Why Superman sucks
To be a writer and adapt Superman into movie form? Best job in the world, right?
No effing way. Adapting Superman to a movie would be horrendous.
I’m not going to write about the classic Superman movies of the late 70’s-early 80’s; nor am I going to write about the 2008 reboot of Superman; nor am I going to write about the new version of Superman coming out soon. Because inherently, in my gut, all these versions of Superman really suck. The only version of Superman that kind of got it in the ballpark was ironically a tv series called Smallville, and even that started to suck as soon as Clark Kent became more and more certain of his “destiny” of becoming Superman.
The basic problem is this: Superman is really an alien who is a better version of ourselves, who takes it upon himself to be the moral, virtuous ideal that we cannot be. But in order to be the moral and virtuous ideal, he has all the power in the universe over us. In effect (and I will elaborate on this later) the existence of Superman negates our existence. Superman is the purest expression of our hatred of ourselves.
But first, dramatically speaking, just on a purely technical level, writing something interesting about Superman is hard. Why? Because there is no tension in Superman. Interest comes from tension, and tension from conflict. If Superman is Superman because he is smarter, stronger, morally upright, and incorruptible–basically an immortal god–really, what is so interesting about him then? Where is the conflict? Essentially, there is none, because for Superman to have true conflict, he would have to be weak. Like, really weak. Like, a human being-weak.
A writer has to be damn-near brilliant to write a really good Superman story. I’m sure there are numerous stories written in the Superman mythology that explore these moral tensions. The majority of them, I’m equally sure, are maudlin and boring. The only way to make Superman really interesting is to expose the sore and push the envelope: Superman becomes corrupt. And how to make the incorruptible corrupt? By making the incorruptible itself the source of corruption.
The most interesting Superman stories I’ve read are when Superman becomes a super-villain because of his moral righteousness. The classic Batman graphic novel “The Dark Knight Returns” features a jingoist Superman in a Reaganesque-cum-dictatorship America who serves as the President’s puppet in a war against Russia; this sets up an inevitable final conflict with Batman, the epitome of rebel. Frank Miller, the writer, at that inevitable final conflict between Superman and Batman, softened and complicated Superman’s formerly one-dimensional jingoism by having Superman explain that if he didn’t become the President’s puppet, the President would have killed off all the heros such as Batman and Green Arrow. But really, when you think about it, if Superman is now willing to wage war on behalf of America, he could deal with the moral complication of removing from office a disgusting lech who is able to manipulate Superman’s inner arrogance that lies underneath his moral superiority. But this duality is the very definition of hypocrisy. Miller’s genius was in using Superman’s moralistic rationalizations against him.
The other graphic novel depiction of Superman that got it right was again a darker version of Superman–or more “red”. “Red Son” depicts Superman if Superman fell to Earth and landed in Russia instead of America. He becomes corrupted into the Soviet ideology and becomes the savior of Earth–by becoming essentially its “benevolent” dictator-god. Again the subtle and clever move on part of the writer was to use Superman’s supposedly god-like morality and question it, to show how it can be corrupted. The graphic novel was brilliant in other ways as well, such as using the conflict between the brilliant Lex Luthor and the superpower of Superman as a means to explore themes of capitalism vs. communism, mind vs. body, freedom vs. safety, and ultimately evolution, time, and the endless circle of birth and death.
But these are brilliant writers who are working with really bad clay. Superman itself as a comic book character is, when you think about it, really horrendous. A god-like deity who catches bad guys but, with his god-like power, never actually changes the Earth? The tension is as apparent as a pulsating boil. And you realize that the tension of Superman isn’t in himself: it’s between him and us mere mortals. Because inherently, a character like Superman can only evoke reactions on the extreme ends of the spectrum: worship and idolatry (because he is so powerful he may as well be a god), or hatred and revulsion (because of a) his power, and b) the inherent message of Superman is that we as human beings will *never* be like Superman; we will never evolve, we will never be better than what we are, for it takes an alien to watch us and protect us from each other).
The final subtle sub-theme of Superman is the very exploration of what God means to us: that we need something non-human and alien to protect us from ourselves; that we are children that will never grow up, will never mature, will never learn from our mistakes, and will, indeed, inevitably destroy ourselves. The very existence of Superman showcases to ourselves the failure of history to indeed *not* repeat itself. Superman is the expression of our mistrust of ourselves, our self-hatred; the epitome of our insecurity. He is everything that we want to be–immortal, indestructible–with the added ability to temper the possible negative uses of that power by himself–resulting in super-morality. Who watches the ultimate Watchman? He himself does. He is Plato’s philosopher-king. He is Plato’s Perfect version of humanity–which is ironic, considering again, he isn’t even human.
But the interesting thing is, because any ability to dramatize such a character would inevitably result in Apocalypse, there can really be no tampering with Superman in a moral sense without some mighty one-off exploration of such a doomsday-scenario: Superman becomes the world dictator; Superman starts going insane and using human heads for soccer games. Cue graphic novel that’s a one-off. Oh, that writer is really great in depicting Superman in that one-off, imaginary, alternate-world scenario. Back to normal, safe comic book storylines where he admonishes a child who forgot to bring back his overdue library book!
My overall point is this: the contentious and ambitious statement that any comic book theme–indeed, the purpose of “comic books” in the first place–deals in the conflict between morality and power. Of course, lots of stories–indeed, probably all of them–deal with a remarkably similar theme. So what makes comic book heroes different? It is the underlying desire on part of the writer/artist to render a character who wants to fundamentally change the world, and discovering the impossibility of doing so. Hence the devolution of comic-book stories into so much fight-of-the-week. And Superman, just as he is super in all things human, is super as well in this comic-book instance: the perfect comic-book epitome of a character who has all the power in the world, and the inability to actually use it.
It makes you wonder if that is an attitude we have towards God. One can argue that Jesus is essentially the first comic-book hero. If Jesus is an alien, it would sure explain a lot.