Comics on Film: Superman on 'Supergirl' Has Upstaged DC's Current Movies

Comics on Film: Superman on 'Supergirl' Has Upstaged DC's Current Movies

Oct 14, 2016

This week, a lot of very curious DC Comics fans tuned into the CW to check out the season premiere of Supergirl. The series, starring Melissa Benoist and debuting last year on CBS, moved to the CW this year to join other popular DC-based shows like ArrowThe Flash, and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow to add to the tapestry of its own DC Universe on the small screen, unrelated to the recent Warner Bros. movies that encapsulate the so-called "DC Extended Universe." Overall, Supergirl is generally well-regarded and is recognized by a lot of fans as a pretty truthful portrayal of the “Kryptonian corner” of the DC Comics universe.

While the first season made a fair amount of allusions to Supergirl’s more famous cousin – along with some off-center and out-of-focus cameos – the second season premiere on the CW this week featured the first, fully-fledged appearance on the show by the Man of Steel himself: Superman.

And, for a fair amount of longtime Superman fans, the first three minutes of Kal-El’s appearance on the show made something exceedingly clear: where the recent films have fallen short, Supergirl seemed to upstage its bigger-budget cousin by getting Superman’s outlook and personality right.

Comparing Superman in the DC Extended Universe and in Supergirl

When Man of Steel was first released in the summer of 2013, it immediately polarized longtime Superman fans because of the compromises the character made in the story. In a way, the reaction to the ending of Man of Steel kind of re-solidified Superman’s place as a global icon: if he didn’t have the place that he does in worldwide popular culture, would anyone have even cared that he broke General Zod’s neck?

Many of the issues that certain fans had with Superman were carried over into the follow-up film, this year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. We’ve already spoken at length in previous editions of this column about some of the choices that the film’s creative team made with Superman. Adding to that, if there’s one primary distinction to be made about the DCEU Superman portrayed by Henry Cavill, you can argue it’s this: he’s still pretty new to his job.

Then, over on television, we know that in the world of Supergirl that Superman himself is very well-established. The first season of the show never shied away from mentioning him on a relatively regular basis, and the reverence that the world has for him seemed to match a vision for the character that's been absent from the recent movies: the optimistic, strong symbol of heroism that he’s largely always been known (and sometimes criticized) for.

In the very first episode of Supergirl, primary character James Olsen (whom Superman still calls “Jimmy”) was asked what Superman is like in real life. After hearing the question, James’ eyes immediately lit up and, in an awe-filled voice, he said, “He is everything you want him to be…and more.” That made the prospect of having a fully-fledged appearance from the Man of Steel on the show even more daunting: would the man himself be able to carry the weight of the expectations we’ve built up over the last year if/when he actually showed up?

In a word: yes. Actor Tyler Hoechlin’s portrayal of Superman was bound to be compared to his cinematic counterpart in Henry Cavill. While Cavill himself can’t be faulted for the specific direction that the filmmakers have taken his character into, it seems clear to many people – judging from the reactions to Hoechlin’s appearance in reviews and on social media – that viewers are generally pretty excited and encouraged by the appearance of Superman on Supergirl, which concludes next week.

From this one episode, it's clear that this vision of Superman paints him as a guy that doesn’t mind taking the time to say hello to a passing family after saving a plane, he gives a reassuring (and maybe even a little bit of a corny) wink to people after saving them from being killed by a drone, doesn’t hide the fact that he’s suspicious of his enemies (especially if their last name is "Luthor"), and has the strength of character and enough confidence in his immense physical formidability not to back down from anyone or anything. He’s a hero with a backbone, but he also knows when a smile can be more helpful than a scowl, especially when it comes to making people feel safe.

"Why're You Throwing Shade at Henry Cavill?"

I realize it may seem like that's what this article is doing, but that's not the intention. This is a somewhat unique moment in Superman history for one primary reason: for the first time in the character's history in other media outside of the comics, there are now two active and different versions of the fully-fledged original superhero in different live-action mediums. In 2006, Brandon Routh was playing Superman at the movies while Smallville was on the air, but on TV, Tom Welling wasn't actually playing Superman: he was playing a pre-caped Clark Kent.

Dean Cain was the only real live-action Superman of the 1990's, with no film having successfully been developed during the decade that his show Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman was on the air. The Salkind-produced Superboy TV show hit the airwaves over a year after Christopher Reeve's final turn as Superman on film, and George Reeves portrayed the same vision of Superman in a film and then on television in the early 1950's.

As alluded to before, comparison between Cavill and Hoechlin was bound to happen, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it has to be a bad thing. Henry Cavill has certainly made a gallant effort in both of his turns as the Man of Steel thus far to inject him with a humanity not often seen from the character on film, and in the right moments, he certainly succeeds. In several scenes of Man of Steel, he excels in scenes where he's talking one-on-one with Lois Lane, as well as with Martha Kent, General Swanwick, and a small town preacher. He embodies the masculine vision of strength that modern comics artists like John Byrne, Jim Lee, Adam Kubert, and Rags Morales have all imbued him with, and carries himself very much like the monolithic symbol of sheer power you'd expect Superman to be at times.

When confronted with a vision of the character, though, who has more inherent confidence in who he is, knows what his place in the world is, and understands that humanity's trust in him comes from a place of light, it's easy to see what the creative teams and studio executives behind Man of Steel and Batman v Superman have been missing about the character in the current slate of movies.

That doesn't mean that the movies won't get there at some point: after all, the current Superman on film is still learning the ropes to a degree. To have a peek right now at the destination that many fans are likely hoping the films can get to, though, hopefully means that the beacon of aspirational heroism will be flying across our big and small screens in equal measure sooner rather than later.

There's room enough for two visions of an iconic character, especially if both of them are great. Even if one may be flying slightly higher at the moment for this writer, there's time enough to get both up to the same height.


Chris Clow is a gamer, a comic book expert and former retailer, as well as a freelance contributor to The Huffington Post and Batman-On-Film.com, as well as host of the Comics on Consoles podcast. You can find his weekly piece Comics on Film right here at Movies.com. Check out his blog, and follow along on Twitter @ChrisClow.

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