A Superman Fan Living in a Batman World: What Man of Steel Needs to Do to Succeed
With the greatly-anticipated arrival of the new Superman movie, Man of Steel, audiences are taking a long hard look at the world's premier superhero to evaluate what has made him one of the most popular fictional characters in human history, how he is different from his competitors, and what kind of themes should be present (and absent) in any great Superman story. As a collector of comics for 25 years (1300 of which feature Superman), and as a hopeless nerd who thinks about these things way too much, I believe I am well-suited to the task of setting these expectations.
I'm a Superman fan living in a Batman world.
Whenever people tell me that they prefer Batman to Superman they almost always explain that it's because Batman is just a regular guy and Superman has too much power to be relatable. As a huge fan of both characters, I'll tell you that this betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the superhero genre. Batman isn't a regular guy; he's a billionaire with eidetic memory whose gadgets mimic any of Superman's natural abilities. If Superman needs to get somewhere quickly he flies. If Batman needs to get somewhere quickly he also flies. In a jet. Superman vanishes with super-speed, Batman with ninja magic. Heat vision is to exploding-batarangs as invulnerability is to battle-armor. In terms of driving the narrative, they have virtually identical problem solving attributes.
The real difference between the characters comes from the themes which are hidden within their adventures. Batman's story is one of ability. Can he wage a successful one-man war on crime? Can he solve the riddle? Can he endure? With his unwavering resolve, it's no surprise that Batman is perhaps the most inspirational character in the cartoon genre. It's why he's attracted such a huge following, not only within the story, but also without. He reinforces the idea that motivation is the most powerful tool in one's utility belt, and reminds us that we can overcome any challenge, if only we can muster the courage.
Superman is posed with a different question - a question that is no less a part of our daily lives, but one that I believe is a great deal more interesting. As a being of God-like power, Superman's theme is not one of fortitude, but purpose. It's less about what he can do, and more about what he should do. He has the absolute power to rewrite the way his fictional world operates. Please consider that, if the mood struck him, he could eradicate the entire Republican Party in a single day. And not just the politicians; he could turn the whole gun-owning, pro-life populace to ash by lunch-time. He could overthrow corrupt governments by rush-hour, dismantle the world's nuclear arsenal by dinner, and have you praying to Rao by Sunday morning. Would you be able stop yourself from imposing your values on the world if you had this level of power? Would you be able to behave responsibly?
Superman's theme, "should I..." is so compelling because it's the background noise of every action we each take. We ask ourselves whenever we face temptation, or are overcome with anger, gluttony or sadness. It's a question of moral direction. Superman is presented with that quandary by just walking out his front door.
Sins of the Father
Every so often someone gets their hands on a comic book character and decides that they need to add some mature, real-world content to elevate the story. Let's toss in some rape; that's some real sh*t right there (e.g. anything written by Alan Moore). And Superman saves people, therefore he is a savior, therefore he is obviously an allusion to Jesus Christ our personal lord and savior. Though I would agree that the best science fiction and adventure stories invoke some greater philosophy or allude to a particular social issue, tacking Christ-like symbolism onto Superman is almost always an attempt to add gravitas onto something inherently cartoonish.
Now, a person could make a strong case for the religious subtext of the character. For example, it may not be an accident that his Kryptonian name "Kal-el" sounds like "Ishmael," "Israel" and "Bethel." El was the Canaanite high-god, and the suffix "el" means "god" even now ("Israel" literally means "Triumphant with God"). Can't be a coincidence, right? Richard Donner obviously took inspiration from Catholicism's Holy Trinity when he framed the relationship between Superman and his father, and I'm sure we all recall how ham-fisted Bryan Singer's approach was to these same themes. He even posed Superman like Christ on the cross at the climax of the film. Those stories are part of Superman's history now, and can certainly be used to support the assertion that Superman is thematically messianic.
What frequently gets forgotten or dismissed whenever these themes creep back into our lives like virulent herpes, is that the creators of Superman were Jewish and would not have given a crap about Christ. It's more likely that they were inspired by the story of Moses, if there was any religious inspiration at all. And, after a fair amount of investigation into the character's origins, I believe it's most likely that the religious allusions are almost entirely constructed in hindsight, and that Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster framed the character on familiar science-fiction tropes and traditional heroic archetypes. After all, Superman is an orphan. He has special powers. He suffers tragedy at a young age and is almost killed as a result. If he has any similarity to Christ or Moses, it's because all three of them (along with Harry Potter, Snow White, and hundreds of others) share many of these same archetypal characteristics.
I'm all for taking comic-book characters seriously and insuring that there is a consistency to their thoughts and actions, and I completely support the responsible telling of adult stories in a setting that can otherwise be awfully silly. It can and has been done successfully hundreds of times. But there is nothing that will make me lose interest in a story quicker than injecting empty and meaningless symbolism where it doesn't belong.
DUEL IDENTITY (deliberate pun, for you pedants):
In the past 75 years Superman stories have been published in thousands of comic books, a ground-breaking radio series, both short and full-length films, novels, and several very successful television series. Thousands of people have contributed to these stories: publishers have guided his actions, special effects technicians have made his eyes smolder, and voice actors have given him the breath of life. On several very special occasions we've even been made to believe that a man can fly (thanks, Tom Welling). Most importantly, an audience of millions has devoured these works with a passion never seen before on this planet. Superman defines pop culture.
Because of all these contributions however, it's sometimes easy to forget exactly who Superman is. Is he the lonely and terrifying alien or the friendly aw-shucks farm-boy? Is the clumsy Clark Kent a disguise he wears so he can mingle with humanity, or is Superman a noble façade produced to inspire others? Different artists have answered these questions a myriad of ways in the last 75 years, but all of the best Superman stories have grasped several fundamental truths:
Superman doesn't kill. A Superman who kills is terrifying. The moment he kills (or tolerates killing) he stops being an accessible wonder, and instead becomes a horrifying alien juggernaut.
Superman is uncompromising. He doesn't tolerate grey areas or necessary evils. The ends do not justify the means, and he is perhaps the only being in the universe capable of making an omelet without breaking any eggs.
Superman is a fictional cartoon character. Though this should really go without saying, the biggest misstep contributors make is trying to ground him with gritty realism. Presenting Superman as realistic and cynical would be like drawing Mickey Mouse as an actual rat.
Certainly there are a variety of perspectives from which we can view the character, and I applaud and endorse any story that makes Superman more realized, but stories that deviate from these simple guidelines are misguided at best and harmful to the property at worst.
When I go to the theater this summer with my box of Butterfinger Bites, my popcorn, and my 7-year-old flights of fancy, I'm going in with high expectations. I'm hoping to see an exploration of Superman's purpose, a non-preachy adventure filled with colorful movie-magic, and a responsible depiction of my classic favorite.
These expectations could not be simpler to meet.