Why can’t Superman find any video game luck?
With Man of Steel set to hit theaters this weekend and Superman Unchained #1 coming out on Wednesday, the Man of Tomorrow is making more headlines than ever. Considering he’s been nothing short of forgotten since Nolan’s Dark Knight films, this is as sure a sign as ever that Clark Kent is ready to reclaim his title as the world’s greatest superhero. But there’s one thing Batman has that Superman doesn’t: an engaging series of video games.
There have been a number of Superman video games ─ from The Death and Return of Superman to Superman: Shadow of Apokolips to Superman: The Man of Steel to Superman Returns ─ and none have exactly impressed anybody. Apokolips became known for featuring the excellent voice cast of the animated series; Man of Steel was lauded for a serviceable plot and, though interpretations were off, a wide array of characters; Superman Returns had some cool flying; and you got to beat people up in Death and Return, which is all Superman does, right? Each of these games had working elements, but absolutely failed in terms of characterization, gameplay mechanics, and replayability. The most notorious of these offenses was 1999’s Nintendo 64 Superman, based off of the then hugely successful Bruce Timm animated series. Here’s what Matt Casamassina of IGN said about that one:
With horrible control, unforgivable framerates [sic] and more bugs than can be counted, Titus [the developer] should be absolutely ashamed of this awful game, and the company should be doubly ashamed for pissing all over such a beloved license.
So suffice it to say Superman has been misrepresented pretty much everywhere in game history. In fact, the best interpretation of the character can be found in Lego Batman 2, which, just a hunch, is a Batman game and not a Superman game. Here, watch him fly around in Gotham for a while. It’s totally not a waste of time. Plus, Lego was nice enough to include the Superman theme, even while he flies around the Bat-Cave.
Is it worth it to make a Superman game? Yes. Yes, yes, yes ─ I can’t stress it enough: yes. Superman means the world to millions of people of an aging generation, and he could mean the world to the next generation. The trick is introducing him correctly ─ just as Batman has been since 2005.
The Arkham games work so well because they do exactly what the Nolan films do. They take a character with an incredibly unlikely backstory ─ billionaire orphan, trained in martial arts, vigilante by night, and master of pretty much everything to the point where he’s one step ahead of everybody ─ and the games boil him down to the gritty aspects, so that gamers feel like Batman. Similarly, Nolan rebooted Batman with such an overt sense of realism, that it was practically impossible to dislike the films for being “comic-bookie” or whatever.
The same can be done with Superman, except it must pertain to his character. Superman isn’t realistic or gritty ─ dude’s not even human ─ so the Arkham treatment is out of the question. But who is Superman? And how could his abilities and personality be updated for the video game treatment?
Well, Superman is an alien, first and foremost. Second, he stands for more than Metropolis; his adventures are almost always cosmic in scale. Third, he’s an indestructible man of steel. Therefore, he should fight and protect the people of Earth from invasions that would call for an indestructible man of steel. The problem with the 1999 Superman was that the majority of the game involved picking up objects and putting them down. That’s what Batman’s for!
Grant Morrison, author of Supergods and All-Star Superman, once said, “Adults foolishly demand to know how Superman can possibly fly . . . when the answer is obvious even to the smallest child: because it’s not real.” In other words, we can sit here and scrutinize Superman’s place in the real world all day, while he exists in the fictional one. Therefore, a video game starring the man of tomorrow should not promote realism, but rather revel in it’s ability to go anywhere, anytime, in grandiose proportions.
Should Superman fight giant alien armies? Yes. Should Superman deal with World War III, while a giant meteor flies towards Earth? Yes. Should every single villain in the Superman mythology make an appearance and do their worst? Uh, that’s what Arkham City is, basically. Superman is a science-fiction dream: a man of steel devoted to protecting Earth and promoting peace, all while dealing with his own human emotions. We should see every science fiction element possible in a Superman video game, and, hopefully, some heartbreaking scenes with Lois, or some upbeat exchanges with Jimmy Olsen. Anything to remind us why we care about this character in the first place.
In the end, we love Superman because Superman believes in us, even more than we believe in him. Therefore, it is nothing but beneficial to the world at large for someone to take this burgeoning and, until this year, misused property and dedicate it to a serious and breathtaking work of video game art. We have the graphics. We have the designers. We have the voice actors. What’s stopping us? According to Superman, nothing. That’s why we need him in our culture, and us in his.