The Case for Superman

There’s a new Superman movie out today that people have been hating on for months. It’s kind of a strange world when we can hate something for how terrible it is months before we even get to see it, but that’s the Brave New World of 24-hour news cycles, social media, and geek culture being cool.

In the film, traditional paragon of virtue Superman is the bad guy, and masked-vigilante-inflicting-his-childhood-psychosis-on-those-he-thinks-are-evil Batman is the good guy. (That oversimplifies the plot, but go with me here.) Director Zack Snyder has been pilloried for not understanding whom Superman is, dating back to his first film on the subject, Man of Steel.

One understands Batman’s worries in the film. Metropolis was razed by the battle between Superman and General Zod. And Superman is, for all practical purposes, a god. There is some reason to fear this guy flying around doing his super stuff unchecked.

But that’s not what Superman is about.

Ever since Frank Miller’s seminal work, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns in 1986, there has been a growing trend to make superheroes more real, more relatable. And frequently, making them human means making them dark. Their motives are questionable. The unintended consequences of their actions are dire. The idea that they have this incredible power is frightening, not inspiring.

Eventually, this trend found its way to Superman. He’s indestructible. He can shoot lasers from his eyes. He can destroy pretty much anything. Superman isn’t a hero; Superman is a terrifying force of nature — a hurricane or a tornado. What if he comes barrelling down on your town? What if it’s your loved one caught in the crossfire of his titanic battle with some other super dude he thinks is bad?

Perhaps this trend grew from the paranoia that descended on American culture following 9/11. Between the 1980’s and ’90’s dogma that you couldn’t trust the government and the post-9/11 fear that the bad guys could be anywhere, it suddenly seemed impossible to believe anyone could keep us safe. The only person you could rely on was you. So a nearly omnipotent super-being becomes a terrifying concept.

Regardless, Superman came to be seen less as heroic and more as dangerous. This is the view Batman takes of him in Snyder’s new film.

But that’s not who Superman is.

There is another equally wrong interpretation of Superman going around that strips him of his heroism. This one is also due to his invulnerability, but the reasoning is different. In this theory, Superman is not heroic because, if you’re invulnerable, it takes no courage to rush into danger.  “Superman’s not heroic. Superman’s not brave. If you can’t be hurt, you’ve got nothing to fear. Therefore, your actions aren’t courageous.”

That’s total bullshit.

What those who advance this theory and the Superman-is-dangerous one fail to understand is that Superman chooses to act in defense of humanity.

Superman doesn’t have to save anyone. He could just let life happen around him. The planes could crash. The aliens could invade. The tidal waves could crash into the coast and sweep away thousands of lives.

But wherever he can, Superman refuses to let that happen. He fights against it. He knows he is a god, and he chooses to use his power to protect mortals, demanding nothing in return. Nothing.

Likewise, Superman knows he is a god. He could subjugate humanity. At the very least, he could knock over a small country and rule it. He could steal gold or jewels or money or whatever he wanted and be confident that, short of finding some Kryptonite, there isn’t one thing anyone could do about it.

But he doesn’t. Superman chooses instead to defend humanity. Rather than rule, he serves.

That takes courage. That takes the kind of moral/ethical fiber that few people have. By choosing not to conquer or destroy, by choosing to protect, Superman demonstrates real courage. He doesn’t have to do any of the things he does. He does them only because it’s the right thing to do.

Because the truth is, there is no Superman. There is Clark Kent in a cape. Superman is not Kal-El, son of Jor-El of Krypton. He is Clark Kent, son of John and Martha from Kansas.

These simple farmers took in an orphan. They showed him kindness. They raised him. They taught him their values — that you have to protect the weaker, that you have to serve humanity, that your purpose on Earth (whether you were born here or were rocketed to Earth, the last son of a dying planet) is to make it a better place to live. For everyone.

Superman is a paragon of virtue. Superman is not a dangerous god, who could bad at any moment. He is an inspiration. He is someone to admire. He is, before anything else, human.

Superman is a hero.

And because he has godlike power, he is among the greatest of heroes. He chooses good.

If comic book writers and movie directors want to humanize this strange visitor from another planet, that’s how to do it.

Because that’s who Superman is.


4 thoughts on “The Case for Superman

    • I picked up a copy of it, but I haven’t had a chance to watch it yet. However, Richard Donner’s commentary track on the SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE special edition is a fascinating listen and makes me wish he’d been able to finish the project on his terms. Hindsight being 20/20, it’s interesting that, at the time, Warner Brothers thought the project was a total disaster and ordered him to stop filming and edit together something they could release to recoup some of their losses.

  1. I watched the Donner Superman 2 tonight, and it was a definite improvement over the theatrical release of Superman 2, John. Worth your time to sit down and watch.

    I haven’t watched the commentary in Superman 1, may do that sometime. I wasn’t aware, until researching Superman recently, that they had filmed 1 and 2 simultaneously, so I’ll be curious to go back and learn more about how Donner envisioned ending the first and second films vs. their theatrical conclusions.


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