'Man of Steel' Countdown: What Is a Darker Superman?

'Man of Steel' Countdown: What Is a Darker Superman?

Jun 29, 2012

It’s been a while since I broke down the fourth wall of this column series and dug deep into my own personal opinions of what we know so far about Man of Steel. A few fellow fans have asked me recently what I think director Zack Snyder and screenwriter David Goyer actually mean when they say that this version of Superman will be “darker” than past incarnations. This is all in an attempt to make the character “relevant” again. Does that mean that the character, the circumstances, the villains or simply the tone will be taken to a darker degree than previous incarnations? My honest answer is that I expect all of the above, but to varying degrees.

Since Superman achieved such amazing success as the #1 comic book hero for over 40 years, his writers were certainly on the right track for the times. As the first-ever superhero in 1938, his comics and merchandise sales along with success in other media like radio and television made him into an icon. Eventually Batman became more popular, as did other heroes from other companies like Spider-Man and The X-Men. Before the character’s death in 1992, a good friend of mine told me about how people would make fun of him for liking Superman. Of course once he died, they were jealous that he had all of the lead-up comics sitting in a hold box at his local comic store.

Thanks to the success of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, Warner Brothers seems to be trying to copy the darker, grittier realism with other major characters like Superman. But that can be a slippery slope because Superman isn’t like Batman. Although they were good friends in the comics from the 40’s-70’s, when John Byrne recreated Superman for the comics in 1986, he set them at odds with each other because their methods would necessarily have to be so opposite. Superman can fly and is bulletproof, so how hard would it be to stop the likes of Catwoman or Two-Face? And Batman would have a much harder time taking on someone like Brainiac or Darkseid who could probably crush him with bare hands. The fact that Batman gets the job done by using fear and intimidation, plus that he is effectively a criminal vigilante working outside the law, meant that the first thing Superman tried to do when they met was arrest him and take him to jail. If they are so completely different, what are some of the ways that the success of the Batman films feed into success with Superman?

My friend Frankie Addiego pointed out to me the other day that we should notice that nobody ever asks if Mickey Mouse or Dick Tracy are “still relevant” even though neither have starred in movies in a long time. If Superman had such a drastic influence on every other superhero in comics, shouldn’t his relevance already be implicit?


The Villains

Superman villains can be very dark to the point that scenes from Superman II had to be cut from the finished film. While the Phantom Zone villains were occupying a small town called Houston (not Texas), Non flat out killed a pre-teen boy who was trying to escape on horseback. But other villains like Mr. Mxyzptlk (one of my favorites) is usually whimsical in nature despite being highly dangerous in his own right. I don’t expect we’ll see Mxy in this or any of the potential sequels, so chances are that the film villains will be the more obviously dangerous types who are actively trying to kill Superman and other innocents.

The General Zod of the 1978 film series was no pushover. He and his compatriots were still incredibly dangerous and wrought serious carnage both in their descriptions at the start of the first movie and their actions in the sequel. Terrence Stamp’s portrayal is legendary and certainly hard to top, but we can be assured that Michael Shannon’s take on the character will be almost entirely different. For instance we know thanks to a tweet from Russell Crowe (Jor-El) during filming that they have a lengthy battle together on Krypton, which begs the question: how much time will Zod actually have on Earth to give Superman a serious adversary there, or will there be other villains that have not yet been announced?

As for future bad guys, the options are to work with the darker powerhouse characters like Doomsday, Mongul, Darkseid and Brainiac, or to darken traditionally lighter ones like Bizarro, Parasite, Prankster or even Toyman.  In my honest opinion (and I do NOT have the inside track on this) the only two inhabited planets we are likely to see in this film and its sequels will be Earth and Krypton. The creative team has spoken about the desire to keep the film realistic, albeit still a world where a man can fly. So having an alien invasion every couple of years seems out of the question. If that’s the case we most likely wouldn’t see Darkseid from Apokolips or Mongul from Warworld. But that does leave the door open for characters like Doomsday, who was created on Krypton, or Brainiac who was reimagined as a Kryptonian artificial intelligence in 1996. That version of Brainiac first appeared in Superman: The Animated Series and continued through the Justice League cartoons while being adopted by the comic book writers and eventually introduced that way on TV’s Smallville.

Zod doesn’t actually need to be darkened as long as he remains the sadistic, genocidal maniac that we expect him to be, even if this version sets him up a character who believes he is a force for good. If you want a darker story, why not make the destruction of Krypton ultimately Jor-El’s fault?

Darker Circumstances

The circumstances can really set the tone for the film. It’s one thing to have Superman face darker villains, but what about the rest of the world around him? We already know that Clark Kent will be spending some time as a young adult in the Pacific Northwest as a logger or perhaps just living in their community. Some of the green-screen shots suggest that he will be saving some lives along the way, but hopefully he’ll encounter some nefarious individuals as well. How does a Superman deal with non-villains who are simply making life harder for everyone else? What if powers aren’t enough to stop them? The possibilities are endless and can make for some great characterization.

How dark would it be if Superman faced an incredible disaster where no matter how fast or strong he was, thousands or even millions of innocent people died anyway? How would the guilt affect him whether it’s indirectly his own fault or not? What if his powers go wonky and someone dies as a result. Again, there are more possibilities to get into Superman’s psyche and throw a wrench in the gears.

And what about Krypton? There is zero chance that it will look as it did in the 1978 film with contrasting black and white and little to no color. Krypton has traditionally orbited a red giant star which gives off a lower level of light. If the Man of Steel team is aiming for realism, the sky would necessarily appear to be literally darker, which would set the tone well for a planet on the verge of violent destruction.


Darker Superman?

There are ways to darken Superman that can still work. He doesn’t have to be like his 1950’s counterpart where almost nothing can get him down. We have seen in Smallville that young Clark Kent had a penchant for being moody and disliked the things he was learning about his heritage throughout his youth. He was not ready to embrace becoming a full-fledged superhero until the very end of the series.

Likewise, the graphic novel “Superman: Earth One” from 2010 portrayed a rebellious young Clark Kent who never intended to be a hero, but was essentially forced to when aliens came looking for the last Kryptonian. It was still his need to help the people who were being threatened because of him, but he could have easily stayed in the shadows.

It’s a very fine line between just-dark-enough and too-dark when it comes to Superman. For instance, the TV series Smallville took the darkness entirely too far in its ninth season where that Universe’s Zod had constructed twin skyscrapers in the heart of Metropolis that would ultimately use Kryptonian technology to turn the Sun red and would give him back his powers while removing Clark’s. So as a pre-Superman, he committed a major terrorist attack by using his heat vision to explode the mid-sections of both towers and collapse them. As far as anyone in Metropolis should have been concerned, it would have appeared to be an attack on par with 9/11. Although I think it was just a poor choice on behalf of the writers when the device could have been literally anything, even a small box that Zod would have been trying to use. But I know people who stopped watching the rest of the series after that moment.

One of the most intrinsic points of contention for Superman is his refusal to kill in order to defeat. He simply won’t do it, even if it means losing. That’s how he is and more importantly it’s WHO he is. There was a comic story in 1988 where he decided to kill Zod and two other Phantom Zone villains because they had decimated an Earth from another Universe. He consequently went mad from guilt and found himself sleepwalking as another hero. Eventually he decided he was too dangerous and couldn’t control himself, so he exiled himself into deep space and took months to redeem himself before returning home.

Batman has a similar rule, which became an important part of Batman Begins in 2005. That rule was bent when he refused to kill Ra’s al Ghul, but decided he didn’t have to save him either. It’s almost the same as killing him.

Superman fans dodged a serious bullet in the 1990’s when a new film version went into pre-production that included a Superman whose “S” shield emblem was made up of a series of knives that could be detached and thrown at enemies to kill them. It appears that no one in charge of that movie understood anything about the character and it was never filmed at all. Lucky us, because as much as some fans want to claim that Superman Returns was an inferior film, that’s nothing compared to the way this one was set to turn out.

Although Superman can be darker than he was in the 1950s and '60s, he must continue to hold true to the basics. The circumstance around him can be darkened, but as I’ve said before, he must be the bright shining beacon of hope in the middle of that darkness. That’s his purpose. It’s who he is and what he exists for. He inspires hope in the Universe he inhabits and for the real-life fans who enjoy his stories. And if that is removed, you might as well create another character and call him something else because it’s no longer Superman.

The big difference between Superman and the other heroes he has inspired in the history of comics is his motivations. Batman became a hero because he saw his parents tragically gunned down when he was eight. Spider-Man became a hero because he was in a bad mood and let a bad guy go without stopping him, who later killed his beloved Uncle Ben and he had to learn responsibility. Wolverine experienced a number of tragedies in his life that shaped him. Green Lantern has a sense of military duty. But Superman does what he does because it’s the right thing to do, and that says a lot about who he is. However, I expect he will be stripped of that for Man of Steel because much like Clark Kent on Smallville, he may find a way to blame himself for his father’s death.  Again, I don’t have the inside track on this and it’s still possible that it will merely be the impetus for him to begin traveling the world. We’ll just have to wait and see.




Hans Zimmer has been chosen to score Man of Steel, which is no surprise. He also wrote and conducted the music for Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy and the Pirates of the Caribbean films as well as far too many to mention here. He is clearly one of the most popular music makers in Hollywood today, scoring up to five films a year. Stay alert for the next Man of Steel Countdown where I will be looking at theme music from past incarnations of Superman and discussing what we might expect from Zimmer’s take on the material.



We know that Man of Steel will hit theaters in the US on June 14, 2013, but Brazil, Ireland, Lithuania, Norway, Turkey and the UK will get it the same day.

Meanwhile some countries will get it a day EARLIER in Argentina, Australia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands and New Zealand.

Belgium will have to wait until June 19 and Sweden until June 26.


What do you think a “darker” Superman should be?


Jeffrey Taylor is a staff writer/moderator at The Superman Homepage, cohost of From Crisis to Crisis: A Superman Podcast available at the Superman Homepage, iTunes and The Superman Podcast Network. You can find his new Man of Steel Countdown column here at Movies.com every other Tuesday.

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