In a 1963 story (and again in 1998), Superman was split into two distinct versions of himself, a red one and a blue one, each with his own personality.
Color palette aside, you could argue the same thing is unfolding on the screen, as we now have Henry Caville playing Superman in the movies — most recently in “Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice” — and Tyler Hoechlin playing Superman on TV, in guest spots on the CW’s “Supergirl.”
Hoechlin’s Superman, featured in the first two episodes of the new season, is the charming-yet-goofy Boy Scout heir apparent to the Christopher Reeve films of yore, which fits the tone of a series that has spent the past year aspiring to the same. “Supergirl” is bright, hopeful, dramatic and at times a bit silly, which, to be fair, is pretty much the tone of every show produced by Greg Berlanti, which includes “Flash,” “Legends of Tomorrow” and soon “Riverdale,” a live-action spin on “Archie.”
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But apart from National City, Hoechlin is also here to save the day metatextually. His version of Superman is a response both to his more tonally dark cinematic counterpart and the fact that “Supergirl” was nearly canceled after its first season on CBS, were it not for the intervention and promised budget-cutting of the CW. If you’re a superhero show and you need to prove yourself, what better way to grab ratings than to bring in the ur-text for all mainstream superheroes?
And so we get two episodes in which Superman teams up with his cousin to do fun stuff like halt a bank robbery, put out a high-rise fire, land a crashing rocket and stop not one but two Metallos. All the while, Clark Kent is (and the writers are) careful to let Kara Danvers (Melissa Benoist) know this is her city (show) and he’s just a happy-to-be-here tourist. As we saw in an episode last season featuring the Flash, Supergirl gets along great with other heroes, which is a refreshing break from the trope of misunderstanding leads to punching leads to team-up against a common enemy.
Contrast that with the tone of, say, “Man of Steel,” the 2013 film that rebooted the Superman franchise and launched the DC Extended Universe that has since grown to include BvS and “Suicide Squad.” The Superman of MoS and BvS is a messianic alien loved by many but also intensely feared and mistrusted as a false god, even by those allegedly on his side. His adoptive Earth parents, the Kents, traditionally Clark’s moral compass, argue whether their son should use his powers for good or keep them hidden to save himself, an argument that ultimately costs Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) his life. His climactic battle with Zod (Michael Shannon) results in thousands of casualties and is portrayed as a 9/11-style event, complete with residents running away from a dust cloud that envelops entire city blocks.
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“Man of Steel” screenwriter David S. Goyer also wrote the scripts for Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, the darkest, grittiest, most allegedly grounded take on the Dark Knight to date. Such a treatment works for Batman because so much of the Bat-mythos is a contemplation on the insanity of his villains and how Bruce Wayne himself is a psychotic for believing he can eliminate crime in a city where he is nearly the only one with the will to do so.
But if the Joker is meant to be Batman’s opposite number, so, too, is Superman. Just look at how their respective cities are portrayed. It is almost always nighttime in Gotham City, and nearly always raining, perfect for a guy who skulks around in black and dark gray dressed like a bat. Metropolis, on the other hand, is a city in perpetual high-noon daylight, with the sun reflecting off futuristic-looking buildings, patrolled by a guy who flies around in a suit made of the three primary colors.
So why go bleak when the S stands for hope?
Because there’s an audience for depressing takes on superheroes, something Zack Snyder has become an expert in since he directed his 2009 adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ “Watchmen.” Quite a few of Snyder’s films have been based on works by comics creators like Moore and Frank Miller, who wrote some of the darkest stories of the 1980s (many of which involved Batman).
But such takes don’t always win over critics. “Man of Steel” has a 55 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which compiles reviews from across the internet. BvS has a rating of 27 percent, even worse than its predecessor. By contrast, the “Supergirl” TV show has a rating of 98 percent (while the 1984 “Supergirl” movie starring Helen Slater has a rating of 7 percent).
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For all the criticism that DC’s movies are lagging Marvel’s in quality, humor or whatever, its overall saturation strategy is solid, in that every medium its characters exist in has its own tone and target audience. If you like the bleaker, deconstructionist take, stick with the movies. If you want something a little brighter and more fun, watch the CW shows. If you’re a parent looking to get your kid into superheroes, DC’s animated stuff has been top-notch for 25 years.
In the meantime, expect the dual casting and complete disconnect between the movies and TV shows to continue. Ezra Miller made his first appearance as the movie version of the Flash in BvS and is expected to be the comic relief in next year’s “Justice League” movie, whereas Grant Gustin plays a more painfully earnest Barry Allen on the CW show. Other characters, including Deadshot and Captain Boomerang from “Suicide Squad,” also have been double-cast between the movie and TV universes.
And remember, if all else fails for you, we’ll always have Christopher Reeve.