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.