Disclaimer: Superman and all related characters are the property of their respective owners. This blog is purely for entertainment, and I do not intend to monetise my thoughts.
Following up on my last Batpost, I opted to do a crash course on the other top property of DC, Superman! And once again, I have no idea where you’ve been if you haven’t heard of him.
Pictured above: The moral compass of the Justice League.
The origin is simple enough: Born Kal-El of Krypton, Superman’s father Jor-El predicted the doom of Krypton and sent his son off-planet to spare him from sharing the fate of his people. The infant would land on Earth, where he would be adopted by Jonathan and Martha Kent of Smallville and raised as Clark Kent. With the power of Earth’s yellow sun, he developed superhuman powers (strength, speed, flight, enough lung capacity to create whirlwinds or freezing winds, x-ray vision, and EEEEYEEEE BEEEAAAAAMS) and devoted himself to doing good while maybe, just maybe, getting on with his own life as Clark Kent. Because contrary to popular belief, Superman DOES have a life outside of work.
If Batman would go on to represent the serious, cerebral side of DC, dispensing justice behind a mask from the shadows, Superman would be his opposite number, inspiring hope in the open daylight. With the legacy of his Kryptonian parents and his upbringing as a salt-of-the-earth farmboy, Superman is the most down-to-earth demigod you’ll ever meet and, whenever possible, tries to cherish the lives he saves. Whatever his stories, the generally consistent element is that Clark is among the most human superheroes and a firm idealist, the sort of guy girls would take home to meet their parents.
Among the first superheroes to take readers into the fantastic, Superman remains one of the most powerful individuals in the DC Universe. And by powerful, I mean “the fight is over as soon as he gets involved” powerful, though this is offset by a vast number of tactics. The most effective would be Kryptonite, the irradiated remains of Krypton, which can cripple or even kill him. However, over the years, there have been various exotic and ingenious methods discovered. Much like Jedi, planning how to fight Superman has become an art form in its own right, and a topic I’ll probably tackle in a different post.
Now, here’s the thing that most nerds will be aware of: Superman is generally regarded as boring. I think it’s more complex than that, but we’ll get to that in a minute. Certainly, I can’t fault the reasoning: a character who can sense almost anything and defeat almost any obstacle doesn’t have much in the way of challenges.
In his early eras, when his powers were still a novelty, writers could go absolutely insane coming up with new challenges and new powers. Superman’s stories were more about fantastic entertainment, giving folks a taste of the spectacular. Because back then, flying so fast that you turn back time by reversing the planet’s rotation actually seemed AMAZING instead of stupid. This sort of writing has been somewhat balanced with character development, but I think that on some level, everyone has a taste for how far Superman can go, like some sort of alien Trials of Hercules. Or…a circus strongman act.
When things like character depth and research became a thing, however, writing for Superman would take more personal turns and his powers would have more concrete, definite limits in their scope (goodbye, Super-ventriloquism, we hardly new ye). Sure, the neverending fight for truth, justice, and the American way remained, but the Man of Steel would wind up facing an assortment of personal situations (and not in the Silver Age marries-an-alternate-universe-Lois-Lane-who-is-actually-evil way).
On a personal level, some stories made his relationships his most important trait, deeply humanising Clark by going into just how close he is to his parents and colleagues at the Daily Planet. But other stories also dealt with Superman as a symbol: a figure who inspires people to be their very best. In that vein, Superman has done things ranging from visiting orphanages to fighting natural disasters. And on the other side of that coin, he’s also gone through periods of doubt on things ranging from his jurisdiction to the limits: essentially, he’d like to be everywhere helping everyone, but he can’t. Worse yet, he can’t save humanity from itself, despite trying to inspire them. Yes, even Superman has doubts.
Now, this is where we get into my OPINION (don’t take it as a statement of fact, feel free to have your own thoughts) on the types of stories where Clark is at his most interesting: Team stories. Obviously, the Justice League is the biggest contributor (ESPECIALLY the DC Animated Universe’s takes), but really, any dynamic where Superman is playing with others is my preferred way of exploring what makes him interesting.
Because you see, a Superman story about his personal side is all well and good, but there’s only so far you can go, like praising yourself on your own blog (TheWriteStuffisthemostbrilliantblogonfictionalmediaever). But with a team, you get to see Clark interacting with others as an equal; fundamentally the same, yet growing to deal with different personalities. One interesting idea from the perspective of ‘grounding’ Superman is how, as a teammate, he’s self-sacrificing, deliberately putting himself in harm’s way because he can take hits his teammates can’t.
But the part about Team Stories which interests me the most? How his human side contributes to the team. Because in a team of actual demigods, paranoid billionaires with issues, and hotshot pilots who are intergalactic cops, it’s surprising to see the most powerful godlike being not just inspiring them to heights of heroism, but reminding them about what makes them human. That is a character function that I adore in its own right, but it’s particularly interesting to me when it’s coming from a guy who can tow a planet out of orbit.
And ultimately, that’s the point about characters, whether within their own titles or with others: They’re meant to interact with others. Not with a world or an enemy that’s tailor-made for their strengths and skills, but a diverse array of ideas and attitudes. And while I absolutely agree Superman visiting Make-A-Wish kids or talking a girl out of suicide are incredible moments filled with heart, to me, the real magic of Clark Kent is when he invites the Martian Manhunter home for Christmas. That wasn’t a situation made just for him; that was just a guy making sure his friend wasn’t alone for the holidays.
The thing that makes him Super is the Man. Yes, I totally went there.