Monday, July 17, 2006

On Superman

[It was while watching "Superman Returns" that some ideas and feelings I've had about Superman - particularly, my disgust - gelled, and became the following. Far from scholarly or even well-researched, I guess this is just some thoughts I've been thinking about since the "Doomsday" series back in the early '90s, when Superman "died." I've always had a big beef with the anti-underdog, especially in comics, but I do respect Superman because it was him who Started it All in the 1930s. All heroes, in some form or another, can trace their roots back to Kal-El - or at least to Kal-El's roots.

But still, I just can't root for the guy. Here's why...]


The idea for a Superman came long before Seigel and Schusters Depression-era funny book incarnation. Humans have lived with the super probably since we first learned to think and talk. Gods, demi-gods, angels, and aliens are all manifestation of our need for something more-than-human. A super human ideal has given us something to strive for and something to believe in.

So its no surprise that our modern Superman follows much the same pattern as previous super-folk did: a traveler from a distant planet, who experiences a life alien to his own, develops powers beyond the scope of mortal men and uses them to affect benevolent change. Despite much overhaul over Supermans 70-year history, his story is still iconic: like Moses, he was whisked away to safety as a child, growing up and learning about his true responsibilities. His father, like Jesuss own, ordained him as a savior-of-sorts for humankind (this borrowing also hints at the Golem of Jewish lore). Our Superman uses a disguise to mask his extraordinary gifts, and develops a life outside of his otherwordly persona, so that he can life a normal life while still doing deeds of derring-do, much as the Greek gods would transform into mere mortals to have sex or enact revenge on the humans below Olympus.

The Greeks developed a soap-opera pantheon of gods because they could reflect upon their own passions and realize that even the beings that shape the world (like politicians and celebrities today) have faults, and they make for outstanding stories. In this, Superman acts as Clark Kent to experience the hum-drum daily life of an ordinary American who works a regular job and falls in love with a spunky co-worker. Much like the Greek gods, this charade isnt necessary: he has the power to forego any disguise and merely take what he wants through brute force (as the Olympians often did). What makes him a superhero, however, is that he doesnt use his superhuman powers to bully his way into happiness. This, weve learned, is because he was raised by a hard-working pair of Kansas farmers, the Kents, who taught him to value truth, justice, and the American way.

Its this ideal that leads Superman into Earth-saving adventures as a kind of protector of the planet. Batman and the Flash (in the DC Comics universe) can help the downtrodden or the robbed business owner, but it is Superman - and usually Superman alone - who can stop earthquakes and asteroids from raining certain doom on the Earth. Superman is nothing more than a colorful (and even-tempered) Jupiter, a paternal protector who sees his powers as a responsibility to help those that - far down, on the planet below - cant help themselves.

How, then, can we identify with Superman? What is it about him that endears us - for more than 75 years now - and places him on the pedestal in the American mythology?

It certainly cant be his abilities, although any Futurist with a lust for power or an awkward teen who wishes for stability in an awkward time can desire the fantastic ability to fly at will, or to level whole mountain ranges with a well-placed punch. Superman is indeed super - so super that his powers are unmatched in the super hero world. He lacks only the power to manipulate reality itself to become truly godlike. Flight, invulnerability, super strength, heat vision, cold breath - the Platonic four elements of nature brought to life. Supermans only weakness is Kryptonite, the radioactive remains of his homeworld, which so far have not proved sufficient in defeating him. The reach of his powers stretches so far, in fact, that in the 1980s (with the help of John Byrne), DC dampened his powers in a revolutionary retelling of the Superman story (see the Man of Steel series). Prior to the mid 80s, Superman could run near or past the speed of light, leaving him at odds with the laws of the known universe (and therefore truly godlike, since reality would seemingly not apply to him). It may be only Batman, whos superior intellect and vast cunning, could undo and sidestep Supermans might by exploiting any known weaknesses. All this power makes Superman an ideal, since no mortal - even aided by todays or the near futures technology - could come close to replicating Kal-Els abilities.

Supermans altruistic philosophy is also the stuff of legend, and therefore leaves him unworthy of our sympathy. If Supermans job is to protect his adopted people, what are we to think of all the crimes and terrors that he cant save us from? He cant be everywhere at once, of course. So do we accept that Superman can only help out when and where he can? And do we leave it up to him which duties to take on? Frank Miller, in the amazing Dark Knight Returns series, saw this potential for exploition by making Superman a tool of the Reagan administration to wreck havoc on the Soviets and furthur extend Americas military capabilities. Who, after all, can stand up to a nation that has Superman on its side?

But why America? Why not Britain, say, or India? One could argue that it is Supermans adopted home of Kansas that leads him to fondness for the U.S.A., but would an alien being - with no real ties to this planet - really pick a small square of Midwestern land to identify with? Is this why we identify with Superman, because he calls the geographical and (some might say) emotional center of the country?

Supermans secret identity, Clark Kent, is an extension of Kal-Els attempts at fitting in on Earth. While Kal-El himself has often argued that Clark is the real personality, while Superman is merely an extension of Kal-Els awesome abilities, its hard not to think that Clark is merely Kal-El pretending to be human. While his roots in the Kents are strong, he still acts as mild-mannered Clark Kent, a bumbling, shy, introverted reporter. The fear of being found out as Superman is nil (even Lex Luthor said that no mere mortal, everyday human could be as powerful as Superman, and no one think to look for Supermans identity in the average Joe, making - as Batman even said - Supermans disguise a perfect one), but he still hides his Kansas- and Krypton-born identities behind glasses and a reporters notebook. Perhaps its his lack of any measurable personal life that makes the personna of Clark Kent ring hollow - as opposed to Peter Parker, Spider-Man, who spends most of his days not as the superhero but as a married schoolteacher. Peter Parker is a human given extraordinary powers, while Kal-El is an alien with powers who acts human.

Part of the act is to protect Earth and its citizens from harm. But why? Supermans adopted responsibility is purely benevolent. Unlike, say, Batman - who watched his parents die before his eyes - or Spider-Man - who was responsible for his uncles death - Superman has witnessed no trauma or life-altering circumstances to shape his altruistic attitude. In Byrnes retelling, Kal-El saves the Earth from a crash-landing spaceship. Is that enough to make a hero? Or, more importantly, is the story instilled with enough sense of drama to make it believable? And how much drama can be infused in a story about a character who can survive a nuclear blast?

His incredible abilities, as mentioned before, also make Superman a less-than-identifiable hero. In some cases (Batman, Spider-Man) the sense of underdog gives us a reason to root for the hero. Batman has no superpowers - none at all - but defeats his ever-legendary rogues gallery through superior intellect and fear. Spider-Man is the constant underdog. Rarely do things even in his normal life go his way, and often he is found in circumstances (often on an intergalactic level) that are far beyond his scope. But with Superman, everything is within reason. Theres nothing really to root for because, even in death, we know Superman can never be defeated. He ages slowly, he may not need to eat (gaining his strength from our yellow sun, photosynthesis-like), hes invulnerable - its hard to cheer for a hero who has everything going his way.

In recent comics, in fact, writers have steadily increased his powers. Superman is - or has the potential to be - a god. Rare is the character that can match him, and often - when such a character is created - they become even more unbelievable powered than Kal-El.

Despite his rural roots, Superman continues to exist outside the sphere of human understanding. While mortal, his powers are so great that to define his as mortal is to stretch the words meaning. Perhaps capable of death, however unlikely is more appropriate. But still Superman remains in the lore and stories of 20th- and 21st-century America. Indeed, he is among the pantheon of the modern gods, existing in that murky realm between science fiction and the Ubermensch, a way to help us make sense of and be hopeful of the universe around us. Sent to Earth to save humans from whatever ills befall them, Superman is our protector - and like religious protectors, his very being lies just outside our comprehension. Could such a being exist and, if so, would he be as benevolent as he is in the comic books and movies he appears in?

The stories continue, and we are always left with our imagination.

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