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.