One night, I was having dinner with an otherwise-quite-smart fellow writer, when she said something that horrified me:
“I don’t like Superman.”
This was followed by some of the usual reasons why people claim not to like Superman, chief among them being: “He’s too powerful.”
The reasoning goes something like this: Since virtually nothing can hurt Superman, there is nothing to challenge or even threaten him. Therefore, there is no drama to the character, and therefore Batman is better. (For some reason, Batman always comes up…)
I’ve never — ever — understood this argument for not liking Superman. The “too powerful” argument, I think, boils down to a lack of imagination. Usually, the lack is on the part of the folks who told the stories that the haters in question have seen. And when all you see is lackluster, uninspired Superman stories, then, yeah, I can see not liking him. But that’s not the fault of the character — it’s the fault of the storytellers.
Sometimes, though, the lack of imagination is actually on the part of the hater. Sometimes, I guess, people just can’t see that a character who is “too powerful” is actually loaded with dramatic potential.
For one thing, you’ll notice that the finest Superman villains are the ones that test his resolve and his intellect, not his physical prowess. Lex Luthor, Brainiac, and others exist because they can strike Superman where he’s truly most vulnerable — his thoughts, his emotions. Even small-fry like the Puzzler and Toy Man are decent adversaries because their schemes usually can’t be simply punched or heat-visioned away; they must be out-witted. And then there’s Mr. Mxyzptlk (and, yes, I spelled that from memory — geek cred, mofo!), whose real threat to Superman rests not in his fifth-dimensional magical power to warp reality, but rather in his infuriatingly lunatic demeanor, which threatens to drive poor Supes nuts. Mxy is like the little brother who repeats everything you say…only with magic powers and the imagination and attention span of an ADD kid on LSD. No amount of super-strength will help you with that — you need a psyche of steel.
For another thing… Well, I’m sorry, but I just never bought the argument that “too powerful” means “less interesting” or “nothing to fight.” One oft-cited example of “too powerful” is that — at the height of his powers in the Silver Age — Superman was actually strong enough to move planets. “What the hell,” whined writers, “are we supposed to do to the guy who can juggle planets?”
I say: You think bigger. Alan Moore, for example, did just that in the nineties, when he wrote Supreme, a thinly (very thinly!) disguised version of Superman. How did he challenge a superhero who could move planets? Easy.
He had him fight a living galaxy.
Thinking big and being creative aren’t hard. Or at least, they shouldn’t be. If you can’t do either of them, you probably shouldn’t be writing. And you definitely shouldn’t be writing Superman.
You see, a story isn’t always (or just) about a threat. Or a danger. One of the things I love about Superman is his constant moral struggle. His constant decision where to draw the line of interference in the affairs of humans. Many writers have (most often clumsily, I grant you) flirted with this over the years — why is Superman wasting his time with purse-snatchers, when he should be bringing peace to the Middle East, for example?
The very fact that you can even pose this question in the first place, though, speaks volumes to the potential for the character. Given god-like power, what is the appropriate use of such power? I think we can all agree that imposing one’s will on a mugger caught in the act is one thing. Imposing one’s will on multiple sovereign nations is quite another. Superman decides — every day — that he will do one and not the other.
You can’t tell me that isn’t inherently interesting and dramatic. That’s inner turmoil, man! Superman is all about preserving life, and yet every day he chooses a moral course that demands innocent people die all over the world. Why does he do this? Is he right to do it? Why or why not? It’s a discussion that forms the core of human interactions, and it’s embodied in this one character. That’s not worth writing and reading about?
In the magnificent cartoon series Justice League Unlimited, the late, great writer Dwayne McDuffie summarized the drama and the tragedy of Superman in a brilliant line of dialogue. The scene: Earth is under assault by legions of alien invaders. The Justice League is stretched to the breaking point. And the literal god of evil is personally beating the snot out of Superman, really bashing him around. The bad guy chortles, amused that the weak humans won’t just give up and die, as is inevitable.
And then Superman rallies, throws a punch. And another. And another. He explains that his allies will never give up. And then, he says:
“Me? I’ve got a different problem. I feel like I live in a world made of cardboard, always taking constant care not to break something, to break someone. Never allowing myself to lose control even for a moment, or someone could die. But you can take it, can’t you, big man? What we have here is a rare opportunity for me to cut loose and show you just how powerful I really am.”1
And then he proceeds to dish out a beat-down that is quite breathtaking.
It’s that bit in bold that’s really amazing. It’s that bit in bold that reminds us that Superman could break the planet in half, but he struggles each and every day — with every single fucking breath he takes — not to do that.
That’s not interesting? That’s not dramatic? That’s not a challenge?
Jesus Christ, people! What more do you want?
Because here’s the thing: Ultimately, Superman could — easily — take over the world. Become our lord and master. He chooses not to. Not only does he choose not to, but he also chooses to live among us, disguised as one of us, as a way of understanding us. The moral code he lives by is not one that he developed in a vacuum — it was instilled by human beings (his adoptive parents), built on a foundation of essential decency, and it is a code he re-evaluates and re-commits to every single day.
In other words, he is inspired by us. He seeks to emulate the very best of us. Superman is God-as-ourboros, setting an example for us, while simultaneously learning from our example.
If you don’t think that that makes for one of the most compelling characters in pop culture, then I honestly don’t know what the hell you want.