Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Look, Up in the Sky...the Lamest Superhero Ever!!

I'm all for thought-provoking symbolism in movies, but Superman Returns was just too much. I just wanted to scream at the director for feeling the necessity of pounding the "Superman-as-Christ-Figure" idea into my head. Mr. Singer, I get what you're trying to say!!! How about next time we just let the people with the ears hear, and then let the others just enjoy a man in tights flying. Sorry, this post really isn't about why Superman is or is not a Christ-figure (nor the Nietzscean irony of the whole idea). What I really want to write about is why Superman is a LAME superhero.

1. Part of the joy of superheroes is that you imagine that, given the perfectly fortuitous mishap, you yourself may one day become like them. But this is not the case with Superman - he is unattainable, unreachable. On the other hand, I could easily imagine being bit by a radioactive spider (a la Spiderman) or accumulating a whole bunch of awesome gadgets and hitching them to my belt (a la Batman) or even being the reciepient of a slight genetic mutation (a la the X-people). But Superman is an alien. In fact, he's only Superman BECAUSE he is an alien. And I'll never be an alien.

2. Superman has everything. C'mon, does he really need eye lasers? The joy of most superpeople is that they find a way to adapt their particular power to the situation at hand, thus making them both super and clever. Superman has no need to adapt to anything (except the occasional kryptonite encounter, but even that's a little silly) because he possesses every supertool known to the universe. You just can't relate to the guy who has everything and whose only weakness is a glowy green rock. Rooting for Superman is like rooting for the Yankees which, in turn, is like rooting for OPEC. Thus, rooting for Superman is like rooting for OPEC. Seems logical, right?

3. Superman has every imaginable power and yet he goes around pulling cats from trees and stopping convenience store hold-ups. I implied before he has no need to be clever, but you'd have to quite a bit slower than a speeding bullet to recognize that this is not a good use of time. Leave that sort of thing to Spiderman, who can't go flitting about the world, and who is really only useful in a big city. (Can you imagine how useless Spiderman would be in, say, Omaha?) If you are Superman, you really should focus on the big picture. World peace!!! Where are you on North Korea, Superman? If you haven't noticed, there's a lot going on in the middle east that you could help out with....


At 7/11/2006 07:05:00 PM,

I always liked green lantern, that ring is awesome.

At 7/11/2006 10:54:00 PM,

But I thought Superman was gay?

At 7/12/2006 12:35:00 AM,

"And I'll never be an alien." 

Unless, of course, you are kidnapped by aliens and taken back to their home planet. And then won't they feel silly when you gain super powers from their sun and unleash all your jealously of Superman in a destructive rage! 

Posted by BrianJ

At 7/12/2006 01:52:00 AM,

The fact that Superman has unlimited power is exactly what makes him so difficult to portray in general. This is not a fault of Superman Returns as much as it's a fault in the Superman character per se.

Superman is the personification of the 1930s era matinee idol, and this kind of character doesn't lend itself easily to a serious treatment. The ingenuity must always be relegated to the villain, and the challenge is to keep the villain from being sympathetic as an underdog in the face of Superman's overwhelming power.

As a consequence, the best comic book coverage of Superman has tended to be from the point of view of other superheros defeating him (e.g., as in Miller's Dark Knight Returns) because it allows the ingenious foe of Superman to be sympathetic to the readers.

Busiak's Samaritan character from Astro City is a very effective rendition of a Superman story. Though Samaritan lacks the inner demons that excite other superheros, he is a workaday superman with identifiably human interests as he splits his time pretending to be human, helping humans, and battling forces inconceivable to humans.

Another interesting portrayal of the Superman type character is Moore's Dr. Manhattan from The Watchmen. Dr. Manhattan can be viewed as a critique of the Superman character. Over time, as his power increases, Dr. Manhattan becomes more and more detached from the affairs of mere mortals until he finally divorces himself altogether from human society. It is also telling that Moore makes Dr. Manhattan a bit player (albeit key in certain transitions) in the plot of The Watchman. Nor is he the influential hero in terms of shaping human history.

Short of that, the best comic book coverage of Superman as Superman in the past 30 years has been Waid's Birthright series, and it is quite good. And though Superman Returns does not try to parallel the plot of Birthright, it does succeed in capturing much of the overall feel of Waid's Superman.

Posted by DKL

At 7/12/2006 10:00:00 AM,

Let's try an experiment with Chris' Superman critique, and replace "Superman" with "God":

"God has every imaginable power and yet he goes around pulling cats from trees and stopping convenience store hold-ups... If you are God, you really should focus on the big picture. World peace!!! Where are you on North Korea, God? If you haven't noticed, there's a lot going on in the middle east that you could help out with..."

As one person recently said at church, "God always seems willing to help me find my keys when I pray for that, but he didn't save my child from death."

So maybe Superman-focusing-on-cats-in-trees is just another way of making him Christ-like?

Posted by Cincinattus

At 7/12/2006 10:08:00 AM,

Your criticism makes sense, Cincinnatus. (though you're just playing into Mr. Singer's plot) Jesus didn't go about trying to overthrow the Roman empire, he healed indiviuals.

But your point "begs the question" (ha!) why?

At 7/12/2006 10:53:00 AM,

Back in the day, Superman rid the world of all its nukes! He even announced it at a bona fide UN meeting or something similar.

I think this was in the last Cristopher Reeve movie, and a lot of people say that this world problem-solver approach was the end of that Superman franchise.


I can say from personal laziness and egocentrism that when something bad or unfortunate happens to me, I WOULD LOVE for some all powerful being to ignore the innumerable true disasters and tragedies of the world, and come X-ray through my apartment to help my find my cell phone, or fly me through bad traffic to be on time.

That's probably a sign of mental illness. 

Posted by Jason

At 7/13/2006 09:56:00 AM,

In the comic book series, Superman once collected and destroyed all of the Kryptonite scattered throughout the entire world, thus eliminating the only thing that made him remotely interesting.

But back to the Jesus thing, I don't know why Jesus chooses to help on micro rather than macro level, any more than I know why Superman does. But then again, as Jason pointed out, Superman DID rid the world of all nukes (and what a boring movie that was), and maybe Jesus does interfere on a more macro/global level than we know. Also, I am not sure I understand the rules that God/Jesus has for when he will/can intervene in human affairs.

At 7/13/2006 11:51:00 AM,

Why not just hide your super identity entirely, put forth a half effort and be really good at sports, thus avoiding all of the responsibility and criticism that comes with your powers and being to live a friviolous and irresponsible life? you could still get Lois Lane, but Lex wouldn't always be on your case.

At 7/15/2006 01:41:00 PM,

Chris MG,

I think that is a great idea. I would play football if I were Superman in that case. But wouldn't your team and the trainers know what was up when they tried to give you an injection and the needle bent like it was a blade of glass? Or what if you accidently starting flying to catch an uncatchable pass, and it looked like you jumpted 15 feet into the air?

Now, maybe if Superman would do a sport like golf, and use his breath to control where his ball goes, that would be a little more "realistic."

Posted by Jason

At 7/15/2006 04:05:00 PM,


Golf seems to be a dangerous sport for Superman to try if he wants to stay hidden. I mean, if he's not going to do football because he might accidentally catch an uncatchable pass by flying, who is to say that he wont exercise the same indiscretion when he gets angry (as many golfers do) and throws down his golf club (not uncommon upset golfer behavior) and inadvertently creates a 20 foot deep golf club-shaped hole in the ground??? Golf is notoriously frustrating. If our superhero is to excel at super-mediocrity, he will need super-self control...

...which leads me to the conclusion that Superman shouldnt just hide out and be Super-mediocre (but super-good compared to us mortals) per Chris MG's suggestion, and thereby live a frivolous but cushy lifestyle. Why not go ALL OUT and side with Lex Luthor, use your powers to have a frivolous and irresponsible lifestyle by taking over, say Tahiti?

At 7/15/2006 04:07:00 PM,

Incidentally, one of the all-time best This American Life episodes explored the "what-ifs" of normal people getting superpowers... check it out at their website

At 7/17/2006 11:53:00 PM,

Ok, I'm a little late getting in on the discussion and there's a good chance that no one will read this but I just had to comment. My comments will be directed at argument #1. Let's discuss how realistic it will be to become all of the super heroes you think are "cool". Now we all know how easy it is to find radioactive insects whose bites change your genetic structure so I guess we CAN all become Spidermen. As for Batman, you neglected to mention that Bruce Wayne was a gajillionaire with one of the worst cases of vengeful vigilantism EVER. Suppose you did win 5 lotteries and secretly aquired more top secret gadgets than the government, do you really have the anger you would need to kick that much booty? I think we both know the answer to that question...

Now as for Superman, I am surprised that a lawyer to be would throw out such a flimsy argument. You obviously have not done your research my friend. You are right, Superman is an alien, but that is the reason he has his powers in the first place. On Krypton he was just a normal Kryptonian. His powers actually come from the sun of OUR solar system. This being the case, there is just as good a chance of you being shipped off to a distant planet where you would gain your own super powers. Would you use them for the good of all people? I bet not. You say boo for Superman, I say boo for all of us for not having a Superman to call our own. :(  

Posted by Rich




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