I’m Sorry, Superman
I’ve made many, many jokes at Superman’s expense. From cynical short stories about him to the numerous fights where he’s been humiliated by everyone from the Tick to Steve Buscemi, he’s been the butt of a lot of jokes. A lot of that comes from the fact that I used to really dislike the character. However, in recent years, some awesome comic book interpretations combined with the brilliant minds behind Justice League Unlimited have changed my outlook on Superman. And while characters such as Batman, the Green Lantern, and the Hulk are still much more interesting, Superman’s worthy of some respect in his own right.
One thing that will seemingly never leave me happy with Superman is his movie franchise. There has flat out never been a good Superman movie. I’ll grant that Christopher Reeve made an excellent Clark Kent/Superman combo, but the movies still sucked. It’s bad enough that Lex Luthor was nothing but a goofy moron and that Lois Lane was about as interesting as a crack on the wall, but the movies didn’t have anything going for them except for a decent score from John Williams. The storytelling was just a mess. Each and every time, the writers would put themselves into a corner where they had to invent some dumbass way of solving the problem. From Superman’s time travel trick in the first one to the kiss of amnesia to his “rebuilding the Great Wall of China” trick in the fourth film, the storytelling was just crap. Even Superman Returns, which had the chance to finally rebuild the franchise, was a disappointment. Rather than tell a decent story, the creators decided to force a superchild who was never anything more than annoying, and then topped it off with so many Christ metaphors that the guys behind the Matrix trilogy even had to go, “Whoa.” When Kevin Spacey can’t save a film, it’s really craptacular.
Now that I’ve got that out of my system, I’m going to talk about the stuff that makes Superman an interesting character. This is an illustration of how much I’ve changed over the years, since I previously would have said that the only interesting part of Superman is when the Incredible Hulk knocked his ass into space.
One of the most interesting aspects to the character, in my opinion, is his secret identity as Clark Kent. Superman is the most powerful being on the planet Earth. In recent comics, he and Batman even removed all the kryptonite from Earth (except for the stuff in the Batcave, because Batman’s a douche), making him even more invulnerable. With all that might, Superman could be worshipped as a god. He could conquer the world or live in the lap of luxury as people rightly bowed before his might. Instead, he chooses to spend most of his life in the unassuming identity of Clark Kent, a bumbling and awkward reporter for the Daily Planet. Underneath the cape and the tights and even the superpowers, Superman is a farm boy from Smallville, Kansas. His choice to live life as Clark Kent rather than as an athlete, a movie star, or a god-like being is a very interesting choice, and highlights how noble Superman is. He really is looking to preserve truth, justice, and the American way, and it shows in the fact that his ideal human, the person he chooses to be, is as mild-mannered and vulnerable as any of the people he protects.
Incidentally, Superman’s choice of Clark Kent as a secret identity also lends some credence to why his disguise of glasses and a hair style works so well to so many people. No one actually expects Superman to have a secret identity. And if he did have a secret identity, why would he choose some doofus like Clark Kent? This explanation serves much better than any of the Silver Age stories about super-hypnotism or the like. It also gets highlighted in one comic where Lex Luthor builds a machine designed to deduce Superman’s true identity. Although the machine correctly figures out that Superman is Clark Kent, Lex laughs such a notion off, figuring that no one with Superman’s capabilities would choose to be such a bumbling loser.
There is also a definite loneliness about Superman that makes him an intriguing character. While many characters have known loss, only a handful are as alone as Superman is. He is the last survivor of a dead planet, and is constantly reminded that he is an alien. His one weakness, kryptonite, is actually the irradiated remnants of his home planet – as much as he would like to learn more about Krypton, doing so would actually kill him. He can never play in a pickup game of baseball, because actually using his full ability would be considered cheating. He can’t even hug his wife Lois the way he’d like, because he’d crush her if he applied even a fraction of his power. As Superman says in the last episode of Justice League Unlimited, “All my life I’ve felt like I lived in a world made out of cardboard. Always taking constant care not to break something…to break someone. Never allowing myself to lose control for even a moment, or someone could die.” Despite his status as the world’s greatest hero, Superman is very much alone.
Incidentally, Superman’s need to hold back also helps to explain another inconsistency in comic books; namely, the fact that he seems to forget that he has certain powers that could end a fight in an instant. Basically, he always holds back, even against villains. After all, he has a code against killing. As a result, although he has the ability to defeat foes in a microsecond, doing so would usually kill or cripple them. So even when he could apply more force, he holds back more out of habit than anything else. This is certainly a tendency that mortal foes like Lex Luthor (or Batman, for those all too often times that he goes toe to toe with Superman) would definitely take advantage of.
My biggest complaint about Superman has always been that he seems too perfect. He’s nearly invulnerable, and he’s always a boy scout. But he’s not really perfect. He’s always walking a thin line, and teetering would mean disaster for the rest of the world. How easy would it be for Superman to just crush Lex Luthor’s head in the palm of his hand? Or to rocket through the world at light speed, solving problems before they even begin? How many years of his life did he waste hiding his identity from Lois Lane out of fear that revealing his love for her would put her in danger? Superman defines his decision to fight crime as a never-ending battle. In actuality, it’s his entire life that is a never-ending battle. He could have everything he ever wanted. He could eliminate crime from the world, but he focuses on the big threats, knowing that using his powers to actually create a utopia would be killing humanity’s free will, taking away one aspect of humans that he loves. He could have wealth and power, but he chooses to slave away at a typewriter in the Daily Planet offices. He could finish Lex Luthor off once and for all, but he always gives the criminal the benefit of the doubt, clinging to the remote hope that Lex will one day reform and use his brilliant mind for something other than evil. And he knows, deep down, that every time he chooses to leave Lex alive, he’s risking the chance that one day one of Luthor’s titanium robots or kryptonite bullets will finally do what they’re built for – killing Superman.
Essentially, Superman is a paragon. He isn’t good just because that’s what heroes do. He has to make the very active and very difficult to keep doing what he’s doing. To never use his powers to get the luxury he arguably deserves. To preserve life and give humans a chance to think and act for themselves, rather than acting as judge, jury, and executioner. And even to stay on Earth itself, rather than flying off to another planet where he could have a normal life among other super-powered beings or beneath a red sun.
So I apologize to Superman and his creators for the endless ribbing I’ve given him. I also apologize, because it’s going to continue. He’s such an easy target. Also, he’s likely going to remain the resident loser of my fights page. Once a joke like that’s been set up, it won’t be over until I run it into the ground.