A little over a month ago I made a tweet. You may have seen it, a lot of people did.
In the tweet, I criticized how Warner Brothers’ movie division seems incapable of committing to a Superman (based heavily off of this news). Meanwhile, the CW-verse has gone crazy. Tyler Hoechlin’s Superman (originally seen on Supergirl and now across the CW DC universe) is getting a Lois and Clark show. Tom Welling’s Smallville Superman is making a cameo in Crisis on Infinite Earths (the CW’s epic superhero extravaganza that sees multiple versions of the DC universe, or the “Multiverse”, colliding with each other). Brandon Routh’s Superman is also returning for the “Crisis” event with all the cheese and optimism of the Donner era (before Crisis, Routh’s portrayal was only seen in 2006’s Superman Returns but canonically serves as a continuation of Christopher Reeve’s incarnation). If this Multiverse talk all sounds complicated, here’s a simple explanation from the CW’s own Flash.
The fact is, WB is in need of a Superman for the DC Extended Universe, and while Henry Cavill hasn’t been given a fair shot at the character with a lineup of films where only Man of Steel is — in my opinion — good, the replacement of Ben Affleck with a new, younger Batman in Robert Pattinson makes me expect that the DCEU will similarly want to find a new Superman. After all, Batman v Superman has fundamentally linked Cavill’s Superman with Affleck’s Batman and it’s hard to imagine explaining one without the other.
So, the DCEU is in need of a Superman. That Superman should be Brandon Routh. Now, let me be clear; I’m not saying Brandon Routh should get a chance to be *a* Superman again. I’m saying the DCEU should introduce Brandon Routh’s Superman, the one seen in Superman Returns and Crisis on Infinite Earths, into the DCEU. Hear me out.
What is a legacy?
In Phase 1 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Marvel introduced Captain America. He served within the universe as their legacy character. It makes sense, of course. Captain America does, in real world terms, carry a sense of legacy for Marvel. While not their first major character — he’s predated by Sub-Mariner and the original Human Torch — he is their most recognizable classic hero. Still, despite having legacy in the pages of Marvel comics, Captain America was not brimming with legacy in audience’s mind.
Cap, like most of the characters Marvel pulled together for its inaugural team-up (excluding the Incredible Hulk), was not A-list talent. His only big screen adaptation to that point was a critically panned 90s movie that was forgotten just as quickly as it arrived. Captain America’s legacy was superficial. Audiences had the idea that he was important to Marvel’s history, but there was little emotional attachment. So Marvel set Cap’s first movie in World War II, dubbed him The First Avenger, and had his story feed directly into their daring superhero spectacle – The Avengers. Suddenly, that general idea of legacy he carries is transplanted into the MCU. He becomes the lost hero: the guy Tony Stark’s dad wouldn’t shut up about, the guy a charming S.H.I.E.L.D agent collects vintage trading cards of. Through Cap, the MCU gives its world of heroes an in-universe sense of legacy.
The DCEU is different. Where Marvel designed a modern legacy for Cap, DC already has it in Superman. His legacy goes beyond his comic origins, ever-evolving and ever current. Since the 90s, he’s been part of a successful animated universe that spans eight shows and three actors have portrayed him in live-action TV adaptations. On the big screen, he’s maintained that same cultural significance, with Cavill, Routh and Reeve donning the red ‘S’. Christopher Reeve’s Superman, specifically, is foundational to not just DC movies, but superhero movies as a whole. There’s a reason that despite critical and audience responses that were tepid at best, Man of Steel and Batman v Superman made roughly triple their budgets.
Introducing Routh’s Superman to the DCEU is a chance for DC to do something that Marvel simply cannot replicate – tap into their powerful cinematic legacy. It’s a chance to build on the foundations of DC’s history, their formative works of superhero storytelling. It’s a history the CW-verse, for all its faults, is excellent at tapping into. I’m not saying maintain the CW’s plethora of cheesy, on-the-nose winks and nods in your major Hollywood blockbuster (please don’t), but take this unique opportunity. Warner Brothers, pull Routh’s Superman out of your old DC universe and into your new one. It can work, and you know it can. After all, you’ve done it before.
DC You Great Unfinished Symphony
When DC launched “The New 52” comic line, they essentially reset their universe. Characters were aged down. Relationships were erased from existence. It was a fresh start. In many ways, it’s not unlike the DCEU: building a new version of the DC universe from the ground up.
It didn’t work super well. Fans found themselves missing key relationships, notably Black Canary/Green Arrow and Lois/Clark, and key characters, like the classic Wally West. As “The New 52” grew and evolved, flaws were ironed out and a plethora of great stories were told, but there were still wrinkles. And then, rebirth. “DC Rebirth” wasn’t like “The New 52.” It didn’t reset the entire universe, but rather it bled the old DC universe into the new, bringing its classic legacy into its modern world. A key manifestation of this is Superman.
Leading up to Rebirth, DC comics introduced a second Superman. While the “The New 52” incarnation was running around with youth and angst, a second Superman – the classic, pre-52 Superman – lived in secret with his wife and son, Lois Lane and Jonathan Kent. He and his family had survived the universe’s rewrite (another long story), and lived under aliases. Then “DC Rebirth” comes and everything changes.
Superman dies. The “The New 52” Clark Kent gives his life in a fight, and, feeling that the world needs a Superman, pre-52 Clark Kent steps up. He reclaims his identity, as Clark Kent and as Superman.
The DCEU can’t do this exact thing. Technically, he wouldn’t be coming from a past version of the same universe, though that’s all semantics anyway, and as cool as it would be to see a story with Routh and Cavill’s Superman, I doubt Cavill would want to come back for one more movie just so he can die (again, since he’s already been killed in BvS and subsequently revived in Justice League). The fundamentals of the idea are there though.
DC can weave a story where an event pulls Routh’s Superman into this universe. Maybe, in the process, Cavill’s Superman has disappeared, or he appears in the wake of Cavill’s death offscreen. While it would take some hand waving, they could even pull in this Superman’s wife and child (presumably played by different actors than in Superman Returns) and explore the arc of Superman working through fatherhood that has so revitalized his story in the comics.
A Place Where Even Orphan Immigrants Can Leave Their Fingerprints
Superman is an immigrant story in a time when immigrant stories are deeply important. One need look no further than the success of Lin Manuel Miranda’s works to see this, with both In the Heights and Hamilton emphasizing the immigrant status of their protagonists and assorted supporting characters.
Superman’s status as an immigrant isn’t a new idea — the argument has been kicked around in the discourse on Superman’s modern relevance since the discourse’s inception. However, I would add that there is a detachment to Superman’s immigrant status. Clark Kent’s understanding of himself as an immigrant is retroactive. He grew up thinking himself as human, as American, and even when he does learn of his past he still maintains the security of his American identity.
This is not, of course, to invalidate Superman’s place as an immigrant, but compare him with his cousin, Kara Zor-El. Better known as Supergirl, Kara had a life on Krypton before its destruction. She grew up with family, friends, and culture – and her journey to become the earthly hero we know is through the loss of those connections. The one thing she has to hold on to is her mission to protect her baby cousin, but even that is disrupted when she ends up traveling in space far longer than Clark – arriving to see the baby she swore to protect has grown into a man. There’s a pain that comes with Supergirl’s perspective, a pain Clark doesn’t traditionally have.
America’s perspective on immigration under the current President is flawed in nearly every aspect, but the strongest vitriol seems aimed at immigrants more in the vain of Supergirl: older refugees who are making a conscious choice in their quest for asylum. It’s certainly not babies who find themselves in America on their own and grow up sheltered from the truth of who they are. This isn’t to say young immigrants aren’t persecuted, nor is it to say Superman isn’t a valuable representation of some immigrant stories. How he represents the immigrant community is hardly my place to say. However, WB is clearly trying to address the disconnect between Clark Kent’s classic all-American upbringing and his status as an alien immigrant, evidenced by his current DCEU incarnation.
Man of Steel and Batman v Superman tried to retrofit Kara’s brand of pain onto Clark’s foundation, having him grow up loving humanity but being afraid of how they’d treat him if they knew the truth. I would argue that an element of Clark’s fundamental strength was lost in the translation. For all of Superman’s power, his real strength is as Clark Kent – the simple, good natured boy from Smallville. By complicating his upbringing, his core values of compassion and hope in the face of strife were lost.
Bringing Routh into the DCEU allows the WB to create a Superman that faces modern struggles through classic idealism. There are obvious parallels between this and Captain America’s man out of time idealism, but there’s also an important difference: where Captain America returned to a world that idealized him, a second Superman from another universe enters the DCEU with far more complexity. How does the world — and The Justice League — respond to someone claiming to be the hero they knew?
In Man of Steel, Superman fears persecution not because he is an alien, but because of how people will react to powers heretofore unseen. Returning to the topic of immigration, the immigrants that American culture have vilified are neither scary nor super-powered. They’re just people like anyone else. Introducing Routh’s Superman positions him as an immigrant with powers, yes, but the suspicion and rejection he would face wouldn’t inherently stem from the power he has. Instead it would come from the identity he claims. In the current DCEU world plenty of people have shown themselves to wield great power (Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Flash, and Shazam to name a handful). With this landscape, Superman isn’t other-ed for his power but his identity, as immigrants so often are.
This Superman and his family become immigrants to the entirety of the DCEU. Routh would stand as a Kal-El driven by the ideals and hope of the Reeve era, but confronted with a new status quo. He’s a man who’s lost not just his birth planet but his adopted home and the relationships that come with that. He becomes a representative of those who seek a new life, the so called “American Dream” we often tout, but he must confront the intolerances, hurdles and suspicion that so commonly hold that dream out of reach.
Rise Up, Eyes Up
Introducing Routh’s Superman is the best move for the DCEU. It doesn’t just maintain the foundational ideals of Superman that many have found lacking from Cavill’s incarnation, but creates an opportunity to present Superman’s status as an American ideal against society’s modern landscape. WB is asking how to make Superman relevant, and here – in their past – is the answer. They can revitalize their most iconic hero all while tapping into a legacy that the MCU can never replicate.
DC’s recent Superman comics have proven that this type of story can work for revitalizing Superman, and recent movies such as Avengers: Endgame and Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse are proof that modern audiences can understand the complex narrative of alternate realities if it’s presented effectively.
Warner Brothers can have the best of both worlds: a man who at his core a classic symbol of hope, but confronted by a world that doesn’t easily accept him. It’s time for a new Superman to rise. It’s time to once again believe a man can fly.