In Defense of Superman: What’s So Wrong with the Big Blue Boy Scout?

When it comes to superheroes, most people have a favorite hero. They have that one character who, for them, captures their imagination. It may be how they choose to take on the forces of evil. It could be that there is an element of their personality that strikes a chord for the reader. Whatever it may be, there are a whole range of heroes that can claim the spot of favorites for many people. Now, if you were to ask them, I would hazard a guess and say that most would pick Batman (as a DC Comics example) or Spider-Man (for a Marvel Comics example) as their favorite superhero. For me, I have a pick that would probably not be a favorite for a lot of people. For me, I would pick Superman as my favorite superhero. Now, I have heard many complaints of the character, such as that he is too powerful or that he’s so dull as a generic good guy. Personally, I would like to offer my opinion on why he is a favorite for me.

To me, Superman is an embodiment of hope. He possesses incredible levels of strength, speed, and senses, along with flight and invulnerability, and chooses to use these gifts to help others. He is regarded as one of the most powerful heroes of the DC universe, yet does not consider himself above others. Though most put him on a pedestal, he tries his best to help inspire others to reach their own potential and not give in to the cynicism and sorrow in their lives. For me, I really appreciate and like the idea of a hero whose biggest power is not his strength, but his capacity for good and inspiring others. The fact that he is so powerful, yet chooses not to abuse his powers speaks to the core dynamic of superheroes themselves. It’s even greater when you consider that Superman doesn’t have any past trauma that pushes him to this idea. Most superheroes, as part of their origin story, tend to have some sort of trauma or event that happens to them that affects them and starts them down the path of using their gifts to fight crime. Superman doesn’t really have that same trauma. True, Krypton may have been destroyed, but he did not personally experience that. For him, he was a boy who grew up in Smallville, raised by a kindly couple who helped to instill good virtues into him and assist as his powers began to develop. The idea that he makes the choice to become a superhero, not because of any past trauma or event, but simply because he wants to help others is to me a powerful one. As for the complaints about his character, I think that those are more a result of a weakness in writing rather than character. Honestly, I sort of blame the Silver Age for that.

From the late ’50s to early ’70s, superhero comic books were going through a resurgence now known as the Silver Age. Though this resurgence was the time that gave the world Marvel Comics and gave DC Comics a new breath of life, it was both a blessing and a curse for Superman. On one hand, this was a period that would add plenty to the Superman mythos, such as introducing iconic villains like Brainiac and Bizarro. However, this period was also one where Superman himself was written as extremely powerful. This was a version of the character who could push gigantic planets with ease, who could reveal that he has a superpower that just so happens to perfectly fit the problem at hand. The result was that he felt like a walking deus ex machina. For me, I believe that interpretation has tainted the character for a lot of people, who now see him as a dull character who’s too powerful and always wins. His situation is not helped by writers who try to pull away from that version, but do so by making him dark and gritty or emphasizing the fact that he is an alien. For me, these attempts just result in them missing the core of who Superman is. Still, it doesn’t have to be like this. After all, Superman can be an interesting character. What matters is how he is handled.

For me, there are certain things that I believe would help. For one, keep his powers to a minimum. I would stick to the super strength, flight, invulnerability, x-ray vision, heat vision, and enhanced senses. Along with that, I would have him be at a power level where he isn’t impossibly strong like his Silver Age variant, but still enough that his raw power is awe-inspiring. When it comes to his origin story, I think it would help to keep the emphasis on Smallville, not Krypton. Though his powers stem from his Kryptonian biology, his moral core comes from being raised by a kindly couple like Jonathan and Martha Kent. It’s his goodness and moral core that really makes Superman who he is, not his powers. Finally, I wouldn’t be afraid to let Superman lose sometimes. Though he is powerful, Superman is still just one man. Though he will help as many as he can with his gifts, it is only natural that sometimes a hero can’t always be there. Exploring the impact of that, of how he keeps fighting the good fight even when he can’t always win, is something that I think could help more readers connect to him. After all, the thing that makes a hero isn’t that they always win the battle. It’s that they’re in a battle worth fighting for and refuse to give up. The same even applies to Superman.

If you’re looking for a good Superman story, to perhaps find something that showcases the character’s potential, I recommend Superman for All Seasons. Written by Jeph Loeb with art by Tim Sale, it’s a stand-alone graphic novel that showcases Clark growing up in Smallville and then becoming Superman for the first time. It explores who the character is over the course of four chapters, each one devoted to a different season and each one narrated by a different character with their own thoughts on Superman.


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