Should The Next SUPERMAN Movie Be A Period Film?

Zack Snyder’s cut of JUSTICE LEAGUE has been willed into existence by the collective pining of a legion of cineastes, fans all of monochromatic filters on their superheroes.

Henry Cavill is reported to be returning as a supporting character in one or multiple new films featuring DC’s stable of characters. Based on what I’ve heard about the plot of the film, I am willing to bet the current contents of my wallet that the first movie Cavill appears in as Superman is, of all things, SPACE JAM 2.

SUPERMAN AND LOIS is a new show set to air in the near future on The CW. It is not to be confused with LOIS AND CLARK, the show that aired on ABC in the ‘90s and featured a clone of Lois Lane that ate frogs, or THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERPUP, a show in which Superman was a giant anthropomorphic dog named Bark Bent. Though, if we’re lucky, SUPERMAN AND LOIS will give us episodes within the first season in which Superman gets turned into a dog and somebody eats a frog.

Superman seems set to be well represented on screens both big and small in the coming years. Why then am I filled with doubt that Warner Brothers knows what to do with the character?

I don’t come here as a Superman megafan. I haven’t read any of the monthly comics starring the character in years and I gave up on watching SMALLVILLE during the season where Pete Ross began street racing with kryptonite-powered cars. Most of my favorite Superman stories feature the character as an influence more than a protagonist. I learned to love and appreciate the character through books like THE KRYPTONITE KID by Joseph Torchia, in which a young boy figures out his burgeoning sexuality while writing letters to Superman, SUPERMAN: SECRET IDENTITY, a comic book mini-series by Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen in which a boy is given the unfortunate name of Clark Kent by his parents only to discover he has the powers of the fictional comic book character he shares a name with, and, of course, the movie THE IRON GIANT.

It was Larry Tye’s amazing book SUPERMAN: THE HIGH-FLYING HISTORY OF AMERICA’S MOST ENDURING HERO that is most responsible for me caring about the character. A comprehensive look at the creation and legacy of Superman, the book reminds readers that Superman, born from the mind of two Jewish kids from Cleavland in 1938, is an embodiment of the creators’ collective culture, crushed like a diamond squeezed from coal inside the grip of Superman himself, into the literal representation of the best that humanity can aspire to. Whether it’s his comic books, films, television shows or even the long-running radio show that – least we forget – was used by the Anti Defamation League in 1946 to help combat the Klu Klux Klan’s influence, Superman and the tales he has inspired are iconic pieces of American mythology.

Superman is a character that has had new stories told about him for 80-plus continuous years. It’s a shame, then, that for the last few decades, studio executives have been hellbent on trying to give theater audiences the same two stories: The Death of Superman and What if Superman Was an Asshole? 

Since DC Comics’ Death of Superman event shattered comic book sales in 1992 and drew previously unparalleled media attention to the character, there has been a burning desire to translate the story to the big screen. From Kevin Smith’s aborted attempt through Tim Burton and Nic Cage’s spin that, like Icarus, flew too close to the sun, to finally Snyder’s Man of Steel trilogy, it has been the almost exclusive focus whenever Warner Brothers has sought to make a Superman film. Thankfully, with BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE and JUSTICE LEAGUE in the rearview mirror, Warner Brothers has gotten the Doomsday-shaped enema they needed and flushed this story out of their system.

The lurking threat now is INJUSTICE: GODS AMONG US. The popular video game series sees Superman turned into a murderous fascist dictator, driven to dangerous levels of badassness when Lois Lane is killed by the Joker. This is not the first time the character of Superman has been cast in the role of bad guy but INJUSTICE has certainly been the one to make the largest pop culture impact. Comic book series, animated films and, yes, the last few big-screen films starring the character have all taken tonal inspiration from the video games.

While JUSTICE LEAGUE ended with Superman cracking a smile and the promise of a lighter touch featuring the character on the big screen, I can’t help but fear that when Warner Brothers is ready to put the character back into films, they will give us the same tales of Superman the Super Jerk they think audiences want.

I offer, though, an alternative. What if, instead of the same tonal dragons the studio has spent the last decade chasing, Warner Brothers dug deeper and went all the way back to the beginning for inspiration in the next Superman movie?

The next Superman film should be a period piece, set in the late ‘30s or early ‘40s, and featuring a Superman that closely resembles the one created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in 1938. This is a have your cake and eat it too situation for Warner Brothers because 1938 Superman was kind of a jerk, but he was the people’s jerk. He was a social justice warrior of the truest sense. Instead of punching genetically engineered alien killing machines, Superman spent his time beating up on spouse abusers, corporate bigwigs, and corrupt politicians. This is the hero audiences want to see now! No more plots featuring Lex Luther engaging in real estate schemes or Superman pulling mindless alien bug drones out of portals in the sky. Give us the swing-for-the-fences earnestness of early Superman comics – stories that were down-to-earth but weird in their own wonderful way.

Take ACTION COMICS # 4, one of the earliest appearances of Superman.

The book begins with a pedestrian being killed by a driver in a hit and run accident. Superman chases after the driver, looking to exact justice. Unfortunately, the driver’s car breaks down on a railroad track and, in the commotion of Superman trying to save the dick from the impending train, the driver has a heart attack and dies.

Superman, seemingly looking to now punish the train conductor or something, hops on the still-moving train. Before he can punch anybody, though, he overhears a football coach making a dirty deal to hire two thugs to play football for him, with the heavy implication that they will use their prior experience as legbreakers and ruffians to help the coach ensure victory over the opposing team, by any means necessary.

Superman, because he has absolutely nothing better to do than to mess with people, immediately goes home and uses make-up to make himself look like a football player from the team the corrupt coach’s team will be playing that weekend. Superman then kidnaps the real football player whose appearance he has adopted, injects him with some kind of drug to induce a coma, and then ties him to a bed so that Superman can take over his identity for the next week.

What follows is a comedy (a dark one), with Superman realizing that the football player whose identity he has stolen is actually a terrible athlete. His team members are surprised to see that the former milquetoast is now super-strong, super-fast, and able to leap off the heads of the defensive line like he was some kind of Cirque du Soleil acrobat. Meanwhile, the real football player whose identity Superman has stolen is in a waking paralysis, unable to move or escape the bed Superman has tied him to.

Cut to the night before the big game. Superman, now a starting player for the football team he snuck his way into, is going up against the team coached by the guy on the train. The coach, fearing that this newly talented football player will cost him the game, orders his new thugs/players to break into the football player’s house in the middle of the night and kidnap the athlete. Of course, the bruisers kidnap the real player, not Superman. Note: the poor guy is STILL in a waking coma!

Superman shows up at the game, the coach is confused (“I thought my guys kidnapped this dude!”) and orders his thugs to kill Superman during the game with prison shivs. Meanwhile, the real football player wakes from his paralysis, escapes from captivity, and makes his way to the game just in time to see Superman scoring touchdown after touchdown. At first, the player is angry that his identity was stolen but then he realizes that his reputation is being improved with every second Superman is on the field. He takes a seat in the stands and begins cheering on the man who has spent the last week holding him in captivity.

Superman, just as he is about to score the winning touchdown, is stabbed in the gut by the thugs. Good thing he’s bullet (and shiv) proof. He gives the corrupt coach the meanest glare he can manage and the bad guy promptly confesses and is carted away to jail.

Superman, having finally avenged the death of the pedestrian from the beginning of the story, I guess, hops away. The football player he was impersonating gets a girl (and a tough as hell time explaining why he can’t play as well as Superman at the next game) and all’s well that ends well.

Make that into a movie, you cowards.

OK, I guess that Warner Brothers is going to be hesitant to greenlight a movie that features Superman playing college football for its entirety. I get it. I guess they can throw in a robot or two.

In fact, they should just adapt Tom De Haven’s IT’S SUPERMAN!, a fantastic 2005 novel that follows Clark Kent as he moves from Smallville to the big city in the 1930s. It deals with race relations, features Lex Luther building robots and even follows Clark Kent as he tries to get a job as a stuntman in golden-age Hollywood. It’s a fantastic novel that wraps itself in its period setting like a warm blanket. It’s smart, thoughtful, full of action, and everything that audiences would dig from a Superman movie. My personal dream scenario would see the Coen Brothers adapting it for the big screen – think THE HUDSUCKER PROXY,  but with Superman punching mechanical killing machines. But it needs to feature a scene of Superman playing football.