Whatever Happened to the Men of Tomorrow?
Evil Supermen are everywhere. Is this trend a brazen act of countercultural deconstruction — or does it just reflect a punishing lack of imagination?
I just love Tyler Hoechlin on Superman & Lois. His Clark Kent rocks chunky cable-knit cardigans, pivots his Metropolitan family into farming, and pours a nightly glass of white wine for his badass wife. Dad goals aplenty — and when he suits up to catch a falling bridge in China, he waves to a rescued bystander. No big deal, his smile says, all in a day's work. It's a classic version of the most classic superhero, an ageless paternal hunk rendered puny behind glasses and the last tie any print journalist will ever wear.
But the hit CW drama already revealed another possible Man of Steel, a world-destroying alternate Superman introduced in a flashback eye-barbecuing an army. He wears black, just like Henry Cavill's resurrected Kal-El in Zack Snyder's Justice League. And that four-hour HBO Max event ends with a premonition of Superman gone mad, driven murderous by the death of Lois Lane (Amy Adams). These fallen gods have company. Amazon Prime Video's The Boys features Antony Starr as Homelander, an über-American sociopath. He shares a streaming service with Omni-Man (voiced by J.K. Simmons), the greatest defender of Invincible's Earth, who finishes up his series premiere ripping apart his fake Justice League one spinal cord at a time. Let's put a pin in calling the Utopian (Josh Duhamel) nefarious, but the patriarch of Netflix's upcoming Jupiter's Legacy has dark secrets. And his troubled son Brandon (Andrew Horton) wears a red-caped blue costume I would describe as "lawsuit-proof." (The Marvel Cinematic Universe is making its own moves in this direction, with the briefly bad resurrected Vision and a new Captain America covering his shield with fresh blood.)
An optimistic read would classify the Evil Superman glut as countercultural activism: a middle finger to the boomers from Generation Harley Quinn. The classic character offers easy signifiers to deconstruct. He is toxically masculine, supremely white, a whole surveillance state unto himself. Comparisons to certain monster presidents and canceled icons are welcome. "I know you want me to be like you," Homelander's son (Cameron Crovetti) tells the star-spangled pyscho. "But Dad, I'm not." That kid goes on to incinerate Homelander's Nazi girlfriend: Great job, youth! Meanwhile, Invincible's real star is Omni-Man's son, Mark (Steven Yeun), a sincere do-gooder. Their malicious elders stand in for larger societal decay. And even the WarnerMedia-approved Supermen withstand suspicion from paranoid worlds. Cavill's hero spent a whole movie proving to Batman (Ben Affleck) that he wasn't a bad guy; apparently, the next movie would have proved Batman right. Hoechlin's yearning sincerity sticks out like a sore thumb in modern-day Smallville, a depleted land of meth explosions and bank foreclosures. Recent events in our own world offer little hope for a brighter future. Everything has gone wrong with everything. Why should the Man of Tomorrow be any different?
There's a long history of Superman turning bad; there's a long history of Superman doing anything. Way back in 1964, he met Ultraman, a dastardly double from Earth-Three. The '90s brought a Terminator-ish super-doppelgänger, who pretended to be Superman before destroying fake Los Angeles. Hoechlin already played a different black-suited impostor in a 2018 CW crossover. There are multiverse scenarios where he's raised by Soviets, Nazis, or Darkseid. In the 2000s Justice League cartoon, another Superman executes his Lex Luthor, a defensible act that slippery-slopes into dystopic oppression.
Break one rule and you break them all: That's the implicit threat of Evil Superman, and the nasty thrill of Injustice, a videogame-comic saga where Lois Lane's death drives Superman superbad totalitarian. (Clark's son plays Injustice 2 on Superman & Lois.) In the classic 1986 tale "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" written by Alan Moore and drawn by Curt Swan, Kal-El retires from superheroism after taking a villain's life. "Nobody has the right to kill," he says, "Not Mxyzptlk, not you, not Superman... especially not Superman." Look past the outrageous impossibility of saying "Mxyzptlk" out loud, and it's one of the great quotes of comic book history. This Superman believes even a wholly justifiable homicide spoils his moral code. A generation later, that's where these stories begin.
In a strange way, Evil Superman is now the conventional Superman. Or anyhow, the counter-archetype is just as prominent as the original — maybe even more prominent, depending on how much you value the ever-ongoing comic multiverse. (Where, it should be noted, Ultra-Man has a starring role in DC's new Crime Syndicate miniseries.) Last year, the videogame developer Rocksteady revealed their long-in-the-works follow-up to their acclaimed Arkham trilogy. The trailer for their Suicide Squad game features Harley Quinn and friends facing off against — you guessed it — an Evil Superman, possibly mind-controlled, scorching a poor human into ash. The game's subtitle is Kill the Justice League, a massest-of-mass-market pitch that defangs the supposed transgression of something like Invincible.
However I feel about these individual projects, their malevolent super-guys collectively represent empty shock value. The cynicism is trendy — and cynicism is unquestionably a logical reaction to life lately. But the stories also reflect the same cheap hyperbole powering sentences like "Everything has gone wrong with everything." Well, no, not everything; ask a scientist how amazing the coronavirus vaccine is. And it's notable how often these Evil Supermen are deployed for lazy zero-sum plot motivation, when they're not just an excuse for fetishized mega-gore.
Superman & Lois uses its blacksuited baddie to explain why cross-reality refugee Captain Luthor (Wolé Parks) keeps tormenting Hoechlin's Clark. Luthor lost his world to that Superman, so now he thinks this Superman will also go kill-crazy. I'm certainly willing to be surprised if this peppy CW series evolves into a nihilistic death-metal parable of the ultra-apocalypse, with sweetheart Superdad spending the last few seasons roasting humanity. Respectfully, I doubt it. So Luthor is stuck playing the Batfleck role from Batman v Superman, another good guy pointlessly battling a good Superman until (presumably) some obvious bad guy shows up to unite them. Meanwhile, Zack Snyder's original plan for his Justice League sequels apparently involved de-bad-ifying Cavill's Superman via time travel — the kind of whoops-let's-fix-history ending that already inspired four decades of jokes about 1978's Superman. To recap: That franchise could have involved one movie where Batman thinks Superman will turn evil and one movie where Superman actually turns evil, the net outcome being a Superman who is not evil.
Evil Superman can never really matter as much as he ought to within any straightforward canon. Which means that, underneath the provocations, what you're seeing is an overreaction to a dumb problem: How do you make Superman f---ing cool? One answer is the black suit, an embarrassing oh-so-'90s attempt to make someone who is nothing like Punisher look like Punisher. Back in 2010, Smallville sent its Clark (Tom Welling) into a literally shadowy universe filmed in desaturated monochrome. That is pretty much the default look for Snyder's heroes. And the draining of color marks a draining of emotional possibility. Evil Superman is always the most monstrous monster ever, less a character than a weather pattern of brutality.
This makes the nominal satire of the Amazon shows feels oddly tame. If it's impossible to make an anti-war movie because war looks too exciting onscreen, it's downright inconceivable to make an anti-superhero story. That would require a direct onslaught against an audience that worships superheroes as cultural symbols and house gods; it would also require examining, and eviscerating, why a world without superheroes loves superheroes so much.
At the risk of offending literally everyone I work with, I'm a bit skeptical of the fandom around The Boys, which plays like a lot of just-okay tweets about superhero movies plus the kind of anti-capitalist jokes that come pre-printed on corporate T-shirts. Starr is very funny, but on a narrative level Homelander exists so the other characters have an unquestionable villain to complain about. Invincible has a wider scope, though it shares a postmodern vision of superheroism as some combination of showbiz, pro sports, and law enforcement without oversight. In the second episode, Omni-Man attacks an entire alien world, city by city, building by building. It's presented in a blood-crimson montage set to "Tom Tom" by Holy F---, each explosion a lush fantasia of devastation. The global decimation seems to take months, long enough for Omni-Man to grow a beard. It is, indisputably, very awesome. But there's a strong sense of pointlessness underlying the sequence, the precise mood of watching Special Guest Star Darth Vader totally own a bunch of rebels in Rogue One. Is the whole first season of Invincible just a long wait until Mark figures out his dad's a baddie? We've already seen this dude destroy a planet, and the only thing that stuck with you was how cool the music was.
It's worth pointing out, of course, that absolutely none of these projects could have existed in the classic comic book era, when the industry self-censored behind a rigid code. And almost any superhero movies or TV shows from before 2016 looks pretty tame now, rigidly held back by PG-13 ratings or broadcast standards. Deadpool didn't change everything, but it changed a lot of things, and all these Evil Supermen arriving at once would seem to reflect a triumph of anything-goes standards. It used to be a Whole Big Thing for, like, the hero of a TV show to kill someone in cold blood. Now, the company owned by the world's richest man produces two shows about mass-murdering Supermen, one of which has an official seal of approval from my favorite president. This is a good evolutionary trend, in theory, because censorship stinks. Yet the normalization of transgression runs alongside a deadening narrative repetition. You can do anything you want, it seems, so long as what you're doing has been done before.
Blond Superman, Mustached Superman, Superman if Josh Duhamel Looked Like Santa: Call it parody or homage, but there's a depressing sameness here. Like way too many screen heroes, they depend on plot motivation from generic Nick Fury-ish bosses of faceless organizations. (Vought execs on The Boys = the Global Defense Agency on Invincible = Superman & Lois' General Father-in-Law.) The streaming shows are sort of about the concept of celebrity, but behind the snark there's a secret aspirational fairy tale: Imagine if famous people actually did save lives every day! (Some of them are bad, but crucially, some of them are also good — so superheroes are the cause and solution to all life's problems.) Homelander, Omni-Man, and Hoechlin's Superman all teach their sons superpowers: the same scene, with varying sincerity/irony levels. Are we just rearranging the deck chairs of childhood imagination? Jupiter's Legacy, Invincible, and The Boys adapt comics from a decade ago or more. Now our generation keeps refining the sound effect for heat vision scorching living flesh.
This is a problem, because — permit me — Superman's greatest power is imagination. He can go anywhere, do anything, invent new impossibilities to accomplish. His iconography is rooted in survivor's sorrow. But the best stories embrace that melancholy as part of a vast psycho-cosmic landscape. No live-action incarnation of the character has come close to the unfathomable wonder of All-Star Superman, the mid-2000s series by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, which builds a poignant myth of super-mortality out of gorgeously unrestrained sandbox-without-end adventures. The arrival of an Evil Superman is meant to connote adulthood and maturity — the kind of stuff you could never ever get away with in kid stuff. Mature content isn't the same as maturity, though, and it's notable how often an Evil Superman is also a character without a supporting cast, a proper job, or even any motivation beyond pure lizard-brain violence. (Invincible is the exception, for now.)
Warner Bros. has planned a new Superman movie, written by Ta-Nehisi Coates and produced by J.J. Abrams. Their new direction can only be an improvement. And if you'll let me expand the definition of a Superman story — alien-ish boy raised on Earth embarks on kitchen-sink sci-fi magic adventures — the modern masterpiece is Cartoon Network's Steven Universe. The coming-of-age series earned acclaim for a serialized mythology, as well as its welcoming all-fluid-everything sensibility. The story got more complicated in its later years, in the manner of a lot of YA sagas that mature with the main characters. But season 1 is a total golden age, 50-plus episodes of world-hopping wonder. Steven (Zach Callison) explores ancient ruins, lost space Edens, and a whole dimension inside his pet lion's mane. He also hangs out in his beach town, eating pizza, loving doughnuts, and playing video games. When he time-travels to meet his past self, he time-travels twice more to form a one-man band.
In last year's epilogue series, Steven Unvierse Future, the nearly adult Steven turns destructive from post-traumatic stress. His super-friends saved him with a group hug. Cheesy? Maybe. But it's past time to re-examine just what the hell we're doing with the whole superhero genre, and to Superman, as these extremely unrealistic (sure, call them "mythic") fictions become ever-more-embedded in the fabric of mainstream human storytelling. Hugs are real. Heat vision is just a fantasy.
A version of this story appears in the May issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands Friday or available to order with covers featuring Chloé Zhao, Viola Davis, and Regina King. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.