This week marks Superman's 80th birthday. An icon born during the Great Depression, his uplifting mission — truth, justice, and the American way — has inspired generations, creating a legacy and longevity that is unrivaled among superheroes. And it's that cultural significance that makes the latest big-screen iteration of the Man of Steel, as directed by Zack Snyder, such a letdown.
"There have to be some motivating factors in a Superman film. At one point, you want to cheer, right? You want to be uplifted, not depressed," the author Glen Weldon says in the latest episode of The Fandom Files. "I've come out of pretty much every new Superman film feeling like they miss the mark because they're investing him with all this darkness. He doesn't smile."
Weldon, who is also a contributor to NPR, is a lifelong geek and the author of two important works about DC Comics, including Superman: The Unauthorized Biography. So few know the Man of Steel, or his place in American society, quite as well as Weldon. His loving ideal of Superman is more optimistic, with shades of darkness that come from the conflict inherent in failing to be everything to everyone.
"Anybody who says you can't tell a compelling story about Superman because he can do anything is fundamentally misunderstanding the character," he says. "Because what he wants to do is impossible. What he wants to do is save everybody. You give him an interesting conflict by showing that he can do anything in the universe and still can't do the one thing he wants to do. Some of the best superhero stories ever have been built on this."
Besides, Weldon explains, one of the best things about superheroes is that they can provide a moral framework for us, as aspirational figures with simple messages. Figures with whom we can grow up, and who can help us feel like kids again.
"These are children's characters," Weldon says. "They are meant to teach very tidy moral lessons. And we can complicate them and try to make them as gritty as we want. But at the end of the day, they're cool-looking people who can do stuff. They are aspirational and so much of these characters are purely the visual component, the mix of colors."
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