Where Have You Gone, Superman?

This isn’t the point in time when I pretend that I’ve been a huge Superman fan my whole life. When I read comic books as a kid, I split my time pretty evenly between Marvel and DC. I liked that they had different tones, and sometimes I was in the mood for one and sometimes the other. I never understood this “feud” and I still don’t. I read The Flash, Iron Man, Green Lantern, Firestorm (of all things), and all of the Spider-Mans (Amazing, Peter Parker the Spectacular, Web of, Marvel Team-Up) pretty religiously.

Action Comics or Superman was something I only bought on the way home when I was having a particularly bad day. And that’s the benefit and inherent problem with Superman: You know what you’re going to get. Superman is comfort food. I’m not going to eat grilled cheese sandwiches every day, but I like them when I’m in a bad mood. This was always the nice thing about Superman. I didn’t really relate to him, but when the chips were down, I knew I could always run to him.

In 2016, an all-powerful do-gooder is probably a little boring, at least I assume that’s what Zack Snyder was thinking back in 2010 when he was hired. (Zack Snyder has somehow been working on Superman movies for six years now.) On the surface, Bryan Singer tried to go the old-fashioned route with Superman Returns and it didn’t work. So, I’m sure the thinking was, “Let’s do the opposite of that.” But by tying Superman Returns in with the Christopher Reeve films, it leaned too much on nostalgia and it was confusing. (Today, people are kind of used to the whole, “spiritual sequel,” or whatever. Mad Max: Fury Road and Deadpool are good examples. But telling a 2006 audience, “Okay, this is a sequel to Superman II, so just ignore that Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest For Peace ever happened,” was a few years ahead of its time.)

In 2013, I liked Man of Steel. I appreciated it for trying something a little different. Of course, that film is hounded by controversy: Not for anything real, but because Superman seemed indifferent to the destruction in Metropolis after his fight with General Zod. After snapping Zod’s neck (which is a whole other can of worms), Superman thought it was more appropriate to steal a smooch from Lois than see if anyone needed help.

The outrage over this is fascinating: Superman is a fictional character, but people felt comfortable enough telling the director of a Superman movie that “Superman would never do that,” even though he did do that. We all saw it. Superman is now a character who does stuff like that. The second thing is that Superman is supposedly a character people don’t much care about anymore, yet everyone was mad. These are conflicting points of view that don’t make a lot of mathematical sense, but they also illustrate how deeply invested people are in the idea of Superman, and how much he still matters.

The day I saw Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was the same day as the terrorist attacks in Brussels. On the way to the screening, which happened to be in Times Square, I weaved in and out of all the heightened security New York City dispenses on days like this. It’s always disconcerting. But on that day – a day Donald Trump would say more stupid stuff about things that he knows nothing about, then win another primary – I really wanted to see a Superman movie. That was the kind of day I would have picked up a Superman comic on the way home. I don’t want dark and gritty, I wanted a fictional authority figure to tell me everything was going to be okay because there are still good people. Which is the truth! There are lots of good people! And Superman always did a good job of reminding everyone that’s true. (Also: If the earnest Captain America – a character that has the word “America” in his title – can succeed in 2016, an earnest Superman surely can, too. And the Supergirl television series is pretty much proving this.)

But not this Superman. This Superman’s eyes often glow red with anger and rage, right before he lets off some heat vision. I’ve decided I don’t like this Superman. If he were real and I were in jeopardy, I wouldn’t feel comfortable approaching him on the street to tell him. I imagine with this version, there are a lot of conversations like, “Oh, there’s Superman. Should I tell him your purse was robbed?” “Eh, it really depends on what kind of mood he’s in. You know what, just forget it, I’ll just buy a new purse.” Superman’s still “boring” in the fact he’s all-powerful, only now the one character trait that made him appealing – that he stood for something “good” – is gone. Seriously, what’s the point of this guy now?

When Snyder got the gig in 2010, there was still another Christopher Nolan Batman movie to be released in 2012. Basically, Batman was spoken for, but “you can have Superman if you want.” It all feels like a consolation prize now. Six years later, Batman isn’t spoken for anymore and now we are getting Snyder’s vision of Batman, which is probably what he wanted to do all along. (And Snyder’s vision of Batman is pretty good, even though the movie isn’t.)

What’s funny is that, as a society, we probably need a viable Superman now more than ever. Right now, that would probably the perfect character. What didn’t really work ten years ago would feel welcome day: Cinematic comfort food. A character who just makes you feel good about people. It’s hard to believe there’s not one scene in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice of Clark Kent realizing there’s danger, then running off to reveal that iconic “S” while some cool music plays. Nope. He rescues people, but there’s a lot of pouting and distant hovering in the process.

(That’s another thing: Bring back John Williams’ score. I know Superman Returns did that, but that is Superman’s music. It’s iconic. It’s like James Bond’s theme. Could you imagine a James Bond movie without that? “Oh, we want to make sure people realize Skyfall isn’t related to The Man with the Golden Gun.” Yeah, no shit. Just give me the James Bond them song and give me the Superman theme song. Remember how great the Rocky theme worked in Creed? Could you imagine the reaction if that iconic Superman theme kicked in during a climatic scene in Batman v Superman? I did not like this movie, but I promise I would have cheered for that.)

Sometimes people want comfort food and sometimes people want comfort characters. Superman is a comfort character. We’re not always going to be in the mood for him, but when we are, we really are. But this version, Zack Snyder’s version, is like ordering that grilled cheese sandwich, then getting something that looks like a grilled cheese sandwich, but it’s topped with sardines, Spree, and a wasp. Dude, I’m in a bad mood and I just wanted a grilled cheese sandwich. I was in a bad mood and I just really needed to see a Superman movie.

Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.