In Defense of Superman

Superman is in contention to be my favorite superhero, but not by some sort of default choice; I actually have very definite opinions about him.*

If you don’t like Superman, you are wrong.

Maybe you don’t. Maybe you like Superman OK, or maybe your only understanding of the character comes from the movies. That’s ok. You’ll still be able to follow along with this article even if you don’t have the first idea what I mean by “pre-Crisis” or “post-New 52,” and you think that “Superman Red and Superman Blue” sounds like some movie tie-in Kool-Aid flavor twin pack.**

There’s one big thing you need to understand: you need to know that—believe it or not—there are some people who don’t like Superman.

Maybe you’re one of them. If you are: with respect, and tongue planted firmly in cheek, you are wrong.

The Three Stages of Superfandom

sasupl1But with a bit more seriousness, I think there are three phases of everyone’s opinion about Superman: First, utter adulation. This is usually for nerdy kids until they’re about 10 years old. I was certainly in that camp: Supes is cool, and appeals pretty broadly to kids who feel like outsiders, want to save the world, and feel a God-given desire to protect the helpless, but feel helpless themselves to do that.

superman-deadAfter the adulation stage comes that cynical stage. Many people stop here: “Superman is too powerful, too infallible, too uninteresting,” they say. Maybe they think they’ve grown out of him, or they see him as an ineffectual boy scout. Batman is the popular alternative around this time, and his more brooding nature captures the mind as the former Superman fan becomes a teenager.

But is he really too uninteresting? Just from a sales perspective, that doesn’t make any sense. The character has a 78-year history behind him; he’s probably the best-selling character in comics, he basically single-handedly invented the superhero genre and made DC & Marvel household names. Why would people keep buying it (and why would DC keep printing it) if it was so uninteresting?

Superman’s life is filled up in the safety of his friends.

The third phase of Superman opinion, and the reason DC keeps writing compelling stories about him, comes out of trying to put yourself into Superman’s high-top red boots. I realized it when I heard about “Superman Returns,” a video game based on the movie from the mid-2000s. It wasn’t a great game, but they made one interesting choice: Superman doesn’t have a life meter. He’s indestructible. Instead, the city of Metropolis does: his life is filled up in their safety.

The Tragedy of Kal-El

As a child, Kal-El lost his family and his entire species when Krypton was destroyed. He was sent to Earth and took on the persona of Clark Kent; eventually losing his family again, when Jonathan and Martha Kent died.

Superman flies through the sky, trailing behind him a bright red cape and a heavy chain of loss.

And his loss hasn’t ended there. Friends have died, loved ones have been put in danger, at the edge of death, banished to other realms, and he just…lives on. He has to face the fact that, despite all of his power and abilities, one day Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen and Bruce Wayne are going to die. If Lex Luthor doesn’t get them, Brainiac will. Or Bizarro. Or Darkseid. Or some random mugger on the street. Or if they survive all of that, one day they’ll get old and just slip away. Superman flies through the sky, trailing behind him a bright red cape and a heavy chain of loss.

And one day, Metropolis will pass away, too, turning to dust between his fingers. The Earth will break apart, and no amount of super-speed or invulnerability will stop it. And his life meter will be empty.

supersadSo he’ll find a new planet, meet new people and come to love them. But then everyone he loves will die again, and his entire life’s work will be void again. So maybe he’ll find another planet. And then another, and another, and another. But they will all pass away and he will remain, useless on the eternal scale, forever trying to stave off the inevitable. Alive, but forever lifeless.

That’s why he fights so hard now. He has to make a difference now, he has to save lives now. Because someday he won’t be able to; despite all his powers, he’ll just be useless.

Unprotected Protector

Superman’s great power and invulnerability, bestowed on him as a child…they’re not a blessing. They’re a terrible curse.

Not many Superman properties portray this well. The comics haven’t always done a great job with it. The films rarely get it right.  What they don’t understand is, Superman’s great power and invulnerability, bestowed on him as a child…they’re not a blessing. They’re a terrible curse. And one he has to live with forever.

That’s why I love Superman, and part of why I think he resonates with so many people. He displays what I consider the Human Condition very well: we’re all built to live for something greater outside ourselves, but if we choose the wrong thing it doesn’t matter how good we are at living for it; everything will eventually fail us. He is able to protect the helpless and save the world – something we all want to do – but like him, we will be left lifeless at the end, facing into the void after a lifetime with nothing to show for it. Everything and everyone will fail us…except One.

There is One whose shoulders can bear the weight of our purpose and desire, One in whose service we can’t fail. There is a Purpose whose universe will never end, and who gives us the incredible abilities to save those whom He has called us to save. He will fill up your life in Himself, giving you a purpose and a future.

He has a greater story than even the Pre-Crisis canon. And He has written you into it.

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* First of all, it’s a close race between him and Green Lantern (Hal Jordan, thank you very much), though I think Hal is more who I’d like to be while Supes is more who I like to watch. Second, I prefer Pre-Crisis Silver/Bronze Age Earth-One Superman. I realize that there is a lot of contention there, and yes there are some campy stories in that canon (even some real turkeys), but I stand by it. I think the stories in that continuity show the best breadth of writing and the most unique concepts and worldbuilding, and the Superman of that time period is the true Superman in my mind.

** Pre-Crisis refers to the time before the 1985/1986 DC megaseries event Crisis on Infinite Earths that was intended to simplify the line’s massive continuity sprawl by eliminating alternate universe settings (which…didn’t last long). It’s considered a dividing line in our universe as well as in theirs, setting a precedent for massive, continuity-spanning events. Post-New 52 refers to the time after a similar event, New 52 in 2011. Its attempt to change continuity lasted even less time than Crisis, reverted earlier this year with the release of Rebirth, an attempt to return the DC continuity back to something more like Pre-Crisis continuity.

Superman Red and Superman Blue were the split personalities of Superman that appeared in a non-canon story in 1963 and in a canon miniseries in 1998. As you might expect, he got better.

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