Thursday, September 8, 2016

What makes him Super?

Earlier this year, I wrote some posts that were about Superman. I have a deep love and admiration for the character that began as a little kid wearing a red cape and enacting the Fleischer cartoons as I watched them.

Here are the three Superman posts:

Why we look up in the sky...
"Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice" review 

My "treatment" for a Superman movie here

I've been critical of the current movie version of Superman - very critical. I like Henry Cavill, I think he's a fine actor and he's very charming (see the criminally underrated Man from U.N.C.L.E.) and he has the look to be Superman, but the Zack Snyder films lacked a basic understanding of Superman and because of that, Cavill doesn't have the right presence to carry the weight that is Superman.

You can put an actor in a a red cape, blue tights and the famous Superman shield and they can certainly look the part. But can they really be Superman? Can they embody the very demeanor and attitude that makes Superman the Man of Steel?

That is ultimately the more important question.

Recently - and much to my delight - Superman was announced for Supergirl season two. He showed up in season one through Kara's blurred vision and often spoke to Supergirl online. But now he's going to be a full-fledged recurring character on the show played by Tyler Hoechlin. It's a version fundamentally different from the movie version, one that Hoechlin says:

“It’s Superman as I think he was intended to be,” Hoechlin said with regard to his take on the Man of Steel, “which is just an incredible symbol of hope to kids that they can do anything, that they can be good people, and that good people can triumph over evil. You don’t have to be dark and brooding and always in this state of masculine toughness. He sits in that very hopeful and optimistic place that Kara tends to be in.”

All of that sounds pretty damn perfect to me.

As more and more images are released of Superman from the show, the response has been positive for the most part. I actually love the suit and I think it's the best version of the suit since the red tights were ditched when the New 52 launched. Sure, I'd still tweak a few things, but overall it's a good suit and I think Hoechlin looks good in it.

But not everyone shares that sentiment. I've seen "wimpy," "skinny" and "small" among a few other choice expletives to describe Hoechlin as Superman. The main criticism seems to be that Hoechlin - a very athletically-built and lean muscular guy - isn't muscular enough.

This is where a common misconception of Superman comes into play. Cavill looked like a pro-wrestler and extra padding in the suit gives the movie-verse Superman a very bulky, Mr. Olympia look. But remember how I said Cavill doesn't have the presence of Superman? That's not something you can blame him for, the material he was given was bad and hindered the ability to really be Superman. So it ultimately doesn't matter if Hoechlin looks like a body-builder, what matters is how he carries himself as a farmboy from Kansas.

Let me give another example. Christopher Reeve is hands down the best live-action Man of Steel. Reeve was tall but he wasn't big. He didn't look like a pro-wrestler and in fact, he and Hoechlin have similar builds. As the story goes, producers were hesitant to cast Reeve became he was skinny. In order to avoid padding the suit, he started lifting weights with David Prowse (the body of Darth Vader) to bulk up for the role.

Still, it's not Reeve's physique that made him Superman - it was the way he just portrayed the weight of Superman. He was optimistic, charming, inspiring, he treated everyone - even his enemies - with respect and playful snark. When Reeve smiled as Superman you believed not only in the idea of what Superman is, but you also believed that the man on the screen IS Superman. That's one of the reasons Reeve is so beloved in the role. Other portrayers weren't bad, Kirk Alyn, George Reeves, Gerard Christopher, Routh, Dean Cain - each perfectly fit the role for the type of story being told.

I remember when Heath Ledger was cast as the Joker. No one thought he would make a good Joker. In reality, his performance as the Joker was so good that it overshadows many flaws with The Dark Knight. Fan outrage over castings tends to be normal and most of the time fans are proven wrong, but the reaction to Hoechlin is an interesting case study.

This idea of what makes Superman who he is isn't limited just to live-action. DC Comics recently killed off the New 52 Superman - a version that was temperamental, uninspiring, angry and generally much darker than previous versions. They replaced him in DC Rebirth with the Superman that John Byrne laid the blueprint for in 1986, one that through the 1990s and 2000s became something of a definite version of Superman. This has been one of the most well-received aspects of DC's relaunch, a Superman that inspires hope and has compassion... a Superman that is an ideal to strive for.

I've said this before and I will say it forever: Superman is not a character we are supposed to relate to, we are supposed to aspire to be him. We are meant to feel inspired by his word and actions. He's arguably a god-like being, but because of who he is and the people that raised him, he's a compassionate person that represents the good, and the very best in all of us. That is what makes him super. Not his powers, not how much he can bench - but how he treats and inspires others.

To be completely frank, I don't always like when Superman is portrayed or drawn as this hulking, muscular being, and that's actually part of what really intrigues me about Hoechlin's casting. He's doesn't have a body-builder's physique the way Cavill does. He's leaner and he's only 6'0 tall compared to Reeve's 6'4. (Cavill is only 6'1).

Also interesting about this incarnation of Superman is that Mehcad Brooks who plays James Olsen is taller than Hoechlin. I actually really like this kind of physical presence that Hoechlin is bringing to the role. Not only does it create an unassuming Clark Kent, but it presents the idea that the shadow of her cousin looming over Kara isn't a physical one.

What makes Superman isn't the muscles, the tights on the outside or the spit curl. What makes Superman - and his portrayal - memorable and "right" is the way he carries himself. If Hoechlin's quote proves true and we are presented with an optimistic, smiling and relaxed Superman, he will have nailed it. The Superman that is infallible in his moral standing, inspires others and even treats his enemies with compassion.

Given the tone of Supergirl and producer Greg Berlanti's handling of DC's characters, my anticipation to see Hoechlin's portrayal as Superman is palpable and I hope he becomes the live-action Superman we deserve.

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