Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman

Before I start this, let me say that I have enormous affection for the DC superheroes, especially the Silver Age characters who were so much a part of my own childhood experience. There are still an ample number of DC books in my pull list at my local comics shop — Million Year Picnic at Harvard Square.

But of all of those classic characters, I have always had the least affection for Superman. (Frankly, for all of the bashing the poor guy gets, I have more good things to say about Aquaman as a protagonist than about Superman).

The reality is that Superman is and remains more of an archetype than a fictional character — too powerful to be really interesting, too bland to be emotionally engaging, and too good to be dramatically compelling. Superman works best for me as a character when he is playing against someone else. Superman standing alone is like a straight man without a comedian, like vanilla ice cream without any topping.

Some writers manage to hit just the right note in the Lois Lane/Superman/Clark Kent relationship so that Lois represents a splash of vinegar tartness that plays well against Clark Kent’s wide-eyed naivety (there’s some great exchanges between the two in Warren Ellis’s recent run on the Justice League that illustrate what I mean); Superman plays well against Wonder Woman especially if they tap the sexual tension between the two (see Greg Rucka’s last issue on Wonder Woman, which works through the relationship between the two mighty heroes).

Superman plays well against Batman, setting up contrasting world views: the two keep each other honest, disagreeing about everything, yet ending up more or less in the same place at the end. In small doses, Superman pairs nicely with the Martian Manhunter or the Flash or the Green Lantern or Green Arrow. God help me, he even works in really small doses next to the anarchic comedy of Plastic Man.

I have enjoyed some recent books which explore him as an Icon (see what Alex Ross did with the character in Superman: Peace on Earth) or which turn the story upside down (see Red Son where Superman lands in Russia and ends up working for Stalin or Superman’s Metropolis which melds together the myth of Superman’s origins with Fritz Lang’s German Expressionist classic). I can enjoy scenes where Superman’s role as the ultimate establishment figure gets taken down a few notches — see the treatment of the character in Darwyn Cooke’s spectacular, DC: The New Frontier, where Wonder Woman and Superman debate the ethics and politics of the Vietnam War, or what Frank Miller did with an aging Superman (who looks more than a little like Ronald Reagan) in the original Dark Knight Returns series.

Perhaps the most interesting recent book to really systematically deal with the Superman character was Steven T. Seagle’s It’s a Bird, which really deals with the ambivalent felt by a long-time comics writer who gets assigned to do a script for the flagship superhero and doesn’t know what to do with him. Superman is after all the top assignment — even though he doesn’t make the most money and isn’t the most popular character with fans — not by a long shot. The protagonist is struggling with a range of personal issues, mostly surrounding a family history of Huntington’s disease, which distract him from but draw him back to engaging with the “problem” posed by the Superman character. He works through many key aspects of the character, providing both a historical context and a mythological analysis of the figure’s place in contemporary culture. But in the end, he is no more able to articulate why we should care about this character than when it all started.

One can see why Superman exerts an inevitable influence across the history of superhero comics — the place where all the parts came together for the first time and jelled in the public’s imagination, the seed from which richer and more diverse characters could spring. Gerard Jones does a good job tracing the historical roots and impact of this figure in Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and The Birth of the Comic Book.

At the end of the day, though, he feels like a museum piece. I have been working hard to try to get excited about the new Superman movie. Honestly, I have. I have gone back and reread some classic Superman stories. I watched the first two Christopher Reeve films again on DVD. But I came out of the theatre and instead of feeling exhilarated, I shrugged. The film wasn’t as bad as I feared or as good as I had hoped.

Part of the problem, I think, is that the filmmakers had to deal with two layers of iconicity: first, there is the character of Superman and then, there is the aura of Christopher Reeve, who has emerged over the past several decades as the closest thing imaginable to a secular saint in our culture. So, if you can’t touch Superman and you can’t touch Reeve’s performance, then you are more or less painted into a corner — all you can become is, to borrow a phrase from Pulp Fiction, “a wax museum with a pulse.”

So, let me point you towards two links that I enjoy precisely because they don’t treat Superman as sacred and instead, have fun at the character’s expense.

The first is a now classic essay by science fiction writer Larry Niven — “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex” which explains once and for all, why Superman could not and should not make love with Lois Lane. This is not appropriate reading for small children, the politically correct, the faint of heart, or anyone else easily subject to irritation. As he explains:

Superman has been known to leave his fingerprints in steel and in hardened concrete, accidentally. What would he do to the woman in his arms during what amounts to an epileptic fit?

Consider the driving urge between a man and a woman, the monomaniacal urge to achieve greater and greater penetration. Remember also that we are dealing with kryptonian muscles.

Superman would literally crush LL’s body in his arms, while simultaneously ripping her open from crotch to sternum, gutting her like a trout.

Lastly, he’d blow off the top of her head.

(Garth Ennis plays around with precisely these images in The Pro in a moment which has to be seen to be believed.)

Thankfully, the filmmakers anticipated this issue and has the Man of Steel shed his super-powers long enough to bed Lois in Superman II and thus pave the way for the events of the current film.

The other link is to a webpage that reproduces a number of those classic Silver Age comic book covers where Superman looks like he is about to do something really nasty to one or another of his good friends. Anyone who read those books knows that the covers were usually deceiving and there was a perfectly rational explanation (like time travel or mind control or a especially virulent form of kryptonite) to account his uncharacteristic behavior. But, as this site suggests, if someone did a fraction of the things that Superman did on those covers (even for good reasons), you just might not want to be his friend anymore.

Have fun!


  1. The ‘Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman’ article in the film made me think of Alex Ross & Mark Waid’s work on the fabulous Kingdom Come in which Superman is ‘replaced’ by a superhero with less boy-scout moral certainty. Indeed, I think Kingdom Come is one of the most outstanding Elseworlds graphic novels for exactly the reasons you mentioned above; the ideological tension between older versions of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, as well as their respective falls from grace, made for great reading!

  2. alex dante says:

    I used to be equally dismissive of Superman as archetype-over-character, preferring the more recent derivatives that play with the type, such as Tom Strong, the Authority’s Apollo, hell, even __Super-Folks__ etc. I really enjoyed Azarello’s story, __For Tomorrow__, though, which showed a man who lives daily with the knowledge that one world was lost to him, and with the fear that he might not be able to prevent it from happening again.

    But yes, Seagle’s __It’s a Bird__ is probably one of the best studies of the real impact of the Superman story that I’ve yet seen.

  3. Mary Pack says:

    Superman has always struck me as rather bloodless–dull because of his lack of hamartia. Perhaps that’s why I prefer to read X-Men and darker DC characters like Miller’s Dark Knight and Gaiman’s Sandman.

    I enjoyed the newest film mostly because of the villains, not because of the heroes. Luthor strikes me as the ultimate libertarian.

  4. You might be interested in Noel Murray’s recent take on the A.V. Club blog about why Superman is his favorite superhero, acknowledging exactly the elements you regard here as crippling flaws. (Full disclosure: He’s my husband. But I thought the piece was so similar to yours, and yet reaching the opposite conclusion, that I’d love to hear your reaction.)

  5. For what it’s worth, Ubermensch!, a short story by Kim Newman, is another interesting take on the Superman mythos – it plays an interesting “What if?”, supposing Kal-el had landed in 1930’s Germany rather than 1930’s Kansas. I also feel that Smallville on the WB is a pretty good treatment of the character, although the show has some other (big, crippling) flaws.

    The biggest difficulty with working with the Superman character is that he’s too powerful; many writers resort to simply coming up with an equally powerful villain to fight him and having them slug it out, or else focuses on the love triangle between Clark, Lois, and Superman. I think both make for boring stories.

    But on occasion someone does get it right. In much the same way Spider-Man is explicitly used to tell a story about responsibility; Superman ought to be used to tell stories about morality. His biggest weakness isn’t Kryptonite, it’s his unwillingness to sacrifice his friends and loved ones, his insistence that everyone must survive. The most interesting villains are the ones who exploit that weakness, that force him into these not-easily-solved dilemmas, forced to make these difficult choices. Another interesting aspect of the character is that as a near demi-god, he’s burdenned with more responsibility than almost any other superhero, yet acts with incredible restraint. How tempting must it be to just kill Lex Luthor? To take away mankind’s autonomy and stop the pain and suffering through totalitarianism? (This theme was touched on a few times over the course of the latest Superman animated series and Justice League cartoons).

    The reason I brought up Smallville and Ubermensch! is because both actually take it a step further and look at the origins of his boy-scout morality, and whether it’s nature or nurture. Smallville attributes it entirely to nurture. At the beginning of the series, Clark and Lex Luthor shown to be in about the same spot. Both are basically good but not saints, both have immense power (Lex has brains and money). The big difference between the two characters is their parents – and from that starting point, you see Clark and Lex go off in their opposite directions. (It’d be a great show if it wasn’t so poorly written and internally inconsistent). It also explores what is perhaps the most profoundly difficult conflict for Superman to deal with; he has this boy-scout morality, but every relationship he has is based on a lie because of his need to maintain his secrety identity.

    I even thought the latest movie, Superman Returns, almost touched on a powerful theme, one that’s embodied in your post title. “Does the world need Superman?” Earth’s greatest hero leaves for five years and comes back to find he made no difference in the world – there’s still wars, violence, crime. It must be pretty depressing and frustrating for him. From the human perspective, do we benefit from having that sort of iconic figure, a beacon of light to look up to? Sadly the movie didn’t explore these themes much – I think it would have been a much better movie if it had.

    So this was sort of long and rambling, but my point is I think your criticism is unfair. Superman, handled right, is a very compelling character. The problem is he’s very rarely handled with any amount of skill, so he comes across as that kind of flat, uncompelling and uninteresting character we’re used to seeing.

  6. As a minority, I needed Superman, and Wonderwoman and Dick Tracy. This seems funny to share but , if they could do the impossible, the problems I faced as a kid were solvable. I mostly loved Wonderwoman, and dreamed about finding the black orchids,and doing all of the wonderful impossible things she did.

    I think in this country for a long time we had to have superheroes to pretend away the pall of reality, and the pain of being not even considered normal, or a person in the society, just a problem.

    My mother thought that academics would do it, but she didn’t know how inferior the learning was that we were given in segregated schools.

    It was not until I met powerful minds, and learned to use even more powerful technology in learning ways that I became my ‘Wonderwoman” self , well in technology at least.

    No magic lanyard, but the pull of interest, no plane, but I do wrap myself in silver planes and travel the world, and no black orchid, but I realize I don’t even like orchids after work in the field.

    Superman, was cute and as you say utterly unable to be real. Fantasy may rule in some children when reality bites…

  7. The other comments before mine do enough to express the need for Big Blue.

    I just wanted to add that there was a fantastic book put out awhile back called “Secret Identity” in which a young boy in the real world whose parents saddled him with the name of Clark Kent one day develops the Same abilities as Superman.

    It’s an interesting look at what the reality of such a life as he leads might really be like. It humanizes the character a bit and allows you to see him for what he is.

    A man with exceptional gifts struggling to do the right thing with those gifts. Even when the right thing is sometimes exceedingly difficult.

  8. Philip B. says:

    Not to be a spoiler, but Alan Moore’s “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow” shows one comic-book-logical way Superman could have a child with Lois, and if we take Superman II as canon for Superman Returns then all three would share the same logic.

    I also can’t help thinking of how Son Goku and Chichi had a kid in between Dragonball and Dragonball Z, how it took him a while to manifest powers. Granted, I really doubt Bryan Singer was looking to TORIYAMA Akira for inspiration, but it’s worth noting that there’s not much comics have to say on what a Kryptonian/human hybrid would be like: there’s “Kon-El,” but he’s a clone. So, basically, once we get to the pregnancy stage, all bets are off.

    As for Superman as an interesting character, I say if Silver Surfer works, then there must be some way to get Superman to.

  9. I made a recent article with a similar topic on my blog found at the link on my name.

    Superman- easily related to because he has this relation to “the divine”, has flaws to make him more related to, and well- people just need a hero.