Why Do We Need Superman Anyway?

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.

SvE_03
Best segway ever.**

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.

"Dreams save us. Dreams lift us up and transform us into something better. And on my soul, I swear that until my dream of a world where dignity, honor and justice are the reality we all share, I'll never stop fighting. Ever."
“Dreams save us. Dreams lift us up and transform us into something better. And on my soul, I swear that until my dream of a world where dignity, honor and justice are the reality we all share, I’ll never stop fighting. 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.

supermanrooftop

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.

You have given them an ideal to aspire to, embodied their aspirations. They will race, and stumble, and fall, and curse, and finally, they will join you in the sun, Kal-El
You have given them an ideal to aspire to, embodied their aspirations. They will race, and stumble, and fall, and curse, and finally, they will join you in the sun, Kal-El

*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.

41 thoughts on “Why Do We Need Superman Anyway?”

  1. Look at some of the most popular shows of the last 5 years. Dexter, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, True Detective, House of Cards, Hannibal. People love anti heroes. Like you say we can relate to them, they usually have some deep seeded brokenness inside, perhaps similar to what we may feel we have but in all these cases they take their brokenness to the extreme. It allows me to say, wow this guy has been through a lot, I can understand why he would do that. It makes me feel better about myself that even though I am also broken I have not sunk that low. With Superman and Captain America I feel bad that I am not as good as they are. I would not make the same sacrifice for someone who doesn’t give a shit about me. But you are totally right, we need these characters. We need this hope. The more we get sucked into the anti heroes the more comfortable we get with our unheroic actions. Superman should make me feel uncomfortable and he should make me want to change for the better…well here endith the rant, I’m going to read All Star Superman and better myself 🙂

    Terrific article!

      1. Also, a great youtube series that brought up what you mentioned is Itsjustsomerandomguy’s Hi, I’m a Marvel and I’m a DC Trilogy, After Hours, Happy Hour, and Zero Hour. It talks a lot about the importance of Superman, the importance of having light heroes to balance out the dark ones (while also doing more with the repercussions of One More Day than Marvel), and the balance between art and consumerism. It’s also hilarious and has decent stop motion.

  2. Great article!

    In his book SUPERGODS, Grant Morrison makes the good point that Superman was a creative, fictional response to the real troubles of the 1930s, with its economic problems and a global threat from Hitler, who very much believed that “might made right” ; Superman is a powerful, aspirational character who always does the right thing, or tries hard to do so. Just as the idea of Superman was a creative antidote to the tough times of the 1930s, I think the character remains so in our challenging times, as well.

      1. It was always great for me seeing those old images of Captain America punching Hitler. Knocking his teeth out. Basically kicking his anti Semitic ass all over the place. I like to see bad guys get what’s coming to them. I suppose I’m one of those gray fans who clamor for more “edge” in comics. I, for example, loved it when Superman killed Zod as a LAST resort in MAN OF STEEL.
        With Superman, I always feel a little cheated because the only image of him with Hitler that I can recall has Superman holding him by the throat talking about how much he’d like to hit him, but how there’s no time. Then he flies him to Geneva, Switzerland.

  3. Really, really great article and I couldn’t agree more. I have loved Superman since I was 5 years old. I wore a cape my aunt made me under my clothes which made for an easy target for the father-in-law for his toast to the groom wedding speech, I might add. I have always been a Superman fan because he could easily be a villain and rule over who ever he wanted but he doesn’t. He would rather help everyone, defend the weak and make the world a better place. For other Superman fan-boys like myself, I would recommend the anthology series that ended a few months back The Adventures of Superman. It includes some good action stories and a lot of heartfelt ones about what he means to people, kind of like the jumper in All Star. Anyway, again great write up and I hope to see more from you 🙂

  4. Great job. I completely agree that Superman and a lot of heroes represent the best of what humanity should aspire to be. I love reading the classic Superman comics.
    Unfortunately in a quest to maintain sales numbers, those type of heroes are dwindling quickly. In fact, I would say Superman and his type of heroism are on the endangered species list.
    A lot of heroes that I read in the 70s/80s continually push the envelope today and cross into that grey area. Of course they probably wouldn’t be going in that direction but comics today are targeted at adults more than kids and writers assume adults want more “edge” in their stories. So we are getting these stories but at what price?

    1. I know. It’s too bad people often mistake dark and edgy for mature. “Edgy” really only means parts of the human condition not often seen in children’s stories. Sometimes it’s nasty, but sometimes, it can be wonderful too. This attitude is what caused the antihero boom of the early 90’s, and can still be felt today. To me, though, compassion like Superman’s is maturity, because he understands that every human being is capable of both good and evil, and has felt pain as well as happiness. It’s like in All Star Superman when Lex Luthor gains Supes’s powers and sees how connected everyone is.

      1. Ugh, I hate that moment. While it was in character for movie Leo, saying that he’s better than Raph is out of character in general. It’s like the writer ignored all of Leo’s history and character development to make that scene. Also, if Leo wanted to, he could have killed Raph right there. He chose not to. Look at the 3:35 mark. 😀

          1. Spoken like a true Leo fan. 😉 Love the passion. And I think it’s fair to say that both Leo & Ralph had opportunities to kill one another and chose not to.

            I don’t think Leo is arrogant, but I think that family can sometimes bring out the worst in people. Plus, we need to see flaws in people to express complexity of character, especially when they’re perceived as being perfect. Otherwise, we’re stuck with one dimensional, dehumanized personalities that we can’t relate to.

            1. That’s also true. 🙂 Every character needs flaws and Leo does have flaws (obsessiveness, perfectionism, and naivete depending on the incarnations) but arrogance is not one of them and that moment was incredibly out of character.

  5. Good article. I’m not much of a Superman fan myself but I am enjoying John’s current run mostly because it introduces new heroes/villains of equal power to him. I’m more of a Cap and Spidey fan, both of which are also boy scouts. The problem with Superman (if there is a problem) does not just have to do with him being unrealistically moral. The biggest problem with Superman is that he is too powerful. He hardly has a flaw either morally or physically. Tough to write interesting stories about him in solo books when he can barely be challenged and will never make a mistake. Cap can be physically bested and so can Spidey so we can be scared for them. Superman is necessary though and I wouldn’t want to change him. I would never want to tackle the challenge of writing about him though because that would be a tough job.

      1. I am a big Superman fan, but your point on him being too perfect is well taken. I think Morrison said it best when he said that when you tell a story about the average superhero walking his dog, generally they go around the block. With Superman, he has to take Krypto around Jupiter. It’s just storytelling on a larger scale. A bigger stage. As you pointed out, you need people like Johns introducing new and powerful characters/villains to match his might.

  6. Super fun article. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It makes some very good points and raises interesting questions. Cornerstones of any good article. 🙂

      1. Also, something you might like to know about, look up “the world of cardboard speech.” Its a nice summary of this more or less from Supes himself while he beats down Darkside.

                1. Maybe. For a while, it was on the CW every Saturday morning and sometimes popped up on Boomerang, but that was a while ago. I’m not sure about it now because I don’t really watch Saturday morning cartoons.

                    1. Sort of. I stopped watching Saturday morning cartoons religiously around the fifth grade, when the 2003 Ninja Turtles ended. Last I checked, and it’s been a while, but channels like the CW still have them for some reason. They usually show cartoons from the early 2000’s like JL and Spectacular Spiderman. I don’t think anyone watches them live, though. For all intents and purposes they have practically died out.

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