Will ‘Man of Steel’ Have Superman’s Heart? A Fan’s Response to a Comic Writer

By May 1, 2013

As a comic book fan and retailer, it’s really easy for me to tell you what the popular trends are in the subculture of capes and cowls. Right now, both the major publishers have been pulling off gimmicks, relaunching their titles with flashy new number ones in an attempt to herd new fans into the stores. They’re banking on the fact that these fans turned out in droves to see films like The Dark Knight Rises or The Avengers, and are now looking for new stories in the source material to satisfy their need for superheroics in the months between superhero films.

Some people feel that comics films try too hard to be taken seriously. Others (who don’t really understand the source material) feel like these “kiddie-characters” are showing up in movies that are too inappropriate for their “intended audiences.” And then, there are other, more logical and rational commentators who feel like an emphasis on grittiness and “realism” can get away from the heart of some of the characters. My response here is to one such commentator, for whom I have an infinite amount of respect and reverence for his body of work.

Let me tell you a little story. In early 2006, I was a senior in high school, getting ready to graduate when I found myself back into reading comics on a regular basis. I’d dropped off since I was a child, getting my “fix” in some of the movies and terrific animated series that had come out during my youth. When I wandered back into reading comics, mainly DC, I was shocked and surprised (in a good way) at what they’d become based on a couple of very particular writers and artists. I knew to keep an eye on guys like Geoff Johns and Judd Winick, but I was introduced to a whole new kind of comic book storytelling when I happened upon the work of two men in particular: Grant Morrison, and Greg Rucka.

If you’ve never heard of the latter, then I implore you to Google him, find his superhero and creator-owned works, and get reading. I think you’ll find the respective experiences very, very rewarding.

My two favorite fictional characters have always been Superman and Batman, and thankfully, Rucka’s extensive body of work on both of those characters is what ultimately led me to him. Bruce Timm and Paul Dini’s work on Superman: The Animated Series had taught me a great deal about how cool Superman is as a character because of his unshakeable moral code, and how that reliance on what is right and just is a reward unto itself.

Because the comics generally had a greater latitude for more mature subject matter, the Superman stories written by Rucka during his run on The Adventures of Superman title (issues #627-648) basically unleashed everything that I love about the Man of Steel in a new, modern, and very pragmatic way. As a result, I was now a Rucka-disciple in a sense, and followed his comics work gleefully from that point forward.

Unfortunately for me, comics fans at large, and DC Comics themselves, Rucka has had a bit of a falling-out with that company and hasn’t been able to tell new stories with these legendary icons that he always treated with a great deal of respect, a respect I feel is sorely lacking today when it comes to the Man of Steel. That doesn’t mean that Rucka’s gifted insight has gone away from the likes of Superman, since he actively and liberally answers DC-related questions about his work (or the characters in general) on his Tumblr page. Recently, though, Rucka took one of his opinions to a bit of a larger outlet, and ran a piece in the Hollywood Reporter entitled, “Keep Man of Steel PG: A Comic Writer’s Plea.”

Without reading, you might think it’d be some kind of rant about the sad state of comic book films, and how it’s a travesty that they can’t connect with young kids anymore. There’s a degree of lamenting at that, but most of it is directed to a criticism I’ve often had about people’s inability or unwillingness to pick up a Superman comic: people can’t connect with the fundamentals of who he is.

As a result, Rucka feels that the production team behind Man of Steel may be trying to apply a sense of grittiness to the character of Superman so that he’s palatable to more general audiences that expect Dark Knight-like, ground-level action instead of inspiration. The kind of inspiration that Superman fans have always felt for Krypton’s Last Son and that today only seems reserved for sports movies.

The argument is actually rather similar to one I heard Rucka make in person, I think at the 2009 Emerald City ComiCon in Seattle. When a fan said something to the effect of, “I can’t get into Superman,” Rucka seemed a little playfully incensed. He asked that fan, “What part of you died when you were 12 that you can’t believe someone that good can exist?”

True enough, he opens his THR op-ed with,

“For many, the difficulty with Superman isn’t heat vision or flight, or even that a slouch and a pair of glasses in no way make a viable disguise. Their disconnect arises from his very character, the idea that a person who can do so much, who can have so much, would be selfless rather than self-serving. They reject that kind of heroism in fantasy, because they claim it doesn’t exist in reality.”

From there, Rucka explains that he’s a little worried about the film’s PG-13 rating, since it may illustrate the filmmakers catering to the crowd that is obsessed with something “real.” The ultimate point is made beautifully and articulately in a way only Rucka can make it when he says,

“Emotional honesty transcends reality; it’s what allows disbelief to be suspended, and yet what makes a story stay true.”

Rucka is a writer that is intimately and infinitely familiar with the qualities that set Superman, as a character, apart from the rest of his comic book brethren. I understand that a “PG-13” may make him nervous, and that his fear is that the heart of the Man of Steel will be lost in a mad quest for a level of wanton violence that is only there to satisfy those obsessed with a level of devoted “realism” to our own world.

Before he went crazy (or perhaps afterward), Frank Miller made a great point that basically said he finds synthetic realism attached to broad and big comic book icons rather stupid. “I don’t want to see sweat patches under Superman’s arms, I want to see him fly,” he said.
I think Rucka is making a similar point, but he also says that the rating may simply be a product of the MPAA’s well-documented bias against superhero violence.

As a response to this point, and as someone that really feels like his philosophy on Superman is identical to Rucka’s, I’d really like to say “don’t worry.” Unfortunately, I can’t.

The difference between our positions is that I feel really, really good about Man of Steel, and while I can definitely see the reasons behind his worry with the director of 300 and the Dawn of the Dead remake at the helm, the trailers and information I’ve seen make me hopeful for one particular reason: I really do believe that the hope and inspiration Mr. Rucka and I long for so much will be like a hidden surprise in an outer layer of that kind of realism and violence.

That outer layer is exactly what will bring many people into the theater, but when the film is over, they’ll have stayed because they now understand Superman in a way far closer to Mr. Rucka’s (and, I feel, my own) interpretation of the inspirational figure that we know so well from the source material. While words definitely don’t speak louder than actions, as that kind of Superman fan, perhaps words from director Zack Snyder himself from an interview with SFX Magazine will put him somewhat at ease (with special thanks to my friend Josh for bringing it to my attention), since they definitely give me even greater hope for the final product:

“It’s Superman. If you get it right he’s kinda transcendent. The Superman shield is the second most recognizable symbol on planet Earth other the Christian cross…[Batman and Superman] truly are purer archetypes. They’re literally Biblical. If you get the DC characters right, they can be important, they can be about us. It’s not just a romp. That’s the fun, for me, of working on this movie. We got that it was important. We weren’t apologizing for Superman, which I feel has happened in the past. It’s Superman, for God’s sake. He’s a thing to be celebrated.”

Snyder went on to say something that I feel is key to the virtue of the character as he’ll be in the film, as well as the key to the thing Mr. Rucka and I most connect with for the center, and heart, of Krypton’s Last Son. When asked if Superman’s “decency” is a hard sell in the 21st century, Snyder responded thusly:

“The boy scout part of it is. But I think his morality, his decency, is still universal, and kind of refreshing, in a weird way.”

Man of Steel has the potential to be a new dawn for superhero film, because Superman himself is a far more transformational figure than many of the characters showing up in the popular comics films today. As a big fan of the character, Mr. Rucka has both defined my view of what makes him so incredible, and has thrilled me with the character’s adventures of his own composition.

I believe that we’ll find that symbol of hope waiting for us on June 14th, and as it gets ever closer, I hope that Mr. Rucka and the world at large are finally given the Superman that so many others have never known, but also the one we all ultimately deserve. Only one way to find out…

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Chris Clow
As a former comics retailer at a store in the Pacific Northwest, Chris Clow is an enormous sci-fi, comics, and film geek. He is a freelance contributor, reviewer, podcaster, and overall geek to GeekNation, Batman-On-Film.com, The Huffington Post, and Movies.com. He also hosts the monthly Comics on Consoles broadcast and podcast. Check out his blog, and follow him on Twitter @ChrisClow.