In 1946, the radio serial Adventures of Superman had the Man of Steel beat the shit out of the Ku Klux Klan. In “Clan of the Fiery Cross,” a 16-part story where Clark Kent investigates the kidnapping of a Chinese-American boy, the serial used real intel collected by Stetson Kennedy, famed human rights activist who infiltrated the terrorist group using his dead uncle’s name. Though Kennedy intended to report his findings to police, he learned that some in law enforcement were Klansmen themselves. So he turned to someone whose greatest power was the attention of millions of young people.
Kennedy’s timing couldn’t have been better. The producers of Superman were in serious need of villains, as the end of World War II saw the collapse of the Axis and comic book writers had yet to invent Lex Luthor’s mech suit. So the writers and Kennedy had Superman fight the KKK in a story that revealed actual Klan codewords and rituals.
Which, by the way, weren’t even clever. Klansmen talk in “klonversations,” and meet in taverns, or “klaverns.” The show exposed the KKK for what they were, klumbasses who wore their bedsheets in the woods and called themselves “wizards.” The public owning of the Klan by one of the most popular radio shows put an irreparable dent in the group’s image. Public association became as radioactive as Kryptonite; in the 2005 book Freakonomics, authors Stephen J. Dubner and Steven Levitt called Kennedy’s work “the greatest single contributor to the weakening of the Ku Klux Klan.” Though it was radio, audiences saw how dirty the Klan’s white robes looked compared to Superman’s bright red and blue.
In 2019, white nationalism is an algorithm on platforms run by billionaires and the Earth continues to burn at an alarming rate. It was this very same year that Variety reported Warner Bros., owners of Superman and DC Comics, can’t figure out a Superman film that’s “relevant to modern audiences.” 73 years after an alien refugee socked racists in the face, studio executives are clueless as to how Superman can be “relevant” while racists call the police on people of color minding their own business.
The twist in the knife is that you can’t blame them. Ask anyone you just spent Thanksgiving with, or take an informal poll in your workplace and people will echo what execs fear: Superman is too quaint, too old fashioned, too self-righteous, too corny, and too silly. This has always been his problem, from when he debuted in 1938 (amid the toil of the Great Depression) to when his film premiered in 1978 (during Watergate), to the 21st century (the shadow of 9/11, Iraq, recession, and more). Superman’s greatest weakness isn’t Kryptonite, it’s that he’s not Batman. (Is it the tights? It must be the tights.)
But that’s what can make Superman cool. He is purposefully uncool, in an earnest, corny way that characterizes Generation Z better than burnt out Millennials and the eternally cynical Gen X.
He’s a chiseled, overpowered beefcake who would not mind getting your cat down from a tree. He’s a square peg in a jaded round hole. Superman’s whole schtick, much like Captain America, is that he is impossibly decent, impossibly good, and impossibly human despite his mere existence as the most inhuman being imaginable. The only difference between Superman and Captain America is that Captain America’s movies never had contempt for their audience.
The ancient Judeo-Christian undertones of Superman are inescapable, but in a current-day lens they still scan as “relevant.” Sent to Earth as the refugee of a dying alien planet (an extinction whose inhabitants refused to acknowledge), Kal-El is adopted by midwestern farmers. Raised among humans, he learns he doesn’t quite fit in. It’s in his journey into learning his heritage that he becomes Superman, avatar of Krypton but representative of Earth, a crusading journalist who holds the greedy elite accountable.
Though comic writers have done impeccable work with Superman for years (try Kingdom Come, Superman for All Seasons, and All-Star Superman if you need a modern starting point), Hollywood has not done the Man of Tomorrow justice. At least, not since Christopher Reeve, whose starring 1978 film remains the ur-text of all superhero movies. The DC Extended Universe, a film franchise that maintains serious appeal despite fewer hits than Marvel, had films like Man of Steel (2013) and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) that went for a miscalculated, high-level approach. These films painted Superman not as a wholesome superhero but a reluctant Messiah lost in a baroque painting of Gethsemane.
The DCEU presented a dark subversion of Superman when there had yet to be a definitive Superman to orient us to Cavill’s otherwise perfect performance. It was in Man of Steel, an origin film, where a young Clark questions if he should let a bus full of kids drown just to avoid suspicion. His father, supposed to be his moral compass, chillingly tells him, “Maybe.”
Yikes! No wonder Man of Steel, an overly expensive ($225 million) movie, didn’t click with audiences. It misunderstood one of the most inspiring figures of all time for a woeful, limited metaphor on post-9/11 surveillance. The film really was a genuine effort to make Superman relevant to modern audiences, but having him mope in desaturated colors is not how you do it.
Here’s how you do it: In a popular page from Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman, the Man of Steel rushes to the side of a suicidal teenager (suicides are currently the second leading cause of death for people between ages 15 to 24). High above Metropolis, Superman reassures her, “You’re much stronger than you think you are. Trust me.” She embraces him.
It is not hard to make this movie.
It’s not that transgressive takes on Superman are unwelcome. Superman: Red Son, a “What if?” exploration where a baby Kal-El lands in Soviet Russia instead of Kansas, or Injustice, a comic/video game that was a smart take on a rogue Superman, are fantastic exercises in bending archetypes. But they’re never replacements for the real deal. In a pop culture ecosystem where superheroes dominate more than they ever have, and maybe ever will, the greatest aberration is the absence of a true Superman. Without Superman, there is simply no hope.