What’s so hard about making a good Superman film? He is the gold standard of superheroes who paved the way for Batman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, Hulk, and all of the comic book heroes who came after him. And yet there have only been two solo Superman movies in this century: Superman Returns in 2006 and Man of Steel in 2013.
With the confirmation that Henry Cavill’s return to the role is now officially over, there’s a new movie on the horizon. Recently-appointed DC Studios co-CEO, and the director of Guardians of the Galaxy and The Suicide Squad, James Gunn, has confirmed that he is writing a young Superman movie that will take place in Metropolis during Clark Kent’s formative years as a superhero. Gunn also reiterated that his script will not be an origin story. It’s a good thing too, because we can only watch Krypton explode so numerous times!
Comic book fans are well-aware that Superboy was created to tell stories about Clark as a teenager. But there are comparatively fewer stories about Clark as a young man. Gunn will likely go his own way with an original story, rather than closely adapting any previous tale. Regardless, there are some young Superman stories that Gunn should definitely take note of while crafting a new future for the Man of Tomorrow.
MAN OF THE PEOPLE
At the beginning of DC’s New 52 reboot, Grant Morrison’s run on Action Comics offered a throwback version of young Clark that was closer in spirit to some of the original stories by his creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. In this incarnation, Clark turned to journalism to help create the world a better place. But when that proved to be ineffective against the corrupt forces in Metropolis, Clark became an anti-establishment vigilante and an urban legend before he matured into the heroic icon he was always meant to be.
A BROKEN FRIENDSHIP
Smallville famously stretched out Clark’s origin story over the course of ten seasons before allowing him to become Superman on screen for a very brief period in the closing minutes of the series. Gunn would be taking the wrong lesson if he adopted the show’s “no tights, no flights” rule. People want to see Superman be Superman, classic outfit and all.
That said, the greatest strength of Smallville was the way it built on the bond between Clark and one of his oldest friends, Lex Luthor. Some Superman continuities have ignored the idea that Clark and Lex were close before Luthor became Superman’s greatest enemy. That robs their rivalry of any tragedy, because it’s much more affecting to know that Lex could have been something more than a villain if he hadn’t given in to his darker instincts. For a long time, Clark refused to believe that his friend was irredeemable until he couldn’t ignore the evidence any more.
CITIZEN OF THE WORLD
Man of Steel briefly hinted at some of Clark’s journey before he became Superman. But Mark Waid and Lenil Francis Yu’s Superman: Birthright truly embraced the idea that Clark traveled the world in an attempt to both find himself and become a force for good. “Truth, justice, and the American way” is the long-running catchphrase for Superman’s never-ending battle. But it’s also refreshing to see Clark realize that he doesn’t belong to just one nation or one city. He belongs to the world.
Kurt Busiek and artist Stuart Immonen’s Superman: Secret Identity is a bit of an outlier because it features a Clark Kent who isn’t Kal-El of Krypton. He’s just a guy who is stuck with a very unfortunate name in a world where Superman is a comic book character. But when young Clark discovers that he has the powers of Superman, his life takes a serious detour.
One of the most intriguing aspects of this series is that the government relentlessly tried to hunt down Clark even when he attempted to hide his existence. It added a thriller element to Superman’s story, especially when one of the government’s traps allowed them to capture Clark and stick him in a lab for experimentation. That incident gave Superman a very healthy dose of distrust for authority, and it made the story stronger.
MEET THE KENTS
John Byrne’s The Man of Steel reboot was very much a Superman story of its time. It’s about as ‘80s as it gets, even though it was a much-needed refresh for Clark and his supporting cast. Perhaps the most enduring aspect of Byrne’s take is that he left Jonathan and Martha Kent alive instead of sending either of them — including the usually-targeted Jonathan — to an early grave.
As Clark’s only living parents, his adoptive folks allowed him to talk out his problems and they also gave him the emotional support he needed. The Kents are the reason Clark embraced being a hero, and no Superman story is complete without their influence.
MAN OR ALIEN?
Modern Superman origin stories like Birthright have played up the idea that the general public loves Clark’s alter ego right up until they learn he’s an alien. That level of distrust not only makes Superman’s job a lot harder, it also hurts Clark’s resolve when he’s hated and feared by the individuals he’s trying to protect.
Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s Superman: Secret Origins also explored similar territory as the individuals turned on Clark after Lex Luthor made them veneration Superman. By staying true to himself, Clark won over the citizens of Metropolis, and he finally had a good answer as to if he was a man or an alien. He simply said “I’m Superman.”
THE S STANDS FOR HOPE
By now, even casual Superman fans know that the crest of the House of El, the signature “S” on his chest, stands for hope. That came directly from Superman: Birthright, and it’s become an intrinsic part of who Superman is supposed to be. He’s not a brooding Dark Knight or someone who is kept back by doubt or rage. Clark has his frailties and moments of weakness, but he overcomes them with his humanity.
If there’s any hero who deserves to be a paragon of virtue, it’s Superman. Let Batman be Batman. We need a Man of Steel who makes us look into the sky and see a true champion that inspires individuals with his actions and words. If Gunn can pull that off, then Superman’s cinematic future will once again be bright.