A lot of chatter about Superman happening on the ol’ interweb this morning, and it got me thinking about the character and what he means, both in general and to me. I was a (post-Frank Miller) Batman guy for years — that constant struggle between his higher ideals and darker methods inherently makes for good drama. Plus, there are some great stories out there that explore both the character and the world around him (Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker’s Gotham Central was one of the best comics of the past few decades). Superman, I’ve always been lukewarm on. He has a reputation for being the ultimate square (even moreso than former soldier Steve Rogers), this all-powerful guy who always does the right thing. How do you write interesting stories around that?
As I get older, though, the more I realize that’s exactly what makes the character so interesting — he can do anything, and he chooses to do the right thing. He’s been given the keys to ultimate power, and instead of letting absolute power corrupt him absolutely, he tries to follow his moral compass. And that’s an interesting character, one that many people (myself included) feel was betrayed by the ending of Man of Steel (dir. Zack Snyder, 2013). Faced with an impossible situation, he chose to succumb to his darkest instincts and snap Zod’s neck. Compare and contrast that with Joe Kelly’s story What’s So Funny ‘Bout Truth, Justice, and the American Way? in Action Comics #775. Superman encounters a team of incredibly powerful anti-heroes called The Elite who want to use their powers to police the world through violent and fascist means (echoes of Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch’s The Authority, to be sure). He’s pulled into an impossible showdown with the villains, in which their leader, Manchester Black, tries to prove that the only way Superman can defeat The Elite is by killing them and showing that his morals are a sham. Supes uses his abilities to make it seem like he’s killed them — only to reveal that it was all a trick, and he used their powers against them to neutralize them. He could have snapped Black’s neck and been done with it; he did not. He chose not to. He found another way.
Of course, that story was from March 2001, before September 11 let America give vent to its own darkest instincts. Which is what makes Superman more important than ever. With a literal Lex Luthor in the White House, we need a pop culture figure who doesn’t use the power for his own selfish ends. There’s the argument that it’s not a great character, that his nigh-omnipotence makes for boring stories. Which is why he requires a great, cynical foil — in some cases Batman, in some cases worldly, jaded reporter Lois Lane, in some cases power-hungry, narrow-minded industrialist Lex Luthor. When he’s the cynical one, it’s just cynicism bouncing off cynicism and that’s boring.
Some of the very best Superman stories revolve around the dichotomy: Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman run, for example, shows what happens what different people do when they get Superman’s powers, including Lois and Luthor, and how Kal-El’s selflessness makes him so special. Similarly, the writers of the cartoon series Justice League and Justice League Unlimited did some really smart things with the character — putting him up against a fascist version of himself in “A Better World,” stripping him of his powers and showing that he’s still a badass in “Hereafter,” facing Superman off against the very government he’s loyal to and forcing him to make hard moral decisions in the overarching storyline of JLU seasons 1 and 2. No character exists in a vacuum, not even the most famous character of the 20th century.
That’s not to say he’s an easy character to write, and certainly people have different interpretations. The version outlined above is the one that speaks to me, though, and I think it speaks to a lot of people — hence the cultural dissatisfaction with the current film version of the Man of Steel. We need a Superman who doesn’t find anything funny about truth, justice, and the (idealized) American way.