Superman is not boring, you are boring
Hi! Wanna read 1.500 words of rambling about Superman? If so, tell me if you heard that one:
Superman is boring because he’s invulnerable and superstrong. You can’t put him in danger, hence you can’t build suspense.
Oh! Did you hear that one too?
Classic, “truth, justice & american way” Supes is too much of a goodie-two-shoes, politically correct figure to be interesting or even credible nowadays. Nobody works like that anymore.
If you haven’t I envy you, cause that shit is everywhere.
Here’s an opinion: those criticisms of Supes miss the point so much it’s not even funny anymore. Amongst his core elements, what makes Supes interesting as a character — hell, what makes him not just a flying brick but actually Superman — isn’t his power set, and it’s not his values either. It’s both, interacting.
What do you get for the man who’s got everything
Take a mad scientist, the kind that builds giant robots to show them, show them all. Of course, in his spare time, he built a giant robot. He’s gonna show someone. Maybe them all. And by “show” you know he means “hit it with a giant robot fist”.
If the target is a parangon of justice and decency but otherwise as squishy and killable as humans usually are, the target steps up to the robot, then get stepped on by the robot, and then they’re dead. End of story.
If his target is superstrong and superdurable, but doesn’t value life and justice above all else, the target punches the robot, which explodes. Probably killing the mad scientist and causing a lot of collateral victims and property damage. Or maybe his just takes off and let it be. End of story.
But now combine those. In other words, imagine Supes.
Imagine Clark Kent bumbling his way to the Daily Planet when a loudspeaker screams “SUPERMAN! Come face my robot and I’ll show you who is the real man of tomorrow! I’LL SHOW YOU ALL!”
Of course the robot is big and clunky. Each times it moves, a piece of building falls appart, a car is squashed, an electric line snaps. People all around that beast of a machine are running and screaming, taking pictures, looking for loved ones. Total chaos. And here comes Superman.
Imagine the showdown between a giant clunky robot piloted by someone so far gone he’s got zero concern for anyone but him, and a demigod who’ll try to save everyone involved.
Including the mad scientist.
Because Superman is that decent. In Superman’s worldview, killing the bad guy is the worst possible thing. Superman won’t try to kill the mad scientist. He’ll try to make him stop. He’ll try to talk him down while franctically trying to damage-control the whole mess. He’ll try to subdue the robot, then the guy.
When Supes really have to kill someone? When the writer decided today is the day Supes kill someone and built their story to that end? It should be a mercy kill. It should be euthanasia. An act of kindess. A short heat vision beam straight to the temple with a few reassuring words, maybe, while shedding a single tear. You know, Old Yeller shit. Then back to the Fortress spending a few months reflecting on what he’s done. Then he’d come back stronger and wiser than ever. Because he’s that decent.
And we’d better believe he had no other choices. Otherwise he just seems dumb.
And to me, that’s the point of Supes as a character. He’s someone who can’t be harmed, who could mess anyone up, who could kill anybody on Earth just by looking at them and he doesn’t. You know how absolute power corrupts absolutely? Well, the most impossible thing Supes does isn’t flying or lifting a submarine. The most impossible thing Supes does is coming from a position of absolute privilege and still being the most decent person he can.
Supes is the perfect power fantasy. The purest versions of him give us both what we want and what we need. People want to become Supes because he can’t be hurt and he can do anything. But people are inspired by Supes because he treats every superhero mission like a rescue mission, and who’s he rescuing?
Here’s your impossible task, your immovable object. Here’s your tension. Here are your stakes.
Missing the point
A few miss this point so much it’s almost like they’re doing it on purpose. They’re the one who don’t understand what Clark Kent is about.
Here, have another one : what does a demigod who can fly and agonises over all those lives he couldn’t save need a nine-to-five-job on top of everything else? they’d ask laughing, as if it’s stupid.
Some even quote Tarantino’s Bill. You know, that self-serving bastard of an assassin. The man who has the gall to tell to the Bride’s face “yeah, I totally shot you in the head, left you for dead like it was nothing and disappeared with our kid while you were being sold as a fuckpuppet by the creepiest orderly ever but really, what was I to do? In a way, I did you both a favor didn’t I? Water under the bridge. Let’s forget all about it and just be happy together. For the kid’s sake.”
Of course that kind of man would say:
Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent. He’s weak, he’s unsure of himself, he’s a coward. Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race.
Bill fancies himself a superman precisely because he’s not a parangon of virtue. Bill thinks his not caring about ethics puts him above the rest.
Bill is not the kind of people you give Superman to write for, if you ask me. Because Bill obviously, purposefully misses the point. The poor guy must portray Supes as a self-serving bastard because he is one. If he didn’t, he’d have to admit, on some level, that he could have been something else than the pseudophilosophical excuse-spitting douchenoozle he actually is. He’d have to admit that he missed something. That he should have put the effort, didn’t, and is a lesser man for it. That his lack of morality is not a strength, but a failing on his part.
(Don’t get me wrong: Bill is a tremendously well written character, and his portrayal of Supes is spot on for the type of guy he is. But he is clearly not a good judge of character.)
Digging for depth
Why does Superman need a nine-to-five job, indeed. Imagine you’re a writer. You’re given a character that worked for the better part of a century without a hiccup, and you can’t come up with an interesting answer to that one?
He does it because it keeps him grounded. He does it because he’s in love with a human woman and would like to share her way of life. He does it because he’s an alien raised in a small town, feels like he still has a lot of learning to do about humanity at large, and thinks you learn best on the field than from above. He does it because Supes may hear anything said in the world, but a newspaper puts it all together, with fact-checking, context and analysis — pretty useful when you try not to rush into things without a clue. He does it because he doesn’t want to smother humanity too much. He does it because he might be invicible but his parents and friends aren’t, and selling an alter ego takes time and details dammit, you can’t fake a nine-to-five just like that. He does it to protect himself, to give himself some perspective over the whole “I can’t save everyone” issue, like you’d take up a hobby to relieve stress. He does it to forget he’s an alien, cause that shit is distressing, especially when you’re home planet has been blown up.
Or all of the above because people are messy and don’t do things just because of one clear reason.
Or none of it and you came up with something better.
There’s so much more story material once you explore that! A flying demigod from the stars, with an unflenching moral code and a milquetoast personality? Of course that doesn’t make sense, and yet it kinda does. On some level, several generations of people know it does. A lot of people can give an anwser to “what would Superman do?”. And I bet you most of our answers match.
Asking those questions bring up even more questions about his character, his values, his past. It deepens him, makes him more real. I don’t think you should take his not making sense as a joke. Well, you can, and it even was funny at a time, but I think when you take it as an enigma and try to solve it the best you can, more compelling stories happen.
Characters are what we make of them, after all: no character will have depth if you make no effort digging for something about them.
Supes doesn’t do lazy
People don’t mock the whole Kent thing because they can’t come up of a reason, I don’t think. I suspect people who mock the idea of Kent just don’t want to explore that. They want Supes to be strong, invulnerable, punch things and answer zero questions, to anyone or to himself.
It’s all good and fine. I mean, they’re right to write their stuff just as they like. But it’s been done again and again by anyone trying to be clever about superheroes and I can’t help but feel it’s ill-fitting. Like that shirt you insist makes you look good and you put on everytime you go out but honey, seriously.
If you want to go there with a known character, there are so many of them a thousand times more fitting for that. Hell, Wolverine is 100% that. He was made for the job. It’s what he’s known for. It’s the reason he’s so cool to teenagers. He’s even asking for it. And even him had his introspective movie! And it was really about who he is, not some dumbed down version of himself! With nuances and all! And it was good!
But Supes? He deserves better if you ask me. All that gritty, sad, “no-nonsense” stuff isn’t that clever. It sounds like a good excuse to be lazy, and Supes doesn’t do lazy. Even when he’s put in a grim and gritty world, the primordial Supes will be a shining beacon of hope and justice, an all around decent one-man disaster relief force.
Because Supes always puts the effort. That’s what he does.
Also I’m not your dad, like what you like, write how you like and all that: any outrage or hyperbole is for comedic effect with a dash of clickbait.
You should totally read Grant Morrison’s and Frank Quietly’s ALL STAR SUPERMAN, published and owned by DC COMICS if you haven’t already though. It’s where all those pretty pictures comes from.
Also you should totally read Kitty Unpretty’s DC fanfic too. It’s fingerlicking good. Here, try that one. It’s got NUFFING about Supes but you’ll see Bruce Wayne going to Wallmart for the first time. It’s pretty dope.
And if you like critical discourse about supes and smart people talking superfast there’s always MovieBob.