world. He has a genuine curiosity and love for humanity, though it is becoming increasingly difficult for him to stand idly by and do nothing in the face of evil and oppression.
Clark returns to Kansas with a new plan. He will don the Kryptonian “S” symbol and become a hero. He will not wear a mask. He will dress in bright colors and not hide in the shadows anymore. He will inspire the people’s trust in him by fighting against evil and tyranny out in the open. The only problem with that is, how will he have any kind of private life? Ma Kent’s idea is simple. Wear glasses to hide the brilliant blue color of his eyes, and the shape of his face. Don’t stand so tall, and speak softly. Meek and mild-mannered are the names of the game. Superman is who he really is, and Clark Kent is a persona to keep him hidden.
Superman saves the city of Metropolis from a weapons test gone awry. As Clark Kent, he delivers an expose for the Daily Planet on Lex Luthor, the brilliant scientist/businessman who put the city in danger in the first place. A furious Luthor, obsessed with extraterrestrials since he was a young man, understands that this new hero is from another world and stages a citywide assault on Metropolis claiming Superman was only a scout for the Kryptonian invasion forces. The only way to hurt someone who is invulnerable is to destroy their reputation.
I don’t want to spoil the whole plot of Birthright because it is a truly great Superman story, and I encourage anyone who thinks Superman is boring or doesn’t like the new films to seek it out and give it a read. The point is that Birthright does what the new films fail to do, it gives us a Superman we can care about. This Superman is compassionate and intelligent. He knows he is an outsider, but on a planet of different kinds of people coexisting, he sees hope for himself and humanity. He sees the good in all people and even tries to see the good in Lex Luthor. It’s an optimistic story with an optimistic message.
All of the qualities present in Superman through the Birthright series are what we see from Supergirl in the current television run. She is smart, compassionate, and idealistic. She sees the good in people, even her villains. Interesting that at the time when Birthright was coming out, Supergirl was much less like the Kara we love from television, and more like the Superman we’ve seen in recent films, dark and “edgy”.
Kara in Comics
Supergirl’s history in comic books is much less cohesive than Superman’s. Originally introduced in 1958, Supergirl has seen a number of different incarnations. The first Supergirl is from a Kryptonian city that survived the planet’s explosion. The daughter of Kryptonian scientist, Zor-El (brother of Jor-El), Kara is sent away as a teenager when Argo City is bombarded by meteors and exposed to kryptonite radiation. She assumes the human identity of Linda Lee and takes up residence in an orphanage. She is eventually adopted by Fred and Edna Danvers and follows her cousin Superman on his mission of superheroing.
Supergirl is a second-tier character throughout the silver age of comics (which is completely bananas, by the way. Google “Comet the Super-Horse” if you don’t believe me) leading up to 1986’s Crisis on Infinite Earths. During Crisis the DC Comics editors, having decided that Superman should be the only surviving citizen of Krypton, have Supergirl sacrifice herself for the good of the universe. As a result of the Crisis and the universe-wide reboot, nobody remembers there ever having been a Supergirl. (Or a Comet the Super-Horse for that matter.)
Since Kara’s death, a handful of other characters have had the name Supergirl. An android named Matrix, who could shapeshift and use telekinesis used the name Supergirl for a time. Matrix bonded to a woman named Linda Danvers, became wrapped up in a plot to resurrect the first vampire (named Carnivore), and had an old Roman demon lackey named Buzz punch her so hard she landed in Reno, NV. And, oh yeah, Buzz was Linda’s ex-boyfriend who inducted her into his cult, and Supergirl was kinda fighting for the keys to heaven. Yeah, those were great times. Kara Zor-L from an alternate version of Krypton landed on Earth 2 (an alternate Earth) and took the name of Power Girl to set her apart from Supergirl. Compared to her alternate universe counterpart, she is more aggressive, independent, and displays an infamously poor choice in super hero outfits because of empowerment.
In 2005, Kara Zor-El returned to DC continuity. This Kara was sent to Earth at the same time as Kal-El but was stuck for years in suspended animation. She arrived after Kal had already grown to adulthood. This Kara was lost and full of teen angst. She looked for friends all around the DC Universe and more often than not ended up in a fight. As an added twist, her father was a bitter rival to Kal-El’s father, so he sent her to Earth to kill Superman. Edgy. Also, her super suit had a bare midriff, supposedly to “distract” foes from her fists. Riiiight… They made fun of this outfit early on in the Supergirl television show.
The New 52
When DC Comics rebooted (most of) its entire continuity, Supergirl was no exception. In 2011, Supergirl #1 saw Kara Zor-El crashing to earth all over again, already wearing her super suit (this time with full coverage of her midriff, but now featuring metallic bikini bottoms. Progress!). Unable to speak or understand English, and chock-full of even more teenage angst than before, this Kara is confused, upset, and ready for a fight. She fights the military; she fights with scientists, and she even fights with her cousin Superman because… because she’s edgy, and he’s too bossy and pompous. For anyone who loves the television show and wants to read Supergirl comics, this is a terrible place to start. This Kara is angry and bitter, and the writers put her through all kinds of awful situations. (No, really. New 52 Kara would be right at home on a k-drama like Yong Pal.)
She struggles to find her place in the world, even at one point settling down with the Red Lanterns, foils of the Green Lanterns. The Red Lanterns are the embodiment of rage with a capital RAEG, which makes them the perfect place for an angry teen’s trauma, misplaced frustrations, and violent outbursts. This version is about as far as it gets from the Supergirl we’ve all come to love in the past year. DC must have realized the hit they have on their hands with the show, because so far, in two issues of DC’s Supergirl Rebirth, Kara has finally found a place to call home with the Danvers family, and seems to be much more even-tempered. The Rebirth run promises to be more in keeping the show’s tone, which is a good thing. The New 52 Kara, on the other hand, would have fit very well into DC’s current run of movies.
Superman and the Movies: What Went Wrong?
(Spoilers ahead for Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice)
Upon a recent re-watching of the newest Superman adaptations, a few things become clear. Firstly, Zack Snyder is not an awful director. In fact, he is very talented at visual storytelling. Muted colors and dreary backgrounds aside, there are more than a few great scenes in Man of Steel (MoS) and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (BvS). The second thing is that the problems with those films are not entirely in the directing, they are mostly in the writing.
Both screenplays were written by David Goyer, with Chris Terrio as co-writer on BvS. Looking back on David Goyer’s screenwriting credits, he has handled a lot of comic book adaptations before MoS and BvS. His credits include The Blade Trilogy, The Crow: City of Angels, Ghostrider: Spirit of Vengeance, and the Nolan Dark Knight Trilogy. All of these heroes wear black, inspire fear, and use violence as their primary form of battling evil. Most of them have supernatural or demonic origins. So where does Superman fit in with that group? Answer: he doesn’t.
It seems like the creative team writing the Superman films simply don’t get Superman. Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman comic, presents a Superman who is smart, brave, compassionate, and humble. He knows what he means to the world, and uses his image as much as he uses his strength. He cares enough to save a lonely person at the end of their rope as much as if not more than bringing Lex Luthor to justice. In Birthright, Clark Kent’s contributions to the Daily Planet do as much good as anything Superman can do with physical might. Both Grant Morrison and Mark Waid understand Superman.
Man of Some Kind of Metal, Possibly Steel
In MoS, we are introduced to a Krypton ripped from Byrne’s Man of Steel Comics. Kal-El escapes from a cold and stagnant dystopia. These Kryptonians are big into eugenics and pre-assigned occupations for their test-tube Matrix babies. This is shorthand for saying Krypton really sucks, you guys and they totally deserve to get exploded. Jor-El and Lara go against the grain by having a natural birth and launch their
immaculately conceived god superbaby to a planet where he’ll be really strong because of science.
Much like in Birthright, Clark Kent is first seen traveling the world as an adult. In search of what, it isn’t really clear. He just seems to be drifting. He doesn’t do much except take a string of crappy jobs. When he does use his powers, he does so once to save innocent lives. The other times he does it are to get revenge on a guy for being a jerk, to hover in the air
like a god and look really cool, or to help Lois Lane. In fact, in all of MoS, he saves Lois Lane more times than he saves any other people put together. Even when given the opportunity, he dodges danger instead of holding it at bay. In one instance, he side-steps a tanker truck flying toward him only to have it smash into a building behind him sending flaming concrete and cars flying all over the place. Would Jesus Superman allow this to happen?
We are never given a Superman who acts like a real hero, or who we can care about or relate to. He hides his powers until he is ready, which is well and good, but once he is ready, he is immediately faced with the invading forces of General Zod et al. No one even knows about him until Zod demands his return so that he can make Earth into the new Krypton, which as we all remember, really sucks. The fight that follows is action packed and exciting to be sure, but it isn’t Superman. We never see him being a hero. We never see him helping people. We don’t see him caring for his adopted homeworld in a deeply personal way. He cares about Lois Lane and his mom; the two people he saves for selfish reasons. Other than that, we just see him fighting and shouting. Saving the world was a happy accident. And then he kills Zod, which is just… why?
The most baffling scene in the movie is a flashback at the end. Clark as a little boy of perhaps 7 or 8 is playing at being a hero with a red sheet as a cape. We see him standing in the classic hands on hips Superman pose. This is supposed to inspire… what? Hope I guess? But the thing is, this is a world without Superman, or presumably any other caped and costumed heroes. Kids like to emulate their heroes, sure, but who is he emulating here? Maybe it’s nitpicky, but it’s illustrative of the lack of thought that went into these films. They just sort of throw a bunch of cool stuff together because it’s “cool” and they don’t really expect us to think about it.
Dawn of Wonder Woman
BvS doesn’t do much to improve things. We see some headlines about Superman saving a kitten and helping people, but we never actually see him doing these things. He has a huge statue of himself in the city square that the government most likely put there, but for what? For stopping Zod presumably. It’s easy to see why a lot of people are scared of him or don’t trust him. He was complicit in the destruction of half the city. We are told he is a hero but are never shown any of it. His goodness is implied through an asston of Jesus imagery and by being told how good he is. What we do see is a Superman who is a blunt instrument with a self-esteem problem. He acts sad and confused through two whole films. Clark Kent, the reporter, doesn’t even show up until right at the end of MoS, and in BvS, he doesn’t do anything but obsess over Batman because Batman kills people up close and personal one at a time, not indirectly and en masse by leveling skyscrapers.
It’s obvious that the creative team involved in the films read some comics. There are nods to The Dark Knight Returns, to Byrne’s Man of Steel run, to Birthright, but somehow they still missed the point. They referenced things like the S being a Kryptonian symbol, one that Superman will use to inspire hope, but they forgot to make any of Superman’s actions inspiring. They reference Krypton being a dystopia devoid of humanity, but they forgot to give Clark Kent any humanity. They reference Batman beating up Superman, using every trick available to him and still barely being able to keep up. However, they forgot the context of that story in Dark Knight Returns. That Batman is an old man with a failing heart, and this is his last stand to stick it to “the man” before faking his death and retiring. Context is everything. You can’t just mash together all the “cool” parts and expect it to work.
The best thing to come out of these films was the introduction of Wonder Woman (and she is already so completely over these two clowns). Watching her giggle with bloodthirsty glee as she goes toe-to-toe with the cave troll from Fellowship of the Ring is almost worth sitting through two whole hours of this nonsense.
Supergirl: Woman of Steel
By contrast, the Supergirl television show succeeds in every way that the current cinematic version of Superman fails. For more about Supergirl and what it gets right, read Gretchen and Elizabeths’ recaps here at Fandom Following. Suffice to say; Supergirl is a bright, hopeful, joyful show that explores themes like heroism and responsibility without wallowing in despair and violence. Supergirl is a better Superman than Superman is. One could argue that the format of episodic television is more conducive to building a character like Superman, but they already did it pretty well in 1978. This might be an unpopular opinion, but Bryan Singer didn’t do half bad in 2006 either, so take the episodic argument with a grain of salt.
It’s interesting, the shifts that have come about over the years with two characters that share the same powers, same costume (mostly), same heritage. Originally, Superman was the capital G Good character we’ve all grown up with, and Supergirl was a side-kick super pal with a skirt. Since then, Supergirl has been treated poorly and sent on a dark journey of angst and despair, the outsider looking for a home, while Superman remained the paragon of virtue. Now that Superman is taking that trip through the Grimdark™ of DC’s movies and being heaped with heavy-handed Jesus imagery, Supergirl is finally coming out of her tailspin and soaring into the light.
This season, Supergirl is rolling out its own version of Superman, and there is little doubt that this Superman has the potential to right the wrongs of the recent films. Until then, the Superman that we know and love will always be in the comics. Meanwhile, his live-action cousin, Kara Zor-El, bearing her family crest “El mayarah” to remind us that we are stronger together, stands tall in her own right as the last daughter of Krypton.
Images courtesy of Warner Bros., DC Comics, CBS, and the CW