Superman: Our Ideals in a Cape

Superman

Image via Wikipedia

This is the first in my odd little series taking about superhero characters. In my kickoff post I explained how in some ways they are the modern Gods – created in our image to put into stories to help us understand ourselves better. How does Superman, probably the most famous of this clan, fit?

The Hero

The last survivor of the planet Krypton, Kal-El was sent to Earth by his loving parents as his planet exploded. Found by a loving Kansas farm couple, the Kents, he was raised as Clark Kent and taught to believe in solid American, midwestern, values.  As his powers began to develop, fueled by our yellow sun, he discovered he was faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. To protect his identity he took up the mantle of Superman and became a defender of Truth, Justice, and the American Way.

Why We Love Him

Superman is our ultimate, idealized version of ourselves and humanity. All the things we believe we can accomplish, and all the best we see in ourselves.

Superman making his debut in Action Comics #1 ...

His name applying originally to a telepathic villain, but over time writers took the tough character that appeared in Action Comics and turned him nearly into a God. At one point he was so overpowered, with crazy things like super-ventriloquism and super disguises and the power to move the moon from its orbit, that it became difficult to even tell new stories. When you can time travel and have your own super-horse, what else is left to do. The multi-dimensional comic event Crisis On Infinite Earths was needed to clean up this silliness and just make Superman “really, really tough”, but again his powers began to grow. He is our domination over the forces of the world, the power we like to imagine within ourselves as a species, and that’s projected in the near invincibility Superman inherits.

While his powers reflect our interpretation of our own might, Superman’s human side also reflects our ideal view of what it means to be human. He is just, uncorruptable, kind, merciful, tolerant, and resolute. Take the best traits of man, assemble them together, and you’ll have Superman’s psychological profile.  It’s admittedly an American take on values, but since Superman is an American creation that isn’t much of a surprise. Many of Superman’s greatest battles take place within the sphere of his character – pursuing Lois Lane, refusing to kill, accepting his role as a leader and inspiration. Yet these are always struggles of his better nature, and you never see Superman struggling to pay the bills or grappling with insecurity. He is a “Big Blue Boy Scout”, carrying our ideal moral code.

So great is our idealization of ourselves in Superman, that some argue he has become a Christ figure: the son coming to earth with his incredible power and wisdom to protect and guide us. Others argue that he is so idealized that he has a reverse-identity: that Superman is his normal self, and Clark Kent is the being he dresses up and pretends to be.  I think both of these carry it too far, but are good examples of how much has been poured into this character so that he even stretches the boundaries of normal superheroes.

As A Character

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - MAY 23:  The Superman c...
Image by Getty Images via Daylife

As much as I’ve loved Superman since I was a kid, he is a poor character for storytelling. He has few flaws, and few challenges left to face. He has no story arc. He is enduring. Death holds no fear for him, and neither do horrible movies. He will always return to being the shining example, the icon we created to carry all our hopes and dreams for what we think makes humanity great.

It’s a good thing he has strong shoulders.

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About Jeff Moriarty

A dabbler in many arts, from Ignite Phoenix to Improv, and from Information Security to Screenwriting. Jeff loves creating new things, and tries his hand at many forms of writing from screenplays to prose. He pontificates on his personal blog, and helps authors get their works online.

Comments

  1. I always saw Superman as America’s response to fascism, communism, and other collectivist ideologies gone wrong. He was a way of teaching children that The Individual — through hard work and meticulous character — will triumph over evil.

    Though I also rather liked Quentin Tarantino’s analysis of Superman at the end of Kill Bill — the only superhero who is a weakling in disguise to assimilate to us.
    .-= Stace´s last blog ..Online news subscriptions are fine, BUT =-.

    • I think you’re spot on with some of Superman’s anti-facist roots. He is the unyielding Individual, unwaveringly fair yet steadfast in his beliefs.

      Kill Bill’s idea of Clark being the disguise is one of the ideas I was referring to. There’s an episode of Justice League Unlimited where Superman talks about the world looking like cardboard to him, and he can never really cut loose and push himself. It’s only that extreme human side of him that keeps his extreme power in check.

  2. Nice post Jeff. Superman is my favorite is superhero. I like his comics. Movies are awful not because of the character because they are glossy effects on poor writing and acting.

    I agree he is represents an idealized humanity. But I don’t square that with a poor character for story telling. I think what makes Superman the best superhero character are a few things.
    - Clark Kent is the true hero – sacrificing his own desires to be human. He is a Pinocchio, wanting to just wants to be a real boy but he understands the responsibility he carries as Superman. For all that Superman gains, Clark losses out.
    - Superman is a story of resolving humanities dark desires. Superman represents what we could be and how we fight to struggle to retain what is good in our souls. Each battle he faces is that struggle. There is no better framework for storytelling
    - He kicks ass. His power is so beyond belief, and you just want to see him use it and kick Darkseid’s butt or outwit Luthor

    Anyway, great post. I could chat all day about these characters. I look forward to your next post.

    • Bob! Always good to hear from ya, Sir!

      I think Superman’s movies struggle in part because he is so difficult to work with. Clark is what Superman wants to be – or tries to be – as part of his human upbringing, but will never quite reach. Pinocchio is not a bad analogy.

      The challenge I see is that he find it all that hard to be so… super. It’s the struggle that makes for good stories, and while I love a good Superman battle, there’s rarely many shades of gray. I think it is in part why his death battling Doomsday was such a big deal. Many comic book heroes have died (and come back) but not Superman! He never faced anything like that before, just like he never really struggled with using his X-ray vision to peek at women, or his powers for any financial gain. Those are very human failings, but just not something Superman fights.

      Superman almost lives in a world by himself, even among the heroes. His battles are always grander, bigger, and crazier, but I think when you gain that sort of “epicness” you have a tradeoff along the way.

  3. I like that point, he is in a world by himself. That sums him up pretty well. This makes for a good Sunday rant:-)
    I think if you look at Superman as a story about a man with powers you are right, it’s all a bit too easy. But if you consider him an alogory for humanity then for me at least, it makes more sense. The battle he faces is to not letting the human race down. More is at stake than a man. You can also think of him something like Job & Data. Superman’s humanity is always tested, just as Job’s faith was. He could be like other supers and find moral loopholes, but he wants so much to be the a good human he is overcompensating because he is actually not human at all. That is the constant conflict, and the test is not of the man, but one of humanity each time he goes to battle.
    When Doomsday killed Superman, it marked for DC universe a new paradigm, where the human spirit wasn’t just something that could be beat to the edge but ever resiliant and always come back. DC was now saying the human spirit and hope itself can be killed.
    .-= Bob Duffy´s last blog ..bobduffy: Good post Jeff! RT @jmoriarty: Writing blog: Superman: Our Ideals in a Cape http://bit.ly/d6BkfW =-.

  4. Actually the animated versioons have been giving him flaws. He’s portrayed as a fundementally decent guy, but he also feels anger and rage and even jealousy occasionally. The problem is that because he’s a frigging god, the consequences of him loosing it are difficult and more damaging. The animated series managed to make him both a compelling figure with occasional flaws (he has a harder time controlling when loved ones are in danger, and while he’s not as quick to anger as batman, when you do anger him, you want to get out of the way

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  1. [...] his exploits, heroic exploits, we pore over the drama of his life and we adopt or rebel against his ideals. Superman is THE superhero. All others owe him a debt. Enjoy this gallery of inspired sketches of [...]