Man of Steel has launched, and with it has reignited the topic of Superman, Superman and super-men. I’ve been thinking about the character in a different light since hearing Robert M Price, of the Bible Geek, referencing Superman alongside Hercules, Sampson and Jesus as ‘Sun God Myths.’ I didn’t like Superman, once upon a time, but as I’ve grown older, and in this light, I’ve come to appreciate him more and more. What’s really bolstered my position, however, is seeing people talking about Man of Steel, and its big ‘event.’
It succeeded, it’s going to get a sequel, and based on what I know of the events in this movie, I am unhappy about that. I haven’t yet seen the mvie, but I have read the synopsis of the events in the film, and I think that’s all I need to pass judgment on the movie. I don’t need a lot of excuses to skip a movie, after all.
This isn’t about that movie, though. This is about the character of Superman, and how I think I would handle him. What about him I like, what I don’t.
Superman’s vices are pretty much threefold. The first is that he’s not human and owes nothing to humanity, the second is that he’s painfully soaked in Americana, and the third is that he’s too easy to write badly. The first point is tricky; Superman is not a human being, he is definitively other. It’s possible that this makes stories about him cast him as separate from humanity. The argument of nature and nurture is complicated by this otherworldly strangeness, and since Superman is stronger than anyone on Earth, it serves the story ill to be reminded that Superman is not like anyone else on Earth.
As far as being American goes, this was underscored in Watchmen, where Moore writes ““God exists, and he’s American.” The idea of something so powerful being connected to a single culture inherently risks that character being monocultural, or an example of cultural supremacy. Now, I know anyone outside of the United States is not going to be surprised by or maybe even notice the USA proudly telling us that they have the market cornered on being good people, but it can really taint a character who can exist as a global entity. Suddenly, a large number of stories – stories that aren’t the focus, apparently – are about a white, American superhuman flying into India, Pakistan, China, Japan, Russia, the Middle East, and solving problems that they cannot solve themselves. This ties neatly into the next problem.
Superman is easy to write badly because of these above two problems. He can be written as an alien invader, imparted with the power of AMERICA to reach out and fix the world with his incredible whiteness. He can be written as having to flee all over the world to solve all sorts of problems at faster-than-light speed, serving as the world’s non-stop policeman. That makes the world smaller, it diminishes every hero who isn’t Superman, and it creates a world that is helpless under the paternalistic auspice of a superhuman. And that’s not even touching on the problems of what happens if you let Superman kill people!
But there’s stuff I like in Superman’s story. Superman is a very basic, four-colour reinterpretation of the Sun God mytheme, which typically ties into ideas of universality (the sun shines on us all), boundless power (the sun is kind of amazing like that), rebirth and renewal (the sun rises every day) and purity. More often than not, civilised societies (which typically formed around rivers and water outlets) would revere the ocean as dangerous, and the sun as safe. The sun is seen in many of these cultures as a symbol of order, of regularity, and therefore, of civilisation itself. Superman can be all those things; a powerful symbol of civilised order, the importance of laws, the renewal of cycles.
I wrote a sun-god character for some time, and he was even in a superhero genre. The character, Cearmaid, was meant to touch on themes I felt were flawed in Batman and Superman. Cearmaid was effectively unkillable, and capable of winning pretty much any fight – he could beat anyone, through the application of sun-level forces, even characters and threats that were supposedly immune to such things – it was important that Cearmaid be capable of representing that absolute. To keep him safe and from distorting stories, Cearmaid’s powers could not be employed in non-destructive ways. That meant that he had to find locations where his boundless capacity for violence and his indestructable nature were put to good use, usually in alternate worlds, defending humanity from things like serial killer gods and apocalyptic threats before they ever could breath through to his world.
This is the problem with Superman. Superman can’t be too strong, but he can be too fast. If Superman can start seeing the whole world as his problem to solve with super-hearing that tracks lies from planetside away, then he’s suddenly omniscient without being omnipresent, and that seems a sure-fire way to go nuts (see also Irredeemable). Superman needs to be able to exist in America as an American, and for that scope to work. In the Silver Age, one of the ways they handled this was by just not having Superman be so fast he could outrun the Flash and take care of three continents at once. They also had the presence of Superman stop almost all normal crime, because who would bother robbing a bank – Superman would stop you, or find you, and then you’d have wasted your time. This is what added drama to the ridiculous threats of Colour Changing Man, because if Superman was tied up with his nonsense, he couldn’t prevent things like purse-snatching.
Superman can be really good, if you keep a handle on his scope. Make him as strong as you like, but don’t make him too fast. Make him a man of principle, but stick to those principles. And that brings us to our final point:
Superman doesn’t kill. The origin of this story trope is something like the comics code, but as the character evolved into the higher and more impressive tiers of power, this rule has become more and more a part of him. There are interesting stories about Superman that kill – Invincible, Miracleman, Black Friday, Authority, Supergod, and Irredeemable – but an astute reader will notice the common thread between those five titles is the story seed Beware the Superhuman. The story of Superman is not that story; the story of Superman is a simpler story, a more commonly mythic tale. By refusing to dip into that well, Superman tells stories that are about an earlier point in the narrative; the point at which hope remains, the point at which ideals and rules, human entities that we can create and maintain, are unbroken by the one individual who refuses to let them break. Superman not killing is not just about moral issues, it’s about ideals. If Batman is a crazy man with one rule, Superman is a man defined by rules and laws.
The other, more practical problem is that a Superman that kills quickly opens the door to a permanent solution to a large number of problems, and mandates a more utilitarian perspective on life and death. Superman’s threats exist at a very high level of power – not just dozens of dead, but thousands, and millions – that to weigh the moral weight of the second killing vs the moral weight of the millions left to die seems fiddly at best. Once a utilitarian approach has been employed, you can’t re-bottle the genie. It all eventually comes back to this point.