An argument could be made that the last time something Superman was any good outside the cartoons or comics was the 1978 Superman movie. It wouldn’t necessarily be a strong one, but it’d spark a heated debate nonetheless, even though he’s had five solo films and two television series since then.

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And while that can occasionally be blamed on fans being unnecessarily purist about what works, there’s no question that Superman films and television shows don’t necessarily connect the way adaptations of other characters have. For this list, we’re examining why that is, and what movies and television can never seem to get consistently correct about the Man of Steel.


This is about as basic as it gets. Whether Batman is there or whether he isn’t, Gotham remains a dangerous city where at any moment the worst things could happen to the nicest people, and the purest people can become corrupted by its influence. Every film and every television show has gotten it right post-Adam West era. But Metropolis is always just a city. It lacks any sort of soul or personality. In the mid to late ’90s, DC turned Metropolis into a city that was more advanced than any other location. It made sense considering it was the home of Lex Luthor, the “smartest man in the world”, but it also fit Superman: the City of Tomorrow for the Man of Tomorrow. If Metropolis has no personality, then it’s just like any other city, and the world of Superman loses something.


Though it can be debated whether or not Superman should kill at all, that’s not really the point of this particular issue. Regardless of how anyone feels about Superman’s stance on killing, what really isn’t up for debate is that killing should be a minor thing to him. It shouldn’t. The second he starts killing with ease, he’s no longer Superman. But it’d be nice if we got to see how taking lives weighed on him more if it did happen. He looks anguished about killing Zod in Man of Steel, but it never seemed to follow him after the initial incident. If Superman has to kill, his actions and mindset should be forever changed going forward, rather than just existing as a “necessary” moment in time.


This is more shorthand for Superman’s supporting cast in general. Outside of Lois Lane and Smallville (the town, not the show), it feels like Superman’s supporting cast is always forced to the sidelines. Jimmy Olsen and Perry White make token appearances, when in actuality Superman has ties to the police through Maggie Sawyer, to the common man through Bibbo Bibbowski, and more beyond that. Geoff Johns’ run was famous for actually giving the Daily Planet a proper staff, with characters like Cat Grant, Ron Troupe, and Steve Lombard. It felt like an actual place where people worked rather than a set to place all the scenes “before the important stuff happens”. Just as much as Superman needs Metropolis to have an identity, he needs to have a cast to bounce off of.


The common opinion of the layperson is that Superman has a garbage rogues gallery. That’s what happens when Lex Luthor and Zod are recycled as the same villains for the character over and over, while his earlier television shows wanted to rely on gangsters or hokey Silver Age adventures and Smallville had to try and show us major villains downgraded so they can fit the show’s “realistic” vision and budget.

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But Superman faces reality-altering imps from dimensions of a higher order, cruel alien warrior-kings, and advanced alien intelligences known for destroying entire civilizations. He’s got a great list of villains, but outside of the comics and the cartoons, no one ever cares to use them.


One way or another, people always attempt to ground Superman. They’ll either weaken his powers the way most television series do, or they’ll try to make him less of a paragon of virtue to make him feel more relatable which is what tends to happen in the films. In either instance, it feels entirely unnecessary. All-Star Superman is widely considered not just one of the greatest Superman stories, but one of the greatest comics ever written. In that story, Superman is more powerful and more compassionate than he’s ever been. There’s no need to ground a character who’s meant to teach humanity how to fly.


Aside from Smallville’s complex portrayal of Lex brought to us by the beloved Michael Rosenbaum, live-action has botched most Lex portrayals. There’s always an element of camp present in a character who pretty much stopped being campy the moment John Byrne brought us The Man of Steel in 1986. Since then, the character has been a smooth yet terrifying businessman that’s gradually slid into being something of an evil version of Tony Stark by mixing in his super-scientist background from the Silver Age. The films seem to gloss over that, taking away the fact that at his core, Lex Luthor should be cool, not just barely holding on to the edge of his sanity like Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal.


Man of Steel is the only film that ever got close to properly nailing the action inherent to the Superman concept. Though that version of the character didn’t seem to care much about the collateral damage, it finally gave us a Superman with all the power we never get to see him use. During the fight scenes it sometimes felt more like a Dragon Ball Z film than Superman. But in most cases, Superman movies and certainly television shows try to make the action a tertiary concern, which doesn’t help the perception that the character is boring, when most superhero films always have some pretty great fight scenes.


Though CW’s Supergirl series has gotten the closest, the Man of Steel’s choice of couture always seems to be lacking. Where Marvel over the years has managed to hit the perfect balance in towing the line between realism and comic book accuracy, DC’s Superman outfits have always left us wanting.

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Brandon Routh’s outfit from Superman Returns looked good at the time but in hindsight is a little plastic-y. Henry Cavill has his Man of Steel wearing something which looks more like it’s chain mail armor than a costume for a man who’s bulletproof. And both of those are still better than Smallville by far, who not only skipped the costume but couldn’t even be bothered to keep the color scheme by the end.


They always do Lois Lane dirty. The ace reporter of the Daily Planet, she vacillates between being Superman’s love interest or the damsel in distress. She rarely ever feels like she’s a driving force in the plot or Superman’s equal, something the modern comics have always shown her to be in Superman’s eyes. In a time where it’s more dangerous to be a reporter than ever, Lois Lane should be written as nothing less than a fearless woman who will go everywhere and do anything for the story, and bring it back without Superman’s help, because she was perfectly capable of doing it before Superman came along.


In a misguided attempt to make Superman feel more relatable, he tends to lean towards either being a mope or someone who's really eager to shirk his responsibilities as the most powerful man on Earth. In Superman 2 Clark gives up being Superman for the sake of marrying Lois, despite all the good he’s done and is still capable of doing. Superman Returns sees him abandon humanity altogether, and in Man of Steel, it’s really only when Zod pops up that he even feels motivated to actually save lives. There's nothing wrong with him being lonely--he's the last of his kind.  But he's still got the best powers and grew up with the best parents ever.  It'd be nice to see him actually enjoy being Superman for an entire film.

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