One of the most popular (and tiresome) tropes in comic adaptations is to make Superman a villain. It’s overdone, lazy and misses the point of the character.
As someone who has criticized Zack Snyder’s take on the DC universe in the past, I was surprised when I enjoyed his four-hour version of Justice League. It still had issues — some scenes felt unnecessary, and the slo-mo was excessive — but for the most part, it was a good time.
However, the epilogue to the movie soured me on it a bit, as Snyder once again teased the “Knightmare” timeline he established in Batman v. Superman, wherein a tyrannical Superman rules the world and hunts down the heroes he once fought alongside.
Recently, Amazon Prime Video premiered the animated superhero show Invincible, which features a Superman-like figure named Omni-Man. This character has a similar origin and powers and is beloved by the public, but he has a dark side. (SPOILERS for Invincible incoming.) The first episode ends with a shocking scene where Omni-Man kills the Guardians of the Globe, a team of superheroes that resembles the Justice League.
Or at least, this is supposed to be shocking, but the trope of an evil Superman has been overdone in this past decade, to the point where any effect this twist was supposed to have is dampened. While watching the Knightmare sequence at the end of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, I felt nothing but frustration when Superman descended from the sky with piercing red eyes and a scowl on his face.
Since his first appearance in comics in 1938, Superman has been a symbol of hope. He is an example of what we can be if we aspire to be better. This is why he is a significant and beloved figure in DC and in popular culture. The recent trend in superhero media, however, favors “realistic” and “edgy” heroes or anti-heroes like Deadpool, Wolverine, and the Punisher.
And that’s fine, but you don’t turn Superman into an anti-hero or a villain to match that moment. He should be the superhero standard. He’s the guy that’ll save someone’s life gladly and chat with them before flying off to go do more good. But this Superman hasn’t been in movies, cartoons, or video games as of recently.
I am tired of Evil Superman stories. It was an interesting concept at first, but it’s overplayed, stale, and completely misses the point of the character.
Evil Superman in video games and movies
In the last 10 years, it seems like the only way the Man of Tomorrow can be portrayed in popular media outside of comics is as an existential threat to humanity. For instance, the 2013 video game Injustice: Gods Among Us from NetherRealm Studios made Superman the main villain; he loses it after the Joker tricks Clark into killing Lois and their unborn baby. It’s an interesting story, and both this game and its sequel are well-written, which is why they received critical acclaim.
But portraying Superman as a psychopathic dictator set up a tiresome trend. The next big game where he’ll have a major appearance is 2022’s Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League. The trailer focuses on the comedic dynamic between Harley Quinn, Deadshot, Captain Boomerang and King Shark, the main playable characters. Their mission: assassinate Superman, who’s out of control.
Yes, Superman is clearly brainwashed here, but he is still portrayed as evil. Not a good look for the Man of Steel.
Moving over to movies, 2016’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice introduces the Knightmare plotline. Snyder introduced us to this new version of Superman played by Henry Cavill in 2013’s Man of Steel, where he took the very un-Superman-like step of stepping a villain’s neck. He also broods and looks uninterested when saving people.
Now, in his sophomore outing, Superman acts like a psychopath in what I first assumed was a sequence where Bruce was imagining a worst-case scenario, but with the Justice League Knightmare sequence, it’s clear this is where Snyder intended to take the character. The director later explained that, had he been allowed to continue working in the DCEU, Superman would have joined with Darkseid after the death of Lois Lane, ruling the world as a cruel dictator before eventually rising to become a true hero.
I’m not criticizing Snyder for trying to give his own take on Superman. In fact, I think it was a smart choice to make him more relatable for modern audiences. But making him cruel and pitiless feels wrong.
The Evil Superman archetype outside DC
The Evil Superman scenario also fascinates writers outside of DC. We already talked about Omni-Man in Invincible. There’s also Garth Ennis’ graphic novel series The Boys, which features a Superman-like hero named Homelander. In both the comic and Amazon television show, Homelander is portrayed as an unstable narcissist who viewing people without powers as lesser, and who relishes in committing violence and abuse.
Meanwhile, the 2019 film Brightburn twisted Superman’s origin story and explored what would happen if an alien child sent to Earth was a ruthless killer. The movie also makes a point to mention that Brandon, Brightburn‘s version of Clark Kent, views humans as inferior to him, much like Homelander. Both stories do a great job at showcasing how terrifying an unhinged indestructible super-being would be, but it doesn’t make them less derivative.
I have no problem with stories exploring the darker side of Superman (or a Superman-like character). But since this story has become the norm for the character, it would be more shocking if popular media portrayed him accurately at this point.
The CW recently debuted Superman & Lois, a new show in the Arrowverse. While The CW has had a shaky reputation, this version of Superman is exactly what fans like me want to see from him. This Clark is much closer to how he is in the comics: he’s kind-hearted, considerate, doesn’t mope around much, and does his best to fulfill his obligations as Superman and as a father and husband. Granted, the second episode does introduce another evil Superman, but at least we have the comic-accurate one to lean on.
The future of Superman
Moving forward, DC Films should give Superman the stories, writers and directors that can do him justice. Producers can benefit from watching a show like Superman and Lois, as those writers seem to have a firm grasp on Superman and his supporting cast.
It could also be fun to give some of those supporting characters their own films. How about a Supergirl movie? Or a Brainiac movie? I would love a live-action Brainiac movie in the DCEU. Or have Clark go up against an actual tyrannical leader, like Mongul. Writers can even get weird by introducing villains like Mr. Myxlplyx that can mess with the Man of Steel’s mind instead of getting into a physical altercation with him. Have a movie where Bizarro is causing trouble, and everyone thinks it’s Superman, with Clark having to clear his name.
There are many story ideas for Superman that don’t involve him turning to the dark side. It’s time to start writing this character with the respect he deserves and stop treating him as a terrifying threat.