Why it’s so hard to make a good Superman movie, and what DC can learn from Marvel

Superman looks concerned in a photo from Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

There have been rumblings recently indicating Warner Bros. wants to bench Henry Cavill’s Man of Steel series in favor of a focus on Justice League films and other DC hero standalones (most notably Batman, apparently). Outside of showing Zack Snyder where the brightness setting is on his workstation, this is probably the smartest thing DC could do.

The Christopher Reeve films are a relic of their time, and the studio’s 2006 attempt to recapture that magic with Superman Returns was a mixed bag that never quite found its footing. Cut ahead through a half dozen or so aborted false starts and we have Synder’s Man of Steel. The studio is hitching its wagon to the universe Snyder created with this inaugural outing, and this world he’s built is obviously heavily influenced by Superman.

Look no further than the initial trailers for the semi-follow-up Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice for proof of that, with the political and religious implications of Superman’s arrival apparently setting much of the film’s central conflicts in motion. Superman’s Metropolis-smashing debut ushered in the first era of superheroes for the Man of Steel-verse, and that’s a fascinating angle to explore from a societal perspective and how it affects the world. In a way, he almost works better as a narrative catalyst than an actual character.

But that doesn’t mean we need a trilogy of Man of Steel sequels. Just because Superman makes the world more interesting, it doesn’t mean his standalone movies are interesting.

It’s worth noting Man of Steel was obviously a solid box-office success (though it pales in comparison to the upper echelon of Marvel’s catalog), but the critical reaction was decidedly mixed. It was a drab affair, and though he did an excellent job of blowing things up and setting the foundation for future world-building, Snyder still struggled to tell a truly compelling story about Superman.

Superman suffers from Incredible Hulk syndrome


It took Marvel more than a decade to finally find the sweet spot for the Incredible Hulk. Sure, much like Superman, the character experienced a ton of success a few decades ago thanks to the beloved 1970s and 1980s TV series. But, on that same token, Marvel couldn’t quite figure out how to reintroduce the character to a modern audience.

Admittedly, Ang Lee’s 2003 attempt with Hulk failed because it was terrible. So, so terrible. That’s not to say Lee didn’t try to explore some fascinating territory by deconstructing Bruce Banner, but the package as a whole just collapsed under the weight of its own ambition. The world was not ready for the film Lee attempted to make, and the movie he made didn’t really fit as a Hulk film. Of course, this was also before the MCU, and this project sits alone as a strange footnote in the early 2000s.

Jump ahead five years, and Marvel brought mean green back off the bench for 2008’s The Incredible Hulk, which helped kick off the Marvel Cinematic Universe alongside Iron Man. Thankfully for all of us, at least Iron Man managed to connect. Once again, Hulk failed to gain much traction with critics or moviegoers (I can attest the film did not age very well, despite my fond memories), and Marvel has since forgotten pretty much the entire film as far as the canon is concerned (not to mention they recast Edward Norton with Mark Ruffalo). It’s basically the story of a guy with nigh-unlimited power spending two hours trying not to give in to it. That can make for a script that’s decidedly hard to sustain.

So what’s the problem, and how did Marvel (and how can DC) fix it? 


They stopped making Hulk movies and started using the character in a capacity that better serves the universe as a whole. Namely: They made him a centerpiece in the Avengers films, letting the character shine in a group dynamic while not being weighed down by the need to carry an entire film. The Hulk works better as a co-star to the overall team, and most fans who have seen The Avengers or Age of Ultron would be hard pressed to disagree. It also makes the character more special and significant, in a way, because his appearances carry more weight in these epic team-up films.

I'd wager Warner Bros. and DC will find Superman works much in the same way, and they’re testing that theory with Batman v Superman. The studio has been adamant that this film is not a sequel to Man of Steel and is instead (basically) a bridge film to build the universe and introduce the elements that will take center stage in Justice League (see: Batman v Superman’s subtitle). Instead of having a 2+ hour movie focused on him the whole time, Supes will be playing a key role alongside other DC A-listers Batman, Wonder Woman and Lex Luthor. 

Much like the Hulk, Superman is essentially an all-powerful character with insane strength capable of bashing just about anything. Even more than the Hulk, Kal-El is all but invincible (Kryptonite not withstanding). He’s also a pretty good guy, which is great, but it also makes him boring. He’s an all-powerful Boy Scout who stands for truth, justice and the American way. Again, that’s awesome. But ... yawn. Snyder tried to stray as far from that mandate as possible without wrecking the canon, and he still fell short of making Clark Kent’s story truly interesting.

The best thing DC could do with Superman is follow Marvel’s Hulk playbook. Put Superman back on the board for the major stories, i.e. the Justice League films, where his power level would be a good match (and possibly undermatched) for whatever uber-baddie is causing trouble. Those are stories where Superman should be truly relevant, and by playing that card less often, it can serve to add some buzz and excitement to the Justice League films. It’ll also give Warner Bros. more release slots to explore heroes with more nuanced and human stories, such as the Flash, Green Lantern and Aquaman. 

Superman needs to show up and help save the world with his Super Friends, not fill release gaps with standalone stories for the sake of standalone stories. Looking back to decades of comic canon, the character thrives in those massive event sagas with universe-level stakes. Those decades of printed proof must translate to the big screen in some capacity, right? Superman needs to be a key piece of this world, so what better place to station him than in the biggest movies?

It boils down to this: What we need are better Superman movies, and to get that, I’d wager it means fewer Superman movies — and that’s OK.

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