In the wake of Justice League’s disappointing box office - as well as the rather negative reaction to the DCEU in itself - Warner Bros. has confirmed their upcoming slate of films, but some notable names are missing like Justice League 2 and Man of Steel 2.
Neither of these had been officially announced, but with the Man of Steel finally resurrected, they'd been expected to be added to the docket. It’s clear that the DCEU is in a transitional state, attempting to make changes that will be more appetizing to a wider market and more in-line with the comics for the sake of traditional fans. The move is a necessary shift but is in dire need of one main ingredient. To put it clearly (if not melodramatically): the world needs Superman.
Despite Batman's current popularity and Wonder Woman’s recent success, Superman is the face of DC Comics, a universally recognizable icon and one of the cornerstone of the American creation myth. There are derivatives of Superman all over comics and entertainment; pastiches, homages, parodies - attempts, in some way, to again catch lightning in a bottle the way Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster did almost 80 years ago. In recent years, however, he has had a rough go of it.
The rise of post-modernist writing and books like The Dark Knight Returns and The Authority appealed to a cynicism that was in the air that events like 9/11 only seemed to reinforce. The world that Superman inhabited for most of his history was gone and that earnest optimism was naivete. Clark Kent was disappearing along with the type of farms that he was raised on. Superman, a vital piece of Americana, was to be relegated to the zeitgeist - a symbol of American innocence taken long ago.
Man of Steel Was Trying To Save Superman
Zack Snyder wanted his Superman to reflect this modern aesthetic. This deconstructivist method was used similarly by Frank Miller in The Dark Knight Returns, where the Man of Steel was portrayed as either soured on human potential or as a rudderless clod manipulated by his intellectual superiors.
The problem is that Superman is someone who leads by example. He struggles with the same dilemmas but always finds “another way” to solve a problem. Superman needs to be central and portrayed accurately as someone who inspires through his actions rather than his powers; even without them, Superman would still have the determination, leadership, and presence he’s always had.
His DCEU debut as a burdened man is unseemly. This Superman struggled with questions of action over inaction rather than the struggle to save everyone while having his own life. This made the movies lose the heart of what makes all of DC Comics’ characters tick. In Justice League, Bruce Wayne admits “[Superman’s] more human than I am.” The sentiment rings true canonically, but with two divisive films under his belt, we’ve seen very little in the DCEU to support that.
The bizarre cell phone footage scene at the beginning of the Justice League was an attempt to step in the right direction, though painfully awkward. Superman would have smiled more. He would have kneeled to be on the same level as the kids. He wouldn’t have seemed uncomfortable or that this exchange was a requisite underside to the job he had to do. Most importantly, when the question of “What you like best about Earth?” came up, there wouldn’t have been that silence. We’re meant to believe that he’s thinking of Lois, which does a disservice to both characters. Lois is more than a love interest, and Superman is tethered to Earth by more than just one single person. His answer, easily, would have been “Freedom” or “Opportunity,” but we’re left hanging by the remains of a mildly emotionless Superman that actually seems like an alien.
However you may feel, we are living in difficult times. A little bit of light goes a long way. Marvel’s take was to make their cinematic universe more kid-friendly, which audiences took to for its escapism. While this quickly devolved into making each character tedious snark machines, they at least have their heroes do an important thing: be heroic once in a while. Rather than attempt to revitalize a character struggling with his own anachronism, have him embrace it. After all, Superman is supposed to inspire. He’s a beacon. He is an ideal to reach for. Superman thrives and eventually prevails. It’s a message we all need to hear, and it’s a story we all want to believe in. It’s the story Man of Steel 2 needs to tell.
For much of 2017, Matthew Vaughn was rumored to be in talks about jumping to Warner Bros. to direct Man of Steel 2. The multiple-time X-Men and Kingsman director has an established and abiding love for the comic book medium and has been largely responsible for X-Men’s resurgence following Bret Ratner’s disappointing The Last Stand. A long-time fan of Superman, Vaughn wanted to tell an enclosed Superman story that would depict Superman in a more traditional way. While the specific story details probably weren’t developed, he was clear about the tone of the film would be; “heroic,” and “feel-good.”
Fans breathed a sigh of relief at this. The darkness that permeated the DCEU’s Superman was polarizing for most audiences. However, by September, Warner Bros. kept Man of Steel 2 off its developing projects list for the first time. Vaughn claimed that the film wasn’t necessarily off the table, and rumors spread that an announcement would come off the back of Justice League. It seemed the hope was to buoy excitement for a new Superman movie by debuting a lighter, more traditional Superman post-resurrection. While the film was successful in retuning the character, the film struggled otherwise. B-list Marvel film Thor: Ragnorak defeated the genre’s greatest superhero team at the box office. In short, Warner Bros. worry has become a panic, leading to more chaos behind-the-scenes. Jon Berg and Geoff Johns are likely to be replaced co-chairmen of DC Films.
It’s quite possible that this will lead to an even greater degree of distrust in Superman by the studio, who want to shake things up again. In the DCEU’s still short lifespan, Superman has disappointed repeatedly. Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman struggled, at least partially, because of his darker portrayal. Justice League presented a reconfigured version that moved the dial back toward normal, but utterly failed to make money.
Superman is a surprisingly versatile character. His powers and origins allow him to fit easily into sci-fi stories; his weakness to magic allows for ethereal options, getting into weird adventures you'd more likely see in Justice League Dark or Doctor Fate. Tell a cosmic story while still accessing the themes of human ingenuity and resolve. His down to earth personality keeps even the highest concept stories a human feel. Clark was raised a small-town farm boy. We're seeing the unreal through the eyes of that and he reacts to it the same way any of us would: a sense of wonder, curiosity and horror. It just so happens that this Regular Joe can also blast concentrated radiation from his eyes.
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