By Maya Kesh — Superman is boring. At this point, that criticism has become so tired that it’s become boring itself. Still, I can’t help but wonder why it’s such a common attack against one of fiction’s greatest character. Why? The answer is invariably that he’s too strong, leaving no reason to fear that anything will happen to him. Never mind that realistically there also isn’t fear that something will happen to Batman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man and the rest—the underlying conceit of every superhero story is that good triumphs over evil.
Beyond that, however, I don’t understand why Superman’s powers translate in to him being called a boring character. I’ve been contemplating this criticism a lot lately, and in this piece I’d like to directly address it, making a case for why Superman is easily one of the most compelling characters in all of comics by looking at everything from his powers to his origin to the humanity he displays as Clark Kent.
Superman’s Powers and Origin
He doesn’t use his powers to help himself (Silver Age goofiness aside), as such, he’s not an arrogant god. As many (if not all) fans know, Superman in 1938 was far less powerful than he is now. He was a more of street level character who couldn’t yet fly. The bare bones were there. A baby from another planet. Disguised as Clark Kent. Worked with Lois Lane, etc.
As the years went by the character’s abilities grew and grew. Soon he could fly. He could move planets around. He was the most powerful character in the DC Universe.
One thing that did not change, however, was his origin. He stayed an alien even as his childhood backstory was expanded upon. Instead of nameless kindly motorists, Jonathan and Martha Kent found him and raised him as their own. He grows up to disguise himself as Clark Kent, who works as a reporter at the Daily Planet. This itself is remarkable. He could do and be anything, and he decided to be a reporter to uncover injustice as he also fought it as his alter ego.
Superman’s Values and the ‘Nice Guy’ Argument
His core goodness is another trait often pointed to as a problem. He’s too good. Where are his flaws? I’ve always felt this is a larger misinterpretation of what good means. Too often we celebrate the tortured anti hero. Something terrible must have happened to our hero to send him off to right wrongs. How could a man brought up in a stable household with two loving parents understand struggle? What is his motivation?
This brings me to some questions of my own: why does there need to be a motivation to want to help the world to be a better place? Why is a core of decency something to sneer at or dismiss as dull?
This isn’t the same thing as the “nice guy” argument, wherein people performatively act a certain way in order to get rewards. “Why won’t she go out with me…I’m such a nice guy!” That kind of talk is passive aggressive hostility, expecting the world owes one something.
That is not Superman. He is doing what he does because he cares about the planet, never expecting a return on his investment. He truly is a complex character. Just imagine being flung out as a baby in to space, crash landing on another planet, and then as time goes on you find you can do things nobody else can or ever could. You have to hide that side of yourself out of fear that the world would turn against you. You are neither human nor Kryptonian. You walk a line where you never know what it is like to truly belong.
Superman and Clark Kent, a Complex Whole
I’ve always disliked the “Superman is what I can do, Clark is who I am” line from the Lois and Clark TV show in the ‘90s. I think it is far too simplistic.
Superman is more than what he can do. Being Superman is an essential part of who he is. Meanwhile, Clark is not all that he is either, because he spent his life on the fringes. He couldn’t race to school. He couldn’t play rough games with his friends in fear of hurting them. He had to learn to control his powers, powers that are as much a part of him as our senses are a part of us.
Superman and Clark Kent are parts of a whole, a whole he can only share with a few trusted people in his life. His parents, a few childhood friends, and, later, Lois Lane.
When he first makes his debut as Superman, you’d expect the population to fear him. Writer Mark Waid and artist Leinil Francis Yu’s Birthright mini-series explores this really well. We see that as Superman our hero is really worried about how he’ll be received. As a result, his joy when Lois Lane meets him as Superman and is not in the least bit afraid is a wonderful moment.
The emotional toll it takes hiding parts of himself on a daily basis, never able to fully be himself as either Clark Kent or Superman is just so rich with storytelling possibilities.
This is a character with emotions, and a character who gets angry and jealous. Sad. Petty. All the normal emotions everyone feels. Being a fundamentally good person doesn’t negate that these emotions roil around within him, and certainly does not make him boring. However, he does have a greater burden because of his immense power, and he has to be very careful not to abuse it.
There is a scene in the movie Man of Steel where he has to endure the harassment of truckers at a truck stop where he’s working. He indulges his petty side by messing with the trucker’s truck. His momentary lapse doesn’t then mean he’s not living up to the Superman mantle. Not doing something like that is a level of perfection (which I contend is unattainable) that he himself aspires to achieve. He is not a perfect man, no matter how badly he wants to be. Ultimately, he’s flawed like everyone else.
Superman’s and misconceptions
Another misinterpretation is that he is naïve, that because he sees the best in humanity somehow means he doesn’t understand the worst. I don’t agree with this. I think he understands the worst. He understands evil. How could he not, fighting what the sort of threats he fights? That he manages to rise above the cynicism and continues to battle for justice in hopes that, to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., the moral arc though long will indeed bend towards justice. This isn’t willful blindness to the horrors around us but a deep belief that we and he are better than the lowest common denominator.
This, I think, sometimes gets lost. In the rush for the superficial complexity of the tortured hero driven by external forces, we lose sight of the true complexity of those doing good because of a natural internal drive. We as a society have, I think, become cynical towards this idea that people do good because it is the right thing to do. Our default mode is to wonder what the catch could be.
Superman in 2018
I don’t think Superman is boring, especially not given the nature of our modern times. In fact, I strongly believe that Superman needs to be written in the time he is living in. These days the blinders have been lifted, and many of us are seeing first hand a rising threat from global nationalism. A push back against immigrants. A fear of those who look and talk differently. It all makes me wonder: if we can’t accept each other, how would we accept a man from another planet?
The world Superman lives in today is a lot more complex because we’re globally connected in ways we’ve never been before. Communication is instantaneous. The character though doesn’t need to respond with darkness to the events around him. There will, of course, be frustration. However, not succumbing to that frustration and becoming Batman-lite, if you will, is its own challenge, and a fascinating one at that. How do you live day to day seeing all the destruction happening around you while knowing you could stop it in a second? How do you live while having immense power within and not devolve in to megalomania?
Superman does this literally every day. His core decency and honor should not be dismissed as naiveite or mocked as boy scout behavior. Instead, it should be seen for what it is: a fascinating study of what makes a hero driven by the belief that the universe is better than what he sees in front of him.
We need heroes like this, heroes who do what they do because they only want to do right. They aren’t searching for external praise or validation or even revenge. There is huge difference in my mind in understanding the challenges of the world around us in a realistic way without succumbing to the cynicism that there is no hope, that we're a doomed species.
Superman, I think, is one of the hardest of characters to get right because to do so, one has to let go of the idea people are fundamentally in it for themselves, or that believing in nobility is for the foolish. I really don’t think it is. I don’t think honor is a boring trait. I think Superman’s core of kindness, compassion, empathy and decency makes him a fascinating character. It’s easier to fall prey to despair; it’s harder to keep from falling in to cynicism. Yet he does this. Day after day.
Superman is so much more than the sum of his powers. He is a man who could control the world but instead cherishes the people around him and sees himself as one of us, not an infallible god. When we look beyond the punches? We see the true hero, and he’s one for the ages.
Maya Kesh is a lifetime comic reader and a writer whose articles often focus on how women are portrayed in comics. You can follow her on Twitter at @mayak46