Why Superman is a Great Character
Before anything else, let me just say that it is an honor to submit this article in the early morning hours on the first day of June in 2013, the month of the 75th anniversary of the world's first superhero. It truly feels meant to be. Happy birthday, Clark.
For too long now the Man of Steel has been the subject of arbitrary criticism and a lack of proper respect. Instead of attacking the boy in blue, let's see why he is, in actuality, a continually fascinating character to watch onscreen, and has been for seventy five years now.
“In the pantheon of superheroes, Superman is the most recognized and revered character of all time”
Such is the first line of the official synopsis for director Zack Snyder’s new film “Man of Steel.” And it’s true. Since his introduction in 1938’s “Action Comics #1,” the character has become one of the mainstays of American pop culture, arguably the single most famous and iconic American character ever created.
Yet in the past few decades, he has suffered from a severe lack of the proper respect he deserves in that regard. Iconic as he is, there are some who would argue that he is not actually a particularly interesting character.
“He’s too powerful,” they say. “He can’t be defeated, except for Kryptonite, and that’s a stupid plot device. It has also been said that the character is not flawed or dark enough, like other heroes. Film critic Richard Roeper actually said that he was “just too wholesome.”
Let us take a look at why the character of Clark Kent, also known as Superman, is a deep, complex, and fascinating character to read and to watch on screen.
Now, before we delve into deep character analysis, we must first simply get out of the way the silly accusations that the character’s power level makes him invincible and his adventures easy. The first Superman film of this generation, Superman Returns, certainly did nothing to help the accusation that the character simply has bullets bounce off his chest and until somebody throws a green rock at him. That’s exactly the plot device that was reiterated in that film, and it suffered it’s share of criticism for it.
Other than that, some would say, the hero is never hurt. I’ve heard others try to explain that much of his adventures are made perilous simply the threat of others being in danger, and things like whether or not he can make it there in time or save everybody. And this is largely true (such as the plane crash in Returns).
Of course, I’m sure the people who make these complaints have never picked up a Superman comic in their lives. It is true, of course, that there have been points in the character’s history where his power level has soared above the ridiculous, and writers have had to scale it back. And the notion of putting the threat on others and his ability to save them has also been very true. But seventy-five years of comic books and so many external media adaptations have not been spent with a character who is safe from harm except for one plot device. Have people forgotten the infamous “Death of Superman” storyline from the 90s, in which the hero was simply beaten to death by a stronger foe?
Yes, Superman fights Lex Luthor, and plenty of other human villains. And yes, at times his powers are simply put to the test by his ability to rescue others. But those aside, Superman also fights villains who can match his power. It’s as simple as that. Just as Batman goes toe to toe with Bane, Superman battles Brainiac, Zod, Parasite, or Darkseid, in much larger, grander, and more epic battles. This is something the new film is certainly capitalizing on.
So, now that that’s out of the way, let us move on to more important matters.
“Strange visitor from another planet.” That’s how Superman is described in the classic opening to the radio and television series of old. But it’s not quite accurate. He is no visitor. Clark Kent grew up human, on a Kansas farm, going to school, watching baseball, and having trouble with girls. He’s a human, and an American, as far as his life tells him.
Yet he has always carried with him the simple knowledge that his origins are from a far off world. Adding to that, he grew up being able to bend steel in his bare hands and run faster than a locomotive. This incredible power had to be kept in check, and the knowledge of it had to be kept secret, from the time he was in Kindergarten. He had strong friendships with people like Lana Lang and Pete Ross, of course. But the truth abotu himself was something that no doubt made him feel like a freak and an outsider, he could only ever confide in with his parents, and he developed a particularly strong attachment to them.
But let’s not make his childhood sound too tragic. After all, he had the best, most loving parents anyone could ever ask for, and they did instill in him a solid base of All-American whitebread values.
(One of the great angels to the Sueprman story has always been that that rocket could have landed anywhere. It is because it had the good fortune of being found by Jonathan and Martha Kent that the world has the hero it has, making them almost the true heroes of the story. To see what could have been, see the Elseworlds comic "Red Son.")
Flash forward to adulthood, when he decides that he must turn his powers into a tool to help mankind on a large scale. And he becomes our greatest hero not only because of what he can do, but because of what he stands for. And he also does so by donning a bright red and blue tights. These things combine to lead to him becoming not just a hero who saves planes, but a symbol. Just as Bruce Wayne had to become a symbol of darkness and fear, Clark Kent had to become a symbol of light and hope for mankind. Now that, in its own way, is also very powerful. But people do have a point: it’s only interesting if he is still a real character and not just an image. And just because he paints a more positive picture does not mean he is without his share of demons.
Of course, for a long time now, the character has drawn many comparisons to Jesus Christ. The different film and television adaptations have certainly enforced this. In both the classic Donner film and the upcoming Snyder film, the allegory could not be more clear. He is shown from being sent from the heavens by his father, who, in both film versions, gives him a stirring speech on being a beacon of hope for mankind, to lead them to what they can be. The creators of “Smallville” also described him as a Christ-like figure, and his mission does seem to be one of Messianic value.
But, of course, he is not Jesus, and amidst all the similarities, his story is, in many ways, the opposite of Christ’s. And that’s where it gets fun and interesting.
Jesus Christ, as you’ll remember, literally is God, completely morally perfect and worthy (and just slightly more powerful than being able to lift the California fault line), who chose to come into the world of mere humans and humble himself among us completely, even letting himself be humiliated and tortured to death to save and lead the people of this world towards heaven.
Now, Clark Kent is a good man, but just a man, who uses whatever power he has been granted and garbs himself in bright primary colors, including a cape, giving off an impression of great power and strength, even regality. However, he does this not for his own ego, but because that is how he is called to be an inspiration for people: a light. And so the people do see him, if not as a god, as an ideal to strive toward, a role model for the whole world.
And yet under that flowing red cape is a simple fellow from Kansas who has all eyes turned on him. A good man, yes. A very good man. But one whose great power and image extend beyond who he is. Which is the opposite of Christ. (Though not in a bad way)
I have heard it said that, in our time, people would be all too willing to lean towards a false messiah offering an image of physical strength and bright fame rather than an image of humility and self-sacrifice. In his world, people may, in fact put him on too high a pedestal, see him as their ideal, perfect role model for them to strive for, and not for the right reasons. As a simple man, (and one probably from a strong Christian background) I doubt that sits very well with him.
This is all not to mention the fact that every natural disaster, every burning building, and every kitten in a tree is something he can help with, and something those very strong morals of his make him feel obligated to do. In this way, his values become his antagonist. It gives new meaning to having the weight of the world on your shoulders. I believe the clinical term for that is a “messiah complex.”
In both of these ways, those red and blue tights, all of that “ideal of hope” business, must just be one big burden. There is even had a song by Five For Fighting written about these issues for the Man of Steel: “It’s not easy to be me.” Please see iTunes for further information.
But what about his normal, every day, social life? Is it any less introverted than his childhood? In his everyday life as Clark Kent, in stark contrast to his image as Superman, he feels the need to mortify himself, putting on a pair of glasses and hiding behind and air lowliness.
(The extent to which he downgrades himself has been taken to different levels through the years, the version played by Christopher Reeve being the most pathetic. In the 1980s the persona was done away with completely, but more recently it is shown that while does still display his own real, winning personality, the external degradation is still present. Either way, he is still needing to hide the truth about himself from those around him.)
And at his place of work, the woman whom he loves is madly in love with him. But only with his Superman persona.
Here is where we should insert that, in spite of his humility and the pressure it puts on him, it is also true that he very much does enjoy being Superman. It does at least give him an outlet, finally allows him to come out of his shell, to show the whole world his powers and actually be liked for them. You can tell he often gets a kick out of it. And it certainly impresses the woman he loves, Lois Lane.
Around her, as Superman, he gains an especially confident, even cocky, swagger and smile. Yet at the end of the day, none of them, the people or Lois, really know him, they only know the ideal, the symbol, and he goes back to his apartment alone every night.
Finally, people, even a woman, like him for his strange powers, and he’s afraid that’s all she loves. After all, if she fell so hard for Superman, why not have the same immediate affection for Clark Kent? It is clearly because she is more in love with what he can do, with the symbol, with his strength. And so he chooses to keep the truth from her and just keeps hoping that one day she will be able to love him for who he is as a man.
With most superheroes, it’s sometimes hard to tell why they don’t just tell their love interests their identity from the beginning. But with Superman, it’s achingly clear.
In the meantime, the only people who know his secret remain his parents. (In the old days of the comics, of course, his parents were dead. But the decision to reinvent the comics with them alive has only added to what makes the character great.) And because of this, he continues to spend an inordinate amount of time with them for a grown man. And while in Metropolis, outside of his partnership with Lois, who is his closest friend? A teenage cub reporter.
So, here we have a man who has always felt isolated and introverted, feelings which are only alleviated by putting on a show for a world which he now is eternally responsible for. And on top of it all, not that world, nor even the most important person in to him in it, can know who he is. He spends most of his free time with his parents, and his best friend is a teenager! But when urgent help is called upon, when the world needs him, this simple nice guy, this farmboy from Kansas, will always whip off those glasses, tear open that shirt, and do what he can to be there faster than a speeding bullet.
Not all of this has been present or especially stressed in the comics throughout his entire history. It's all been brought together through seven and half decades of comics, film, and television, and stands today as an enormous mythology.
And now I feel I have to make the opposite point: I do not mean to make Superman sound like an overly depressing character. I have had thus far to focus only on his demons. The truth is that he has a good life, with a good job, family members that love him, as well as strong friendships that he holds dear.
The point is that he does still have his issues, as does everybody. Nevertheless, he keeps his chin up and maintains an incredibly positive attitude. This paints a different picture from someone like Batman. But not every character is supposed to be as dark as Batman, or as obviously flawed as Tony Stark. And there is nothing wrong with a character who is simply a very good, positive person. One can love Batman for being dark and depressing, and Superman for being light and inspiring It is why they make for such a great team and an unlikely pair of friends.
All of this combines to create a truly inspiring, life-affirming mythology, and contrary to what some have said, still does not lose the necessary drama. In short, Superman is a great character.
And I personally can't wait to see this brought out in his latest motion picture here in a couple of weeks.
SIDE NOTE: Now, of course, as years go by, things evolve and stories must eventually reach a conclusion. Lois Lane eventually did fall for Clark Kent and the two were married. Does this mean the character loses all interest? Of course not. It opened the door for new kinds of stories and adventures. He’s still that simple kid from Kansas, with all his insecurities, rushing off to save the day, even with the woman he loves waiting for him at home; someone he can talk to and relate to. And, of course, he still gets to get into epic battles with evil supervillains.
But, in case you missed it, DC Comics has seen fit to reboot their entire universe. And Clark Kent and Lois Lane are now once again in the position of “will-they-won’t-they” for a whole new generation of readers. And since this was always one of the best aspects of the character, I hope the newest generation gets to enjoy it. In addition to the comic pages, the story begins again with “Man of Steel,” in theaters this June.
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