When you look at any list of “top 10,” “best ever,” “my favorite” Superman stories, one common thread is that a lot of them are Elseworlds-style stories. Superman: Red Son and Superman as Overman come to mind. In other stories, he’s lost most of his powers. It’s not that there aren’t great Superman stories so much as that writing a good Superman story is really hard, and a reliable way to do that is to twist the idea of an all-powerful being walking among us. What if he landed in Russia or Germany instead of America? Or what if, as in the case of Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan, the all-powerful being was truly the only one of his kind?
We know these make for good Superman stories, and we also know that the CW is working on a Superman & Lois story starring Tyler Hoechlin and Bitsie Tulloch. And because Superman & Lois is a serial television show, we know it can’t drop Superman in some upended version of reality. Superman & Lois has to make the Man of Steel work as a character in an ongoing weekly story, and we know that Superman stories are really tough to write. If you don’t believe me, go type “Superman is hard to write” into your favorite search engine.
So what does Superman & Lois need to do to start things off on the right foot?
First, let’s look at the challenges.
Why is Superman hard to write?
Superman is really, stupidly powerful. You could stuff him in a reactor and power all of Earth with clean energy for centuries. He’s restarted, moved, and destroyed suns. He’s bench-pressed the Earth. These are feats that would live on in eternity. For Superman, it was just another Tuesday. He’s so powerful that it’s often easier to re-write a new world around him and see how he breaks that world than it is to try to imagine him living in our world. With the exception of Kryptonite, Superman is built to resist virtually any physical hardship. That is to say, the normal things that other superheroes have to overcome are less like hurdles for Superman than they are speedbumps.
Superman is a paladin. He’s the ultimate good and the best of us. He’s an alien to our world, and yet he’s the most human of all of us. Superman is the way we hope we would act when faced with adversity. And thus, it’s easy to imagine that we know how he would act in just about any situation.
He’s an unbeatable, perfect man who always makes the right decision. That’s… not a very fun character. But Superman persists more than 80 years later, so he has to have something going, right? There is such a thing as a good on-going Superman story, and there have been many arcs in the comics that bear this out. Live-action iterations of Superman, on the other hand, have struggled more. Lois & Clark was more about the will-they-won’t-they of the human characters than it was about Superman himself. Smallville resisted putting a cape on Clark for a full decade and didn’t let him properly fly until nearly the end of the show.
Let’s look at Supergirl. In particular, Supergirl season 4.
Supergirl Season 4 is a blueprint for super-story success
A few things had to come together for a modern Superman show to even happen; it just took seven years of the Arrowverse to really get us there. We needed solid special effects, an audience primed for live-action superheroes on their weekly television schedules, and special effects that can make a flying man in blue tights believable. We also needed someone believable as Superman, and Supergirl gave us that when it cast Tyler Hoechlin.
Supergirl showed us with its fourth season how to put together a story that could work around Superman without breaking the world.
The first ingredient is to give Superman a problem he can’t punch. In Supergirl, that’s Agent Liberty and the anti-alien legislation that he helped inspire. This whole storyline was of course inspired by real-world events, but given a comic-book-y makeover in the process. The figurehead of the anti-alien movement had a uniform, a frightening mask, and a legion of allies ready to follow him.
We need a martyr
Supergirl started by showing us how Agent Liberty—University professor Ben Lockwood, played by Sam Witwer—was once a moderately-aligned man who, bit by bit, was radicalized by a confluence of events (the cause of which we’ll get at in a moment). Then the show put a huge part of the nation behind him. Countless frightened people who saw these aliens coming to earth with strange abilities found comfort in the idea that someone could put things back to the way they were before. Those in power saw someone they could exploit in Lockwood.
It wasn’t until later in the season that Lockwood was doing anything illegal out of the shadows; the newly-appointed President was backing him by the time he’d stepped out into the light. Supergirl couldn’t do anything about either Liberty or Lockwood; decisive action would look like an abuse of power and only strengthen his point.
We need a manipulator
The second ingredient is Lex Luthor and how the show handled him. A lot of superhero stories, including many CW shows, have struggled with villains. The Flash dragged out the mysteries of who Zoom and Savitar were for too long. The eventual reveals of both were disappointing after all the anticipation. Arrow struggled with giving Oliver villains to fight that were both reasonable for a human archer to fight and also threatening on a large scale.
Supergirl, on the other hand, gave us an almost perfect Lex Luthor. I was on the fence about Jon Cryer as Luthor, ready to love or hate him, and I came away loving him. The Lex Luthor we met in Supergirl is a master manipulator and genius inventor, of course. More importantly, he genuinely believes he’s the only one who can do what’s necessary. He also knows that being on the front lines of battle doesn’t always make sense.
In Supergirl, Lex Luthor doesn’t even appear until much later in the season. When he does, though, it’s clear that he’s been carefully, gently tugging at strings all along to make all his puppets move just the way he wants.
In Ben Lockwood, Luthor saw a target prime for radicalization and helped push him toward that inevitable future. He gave him all the tools he needed to make good on the ideas brewing in his head. He found perfect kindling for the fire by outing President Marsdin’s as an extra-terrestrial. That presented him with a corruptible source of power in the vice president that took her place when she resigned. His half-sister Lena’s need to both impress and spite him made her an easy pawn, allowing him to put her mind to work.
Even when Lex does appear, he makes himself appear weak to get access to his tools and his research. It’s that much more satisfying when he stands up and walks triumphantly out of his mansion. Waving his arms like a conductor as automatic lasers take down the guards watching him is a perfect Lex Luthor touch. Finally, Lena is helpless to stop him as he becomes super powerful and unleashes a brainwashed Supergirl on the world.
You can’t punch an idea
The end result of all this is that we got a problem that Supergirl couldn’t solve by punching surrounded by problems that required a Kryptonian to solve.
And that’s where Superman & Lois needs to look.
Superman can solve nearly any physical problem, but there are societal ills and philosophical conundrums he cannot. He can’t solve hate and he can’t be everywhere at once. He can deal with the literal trolley problem with ease, but a villain like Lex Luthor or Brainiac can present him with a supervillain-sized trolley problem. His villains should exploit these to make sure Clark Kent is always as big a part of Superman’s identity as Superman is a part of Clark Kent’s.
The timing is perfect
Now is the perfect time for a Superman show. We’re almost 10 years out from Smallville‘s finale (and might even be a full decade out by the time Superman & Lois airs). We have a great Superman in Tyler Hoechlin. He looks and feels authentically Superman and believable as Clark Kent. Supergirl is a blast, but it’s also in its fifth season. Melissa Benoist and co. might already be thinking about moving on. They almost certainly will be in the next few years; that’s just enough time to have the two characters interact for a couple seasons before Kara Danvers moves on. The teams that make these shows look and feel superheroic are experienced at making great-looking effects on a TV-sized budget. If the writers can make the show work using this blueprint, we might be in for a great one.