Will Huston recently wrote me an email asking me to write about the appeal of Superman:
You’ve already done insightful pieces on Lois Lane and Lex Luthor, but I need something to sell people on reading Superman. A lot of my friends think he’s boring, or overpowered, which I don’t get, but I’m having trouble articulating my argument.
The appeal of Superman is quite simple and one that is frequently misunderstood by most people because they automatically want to turn him into a Jesus analogue. Admittedly, the reasons for Superman being cast in people’s minds as a Jesus analogue are pretty obvious and straightforward: the combination of godly power1 with a seemingly bottomless well of compassion and grace. It’s something that just hits the switch in our literary-critic mode that says “hey! Jesus!”
And it’s wrong beyond the most obvious and superficial level. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t see use; of course it does. But it’s still far too simple to really do the character justice.
Superman isn’t a Jesus analogue because, unlike Jesus, his moral vision is not imposed. The word of Jesus is the word of God2 and therefore what he says goes, dictation straight from the Almighty. Superman is the exact opposite: a man whose moral vision comes not from a source exterior to humanity but from humanity itself, via Ma and Pa Kent, who are themselves immensely decent people. He ultimately isn’t a received savior, regardless of the origin of his powers; he’s Superman, the apotheosis of what human virtue can be. He’s an aspirational figure first and foremost.3 There’s a reason people get S-symbol tattoos; they have meaning in a way that other superhero images just don’t.
But that’s only the surface of why Superman is a compelling figure and an engaging source of story. See, once you get past him being the aspirational figure that he is, you have to start wondering how and why he is that figure, what it means to be. People like to talk about how villains are more interesting, but with rare exceptions (like Lex Luthor), they really aren’t – they’re a base desire manifested in human form without the usual limitation we expect, an inversion of the norms. Similarly most heroes are just confirmation of those norms. Geoff Johns’ reimagining of Barry Allen as someone who became a cop because his mother died is a good example, framing virtue in simple cause-and-effect terms that are ultimately kind of limiting. DC has gradually introduced backstories explaining why most of their characters are superheroes, usually framing it in this manner. Hawkman is a superhero because of an ancient curse. Green Lantern is a superhero because his father died when he was little. Batman – duh. And so forth. You can call it the Batmanification of superheroes or the Marvelization – since Marvel’s characters often fall into superheroism by accident or happenstance when you consider their origins, which is often limiting in an entirely different way – but it is creeping and increasingly omnipresent in superhero storytelling.
Not so with Superman. Superman isn’t Superman because of some tragedy which informed his growth. Pa Kent does not die because of a failure on Clark’s part – indeed in most versions of the story, Pa dies when Clark is already Superman.4 Clark’s knowledge of Krypton doesn’t make him a superhero either; again, this is something he finds out later, too late to traumatize him. Clark is Superman because he decides to be Superman without being prompted. That’s more complex and nuanced a story than “somebody did something to me.” Superman’s story, which informs his entire character, is one of someone who chooses to be good of his own free will and agency, with no influence other than moral upbringing. That’s both more compelling than the “somebody did something to me” origin most superheroes have and more difficult to work with.56
The better class of Superman Elseworlds tend to bear this out. As I said a while ago, Red Son doesn’t quite work for me as a story, but it does help show what Superman would be without that wellspring of grace.7 Speeding Bullets similarly demonstrates – and fairly eloquently at that – how Superman simply isn’t right as a bog-standard wronged vigilante.
That, for me, is what is ultimately compelling about the character. I accept that not everybody will agree with me and that some will consider Superman’s moral strength a source of boredom rather than interest – and to be fair, when he’s written poorly it is boring, since his morality can become trite or boring in untalented hands, or worse a writer can simply get it dramatically wrong.89 But in a good story, I personally think Superman’s morality doesn’t make him dull; I think it makes him be what we all strive for, or should.
And indeed, the point of Superman in a way is that he never stops striving to be that thing either; his morality isn’t something innate, but something he actively works to be. To quote from Tom de Haven’s It’s Superman! (a novel, incidentally, that you should read):
Somehow he got here. Somehow he did. And somehow Lois Lane got here, too. She has the loveliest eyes he will ever see and he wants to see those eyes every single day, forever. And if she won’t love him, love him, he will still love her, love her all the more. And because he will – he will go on out and do the best he can, like everybody else.
Just like everybody else.
- Whatever Superman’s origin might be, for all intents and purposes he is a godly being and that’s all that matters. [↩]
- This is by way of being analysis, not declaration, but you probably guessed that already. But if you didn’t, there you go. [↩]
- Consider the ending of The Iron Giant. [↩]
- Or at least Superboy. [↩]
- The other major superhero who doesn’t fall into the “somebody did something to me” well is Spider-Man, who’s ultimately a superhero because of something he did to himself. See? There’s a reason he’s the most important character at Marvel. [↩]
- Also, Dr. Strange, although he’s arguably not major. [↩]
- Not that this was new, as Evil Superman, or Non-Virtuous Superman at least, is not a new idea and has not been for a very long time, but anyway. [↩]
- See Straczynski, J. Michael. Which is a shame, because the idea of Superman undergoing a morality crisis after basically having a traumatic breakdown is not a bad one in and of itself, but “Grounded” was just executed so poorly that I think future writers will avoid the idea. [↩]
- See also JLA: Act of God, wherein when Superman loses his powers it takes three issues of him moping like a loser to get over it and become a fireman – which, no, if Superman lost his powers he’d just shrug, accept it and move on, doing the best he can, because that’s who he is. [↩]