This year marks the 75th anniversary of Superman, who debuted in Action Comics No. 1 in June 1938. No comics character is more recognizable, and certainly, none better epitomizes the superhero genre.
Yet I frequently talk to superhero fans who profess no interest in reading Superman comics or seeing “Man of Steel.” Big Blue’s adventures have disappointed them too often.
It’s tough to write good Superman stories. Partly that’s due to shtick long associated with the character that writers may believe they have no choice but to incorporate. A good example is “Clark Kent the coward.” The hero in his civilian ID acts like a wimp because the contrast to fearless Superman lends credence to his disguise.
At one time, this must have made sense to the audience. In fairness, it still kind of works in the Christopher Reeve films because the actor makes us share Clark’s amusement at the joke he’s playing on the world.
Yet even so, for better or worse, we the modern audience live in an age of self-aggrandizement, of Kanye, Kim, and Honey Boo Boo. We’re all stars in the making just one YouTube upload away from hitting the big time, and we expect one another to swagger. There are traditional virtues we still admire, but humility isn’t one of them.
In our time, “Clark the wuss” deliberately provoking the contempt of others seems masochistic. This is particularly true since, in the DC Universe, other superheroes maintain dual identities without looking like they’re secretly craving a ball gag and a paddling.
Happily, some creators have demonstrated you can dump the trope of timid Clark, and if you do it right, nobody misses it. In the “Adventures of Superman” television series, the introductory voiceover suggests that Clark is “a mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper,” but that’s not how the scriptwriters present him, nor is it how George Reeves plays him. His Clark is the dynamic, take-charge kind of journalist out of “The Front Page” and “His Girl Friday.”
In “Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman,” Dean Cain’s Clark is no wimp, either. He’s a likable guy whose relaxed attitude and sense of humor help to differentiate him from a Superman who’s reserved and intent on the “never-ending battle” most of the time.
Similarly, it no longer works to have Superman in love with Lois Lane but hell-bent on keeping the secret of his true identity from her. In a different era, writers could rationalize this as the hero protecting her by withholding information his enemies would hurt her to acquire (although, unless she was idiot enough to talk about it, how would they know?) These days, though, it makes the Metropolis Marvel look like a sexist with trust issues.
If we’re feeling uncharitable, the secrecy may even suggest a long-distance trucker trying to keep his wife in Pittsburgh from finding out about his second family in Reno.
Again, there’s ample evidence that you can discard this bit of the mythology and still tell satisfying Superman stories. In the comics of the ’90s, Lois knows the hero’s identity, and they get married. In the recently rebooted DC Universe of the New 52, the Man of Tomorrow’s love interest (for the moment at least) is Wonder Woman.
Unfortunately, though, even storytellers with the smarts to chuck the dated aspects of the Superman legend won’t necessarily succeed in rocketing away from the doomed planet of bad writing thereby. Elements of the mythology remain that truly are fundamental but pose problems nonetheless.
One such obstacle is Superman’s personality. His virtues are as superhuman as the ability to “change the course of mighty rivers” or “bend steel in his bare hands,” and that makes it difficult to tell stories where the challenges are internal.
The “Grounded” storyline demonstrates how such attempts to explore the inner superman can go awry. After Superman saves the world from a threat from outer space, a woman scolds him because he wasn’t around on Earth to save her husband’s life. This prompts the hero to fear he’s lost touch with ordinary people.
Sadly, you just can’t buy into the premise. Though Superman would regret that he hadn’t saved the husband, the reproachful widow couldn’t guilt him into a crisis of self-doubt. He’s wise enough to understand he can’t prevent every sad event and that if he hadn’t saved the Earth, the husband would have died anyway, along with the rest of us. We know he’s wise enough. That’s part of what makes him Superman.
A comparable problem presents itself in the movie “Superman Returns,” which begins with the Man of Steel coming back to Earth after years away in space looking for what, if anything, is left of Krypton. That extended sabbatical is just not something Superman would undertake. He wouldn’t leave humanity undefended for so long to indulge his desire for self-discovery.
Yet it is possible for writers to explore Superman’s psychology in an interesting way. In the graphic novel “Superman: Peace on Earth,” the hero confronts the limits of his power as he seeks to address the problem of world hunger. A memorable run of stories shows his frustration when Lex Luthor is elected President. And in “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?” (basis for the animated film “Superman vs. the Elite”), he ponders whether the self-restraint he exercises while pursuing his crusade is necessary or productive, and if so, why.
One noteworthy thing about these stories is that they reveal new facets of Superman’s character without compromising the stainless Sir Galahad essence of him. As soon as a premise does deviate from that, the character no longer seems like Superman, and the story flops.
For comparable reasons, it’s hard to do stories about estrangement between Superman and ordinary people. He is, after all, the hero so manifestly altruistic that everybody trusts him, the superhero even other superheroes look up to and turn to for leadership. This too is intrinsic to the mythology.
Thus, stories like “Superman Returns” that show the hero so wistful about Krypton that he feels lonely and alienated here on Earth come across as bogus. We know he loves his adopted world and is fully engaged with his life here. Similarly, the story “Public Enemies” (basis for the animated movie “Superman/Batman: Public Enemies”) falls flat because we can’t accept how easily President Luthor convinces everyone Superman is to blame for the killer asteroid hurtling toward Earth. Conceivably, if you were cunning and relentless, you might convince the world its greatest hero had turned genocidally against it, but it would take more than we see here.
Still, sometimes writers manage to look at Superman’s position in society in new and provocative ways. One effective element of “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?” is how Superman’s approval rating falls and that of the Elite, who offer a permanent (as in homicidal) solution to supervillainy, rises. It makes the story all the more interesting, but a steady string of tales about Superman at odds with society wouldn’t feel any more valid than a Superman constantly struggling with self-doubt or other emotional quandaries.
Given that we can’t have stories of psychological conflict or conflict with society on a regular basis, the majority of Superman stories need to be straightforward adventure yarns. Nothing wrong with that, except that it presents us with the most basic obstacle to writing the character well. He’s awesomely powerful. Yet to engage the audience, a story needs suspense. We have to doubt that the protagonist will prevail.
Some writers finesse the problem by making Superman a lousy tactician, at least when he’s heading into a situation. A man capable of moving at super-speed should only need an instant to do a preliminary scan of the battlefield with his super-senses. If he did, he’d see that the dude in the raincoat and fedora is Metallo, the cyborg with the kryptonite heart.
Or he’d spot the lead barrier emplaced to block his X-ray vision and infer that the Parasite is lying in wait behind it to leech away his powers. Once aware, he could employ appropriate countermeasures (like toasting Metallo and the Parasite from high in the air with heat vision.) Instead, he rushes in blind, and his enemies get the chance to cause him problems.
In fairness, few superheroes use their powers as efficiently as they might. It’s a genre convention that serves the interests of drama. And Superman is arguably justified in assuming that whatever situation he charges into, he can handle it. Still, there are limits, and stories shouldn’t resort to plot contrivances that leave us thinking a supposedly intelligent character would never act that dumb.
Writers have also addressed the problem of Superman’s power level by giving him weaknesses or diminishing his abilities. Kryptonite, which originated on the “Adventures of Superman” radio show, is the best known example of the former ploy, one that serves its purpose reasonably well until it’s overused.
The Man of Tomorrow has collected other Achilles’s heels, too, like the light of a red sun and magic. But writers can’t overuse those, either, nor can they pile on new weaknesses endlessly, lest the Action Ace stop looking like “invulnerable” Superman.
Dialing back the character’s power level is arguably the more effective approach. The Silver Age Superman was capable of godlike feats like flying faster than light and shoving planets out of orbit. When DC rebooted the character in the Man of Steel miniseries, that stuff went away.
The catch to reducing Superman’s power level is that creators need to do it periodically because over time, it creeps back up. That may be because Superman is by definition the most powerful of DC’s heroes, and as his Justice League buddies do amazing things, he has to maintain his status by topping them. It could also be that, despite the problems it poses, it’s just inherently cool to see him perform the more extreme feats with which we associate him, and so writers yield to the temptation to throw them in.
Perhaps the best approach of all to coping with Superman’s power level is to pit him against villains equally formidable, and through the years, he’s squared off against the likes of Luthor, Zod, Brainiac, Doomsday, Bizarro, Darkseid, and the Joker wielding the stolen power of Mr. Mxyzptlk. Those stories are often thrilling. When Big Blue is facing the Prankster or the Toyman, frequently, not so much.
And there you have it, my advice for writing good Superman. Don’t make Clark a worm. Don’t make Superman stupid. If there’s going to be a genuine Superman-Lois Lane romance, don’t have him hang onto his secret ID or make the relationship creepy in some other way. Internal conflicts can be interesting, but only if they jibe with our sense of who Superman is. Ditto for societal conflicts.
Make him powerful, but not so powerful we’ll never worry about him. Challenge him with one of the A-list villains or make up one just as formidable.
Zod is the villain in “Man of Steel,” so the movie will satisfy me on at least one of these points. I’m curious to see how it does on the others.