Why the world still needs Superman

Photo courtesy of DC Comics

Photo courtesy of DC Comics

“What’s so funny about truth, justice, and the American way?”

If you asked your average Joe their opinion on Superman, I can almost guarantee that you will get a response like this: 

“I don’t know man I just think he’s a boring character”

Today, most people just simply do not like Superman. A lot of people will say that he’s too powerful to have interesting conflicts, that he is too good to be an interesting character, and that he is too old-fashioned for the modern era which is all true…. if you don’t know how to write Superman. 

A lot of people seem to emphasize that he’s just too powerful and that a man of steel can’t be interesting. He can fly, he has the strength of a god, can shoot beams out of his eyes, and is invulnerable. He surely can’t have interesting conflicts with a power set like that right? Wrong. Legendary Superman writer, Grant Morrison puts it best: 

“American writers often say they find it difficult to write Superman. They say he’s too powerful; you can’t give him problems. But Superman is a metaphor. For me, Superman has the same problems we do, but on a Paul Bunyan scale. If Superman walks the dog, he walks it around the asteroid belt because it can fly in space. When Superman’s relatives visit, they come from the 31st century and bring some hellish monster conqueror from the future. But it’s still a story about your relatives visiting.”

At the end of the day, Superman still has human struggles. He has a family to protect, a job to maintain, bills to pay, and more. People often forget that before the super came the man. Clark Kent was a farm boy raised in Kansas by loving parents not some alien god from the clouds. When writers or audiences portray him as some emotionless godlike figure, they completely miss the point of the character. The interesting conflicts with Superman don’t come from the bombastic action but from the more human elements. The best Superman stories are rarely about physical conflicts they are about psychological battles that are beyond his control.

In the mid to late 1980’s the comic book industry took a radical shift in telling darker and more mature stories. Books like “Batman Year One,” “The Dark Knight Returns,” “Watchmen,” and “Daredevil Born Again” brought darker and more cynical worldviews to the world of comics while still undoubtedly being superhero stories. Since then, comics became more mature and nuanced which forced writers to start adapting characters for the modern age.

It seems like people think Superman was left behind in this process and in a sense, yeah he kinda was. Batman stories were changed forever during this period and the character began embracing the darker and more psychological aspects of the character instead of the swashbuckling adventures of the 60s and 70s. Superman however got modernized stories but he never actually changed all that much on a fundamental level.

Because of this, people think that Superman is just outdated and unchanging but that’s not really the case. Batman is a character that has constantly shifted and changed over the years even to the point where the fundamental ideas and meaning of the character have changed and fluctuated. He went from a pulp noir character who killed people to a swashbuckling goofball and finally a grim detective with an indomitable will and unwavering desire to protect human life. Superman on the other hand has always stood for one thing, hope.

He is the Man of Tomorrow, the embodiment that we can always strive for a better future so in a sense, he never needed to change because he is a symbol of change. Superman represents a timeless ideal that we can all strive to live up to, the idea that there is always hope for a better tomorrow. I get it, it’s easy to see those ideas of hope as outdated in a world where people increasingly see life in shades of grey rather than black and white. 

Almost every modern interpretation or imitation of Superman depicts him and his ripoffs as these evil corrupted gods. “Injustice” shows Superman becoming a fascist dictator, “The Boys” has Homelander be a psychotic murderer and sociopath, and “Invincible” depicts Omni Man as another fascist psycho. Even Zack Snyder’s DC movies teased an eventual evil turn for Superman. A lot of people think that these versions are more realistic and interesting but 90% of the time stories where Superman is evil just come off as painfully edgy and don’t understand the character. Even Quentin Tarantino completely missed the mark on Superman in “Kill Bill Vol 2” by trying to say that Clark Kent is Superman’s critique of humanity.

He’s not some goody to shoe boy scout for America nor is he some Christlike figure like Jesus. As I said, he was a man before he was super and that humanity despite his god-like powers is what drives him. He’s stubborn, headstrong, and naive but he also has an unshakable faith in the goodness of humanity. He represents the best of us and gives us an unending ideal to live up to. He’s inspiring because he’s human not because he’s a god.

Photo courtesy of Games Radar
Photo courtesy of Games Radar

You might say that’s just overly optimistic and cheesy but to be frank, what’s so wrong in believing in the good in humanity? In these divided and polarized times, Superman is now more relevant than ever. It’s easy to be cynical. It’s easy to find everything that’s wrong in the world. It’s easy to mask the fear of being disappointed by the world by losing faith in it but optimism is harder. It requires you to look at all those awful aspects of our world and still find hope, and that is what Superman represents.

“Dreams save us. Dreams lift us up and transform us. And, on my soul, I swear until my dream of a world where dignity, honor, and justice becomes the reality we all share, I’ll never stop fighting. Ever.” – Superman

Superman is the very embodiment of what a superhero represents. Superheroes aren’t inspiring because they overcome huge threats and have cool powers. They are inspiring because they see and fight against the worst that humanity has to offer yet at the end of the day, they still find a reason to find hope. When people say anyone can be a superhero they mean that anyone can find a reason to believe in humanity. Not all of us will be great or come to save the world but if we can just help one person that would be enough to make a difference.

“The world will always have dark corners, and black and white come in thousands of shades of grey, but here are seven people, good and true, come what may. They have the power to enslave the world but work tirelessly to keep it free. They don’t succumb to envy, greed, or jealousy, and their sense of purpose is driven by an unshakable faith in mankind’s basic good. They are, in the best sense of the word, childlike. It is the very essence of the word superhero”- Darwyn Cooke

Comic recommendations:

All-Star Superman – Grant Morrison

Superman For All Seasons – Jeph Loeb

Superman Smashes the Klan – Gene Luen Yang

Superman Red and Blue – various authors

Superman Last Son of Krypton – Geoff Johns

Superman Up in the Sky – Tom King

Superman Birthright – Mark Waid

Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? – Alan Moore

For the Man Who Has Everything – Alan Moore

Kingdom Come – Mark Waid