Big changes are coming to DC movies. Henry Cavill is going to hang up the cape and tights, despite recently reprising the role of Superman in Black Adam. In his place, James Gunn has begun writing a Superman movie with a younger Clark Kent just starting his career at the Daily Planet. We don’t know if Gunn and his colleague Peter Safran, CEO of DC Studios, are planning a complete reboot of the DC Cinematic Universe, but it’s clear that they are. they’re going back to the drawing board with the Man of Steel.
Fortunately, there is no shortage of sources to draw inspiration from. DC Comics rarely goes more than a few years without publishing a new take on Superman’s origin story and formative years. Some of those comics are among the best and most influential Superman comics ever published.
We doubt Gunn is planning a direct adaptation of any particular Superman comic, but that doesn’t mean these stories can’t influence the new direction of the franchise. Let’s see what exactly some of these classic stories have to offer to the new DCU.
The New 52, Clark Kent returns to his roots
Though intended as a fresh start for the character, the Action Comics volume of The New 52 is also a return to Superman’s Golden Age roots. Creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster originally envisioned Superman as a passing vigilante crusader. as much time beating up corrupt landlords and abusive husbands as saving Metropolis from alien invasions or giant robots.
That sums up the Clark Kent envisioned by writer Grant Morrison and artist Rags Morales. He’s a thug in a homemade suit who fights hard for the ordinary men and women of Metropolis, both as a superhero and as a rookie journalist. Although Clark slowly comes to grips with his heritage and becomes a more traditional version of Superman in the end, the creators strive to paint him as a humble guy who doesn’t tolerate bullies, be they criminals or extradimensional imps.
It’s also worth noting that Morrison’s Action Comics, like Gunn’s Superman movie, is a story that reexamines Clark’s early years after a major creative shakeup at DC. The series offers an interesting case study in dealing with and acknowledging the fact that DC’s continuity has been dramatically altered by larger forces. It’s a very meta comic in that sense, but it never makes the mistake of dwelling too long on the hows and whys of DC’s latest reboot. This series tries to return Superman to his roots to make him move forward again.
Superman: Secret Origin, a holistic Man of Steel
Like Morrison, Geoff Johns is a writer reluctant to part with old characters and stories when they can still be put to good use. Superman: Secret Origin is Johns and cartoonist Gary Frank’s attempt to create the definitive story of young Superman, drawing heavily from the hero’s classic Silver Age adventures.
Secret Origin bucked the trend of many earlier origin stories, bringing back elements like Clark’s teenage adventures as Superboy and his friendship with the time-traveling Legion of Super-Heroes. It’s also a series that manages to elegantly work on several of Superman’s biggest villains, including Lex Luthor, Metallo, and Parasite. The only Superman trope not featured in this story is Krypton, as Johns and Frank make a concerted effort to downplay Superman’s home planet in favor of exploring Superman’s childhood in Smallville and his early months in Metropolis. Following the overly Krypton-centric focus of 2013’s Man of Steel, it may be just what the new film needs to successfully reintroduce Superman to the big screen.
Superman: Birthright, The Crossover Reporter
Superman: Birthright was the first Superman origin story published by DC following the premiere of the Smallville television series. The Smallville influence can be felt in this new version, particularly in his focus on the unlikely friendship between a young Clark Kent and reclusive genius Lex Luthor. And while we certainly wouldn’t mind seeing the Clark/Lex friendship carried over to Gunn’s revamped DCU, that’s not why we singled out Birthright.
A joint effort between writer Mark Waid and artist Leinil Yu, Birthright focuses primarily on a twenty-something Clark as he hones his journalistic skills and makes his first appearance as a costumed hero in Metropolis. The first few chapters show Clark covering a civil war in West Africa. There he struggles to realize that having superhuman strength and a way with words isn’t necessarily enough to create lasting change.
Birthright is the rare Superman story that puts as much emphasis on Clark Kent the journalist as Kal-El the superhero. He reminds us that Clark is more than just a cover identity for an all-powerful alien. And he also proves that Superman can and should be a hero to all peoples, not just the citizens of Metropolis.
Superman: Secret Identity, A Close Man of Steel
Superman: Secret Identity, by Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen, may be the best Superman comic not set in the DC Universe. The Clark Kent who appears in this limited series lives in a world without superhumans and where Superman is nothing more than a comic book character. So you can imagine Clark’s surprise when he begins to manifest the powers of his namesake.
Secret Identity is unusually realistic for a Superman story, as Clark fights more to keep his identity safe from nosy journalists and military operatives than he does to fight supervillains. But that low-key approach allows Busiek and Immonen to focus on the character’s humanity and his desire to do good with the gifts he’s been given.
We’re not suggesting Gunn start his cinematic universe in a world where Superman is the only costumed hero. But Secret Identity is a great example of how to humanize such a great character.
Superman: Year One, a god among mortals
On the opposite side of the equation, Superman: Year One by Frank Miller and John Romita, Jr. shows Superman as anything but an ordinary person. The Clark Kent featured in this series is so powerful that he becomes an untouchable god among paper-thin mortals. Ironically, as much as Miller is responsible for popularizing the idea that Batman is cunning enough to best Superman in direct combat, Year One shows us that the Man of Steel was just playing along with the Dark Knight.
Year One is a troubled origin story, with the first issue introducing controversial elements like Lana Lang’s attempted rape and Clark joining the army out of high school. But the series offers a unique and valuable look at Superman’s psychological evolution. Many superhero fans accuse Superman of being too powerful to make a really interesting lead. Year One reminds us that invulnerability doesn’t have to be a barrier to compelling drama.
Which Superman comics would you like to see inspire his next movie adventure?