A Character Study of Superman

I am reading Superman: Birthright and getting ready for Man of Steel, and it’s gotten me thinking about Superman.

We often talk about the motivations of a character, or give a well-done for overcoming obstacles, but I don’t know that I’m qualified to do that with Superman. The only Superman movie I’ve seen is the Superman Returns movie by Bryan Singer, which did not endear me to the series.

The only Superman comic I’ve read is the beginning of Birthright. In some ways, I suppose it just makes me a Marvel comics reader. But much of it is that Superman is so much a part of our culture, and so larger than life, that he ends up almost as a cliche. What is it about Superman that both intrigues us so, and bores us so?

Most Overrated Superhero?

For instance, Superman came up in a recent Sourcefed Table Talk on the question, who is the most overrated superhero? I think they each defined overrated in different ways, but I feel like even the comments that were pro-Superman played into him being overrated. I think it also leads to a related term – overpowered.

Superman is well known and beloved because he’s constantly saving people. But how can he constantly save people? Because he’s more powerful than everybody and nothing can stop him. Well, in the end, that’s not interesting. Instead, it leaves me wondering why anything bad happens at all in a world with Superman.

I mean, after all, Dr. Manhattan ended the Vietnam War in a week, and was a major deterrent in the Cold War. He changed global power and politics. Wouldn’t Superman do the same?

So instead, Superman’s powers seem to lead to a few, overused plot devices and moments: the dilemma choice of who to save (except he’s Superman, so he tends to save everyone), the damsel in distress (linked often with a dilemma – save the girl or save everyone), and the overpowered Achilles heel. I mean, Kryptonite could be its own post, so let’s not go there.

Other than these sorts of plots, how do you stop Superman without having, like, a giant invading army?

Oh, and it looks like they have one of those in Man of Steel. So… that’s awkward.

The Man of Steel Who Breaks the DC Universe

It’s hard to think of Batman and Superman operating in the same world, really. Well, I mean, Super Hero Cafe makes it a little easier…

But really, in one corner, here’s Batman, just a guy who’s tough and smart and has gadgets and money with which to buy more gadgets. Then in the other corner, here’s Superman, flies, breathes cold, laser eyes, X-Ray vision, super hearing, super fast, super strong, invulnerable…

This is exactly what happens in the hilarious Lego Batman 2: DC Super Heroes, which you could rename Batman And Superman Beat Lex Luthor And The Joker, or maybe just Superman Wins. But the jokes they make about it are great! Robin wants to call in Superman early, and get some help against the villain menace. Arkham Asylum has loosed villains on the streets, and it’s mayhem.

But Batman resists. And throughout the game, even once Superman joins them, Batman is upset. Grumpy at being saved – and needing to be saved – by Superman. Annoyed at all the powers he has. He flies off at one point to save a crashing plane or something, and is back in moments to rejoin the Caped Crusader.

And who has the massive stockpile of Kryptonite in this game? Not Luthor. Not the Joker. It’s Batman. He has it, ostensibly to keep it from the villains, but really also as a backup plan if Superman ever went villain. Makes sense to me, and totally a Batman move.

Thoughts

I suppose other people’s thoughts influence a lot of what I think about Superman. Part of that is probably because we all know him, superhero fans and comic readers, as well as your average person. He’s part of our mythology now. But does that make him interesting?

He’s inhuman, overpowered, not much like us. He has a lame weakness, a lamer secret identity, and… well, it’s good to have him on your side. Because then your side wins.

Meaning, the most interesting thing about him might be what they’re exploring in Man of Steel: his origin story, his young life. Why did this overpowered, invincible being decide to be good, and not a tyrant? Really, it could have gone either way. Meaning, I imagine I will continue this discussion in my LitFlix of Man of Steel, once we’ve seen that! Stay tuned!

But in the mean time, what do you think of Superman? Do you like him? Or is he just kind of there?

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6 responses to “A Character Study of Superman

  1. I think a lot of the problem with superman comes not from him being overpowered, but from him being too poorly defined in any sense except personality. Truth, justice , and the American way , etc. In any comic hos character is consistent. This is generally true for all other supers as well, right? But unlike every other hero, superman’s powers and weaknesses vary wildly from writer to writer. His eye beams can blast a person or perform brain surgery, his super breath is…arctic? He can fly, which he couldn’t do originally. In some instances he can be in space without support , others he needs a suit. And yeah, kryptonite. What does that do to him exactly? There is no consistency. At all.

    There are still interesting stories to tell about him, and some are very good. All star superman is probably the best superhero story I have read

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    • But I think that in order to make him more interesting and to get better stories out of him, they need to have more strict definitions on who he is physically. What his real limits are, and what kryptonite actually does do him.

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      • Not to say it’s the be-all, end-all of canon, but in Lego Batman 2, Superman could do almost everything that could be done with one of the many Bat-suits you put so much work into finding and using… as well as being invulnerable, which in the Lego games is generally the most expensive power-up to buy. He literally did almost everything – or at least, almost everything you needed him to. His downside? He got feeble around Kryptonite. Which really just worked out to being another puzzle to solve, and a plot device, rather than actually keeping him from being ten characters combined. The Lego games are already low-stakes, but Superman made it almost too easy. And they called him out on it, in Batman’s frustration.

        I guess that’s all to say… He’s got so many powers, it’s hard to think of them all at once to use them… hard to write a plot where he would be called upon to use all of them… always something up his sleeve… a never-ending wealth of super powers. And is that what we read comics – or go to the movies – for?

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  2. Pingback: Superman Versus Marvel | Comparative Geeks

  3. Pingback: Man of Steel and Superman: Birthright – A LitFlix | Comparative Geeks

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