For Superman and Captain America, what does it mean to be perfect?

When most people enter their teens, they start to form more complex thoughts. It’s an age marked by questioning the status quo. It’s healthy, even necessary, for us as human beings to reevaluate the past and everything we’ve been taught. Yet too often this period of personal revolution simply turns into following a new, more nihilistic line of thought. Rebelling simply to rebel, not to actually demand meaningful change. Out with the old and in with the new, even if the old isn’t broke and the new is insubstantial.

When I was this age, there was an idea that I often parroted from my peers. It was that Captain America is just patriotism the superhero, and Superman is overpowered. In short, they’re too flawless to be complex characters.

I changed my tune once I actually took the time to get to know these characters better. While I still hear these opinions from time to time, no one is required to like either character, what I often see on this website and others are articles dedicated to arguing on behalf of Superman (I can’t imagine how Cap became suddenly so popular in recent years that his virtues no longer need to be argued for, to the point that his depiction in SECRET EMPIRE was seen as a betrayal of everything he stood for). Typically these pieces try to refute the idea that the character is too “perfect” to be interesting.

While that’s certainly a valid point to tackle, that’s not what I want to talk about today. Certain ideas about how stories should be told have resulted in a misconception that I take issue with. So I’m going to discuss how these two being “perfect” actually makes them stronger characters, not weaker ones.

7. Captain America: Not Just A Soldier

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Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

There’s a point that often gets raised about Steve Rogers, either in his defense or to condemn him. As a white man from the 1940s, the argument is that Cap’s values and understanding shouldn’t logically match up with the modern world. While the “man out of time” aspect of the character is certainly important, this argument typically turns into “Steve wouldn’t support ‘X’ marginalized group because his morality was shaped by a less progressive era.”

This belief bothers me for two reasons. First, it doesn’t matter that Steve grew up in the 1940s. Cap was Marvel’s first superhero, and his character was designed to stand opposed to the worst evil imaginable. At the time, this was Nazi Germany. If Cap is ever written as anything less than an ally, it’s not on the character himself, but the writer.

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If these characters were actually like this, do you think I’d bother writing this article?

Traditionally, superheroes always stood up for what’s right, but they also did a lot of terrible things because their writers weren’t as progressive as our modern standards. That’s why infamous (and occasionally hilarious) moments from comic book history often aren’t considered canon by either of the Big Two because they go against who these characters are supposed to be. For the First Avenger, there’s a perfect example of this. So a common rebuttal against Cap as a defender of the oppressed is his crazed, bloodthirsty “Commie Smasher” era. What said argument often leaves out is that this behavior was so out of character for Steve that Marvel retconned this period, claiming a different person was wearing the uniform.

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But A Good Man

Second, this argument has dangerous implications on the real world. We’ve all met someone who grew up in a previous era who held problematic opinions. Maybe an authority figure, maybe a family member. Whatever the case, these people are often dismissed for their opinions because they’re from another time. The assumption that someone is going to hold negative views, simply because of when they were raised, is an extremely defeatist idea. It robs terrible people of their agency, making it seem like they have no choice but to be the way they are. This isn’t yesterday, and older people are choosing to hold onto their outdated beliefs.

The image at the beginning of this point is from CAPTAIN AMERICA vol. 1 #296, in which the Red Skull kidnaps Captain America’s old friend Arnie Roth. The Nazi leader brainwashes Arnie, forcing him to denounce his own sexuality. Captain America eventually escapes captivity and tells Arnie that his love for his partner Michael is just as valid as his own for his girlfriend. There are definitely things to take issue with in how this story portrays a gay person. Yet even over thirty years ago, Marvel’s flagship superhero had no problems telling that person, and readers, that the love between two men is valid. So would a man stuck in the 40s do that?

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Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

Would Captain America’s rhetoric regarding the issues marginalized people face be perfect? Maybe not. Would he still fight for the rights of the downtrodden, and make an effort to improve his understanding of their struggles? Absolutely. It would be out of character for him not to at least try.

6. Superman: No Such Thing As Too Strong

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Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

The most common criticism of Superman is that he’s simply too powerful to ever lose. I could go in-depth about the existence of foes as strong as or stronger than him, which I feel invalidates this point. However, the reason for this article isn’t to talk about Superman’s weaknesses, but his strengths. Yes, Superman is essentially unstoppable, and I can see why this could be a deterrent to most unfamiliar readers. I just don’t see how it’s inherently a bad thing.

One of the biggest problems with the modern superhero genre is that it isn’t really about heroics anymore. Try to think of a superhero movie you saw in the last ten years that wasn’t about the main character solving a personal issue. There once was a time when superheroes acted out of a desire to do good, not because they felt responsible for evil. Speaking of the old days, did you know that almost half of Superman’s original Rogues Gallery were essentially powerless? Characters like Toyman were once some of Kal-El’s most infamous foes, yet they can’t exactly take a punch. However, just because they aren’t a threat to Superman doesn’t mean they aren’t a threat.

The Man of Steel’s sole mission is to protect humanity, and someone threatening them creates a compelling conflict regardless of whether or not he’s in danger. Modern writers and fans need to realize that a villain without a personal vendetta or fighting capabilities can still make for a thrilling, suspenseful story. Consider the fact that Superman’s greatest foe and the star of many of his best tales isn’t one of the many aliens or gods he’s fought, but a brilliant human being.

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Okay “brilliant” might not be the right word.

More Powerful Than A Locomotive!

Superman has a reputation for being difficult to write. Yet, some of the best Superman stories depend on him being overpowered. KINGDOM COME is about a generation of heroes rebelling because they became disillusioned with Superman’s example. ALL-STAR SUPERMAN is about Clark being stronger than ever and using his newfound power to do as much as he can before he dies. SUPERMAN: BIRTHRIGHT showed how the greatest superhero would still be compassionate, even when raised in a modern context. All of these stories have the same element in common: absolute power didn’t corrupt absolutely.

As I said previously, the belief that a person’s circumstances will invariably determine their behavior is a dangerous assumption. We’re less likely to expect more from those in authority if we believe that their natures are caused by their positions. Isn’t it probable that bad people simply seek out power? So maybe it’s the stubborn optimist in me, but the idea that Superman is too perfect to be believable doesn’t track. We live in a world where the powerful make choices that knowingly cause harm. Whether it’s authority, money, or privilege, Superman teaches readers that we have a choice to use what power we do have to help others.

So many modern Superman stories have missed out on this kind of nuance because they were more concerned with spectacular brawls. While fight scenes obviously don’t prevent a great story from taking shape, this obsession with conflict shows what detractors are missing about the Man of Steel. We’re so used to the powerful hurting others that it’s hard to fathom watching someone as strong as Superman extend their hands, rather than lead with their fists.

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Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

5. Captain America: Tales To Redeem!

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Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

A commonly held belief about Marvel is that they have the more interesting heroes, and the dullest villains, when compared to their main competitor. Maybe that’s why so many of Marvel’s most popular heroes began as antagonists and later switched sides. Black Widow was literally an Iron Man villain for roughly a year before she became an iconic heroine. The Thunderbolts are a team featuring the Avengers’ (formerly) greatest foes. Hell, the X-Men’s roster is heavily comprised of reformed baddies. Even Marvel’s actually interesting antagonists, like Magneto or Doctor Doom, have had heroic turns.

So if Marvel’s villains often change sides, why are its heroes so lax about lethal force? Prior to roughly ten years ago, the consensus in the MU was that heroes don’t kill. Yet, since superheroes do take lives in film and Disney was likely looking for that brand synergy, Marvel’s biggest characters have become distinct for being relatively “okay” with killing. The fact that Wolverine and Black Widow are on prominent superteams specifically to take lives proves this. Although this is very different from the world many fans were familiar with, it’s a valid point that this helps make Marvel more unique when compared to DC.

So, because this is the MU many know today, the argument is that Captain America should be the most willing to take lives when fighting evil. He’s a soldier, after all. He knows how to use a gun, so why doesn’t he carry one into battle? What this argument misses is a fundamental understanding of Cap’s place in his universe. Steve Rogers witnesses more evil than any other superhero, so he’s the most qualified to see the good in others.

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If only there was a movie that showed this side of him…

Nobody’s Perfect

For most superheroes that have a substantial rogues gallery, each of their villains typically share a similar trait that reflects the hero. Batman’s enemies struggle with mental health issues. Spider-Man’s are caught between feelings of inferiority and superiority. Captain America’s enemies might seem to be lacking this element at first glance. They’re Nazis, and he’s the ultimate good guy.

So what could they possibly have in common? Think about Cap’s powers. They don’t make him better than human in any way, they just make him a physically perfect version of one. Steve Rogers is a blonde-haired, blue-eyed soldier (the ideal Aryan Übermensch in a nutshell) who fights for the underprivileged. Other heroes opposing the likes of Red Skull or Baron Zemo wouldn’t be as interesting because these fights wouldn’t create the same commentary on “being perfect” that those featuring Cap do.

In a world where dealing with shades of gray is essentially the norm, there’s a good reason the definitive hero deals mostly in a simpler dynamic. Cap has spent almost eighty years battling the worst scum of the MU, from German Super-Nazis to American hatemongers. So who better to suss out which villains are irredeemable and which have the potential to do the right thing? If you still think otherwise, I’ll let the Sentinel of Liberty speak for himself:

“At my most optimistic, I believe in reformation. So many people on the wrong path (costumed or otherwise) have skills that could be put to better use. From Hawkeye to Diamondback, I’ve seen the power of redemption…” (Steve Rogers, HEROIC AGE: VILLAINS #1).

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Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

4. Superman: The Necessary Good

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Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

In the same way that Captain America’s rogues are made more interesting by the themes they share with their nemesis, so too do Superman’s many enemies depend on Kal-El to function as characters. Lex Luthor might be one of DC’s greatest villains, but there’s a reason you rarely see him fighting anyone else. Against Superman, there are opportunities to tell all kinds of stories about humanity and power dynamics. Luthor is human in every respect, yet his self-centered nature constantly dehumanizes him. Meanwhile, Superman is an inhuman god who helps old ladies cross the street. If you’ve enjoyed Lex in a piece of DC media, it’s likely because you were subconsciously contrasting him to his greatest adversary.

Aside from Luthor, most of Superman’s villains couldn’t function against another hero. Even outside of dark doppelgängers like Bizarro or Zod, plenty of his iconic enemies are only interesting in contrast with the Man of Steel. Metallo’s sensory deprivation drove him insane. Superman’s heightened senses make him more empathetic to the suffering of others. Parasite’s greed turned him into a literal power-hungry monster. Kal-El was the first superpowered being to selflessly dedicate his life to the greater good. Toyman is so overprotective he ultimately harms the children he cares about. Superman never oversteps his bounds by enforcing peace at the cost of humanity’s freedom.

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This seems like a character you can fully appreciate without liking Superman.

By intrinsically linking the concepts of humanity and compassion, Superman’s foes demonstrate that it’s impossible to become “perfect” while also lacking empathy for other people. It’s difficult to say that these dynamics would still work if Superman was a more “flawed” character. These iconic villains, simply put, wouldn’t be who they are if Superman wasn’t who he is.

Brains Over Brawn

Previously, I discussed how an obsession with violence has harmed Superman’s character, but it can affect the quality of his foes as well. Superman stories, at their core, are about intelligence triumphing over brute force. Luthor’s an obvious example of this, but one foe of Clark’s who proves this principle might come as a surprise. Mongul was the first of Kal-El’s rogues who’s primary gimmick was being stronger than Superman. To this day, I still think he’s the only character to pull this off. Simply because, despite being capable of beating Superman to a bloody pulp, Mongul’s greatest battles still involve him and Clark having to outwit one another.

Mongul has stolen a Death Star-esque doomsday weapon, almost had Earth’s sun eaten, and forced Superman to fight in a gladiatorial arena. His best story involves unleashing a parasitic plant on Clark’s birthday, trapping him in perfect fantasy. While odd, these actions aren’t that interesting by themselves. Yet, when you consider that the one committing them could beat up the strongest superhero in existence, they paint a completely different picture of his character. Mongul is pure evil, no redeeming qualities or moral complexities whatsoever. Yet the fact that he recognizes he can’t beat Superman with strength alone shows an intelligence that makes him unique from other generic alien despots.

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Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

Memorable antagonists aren’t a necessity to tell a lasting, or even just fun, story. However, as DC has spent a great deal of effort reimagining Superman’s world, it’s concerning that most of their efforts to either redefine classic rogues or invent new ones have largely been failures. Superman’s “perfect” nature makes him an excellent literary sounding board, and his strengths can elevate even the simplest of foes to the most interesting of threats.

3. Captain America: Problematic Compatriots

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Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

As I mentioned previously, Marvel’s heroes are often considered more interesting than those in DC’s stable. Since their introduction of the first comic book antihero in 1939, Marvel’s roster has become iconic for being protectors with “problems.” Iron Man struggles with guilt over his past as a arms dealer. Thor has to constantly stay humble as not to presume himself above “lesser” beings. The Hulk is the strongest one there is, yet has no self-control. Because their characters often subverted heroic tropes, Marvel’s pantheon easily stood out from the rest of the competition.

What makes Cap decidedly different is that his character is far more archetypal of what we expect from a superhero. He’s a selfless man of action who leapt at any chance he could take to fight the Nazis. He thinks purely in terms of good and evil, never compromising his beliefs while protecting others. That’s not to say Steve Rogers isn’t three-dimensional. He’s a man out of time, who struggles to find his place in a complex world. However, Cap’s altruistic nature, strong moral convictions, and situation-based struggles give him more in common with DC’s stable than Marvel’s.

Some would argue that Cap’s character is dull due to lacking any of the compromising faults that the other Marvel characters are known for. When considered independently, I can see how that read of the character makes sense. However, Captain America is part of a much larger world and has a unique place in it. When the heroes of the MU falter, Captain America is the one person who you can always trust to knock some sense into them.

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Oh, if only there was some sort of “moving picture show” that demonstrated this side of him!

The Price Of Freedom Is High

CIVIL WAR might be the definitive “hero vs. hero” tale, especially after the successful film adaptation. However, Marvel became famous for this storytelling device back in 1940, when Namor the Sub-Mariner battled the original Human Torch. Since then, the heroes of the MU can’t seem to keep their hands off each other. While it’s not unusual for good guys to trade blows, Marvel is really the only company that manages to make (the majority of) these conflicts feel believable.

DC’s heroes are far too similarly minded, in terms of their ideals, that readers can’t help but feel like they shouldn’t be fighting. Characters who don’t fit into a specific moral paradigm are branded antiheroes; villains with a code of honor. Admittedly there has been some shift to that policy in the last couple years or so. Wonder Woman has become far more willing to kill. Batman routinely teams up with gun-toting murderers. Still, at the end of the day, the line between good and evil is far clearer there than it is in the MU.

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Captain America operates in a world where heroes constantly squabble over their petty egos and greater moral differences. It’s a place where characters, like Venom or Deadpool, regularly alternate between unusual allies and crazed enemies. With so many shifting alliances and collaborator conflicts, Steve Rogers is an outlier because he’s more archetypal than his peers. He’s the one hero in the MU you can always count on to do the right thing. Even in situations that question his beliefs, Cap’s guaranteed to come out the other side with his soul intact. He needs to be the perfect hero not just for our sake, but also for those who stand beside him.

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Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

2. Superman: The Hero We Deserve

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Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

Superheroes are pretty silly, if we’re being honest with ourselves. They wear garish, impractical costumes. They go by ridiculous codenames, even when they don’t need to. From legal to ethical concerns, there are so many reasons as to why they’d never work in a serious or realistic context. However, these elements are an intrinsic part of the genre and are usually still present in some of the best “dark” or “grounded” stories. Although there have been efforts to strip superheroes of their more whimsical aspects, they’ve never been a roadblock to telling stories with drama and humanity. If anything, they’ve only helped make these tales more unique in such a massive media landscape.

The nature of the superhero genre likely wouldn’t be what it is today if it weren’t for Superman. Although technically predated by DC’s Doctor Occult by one year, Superman was the character who informed our every idea of what a superhero should be. Whether we’re just talking about visuals or the content of their characters, every comic book icon to follow in his wake has either been a copy (either unintentionally or subversively) of him or an attempt to stand out from him. Superman’s the gold standard that every superhero, not just those under DC’s banner, are judged by. That’s why, when telling a story about the nature of heroism, his design is the immediately recognizable short-hand most often used.

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They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Being first doesn’t make a substantive character, especially when so many others have had chances to reinvent the hero’s tale. So I’m not saying Superman is a great character because he was the original superhero. I’m saying Superman is a great character because he’s the perfect superhero.

Putting the Super In Superhero

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Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

Something I find interesting is that Superman and Batman have regularly had books dedicated to the two of them. Team-ups are nothing new between popular characters, and it makes a certain cynical sense that DC would want to put its two most profitable characters in the same title. Yet isn’t it odd we’ve never seen a series dedicated solely to, say, Captain America and Iron Man?

So what is it about Clark and Bruce that makes their dynamic so appealing? Even before DC decided there were more substantive differences between them, seeing how someone like Batman contrasts to his predecessor is inherently interesting. That’s why, in their first team-up book, Superman also paired off with other heroes. While any two heroes can make for an entertaining contrast, those meet-ups are never as fascinating as seeing how one character fits (or breaks) the mold. Much like how Superman makes his villains more interesting just by existing, he does the same for every other hero. So trying to change too much about Superman, therefore, can have greater consequences across the DCU than one would assume.

From ethics to aesthetics, everything about Superman screams “superhero.” He’s the originator of every major trope in this genre. His costume has to have an impractical cape, logo, and color scheme. He has to be the strongest and most unstoppable. His morals have to be flawless and uncompromising. He has to be one hero we can always count on to save the day. Because if you’re calling someone Superman, and he isn’t the most “super” out of the lot, you’ve done something wrong. What you or I might call perfect, for Superman, is just another way of saying heroic.

1. Superman & Captain America: The Human Being & The Living Legend

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There’s a popular school of thought I often invoke when comparing Marvel and DC. It argues that the former primarily features men trying to become gods. Conversely, the latter tells tales of gods trying to become men. There are some outliers, obviously. However, generally speaking, the paradigm holds true. Yet what might surprise you is that the heroes you’d most expect to fit this model are actually the exceptions that prove the rule.

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Captain America’s powers have taken his body to the peak of human limitations, but not past them. Compared to the rest of the Avengers, his powers aren’t even that impressive. Yet, this is the man that all of the Avengers would willingly follow into Hell, due in no small part to his reputation. Much like Batman, Cap is the one who everyone believes can accomplish anything. While the Dark Knight uses his renown to strike fear into others, the Living Legend uses his to inspire those around him. Captain America might not be better than human, but it’s easy to forget he isn’t.

Superman, on the other hand, is the most powerful superhero. Admittedly there are those who surpass him strength-wise and could take advantages of his weaknesses. Still, he’s strong enough to always save the day, making him the definitive example of what a hero should be. However, when you get right down to it, his powers have never been his defining attribute. Thor is a god who adopted a human guise when he wanted to live among us because he can’t escape his inhuman abilities. Although he may hide his god-like powers behind a fake pair of spectacles, Clark Kent is just as human as you or me.

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Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

In Conclusion: A Perfect Pair

The superhero genre, by and large, grew out of disposable children’s comics. So it’s important to recognize that these characters don’t matter nearly as much as I might be making it seem. However, this genre has become a major landmark and source of inspiration for people all across the world. So it’s also important to recognize that these two characters have had an impact on us as a society and culture.

However, while I do believe these two being emblematic of perfect heroes enhances their characters, it shouldn’t make them immune to change. This genre is making strides in recognizing people beyond the (white, male, straight, and cisgender) audience it once thought was the primary consumer. So the argument is that if the landscape of the genre is changing, it’s time for the faces of heroism to change too. Although I love both characters to death, this is a very valid reason to not enjoy either of them.

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Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

Yet to find fault in these two because of their morality, messages, or meaning to others demonstrates a very limited appreciation for the possibilities that this unique medium offers. Superman and Captain America both show that what you or I might call “being perfect” simply boils down to altruism and empathy. In the often dark and cruel world we live in, this can understandably feel like a lot to ask for. Yet if Superman and Captain America find strength in their humanity, just imagine how strong that makes all of us.

So here’s to the People of Tomorrow, both on the page and in real life. Whatever form they take, I’m confident they’ll be perfect for the job.

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