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A Superman Fan Living in a Batman World: What Man of Steel Needs to Do to Succeed

By Guest Contributor Matthew Asente | Think Pieces | February 26, 2013 | Comments ()


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With the greatly-anticipated arrival of the new Superman movie, Man of Steel, audiences are taking a long hard look at the world's premier superhero to evaluate what has made him one of the most popular fictional characters in human history, how he is different from his competitors, and what kind of themes should be present (and absent) in any great Superman story. As a collector of comics for 25 years (1300 of which feature Superman), and as a hopeless nerd who thinks about these things way too much, I believe I am well-suited to the task of setting these expectations.

World's Finest

I'm a Superman fan living in a Batman world.

483397_464772186902075_1912386713_n.jpgWhenever people tell me that they prefer Batman to Superman they almost always explain that it's because Batman is just a regular guy and Superman has too much power to be relatable. As a huge fan of both characters, I'll tell you that this betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the superhero genre. Batman isn't a regular guy; he's a billionaire with eidetic memory whose gadgets mimic any of Superman's natural abilities. If Superman needs to get somewhere quickly he flies. If Batman needs to get somewhere quickly he also flies. In a jet. Superman vanishes with super-speed, Batman with ninja magic. Heat vision is to exploding-batarangs as invulnerability is to battle-armor. In terms of driving the narrative, they have virtually identical problem solving attributes.

The real difference between the characters comes from the themes which are hidden within their adventures. Batman's story is one of ability. Can he wage a successful one-man war on crime? Can he solve the riddle? Can he endure? With his unwavering resolve, it's no surprise that Batman is perhaps the most inspirational character in the cartoon genre. It's why he's attracted such a huge following, not only within the story, but also without. He reinforces the idea that motivation is the most powerful tool in one's utility belt, and reminds us that we can overcome any challenge, if only we can muster the courage.

Superman is posed with a different question - a question that is no less a part of our daily lives, but one that I believe is a great deal more interesting. As a being of God-like power, Superman's theme is not one of fortitude, but purpose. It's less about what he can do, and more about what he should do. He has the absolute power to rewrite the way his fictional world operates. Please consider that, if the mood struck him, he could eradicate the entire Republican Party in a single day. And not just the politicians; he could turn the whole gun-owning, pro-life populace to ash by lunch-time. He could overthrow corrupt governments by rush-hour, dismantle the world's nuclear arsenal by dinner, and have you praying to Rao by Sunday morning. Would you be able stop yourself from imposing your values on the world if you had this level of power? Would you be able to behave responsibly?

Superman's theme, "should I..." is so compelling because it's the background noise of every action we each take. We ask ourselves whenever we face temptation, or are overcome with anger, gluttony or sadness. It's a question of moral direction. Superman is presented with that quandary by just walking out his front door.

Sins of the Father

Every so often someone gets their hands on a comic book character and decides that they need to add some mature, real-world content to elevate the story. Let's toss in some rape; that's some real sh*t right there (e.g. anything written by Alan Moore). And Superman saves people, therefore he is a savior, therefore he is obviously an allusion to Jesus Christ our personal lord and savior. Though I would agree that the best science fiction and adventure stories invoke some greater philosophy or allude to a particular social issue, tacking Christ-like symbolism onto Superman is almost always an attempt to add gravitas onto something inherently cartoonish.

man_of_steel_05.jpgNow, a person could make a strong case for the religious subtext of the character. For example, it may not be an accident that his Kryptonian name "Kal-el" sounds like "Ishmael," "Israel" and "Bethel." El was the Canaanite high-god, and the suffix "el" means "god" even now ("Israel" literally means "Triumphant with God"). Can't be a coincidence, right? Richard Donner obviously took inspiration from Catholicism's Holy Trinity when he framed the relationship between Superman and his father, and I'm sure we all recall how ham-fisted Bryan Singer's approach was to these same themes. He even posed Superman like Christ on the cross at the climax of the film. Those stories are part of Superman's history now, and can certainly be used to support the assertion that Superman is thematically messianic.

What frequently gets forgotten or dismissed whenever these themes creep back into our lives like virulent herpes, is that the creators of Superman were Jewish and would not have given a crap about Christ. It's more likely that they were inspired by the story of Moses, if there was any religious inspiration at all. And, after a fair amount of investigation into the character's origins, I believe it's most likely that the religious allusions are almost entirely constructed in hindsight, and that Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster framed the character on familiar science-fiction tropes and traditional heroic archetypes. After all, Superman is an orphan. He has special powers. He suffers tragedy at a young age and is almost killed as a result. If he has any similarity to Christ or Moses, it's because all three of them (along with Harry Potter, Snow White, and hundreds of others) share many of these same archetypal characteristics.

I'm all for taking comic-book characters seriously and insuring that there is a consistency to their thoughts and actions, and I completely support the responsible telling of adult stories in a setting that can otherwise be awfully silly. It can and has been done successfully hundreds of times. But there is nothing that will make me lose interest in a story quicker than injecting empty and meaningless symbolism where it doesn't belong.

DUEL IDENTITY (deliberate pun, for you pedants):

In the past 75 years Superman stories have been published in thousands of comic books, a ground-breaking radio series, both short and full-length films, novels, and several very successful television series. Thousands of people have contributed to these stories: publishers have guided his actions, special effects technicians have made his eyes smolder, and voice actors have given him the breath of life. On several very special occasions we've even been made to believe that a man can fly (thanks, Tom Welling). Most importantly, an audience of millions has devoured these works with a passion never seen before on this planet. Superman defines pop culture.

Because of all these contributions however, it's sometimes easy to forget exactly who Superman is. Is he the lonely and terrifying alien or the friendly aw-shucks farm-boy? Is the clumsy Clark Kent a disguise he wears so he can mingle with humanity, or is Superman a noble façade produced to inspire others? Different artists have answered these questions a myriad of ways in the last 75 years, but all of the best Superman stories have grasped several fundamental truths:

Superman doesn't kill. A Superman who kills is terrifying. The moment he kills (or tolerates killing) he stops being an accessible wonder, and instead becomes a horrifying alien juggernaut.
Superman is uncompromising. He doesn't tolerate grey areas or necessary evils. The ends do not justify the means, and he is perhaps the only being in the universe capable of making an omelet without breaking any eggs.

Superman is a fictional cartoon character. Though this should really go without saying, the biggest misstep contributors make is trying to ground him with gritty realism. Presenting Superman as realistic and cynical would be like drawing Mickey Mouse as an actual rat.

Certainly there are a variety of perspectives from which we can view the character, and I applaud and endorse any story that makes Superman more realized, but stories that deviate from these simple guidelines are misguided at best and harmful to the property at worst.

When I go to the theater this summer with my box of Butterfinger Bites, my popcorn, and my 7-year-old flights of fancy, I'm going in with high expectations. I'm hoping to see an exploration of Superman's purpose, a non-preachy adventure filled with colorful movie-magic, and a responsible depiction of my classic favorite.

These expectations could not be simpler to meet.

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Comments Are Welcome, Jerks Will Be Banned


  • Ellman1231

    I've always enjoyed stories that feature Superman AND Batman (The comics series as well as the DCU Animated library has some great examples), because putting the two of them at odds shows both their strengths and weaknesses in an awesome light. Batman is controlling, paranoid, cynical, isolating and steeped in the grey of things, while Superman is hopeful, inclusive, and not nearly as morally divided. Superman will chide Batman for being too much of a loner, too angry and even petty at times, while Batman will remind Superman that he can never be "one of the guys", as human as he desires to be, because of the awesome responsibility his powers carry. Batman often alludes to the fact that Superman's greatest power is his ability to inspire and lead others, berating him for not being more comfortable in that role. I know this more about Superman than Batman, but it's through Batman's perspective that I've really gained insight about what makes Superman such a rich and wonderful character. That said, a nice knock-down, drag-out fight with Zod (sans any Kryptonite, ANYWHERE) wouldn't hurt this movie.

  • Scott

    He does have needs to fulfill. He still needs relationships and social interaction.

  • LEM

    Step 1: stop making Superman a p u s s y.
    Step 2: show Superman using his powers while kicking ass.

  • Mrs. Julien

    Yay! superasente article! YAY!

  • Jim Slemaker

    I loved Superman when I was a kid: reading comic books, watching cartoons and even re-runs of the B&W Man of Steel. But I really think his time has passed, for all the reasons stated above. There was no black and white morally for Superman, and we're living in a time now that couldn't be more grey and squishy. When there is almost no right and wrong, it's time for Superman to move on to other worlds.

    The moral certainly that made Superman unique is simply passe. This is the dilemma that Bryan Singer tried to overcome in his decent effort. But when it was impossible for him to have Superman utter his famous "Truth, Justice and the American Way", not only because of foreign box office, but also because so many Americans would take exception to that phrase, the bedrock of the mythmaking has crumbled. He now becomes just another superhero who has to choose the lesser of two evils, ala, the Batman, X-Men, etc.

  • BlackRabbit

    I would respectfully disagree. There has never been that much clear moral certainty in America, and the idea of Superman, an incredibly powerful being, upholding the "American way" feels too close to Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen, and therefore ominous not just now, but in most eras.

  • RantOver

    I'd like to see the messiah metaphor being taken as more psychological than the usual straight-forward portrayal. I think it would get the real point of who Superman is as a character

    If Man Of Steel tackles Superman's detachment from and admiration of humanity, his fascination with morality and goodness, the conflict between black-and-white rules and the flawed species he both loves and defends... then we'll have a film on par with recent batman works.

    We don't want pulpy like spider-man, it doesn't fit the vibe. Adapting X-men is also different because of the ensemble nature, it's not a character study. Hulk's vulnerabilities are much more evident and part of the story.

    A lazy choice would be pitting a bland superman against kryptonite, a real good adaptation will wrestle with his character, and take advantage of the modern-day disillusionment with squeaky-clean heroes to make that the point- an unflinching rule-abider and pure do-gooder in a world of moral greys and tough decisions. That doesn't have to be insanely gritty, but it should challenge the character and our perception of him, and bring him up to date without turning him into a different person altogether.

  • DarthCorleone

    Nice read and great comment thread too!

  • MachineGunJeanMaurice

    I understand where you are coming from. It can be frustrating because we live right now in a much more "batman" type of world. I think that you've hit the nail square on the head when you wrote about the purpose which lies at the core of the Superman character. I think that the reason we don't identify with Superman anymore is because we wonder why he'd care so much about humanity.

    I'm pretty sure this parrallel's been established before, but to me, Dr Manhattan is a far more realistic expectation of how a nearly omnipotent being would act. Granted, Superman is never gifted with great intelligence, and there the comparison is harder to make, but one would have to explain why he should stick around this planet. I mean, he can clearly explore space. He's immune to disease and barely ages, wouldn't it be possible he'd become disinterested with humanity? After all, there are no basic needs for him to fulfill, he has very little in common with the rest of humanity. That's why, I think Superman sticks in our collective craw, so to speak.

    He says he cares, him, a being filled with power. And we stand there, disenfranchised and cynical and ask, why? That's where Superman fails to convince, and where we understand Dr. Manhattan's impatience with humanity at large. The disbelief generated by superman's belief in our collective humanity is too much to bear. He reeks of earnestness, of naïveté, to put it kindly, and maybe that's a hard thing to accept now. That's my take on it.

  • superasente

    Beautifully written and I agree entirely. I think you have clearly pegged why audiences have lost interest.

  • BlackRabbit

    Ditto. As mentioned above, Pa Kent's remark reflects something I've always disliked about Superman and his mythos-that idea that he sprang, morally perfect, from Kansas. Pa Kent was not a saint, and Superman should not be infallible. Let him learn and mature and be flawed, and people will watch. A good examination of this growth is shown in It's Superman by Tom De Haven. Check it out.

    As far as Batman-Superman is held to a higher standard because he has to be, and therefore it's less interesting to people. If Bats gets angry and breaks some guy's kneecaps, it's ugly but business as usual. If Superman does it, it's "Uh oh." He can't indulge himself that way, both for his own good and for our belief in him.

  • So, this was a great statement of foundation, but I was hoping you'd dig into a nuanced examination of how modern ('cuz I think much older versions are too hard to really break down in ways relevant to today - I think) Superman efforts have come down on these questions. There are anecdotes here, but taking this further - something more substantial and comprehensive - seemed to be where this was going.

    I really appreciated the initial framing and found it insightful, as a relative layperson who at a surface level is the person you describe - i.e., struggling to find Superman as compelling as a mere mortal human taking extraordinary personal risks, obsessively so in ways that are often dark and existentially troubling.

  • Gabs

    Very nice piece. As someone who's always found Superman to be pretty dull, you made me look at him in a different way. Maybe he's not so perfectly boring after all.

  • superasente

    This is the best thing I've heard all day. This was my sincerest hope while writing this.

  • mike_10009

    Truth!

  • I'm a huge Batman fan. He's not "normal". But I think there is something to him not having superpowers. I buy into his vulnerability enough to where it adds tension to his stories. When Talia stabbed him in Rises I nearly shit myself because I really thought he was going to die. And I was damn near sobbing when he flew the bomb out into the bay because I thought he was dead.

    I'm willing to concede that the absence of that with Superman isn't necessarily an inherent fault. It could just be a lack of execution. Though I lean toward inherent because his invulnerability is part of the myth. You have to stretch things really far to put him in any danger. There is room for tension with the absolute power and it's ability to corrupt. But I've never gotten the sense that there is a threat of that happening with him.

    More than that, my biggest problem with Superman on film is the obsession with Lois Lane. The movies are too narrowly focused on his relationship with her and lack a broader focus on the fact that it's a big world with a lot of problems that he has the ability to help with (ignoring the ridiculous turning back time thing). They are basically romcoms set within a superhero movie.

    Having said all of that, I'm holding out hope for Man of Steel. That's in large part because of David Goyer. From what I've seen, he seems to have a broader focus in mind. And like he helped do with Batman, he seems to want to get at the core of who Superman is and then expand outward. As you can hear from the trailer, his father touches on his power and the nature of how he might use it. So they might finally make him seem like a human on the inside, which should at least be a good start.

  • frank

    how old are you

  • Are you a cylon?

  • abell

    I really appreciate your distinction between Batman and Superman, and think it's pretty damn accurate. However, I also think it's exactly why it's so much easier to make a good Batman movie than a good Superman movie. A Batman story is, shortly, can a man beat a monster (and remain a man)? So, to make an exciting Batman you just put up a monster, have him beat Batman down a bit, have Batman fight back (through chiropractics and free climbing) and then Batman overcomes. Easy story structure. But, to do a story about what a man with nigh infinite power should do is far more difficult. Alan Moore pretty clearly says in Watchmen that a man with that much power isn't a man at all and won't behave like a man, but, let's ignore that. How are you going to test his faith, particularly in a way that's interesting? The comic book standards are kill his girlfriend/family/etc (so he gives into bloody eyed rage), give him something that makes him bad/cool (Spiderman 3, the other colored kryptonites for Superman, particularly in Smallville), or have him quit, usually in despair that he's not changed anything (Kingdom Come). Ultimately, since no one can stop him, he has to overcome this himself, which leads to the climax mostly being Superman saying, sorry I was such a dick, here let me help you with whatever problem I've been ignoring, or otherwise caused. And, of course, using the Batman story structure doesn't work either because, ultimately, he just supersaiyans a bit more and levels up to defeat whatever really big evil thing is trying to kill him. So, I don't know. I don't know how they'd make a truly engaging Superman movie that lives up to what you've rightly described as the point of Superman. But, I really like being proven wrong.

    Also, in response to your complaint about Moore making everything super gritty, I would direct you to Moore's own response on the subject, Tom Strong. If you haven't seen/heard of it, Tom Strong is a reconstruction of the old science hero character, and tends to read quite a bit like a true update of the old Superman stories. It also comes off as a pretty clear indictment from Moore, along the lines of, "look, just because I'm famous for V, Watchmen, and League, doesn't mean there's not other sorts of stories worth writing. Here, have this one." I recommend it.

  • superasente

    I'm not sure that the best Batman stories have always been as simple as "can a man beat a monster," but I see what you're getting at (The Dark Knight, for example, is one of the most sophisticated journey's I've taken with Batman, and I admire the depth of writing and the many themes present in that film).

    I think the problem is when people try to fit Superman into the Batman storytelling mold you've described. It's why many of Superman's best villains aren't physical threats. Mr. Mxyzptlk, Lex Luthor, Braniac -- these aren't villains that challenge Superman physically. Superman is such an imposing physical figure, his stories should go beyond simple fisticuffs.

  • Idle Primate

    Bravo superasente! I would support (while killing it in most eyes) your argument with the mythos in smallville. The whole thing is a struggle for a serviceable right and wrong. And the admirable first four seasons depict a Shakespearean drama of that strggle by and between Lex. For me it took the most boring character and made him eszential. Crucial.

  • Green Lantern

    Superasante,

    As a fellow "Superman fan in a Batman world", I applaud the gist of your article. I am, however, disappointed that you repeatedly referred to Superman as a cartoon character. Superman is first and foremost a COMIC BOOK character, not a cartoon character. Perhaps the best term you could've chosen would've been *fictional* character if you want to reference all the media from comics to video games that Kal-El has been represented in.

    Nice job. Shame on you.

  • Nicolae

    Well done, sir!

  • Vi

    Can you specify what you mean by 'gritty realism'? The more compelling superman moments have always been moments where he realizes that his idea of black and white doesn't work and he needs to figure out the grey area. Superman compromising and accepting humanity has always been interesting and compelling because it makes the audience also reflect on our own problems.

    Him punching Zod for 2 hours sounds horrifyingly dull and if that's the gist of this new movie, I hope it fails just as badly as Superman Returns.

  • superasente

    I don't mean that the STORIES can't be gritty and real, but rather Superman's perspective can't be. Cynicism is right for Batman. And Spider-Man and the X-Men. They see the world for how it really is. Superman sees the world for how he wants it to be. He's an unwavering idealist.

    Superman isn't dark and brooding, or cynical, grounded, and "realistic." He should be almost naive. Unbelievably earnest.

    I agree that many of Superman's more interesting stories deal with those grey areas (see Superman #22 in which he executes three Kryptonians from another dimension for wiping out all life on Earth - and then almost immediately loses his mind and exiles himself to space because he is so wracked with guilt), but ultimately those stories should reaffirm Superman's perspective of hope beyond reason, and faith beyond proof.

  • I think there's room for some cynicism in Superman -- or, for him to at least grapple with those feelings and ultimately come out on the side of the glass being half full. That's why I dig the Man of Steel trailer, with Pa Kent saying "maybe..." about letting people die to protect Clark and his loved ones. Kal-El shouldn't automatically know the right answer, but he should always choose the morally superior one in the end.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    You do hit it exactly - the absolute power, which in this case does not corrupt (but the possibility exists) is what creates the moral dilemma for Supes.

    I kinda like the new shield.

  • bleujayone

    I always thought it was in was the way the Metropolis version of Clark Kent
    carried himself. His clothes were dull and big on him to hide his physique and he wore glasses and often a hat to hide his features. It wasn't so much he was clumsy as much as he was presenting as a social misfit. As such peole didn't mingle with him. They often worked around him or even shoved past him on their way. Even those directly involved with him didn't look him in the eye, didn't think highly of him as a go-getter or even thought of him as memorable. Clark just took up space. Nobody noticed him- and really that was the intent. Perry White put up with his tardiness and absenteeism because he'd turn in good work. Lois wouldn't take him seriously because she thought of "Smallville" as a lucky country bumpkin- a nice guy, but nobody she'd consider an equal. In many ways Clark's Daily Planet attire was as much a disguise as his Superman mantle. It's only when he's back home on the farm that Clark fully lets himself amalgamate into his true self. Remember, Clark Kent is who he is, Superman merely is what he can do. But even so Clark cannot risk being too interesting lest people start looking at him more closely and start putting two and two together. Yes I know, glasses are often mocked at being a very convincing disguise, but combined with the other elements, it actually made for a wallflower aura and could be a pretty good for putting people off to getting to know someone better. We all know people like that in our lives whom we never give a second thought about. Look no further than Christopher Reeve's portrayal for making the disguise feasible.

  • superasente

    The version of Superman you've described is my favorite version. It's the Superman that developed out of the 1986 Crisis, which brought the return of the Kents. This is when the character was most human and the most grounded.

  • bleujayone

    Bingo! This was John Byrne's masterful re-imaging of the Man of Steel. If you can find it in collective graphic novel, I would recommend getting it. Sadly, many of the things he did have been since screwed with since his departure from DC. I am happy to say much of his improvements were adopted by Bruce Timm & Paul Dini for the animated series in the 1990's and 2000's which carried over to the Justice League series. He was also responsible for making Lois Lane a former Army Brat who didn't need Superman to get out of trouble, Jimmy Olsen into a more modern kid, severely de-powered Superman so that he wasn't just God-Man; he got hurt, tired, needed to eat, sleep and heal. He too much of the goofy rogues Superman regularly faced and made them formidable. He turned Lex Luthor from mad scientist to billionaire industrialist who pay-rolled other villains in his quest to take down the one person powerful enough to take him out if ever he decided to give up obeying laws. He brought the Kents back from the dead to act as both his conscience and humanity in much the same way Alfred Pennyworth and Richard Grayson were to Bruce Wayne. Clark was also a competent reporter in addition to being a superhero and if Byrne had stayed on longer, it would have been Clark Kent and not Superman who would have taken Luthor down via his reporting rather than his superpowers. He suggested that Superman and Batman not be the pals they were before the Crisis reboot as they had contrasting philosophies. In short, he made it be about Clark Kent, an adopted child who grew up and was able to show his gratitude to his new world by defending it in the guise of Superman.

  • superasente

    Byrne's run is my absolute favorite. That's the defining period of comics for me. Superman was a little weaker, a little more human, a little hungrier to save people (because he had a little more attachment to humanity). He was ever-so-slightly flawed, and had to learn how the world operated with him in it. All that, and great sci-fi adventure stories on top of it all.

    When I die you can have my whole collection.

  • Idle Primate

    This comment: required reading

  • Andrew J Moore

    You think it's hard being a Superman fan? Trying being a Wonder Woman one.

  • BlackRabbit

    Cry me a river. Aquaman fan here.

    On Superman, I agree with most of the comments here. A few things about the character always bugged me. He's on such a narrow edge when it comes to movies: too powerful and it turns people off, too weak and it enrages fans. He's only alien (and barely then) when the story suits it. And how do you raise a kid with superpowers? Don't say "No different than any other" because it would be vastly different. I don't have an issue with "grim and gritty" because it works, to a degree. The arrival of a superman would spark a lot of dark impulses and fears, never mind if he was an alien, so it makes sense to address them, much more so than immediate acceptance. I wish they had an unused villain for this one, but that's a minor quibble. And i liked the story where they basically said: Gordon and White know who Wayne/Kent are, because they're really good at their jobs. They'd have to be idiots not to have figured it out.

    Also: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v...

  • BiblioGlow

    Cry me a river. Aquaman fan here.
    I see what you did there.

  • jon29

    "Aquaman fan here."

    I didn't know they still made you.

  • BlackRabbit

    "Under the sea/Under the sea..." Yeah. He's a good character with bad PR, and I'll debate anyone who says otherwise.

  • forza_rossi

    Vinny Chase and his Aqua man...

  • Baba O'R'lyeh

    Also; Superman punches things.

    Nice read, but when you get too invested in exploring the mythos of the character, you wind up with the Singer film. He tried to update the father-son dynamic, update the Earth Superman inhabited, and change the dynamics of various characters' interactions with each other.

    It's still an action movie, and he still needs to punch things. It's part of the awe of the character; for all his doubt and conflict, he is a blunt instrument that is both fun to read/watch and awe-inspiring in strength. (insert Kevin Smith talk here)

  • Leonard

    I like Superman but the one thing that always annoy me is that his 'secret identity' is him putting on a suit and glasses. How does no one recognize that Superman is Clark Kent? Honestly...

  • Christopher Bird

    Because nobody expects Superman to have a secret identity. Most people who look at Clark Kent just think "huh, he looks a bit like Superman, I guess" and that is that, just like you have that one friend who looks kind of like Paul Giamatti but you don't ask him if he was in SIDEWAYS and what Thomas Haden Church is really like.

    For the few people who really, really know both Clark and Superman, most iterations of the Superman stories either have them figure it out (Lois almost always does, because she is a Super-Reporter) or there is an unspoken assumption that they already know and just don't want to interfere (Jimmy and Perry).

  • Joe Grunenwald

    The 'gritty realism' point is my main worry for MAN OF STEEL. The world he inhabits can be gritty and realistic, but I think the character himself needs to be better than that in order to be Superman.The trick will be getting that across without making Superman seem naive.

    Also, he should hit stuff.

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