Saladin Ahmed said on Twitter that Superman was more interesting than Batman: “He’s a ‘transracial’ adoptee immigrant kid, has an actual job, etc.” And you hear that defense a lot from Superman fans – no, seriously, he’s really interesting! He’s got all that backstory!
The problem is, Superman’s only interesting choice was made long before he steps on-screen. He decided not to use his powers for personal gain, but to selflessly use them to help the common man.
That’s awesome. That’s why people like Superman – as an ideal, he’s perfect. But unfortunately, having made that decision, he then never makes another interesting one again. Because the whole point of Supes is that he’s not tormented about that choice – if you have a Superman who really wants to have a billion dollars, or really needs to shed his Clark Kent identity to show the world how awesome he is, or to just tell that old lady with the cat in the tree to fuck the hell off because he’s tired from saving Peking, well, an angsty Superman is not really Superman as we understand him. Superman is comfortable with who he is, because he’s that awesome.
Which means there’s nothing significant that Superman can learn, emotionally. The only things he can learn are things that make us look bad: stories in which humans just aren’t as good as Superman, and Superman is sad about that. (But still filled with hope. Superman is always hopeful.) So the most significant Superman stories are the ones where it turns out you, you petty humans, are pretty shit-tacular. And then maybe you have a story where Superman justifies not taking over the planet to rule it as a benevolent dictator, which isn’t a terribly comforting thought either.
So most of the thousands of stories told about Superman are pure status quo: Superman saves other people from a big bad guy. What’s at stake for Superman? Well, he’d feel bad if those people died. Not a really gripping moment, and of course Superman isn’t going to lose anyway.
Oh, writers have tried to get around this limitation. Some writers do it by switching to other parties, showing how Superman transforms everyone around him… but of course, that’s not really a Superman story, but “Touched by an Angel.” Morrison did it by having Superman be the face of futurized wonder like he was in the 1960s, where Superman wasn’t really a hero but the gateway to an endless Narnia-like wonderland of alternative universes and weird shit.
But again, what’s Superman learning? Not much. He’s got a lot of tension between his Clark Kent and Superman world, which is interesting in theory, but you can’t make it interesting in practice without unravelling who Supes is.
Every great superhero has a couple of iconic arcs that define who he is, and usually one of them is the origin story. For Spider-Man, it’s abandoning Uncle Ben, having Gwen Stacey die, and throwing aside his costume to walk away, only to discover that he really can’t. For Iron Man, it’s his battle with the bottle. For Batman, it’s having his back broken and still coming back for more.
For Superman? His iconic moments are first of all his origin story, which makes sense. All the stuff leading up to that decision are fascinating, a look inside pure American idealism, saying a lot about what we think of our country. But after he makes that decision? His most iconic moments in comics are his death stories, one by Alan Moore and one by DC Marketing… both of which are fascinating because once Supes has made his choice, the only other interesting thing that can happen to him is that we see how he ends.
There’s one other iconic story, which the movies had to bring out: he gives up his powers, and has three Kryptonians come to town. Which, in the end, is the only story Superman can learn: giving this power up won’t make him happy, not because he wouldn’t be content with Lois Lane, but because the world will suck without him.
Superman is a great character in theory, and people like him because of what he represents. But that representation means he’s a static character, one who cannot learn because he made the proper decision before he put on the damn suit. Abandoning that means, well, he’s not actually Superman. Contrast to Batman, who can learn all sorts of lessons about how he should fight crime and his own mortality and the limits of extremism and the toll his relentless battle takes on his loved ones and how best to inspire people, all without compromising the fragile core of his concept: he fights crime because he is driven.
Superman? Great on a poster. Not so good in an ongoing saga.
Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.