The following blog post was originally published on my blog, The Clow Context, on May 20th, 2013. This presentation has been lightly edited to account for dead links or erroneous, outdated information.
I recently saw an article on WhatCulture that purported Superman to be the lamest thing since a plain rice dinner, and taking exception to that, this is a piece narrowly aimed at setting its author on a more correct course in regards to who the Man of Steel actually is. I’m going to go through his piece point-by-point, and try and bring a bit more understanding of Superman to someone who obviously has very little.
You say that your intent with this is not to “bash” Superman, yet the title you chose for your piece is making a normative, subjective judgment against the entire sum of his existence. It also appears that you are focusing solely on the cinematic portrayals of Superman, which is a serious fallacy, given the subject character has been around in multiple mediums for three-quarters of a century.
10) “He Has Too Many Powers”
Although you first seem to go after his power level, you quickly pivot to the idea of Superman "winning" as an actual critique against his relatability as a protagonist. You’re criticizing a superhero for winning all of his battles, which makes me think that you haven’t seen very many comic book films, nor have you read many examples of their source material. This is an invalid criticism on your part because by-and-large, every superhero wins all of their battles.
You also say that Superman has no handicaps, which is simply untrue in modern stories: whether it’s his emotions and/or loved ones, the strength of another villain he faces, his sense of duty to keep people across the world safe from harm, or his two highly-documented and prominent weaknesses, you misrepresent the handicaps that most stories use to offset his power level against his many of his enemies.
Again, this appears to illustrate that you are completely ignoring every other story outside of his five major feature film appearances from 1978-2006, which all had a characterization of Superman informed by the Silver Age, when most of these criticisms might have been considered valid.
Unfortunately, that was nearly four decades ago.
9) “When You Take Away His Powers He Turns Into Any Other Superhero”
This is actually a complaint that stands as an inverse compared with a general one I’ve often seen in the past, but again, you’re ignoring every major version of Superman’s origin story of at least the last thirty years. When you take his powers away and get to the core of his character, granted by his upbringing (as stories like The Man of Steel by John Byrne, Birthright by Mark Waid, Secret Origin by Geoff Johns, Earth One by J. Michael Straczynski, or Superman and the Men of Steel by Grant Morrison have all demonstrated) you get a man whose compassion and care for his fellow man is unmatched.
Is his resolve to win similar to other heroes? Yes, but to equate a powerless Superman with a man like Bruce Wayne from both a physical and mental perspective is a disservice to Superman and to other superheroes at-large. You also say that Superman lacks “a fear or obstacle” that defines him, when in fact he goes beyond one primary obstacle and instead has multiple. Superman, more than the likes of Captain America, Batman, Iron Man, or Thor, has taken responsibility for the entire planet. Beyond that, you’ve again openly stated that Superman has not evolved, which anyone that’s picked up a Superman comic in the last thirty years knows is not true.
8) “He Isn’t Relateable [sic]”
The word is actually spelled “relatable.”
Again, this is my primary problem with people who dismiss Superman as a character, because this is a blatant disregard of the work of hundreds of comics creators and even television writers and actors that have contributed to his 75-year legacy. People dismissing him as a paragon really haven’t taken the time to understand that, like Batman or Spider-Man, Superman is alienated from the rest of humanity, yet still chooses to put his energy into saving us.
Imagine Clark growing up without having anyone like him to relate to concerning the very different changes his body goes through in comparison with his peers, and learning that there likely never will be anyone like him again (at least as a child, we know that he eventually meets some other Kryptonians). Couple that with an extraordinary desire to actually be human, something he can simply never do.
What makes him ultimately fortunate is that he had exactly the right people in his life to teach him that his differences didn’t make him a “freak” or an outcast, but instead allowed him to help humanity in a way no one else possibly could. Superman’s ability to connect with people that take the time to get to know him stems from his desire to be like us. But since he can’t, instead he will protect his adopted homeworld, and the good people on it.
The special thing about Superman is that he is a character to both relate to and to aspire to, and if people aren’t taking the time to get to know him better, then they’re potentially cutting themselves off from a very rewarding reading and/or watching experience.
Beyond that, how many kids on Earth can relate to being part of a family, but not having that family's blood run through their veins? Jonathan Kent assures his son that either way, in both Secret Origin and Man of Steel, by telling him “you are my son.” Some of the stuff you’re saying they can do is all stuff that they’ve already done. You, obviously, just haven’t seen it.
7) “He Has No Internal Conflict”
Again, this is basically the same point as above, and you seem shocked at the fact that the hero wins his battles. Even though, in every Batman film and the vast majority of his comics stories, he defeats the villain and wins. The same with the Avengers, with Deadpool, and with the Punisher. If you’re looking for stories where the bad guys will win more than the good guys, then you’re simply in the wrong genre.
Superman is good, yes, but not “just because he’s good,” as you seem to think. He was taught why being true is a value unto itself, and because he sees that as its own reward, you mistake that for having no conflict. Superman has been confronted many times over his life as a character with having to make choices that aren’t morally cut-and-dry, as most superheroes existing in the Modern Age have had to do by necessity.
Don’t assume that just because you haven’t seen it that it hasn’t happened. I would really recommend reading Joe Kelly’s “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?” story found in Action Comics #775, which you can get on ComiXology. It was also adapted as an animated movie called Superman vs. The Elite (though the issue was better).
2016 Addendum to Point #7
One thing I don't think I emphasized enough the first time around on this point is that, very much like a real person, Superman stands as the sum of his experiences. Unlike characters like Batman or Spider-Man who have a clearly defined source of their heroic spirit, Clark Kent – very much like any actual, living person – is cumulatively defined by his life experiences that made him the man he is.
Of course there's a twist on that, though, because those experiences were also informed by his greater ability to perceive the world around him. Regardless of that fact, in a way, he gets punished for this element of his character by the public because those experiences didn't turn him cynical and/or crazy, two states of being that a sect of fans think are prerequisites for being an interesting hero.
Superman is accused of being out of touch, and is actively punished by some fans because he's actually psychologically well-adjusted. Go figure.
6) “His Story Arcs Are Too Predictable”
You give this point a listing of its own, yet you have made it several times in your preceding points already present in the article. Given Superman’s status as a hero that’s not limited to a single locality, his guilt is never just about not saving one life: it’s about not being able to save everyone. Although Superman Returns was a flawed film, one facet that it did get right was the fact that he hears “everything.” He mourns every life lost while he is on Earth, and that’s why his resolve as a character is far more profound than most other comics characters.
Although, it seems that the stakes of the entire planet aren’t enough for some. He has to choose who he is going to save every second he’s around, that’s always been Superman’s burden.
5) “He Doesn’t Represent Anything”
This is, by far, the single weakest point of a series of rather weak points, and is another retread of your #7 point. Even when not looking specifically at his stories, the ideals that Superman represents are perhaps more visible in our own world when directly compared with many other superheroes.
One time, I remember walking down the street with my brother, who said something very similar to the point you’ve tried to make here. I told him that the S-shield, for many, is a symbol of power, and for many others still it’s a symbol of hope. He rebuffed me, and said an idea like that was “bullshit” and “deluded.”
At that very moment, a truck drove in front of us and stopped, and the driver had his arm hanging out of the window. Right there, tattooed to his arm as clear as day, was the S-shield. I looked at my brother as he furled his brow and spat, “don’t say anything.” I smirked, and replied to him, “I don’t have to.”
Power, hope, heroism, flight, and justice are all things you can see when you see the S-shield, and several of those things are what Superman fights for in virtually all of his representations. The S-shield didn’t become the second most identifiable symbol on Earth because it didn’t stand for anything. To believe anything else is a refusal to acknowledge demonstrable fact.
4) “He Has No Weaknesses”
It’s curious that the heading image for this point on the original article is of Superman battling Doomsday, a character who quite literally beat him to death with his sheer strength.
The inherent issue with this point is that you’re solely focusing on Kryptonite, when magic is also one of Superman’s two most documented weaknesses. Even the word “magic” is so broad in the field of storytelling that it allows for hundreds, if not thousands of characters and powers that can present a very credible threat to Superman.
In the DC Universe alone, characters like the Enchantress, Zatanna, Zatara, John Constantine, Raven, Trigon, Dr. Fate, the Spectre, the Phantom Stranger, and several others all qualify as characters that can hurt, or even kill him because of their magic-based powers.
Beyond this, though, you’re also glossing over the fact that DC has significantly de-powered Superman’s physical strength and invulnerability since the Silver Age, so much so that he was beaten to near death several times, and was even knocked unconscious by a train in the first issue of the New 52’s Action Comics. So, respectfully, you’re way off here.
3) “He Has No Personality”
In your piece, you claim Superman’s personality can be summed up by calling it, “the personification of everything nice and that’s as far as his character development goes.” That’s about as simplistic an analysis as I’d expect from someone who clearly doesn’t care for Superman anyways.
In what story, if any, is that true outside of the Golden Age of the 1930s-50s, when comics were only for kids? You speak this point as if it’s a “no-brainer” and even a foregone conclusion, yet you don’t provide any substantiation to illustrate where, or even if this is true. I think I’ve previously addressed where his link to humanity is, and again, you’re simply retreading your incorrect perception of Superman being little more than an uncomplicated paragon.
Again, while he is definitely a good and moral man, a central theme of many modern Superman stories has been the struggle he undertakes in keeping people safe while still standing up to the responsibilities he has always placed upon himself because of his immense power and ability. He takes these duties on, because he knows he's probably the only person on the planet who can.
2) “There Are No Stakes In Any Of His Battles”
This is another point that you’ve made previously, but the most telling sign of your lack of baseline information in addressing it is that you’re discussing this only in terms of Superman’s appearances in film, which is evident of how many (or few) of the character’s stories you’ve consciously exposed yourself to.
The most problematic point from the title of this section is how general it is. Can you really say that for a character who’s been in continuous publication for over 75 years? Have you read every comic, heard every radio show, seen every cartoon, and read every novel? It smacks of hyperbole unbecoming of a real examination of the point you’re trying to make, and it does a disservice to that point, as well as any credibility you can demonstrate as a serious observer of the character and his multimedia appearances.
But, circling back to the point itself, it is blatantly and categorically untrue. For instance, the Imperiex War had interplanetary stakes and heavy loss in Superman’s hometown, giving a lot of emotional weight to the story told. In The Death of Superman, he would’ve lost a great portion of his city, his people, his friends, and his country if he failed to stop Doomsday from continuing his rampage by making the ultimate sacrifice.
In Last Son by Geoff Johns, Richard Donner, and Adam Kubert, he had to try and stop some of his own people from laying waste to the Earth and subjugating it. In Brainiac by Johns and Gary Frank, the planet was in danger, as was the free will of every living thing on Earth. And these were all stories from just the last 7 years! Lois figured into the full stakes of those stories very little as well, if at all.
Are the stakes similar to ones that you’ve exposed yourself to, in films like The Dark Knight? No. They’re bigger, broader, and worthy of the chief character championing them. That makes them different, not absent.
1) “He Has No Enemies Who Are Worthy Of Him”
I’m not sure what Zod stories you’ve seen, even including Superman II, because the General is not weaker than Superman. Beyond this, your point, which I assume is mostly discussing physical might, makes no mention of physically imposing enemies that Superman has faced off against, like Brainiac, the Parasite, Metallo, Mongul, Bizarro, Kalibak, Despero, or even Doomsday and Darkseid.
You’re also making mention of the erroneous characterization Lex Luthor has had in his film appearances, when Luthor has become one of the single most fascinating comics villains of the last twenty years, beginning with his re-characterization at the hands of John Byrne. His ambition is bred by sadism, jealousy, anger, and intellect. Luthor is a mere mortal, yes, but through his inventiveness and brilliance he has become the arch enemy of the most powerful being on the planet, and I think that says an enormous amount about both Luthor’s viability as a character, and his capability as the preeminent sinister source of villainy in the DC Universe.
So, in conclusion, it’s very apparent that you’ve not exposed yourself to very many Superman stories to give yourself enough credibility to make the claims that you do in your written piece. I’d heartily encourage you to read stories like Birthright (by Mark Waid and Leinil Yu), Secret Origin, Last Son (both by Geoff Johns, drawn by Gary Frank and Adam Kubert, respectively), For All Seasons (by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale) and the definitive All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely to give yourself a more well-rounded perspective on one of the greatest ideas ever had by the human race (according to Grant Morrison himself).
If you truly aren’t aiming to bash Superman, then learn more about him. I’d bet if you check out some of his more celebrated stories, you’d see that you were rather mistaken about him, and might see how much the character has evolved and changed. Many of your preconceived notions are rooted in a forty-year old conception of who Superman was. Join us in the 21st century, because if you took the time to get to know him, something tells me that you’ll be glad that you did.