Superman: The Man of Many Failed Adaptations

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.

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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.

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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.

  1 comment for “Superman: The Man of Many Failed Adaptations

  1. cmccrzy
    March 24, 2013 at 3:24 am

    For starters, I think you should have named this “Superman: The Man of Many Failed Video Game and Film Adaptations”. Your title is incredibly misleading. I went into this thinking about how I was wrong all these years about the numerous animated adaptations I loved over the years, which, after the comics, is what I know as the best-known versions of the Big Blue Boy Scout. These did not even come up, and I feel like that is just wrong. There’s also the questionable problem of what you mean by “other media”. What about music, clothing, toys, or books?

    You also never mention “Smallville”, the live-action television series that went on for ten seasons (a huge milestone in TV business), only ended in 2011, and has continued into comic book format. While this didn’t star Kal’el in his more familiar caped crusader form, it still stars the character. And while I completely agree with Sup’s lack of vulnerability making it difficult to translate him to different mediums because he has no vulnerabilities to explore and relate to, people have made it work. They did for ten seasons, anyway, where we get to see young Clark Kent coming into his powers, growing into adulthood, and moving towards the hero we all recognize. If anyone says that “Smallville” Kent is not flawed (if not incredibly so), they would be wrong.

    There’s also “Superman: The Animated Series”, which ran from 1996 to 2000 for three seasons, and is considered one of the best animated adaptations of the character, and was well-received in the modernization department. There’s also the fact that Tim Daly, the man who voiced Superman in the series, has continued to voice Big Blue in numerous following series, including the incredibly popular “Justice League”/”Justice League: Unlimited” series, “Static Shock”, and most of the recent animated films involving Superman.

    Superman has a major animated presence. He’s been in adaptations since 1941, and appeared in shows as recent as the incredibly popular “Young Justice”. His legacy also lives on in popular characters like Superboy, Supergirl/woman, Power Girl, and Krypto.

    But ignoring that. Like I said, you focused on the video games and films. The films are a gray area I would personally rather not touch. I personally enjoyed “Superman: Returns”, and I am really hopeful that “Man of Steel” is good, although I am setting the bar incredibly low because it is a comic book live-action film adaptation, and it is basically a requirement for the bar to be set incredibly far down for those. I am really glad that you said “critical” success and not generic success because, whether people liked it or not, like “Avatar: The Last I Never Should Have Existed Shyamalan”, the entire live-action “Transformers” film franchise, and the recent “Green Lantern” live-action adaptation, it was a box office success – it made its money back and then some. So even if everyone hated it (and I have personally heard 50/50 on that score), the creators could have made another one anyway.

    Did people like it? That is up for debate. Was it commercially successful? Oh yeah. What do people tend to care for more: making everyone last person on the planet happy, or being able to buy food and shiny cars?

    There’s also the fact that the 2006 film created a mass revival of the old films. I remember multiple stores, including Amazon and Best Buy, having crises over selling DVD packs and merchandise. Like book adaptations, simply by existing, the film adaptation of “Superman” did a lot for the franchise. It at least made people more interested in what came before (if only because they thought someone else might want it for more money down the line).

    Moving on to the video game world: from what I hear about “Injustice: Gods Among Us”, the upcoming melee fighter game coming out in the DC Universe sometime soon, Superman’s story is central to the plot. The game is getting a lot of interest and it looks pretty neat. So interest is still there, anyway. One way creators have played with the Superman storyline over the years is to make him evil. What happens when the Boy Scout stops being the Boy Scout?

    While Superman has had his flops, I wish to pose this question: what grand alternate-media adaptation successes have other superhero titles featured? Batman has garnered a slew of titles, including video games, animated films, and multiple TV series. But he’s also had his failures. There are the old Batman films, pre-Nolan days, that people love to make fun of, the cheesy older television shows, the weird international interpretations, and several bad video games. No other popular DC titled video games come to mind, although I would love to hear about them if anyone knows of any. As for other DC live-action film adaptations, I can’t recall anyone liking “Catwoman”, aka Halle Berry Wears Tight Clothing, “Green Lantern” (although it really is not as bad as everyone says), “Jonah Hex”, “Constantine”, “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”, or “The Spirit”. We have already discussed the mixed responses to “Watchmen” in class and on the blog elsewhere, so I’ll leave that out of this. DC tends to do much better with their animated series – for instance, most DC fans I know are at least familiar if not avid fans of “Batman – The Animated Series”.

    Marvel is a curious one. While they have arguably had more noticeable popularity in the live-action film department (“Iron Man”, “The Avengers”), they have also had their rather epic failures: “Daredevil”, “Elektra”, “The Hulk”, the “Spider-Man” Tobey Maguire films (which are debatable, I suppose), “X3”, “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer”, the “Ghost Rider” films, “Iron-Man 2”, “Thor”, and really Marvel’s critical successes in that department are pretty dark murky.

    Also, much as people may voice their dislike of these films, almost all of them, even “Daredevil”, “Elektra”, and “Spider-Man 3” were box office successes. Again, did people like them? Maybe, maybe not. Were they commercial successes? Yeeeah. Much as people like to abuse the Raimi Spider-Man films, they got funding to make another round of films for the franchise. Spider-Man is still just as popular, if not more so, than he has ever been.

    On the other hand, Marvel’s success in the animated department is less spectacular than DC’s. “X-Men” and “Spider-Man” have had numerous successes in that department”. Others… not so much. They have made some headway with their numerous recent animated films and motion comics, but not all that much.

    Personally, I don’t know of any massively successful Marvel video game titles (outside of “Marvel vs. Capcom”), and maybe a few Spider-Man titles. Again, I’m not very familiar with DC Comics and Marvel Comics-based video games, so if anyone knows of any, please enlighten me. I truly am interested in hearing about it.

    So, is Superman hard to adapt? Possibly. People certainly keep trying and certainly seem to be making a great deal of money and producing a great deal of content in the trying. Has he landed on some really shameful lists as a result? Apparently so. But so have a number of popular superheroes in the DC/Marvel universes.

    So yes, Superman the character has issues in adaptation. But so has just about everyone else in the business.

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