The Problem with Superman

A while ago, I wrote a story called Superman’s Golf Ball, which portrayed Superman as cocky and arrogant. It was playing off a website that highlights all the bad and jerky things Superman has done in the comics over the years.

I know that my story rubbed at least one Superman fan the wrong way and I do understand why. Superman is beloved because he is an ideal. He is an insanely overpowered person who could rule the world if he wanted to, but still tries to do the right thing and help everyone he can. He is what we all wish we could be. And I like that about him; he’s a fascinating character.

I just don’t think he always makes for a very interesting story. I went to see Man of Steel over the weekend (this post does not contain any big spoilers) and it was the first Superman movie I’d seen in a long while. I liked it well enough, but still, there are some things about Superman that nag at me. Here are three of the main problems I have with Superman stories:

1.   The lack or quality of external conflict.

The main conflict with Superman that I can see is that he is divided into the two parts that his name suggests: he is both Super and Man and a lot of the conflict comes from him trying to reconcile these two parts. He is both an alien from Krypton and a citizen of Earth. But that is all internal conflict.

When it comes to external conflict, there seems to be three main types. One is to make the conflict Superman’s race against time or distance, making the conflict his inability to do everything at once. He simply cannot save everyone and be everywhere at once (although he does pretty well sometimes).

Another way is with kryptonite, his Achilles Heel. I know that it has been justified in his back story, but it still seems like a manufactured plot point to keep him from being totally invulnerable and make the story a little interesting. Also, it seems like it should be such a rare material that it would really never show up more than once, at most. I was happy to see that while Man of Steel used the kryptonite idea, they didn’t use it overtly.

The third way is to make the conflict between him and other insanely super-powered beings, such as General Zod and his comrades, just to give Superman a challenge. The problem with this scenario is that a fight between indestructible beings is not all that interesting to watch for too long. No one really gets hurt, except for any unfortunate humans (and buildings) that happen to get in the way. Which brings me to my second point.

2.   Humanity is largely irrelevant.

When I watched Man of Steel, one of the biggest impressions that I got was how humanity was irrelevant to the final outcome. Sure, we help out a little, but in terms of fighting, the conflict is entirely out of our league. I felt bad for all the brave special forces members who are running into combat with absolutely no chance of doing anything but dying quickly. It’s like watching rabbits chewing on the treads of a tank. And although we can cheer on Superman while he defends us, it’s hard to get too invested in a fight between two indestructible titans while we sit on the bench and hope not to get crushed by accident. Incidentally, if Superman really wanted to help humanity, I think he would have lured Zod away from one of the busiest cities in the world to somewhere like Greenland where the destruction would have been a lot less.

3.   It’s too easy to break the rules.

This one is less about Man of Steel and more about Superman in his other movies and incarnations. The fact is, Superman is more or less a god. He is indestructible and his powers are so great that they aren’t even definitely defined. This is unique. Pretty much every other superhero has one power or set of powers that defines him. Spiderman has his spider sense, lightning fast reflexes and he can climb and swing on webs. Wolverine has an adamantium skeleton, claws, super healing, plus heightened senses. They’re both pretty powerful, but they have defined powers and never suddenly gain the ability to fly or use mental powers.

What can Superman do? He is indestructible, can fly, has super strength, has X-ray vision, has heat-ray eyes, has super hearing… etc. He also tends to occasionally get powers that are important to the story. In the original movies, he has turned back time and erased memory. Sometimes he flies around in space. He can do that? Sure, why not. I know that these are all in different movies, where the writers have different conceptions of what Superman is like, but still, Superman is a bit like magic. He can do whatever you need him to do at that moment. A living, breathing deus ex machine is not as interesting to watch as a character that has real, defined limitations.


I was a bit hesitant about writing this, since I know that some people take superheroes very seriously and would possibly disagree with me. But that’s okay. If you disagree with anything I said, let’s debate the matter like friends in the comments.

About David Stewart

I am a writer of anything quirky and weird. I love most genres of fiction and in each there are stories that I would consider "my kind of story". View all posts by David Stewart

15 responses to “The Problem with Superman

  • Wanderer

    All of this goes to show why Batman is the best. Oh…sorry…you weren’t talking about Batman were you…I’ll just go back to my little shrine of the Caped Crusader then…

  • bonesofculture

    Great post. Superman’s always seemed to me to be a victim of poor writing and conception.

    I know, I know, that makes me some kind of super-heretic, but you’re right, and it was all summed up very nicely in Kill Bill Vol 2. He’s not human; he’s just pretending.

    Superman’s greatest power, perhaps the power that makes him least human, is his complete goodness. He lives among people where any misstep of his could crush them. None of their (our) great fears touch him: not death, not disease, not public speaking.

    I’ll say it again: Superman’s greatest, and least human, power is his unending compassion and willpower for creatures he is not related to. He reinforces humanity’s belief in its own intrinsic importance. He’s like the Western Platonic ideal of man come to life on the page.

    Yeah, I haven’t liked Superman since I was ten.

    • David Stewart

      Good point. He is the antithesis of the adage that absolute power corrupts absolutely. An interesting example of a more normal person with superpowers is in the movie Megamind, where the villain gives a normal person superpowers and then is shocked when they don’t act like Superman, but instead go on a rampage of greed and destruction.

  • misskzebra

    I’ve never really liked the idea of Superheros, which is ironic, because sometimes I see the main characters in my TBAM series as superheroes. When I look at them that way, I feel I can spot all their worst characteristics from a writer’s point of view.

    I never find this unending compassion believable, which is why my characters sometimes have some selfish reasons when they defend others, or they just do it on a whim, particularly Keats. I don’t define them as “good people,” not even people who are trying to be good.

    I’ve certainly given them more limitations than I originally imagined them to have. It makes the battles one hundred times more interesting.

    • David Stewart

      I think that’s why there has been a rise in anti-heroes lately, since it’s easier to identify with flawed individuals who are just trying to do the best they can. We love an underdog story and Superman has never been the underdog.

  • Helena Hann-Basquiat

    The only Superman story that I absolutely LOVED was Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman. No spoilers, but it’s the ultimate LAST Superman story.
    You make valid points for a modern audience. Much like the entire concept of “Captain America”, I think Superman is an outdated concept, born in a very different time culturally. It’s very difficult to make him a sympathetic character, and the only times he’s really likeable (ironically) is when the writer owns up to the fact that we cannot relate to Superman.

  • MissFourEyes

    I’m with you on the last part. Characters with defined limitations are so much more interesting. Superman is a great character, but maybe a little too great. Some limitations would have been nice, adds a bit of excitement

  • Sharmishtha

    I have not read the stories of superman thoroughly, loved your post though! my favourite superhero well… I don’t think I have anyone! I rather prefer normal heroes! people like you and me who do outstanding things!

  • The Bumble Files

    Thank you, David. I saw the movie, too, and I couldn’t figure out what my problem with it was, besides the fact that I think it was too long. The special effects were cool, of course. Now I know what it is…it was seeing the superheroes fight each…super titans, how exciting can that be, and that the humans, in the face of it all, were completely helpless. And, so much destruction!! Superman was hot though.

  • Jilanne Hoffmann

    Kind of like the Greek Gods. Humanity is often irrelevant. i’ve never been into modern superheros. I tend to think they’re too one-dimensional. Ancient myth is more interesting to me.

    • David Stewart

      It’s true that modern superheroes are generally strictly aligned with good or evil. In that way, they either shield humanity or hope to enslave/destroy it. Either way, we’re pawns though. You’re right that the older stories where the gods interact and manipulate humans are much more interesting.

  • dfolstad58

    An inspiring post because it is so well written, organized, and illustrated. I know from personal experience the time invested to write such a thoughtful post. I have not given much thought to this topic, although I did see the movie but your comments were well supported.
    I will look around at more of your posts, and reblog the ones I especially find insightful, with your assumed permission.
    Although I find your post well written I thought it looked a little crowded to my eye, in my opinion, a little space in the blog post would make it less intimidating to those who don’t enjoy reading as much as I do.

    • David Stewart

      I find that I like Superman the person, because he really is a good guy and genuinely tries to help everyone. But, as a character, he’s not as interesting.

      Thanks for the criticism and of course I’d be happy for you to reblog any of my posts you want.

Let me know what you think. I appreciate all comments and criticisms.

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