Why I Love Superman (Part 2: Addressing Criticisms of the Character)

Last time, I discussed my views on Superman. They were very positive.  I am of the opinion that Superman is the quintessential superhero, with rich potential for consistently excellent high-concept stories. Unfortunately, not everyone feels the same way. I see a lot of anti-Superman sentiment these days, be it on the internet or in conversation with friends. For the most part it seems to be coming from non-comic book readers rather than hardcore nerds. This is probably because they only have the Superman films and a handful of cartoons to judge him by. Now, the nicest thing I can say about Superman’s appearances in other media is that they have been a bit…um, inconsistent. Sadly, there’s been a lot more bad than good. So hey: if you’ve never read a Superman comic, but you saw Superman IV: The Quest for Peace when you were seven and you think he’s lame, I completely understand. You get a free pass. Stick around, you might enjoy finding out that you’re wrong.

But I have heard plenty of negative things about Big Blue from the other side of the aisle as well. And if you’ve been reading comics as long as I have and still think Superman is lame, or even that he’s less interesting than other superheroes: well, shame on you. Shame. You should know better. You have Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? and Superman: Birthright, and All-Star Superman and Kingdom Come and Must There Be a Superman? and countless other stories starring the Last Son of Krypton to serve as evidence to the contrary. I shouldn’t have to tell you this. Well, no matter. In the next several paragraphs,  I’m going to examine the three most common criticisms of Superman (or at least, the three I seem to hear the most often) and do my best to explain why I don’t think they’re valid. Here we go:

1. Superman is not relatable because he has too much power. 

“I know you’re stronger, why would you even AAGGGHHH!”

This one is, without a doubt, the most popular argument I’ve heard from the anti-Superman camp. On the surface, it has merit. After all, Superman can lift mountains. He can fly faster than you can think. He can use his heat vision to put a crater in the moon while he’s sitting on the Kents’ front porch. How can a character who can do all of those things possibly be as relatable to young people as, say, Batman, who uses only his wits and skills to fight crime? In fact, no superhero can come close to matching Superman in terms of power. So how can a character who’s virtually all-powerful and indestructible be relatable to readers?

Well, here’s your answer: Superman is plenty relatable. It doesn’t matter how powerful he is or how often he wins. See, people in the comic book world toss around the word “relatable” a lot. A lot. It’s like a mantra to them. But to me, the word has lost its true meaning over the years. A character being relatable doesn’t mean that their circumstances resemble yours. No, a relatable character is one whose behavior is realistic and nothing more. If you, the reader, can understand why a character does what he does, mission accomplished. You can relate to them. You don’t have to agree with their actions, nor do they even have to be the actions you would have taken in the same situation. As long as the writer has clearly explained them to you and you think to yourself  “Yeah, that makes sense,” then congratulations; you’ve just related to a fictional character. Have you ever met someone who, despite their flaws, is smart, responsible, thoughtful, kindhearted, and selfless? I know I have. Well, go read a Superman comic. If it’s a good one, you’ll be able to relate to Superman because you know that there are people with similar qualities who might do the same thing if they were in his position. Pretty cool, huh?

Before I move on, I just want to bring one thing up. Even if you believe that a superhero’s life circumstances do play a part in making them relatable, consider this: taking away the elements in their lives that require suspension of disbelief, Clark Kent’s existence is probably much closer to yours than Bruce Wayne’s. After all, Clark had a relatively normal childhood, works a regular 9:00-5:00 job (one he’s probably stressed about losing since nobody reads newspapers anymore), he’s married, he lives in a modest apartment that costs more than it should because it’s in the big city, and his co-workers take advantage of him because he’s a nice guy. Bruce Wayne was raised by his butler, travels the world, drives a luxury automobile, lives in a mansion, runs a billion dollar company, and attends or hosts charity balls and parties all the time. Which one of these two men has a life that’s closer to yours, hmmm?

2. There is no tension in Superman stories because he doesn’t have enough weaknesses.

“And magic! It, uh, it turns your kids into demon worshipers! Yeah…”

 I’m sure you’ve heard this one before. Hell, you might have even used it yourself. Superman’s only real weakness is Kryptonite (well, that and magic, but it’s mostly comic book nerds who know that). If the baddie is going to be a real threat, he’s got to have Kryptonite, right? That’s got to get boring after a while, right? And if he doesn’t have Kryptonite, the fight’s over before it starts, right? And okay, if magic counts too, that’s only one other kind of villain Superman can fight who might be able to threaten him. Batman and Spider-Man have to worry about dying in a thousand different ways on their adventures. That gives them tension and drama that Superman just can’t have, because as much as he might pretend to the contrary, he’s immortal!

I have several responses to this argument, which might actually be the easiest one to address. First, a truly creative writer can give his villain plenty of ways to take down Superman without using Kryptonite or magic. There are plenty of examples to draw from, but I won’t go into detail here (red solar energy, sensory overload, distraction from the real target, cutting off oxygen, mind control, etc.). Second, it’s truly sad if the only thing that makes our heroes interesting is how easily they can be killed. I’m all for comics having serious themes, but an obsession with the mortality of the characters appearing in them damages their escapist element to a degree I’m just not comfortable with. Third, Superman’s conflict with villains is not where the tension comes from (or at least, it shouldn’t be). It’s on a bigger scale than that.

I talked about this a little bit in my last blog post, but it’s worth restating. Superman has the power to remove a great deal of suffering from the earth. He could disarm every country with nukes. He could unseat dictators. He could alter the landscape of nations in order to put more space between warring people groups. With the technology he has access to at the Fortress of Solitude, Superman could probably fix most of the world’s problems.

But he can’t. Well, he won’t. He has too much respect for free will to do that. Superman always worries about whether he’s doing too much already. What if his attempts to help earth are actually keeping its people from realizing their own potential? What if they become so dependent on him that they won’t know how to solve problems on their own? In fact, that’s one of the reasons that Lex Luthor, Superman’s archnemesis, hates him so much. He worries that the Man of Tomorrow might someday try to use his power and resources to rule the world in order to save it. Admittedly, Lex doesn’t exactly have the planet’s best interests at heart, but he’s got a point. Superman could rule the world if he wanted to. But he doesn’t. He’s too responsible and too humble to presume that he knows what’s best for everyone. And he’s too concerned that he’s already limiting the natural development of earth and its cultures. That’s where the tension in Superman stories comes from. It comes from Superman’s mission to inspire change, not force it. If you’re American, you might find that conflict especially relevant today. Understand that when you read Superman comics from now on, and I guarantee you’ll enjoy them more.

3. Superman’s Clark Kent disguise is dumb.

“But, I’m mild-mannered! Superman’s not mild-mannered!”

 I almost didn’t include this one because it doesn’t matter nearly as much as the other arguments I’ve mentioned, and it is also quite easy to address. So real quick, here we go: no, glasses and a different hairstyle are not a good enough disguise to fool so many people. But that’s not the most important part of Superman’s disguise. It’s about muscle control, practiced mannerisms, body language, a different voice, baggier clothing, and an overall attitude. Keeping in mind the fact that the Clark Kent disguise was developed by Siegel and Shuster before TV or decent quality photographs, and there you are. If you want, watch the scene in the first Superman movie where Clark switches personas back and forth while trying to decide whether to tell Lois the truth about Superman and hopefully you’ll see what I mean.

Now, I know there are other, more specific complaints about Superman that you may have. But, if you think about them carefully, you’ll see that they probably can fit under the umbrella of the three broader issues I listed above. If not, let me know. We’ll talk. As always, this was an opinion piece. If you disagree, I understand. I’m just trying to give some love to an icon who deserves it. Superman is still relevant, you guys. Maybe now more than ever. I hope this helped if you doubt that.

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