With recent reports that Justice League is an unwatchable mess, on par with DC’s last unwatchable mess: Batman v Superman: This is a Long Title, we here at The NYRD thought it might be high time to address one of the biggest blue and red elephants in the room. DC’s new Superman is garbage, but that’s not entirely the new DCEU’s fault. Hollywood has never known how to deal with Superman on the big screen. Yet, the answer to fixing the man who stands for Truth, Justice, and the American Way may lie with a Doctor in a blue box living right across the pond from us.
What do You do with a Problem like Clark Kent
The core trouble with Superman is that Hollywood producers want to see him punch things, and in movies like Man of Steel he punched nearly $2 trillion worth of things, and cost the lives of more than 129,000 fictional people. Hollywood essentially tries to shoehorn Superman into an action movie, but at his core, the story of the Last Son of Krypton is not one of violence and explosions. There is a reason that finding a villain who is a physical threat to Superman is hard. He can punch a hole in the fabric of space-time. Writers have long been perplexed how to write a Superman movie, he is too powerful, too perfect, too good, too “everything,” for a compelling story. So instead we have gotten Lex Luthor buffoonery, Earth-rotational reversions, dark gritty uber-violence, and a Martha-plot-device.
So what can Superman learn from the Doctor? Well, they are both god-like beings that came to Earth to save humanity. They are both orphans of now extinct-ish races, they are both effectively immortal, and they have both been essentially adopted by two powerful countries, America and Britain respectively. Granted there are differences, (the Doctor tends to pick up with whoever happens to be wandering the streets that day, and Superman is a one woman guy,) but at the core of their mythologies their similarities are undeniable.
The Lonely Gods
The Doctor hides it well, but there are flashes of moments when we see the true demons of the great Time Lord. His/Her race is dead, his/her planet is banished in time, and he/she is the only one of his kind left to wander the galaxy. Normally the Doctor hides the pain among a whimsical exterior, but in those briefest moments you see a person in deep personal pain and anguish. Those cracks in the armor not only make the alien more relatable, but they also deliver the appropriate amount of emotional impact. It makes the Doctor more endearing and yet more complex at the same time.
We are not saying that Superman should emulate this kind of behavior -exactly. Superman at his core could never be that dark, but whenever writers do give us a peak beneath the boyscout exterior we tend to get a person who comes off as whiny and who wanders the Earth with a homeless man beard for thirty minutes of a movie. Clark Kent will always be somewhat defined by his status as an orphan and an outsider, but unlike the Doctor he never knew his planet or his people.
Instead, Clark Kent had a loving family who raised him and cared for him as their own. Despite his secrets and his pain he still has very real and very powerful love in his life. Playing up the “lonely orphan,” angle only serves to make him more two-dimensional. Talk to any adopted child, and there are certainly moments of pain, transition, and what ifs, but the greater moments for Clark and those like him are spent with the people who raised him, loved him, and protected him. This is not to say that there is still not an element of pain and longing, but it is a longing for a world he never knew and a life that never was. Superman is a great man whose heart’s desire is to be average, and to make his pain the focus of his story is a disservice to the character and to the fans. So let’s take a note from Doctor Who and leave that pain buried, except for those small special moments of vulnerability when we get to see the man behind the steel. For a really good example of how this should be done, I highly recommend Alan Moore’s: For the Man Who Has Everything.
A Need for Humanity
One of the things that makes the Doctor so appealing is an obvious need for humans, not just in the form of companions, but on the much grander scale as well. With Gallifrey destroyed you get the sense that Earth is now the closest thing the Doctor has to a homeworld. He/She cares about its inhabitants and the trajectory of its history and future. On the more personal scale, its the human companions that keep the Time Lord stable and grounded.
For example take the end run of the tenth doctor, without a companion at his side he lost it. The 10th Doctor tried to play god and paid for it. The writers on Doctor Who seem acutely aware how important these human relationships are for our alien friend. Its a mutual dependency that balances the show and the Doctor. Superman, like his Time Lord counterpart has human companions too, a fact his writers sometimes try to ignore.
Granted it is going to be unrealistic if Jimmy Olsen -no one likes you Jimmy- were to pull Superman’s blue behind out of the fire in the same way that we so often watched Rose Tyler save the day. Yet, we sometimes forget that Superman is Superman because of the people around him. His parents raised him to be a good and caring person. His love of Lois adds a further driving factor to the story, and even more so than the Doctor, Earth is his homeworld while Krypton is just a memory. He fights to defend the rights and freedoms of the people on this planet because he not only has a deep caring for humans, but because they have a deep caring for him. Writers try to isolate Superman, but that is wrong. He’s not Batman, he doesn’t need tragedy and brooding loneliness to do what he does. He fights for humanity out of love, like the love he experiences from his family and friends, -Batman included. You can’t have a Superman story without his supporting cast. They made him and they keep him grounded, same as the Doctor. For some really good examples of the power of Superman’s supporting cast check out John Bryne’s limited series: Man of Steel.
Nobody is Perfect
Whatever you want to say about everyone’s favorite two-hearted Time Lord, he/she is still just human. Though it doesn’t happen often, he makes mistakes, but his mistakes aren’t like yours and mine. When the Doctor screws up timelines get changed, worlds get altered, and people die. Whether it is something as simple as leaving the TARDIS door open or shutting down a satellite that halts the progress of Earth, the Doctor has been known to make a mess of things, in big ways. Partly this is due to the fact that he is last of the Time Lords, and all the responsibility is left on his shoulders. He is often forced into situations where he must make snap decisions to save lives. Most of the time he makes the right call, but every once in a while he does something that comes back to haunt him in bad and horrible ways. From a writer’s perspective there is a power to the fallibility of the Doctor. He is the last of a race of beings who used to pride themselves on managing timelines and keeping order in the universe. Now there is only one man left to do that and he’s not perfect.
This, above all else, is desperately needed by the Superman franchise. Superman is always perfect. He always does the right thing. He always makes the right call, but why? He acutely feels the responsibility on his shoulders, even more than the Doctor. He often gets forced into situations where he must make quick decisions, but he never screws up. Now, TV watchers, and movie goers have an expectation of Superman saving the day, but how impacting would it be to see Superman make a decision that saves a hundred lives in the short term, but has unforeseen consequences in the long term? How driven would he be to correct that mistake? How far would he go to absolve his guilt? Would he have to win back the trust of the people of Earth?
Having the morals, powers, and responsibilities of Superman are easy when everything is going great, but its in times of tragedy and self-doubt that those things are really tested and conflict is created. If Superman is a god and his mistakes will be bigger and much more far-reaching than our own. The innate justice that guides Clark in all things needs to be tested by conflicts that are more important than punching Darkseid in the face. Maybe this is what Snyder was attempting to do with Man of Steel, but it came off as flat and Superman simply appeared uncaring. For the closest example I would suggest turning to the DCAU episode of Superman: The Animated Series, Legacy Part I & II.
When we talk about a noble sacrifice, we are not talking about the Doctor and Superman giving their literal lives for others -though they both have on a few occasions. For aliens who can regenerate or are near-immortal comic book heroes, sacrificing their lives is the least they do. The greater sacrifice is giving up something personal, which cannot be found again. We see this a lot with the Doctor, when he stands on a beach proclaiming his love for Rose Tyler and knowing that he sacrificed it for the greater good of two worlds; or we see him tearfully wipe the memory of his friend Donna Noble so that she will forget him and be safe. Time and time again we watch the Doctor rip out his/her own heart just to safeguard his friends and the people of Earth.
Superman, on the other hand, feels very little consequences for his role as savior. We hardly ever see Supes give up something or someone that is part of his long standing history. The closest thing we get, is the sacrifice he makes by hiding the “real” Clark Kent beneath a bumbling exterior. We need to see Superman make the kinds of decision that require deep personal loss.
For instance, what if he was faced with the decision to save an alien world or Jimmy Olsen? What does he decide? Each will have consequences, both personal and far reaching. What if he had to watch helplessly as Batman went willingly to his death to protect the world? What if Superman had to give up Lois’ love to keep her safe? These are the type of emotional scars that would not only make Superman more compelling, but bring a new layer of storytelling to the same old mythos of the Man of Steel. It might be a little harder for these kind of sacrifices to happen among a cast of characters that has been so fixed in time, but for a good example look at what Nolan did with the Batman/Rachel Dawes relationship. That was new and interesting.
Everything is Going to be Alright
There is an essential feeling that comes from the arrival of both the Doctor and Superman. Its that feeling you get inside -way down in your chest- when the world is turning to hell, everything is out of control, and you realize that there is nothing you can do about it. Then you turn your head and out of some blue box steps the Doctor, or down from the sky comes Superman, his cape flowing out behind him. It’s that moment you want to cheer and leap up, because suddenly you know everything is going to be alright. Its almost a religious experience, as if God himself were to step down from the heavens to battle space monsters and Cybermen. It’s the feeling that we’re not alone, that the universe makes sense, and that for all the bad and horrible crap that’s out there, there is at least one shining beacon of hope.
Maybe more than anything else that is what is lacking in the DCEU’s portrayal of Superman. He does not inspire hope in us. In Batman v Superman: Seriously Who Thought of This Title? He seems to save people with an almost grim and gritted determination, like a factory working just trying to get through another day. The movies try to tell us that his arrival inspires hope in people, but the audience never feels it. Its not believable in the context of what we know about him. Yet, that is exactly how we should feel when he walks onto the screen.
Both the Doctor and Superman are near-omniscient alien characters, but Doctor Who does a better job at humanizing their lead. The DCEU needs to take a note from their playbook. Superman, after all, is also a man. He can make well meaning mistakes, be haunted by a dark past, have moments of weakness and sacrifice, but in the end he must always be Superman. That is why the Doctor is so powerful, he goes on. Superman should be more like that, flawed but still determined to do the right thing. In Doctor Who, good always wins but it’s not always a clean victory. It’s okay for Superman to not always win, so long as he keeps going on, and keeps inspiring us. A Superman movie should not be about how strong he is or how far he can punch the bad guys. No, it should be about how he refuses to bend, even in the face of his own weaknesses.