What Superman is all about
(Want to listen to this rather than read it? There’s a podcast version here)
Superman may be the most recognisable fictional character in the world. Perhaps even of all time. And yet, he’s also the comic character you’re most likely to hear people describe as ‘boring’, ‘uncool’ or ‘I just don’t like him’.
I used to think the same as well. But now, I’m a Superman guy. Not only do I think he’s fun and cool, for me, he resonates. He’s culturally relevant and he’s pretty much always going to be so. And I want to explain why.
Firstly, this isn’t me saying “you’re wrong” for what you’re into. One of the most difficult things about Superman is that he’s difficult to write well. Part of this is because his enormous range of powers makes it difficult to tell stories about him. When you have someone who is invulnerable, can fly, has super-strength, super-speed, super-intelligence, super-hearing, super-breath, super-vision, x-ray vision and heat-vision, along with lesser-used powers like super-smell, super-ventriloquism, super-hypnotism and the recently added ‘solar flare’, which lets him expel all of his power at once in an explosion, leaving him human for a short time… it’s difficult to put that character in peril in a way that rings true.
We tend to like the underdogs. Batman doesn’t just goth it up a bit with all the dark colours and the night-time thing, he’s also without superpowers. He may have the privilege of being a billionaire, but Superman has the privilege of basically being a god. Batman’s mortal, human and if he makes a mistake he could die at any point.
With Superman, it’s difficult to put that peril across without creating characters that are even more powerful — but then, with comics being a serial form, you’ve got to then have him win, before creating another one.
DC have tried a number of times to de-power Superman. They did so last year, in fact, with him losing most of his powers and going more back to his roots with more down-to-earth and local, topical issues. They also tried to give him electricity-based powers in the 90s, with a very different look.
These attempts to deviate from the norm don’t last. Readers end up wanting their Superman back. Often, these stories are created with exactly that intention in mind, by the way — DC aren’t idiots.
But every attempt to deviate from the established character tends to fail. What is it about that character that resonates so much?
Like many of you, I first discovered Superman because of Christopher Reeve. Which makes me lucky, because Reeve’s portrayal is about as definitive as there’s ever been, other than the early Max Fleisher cartoons, which you should really seek out if you’ve never seen. And as great a Superman as he is, he’s an even better Clark Kent.
There are a couple of moments from Reeve that perfectly sum up what it is that I love about Superman. It’s when he’s being clumsy, bumbling Clark Kent, tripping up or fainting when he’s mugged and everyone (particularly Lois Lane) believes it. And afterwards, there’s just the briefest smile.
Reeve’s Superman honestly loves being Clark Kent. And it’s the honesty that’s important there. It’s not about him being sly and getting one over on people. There’s an honest joy in being Clark Kent rather than being Superman.
Superman is basically a god. He’s everything we can never be with all of those powers. We couldn’t even aspire to be him. But we don’t have to. He aspires to be us. This is why the ‘big blue boyscout’ thing is so important. A god has looked at humanity and sees only the best of it. And wants to protect it.
Now look again at that enjoyment of being Clark Kent. Being a good person who has flaws and tries his best. That’s who a god chooses to be. Unassuming. Overlooked. But quietly heroic and brave. Always living up to the ideals he was raised with. Completely human.
This is why Zack Snyder’s ‘Superman as Christ’ figure doesn’t work in Man of Steel or Batman vs Superman, nor did it work in Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns. It’s easy to see why that analogy appeals. Raised a simple farmboy in Kansas and becoming earth’s saviour. But it’s also lazy, and ignoring the Jewish immigrant roots of the character. There’s a beauty in Superman being the immigrant story, coming from elsewhere and embodying everything great about Truth, Justice and the American Way. But the main reason ‘Superman as Christ’ doesn’t work is that it casts him as martyr. Always separate from humanity.
Instead, we have this all-powerful being who could easily be a tyrant. But he was raised by loving people, and he sees the love, compassion and hope in all of us. It’s not him being Christ. It’s him being the volunteer, the rescuer, the reporter and investigator, the listener and the helper. It’s about him being the boy scout, helping other people at all times. And all of those are human roles.
We can’t always see it in ourselves because we’re cynical and hope is difficult. It’s clouded with the awful stories we see every day in the news and on social media. But Superman has super-vision and super-hearing. He sees it.
It’s not about being cool. It’s not about being Christ. It’s about completely un-cynical hope and faith in humanity to do the right thing.
And that’s where the stories come in. Along with the threats and the superpowered villains, there’s another story with Superman — What is the right thing to do? The weight of decision, working things out based on the people around him. He may never doubt in humanity, but he can doubt in his own ability to be sure what the right thing is. And it’s only through us that he can find the answer. And it’s worth looking at who his nemesis is.
His nemesis isn’t the crazy serial killer or the Kryptonian warlord or the demigod of death or any of those superpowered villains. It’s the rich white corporate guy, who is desperate for even more power. It’s the worst of humanity. The corrupt, selfish side of us. And, with all of his power, Superman started off as a social justice warrior, fighting small level corruption and siding with the poor and the vulnerable.
Because really, that’s what Superman is all about. It’s about us. It’s about the goodness that we have, and the belief that we want to do the right thing. And the stories are about the evil that we’re capable of and the good that we can do.
I find something wonderful in the concept of a god that aspires to be human. That sees and is inspired by how wonderful humanity is. A Superman that believes in doing the right thing and enjoys doing it. That wants to show us not how great we can be, but how great we are.