The Problem with Superman

With the new Superman movie coming out, I thought we’d spend a few minutes discussing why Superman is a difficult character to deal with as far as writing is concerned.  Most people believe it’s his inability to be vulnerable. I think it’s more than that. I’d argue that it’s his innate contradictions that make him both interesting and problematic.

Superman is an alien child sent here because his planet was dying.  The Earth’s yellow Sun gifted him with amazing abilities. He can fly. He’s fast. He’s super-strong. His skin is like steel.  He’s basically a God. Because he was raised with good-old American values, he didn’t use these powers to take over the planet. Instead, he uses these powers for good, to help people in need and to fight for Truth, Justice and the American Way.

Kind of boring.

Seriously. The Superman myth is boring. There’s not a whole lot of interesting stuff going on with that.  Superman is completely different from most comic heroes because Superman was born perfect. Yes, he’s the last of an entire race of people, but he never knew them.  He was adopted by a great family and had a pretty good life. Compare him to Batman, who watched as his parents were murdered. Compare Superman to Spiderman, who is responsible for his Uncle’s death.  Or Captain America who sacrificed himself and was frozen, only to be revived and loose everyone he loved.  Good heroes are based on the idea of sacrifice, if just slightly.  The contradiction with Superman is that he’s supposed to be the World’s Greatest hero, yet he’s sacrificed absolutely nothing.

I suppose you can say that he’s sacrificed his humanity, but not really. He’s not human. He’s an alien from another planet who, because it’s just like that, looks really human. He’s also a White dude, giving him the most privileged status on Earth. So he’s a white dude with amazing super powers. To top it off, he’s able to hide as a dopey reporter and no one thinks any different.  The only thing that causes him any suffering is that he can’t be awesome all the time. Which, I mean, that’s not really the greatest conflict.

Suffering makes more interesting characters. People don’t think so, but it’s true. No one likes to see a character go through a narrative without any problems to deal with.  Thus, making a character suffer is the best way to make him interesting.  The original Superman movie did this, by killing Lois at the end (spoiler alert!). But, Superman just spun the planet the opposite way, reversing time and reversing her death. Boring.  “Superman Returns” made Supes suffer by causing Lois not to love him. But they undermined that by revealing that she has a baby with him, thus proving that she’ll always love him, even if she says she doesn’t.  Sure, you can argue that kryptonite can make him suffer. I’d argue that kryptonite is the worst “Das Ex Machina” that’s ever been invented and to use it in a Superman narrative is lazy, unoriginal and embarrassing

What I’m curious about is how “Man of Steel” is going to make a character that can’t really suffer, and has never really struggled, suffer and struggle.  It’ll be worth the price of admission to see how they do that.