When you’re telling an old story for a new generation, the broad strokes will typically remain the same. But the finer details will get adapted for a new era—whether that new era wants them or not.
It’s a delicate balance that storytellers of all mediums must strike if they’re going to take a property beloved by many and make changes. Sometimes, elements that seemed important or novel in the 1930s, 1960s or 1980s can seem trite by today’s standards. In 1964, it seemed easy to believe that Peter Parker was a supergenius who could formulate his own superfluid to use in his web shooters. By the time a quality version of Spider-Man made it to the big screen in 2002, that idea seemed far more far-fetched than a boy getting powers from a radioactive spider.
But Spider-Man still needed web- shooters—and if the radioactive spider gave Peter Parker the rest of his spider-powers, why not organic web-shooters, too? There was fan outcry, but despite a grass-roots movement to ax to the change (including a website called No-Organic-Webshooters.com), audiences had simply accepted it by the time Spider-Man 2 rolled around.
Fans of Batman revolted at the idea of his pop-satire transformation in the campy television series, and just as many revolted again when Tim Burton grounded him back to a more fantastic version of reality. Chalk me up as one of the countless masses who found Christopher Nolan’s take on the character a bit tone-deaf.
We all have things in these iconic characters that speak to us. When we find the right frequency, we cling to what we love, and rebel against what we hate. It’s human nature.
Superman, too, has changed plenty over the years. He was never intended to fly; he could only leap over tall buildings in a single bound. Heat-vision and freeze-breath were also later additions. But at his heart, Superman has always been an orphaned Kryptonian, doing right by his adopted planet—and, to some degree, that’s exactly what we got with the new film Man of Steel.
But many fans don’t feel that this new Superman represents the ideal of what he stands for. At the end of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, the titular Bill (David Carradine) describes the Clark Kent/Superman dichotomy: “Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent? He’s weak. He’s unsure of himself. He’s a coward. Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race.”
In that small bit of dialogue, it seems like Tarantino captured the essence of one of the most interesting aspects of Superman. And that relationship between Clark and Superman simply doesn’t exist in Man of Steel.
As a fan, I’ve now spent many hours since I saw Man of Steel pondering that absence. Should I be upset or annoyed? Maybe. Superman is a word, and a character, with different definitions for different people. If I want the version of Superman I like most, Christopher Reeve and Brandon Routh gave me 2 1/2 great films to explore it. This is a different Superman for a different sensibility, one that wants to see a lot more punching and superpowered fights in a much darker tone. Portrayals of these characters in comics often vary just as wildly from one writer or artist to the next, sometimes over the course of mere months, but I think because movies have so much bigger an audience, we tend to take it more personally.
The darker tone of Man of Steel might be fine for many, but it’s not quite right for me. Henry Cavill’s Superman is vastly different from the Superman I like most in my head. But that’s OK. We’ll see plenty more changes to the character over the years. One of these days, it’ll be right for me once again. Instead of getting upset about it, I’ll bide my time, like a supervillain, and wait for the world to catch back up to me.
Bryan Young is editor-in-chief of BigShinyRobot.com.