Created in 1933 by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, Superman is the quintessential comic book hero and the first of his kind. Now, we all know who he is: his story, his friends, his foes, his weaknesses, and his strengths. The image and mythos of Superman span age, era, and gender in the American culture, as well as around the globe. I believe it is in this modern era, however, that we’ve lost sight of what actually makes this character great, with this lack of “greatness” becoming even more apparent considering the role Superman played in DC’s New 52 and the darker, almost unidentifiable character in the recent cinematic landscape. Outside of some slight glimmers of hope found in select entertainment mediums of the iconic red trunk wearing, Big Blue Boy Scout that truly embody his character, who Superman is and what he means seem completely lost on creators and audiences alike.

 

Why is it so Difficult For a Modern Audience to Connect with Superman?

Superman is easily the most iconic comic book hero in the medium’s history, as well as arguably the most recognizable character around the globe, in terms of American literature and pop culture, next to maybe Mickey Mouse. You’d be hard pressed to find one individual on planet Earth that doesn’t recognize the red S shield and the story that’s associated along with it.

 

Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

At the same time, however, many view Superman as one of the least relatable characters in our modern culture and in entertainment. Superman is simply too perfect, too alien, and too godlike for readers to connect with. He’s a character based on idealism in a world full of cynicism. This is why Batman and Batman-related characters are so popular in contrast to the Big Blue Boy Scout. Superman represents the ideals that people are ultimately good, a philosophy closely associated with Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the philosophy that Superman ultimately represents. While Batman represents a cynicism that people are not to be trusted and at their core are only out for themselves, an idea presented by the philosopher Thomas Hobbes.

Ironically enough, just like in the comics, where story lines and the dichotomy of Superman versus Batman are a quintessential trope of DC Comics, the same was for Rousseau versus Hobbes and can be found throughout philosophical debates on human nature:

“Overall, Hobbes has a rather negative view about human nature, in that without an ‘absolute sovereign’ to control our desires we will live in a constant ‘State of War’, which is ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’. Rousseau’s theory contrasted with that of Hobbes, as he thought human nature is largely good.”

Then, of course, there’s Clark Kent, who’s clean-cut, plain, and mild mannered. Not exactly a model to elicit an emotional response in those looking for struggle in their entertainment. A modern audience wants a character whose struggles with gender, race, culture, or ethnicity closer relates to their own. A white guy from Kansas doesn’t exactly fit that model, at least on the surface. This leaves the character who was once revered as the greatest superhero, lacking in the qualities many deem ‘great’.

What is Superman Missing?

I’m not sure if there is a better person than Max Landis, who can describe so eloquently what makes this character stand above the rest:

“What’s special about Superman is his parents didn’t fucking die. He’s not a selfish post-traumatic sissy, who needed to have his parents shot to death in front of him, to understand that maybe you should help people and that crime is wrong and murder is bad. His Uncle Ben didn’t need to be killed, basically at his own hand, to drive the point home that if you have superpowers you should use them to help people. He didn’t get stranded on a desert island. He didn’t have a ring forced upon him that brought him to an intergalactic police force. He wasn’t raised by Amazons. He didn’t go up on a ship and get irradiated. He’s just a guy from Kansas who has the best superpowers. He’s unstoppable and instead of absolute power corrupting absolutely, absolute power has absolved him from fear and greed and hate and all of the weaknesses that stem from human insecurity.”

Superman v. Spider-Man

Clark’s decision to be a hero and use his powers for good is by far one of the most compelling aspects of the character and at the same time, his Kryptonite. By being presented as an ultimate symbol of moral good, Clark is constantly portrayed as this stale, flat caricature, rather than anything or anyone with substance that an audience can connect with. This has been a creative plague attached to him for far too long. Most people relate to the awkwardness, internal turmoil, and daily struggles of Peter Parker. In relation to the almost perfect, picturesque life of Clark Kent, Peter is constantly failing and constantly falling short, no matter how hard he tries to do better. Peter, unfortunately, is born a loser. While Clark on the other hand, simply plays the part of the fool. For Clark, his failures are only a show. While for Peter, it’s a reality and the concept of being too good you have to fake imperfections, is an idea difficult for most to connect with.

Grant Morrison further dissects Clark’s “act”:

“‘Superman’ is an act. ‘Clark Kent’ in Metropolis is also an act. There are actually two Kents, at least – one is a disguise, a bumbling, awkward mask for Superman. The other is the confident, strong, good-hearted Clark Kent who was raised by his surrogate Ma and Pa in Kansas and knows how to drive a tractor. I think he’s the most ‘real’ of all.”

 

The Atlantic explains these differences in the characters, Spider-Man and Superman as:

Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, his creators, had reinvented the Superman engine, taking the archetype of the super-heroic outsider and making him an underdog through a series of clever tweaks. Where Clark Kent’s romantic life was a game, Peter Parker’s was a soap opera; where Clark’s boss was gruff, Peter’s was a jerk; where Kent was ignored in civilian guise, Parker was actively picked on. Marvel had, in effect, figured out how to supplant Superman.”

Luckily for Spider-Man, it seems no matter the medium, era, or take on the character, the creators who handle Peter always seem to understand where he comes from; an awkward and all-around weak geek suddenly having power thrust upon him, along with his personal journey of finding balance in his new found responsibilities.

While in Superman’s case, outside of some very iconic storylines like ALL-STAR SUPERMAN, KINGDOM COME, SUPERMAN: LAST SON OF KRYPTON, a handful of others, plus Christopher Reeves’ perfect rendition of the character in the original SUPERMAN films, the “what” that Superman represents is generally lost or just undervalued in modern society. It doesn’t seem like many creators or handlers of the Man of Steel seem to know how to manage this larger-than-life persona, or at least accept what goes along with him. Superman tales are very hit or miss, either nailing the character or just falling completely short and that that isn’t exactly a great ratio for a character with 80 years worth of stories.

 

Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

Superman and Modern Western Philosophy

Now, unlike Peter and many other comic characters, Clark is not compelled by outside circumstances that push him into the role of hero. Clark has made the decision to help others and use his abilities for no other reason than it was the right choice and he sees a need for his presence. Now, if you ask most whether he should or shouldn’t use these abilities in the manner he does, almost all would say absolutely. As if it’s his sole responsibility and duty, the whole idea of “with great power comes great responsibility” or as Immanuel Kant would put it: “ought implies can.” So why is it that we expect Superman to do these great things because he “can,” but don’t follow suit?

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Every day we as regular people can give money to the man on the corner, hold the door open for a stranger, help an older woman with her groceries, but do we? When you’re asked to donate a dollar while checking out at a register, do you? Many people answer with, “I’ve already donated” or “Just not today”. I think for most, the loss of a dollar for a “greater good” wouldn’t be noticed or impact them in the slightest. Most likely, that dollar would go to something unneeded or frivolous. This is an action that isn’t super or even above and beyond the call of duty, yet we rationalize some reason or reasons not to.

In Superman’s case, we have an example of a character who’s always going above and beyond, whether it harms his social life, his physical well-being, or even his own comfort because of the empathy he feels towards other life forms and, specifically, the people of Earth. Clark is “super” in his very being. His desire to help goes past his own comfort levels or the good of his survival, not because ought implies can but because of a deeper sense of morality that only he can engage in.

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Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

Superman isn’t driven by a sense of duty nor an exterior trigger, in order to create his subjective “need” for his presence as a hero, but instead by a very deep, empathetic nature to help those around him. He relates to the pain of others, even if he himself doesn’t experience physical pain in the way most other sentient lifeforms do, particularly the people of Earth. He’s the sole (for the most part) survivor of a destroyed planet and for much of his life felt out of place; and, depending on the situation, Superman can still feel physical harm to varying degrees depending on whether Krypton, magic or a Darkseid level character are involved or how the story is written. However, generally, the way or how Superman feels pain, is depicted as different than other beings.

Superman understands pain, even if his personal experience with pain is different than ours. No matter the canon or the writer, however, Superman is a character that wishes from the bottom of his heart to heal and lift others up to their fullest potential.

The Embodiment of Utilitarian Philosophy

Now, revisiting the prior point of “ought implies can” and pivoting from it, we can present Superman’s own moral philosophies almost parallel to a utilitarian point of view by philosopher Peter Singer, who states in his essay “Fame, Affluence, and Morality”:

“I begin with the assumption that suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad. I think most people will agree about this, although one may reach the same view by different routes. I shall not argue for this view. People can hold all sorts of eccentric positions, and perhaps from some of them it would not follow that death by starvation is in itself bad. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to refute such positions, and so for brevity, I will henceforth take this assumption as accepted. Those who disagree need read no further.

My next point is this: if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it. By “without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance” I mean without causing anything else comparably bad to happen, or doing something that is wrong in itself, or failing to promote some moral good, comparable in significance to the bad thing that we can prevent. This principle seems almost as uncontroversial as the last one. It requires us only to prevent what is bad, and to promote what is good, and it requires this of us only when we can do it without sacrificing anything that is, from the moral point of view, comparably important. I could even, as far as the application of my argument to the Bengal emergency is concerned, qualify the point so as to make it: if it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it. An application of this principle would be as follows: if I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing.

The uncontroversial appearance of the principle just stated is deceptive. If it were acted upon, even in its qualified form, our lives, our society, and our world would be fundamentally changed. For the principle takes, firstly, no account of proximity or distance. It makes no moral difference whether the person I can help is a neighbor’s child ten yards from me or a Bengali whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away. Secondly, the principle makes no distinction between cases in which I am the only person who could possibly do anything and cases in which I am just one among millions in the same position.”

Singer is arguing that one can be held morally worthy of blame, if they have the ability to promote good and help those in need, as long as they don’t sacrifice anything of moral importance. Singer is famous for a utilitarian philosophy of morality across species and in how one should live. Singer has even argued you should donate as much money as you possibly can, as long as you allow yourself what’s minimally needed to survive and that you are ethically bound to help others to your fullest capabilities, which in Superman’s case, is limitless.

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Superman and Speciesism

Now, what I am about to state isn’t intended as Vegan propaganda or a manifesto but rather, the best example I can use in comparing someone of Superman’s stature to a real life example. In the case of Superman, thanks to his Kryptonian heritage, he’s a being beyond human capabilities and standards. Clark Kent has surpassed any human in terms of physical potential and even intellectual abilities, in the same way, we humans would consider ourselves to most, if not all, of the creatures in nature. This is the reason we’re the only animal on Earth that have captured other creatures for the purpose of viewing and selling into economic commodities. We no longer hunt. We have an entire economy based on the subjugation of “lesser beings” and imposing our higher capabilities upon them. We dictate the lives of entire species and ecosystems. A large majority of us would argue that we have no moral need to improve the conditions that these “lesser beings” are treated with and that we aren’t held to the same moral obligation that we are to other humans. Unless you’re a Vegan, Vegetarian, Jain, or someone with similar ethical and philosophical doctrine, these ethical obligations are generally not questioned. This is why the majority of people who read Peter Singer and his utilitarian views find him to be too unrealistic and too extreme.

Now, if such duties are too unrealistic in our own capabilities or actions, then should we expect Superman to feel any different? This is exactly what makes him so special, so “super”, and how we gauge the morality of our superheroes. He’s an individual that is “beyond” even some of the actual gods in DC canon, and yet he’s more empathetic towards humans than most. Something that baffles his fellow Kryptonians, as well as a constant dichotomy between Kal-El and General Zod:

“We have obtained glimpses into your life on this primitive planet for decades, and yet I have never understood your motives for self-degradation. Your father would be disgraced to discover you masquerading as one of these sub-Kryptonians.” (Zod, SUPERMAN: LAST SON OF KRYPTON)

“I’ve discovered his weakness… he cares. He actually cares for these Earth people!” (Zod, SUPERMAN II)

A God with the Emotions of Man

What makes Clark so special is he transcends even species through his empathetic and caring nature. He transcends the normal boundaries of morality because of the empathetic feelings he has towards other sentient beings and the pain they feel, as well as the dreams they hold. His time on Earth and upbringing with the Kents, as well as his own nature, is that of someone who simply wants to do right and help all those he can.

“I hear everything. You wrote that the world doesn’t need a savior, but every day I hear the people crying out for one.” (Superman, SUPERMAN RETURNS)

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Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

When Peter Parker first received his superpowers, what was the first thing he did with them? Peter chose to use his newfound abilities for profit and popularity, and it wasn’t until the loss of his uncle that he realized: “with great power, there must also come great responsibility”.

Could it be this humanizing factor that compels readers more towards Peter than Clark? That Peter is fallible? That he makes human mistakes, while Clark always makes the right choice? In Mark Waid’s essay “The Real Truth About Superman: And The Rest of Us Too”, he believes Superman is actually driven by a need to belong and, in helping others, is acting in his own self-interest. This is elaborated upon in an essay by Arno Bogarts titled, “Rediscovering Nietzsche’s Übermensch in Superman as a Heroic Ideal”, which states:

“Superman does what he does, not for worship or power, nor out of fear, dominance, or pity, but simply because he chooses to do so as the fulfillment of the destiny he carved out for himself-in other words, Nietzsche’s will to power.”

This is a very humanizing quality as well as a uniquely American philosophy to carve out one’s own future, and yet it still seems to be lost in most stories relating to the Man of Steel. So what is it that makes other characters seem so human and Clark so alien?

“It is a remarkable dichotomy. In many ways, Clark is the most human of us all. Then… he shoots fire from the skies and it is difficult not to think of him as a god. And how fortunate we all are that it does not occur to him.” (Batman, SUPERMAN/BATMAN #3)

How Creators are Failing the Man of Steel

I would argue several key factors. One, it comes down to the writers making stories that relate to the audience. If a writer creates a flat caricature, with virtually no way to connect with the audience, you get the dilemma that many find with Superman and the hit-or-miss stories that are associated with him. This comes down to DC, their editors and the creators involved are just not capitalizing on the ideas right in front of them and what they ought to be doing with the character. Second, I think those who are writing these stories not accepting the larger than life persona of Superman and the fact that he is meant to be unachievable. A god walking among men, rather than a man trying to play god.

“Goku is incredibly powerful, a skilled warrior and a great character, but Superman is on a completely different level. One which really doesn’t belong in versus matches like these. Sure, due to the writing style of Dragon Ball, Super Saiyan God’s exact levels are difficult to pinpoint, also Goku will likely achieve a new form in the future, it’s just how Dragon Ball works nowadays. However, none of that is really a factor. Goku will always have limits, while Superman’s maximum potential is limitless… Goku is the epitome of a self-made man, in spirit and personal goals, he inspires people to work hard to achieve dreams, to many Goku is proof there is no struggle that cannot be overcome. And the world of Dragon Ball fits this mold. Every obstacle Goku faces in Dragon Ball has a limit he can overtake. Even those called gods in his universe can be defeated and surpassed. And that is where Superman breaks this match up… Superman is an all-powerful being… he is not meant to be relatable, he is not meant to lose. While Goku’s story is one of a man becoming the best warrior he can be, Superman’s is the story of a god trying to live amongst men. It’s not about if he loses a fight but, whether or not he’s doing the right thing. That’s why he stands for Truth, Justice and Freedom. That’s why he doesn’t wear a mask. That’s why he’s called the Superman… Ultimately, Goku versus Superman comes down to limits and purpose. What happens when you pit a man with the power to break any limits, against a being with no limits in the first place?” (DEATH BATTLE: Goku vs. Superman 2)

 

The Atlantic surmises that DC actually finds Superman embarrassing, stating:

“In fact, it’s hard to escape the impression that Superman’s own company finds him a bit embarrassing. As the comics writer Chris Sims points out in his review of the anniversary compilation Superman: A Celebration of 75 Years, DC’s company line on Superman seems to be that he’s “a depressed sad sack who never wins.” The company ditched his iconic red trunks in 2011 and placed him instead in the blue, armor-like suit he currently wears on film. In response to fan complaints that Superman was “too powerful” and thus boring, it constantly adjusted his level of strength.”

This argument is strengthened even more when you look at the treatment Superman has received cinematically. In the DCEU, Clark was ultimately given a backseat in his own sequel. After MAN OF STEEL, Batman was suddenly added into the mix because the film didn’t meet expectations. A character DC has, for a long time now, over-saturated the market with to comical levels over their other characters.

For a simple visual of this, go to your local comic store and see how many Bat-related titles there are, compared to the other DC characters.

Now, not only was Batman added to what was supposed to be Superman’s sequel, but Wonder Woman as well. If the most iconic female comic book character of all time wasn’t enough, they also threw in Aquaman, the Flash, Cyborg, and Doomsday, as well as hints at Darkseid. Basically, the film went from Man of Steel 2, to Superman & Batman, to DC’s Trinity, and finally, in all honesty, to Justice League Light.

Now, was this their original intention or was DC trying to play catch up to Marvel? That’s debatable and isn’t the issue that I’m trying to highlight. The problem is taking your flagship character, one that crosses culture and country, your original, your Captain America, and turning him into a supporting role to Batman and the second name in the title, of what should have been his sequel. Zack Snyder himself seems to completely miss the point of the character as well, especially in a statement regarding the film and how his Superman spent his time:

“Over the last two years he’s basically been Superman as pop culture would know him, he’s been righting wrongs, there have been floods, mines have collapsed, bridges have collapsed, churches have caught on fire. He’s basically been a hero. When we find him, he’s been dealing with the everyday world of being a superhero, but there’s a paradigm shift happening in that the unintended consequences of some of those rescues are starting to come into fruition. He’s starting to see that every action has a reaction. Like, if you’re just taking a cat out of a tree, you can’t touch anything or the arborists will say, ‘he damaged the tree branch when he got the cat down.’ Or, ‘the cat wasn’t neutered, so now there’s thousands of cats.’ There’s no winning anymore for Superman.”

It’s also not unrealistic to believe either that DC is somewhat embarrassed by their characters on the cinematic level and in the presence of wider audiences. When Marvel creates a film starring no-name heroes, one of which is a gun-toting raccoon and a talking tree, and the writer of MAN OF STEEL, David S. Goyer, was making statements about DC characters like this:

“How many people in the audience have heard of Martian Manhunter?” After hearing some light applause and cheers, Goyer added, “How many people that raised their hands have ever been laid?” Cont. Goyer: “Well, he hasn’t been rebooted but he’s a mainstay in the Justice League. He can’t be fucking called the Martian Manhunter because that’s goofy. He can be called Manhunter.”

 

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Now, BATMAN V. SUPERMAN had, to put it nicely, a very mixed reception among fans and critics, and presenting any opinion about it is irrelevant at this point. The character Snyder displayed in the film, however, was almost blasphemous. To say he neutered and bastardized Superman is an entire article in itself.

Superman is a character that uplifts and whose sole purpose is driven by helping mankind. If you walk out of a theater feeling depressed because of a film in which Superman is one of the most pivotal aspects and central characters, you should know something is more than “off.”

Snyder presented an unconfident sad sack, who was more concerned with Lois Lane and people liking him, rather than doing what was right and uplifting those around him. Snyder and Goyer’s Superman is selfish and that’s the farthest quality from what the definitive Superman represents and the fact that they don’t understand this is a real tragedy.

I’ve noticed while modern portrayals of characters like Batman, are constantly updating and becoming bigger or more grandiose, Superman at least in his current incarnation seems to be trying to get back to his roots. DC even went so far as stripping him of most of his powers and reverting back to the classic black and red insignia Max Fletcher designed in 1941. And what I think most people are beginning to understand is, Superman, when over explained, is uninteresting… It’s the simplicity of Superman that makes him such a compelling character. He’s a hero of perspicuity in his motivations. We always know what Superman will do, because he’ll always do what’s right. The clearer the motivations, the more distinct the character becomes. It’s the stories around him that should be complex… Super is his most fundamental attributes… If you had to explain to a 5 year who Superman was, this would be your description… he’s not an alien, he’s not a god, he’s just a dude from Kansas doing the right thing. (Superman: The Golden Age of Animation)

Why We Need a Superman

In the current climate of our planet, from politics to societal issues and the extreme disconnect that’s plaguing the United States, not capitalizing on the very fact that Superman is meant to represent hope and connect people of all walks of life shows how little some creators understands the character. Terror attacks and shootings have become a common occurrence and the division our country is currently facing is one of the worst we’ve faced since the Civil War. Our political and societal landscape has bred so much violence, hate, and negativity on both sides and if there was ever a time for Superman, the definitive Superman, it’s now.

BATMAN V. SUPERMAN in its opening weekend broke attendance records (which was due to the title and characters alone, not the story), brought all sorts of new exposure to this character, and was more than the perfect time for a Superman of hope, bringing light to our ever darkening world. Instead, we were given a brooding, unsure, more “humanized” Superman and it displayed how little is understood about the character and why that needs to change.

“Even though you’ve been raised as a human being, you’re not one of them. They can be a great people, Kal-El, if they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason, above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you, my only son.” (Jor-El, SUPERMAN)

Superman isn’t meant to be flawed. The whole point of the character is that he always knows what’s right, even if he struggles with making those decisions and questions them afterward. He’s essentially a man who has the powers of a deity, but lacks the omniscient abilities of an actual god. That’s what makes him human and that’s what makes him interesting.

“I’m not God… I’m just a man.” (Superman #666)

Superman’s Greatest Power is his Limitless Empathy

One of the best examples of this is in SUPERMAN: GROUNDED when he returned from the destruction of New Krypton and is instantly ambushed by a group of reporters. It isn’t the reporters that are important here, however, but rather the random woman who approaches him. This woman is upset and feels that Superman abandoned her, as well as Earth. She feels it’s his fault her husband died of a brain tumor, even though Superman was off saving millions. Whether this was rational or not, which was addressed by several reporters, she still feels Superman could have somehow saved him had he been on Earth.

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Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

What’s important about this dialogue is Superman’s reaction and the basis for the story itself. It may not be realistic, rational, or even possible for Superman to have done anything for her husband. He was off saving millions of lives, but the fact that Superman legitimately felt deep down that there might’ve been something he could’ve done for one single individual, that he failed one person top of everything he just did, shows how deep his empathy runs. No matter the circumstance or the scale Superman will always care because he knows he can do things no other person can. Which is far from the individual in both MAN OF STEEL and BATMAN V. SUPERMAN.

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Superman Represents the Greatest Tropes in Literature: Triumph and Good Overcoming Evil

So many of the greatest pieces of philosophical and religious literature, not to mention fiction, center around beings or individuals who are above the average man and make choices that we mere mortals couldn’t possibly handle. Stories that present ‘gods’ without limits, among men who do. Perfect or higher entities compel so much of our literature because they’re symbols we in real life can aspire to be like, and these attributes just aren’t being embraced by the writers of Superman. Which is more than odd considering the obvious religious inspirations associated with the character. Superman stories constantly try to humanize a character that is meant to be larger than life and not tethered to the negative qualities of the average man.

“At his inception, Superman seems very much a representative of the downtrodden working classes his creators hailed from, and a wonderful embodiment of all the dreams and aspirations of the powerless.” — Alan Moore

Superman is meant to be great. He’s meant to be an unachievable goal for everyone else to strive for and to work towards. The best quote or really analogy I can give to express this goal of ‘perfection’, comes from Mixed Martial Arts legend and one of the all-time greats, Georges St. Pierre:

“There is a difference between a fighter and a martial artist. A fighter is training for a purpose: He has a fight. I’m a martial artist. I don’t train for a fight. I train for myself. I’m training all the time. My goal is perfection. But I will never reach perfection.”

It’s knowing that to become like Superman, is just something you cannot reach but, will always strive towards. It’s a level of perfection or goal that you will always strive for and never grasp, an unreachable height of ideology and aspiration. He is above all, what it means to be a hero and the best self in a character:

“The hero must be the character’s best self. When Odysseus appeared at home disguised as a beggar, the big resolution was that he was “really” Odysseus. When young Arthur yanked the sword from the stone what that revealed, even to himself, was that he was the king and always had been. When the prince of Egypt, for just his own sense of rage and righteousness, killed a taskmaster and was banished for taking the side of the slaves, only then did his real origin become clear to those around him. In every classical setting the hero first arrives in disguise, and Superman is, at the very least, our own age’s quintessential classical hero.”

 

He’s Just Good

Superman is the embodiment of the highest ideals of morality laid out by some of the greatest philosophers in history, including Plato and Immanuel Kant, and while he may bear the name of the Übermensch in Nietzsche’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” I think most would agree, he doesn’t resemble much of the “Overman” that Nietzsche spoke of. Nietzsche himself would probably see Superman as more of a limiter of human evolution, rather than a facilitating growth. A notion that Lex Luthor enjoys pointing out constantly through the long history of their rivalry:

“All men are created equal. All men. You are not a man… but they’ve made you their hero. They worship you. So tell me, what redemption do you offer them? Those red eyes. I’m sure they look right through me, like I am nothing more than a nuisance. But when I see you? I see something no man can ever be. I see the end. The end of potential. The end of our achievements. The end of our dreams. You are my nightmare.” (LEX LUTHOR: MAN OF STEEL)

In the Republic, during a discourse between Plato and his brother Glaucon, the latter proposes an argument to Plato using a magic ring that turns the user invisible and states:

“Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a god among men.

Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point. And this we may truly affirm to be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever anyone thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust.

For all men believe in their hearts that injustice is far more profitable to the individual than justice, and he who argues as I have been supposing, will say that they are right. If you could imagine any one obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another’s, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to one another’s faces, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice.”

Essentially, Glaucon is proposing the idea of absolute power corrupting absolutely but, in Superman’s case, he is the “Just Man” that Plato constantly argues for in the Republic. So rather than Superman’s absolute power corrupting, it absolves absolutely.

If you recall, Max Landis points this out in his earlier quote. At his core, unless he’s tainted by some sort of Kryptonite or an Apokolips fire pit, Superman ALWAYS does the right thing. Even in SUPERMAN: RED SON, albeit shaped by Communist ideals, he still wants to help people. His ideology may differ and his methods might not be what most would agree with but, Superman’s ultimate goal is still to help people when it all boils down.

Can we say this about every character? Does Oliver Queen, without his time on the island, ever receive a moment of illumination or does he continue his life of lavish debauchery? Would Peter Parker, without the death of his uncle, still have become Spider-Man or just continue to gain in fame and money? Does Tony Stark, without being kidnapped and forced by circumstance to create the Iron Man suit, still move away from arms to more peaceful means? Does Bruce Wayne, without the tragic death of his parents, still become Batman? The list goes on, but I think you see my point. Even without superpowers, Clark will always be a good guy.

“If Clark wanted to, he could use his superspeed and squish me into the cement. But I know how he thinks. Even more than the Kryptonite, he’s got one big weakness. Deep down, Clark’s essentially a good person… and deep down, I’m not.” (Batman, BATMAN: HUSH)

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Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

Superman is the Ultimate Hero

I’m going to pick on Batman here for a bit, and it’s not because I dislike the character, I did the same for Spider-Man earlier who, I’d like to note, is by far my favorite character in any entertainment medium. Peter Parker is a character that I relate to in almost every aspect and one I have the most personal attachment to, however, I need to be objective in this discussion.

Batman is the dark to Clark’s light. The yin to his yang. The ever-present duality of morals presented in DC Entertainment in terms of being a hero. Batman is famous for his determination and obsessive desires to the point of almost delusional madness in accomplishing his goal of justice.

Batman constantly ostracizes allies, destroys relationships, and generally presents a destructive nature in order to achieve justice at all costs.While his methods are more vigilante (“They work against the law — they take the law into their own hands, essentially becoming criminals themselves in order to fight criminals. This is down to a loss of faith in the law — where the law has usually failed them at some point in the past and in this instance they believe they can do better in the name of justice — namely smashing people’s faces in.“) than hero (someone who still possesses faith in the system and uses their profound abilities to aid it), he’s nonetheless an individual who strives with every fiber of his being to accomplish good and prevent others from feeling the trauma that had forever changed his very self.

Unlike Clark, however, who made his decision to don the cape from a calm state of mind, Bruce is driven by what some would define as vengeance, in order to carry out his mission. There is an argument over whether his character is driven by justice or vengeance, but that’s all semantics and personal opinion. There’s no arguing, however, that Bruce is driven by trauma and that’s what created the Batman.

Bruce doesn’t create Batman from an internal need for good, but rather an outside and external circumstance. His desire for good is ultimately selfish or for personal reasons. This is precisely what separates the two character so vastly and really the majority of characters in the superhero genre. It’s what sets Clark apart and why he’s the quintessential hero, as well as why it’s so important for creators to distinguish the difference. Otherwise, what makes Superman so super? What makes him unique and what drives him? If you cannot present the deeper empathic nature of Clark and his ultimate internal desire for good without outside circumstance, as well the image of hope and aspiration that Superman represents, the answer is nothing It just makes him another guy flying around with larger than life abilities and who can do things others can’t. He’s just a strong guy.

“They are perfect because they reveal, in one sentence, the fundamental secret of Superman and why we love him so much. Gods achieve their powers by encouraging people to believe in them. Superman achieves his power by believing in us.” (Mark Waid, “Introduction” ALL-STAR SUPERMAN, Volume 2)

Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

This thing that sets Clark apart from every other character is that he creates a symbol of truth, justice, and freedom (formerly the American way) to aspire towards. Clark is a powerful, godlike messianic figure that no matter what is always there for the people of Earth and will actively choose to always make the right call. He will always set the needs of others above his own desires, safety, and sometimes even his own beliefs. He chooses to be an objective symbol of good rather than a dictator, embodying the role of the hero completely. That’s what makes him an inspiration and a symbol of hope. A staple of the character from his first appearance in ACTION COMICS back in 1933, which has clearly been lost over the years.

READ: Want to learn about how deep Superman can be? Here’s our piece on the symbolism of Superman!

The Ultimate Immigrant Story

If you look at the time in which Superman was created and have any basic knowledge about the two creators, culturally and their place in society, you really see what this character is meant to inspire.

Superman was created as an outsider, placed in a society that allowed him to carve out his own destiny and at the same time, resonate as a ray of hope to those around him. Siegel and Shuster were two Jewish immigrants trying to survive the Great Depression, besides all of the other nuances of the culture at that time. They lived in an era when people, especially immigrants, were looking for hope in a very dark and uncertain world. Economies were collapsing, empires were changing and the world just finished one World War and was on the verge of another. Immigrants were leaving their homes believing in the opportunities presented in the West, where they could shape their own paths in the booming United States. To be honest, not too different than many circumstances and sentiments in our own world.

Yet, Siegel and Shuster were idealists in a dark and uncertain time, unlike the cynicism that surrounds our own. They believed in having a beacon of light and inspiration, in having a symbol of hope. The parallels of Superman and their own experiences are more than obvious. Superman was created as a savior figure, even if he himself doesn’t believe he is one.

“I want you to stop looking for a great savior. Lex isn’t it. I’m not it. You are. All of you are. I do what I do because I was given a gift, but all of you were given gifts, too. Use them to make each other’s lives better. Show the world Metropolis has a heart.” (SUPERMAN: SECRET ORIGIN #3)

Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

What the “S” Represents

In the same way the Greek Pantheon represents different ethical and moral mythos, so do our comic book heroes. Spider-Man can represent how we can overcome our insecurities and find freedom through self-confidence. Batman has an undying grit and determination to accomplish his goals. While Captain America presents the motivation to always push forward, to always go one more round. Superman is that light we find in the darkness. That little bit of hope we find in the most desperate of situations. To pick us up and realize we can do more, we can be more. Superman isn’t a sad sack who always loses or someone who can’t win. He’s the contrary.

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a character very similar to that of Superman in his values and general personality proudly stands at the forefront of their world. Marvel has allowed for Chris Evans as Captain America to exude almost identical values of Superman, without the need to reinvent the character. Captain America and Superman are both products of the 1930’s and 40’s, in their morality and optimism towards the world. If anything, by Marvel showing Captain America as traditionally valued and a moral backbone, it instantly sets him apart from the other characters in the films and distinguishes him from every other character he’s surrounded by. Captain America lifts those around him up. He gives them confidence, he gives them strength, and he gives them hope. Captain America in the MCU is what Superman should be doing in the DC Extended Universe.

Mark Wade Superman

Make Superman Great Again

What’s really sad about the current state of Superman is that in our atmosphere of distrust, disillusion, and just the general lack of unity our country faces, as well as the growing pain and fear presented by this modern world, a character that unites or stands for something “higher” is more than needed with our constant cynicism. By having a character that stands alone in his morality and his ability to be a light in the darkness is really what makes the character special, and if there was every a perfect time present this character properly it’s now.

I will acknowledge that the current run of SUPERMAN in DC’s Rebirth is going back to the character’s roots. I started this piece over a year ago and since then, DC has done a phenomenal job highlighting and exploring the very ideas I have presented in the current run. Max Landis’ SUPERMAN: AMERICAN ALIEN, is another great example as well. However, only two examples for a character that is the very staple of the comic and superhero genre is just not enough, especially in this era of cynicism, disbelief and lack of “hope”.

It’s time for Superman to be great again, just like he was when Siegel and Shuster first created him.

2 Comments

  1. Alec L Moran

    April 6, 2018 at 8:45 pm

    “WHAT’S SPECIAL ABOUT SUPERMAN IS HIS PARENTS DIDN’T FUCKING DIE.”

    Um. His parents blew up along with Krypton…

    And his human parents eventually die, too.

    …?

    I like the philosophy you’ve pointed out, though. I just didn’t get that one part.

    Reply

  2. Clark J. Kent

    August 21, 2017 at 4:14 am

    Excellent piece. Thank you for truly understanding the character. 🙂

    “Up, up, and away!”

    Reply

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