Sunday, October 17, 2010

In Defense of Superman

There has been sentiment among the public at large that Superman is "lame."  I've often heard people taking shots at him for being a "goody-good" or "overpowered" or "boring."  I'm here to defend the Man of Steel and hopefully change some minds about him.

I haven't ever been a huge DC fan; I'm more of a Marvel guy.  Nevertheless, I have a certain amount of respect for DC, although I am less familiar with the DCU than with the Marvel Universe.  My experience with the DCU has been limited to just a few comics and movie treatments of its characters.  Most of my experience with Superman was in the form of the old Christopher Reeve films in my childhood, which I remember enjoying.  This recent crusade in favor of Superman, though, has been brought on by having recently read the first volume of All Star Superman by Grant Morrison and penciled by Frank Quitely.  I thought it was fantastic, and it is mostly what has inspired this post.

One of the most common complaints of Superman is that he is too good, and thus boring.  I respectfully disagree.  Superman is indeed an idealistic hero, especially compared to characters like Batman (specifically the Chris Nolan version) or Wolverine.  Superman believes in truth and justice and doing the right thing.  Where some people see this as boring, I see it as admirable and even compelling.  A superhero doesn't need to be dark to be interesting and can have character drama and personality without having to do something morally ambiguous every other day.
Some thoughtful readers might pick up on an inconsistency here.  I have said before that I am not very interested in characters as nothing more than symbols, and much prefer fleshed-out, multi-dimensional characters.  How, then, can I like Superman so much?  I don't feel that Superman is a symbol at the expense of an interesting character, I feel that he is a symbol because he is an interesting character.  To understand what I mean, we need to ask the question: who is Superman?
Similar to Batman, Superman has three faces, with only one being his true identity.  With Batman, there is Bruce Wayne: billionaire playboy, Batman: masked avenger, and Bruce Wayne: a man haunted by his past.  Superman isn't just Superman.  He is Superman: the Man of Steel, hero to Metropolis and the world, Clark Kent: doofy, hapless reporter for the Daily Planet, and Clark Kent: small-town farm boy raised on good, old-fashioned family values.  The Clark Kent from Smallville is the "real" Clark Kent.  A human (okay, Kryptonian, but we're straw-picking here) with feelings, emotions, conflicts, and flaws, who is ultimately a hero.  This is a direct result of his upbringing.  From All Star Superman, Issue 6: Funeral in Smallville:
"Jonathan Kent taught me that the strong have to stand up for the weak and that bullies don't like being bullied back.  He taught me that a good heart is worth more than all the money in the bank.  He taught me about life and death.  He showed me by example how to be tough, and how to be kind, and how to dream of a better world.  Thanks, pa.  He taught me that the measure of a man lies not in what he says, but in what he does.  Those are lessons I'll never forget."
Superman isn't who he is because he is a symbol; he is a symbol because he is who is, thanks to his adoptive parents and the search for his own identity in the face of a strange background.  Superman works because he is an idealistic hero.  Superman is the best of all of us.  That is not to say that Superman is perfect.  I would agree that a flawless hero is uninteresting.  The great thing about Superman is that he works to overcome his flaws.  He might be jealous, selfish, even vain, but at the end of the day he wants to do the right thing.  I am going to quote Angel now, because I feel it is very applicable.  From 4x01: Deep Down:
"I did get time to think. About us, about the world. - Nothing in the world is the way it ought to be. - It's harsh, and cruel. - But that's why there's us. Champions. It doesn't matter where we come from, what we've done or suffered, or even if we make a difference. We live as though the world was what it should be, to show it what it can be."
This sums up what I love about Superman.  He is a champion.  He fights for the world he loves, in the hope that there will come a day that they won't need him to.  He doesn't just save people, he tries to show them what they can be.  He therefore becomes a symbol of perfection, something for everyone to aspire to be.  This is, of course, why he is the very definition of a superhero: a person who everyone respects and wants to be.  That's the whole point.  

An idealistic hero needs an idealistic villain: someone to reject and oppose every core belief the hero has.  Enter Lex Luthor, one of the greatest supervillains in all of comic book history.  The great thing about Lex is that he has no superpowers.  The superhero with by far the greatest power set has a nemesis with none at all.  Lex Luthor works as a villain not because he can beat Superman in a fight, but because he argues against everything Superman believes in.  To quote Lex in All Star Superman, Issue 5: The Gospel According to Lex Luthor:
"We all fall short of that sickening, inhuman perfection: that impossible ideal.  Feel that, Kent.  Real muscles, not like his.  Go on, feel!  It's easy to be strong when you just happen to come from the planet Krypton!  This takes hard work!"
Lex thinks that people cannot be as good and noble as Superman, and do force them to try is wrong.  Lex doesn't just want to destroy Superman, he wants to destroy everything he represents.  Lex believes that Superman is a genuine threat to the lives of the people of the world.  He believes that Superman's perfection makes everyone less so simply by his existence.  

It's easy to side with Luthor: to forget that Superman is a man like the rest of us.  He is, though.  His desire to protect is not born from superiority, but from love.  He loves this world and the people in it: his parents, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen.  His love of this world means that he will always be there when it needs him, not just to protect their lives, but to uphold their ideals.  To quote Angel again (people make a lot of comparisons between Angel and Batman because of the dark past, but there are quite a few similarities to be made between Angel and Ol' Supes as well.)  From Doyle in 1x01: City Of:
"It’s not all about fighting and gadgets and stuff. It’s about reaching out to people, showing them that there’s love and hope still left in the world.  It’s about letting them into your heart. It’s not about saving lives; it’s about saving souls. Hey, possibly your own in the process."
 A new Superman film is apparently in the works from Warner Brothers.  I fear that, with the success of The Dark Knight, they are going to try and imitate Chris Nolan's work on Batman.  They said of the film, "We're going to try to go dark to the extent that the character allows it."  While I love the Nolan Batman films, I think that this is completely the wrong direction to come at a Superman film.  What works for Batman doesn't work at all for Superman.  This trend of trying to make superhero films "dark and edgy" is forebodingly similar to what happened during the Dark Age of Comics about 15-20 years ago and ended up giving us some of the worst comic book stories in history.  So, from my tiny corner of the internet, I am issuing my plea:  don't butcher everything that is great about Superman.  If they are true to the character and honest to his story, they will make a good movie.  If they try to force him into a role he doesn't fit, I guarantee the movie will be a disaster, and probably only increase the strange dislike the public already has for Superman.

I hope that I have made you consider the merits that Superman has as a character, and maybe made you appreciate him more than you did before.  He is not my favorite Superhero by any means, but, in a world increasingly dominated by stories that feel the need to be dark and morally ambiguous, it's nice to have a superhero who can be counted on, who will do the right thing, stand up for the little guy, defend us in our time of need, and show us that there is still hope left in this world.  


  1. People seem to miss the point with Superman: it's not about dispensing justice and destroying an enemy, it's about how this god-like alien chose to become, in a way, human and how in empathising with humanity and it's suffering made him choose to protect it and symbolise hope. He suffers because he choses to care about people's suffering, not because some villain can hit him harder or destroy those close to him. He could always just stop caring. It's about a set of values that came from his parents and it's kind of the whole point of Superman.

    Superman represents the highest possibility for humanity in terms of chosing to do good - no matter what. It's not about his powers and it seems that the presiding opinion doesn't get it because for them heroes are all about pumelling and beating the other guy.

    When you look at it like that pov then Superman does seem too 'goody-goody' and overpowered. The need to dark and edgy-fy - in a universe, often more than one universe in fact, of dark and edgy 'heroes' - the one hero who is the EXCEPTION that PROVES the rule just shows how bent on nihilism the modern idea of heroism actually is. Or at least Hollywood and popular media.

    I honestly wish they'd let Superman really die and stay dead and just pass on the torch and let THAT GUY struggle. Certainly Superman does struggle and have his disappointments but he always chooses the higher path - if that's boring then I don't see what the problem is when there are literally hundreds and thousands of other characters to choose from. Superman is the high that all the other 'moral ambiguity' marks itself against, without him as a benchmark then it's just a jumbled morass of presumable pointlessness.

    What I'm saying is: someone has to set the hero standard otherwise what makes a hero anyway?

    I honestly feel that this need to make Superman 'dark' is simply about two things: money, and self-aggrandizement. It's not narratively necessary, they're just basically saying that a hero suffering because of their ability to empathise with the vulnerable and care is boring - because it should obviously be about beating down and enemy, and exploding stuff, and never getting over your personal pain.

    Of course.

    (For the record, I've always loved traditional Superman over any of the other heroes - because he stands for something simply because he has the abilities to stand for something great in a way that very few or possibly no other heroes can. He's not there to be 'edgy' he's there to show that what's right can actually be done. He doesn't just save lives, he inspires goodness.)

    If there was a darker Superman story it should be about how jealousy and envy often conspire to make it so that humanity inevitably destroys or drives away, or drives insane their saviours. It should show a man mastering himself in order to do right by a world who finds doing right too boring and seeks to destroy him because of that and a jealousy of the goodness he symbolises.

    It could be like that line in Seven: people don't want heroes they want to watch TV, play the lottery and eat cheeseburgers.

    Superman is a symbol for good but maybe the world doesn't want that (or at least the most vocal element). What happens when a good thing is made to look like a bad thing? How would one guy 'fight' a whole planet of that and still be viewed of a hero.

    If the darkness came from Superman being a hero but largely being viewed as - not a menace - but questionable. Then what? How could a symbol of hope deal with being perceived as a loony tune with an outmoded set of values?

    Thing is, I don't think this is what people are aiming for, I think they just want Batman: the Superman Variation. Which makes me sad.

  2. I agree with almost everything you have said. Though, I think I might be a bit more optimistic than you. I think there are two main reasons that people claim to not like Superman: 1. They have had very little exposure to Superman stories, and 2. Many Superman writers also have a lack of understanding of the character and thus don't know how to write him in a compelling way. I feel like if you have someone who claims to not like Superman read a good Superman story, they will be won over. Superman might not be everyone's favorite, but he deserves respect.

  3. Did you ever catch the Gen13/Superman Dark Horse/DC crossover?

    I thought that was a brilliant representation of why Superman was relevant and important despite 'the kids' thinking he's just a boring blue Boy Scout and mocking Fairchild for admiring him.

  4. I didn't actually read that. However, after your comment and a little online research, I think I will have to check it out. Thanks!

  5. Let us know what you think. :)

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