Superman is not among the group of superheroes that have truly flourished in mediums outside of comic books. He is no recent blockbuster success like Spiderman or Batman, though many attempts over the years have tried and failed at bringing the most recognizable hero in the game to other forms of media. Why has Superman failed where others have succeeded? Have the pieces simply never come together in the proper order, or is Superman as a character simply an inherently difficult one to adapt into other mediums?
Perhaps with the exception of the early Christopher Reeve films, Superman has had little success in Hollywood and virtually zero success in videogames. Particularly in the video game industry, Superman has a rather bleak history filled with empty promises and historically awful releases. An alarming number of titles are considered major critical flops, including: Superman: The Man of Steel (1989), Superman (1992), Superman (1999), Superman: Man of Steel (2002), Superman: Countdown to Apokolips (2003), Superman Returns (2006). All of these titles were panned by critics and fans alike, but none is more notorious for its startling lack of quality than the 1999 Superman game released for the Nintendo 64, often referred to as simply Superman 64. The game is often listed among the worst games of all time, with critics citing the simplistic gameplay, unresponsive flying controls, and laughable abundance of distance fog rendering the game nearly unplayable. The game is now entrenched in Superman lore as the defining example of the superhero’s inability to successfully transcend mediums despite the fact that Superman had little to do with the game’s failure.
Some voices around the video game industry argue that Superman is an inherently poor fit for adaptation due to the creative confines of his nearly invincible nature. Dax Ginn, marketing game manager for Batman: Arkahm City, reasoned of the superhero: “Superman is a very difficult character. He’s an incredible character, but the thing about Batman is that he’s so vulnerable, like physically vulnerable,” Ginn stated.”The fertile territory of games design is being able to provide the player with opportunities for power, but also letting them know that they’ve got something to lose.” Though superheroes such as Batman and Spiderman are extremely powerful, they can physically be defeated by the proper force, whereas Superman’s powers defy the natural rules of gaming, where confines of rules and regulations are formed to limit the player. But is this merely a cop-out excuse used to explain a true lack of a serious, ambitious attempt to create a memorable game?
Superman’s invincibility is an inherent factor for the character regardless of the medium he is put in. How does an action story create moments of suspense if the hero can’t fail? This is perhaps a different sort of boundary to overcome than that in videogames, but one that is successfully traversed on a regular basis in comics and with some of the early films. Unfortunately, Bryan Singer’s 2006 Superman Returns, the only Superman movie released since the panned 1987 film The Quest for Peace, was also a relative critical flop and an audience disappointer. Many had hoped that with a large $209 million dollar budget and director Bryan Singer at the helm the project would succeed and end the seemingly endless string of horrible Superman titles, but the project was stale, occasionally ludicrous in plot, and poorly acted.
None of the Superman projects that have failed have done so from some innate quality of the character. They were poorly made works that feature a number of basic technical mishaps that destroy the experience entirely before Superman’s nature comes into the picture. Since the panning of Superman Returns, the invincible man has laid mostly dormant, waiting for someone brave enough to resurrect him. This June, seven years after Singer’s film, Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel will release with the hopes of rebooting the franchise with a somewhat darker tone. With David Goyer and Christopher Nolan, of Dark Knight fame, on the project in combination with Snyder’s typically interesting visual flair, the new Superman film looks poised to deliver the first truly successful Superman project in sometime, in any medium. Will Snyder’s film overcome its hero’s recently bleak track record and bring him back into the world of success? Hopefully Superman isn’t just for the comics.