Long-time readers know that I sometimes go on a bit of a flight of fancy and write up a fake pitch for an existing character as a TV show or movie. It's my own little half-baked fan fiction project. (Previous victims have been Martian Manhunter, Aquaman, and the Fantastic Four.
Watching the teaser Monday night for Batman vs. Superman, Dawn of Justice got me thinking. Not just about the movies--which I'm very curious about--but about my own relationship to the Superman story.
Full disclosure: growing up, I hated Superman. Maybe hated is the wrong word. But Superman bored me. He was the big blue boy scout. Too good, too nice, too naive, too pure. I couldn't connect with him. He was perfect. (I felt much the same way about Captain America.) But the older I get, the more I feel the weight of the world and the terrible things we do to each other, and so, year after year, I find I need that old-fashioned Superman more and more. I'm looking for hope. And the heroes I loved in my youth don't work the same way. I still love Wolverine and Batman and Daredevil, but there is a darkness in them, a cynicism and world-weariness, which I do still relate to, but which does not bring me any sort of sense of hope.
Sometimes I just want to look up in the sky and see one of the good guys fly by, y'know?
Part of me worries about the dark tone we're seeing with this latest iteration of Superman. Don't get me wrong--I think parts of Man of Steel were absolutely beautiful. The dialogue delivered by Russell Crowe that was partially cribbed from All-Star Superman (a comic that, I believe, is one of the finest example of Superman's irony-free selfless goodness ever written) moved me to tears in the theater. But still, he's much more a Superman reflective of our time, and part of me wishes we could still have that emblem of hope in practice, not just in lip service about what that S stands for.
(Talking with a friend the other night, we figured out that if Superman existed in our modern world, we'd destroy him. We do not let heroes stay heroes and we tear apart all the beauty in the world these days. And the thought was, perhaps, the filmmakers are being deliberately meta by making Superman an object of fear and derision in the upcoming film. These films don't give us the Superman we need, but they do give us the Superman we deserve, as the old Dark Knight phrase goes.)
But I thought about it really most of the day today and I think I finally know how I'd write Superman, if given the chance. This is a purely speculative proposal for an ongoing series. Maybe a TV show, maybe a comic. Not sure. But:
If they let me write Superman
By Matthew Phillion
First of all, we're not calling it Superman. The core of Superman's personality is relentless goodness, and that can be painfully preachy if left unchecked, so this story would be as much about his supporting cast as it is about him. Let's call it "Metropolis." Central to the story, of course, is Superman, already living in Metropolis as Clark Kent. We know what happened on the farm. We don't need to start there.
A lot of writers have tried to figure out if Clark Kent would still be a journalist in this day and age, or if he would have moved on to a more modern career. I can see the logic behind him being something like a blogger instead, but I've been a journalist and I know, deep down, even the most cynical newspapermen and women are idealists at heart. They hold (sometimes privately) a belief that what they do can save the world, and that it is worth saving. I think that idea would appeal to Clark. Assuming he has access to his Kryptonian technology in the Fortress of Solitude, he can arguably live off a reporter's salary, too. So Clark is still a reporter.
Perhaps not a beat reporter, though. He routinely asks for the dangerous assignments. Not the flashy ones. The ones where you have a pretty good shot of getting killed as collateral damage just covering the story. He does this so that he can be close to where he can also help as Superman, but he also does it to keep his fellow reporters safe.
Because this is the key characteristic of Superman: his relentless altruism. It won't be Kryptonite that kills him in the end. It will be his inability to say no when the world needs him. He will always sacrifice his own safety for the good of others. This is who he is, and this is why the world, in this story, does love him. There are those who want to find fault in his strange being, but thus far, he seems almost unassailable, though people have their suspicions.
Casting note: I'd be tempted to make Superman ethnically vague. I'm not sure in what way, but he is, after all, an illegal immigrant living in the United States keeping his past a secret--if he doesn't look like a high school quarterback from middle America, this can help drive home this point later.
(I suspect Clark doesn't have a social security number. He was found on the side of the road by his parents--did the Kents ever find a way to legally adopt him?)
One of the great challenges in telling the Superman story is figuring out how Lois never recognizes that Clark is Superman. In this story, the reason is clear: Lois has enough on her mind already. She can't be bothered to pay that much attention to Clark at first. She likes her colleague well enough, but Lois is literally trying to save the planet. The Daily Planet, that is.
Like any other newspaper these days, the Planet is on its last legs. It's three years from bankruptcy. Lois could have moved on from print journalism--she has a face for TV, after all, and her family connections to the military make her an excellent candidate for foreign correspondence--but the Planet is where she made a name for herself and she won't abandon it. She acts as lead writer and de facto bureau chief. She's juggling trying to maintain her professional integrity with realizing that selling out and sensationalizing the paper and its website could save it. She's also struggling with her family, as her Army General father distrusts the press and thinks his brilliant daughter is throwing away her life.
And just a few desks down, Clark might be falling in love with her. Not in the bumbling, schmaltzy way we've seen before, but rather because Clark sees Lois as the type of human being, the type of Earthling, he most aspires to be. She believes in doing the right thing, in saving the day, in being selfless and being brave. If Superman is intended to inspire us to be better human beings by his example, he, in tern, is inspired by Lois.
The lion in winter. Perry is just trying to keep the ship afloat. He loves his staff like family. He loves his paper like a home. He defends his writers, he fights for budgets, he goes to war to prevent investors from pushing the Planet in the wrong direction. He is Clark's, and Lois's, moral compass. And the job is going to kill him. Perry knows he won't long outlive the paper. It's all he has left in this world.
He's not sure why this strange hero flying through the skies of Metropolis seems to have taken a liking to the Daily Planet, but the stories sell papers, as do the photos by:
If Lois looks right past Clark, never realizing he's Superman, Jimmy sees it immediately. That's what Jimmy does--he's a photographer, and he sees everything through his lens. Early in the series, he takes his first picture of Superman. Later that day, he turns to Clark.
"Take off your glasses."
"Take them off."
"I knew it! You're Superman!"
"How did you...?"
"The camera doesn't lie, Clark. It sees everything."
"No I'm not. Look at that. My pal Clark is Superman."
Their relationship is the unburdened love of best friends. Clark needs someone who knows everything. Jimmy knows the value of the trust placed upon him.
He does, however, take bigger risks as a photographer knowing that Clark is there to save him. It's the only real issue between them. Clark is afraid some day he won't get there in time, and Jimmy, fearless to a fault, doesn't seem to understand how an event like that would devastate his best friend.
Jimmy also sees what's happening between Lois and Clark. He's our eyes. And he knows he can't do anything to nudge it along any faster.
I'd probably write Jimmy a bisexual. I think it suits his personality, and would give him an interesting, almost Jack Harkness-like opportunity for romantic options and flirtations.
And here is our central catalyst for the figure. Lex isn't pure evil here. He has capitalistic goals, but they are goals he feels are just and right--they just happen to play outside the law, which attracts the attention of Lois, who thinks that getting the scoop about LexCorp's genetic testing and human experimentation is the break the Planet needs. This sets her and Luthor on a collision course which will build over the course of the series, putting Lois in danger and Lex in the spotlight.
Meanwhile, unaware that Lois's colleague is Superman, Luthor has become obsessed with the hero. A running theme would be that Lex could be a hero himself--he's essentially Batman, brilliant, at the peak of his human abilities both intellectually and physically, with a range of knowledge that could--and sometimes does--change the world. But while Lex bends the rules to further his science, trying, in his mind, to lift humanity up through genetic engineering and other technological breakthroughs, he sees a world that worships and adores Superman, whom he knows cannot be from this Earth. He allows his jealousy of a lone man born on a distant world to cloud his judgment, and thereby interfering with his own greatness. And as he sees that impact on his success, Lex will enter a downward spiral of destruction and ambition. If Superman is an Other who wants to be the best human he possibly can be, Lex is potentially the best of humanity, but cannot look past his own pettiness to realize he is already a paragon of his own kind.
But he isn't so easy to defeat, and if big business isn't where he will achieve mortality, perhaps politics will be...
While the story would encompass primarily the Daily Planet taking on LexCorp while Superman struggles to work toward a better world without interfering with politics or humanity's evolution, other threats should pop up: the Intergang, threats from other survivors of Krypton, maybe even hints of Darkseid and his forces, though that would be near the end of the arc when humanity's own ills take a backseat to apocalyptic issues. Superman and the militaries of the world will have words. But much of the non-LexCorp danger will come from how Superman interacts with the world, and how the world might try to use him. This could bring Lois's connection with General Lane into play.
And I want to involve Krypto. Theory: are there dogs on Krypton? Probably not. But what about some sort of symbiotic, genetically engineered protector/pet that takes on an acceptable shape based on the world or environment it is activated in? When Kal El landed on Earth, this guardian symbiote, sent with him by his parents, seeks out the most likely species to emulate. And thus Krypto, a dog with Kryptonian powers, becomes Clark's lifelong companion.
Anyway. That's how I'd world-build Metropolis. Superman alone is hard to write. But Superman surrounded by his supporting cast is filled with hope.
Matthew Phillion is the writer of "The Indestructibles," part-time actor, occasional filmmaker. Currently on the lam in Salem with his trusty dog, Watson.