Model for Metropolis: Park and Rec
I think it's safe to say DC struggles trying to figure out what to do with Superman. In 2011, the comics underwent a massive, line-wide reboot, giving them the opportunity to start their most famous and beloved characters over, with new iterations tailor made for our current culture and society; their reboot of Superman wavered in terms of popularity until they literally brought back the old version, killing the New 52 Superman and replacing him with an alternate universe version from before the reboot. In 2013, they released Man of Steel, the first theatrical Superman film since 2006's Superman Returns, and the start of the first new Superman franchise since 1978's Superman: The Movie; the movie met a mixed critical and fan reaction and a relatively tame box office return. The sequel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, shifted over its production from being a Man of Steel sequel to being its movie tied in more strongly with the upcoming Justice League films, and the theatrical release ended up with only 43 lines of dialogue from the title character Superman. As of right now, there are no plans for a future Superman film. Superman is DC's flagship character, the character whose introduction launched the superhero genre and DC's claim to fame, and yet their attempts to tell stories with him in our modern era sadly continue to fall flat. Why is this?
This is not to say that individual creative teams haven't done good jobs with him recently. Grant Morrison and Rags Morales' Action Comics run at the beginning of the New 52 was outstanding after all, but DC as a company seems not to understand what audiences want from Superman, and at what seems like every turn, they try a new approach only for it to fail in hooking a broad, new audience. The reason is a multifaceted one, combining several flaws in approach and changes in the pop culture landscape since Superman's heyday in the 40's through 60's. To a degree, modern audiences often seek more morally complex characters, and Superman is about as simple in moral standing as they come. He has frequently associated with an “American Way” that no longer has the nationwide support it used to. DC's own attempts to ground its fictional universe in a more 'realistic' and 'believable' setting run counter to the kinds of stories Superman told at his most popular times. It's worth mentioning that the group editor of the Superman office, the guy in charge of all Superman and Superman related books, has been accused of being a serial sexual harasser who has stifled the choice of creative teams available to his department.
To fix a situation like this, one of the things DC needs is a proper foundation to build Superman stories on. Probably Superman's closest character at Marvel Comics is Captain America, a similar moral center character who is currently undergoing a resurgence of popularity, thanks in large part to the success of the Captain America movies, in particular, The Winter Soldier. What The Winter Solder, and its follow-up Civil War, did right was in finding a foundational genre to set the character in, and letting the strengths of their personality shine from the center of that type. Captain America is without a doubt a noble, moral compass in his films, and that clarity of morality is contrasted with the political thriller genre, the movie finds itself based upon. Superman needs a similar type and format to be his world's inspiration and setting, and I have just the idea for it: 2009 workplace comedy Parks and Recreation.
Wait, hold on; let me explain.
I'm not suggesting DC should turn Superman into a sitcom (although I would watch that), but there are several traits that Parks and Rec uniquely combined that would be excellent if worked into stories about Superman.
A Gang of Lovable Idiots
The main source of the comparison begins with one of the primary settings for both properties: the workplace. Parks and Rec are based primarily out of the Parks Department of Indiana suburb Pawnee, and the episodes focus on the misadventures of the deeply flawed, yet entirely lovable staff. While plenty of workplace sitcoms have casts featuring tropes characters (the beleaguered assistant, the bullying boss, the mischievous prankster, etc.), Parks and Rec is relatively unique in that it went out of its way to feature no obvious bad guy. All of the main characters are presented as having their strengths and weaknesses, and while episodes or arcs may pit one cast member against another, neither are portrayed as being exclusively right or wrong. Friendship and good intentions overcoming differences is a recurring theme of the show.
Similarly, superheroes thrive in environments where they have a rich supporting cast to bounce off of, and Superman is no different; he may have some friends and family spread out all across the DC Universe. His most constant supporting characters have always been Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen, and by extension, the rest of the co-workers at the Daily Planet. Essentially, Superman is already at the heart of an ensemble workplace comedy. But the comparison goes a bit deeper when you count for the cartoonishly distinct, emphatically imperfect characters that populate the Daily Planet. They all have notable, persistent character flaws, and yet also positive traits that make them so likable. The impatient and easily angered editor Perry White is also passionately defensive of his employees and values the truth and a good story above all else; the vain and vapid Cat Grant is also indomitable tenacious and strong willed; the blustering egoist Steve Lombard is surprisingly kind and protective, and the list goes on.
Taking it a step further, Parks and Rec's characters weren't just unique; they represented philosophical and political groups that we more frequently see perpetually at odds with each other. The feminist and progressive minded Leslie Knope works alongside the curmudgeonly libertarian Ron Swanson, and yet the two share a mutual respect and admiration for each other, counting the other as a dear friend. There is an effort made to find value in both character's viewpoints, and this is key to Superman's philosophy as well. Superman is essentially a character that represents the best of humanity; the idea that a person raised as a human can have powers like his and not be corrupted is a personification of the ultimate faith in humankind, a faith that we frequently feel cannot be satisfied in our real world but is nonetheless inspiring to meditate on. This idea that people can have radically different viewpoints from each other, and yet still be friends, operating on a platform of respect and understanding. This is key to the kind of environment that reflects Superman, and a version of his supporting cast that emphasizes this idea would be fantastic.
An Extensive, Developed Community
It doesn't stop with the main cast. There are a handful of shows that have been based on a particular locale that fleshed out said an area with a huge, developed community of characters. This is a style that can be difficult to pull off in live action television, due to the need to keep so many actors and actresses around and available on a long term basis, so you more frequently see it in animation like The Simpsons, King of the Hill, or Recess. Individual live action shows have attempted it as well, like Community and, of course, Parks and Recreation. This is a style that frequently comes up in comedies because it essentially turns characters into in-jokes, and the appearance (and repeated gags) of a recognizable face can feel more meaningful than if it was a random walk-on. But it also serves a greater function of fleshing out the larger setting. Parks and Rec are focused on the local government of a small town, and it makes that premise feel unique by making the city of Pawnee feel unique. We get to know and recognize the people who live and work in this city on a long-term basis, and as a result, the world feels lived in and developed.
This is something that can make Superman stand out. Most of the major superheroes who have been around as long as, say, Batman or Wonder Woman, have grown an extensive collection of occasionally recurring characters, but Superman's take on this is a little different. While Batman finds his recurring characters mostly in his rogue's gallery, the Gotham City Police Department, and in a never-ending the train of love interests, Superman has the citizens of Metropolis. Besides just the Daily Planet staff, if you go to the docks you'll find workers like Bibbo Bibbowski or Captain Strong; the police department has long been headed by Maggie Sawyer and Detective Dan Turpin; the fire department is led by Fireman Farrell. There are some recurring scientist figures like John Henry Irons and Emil Hamilton; in the skyscrapers, you can find rival media magnate Morgan Edge and on the streets you can meet the Newsboy Legion; at one point there was even a community of alien refugees living in a massive underground city in the sewers.
The existence of these people doesn't just strengthen the sense of Metropolis as a lived-in setting; it gives us an idea of the people Superman aims to protect. Part of Superman's issue is that his invulnerability makes the stakes feel diminished because he isn't in any real danger; the solution is to make Metropolis itself be the stakes, and that can only be meaningful if we know Metropolis and its citizens. Populating this city with recurring, recognizable characters would go a long way in making Superman stories feel alive.
Actual Character Progression
Perhaps one of the most refreshing elements of Parks and Rec was its refusal to abuse the “will they, won't they” trope. The show's two main couples, Leslie & Ben and Andy & April, were only introduced as possible love interests for each other at points when the show was already willing to commit to a romance. While it took its time in developing those romances, it was distinctly not a case of “will they, won't they”, it was a case of “they will, and this is the long form story of how”. Even when there were extended periods of unfulfilled romances, like Andy's early unrequited love of Ann, or Ann and Chris' “on again, off again” status, the relationships were presented as unique situations to be explored, rather than just dramatic, perpetual teases.
Beyond just romance, the show frequently bucked the traditional permanent status quo nature of most sitcoms, introducing goals for characters and showing us how they worked towards them and whether or not they were successful. These show up as Leslie's single season City Council Campaign or the show running evolution of “The Pit”, an empty hole from the first season that Leslie and Ann make it their goal to turn into a park. Over the show's first six seasons, we see “The Pit” go from an empty hole to Andy's home, to a community garden, to getting filled in and becoming the Pawnee Commons and the site of many events throughout the show, to finally breaking ground on becoming a park. The constant change and evolution of character relationships and in show locations was a distinct feature of Parks and Rec, and one that should be utilized more often in long form storytelling.
All this said this is understandably a difficult premise for comic books to commit to. Comic books are built to be perpetual status quos, Superman has existed in more or less the same format for over 75 years now, and that's part his charm. No matter how dark the world gets, Superman will always be there in the way you recognize. But at the same time, individual character relationship changes and developments can still occur and become permanent new fixtures. Superman and Lois Lane's wedding in 1996 was an incredible resolution to 58 years worth of relationship teasing, and it introduced us to a new status quo of Lois and Clark, the second most adorable married couple in superhero comics (number one will always be Jack Kirby's Big Barda and Mister Miracle). The ability to have these two characters working and living alongside each other, both aware of the others' secrets, made for a much stronger relationship and a set of characters than the Silver Age's fun but repetitive (and somewhat offensive) penchant for Lois scheming to trick Superman into marrying her. And it was the loss of the progress of this relationship that put so many fans off of the New 52 Superman.
As much as DC billed it as a way of starting anew, paving the way for a fresh direction, erasing their relationship was merely a massive regression, and all it opened the way for was the casual relationship between Superman and Wonder Woman. What we lost was Lois as an interesting character who had a place in the plot, and all we gained was a relationship that was doomed to impermanence. Letting Superman and Lois Lane progress as characters and marry is a tremendous step forward, and while we obviously can't have steps that big taken on a regular basis, letting these measures happen on occasion without undoing them within a few years is crucial to preventing Superman's world from feeling stale.
Just because major revelations about personal identities or relationships can't necessarily change all the time, it doesn't mean that Superman is doomed to an unchanging status quo. Continuing on the idea of evolving Metropolis, strengthening the emphasis on Superman's city and its goings on would be critical in making Superman's world feel like a living, developing place, and his stories seem more dynamic than static. Superman's been too long trapped in the role of defender of the status quo when he's supposed to be the Man of Tomorrow, a character built around reaching out to a better world and improving the lives and prospects of humanity, one little piece at a time. Giving Superman long-standing goals of improvement within his world would do wonders towards making him feel less like a relic of the past, and more like a hopeful futurist again.
Stories About Morality
This almost seems like it's an outdated form of storytelling, but Parks and Rec worked wonders when its characters were learning lessons. We've gotten so used to sitcoms being observational humor about how the world is, not how it should be, that the moral stances Parks and Rec took were refreshing. This is not to say that every story needs to have a moral at the end of it, as when in the wrong hands, morals can be trite; but Parks and Rec was one of the rare situations where they managed to tell stories with teachable moments, and through a combination of real nature, sincerity, and a healthy dose of humor it made this come across as somewhat old fashioned without being preachy.
And let's face it, Superman is old fashioned. He's a character representing the ideal human of 1938, which makes him an old fashioned character build around old fashioned morals. But more than merely moral, Superman is right. Superman is kind and sweet and generous and supportive; that focus on doing good for others inherent to his morality makes him more than just the Gallant to some straw man Goofus, it makes him, well, a superhero.
Now, Superman is good, but he's not perfect. He represents a person who always does his best, but there are times when even Superman's best isn't necessarily right. Parks and Rec's main character, Leslie Knope, is portrayed as astonishingly good, overwhelmingly so at times, and even they managed to show situations where she was going about things the wrong way, frequently by being too overzealous or too excited to do good. Superman can learn lessons in much the same way. This is also exactly where a more fleshed out version of Metropolis would come into play; having scores of friends, co-workers, authorities, and even just random citizens who deal with Superman, and who push against each other in different ways is a good method to create situations where one or more parties must learn a lesson. The key is to tell these kinds of stories kindly, and good-naturedly.
One of the absolute joys of Parks and Rec was the absolute, infinite, infectious optimism of Amy Poehler's Leslie Knope. It's rare to see fictional characters this overwhelmingly positive, especially without being annoying, but it ended up being one of the most enduring, appealing parts of the show. As a character alone, she was a force of nature, determined to accomplish what she set out to do, and in relationships with other characters she was a driving force, a figure who pushed everyone around her to do and be better. She wasn't without flaws, but more than is commonly advisable in writing balanced characters she was allowed to be optimistic and good without a dark side or much in the way of consequences. The show was not overly concerned with balancing her positives; her biggest logical flaw was that she was frequently too excited to do good for others. The show embraced the fact that it starred a larger than life force of good, and it was better off for it.
This is what DC needs to do with Superman. For a project like this, for a comic, for a show, for the movies, for everything involving Superman. Superman's whole point is that he is the strongest, most secure, the most generally good person around. Some may balk at this idea; some may criticize that he isn't balanced or realistic, and that's true, he's not, he isn't supposed to be. What he is expected to be is an opportunity to tell the kind of story you can only tell with a character that operates like him. He is a conscious breaking of the 'rules' of storytelling that allows you to show a different kind of story. DC needs to embrace this. DC needs to adopt the kind of optimistic character that can serve as an aspirational, inspirational figure, both within their stories and outside of them. DC needs to embrace a Superman who is as optimistic, tenacious, indomitable, and excited to better the world as Leslie Knope.