I started reading comics when I was around 6 or 7 years old. I remember my dad, who had no real investment in the industry whatsoever, taking me to an old run down comic book store and just letting me go bananas. This was back when comic books were $1.25 each, so it wasn’t a huge problem. Spider-Man, Iron Man and the Silver Surfer were my go-to guys. So yeah, I always subscribed to the “Make Mine Marvel” credo.
But if you were to ask me who my favorite superhero is, then and now, my answer would invariably be the same (and somewhat controversial for a Marvel fanboy):
The Man of Steel
Superman. The poster boy for DC Comics.
If you’re reading this blog, I probably don’t have to tell you that Superman is the alpha and omega. He is the template from which all other comic book heroes and heroines were drawn (pun-intended). I’ve always had a deep appreciation for the character and everything he stands for, which is why it’s so heartbreaking for me to realize that nobody else seems to like Superman anymore.
Having debated a bunch of comic book nerds on and off for the past 20 years, I’ve come to the conclusion that the public’s general disdain towards Superman is due to the fact that he’s too powerful, and too much of a goody-two-shoes. And, of course, these issues are thrown into sharp relief when you consider the other guy.
The Goddamn Batman
Batman, Superman’s friend and thematic polar opposite, has had his star rise rapidly in the past 30-ish years, mostly due to his shift to a darker, more realistic tone heralded by Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns”. His subsequent rise in popularity has (bat)signaled to the powers at DC Comics that the Dark Knight’s gritty style and grim ethos are what all superheroes should draw from. Not the outdated idealism of a Kansas farmboy. Because nowadays Superman is seen as the guy you call when you want to get a cat out of a tree or help an old lady cross the street. Batman is the guy you call when you want shit to get done. And people love a guy who can get shit done.
Which is why DC comics has attempted to fix Superman by slowly inching the way the character is portrayed towards the darker end of the Comic Book Hero Personality Spectrum™.
2013’s Man of Steel and the more recent Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Whatever are by far the most high-profile offenders. The Superman in these films is cast as an abandoned, depressed outsider uncertain of his place in the world and the role he should play. His own parents, in the comics a source of his kind homespun values, push the fact that Kal-El “doesn’t owe this world a thing”, and that it would be better off for him to remain hidden than use his powers to save a bus full of school children. As a result, Clark Kent’s decision to become Superman and subsequently accidentally devastate an entire quarter of Metropolis, is poorly motivated. He becomes Superman in spite of everything he’s been told and seen, just because the movie needs him to become Superman. There’s nothing to inspire him. We’re told his ‘S’ stands for ‘hope’, but we never see any of that hope. Man Of Steel and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Sadness weave a broken and depressing story of a Superman that doesn’t believe in anything anymore. Least of all, himself.
Even the films’ palettes are desaturated. ‘Man of Steel’ was the grayest movie I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen Liam Neeson in ‘The Grey’.
And the most telling part of these films? Superman barely ever cracks a smile. Joy is apparently verboten in the DC movie universe.
Even in the comic books, which fewer people may be familiar with, DC’s 2011 New 52 initiative has attempted to add more grit to the character after rebooting him entirely. Ma and Pa Kent now tragically die in a car crash during his high school years, leaving him an orphan tormented by the death of his parents. Sound like anyone else you know?
Furthermore, current comics trend towards toning down Superman’s idealism and giving him more of a pompous holier-than-thou “attitude”. Also, now he wears armor… for some reason. If anything illustrates DC’s tone deafness, it’s giving the Man of Steel armor. I mean, come on.
Armor? He’s BULLETPROOF. Also, don’t get me started on the lack of red trunks.
And this dramatic character shift is the result of what is commonly referred to as “The Superman Problem”. DC Comics doesn’t know what to do with Superman. Furthermore, they seem to actively hate him, because, as I’ve mentioned before, he’s a goody-goody with limitless power and he wears his underpants on the outside. Rather than embrace their former flagship Golden Child, they want to fix him. And their strategy? Make him more Batman.
Ehh… turn it up a little more. It’s not cooking fast enough.
Because that’s the simplest solution, now isn’t it? If one of your characters is an unbridled success, and another isn’t, why not just take what people like about one and give it to the other. What’s good for the goose, right?
Well, no. Comic book sales and movie reviews (ahem) have definitely proved that making Superman darker and more brooding doesn’t work. Of course it doesn’t. It’s an inherent betrayal of everything the character stands for. And yes, granted, Superman’s values might seem a bit outwardly silly in today’s world. But DC seems to outright reject that his inherent philosophy could still ring true, even if just a little bit, which I don’t necessarily agree with. Because What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way?
Ultimately, it’s the result of a large-scale misframing of the issue at hand. The problem with Superman isn’t that he isn’t mature or depressing or realistic enough. The real problem with Superman is that very few people know how to write for him.
Aside from giving him an darker outlook, the other strategy in recent years has been to depower him, repower him, and give him bigger enemies to fight and posing more immense stakes for him to face. Hell, they even killed him in the 90s, then brought him back in one of the most gonzo, bogus storylines I’ve ever seen. Banking on upping the tension to ridiculous stakes and forcing him into a darker, ‘realistic’ mindset is the absolutely wrong way to evolve the character.
Superman’s main struggle can no longer solely be against Doomsday, or Zod, or Brainiac, or whatever stupid-ass giant robot Lex Luthor has managed to build this time. Even if he has a bad-ass new “attitude”.
C’mon, Lex. You’re just embarrassing yourself. Those robots aren’t even numbered in order. It’s like you can’t even count.
No, I propose that DC should go meta. Superman’s main struggle should be against the very thing that DC is struggling against in the real world: Superman’s perceived irrelevance in an increasingly cynical society.
Because at its core, a Superman story shouldn’t be a story about a powerful godlike alien who is faster than a speeding bullet and more powerful than a locomotive. It should be the story of a man. A man trying to do good to the best of his ability for a world that thinks his worldview is too naïve to be applicable anymore. Much like Marvel has done with Captain America (a quite similar character), Superman should be cast as a ‘man out of time’, striving to show people that there is a simpler, more honest way of looking at the world. And maybe, sometimes, failing.
That is his real fight, which would hit that much-desired sweet spot of making him “human and more relatable”, without taking away his unflinching positivity. This is where Watchmen-scribe and Professional Wizard Impersonator Alan Moore succeeded in two of the greatest Superman stories put to print: “For the Man Who Has Everything” and “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”, where he drew on Superman’s emotions and internal struggles for much of the drama, even though he was fighting Darkseid-lite Mongul and a legion of Brainiacs (and more), respectively. Likewise, I would be remiss to omit Grant Morrison’s “All-Star Superman” from this list, which takes my argument to an extreme (and delightfully outlandish) conclusion.
Because Superman’s superpower isn’t super strength, or flight, or being able to turn back time by flying around the Earth really fast. That’s all incidental, at best. His real power is his staunch faith in the people of his adopted homeworld and his unwavering optimism, even in the face of depressing and impossible odds. Let Batman be the cynic. That’s what he’s good at. Superman needs to be our dreamer. Because that’s who he is and that’s who we need him to be.
So in spite of DC’s frantic attempts to fix the character, I don’t believe Superman needs to be “fixed”. He’s the guy who does all the fixing. It’s the society around him that’s ‘broken’. A society that is more concerned with whether or not he can bleed rather than believing he can fly.
Our world is dark and gritty enough. We’ve got enough anti-heroes and any old orphan billionaire can be a tortured soul. We need someone to remind us that we can always strive to be better. That it’s okay to have some good old-fashioned optimism. That there’s always hope.
And, y’know what? That looks like a job for…