What Is The Point Of Superman?

Christopher Reeve as Superman

No, Metropolis is totally not New York. Source: Warner Bros.

I think, out of all the superheroes I grew up on, Superman wore off on me the fastest. Think about it. Batman might be sheltered by Bruce Wayne’s millions, but in the end, he’s a psychopath with a conscience, as bad and as vulnerable as his enemies. Spiderman has to pay his rent. The Hulk, or rather David Banner, has to cover his tracks. The X Men might save the world, but they also have to elbow their way to the lunch counter and demand the freedom to marry whom they want. They’re still human, or human-like.

Then we have Superman, strange visitor from another planet, fighting a never-ending battler for truth, justice, and the American way. Why American? The dude grew up in Smallville, in Kansas in his latest incarnation. In the recent Man of Steel, he informs a general, “It doesn’t get much more American than that.” It’s a vestige of the Cold War, but he grew up among humans. Naturally, he’s going to adopt the culture around him.

Superman, however, is god-like. His only weakness is a piece of his destroyed homeworld that makes him weak as a kitten. The rest of the time, he’s impervious to fire, bullets, the vacuum of space, and, quite likely, a nuclear blast. This is why, beyond retellings of the origin story, I just don’t really care about Superman. He’s just not easy to connect with. “Oh, but he’s the outsider. He has to fit in. Haven’t you ever tried to fit in?”

Well, Peter Parker’s a misfit. Darth Vader is a misfit. Magneto and Prof. Xavier are misfits. Hell, even Sauron, the Dark Lord trying to conquer Middle Earth, is a misfit. He can’t really manifest as much more than a giant eye. If Frodo failed, they could have sent Ben Stein up the tower with a giant bottle of Clear Eyes to take out Sauron. Wow.

Once you get past Superman’s struggle to establish himself and find a role, there’s not a helluva lot of story to tell. Think about it. In the original run, you had Superman, a comedic retelling of Clark Kent’s transformation into his nerdy day-to-day persona and into a superhero, and Superman II, where the consequences of Krypton’s destruction could devastate Earth. In both, Superman has to struggle. And then…

Brandon Routh as Superman

“They got one thing right. Kevin Spacey is evil.” Source: Warner Bros.

Superman III, an embarrassment for both Christopher Reeve and Richard Pryor. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, a ham-handed sermon on the danger of nuclear weapons. And Superman Returns, a good effort to pretend the other two movies did not exist, but ultimately, a boring story.

Now we have Man of Steel, which I watched this past weekend. It was a decent action movie and an interesting take on Superman’s origins. Yet they had to go back to the beginning to find a decent story to tell. When Henry Cavill walks into The Daily Planet at the end of the movie to go to work as a reporter, I thought, “What’s left to tell? Zod is dead, and Superman is a nearly immortal hero.”

Henry Cavill as Superman

“General Zod. I crap bigger than him.” Source: Warner Bros.

He gets compared to Jesus Christ. “Hey, people keep retelling that story over and over again. How is Superman different?” Well, while Christians believe Christ was divine, he was also human. That much everyone agrees upon. Which, if you recall Mel Gibson’s subtitled torture porn movie a few years back, means he was vulnerable. The Almighty might have been saving him for his mission, but that only underscores the fact that a lightning strike, a wild animal, or a violent roadside thug could take out the Son of Man at any time. Sure, divine intervention helped. So did a large entourage. See twelve disciples and crowds of adoring followers crowding around Clark Kent?

Even the myths of old had vulnerable characters. Chronos swallowed his children, only to vomit them back up so they could condemn him to darkness. The Norse gods will all die someday. The Greek and Roman pantheons are a collection of case studies in human neuroses, from the panicked overlord (Zeus) to perpetual smartass (Hermes) to the borderline autistic (Hades and Hephestus). Pick a god, any god. They have more weaknesses than Superman and more flaws. This lets them be the hero or the villain, depending on the story.

I know I loved Superman as a kid, having this invincible hero take out much more powerful baddies than people could handle. But I’m not a kid anymore. Even my escapism needs a dose of reality.

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3 thoughts on “What Is The Point Of Superman?

  1. I thought MAN OF STEEL did a good job of showing how Superman empathized with the everyman. The draw of Superman, to me, is his capacity to feel for humanity, to the point he goes out of his way to assimilate into Earth culture. That an alien would do this says something positive about humanity. His empathy also makes him vulnerable to people and supervillains who don’t care who they hurt in pursuit of their goals. His emotional vulnerability, to me, is more compelling than his physical vulnerability to rocks from Krypton.

    There are times I’d like Superman to have more personality, like the Greek gods you mention, but that’s not who he’s become. He’s not the tortured Batman or the wise-cracking Spider-Man; he’s the Boy Scout, boy-next-planet Superman.

  2. If I remember, Frank Miller’s Batman comic portrays him as a bit of a stooge for the right wing. He’s a bit too into preserving the status quo (and all that goes with it.)

  3. I think both the article and Gerald hit upon a good point. I never understood the attraction of Doc Savage, who surrounded himself with the best of the best. But Doc was smarter than his smartest man, stronger than his strongest man, etc. In fact, it seemed Doc Savage was constantly rescuing them! What was the point of having those minions if he had to keep saving them?

    Even though Superman often rescued Lois and Jimmy, he escaped the Doc Savage trap, in part because he identified with humans (which arguably Savage didn’t) and of his humanity.

    But my favorite’s always been Spiderman who’s vulnerable to all the foibles of human existence. Spidey’s the opposite of Greek heroes. He not only has to wait in line at the counter, someone will spill coffee on him.

    Leigh Lundin
    SleuthSayers

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