Zack Snyder's approach to Superman may not have won him many fans at Warner Bros, but one of the minds behind Smallville and Daredevil is on his side. The dust surrounding Snyder's time in the DCEU seems to have ended, with rumors that his removal from Justice League may have been inevitable. For three films, he had depicted a different kind of Superman - one less flawless and untouchable, and struggling as much as the humans he saved. In the end, Justice League swapped in a Supes who saved the day without breaking a sweat, grinning ear to ear the entire time.
Speaking with Pacific Rim: Uprising writer/director Steven S. DeKnight during a junket for the film, we pointed out that his experience adapting superhero characters to screen makes him something of an expert. And as one of the relatively few people ever faced with actually TELLING a Superman story, he knows the true challenge - and sees value in Snyder's Man of Steel approach.
Before he was directing the Kaiju-rumble Uprising, DeKnight was writing, producing, and even directing a handful of episodes on TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Dollhouse, Spartacus, and acting as showrunner on the first season of Marvel's Daredevil. But with a new wave of live-action Superman properties, from films to TV shows Krypton and Metropolis, things have come a long way from DeKnight's time on Smallville in particular.
Even though time has passed, DeKnight states the challenge of the Man of Steel plainly:
Superman is one of the hardest characters to write for. One of the brilliant things about Smallville is it's all about Clark. He wasn't Superman yet.
As someone who had to write for almost exclusively superhuman heroes and heroines, that's really saying something. DeKnight continued by summarizing the reason a hero like Batman, DC's other biggest hit, can be both less heroic, but less difficult to write. And who he thinks has dealt with the Superman problem well:
Superman's very different from Batman. Batman is this dark, psychologically messed up guy, Superman's the man we all aspire to be. He's inspirational and to try to find the human side of that, and not to mention, he's so powerful it's harder to relate to him so it's very, very difficult.
I actually really like what Zack Snyder has done with that character. It's a super hard, very tricky character to do and like I said, if we were doing on Smallville, if he were Superboy on Smallville, I don't think it would have worked.
DeKnight highlights an oft-overlooked detail in the creation of Smallville: that despite the temptations of writing a Superman origin story, series creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar made a promise from the start that there would be "no tights, no flights." It was intended to tell the story of how Clark Kent became the hero everyone knew, not retread what the world had already seen (a strange concept in today's world). Over the decade the show ran, it paid off, too. Not only did a not-yet-Superman have limits, but he was allowed to falter.
That's a journey people seem to enjoy for Batman, but taking such a true "origin story" approach to Superman was met with intense blowback. The idea that Clark Kent would need to become Superman, one step at a time, was instantly a problem for many who felt "Superman is Superman." There's no easy way to win over either side - using DeKnight's words, how do you take an "inspirational" hero who is "the man we all aspire to be," and tell an origin story in which he can't be those things from the start? Stretch it across three films, and you risk winding up where Snyder is now.
In hindsight, maybe DeKnight's musings on Smallville hold a lesson. In those days, fans were hungry enough for Superman to take an origin story with no capes, tights, or even the Superman name. But that's what an origin story requires, on some level, to satisfy. Otherwise, you're just skipping to the part that seems most obvious to please the masses (a direction Gotham took despite early claims to the contrary). But judging by the responses to Justice League, DeKnight is right about that path leading to problems of its own.
Our full interview with Steven S. DeKnight will be coming soon, Pacific Rim fans.
- Pacific Rim Uprising (2018) release date: Mar 23, 2018