I’m a firm believer that you can tell a lot about a person by his choice of favorite Ninja Turtle. Obviously, if you prefer Donatello, you’re into math and science. If you like Mikey, you’re laid back and fun loving, and if you like Raph, you’ve got a rebellious streak. But what about Leonardo? Does that mean that you’re a boring stick in the mud as many have called him?* Why is it that people don’t really care much for Leo?
Or how about Superman? One of the major criticisms of Superman is that he’s incredibly dull. Why is it that we think of the more paragon-like characters as uninteresting? Obviously, there’s more than one reason why, and, like humanity itself, it’s very complex. Even I, the know-it-all that I am, don’t know why. Perhaps, in this day and age, we are looking less for heroes in red capes tossing the bad guys in prison, and more for heroes who just kill them, Punisher-style. Perhaps we need heroes more like the Elite.
Superman vs the Elite, an adaptation of What’s so Funny About Truth, Justice, and The American Way, poses the question of whether might makes right as it relates to superheroes.
The Elite are a group of antiheroes who believe that, since they have the powers, they can make the rules. They’re perfectly fine with killing arbitrarily if it means making the world better and laugh at Superman’s idealism. The public agrees with these antiheroes, feeling that just putting away criminals will lead to nothing but more civilian casualties. Though well intentioned, the Elite ascribe to the philosophy of might makes right. They have several valid points. Just look at the Joker and how many lives Batman would save just by killing him. Sometimes, there are people too evil to let live.
This is a call-out to the shadow cabinets, petty dictators and all-around tossers of the world. You’re on notice. We’re not bound by lines on a map or political alliances or government bodies of any kind. We are our own bosses, and we have a very simple job. There are the good guys, namely us and the bad guys, namely anyone who treats anyone else like trash to further their petty aims. We turn bad guys into memories. So mind your manners, lads and lasses or we’ll blow your house down. We’re the Elite. You asked for us, world. Now you got us.
–Manchester Black, Leader of the Elite
Superman, on the other hand, disagrees. He believes in right makes might. The central conflict of the story is between these two, conflicting ideologies, effectively demonstrating that neither side is perfect; however, it ultimately sides with Superman. While his side has its problems, the Elite’s methods are proven wrong when Superman pretends to cut loose and shows how easily he can dominate others. He chooses not to because it’s not his place to govern the world and choose who is good and evil. Just look at Red Son to see how well that turned out.
To be honest, this is one of my favorite Superman stories because I feel that we need a reminder that there is another way. It often feels like we live in a world of Elites, where the strong decide right and wrong and force others to live by their rules. One of Superman’s most poignant lines of the movie is this,
I heard a child say that he wanted to be in the Elite when he grows up, because it would be fun to kill bad guys. Fun to kill… People have to know that there’s another way. They have to see that someone believes in humanity strongly enough to…
Lois: To die for them?
Just replace that with terrorist or any group that’s hated and feared. Believe me when I say that I’ve heard children say this. We live in a world where innocent Muslim students can be gunned down and the American media say that it was just over a parking dispute, and people seem to thinks that violence is the only answer. While the world is improving, there are those who still hate and fear what they don’t understand, and this hatred leads to more suffering. We need Superman’s ideologies more than ever.
At heart, I am a character person. To me, the most interesting characters are the ones always willing to show compassion and kindness. In Grant Morrison’s amazing All Star Superman, he set out to make Superman a “Renaissance idea of the ideal man,” and crafts one of the most powerful Superman stories I have ever read. Shockingly, for a story with Superman facing off against a sentient sun, answering an impossible question and traveling to Bizzaro world, the most memorable scene is rather ordinary. Superman talks down an jumper, and it is one of the most powerful comic pages I have ever read. If you could distill the soul of Superman in a single page, this would be it. Superman values all life and believes in the strength of humanity. Superman represents hope.
A common criticism of superheroes is that they’re just a teenage power fantasy. While, yes, there are elements of this, many of the great superhero stories are not. They’re about people who strive to make the world a better place through example. Superman is the type of character who, between alien attacks, regularly visits cancer patients in a children’s hospital. All Star Superman is a celebration of what makes the hero great: his kindness, compassion, and ability to lead through example along with super powers and the ability to hit stuff really hard.
There will always be antiheroes in comics. Antiheroes are fascinating and have a lot of storytelling potential. We need antiheroes. We relate to them and admire them for their ability to do both good and evil. The world is not black and white, and antiheroes are the embodiment of the grey area between full good guy and full bad guy. But we also need heroes like Superman. They’re who we truly aspire to be like, because when you have power, it is so easy to use it for your own ends. When you’re powerful, it’s so easy to indulge in your darkest desires and turn a blind eye to those suffering. It’s easy to squash your enemies like the ants they are and hurt them in every way they’ve hurt you. It’s compassion that’s difficult. Anyone can hate, and see the people they don’t like as faceless monsters. That’s why we have hate crimes like the one I mentioned earlier. It’s difficult to see people’s inherent humanity of those who are often hated and feared. It takes true strength to use power only to help others, and that’s what Superman embodies. He believes that human beings are basically good, and violence isn’t the only answer. He is the embodiment of all that human beings strive to be, and the best Superman stories reflect this.
*I don’t feel this way about Leonardo. In fact, he’s my favorite Ninja Turtle for all the reasons I’ve listed in this article.
**All images and quotations belong to DC Comics.