I know that there are plenty of people out there who love Superman. I have never been one of them, however.
When it comes to superhero stories, there’s something so much more compelling about the tortured soul of Bruce Wayne, who must rely on his intelligence and guile to save the day. Superman, on the other hand, is just way, way too powerful and his “mild-mannered” alter ego of Clark Kent has just never really done anything for me.
In The Atlantic, writer Asher Elbein argues that Superman is still a great character and he can be redeemed if used the right way. I remain skeptical of this argument but it’s very interesting nonetheless.
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Elbein writes that Superman at his best is really a product of the Great Depression — that is, a populist hero from the Midwest who fights to defend the poor and downtrodden. He embodies FDR’s spirit of can-do optimism and he embraces American ideals even though he is literally an alien to our culture.
“Taken together, these stories point to a way forward for Superman that could easily recapture people’s imagination… stories of a man with the powers of a god, who chooses to live as a normal person and fight for normal people,” he writes in his conclusion. “Stories that are part newsroom drama and part mind-bending superheroics, mixing in corrupt corporations and alien invaders from other dimensions. Stories that can veer into snappy romantic comedy or genuine emotion with the removal of a pair of glasses. Stories that stop trying to reboot Superman and instead refine and build on what’s already there.”
This is an intriguing idea. There are still some problems, however.
First, the idea that Clark Kent can hide his secret identity in this day and age simply by removing a pair of glasses has always been ridiculous. It’s even more ridiculous in the year 2016, however, when you have phones equipped with facial recognition technology all over the place. Without some additional disguise, is it at all plausible that Superman can keep living a double life as Clark Kent?
Second, Superman really is too perfect. What makes superheroes compelling isn’t just their powers but their flaws. Batman doesn’t have any superpowers at all and he’s a somewhat reclusive man haunted by the death of his parents. Peter Parker has to deal with the fact that his career as a newspaper photographer thrives because his pictures are used by his newspaper to make his alter ego Spiderman look like a villain. Wolverine is always struggling to keep his animal rages in check. Tony Stark can save the universe in his Iron Man suit but outside of the suit he struggles with alcoholism.
You get the idea.
Yes, Superman has a McGuffin weakness called Kryptonite but that’s not really as compelling to me as psychological insecurities and doubts that other great heroes have. That doesn’t mean that I need all my heroes to be grim and dark, but I would like to see something resembling human frailty in Superman’s character. We live in a disillusioned age and it’s simply not realistic to believe that any superhero is as good as Clark Kent seems to be. If Superman is ever going to be interesting again, that reality needs to be addressed.