Superman is not a pliable fictional character, existing only for our entertainment. He has been embraced by American and other cultures as a pillar of folklore. Since early man scrawled pictorial narratives on cave walls, we have been passing our values and ways of life down to future generations through the stories we tell. Superman is such a story. The character developed into this role, however, from the time of his creation, and that confuses some modern fans. They claim the darker and morally ambiguous Superman of today’s comics and film is just another version in a long line of valid re-imaginings.
Superman may have gone through changes since his inception, but the public has decided which of those changes become part of his mythology and which ones fade into obscurity. When you think “Superman,” you don’t think of a less powerful hero who is unaffected by Kryptonite, nor do you think of a being made entirely of energy in a blue and white containment suit. These were once attempted versions of the character. The public said no, and Superman returned to the way we like him. This is how mythology works. (When you think of the Greek hero Heracles, do you think of a man short in stature? No. But the ancient poet Pindar once described him as such in order to liken the hero to a patron.).
In comics, iconic supeheroes have been made to perform all sorts of deeds that fall short of our heroic standard. Editors are always eager for a controversy-sales bump. But those stories are unfailingly rejected from the canon of collective consciousness (Remember when Superman was almost manipulated into shooting a porno with Big Barda?). So when Zack Snyder says that his Man of Steel hasn’t done anything Superman hasn’t done in the comics and that people ignorantly “cling” to the Christopher Reeve portrayal, he’s mistaken in his choice of standard.
Core-altering changes to mythological characters may shake things up in the short-term—appeal to new crowds and cause a jump in ticket and comic sales, but the ultimate price is the character’s longevity. With the current attitude of Warner Bros filmmakers and DC’s intent to expand their new Superman beyond the pages of the New 52, longtime fans are looking elsewhere for characters to promote the values abandoned by current Superman stories.
Shock factors and stylistic fads wear off. History shows that Superman stories will one day return to the traditional character once embraced by the public as a whole. But if Warner Bros and DC wait too long, they may find the public has found their standards in other characters. As devastating as it may be, Superman could one day be resigned to the history of American folklore. The more fans that stand up and write or speak their mind for the character they believe in, the sooner we will see our Superman flying across pages and screens once more.