The superhero genre is vastly oversaturated at this point in time. It’s reached the point where the MCU has started making movies and TV shows about some of their most obscure characters, like Shang-Chi and the Eternals (remember that?). Love ’em or hate ’em, these spandex-clad heroes ain’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Yet, one character is notably absent. And whenever he does show up, he is faced with extensive criticism and even disdain. I am of course referring to the granddaddy of the genre: Superman.
Boring is the word that most people associate with Superman. Understandably so; it’s hard to make an action movie or comic engaging when the hero is a nigh unstoppable god-like being. It certainly doesn’t help that he’s often taken either completely seriously or as a total joke.
So, what’s the deal? Why can’t anyone seem to get this classic character right? What’s wrong with modern Superman?
Simple: the writers are too focused on the super and less on the man.
Most modern Superman stories, be they movies or comics or even video games, are focused on how powerful he is. How do people react to a man that powerful being around? How do the villains overcome that power? How do other superheroes work with or against his strength? While these questions could make for an interesting story, but they never reach their full potential due to how Superman himself is portrayed.
How is that done? Well, more often than not, Superman is portrayed as either a quiet loner or a reluctant thinker. For example, the Clark Kent we see in the movie ‘Man of Steel’ spends a good chunk of the movie moping and hitchhiking. He’s reluctant to actually use his powers because of the ‘lesson’ his father taught him.
Because Clark Kent would definitely let his father die in a tornado instead of just doing… oh I don’t know… anything.
Then there are the Superman stories that don’t even bother with deeper themes and just pit him up against some super strong enemy to fight. These are the least interesting of the lot. It’s basically just a Dragon Ball Z fight, only without any sort of narrative tension to keep the audience interested. These stories are only worried about giving the audience some mindless action to watch.
Both of these styles miss the whole point of Superman as a character. It isn’t about how strong he is, it isn’t about the moral or existential dilemma of his powers. What makes Superman such a lovable and memorable character isn’t his might, it’s his heart.
Yes, I know that was the cheesiest line I’ve ever written. But we’re talking about a guy who flies around in a spandex costume his mother made for him.
Clark Kent isn’t a complicated person. He’s a country boy from Kansas with a heart of gold. He’s awkward, kinda goofy, earnest, and honest. It’s plain and simple and kind of boring, sure. But that’s what makes Superman a lovable character. He’s a good man given the ability to do good.
As an example, let’s go back to ‘Man of Steel’. After saving the crew of a burning oil platform, Clark washed up on shore half-naked. He then steals some clothes and carries on with his day. It’s a boring and forgettable scene (not to mention out of character; Clark Kent would never steal), but it could’ve been great! Imagine if Clark knocked on the door and awkwardly asked for the clothes. It’s a simple change, but it makes Clark feel more down-to-earth as a character; it makes him more human, and thus more likable and relatable.
But no. Can’t have that! Then we might not have time for more Jesus metaphors!
The most powerful and memorable Superman stories are the ones where he’s just helping normal people with normal problems. Whether he’s helping a boy with his abusive father or keeping a suicidal young woman company on the roof or he’s just helping someone find their missing dog. Stories like these highlight Clark Kent’s true power: the simple fact that he is an exceptionally good man.
Sure, they don’t have world-busting fights. He’s not duking it out with Batman or saving the universe from some apocalyptical monster. But these simple, down-to-earth stories are what makes Superman truly admirable and memorable. They give hope to people struggling with issues like that and they inspire people to be like Superman. Normal people can’t fly, but they can do some good for a friend or a neighbor if they wanted to.
You can argue all you want that that isn’t ‘realistic’ or ‘interesting’. But sometimes, those don’t make a story better. Sometimes you just want to read a fun and uplifting story about a man using his gifts to do some good in the world.
Oh well. The modern Superman stories may let me down, but at least the old ones are still around.
One response to “The Problems with Modern Superman”
I think you hit the nail on the head!
“Imagine if Clark knocked on the door and awkwardly asked for the clothes. It’s a simple change, but it makes Clark feel more down-to-earth as a character; it makes him more human, and thus more likable and relatable.”
Or what if Clark Kent offered to do some chores in exchange for clothes? But regardless if he just asks or offers to pay with work equity, your core point is right. He would not have walked off with the clothes without some kind of permission.
“You can argue all you want that that isn’t ‘realistic’ or ‘interesting’. But sometimes, those don’t make a story better. Sometimes you just want to read a fun and uplifting story about a man using his gifts to do some good in the world.”
I’d suggest it’s both more realistic and more interesting. And it’s why JMS’ Superman stories were so incredibly popular. JMS has an amazing command of character, and character is what sticks with people!
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