Is Superman Still Relevant?

Write a story where Superman isn’t strong enough to solve a problem and you’ll be called “creative”. Write a story where Batman isn’t smart enough to solve a problem and you’ll be roasted alive by a legion of angry fanboys. This leads to the question, “Why the hell is everybody so hard on Superman?”

I’m not just talking about comic books, cartoons, or movies. These two characters in particular are bigger than that. Especially Superman. He’s the equivalent of a modern day “Hercules” or “Dracula”. He’s the biggest name in our young country’s very own mythology. And yet, a lot of people hate him.

“He’s a goody”. “He’s too strong.” “He’s too overpowered and that’s not interesting to me and I can’t relate to it”. These are the common complaints about “The Big Blue Boyscout.” From a weekly comic book standpoint, those are sort of valid arguments as to why it gets old watching Superman punch his way out of every problem. With a growing array of superpowers, the Man of Steel has a harder time finding ways to make a fight last longer than three seconds than he does finding ways to win it. From that standpoint, and assuming that for some reason, a character’s greatness is defined by his physical struggle with a stronger villain, then yes, Superman isn’t as cool as Batman.

Superman has been KO’d by Captain Marvel. He’s been punched out by Green Lantern and outsmarted, outmaneuvered, and outdone by Batman more times than is worth mentioning. While it’s true that Superman has also defeated all of those guys (and just about everybody else) at one time, the fact remains that writers and fans seem to go out of their way to hurt or diminish the character of Superman every chance they get. When he’s doing the “good cop/bad cop” routine with Batman as “The World’s Finest”, Superman automatically loses 50 IQ points so that he’s the Watson to Batman’s Sherlock. He’s dumbed down to make Batman look smarter. When he’s buddying up with The Flash, he’s automatically only as fast as a speeding bullet. He’s written to be a naive, preachy, out-of-touch goody-two-shoes in a world filled with realistic, gritty, cool heroes. We live in a time and culture that obsesses with what it believes to be “reality”. We call Spider-Man the “every man”, despite the fact that he can jump 60 feet. We call Batman the an example of every-man human achievement, despite the fact that he never had to work a day in his life. Superman is the guy who goes to work every day like a normal guy despite the fact that he doesn’t have to. The guy who never has emotional breakdowns because his superhero career takes up too much time. He’s an example of everything a man should be…and what do we call him? Unrealistic.

The entire mythology of Clark Kent, Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, The Daily Planet, and everything else related to Superman is absolutely common knowledge. The term “superhero” comes from Superman himself. The entire genre is named after him. Without him, there would be no Batman, no Spider-Man, no Wonder Woman. There’d be no superhero genre. People who have never read a comic in their life know who Superman’s girlfriend is. He’s that mainstream, that iconic, and that influential on pop culture. And yet, he’s always accused of being passe. Why is that?

In my opinion, it’s for the very simple reason that people are flawed. They can’t stand seeing somebody else, real or not, doing the right thing when they aren’t strong enough to. Pretend for a minute, that Superman is real and a part of our world. He’s really that strong. He’s really that noble and good. He hasn’t done what 99% of us would do and used his powers to pick up women, make quick money, or control the world. Nope. He simply uses his powers and the influence of a modest, all-American upbringing to be a MAN. He leads by example. How would our world react to a person like that? The wisest of us would look to him as an inspiration and as proof that we don’t have to be cold or heartless to get by in life. The foolish would worship him as a God, which he is not. Most of us, however, would grow to hate the sight of the man who makes us feel so small, useless, and impure.

Is Superman perfect? No. He is, after all, only human. Yeah, yeah, you nerds. I know he’s an alien…but by “human” I mean that he’s just as tempted as the rest of us to take the short cuts. The difference is that he almost always doesn’t. Alex Ross once said that “Superman is the strength that American doesn’t and shouldn’t have.” That’s an amazing thought. If one country or person had all of that power, the rest of us would be scared to death of what he might do with it. America has a lot of power now and is forcefully trying to police a world that can’t realistically be beaten into being a better place. So imagine Superman is real and has all the power of a dominant country…and he actually uses it the right way and for the good of mankind. Is that believable? Maybe. Maybe not. Is that kind of integrity common in today’s world? No freaking way. If he were real, Superman the person, would become what Superman the character, is today…A punching bag for the jealous, untrusting, jaded, and unworthy. We wouldn’t even believe him when he said he didn’t want to rule us. We’d doubt him. We’d suspect he was lying. We’d fear and hate him. We’d say he was “full of it” simply because we HAD to believe it. After all, if he’s actually telling the truth and he’s actually that good…what does that make us? That insecurity and mistrust is not his fault. It’s our’s.

The greatest Superman stories don’t involve a giant robot built by Lex Luthor that kidnaps Lois and attacks Metropolis. They don’t involve a race across the world to stop two missiles or a fight against the Hulk to prove who’s stronger. The best Superman stories are bigger than that. Reading “Peace on Earth” or “Kingdom Come” are proof that Superman’s struggle goes far beyond silly physical confrontations. It’s not about how cool his costume looks, how “bad ass” he acts, or how popular he is. It’s not even just about power. It’s about having the integrity to know how to use that power when you have more of it than everybody else. Imagine if he were like Batman, brooding and manipulative. The world would be a doomed, dark place, ruled by the fear of the man in the sky. If he were like Spider-Man…emotional and insecure, the world would be effected by it. Our greatest champion…the crybaby. What if he behaved like Wolverine…kicking asses, murdering, and ignoring rules because he didn’t feel like following them? He would inspire millions to be self-centered rebels and the world would be anarchy. Superman is Superman because he has to be. He is called a boyscout in a very derogatory manner by those who have no idea how hard it is to carry the burden he carries. He’ll never be the most popular or the most liked, but that’s the price of being great.

Superman is not outdated and will always be relevant if you have the wisdom to see and comprehend what he truly is. It’s not about a man in blue and red tights. It’s about us. It’s about right and wrong. Sometimes the concepts can be or sound cheesy or annoying, but they’re always important. There is no greater lesson to be learned than that of integrity.

Superman’s ethics, ideals, look, powers, haircut, and mythology may all seem like they don’t fit into the modern era of superhero culture, and that is exactly what makes him the single most important part of it.

Larry Longstreth
4Reelz, LLC

  • WOW! Powerful stuff, Larry. One of the best “SUPER” articles I’ve read in a long time and very pertinent to our times when people can’t get enough celebrity gossip or reality television as they bathe in the sludge of other people’s misery or just plain stupidity.

  • Miles Reid-Lobatto

    That was an incredible article. I admit that in the last year or so, I’ve really changed my opinion about Superman, due in part to the almost perfect Grant Morrison comic ‘All-Star Superman.’ And I’ve grown to feel that Superman’s truest strength and power is that he’s become the inspirational symbol of doing what has to be done because it’s right. Superman is the hero who’ll save a crashing airplane full of people and then help a little girl get her cat out of a tree. If we were more like Superman, doing good things not because we feel we should, but because we want to help others, wouldn’t the world be a better place if were all more like Superman?

  • Kryptonian

    Just wanted to say this was a brilliant meditation on Superman. Everyone who slams the character needs to read this.

  • Travis

    Superman is one of the Only superheros that actually symbolizes, and stands for the posotive virtues of the human race. Most of the other heros are doing it for their own selfish reasons like batman or representing an institution like green lantern, also one of the other big ones is patriotism where the hero is fighting for country or planet.

  • Skarvold

    An excellent and very truthful article on the Man of Steel. Well done.

  • Matt

    Great, great article. It needed to be said. Thanks for writing it.

  • I fully agree. When I was younger I hated Superman for the stance he took in ‘The Dark Knight Returns’, but now I understand it.
    He did what he did because he had to, because being the most powerful man in the world actually makes you very weak. Your powers make people afraid of you and once you’ve lost their trust… well no amount of super strength or super speed can get that back.

  • Bill

    A fascinating assessment of Superman and why we need him. Good job!

  • Rob

    This is an excellent read!

  • David Tyler

    The question is NOT whether Superman is relevant in today’s world….it’s whether he’s entertaining. Truth be told … he’s gotten stiff and boring. At least in some incarnations. One of the few places he’s interesting is the Animated series by Timm and Dini.

    Superman can still be trying to do the right thing but why can’t he have moments where he loses his patience and get’s a bit angry? Why can’t he make a bad judgement call without being considered a dimwit?

    Clark was raised by two down-to-earth souls and carries them with him but he doesn’t need to be naive. Why can’t Superman have more of a whole world sense about him when dealing with people? I mean he doesn’t need to look at the world as a wide-eyed newbie. He can have more a way about him that the George Reeve’s incarnation did. He doesn’t need to be the Donner/Christopher Reeve ‘Superman’. Sure Chris looked incredible as the character and had some great moments but, c’mon people, he was naive in a lot of ways.

    My version of Clark is the one who traveled the world trying to discover how he fit in before he ever even thought of adopting the Superman personna.

    This article, while interesting and thoughtful, forgets that the larger conversation is about whether Superman can still be entertaining in a world that is looking for more drama and can’t be satisfied with just feats of ‘derring’ combined with a flashy costume and fantastic abilities. He’s got to be a character that we can empathize with and relate to. He doesn’t have to be a terrible person but he also can’t be two-dimensional.

  • Moda

    Great article, you have an excellent grasp on what the character truly represents.

  • js

    Brilliant article and sums up exactly how I feel. Batfanboy writers are the ones who go out of their way to make Superman look like a fool anyway. Says more about them as writers if they have to go out of their way to make Batman a god and write other heroes badly to make him shine. Superman is great and I agree books like Kingdom Come is what makes him great. It shows that Superman is too large to be contained in Metropolis and he belongs to the world. And he knows this and understands it.

    Sadly comics in the last decade had not been very kind to Superman and he has been written as wishy washy and in real danger of getting boring as hell. DC needs to reevaluate what is going on in his comics and give it a kick up the behind as the current status quo and supporting cast compared to Batman and Green Lantern is colorless. Ironic when Superman mythos is so rich. But if DC are going to persist on w writing him as a wimpy whiny naive farm-boy mooning for Lois Lane it’s no wonder we are all sick of it. I bet that’s half the reason Superman Returns bombed too.

  • dc

    Great article. You have an excellent grasp on the character of Superman. It is about time he is shown respect.

    With respect to a previous poster, the animated series treated Superman just as poorly as the comics have for the past couple of decades with very few exceptions.

    Here’s hoping that JMS makes him great again.

  • Marco Maltese

    My friends always associate me with superman without knowing why i truly look up to the man of steel. They believe that i’m into the whole comic book thing and its a childish fasinastion.but this is not the case. i look up to the clark kent/superman not because hes a comic book hero or the fact that he has super-physical abilities we all wish we had but because of the great role model a fiction character he represents. the symbol of a truely great being!

    i am deeply touched by your article and thankyou for it! thankyou for showing me that there are people who see the man of steel the way i do.

    here’s to hoping the new film grants him the quality of character that the late great Christopher Reeves graciously portrayed of him!

  • ” It’s about having the integrity to know how to use that power when you have more of it than everybody else.” – beautifully said.

    And it is far easier to let ourselves off the hook by engaging and indulging the shadowy aspects of our psyche … distrusting and ridiculing the golden aspects of the unconscious that we all carry. We ridicule Superman because of the deep fear that we feel for looking ‘naive’ in our pursuit of the simple path … helping those who need help. Selflessness. Compassion. Empathy.

    There’s a Marianne Williamson poem that begins – ‘Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.’

    Many of us – and I point to men specifically – have been overcome by that fear and have shrunk back from the possibility of our own greatness. The attractiveness of the ‘dark knight’ is a reflection of our own comfort with immaturity and irresponsibility. It is easier to be the enraged Wolverine or the conflicted Parker than the man of steel – because MANY of us have been wounded, punished, ridiculed and deceived when we took the brave and innocent path of simple truth, faith and goodness. We have banished that boy-scout to the shadows.

    Luckily, not all of us are willing to let him die there.
    There is still a real heroes journey out there to be taken.
    The Mankind Project.

  • H Evan S

    @ David Tyler: Read again bud, this article doesn’t talk about the entertaiment point of Superman in Hollywood movies but it more in philosophical way of what the character is all about….

    @Boysen Hodgson: Lovely and very well though your words are friend…

    I Really, really loved this article Larry, truly one of the best ever written about Supes… He is a honorable, light hearted, modest guy, but through this all qualities it makes him bigger and different than the others and that’s what a really real Hero is…And all of those precious qualities must be preserve by every one of us who dreamed for a better tomorrow, because if people who believe in this kind of integrity gone, the world soon will end by itself…

  • James

    Writer Joe Casey once said something interesting about the X-Men. He essentially said (and I wish I can quote him) that part of struggling to write the characters had a lot to do with being stuck with the metaphor of them being an oppressed group that symbolized minorities, racial & otherwise. Then one day it dawned on him: the X-Men’s appeal came from the fact that they were the mirror image of the fan boys that read the comics, not of minorities.

    Batman’s aloof distrust, Spider-Man’s insecurities, Wolverine’s uncontrollable temper.. fan boys have ’em. That’s part of the appeal.

  • Jem

    Greatest piece of writing I’ve probably read on importance of Superman. I’ve always been a fan of Batman, but I’m really coming around to liking Supes just as much. I just started reading Superman comics again, and Post Crisis Supes is back after new 52’s Superman’s death. Batman represents, to me, grit and what pushing yourself to the fullest means. Pushing yourself to be your greatest self. Of course, there’s more, but that’s the theme I like most. Superman represents hope, responsibility with power, moral fortitide. I’m years late commenting, but I had to comment on such good writing.

  • LupeX

    This article was written in 2010 and here we are in 2016 Zack Snyder encapsulated all the complexities of this character perfectly.
    it goes to show that Superman as an icon will too frequently be criticized and misunderstood. But he can take it, he’s the greatest!

Facebook IconYouTube IconTwitter Iconfacebook like buttontwitter follow buttonSubscribe on YouTube