Superman: Thoughts on the Man of Tomorrow
With the new Superman movie out there’s now more talk on the Man of Steel and the general perceived problems with the iconic character. I’d like to talk about some of those points and my thoughts on Superman. This is pretty much a stream of consciousness ramble and I would’ve liked to go more in-depth in some areas, but that didn’t happen.
Now through the 75 years Superman’s been around there have been many incarnations of the character and writers had different versions made in various media. It seems that every TV series, movie, cartoon, and radio show, has added to the mythos and the character is now more informed by the culture surrounding it. So more people know about superman than have actually read the comics, which becomes a problem when trying to talk about the character. Whenever I hear complaints about him it is usually about how overpowered he is and that his only weaknesses is a green rock. Whether or not that is accurate is beside the point, it’s the idea he’s a boring character because of his power and lack of weaknesses.
The weakness thing doesn’t really come up for other characters; no one says Thor’s an unrelatable character for being a god with no weaknesses. Superman can get hurt; things can challenge him, if the writing is good. You don’t need Kryptonite to add things he can overcome. There’s his humanity, his morality, to consider. Not to mention that Superman is not the Hulk, he’s a thinker, an investigative reporter, and not just some flying brick. He does think his way out of problems rather than just being stronger or more powerful.
The overpowered thing is also something that isn’t brought up for other strong characters, like Thor or the Hulk. Superman doesn’t have to juggle planets; his power level is flexible depending on the writer. Some have him able to fly across the universe by only holding his breath, others have him struggle lifting a cruise ship and needing an oxygen supply to go anywhere. All of that comes with the story they want to tell and the conflicts are always things that challenge him, mentally or physically. With all of these characters the story dictates what they can and can’t do, so the power level talk is rather meaningless when it’s extremely flexible.
Here’s an interesting thing with the overpowered talk, no one ever mentions it with Batman. Batman is constantly being shown as the best of the best, beating down heroes and villains well above his weight class, yet is still considered a more relatable character because he has no powers. He is probably more overpowered than Superman could ever be at this point and it doesn’t help that the writers make him better while also toning down Superman’s powers to fix the overpowered complaints. Batman is far worse than Superman in this regard.
What I find to be the biggest problem with the character is not these complaints but what they have become. Because of these perceptions Superman can’t be a flawed character anymore; he can’t have real doubts or make mistakes. People complain whenever that happens, saying that’s not what Superman would do; that he’s better than that. To give a recent example in the Young Justice cartoon Superman finds out that he’s been cloned, his DNA stolen and violated, so he does the human thing and gives the clone to other people to deal with while he sorts out his conflicting feeling on the matter. He has a moral conflict over what is essentially a rape baby and it upset fans that he didn’t embrace the clone with open arms. The fans took a morally grey issue and made it black and white to fit it in their perfect view of Superman.
You can have Superman still be Superman while taking him away from this perfect Jesus figure he is perceived as. He can be a nice guy while dealing with moral conflicts and making mistakes, nice guys can still have flaws.
Superman is meant to show the best of us, inspire ourselves to be better, and that can happen even more so with him overcoming moral dilemmas. My preferred take is the John Byrne Man of Steel run, which was a bit more down to earth while still keeping to the heart of the character. That take was the one that inspired the TV Superman shows of the 90s. It showed you can still have fantastical elements while still having the story be grounded.
One of the current stories that has gained a lot of critical acclaim is All Star Superman. Grant Morrison’s love letter to the silver age as we see the last days of the Man of Steel play out in the 12 issue mini series. This is very much a ‘Superman’s perfect’ story and very much in the vision of the overpowered god, but turned up to eleven. It does work very well in part due to it being a mini series so it could be as outlandish as possible since it didn’t need to maintain an ongoing series with all of the fantastical elements keeping people’s interests and not get boring. It does become a problem that some fans now want any Superman stuff to be like All Star in its tone and silver age tropes. It shouldn’t be the default for the character as the rich history should be explored in many ways and not limited to one specific thing. It has lots of elements that should be used for a lot of Superman stories, but those aren’t limited to silver age trappings or power levels.
Shifting gears let’s have a talk about the over important part of the character, Clark Kent. He’s not a mask for Superman as some have said, Clark is who he was before the super started, and Superman is just what he can do. Though in some versions they’re both masks in a way and he doesn’t let those slip till he goes home to the Kent farm. I always preferred it as Clark being the more real side rather than an act he puts on. He isn’t Batman where being Bruce Wayne playboy is a distraction; Clark is who he wants to be outside of the fantastical nature of his life.
The glasses, oh the glasses, it is a standard superhero trope that if something obscures part of your face then it makes you unrecognizable. It’s a bit silly but part of the mythos of being in a superhero world. If you really want an explanation then think of them like the TARDIS in doctor who, no one questions the big blue box because it has a perception filter that makes it seem commonplace and unnoteworthy. The glasses work the same way, at least in my own head-canon.
All that being said there is one aspect of Superman that needs to be there above all else and while everything else can change there’s one part that is quintessential about the character.
It’s his humanity; that he does the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. Much like how Spider-Man is about responsibility and that there can be many different takes on the character but that responsibility needs to be at the centre of the character. Superman needs to have that humanity; that he shows us the best that we can be. Nothing sums it up quite like the above page from All Star Superman. Regardless of context or story that page should be able to fit into a version of Superman. Fans disagree on which version of Superman should be the measure for all Superman stories and I don’t think any one story should be the yardstick everything Superman related should be measured by. I do think if there is one thing to measure the character by would be this page.
Well those are some rambly thoughts on the Man of Steel. If anyone is interested in the comics I would recommend the John Byrne relaunch of the character after Crisis on Infinite Earths called The Man of Steel which is still quite good despite being 26 years old. There’s Grant Morrison’s love letter to the silver age and pretty much everything Superman in All Star Superman. And the Alan Moore classic Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? where we see the end of Superman which honours the characters long history. These are definitive be-and-end-all of the character; just some good places to start and showcases the different variety of Superman stories that can be told. Something in there to appeal to people’s different ideas on what Superman should be like.