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.