Modern criticisms of the character Superman and why they are correct and misplaced at the same time.

The representation of Superman as an inordinately good and pure character has been criticized as being “boring”. The criticism goes that it is more interesting, in many cases, to read or watch characters with a great deal of inner turmoil and mixed motivations which allow for conflict, growth, and resolution. These kinds of characters, like that of Bruce Wayne and his alter ego Batman, are excellent and do make for great stories. As a result, some representations of Superman feel the need to add this same kind of conflict and turmoil to Clark Kent as a way to make Superman more “interesting”. These efforts, to my knowledge, are usually clunky and unsatisfying stemming from a misunderstanding that Clark’s resolute goodness and selflessness are not preventative elements to writing an engaging character.

Rather, Superman’s golden boy intentions are perfectly capable of encountering conflict. Superman is not all-knowing and the best of intentions do not make for the necessarily desired impact. One of the best examples of this kind of story telling with Superman is in “The Red Son”, where a Soviet, Communist version of Superman strives to create a utopia only to realize that while he has taken away much of human suffering by assuming more and more control he has also unintentionally removed much of human free will, autonomy, and self-governance in the pursuit of the indeterminable “perfect” society.

Superman is best represented when he wrestles with the nature of power and his inherent responsibility to others. Should he solve all of Earth’s problems himself? Intervene in wars? Remove corrupt politicians and demagogues? Are there limits to his values to respect the law? Is his job just to be a point of inspiration? Or to have a more direct hand in shaping humanity?

An additional criticism of Superman can often be that the scale of his powers and abilities are too great; that his near limitless abilities make for boring unengaging stories and that threats and conflicts naturally grow to cosmic and intangible scale as a result. The issue with powerful character’s is that it is very easy to increase the stakes of a story in the short term by simply growing a character’s fundamental power. For me, that became most apparent in the popular Japanese animated show “Dragon Ball Z”, where the writers essentially tell the same generic story over and over again: some powerful baddie threatens to destroy civilization as we know it and the hero needs to grow and expand their power to stop it. The unintended consequence is that with each subsequent story arc our character’s scale of power becomes more and more absurd. This makes for clumsy writing, confusing stakes, and unrelatable characters.

Superman is not immune to these issues as well, but this is not impossible to resolve. One of the great examples of fantastic storytelling with an “overpowered” Superman is the iconic book “All Star Superman”. In that story, Superman’s over exposure to the Earth’s sun has significantly increased the scale of his power. As a consequence, Clark is faced with a significantly shortened life span. Here we see Superman at his most pure. The true conflicts he faces are not truly villains and natural disasters, but of loss, mortality, and hopelessness. How will he inspire humanity in the time that has left? What state will he leave the world? How will he spend his last days? What of his friends and loved ones?

This is why Superman’s most engaging conflicts don’t center around fighting big hulking bad guys like the kryptonian “Doomsday”, which is just a monstrous beast who can match Superman’s strength, but the more insipid, sly conflict created by characters like Lex Luthor who are entirely outmatched by Superman’s physical abilities, but nevertheless attempt to outmaneuver the Man of Steel’s by way of Superman’s unyielding ethics and standards.

Superman’s strength and power, even when exaggerated, can serve as useful story elements only insofar as they come into conflict with Superman’s nature. This is why Zac Snyder’s take on Superman falls flat ultimately. Not because the character can’t be represented in a “dark”, “gritty” way. But because Snyder’s Superman wrestles with the wrong things in the wrong way. Simply being “super”, as it turns out, is kind of boring.

Zac Snyder’s giant super battles against Zod, Doomsday, and Steppenwolf simply pale in comparison with that of Chris Reeve’s cheesy, original Superman of the 70’s battling a goofy Lex Luthor that presents Clark with stakes that exist OUTSIDE of the character. Superman having to choose between who and how he saves is far more interesting than the act of saving itself. Superman is best as a sort of philosophical tool that helps us understand goodness, power, and responsibility in a new light. He is not an angsty lost soul with limitless power that feels out of place.

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Brandon Hoffman

Thoughts and stories. Don't have a plan. Just an itch to write every once and a while.