James Gunn, The DC Universe has a Christopher Reeve Problem

Decades later, Reeve's legacy still overshadows any new Superman project. James Gunn, take note.

The iconic Superman character has captured the imagination of millions with his superhuman abilities and unwavering commitment to justice. However, despite being one of the most beloved superheroes of all time, creating a genuinely successful Superman film has proven to be an elusive goal for filmmakers over the last three decades. 

Blame Christopher Reeve.

Christopher Reeve was a classically trained actor who dreamed of Broadway stardom but will forever be remembered for his iconic portrayal of Superman in the popular film series of the 1970s and 80s. His interpretation of the superhero profoundly impacted popular culture, establishing him as one of the most memorable and beloved actors of his time. Kevin Feige, the chief architect of Marvel‘s uber-successful film franchise, once said he and his team watch the Richard Donner-directed 1978 film before production begins on almost all Marvel’s movies. Likewise, Patty Jenkins, who directed one of the DCEU’s few bright spots, Wonder Woman, also said she drew inspiration from that film. Indeed, Reeve’s embodiment of the Man of Steel brought the character to life and redefined the traditional superhero archetype. 

And that’s a problem.

Gatekeepers and PSI

There’s a phenomenon called parasocial interaction (PSI), defined by psychologists as a kind of psychological relationship experienced by an audience in their mediated encounters with performers in the mass media, particularly on television and in movies. Fans consider media personalities friends, despite having no or limited interactions with them. PSI is described as an illusory experience, such that media audiences interact with personas (e.g., celebrities and fictional characters) as if they are engaged in a reciprocal relationship with them. The term was coined by Donald Horton and Richard Wohl in 1956.

Extreme fandom of a character and/or franchise is closely related to that condition, which has given rise to gatekeeping culture. Fandom gatekeeping is a complex and controversial issue involving policing fan behavior, content, and knowledge. Lately, this imaginary jurisdiction has extended to include the actual intellectual property owners, who are often regarded with suspicion or held in outright contempt for evolving characters and franchises beyond their original (or most beloved) incarnations. Gatekeepers assume the role of pseudo-investors in certain film studios, acting as if they have some sort of vote or say in the direction of the characters and films. “There are those who believe that their fandom endows them with authority to pass judgment over [what] is allowed and what is not,” says Heather Urbanski, an academic and self-described SF geek, quoted in Vulture’s aptly titled piece Do Characters Belong to Their Fans or Their Creators? is even more blunt in its assessment of this, calling it ‘fan dumb.’ 

The key characteristics of a Fan Dumb tend to be people with an overdeveloped sense of entitlement and/or victimization, and (usually) an underdeveloped sense of humor or perspective about the subject of their fandom, coupled with an obsessive level of interest and (frequently) some rather irrational views on the whole thing. Finally, we can also mix this with the inability to distinguish fact from opinion and/or disagreement from hatred. They usually believe that the very fact that they are fans of something somehow entitles them to special or exclusive treatment, or that they are being persecuted by numerous different parties (the creator, the producers, other fans, the world at large, etc.) because of their fandom.

All these people believe passionately that they’re the champion elites of the fandom, guarding and preserving what makes it unique while ultimately contributing little of any actual value to the property or the fandom, even contributing to its ruining in the process. As a general rule of thumb, the phrase “True Fans” (or some variation thereof) being thrown around is often a red flag that you’re dealing with Fan Dumb, particularly if it’s being self-applied; the subtext (or text), of course, is “I’m a True Fan and you’re not.”

Now, imagine all this amplified one hundredfold around a character who has not only become part of American culture but is one of the most recognized in the world. Superman’s status as a cultural icon and the expectations associated with the character makes it incredibly challenging for filmmakers to meet audience demands. The pressure to create a Superman film that lives up to the audience’s lofty expectations often leads to creative struggles in finding the right balance between honoring the character’s legacy and presenting a fresh take on the story.

Today, many fans are either obsessed with a particular former director and nothing else will do or are convinced that whoever makes a Superman film is doing it wrong because the real Superman is dead (talk about PSI!)

With Superman, Fans are Fickle as Hell

Consider the last two actors to portray the Man of Steel on the big screen – Brandon Routh and Henry Cavil.

When director Bryan Singer signed on to direct 2006’s Superman Returns, he’d picked up on the zeitgeist around Reeve’s character interpretation. The product he delivered was an indirect sequel to the Reeve films starring an actor who looked like Reeve, acted like Reeve, and had the same iconic music as the Reeve films. While the critical reaction was pretty good, the fan reaction was tepid. Some fans felt the movie didn’t showcase Superman’s superhuman abilities enough because it lacked epic battles. This deviation from the traditional superhero formula left fans longing for the adrenaline-pumping action that they had come to expect from superhero films.

Others knocked its over-reliance on nostalgia. Superman Returns’ mission to pay homage to Richard Donner’s original Superman films didn’t resonate with all fans. Many felt that the movie relied too heavily on recreating the tone and style of the earlier films, resulting in a lack of originality and a missed opportunity to bring something fresh and innovative to the Superman franchise.

Another point of contention among fans was the character development of Brandon Routh’s Superman. The movie explored his emotional struggle and longing for Lois Lane, and some fans found this aspect to be offputting and unnecessarily complex for a superhero film. While many long for character development and motivations in movies, many didn’t care for it here. 

Ultimately, fans’ dissatisfaction with Routh’s Superman highlighted the challenges of reinventing such an iconic character and meeting the expectations of a passionate fanbase and a passive one still mourning for Christopher Reeve.

When Zack Snyder got his turn with the character, he was determined not to travel the road Singer did. Snyder’s Superman would be a re-imagining, a Superman for the 21st century! It would be everything Superman Returns wasn’t. While some have praised Cavill’s performance, a significant portion of fans expressed dissatisfaction with his portrayal of the iconic superhero. 

One of the primary reasons fans didn’t appreciate Cavill’s Superman was the perceived departure from traditional character traits. Superman is often depicted as an emblem of hope, justice, and morality. However, Cavill’s interpretation of the character was criticized for lacking the optimism and inspirational qualities that fans associate with Superman. Some fans felt that Cavill’s Superman was portrayed as overly brooding and lacked the characteristics that made the character beloved in previous iterations, namely, the Reeve films (Wait! Didn’t fans think Routh’s Superman was too much like Reeve??)

Chemistry and connection with other characters within the DCEU were also cited as reasons for fan discontent. Some fans felt the on-screen relationship between Cavill’s Superman and Lois Lane lacked depth and emotional resonance. This lack of connection limited the audience’s ability to invest in the character’s journey fully and hindered the overall narrative cohesion. (Wait! Didn’t some fans knock Routh’s Superman for the exact opposite reason???)

Another aspect that contributed to the fans’ discontentment was the excessive use of force by Cavill’s Superman. Throughout the DCEU films, Superman engaged in intense battles, often resulting in widespread destruction and collateral damage. This contrasted sharply with the superhero’s commitment to protecting innocent lives and preserving peace. Fans were left questioning whether this interpretation of Superman truly embodied the ideals he traditionally stood for. (Now hang on one damn minute! Didn’t fans knock Routh’s version of Superman for NOT having intense battle sequences??)

See the problem?

James Gunn’s Gambit

Due to several factors, James Gunn may have difficulty making a successful Superman movie. Gunn’s previous films have often focused on a team dynamic rather than a singular protagonist. Superman, being a solitary and powerful figure, requires a different approach to storytelling. Gunn’s strength lies in ensemble casts and witty banter, which may translate differently to a character like Superman, who is often portrayed as an individual fighting for truth and justice.

Superman is deeply rooted in DC Comics lore, with a long history and a dedicated (and fickle) fan base. Any deviation from the established canon or misinterpretation of the character’s essence – whichever canon and essence fans subscribe to at any given moment – could be met with resistance. Gunn’s unique creative vision may clash with the expectations of die-hard Superman enthusiasts and passive fans, leading to difficulty in winning over the audience.

The sheer weight of expectations that come with a Superman film adds to the challenge. Superman is considered one of the most iconic and beloved superheroes of all time, and any attempt to bring him to the big screen is met with high anticipation. The pressure to deliver a successful and memorable Superman movie can be overwhelming, and Gunn’s distinct style may not be a natural fit for this monumental task. To be fair, it appears neither was Singer’s or Snyder’s, depending on which fan you ask!

James Gunn may face obstacles in making a successful Superman movie due to his comedic and irreverent style, the need to shift from an ensemble focus to a singular protagonist, the potential clash with the established canon, and the weight of already divided fan expectations. While his talent as a filmmaker is undeniable, it remains to be seen whether Gunn can overcome these challenges and create a Superman film that resonates with both critics and audiences.

Reeve’s Impact on Superman’s Legacy

Reeve’s portrayal of Superman left a lasting legacy on the character’s portrayal in films and other media. He brought a sense of humanity, warmth, and charisma to the role that resonated with audiences worldwide. Reeve’s Superman was more than just a comic book character; he became a relatable and inspiring symbol of hope and strength.

Reeve’s Superman was not just strong and powerful; he was also emotionally vulnerable and relatable, characteristics that have continued to resonate with audiences.

Making a successful Superman film today will be like walking a tightrope. He has to be enough like Reeve to remind the masses of that iconic portrayal but not enough like him to be considered a clone of Reeve. He has to know how to fight but not do it too much. His character has to be fully developed but not overly complex. He has to be relatable, but don’t try to reveal too much about his motivations. Some fans don’t like that. The film has to be a fresh take, but it better not be a fresh take!

Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of Superman was nothing short of iconic. His portrayal of the Man of Steel brought the character to life in a way that resonated with audiences worldwide and in a way no other portrayal has.

Thank you, Christopher Reeve, for being such a vital part of my childhood and the catalyst for my lifelong devotion to the character you brought to life. And damn you, Christopher Reeve, for inadvertently making it so fucking hard for other actors and directors to continue your legacy.

Good luck, James Gunn.



About the author

J Davis

J is a former rock star, former DJ, comic book & political historian, and novelist who once read the ingredients on a chewing gum wrapper and unlocked the secrets of the universe.

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