There are few characters in comics that are as misunderstood and dismissed as the one called The Man of Steel. So I figured we could have a little talk about Superman through the filter of pop culture. See, I have a few ideas about why Krypton’s last son is so derided. So I’ve decided to share these ideas because I believe that Superman is as dynamic and compelling as any other character.
Now before we start, I feel like I should say that I didn’t always have the love for Superman that I have now. In fact, despite the fact that I loved the Richard Donner movies well into my adulthood, I had written off Superman as a comic book hero by the time I had gotten back into comics as an adult. I found his relationship with Lois Lane to be more of a punch line than a statement. I found the idea of a godlike alien espousing the morality of Middle America to be corny and quaint. Damn. Just typing that out makes me want to yell at myself.
Now that I know Supes a bit better I’ve come to a different conclusion. After reading plenty of Superman comics, I understand a lot more about him than I previously did. I understand that he stands for peace and understanding. He loves his family, his wife and his friends fiercely and would do anything for them and yet is content to let them live their lives without interference. He would give his life to save a stranger. Does any of this sound familiar? Seems to me like that is the exact definition of a hero. Not only that, but I find him to be an excellent representation of what I believe masculinity to be.
For me these qualities are compounded by the fact that he is strong enough to crush coal into diamonds, but also gentle enough to hold Lois without hurting her or to shake the hand of a child without breaking it. Sure it’s kind of cheesy but it’s important. It speaks to the fact that he can be gentle. Seriously, the whole “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex” argument is ridiculous to me because it fails to take into account the fact that Superman is at heart a gentle person. His strength affords him the luxury of not having to rely on it. He has absolutely nothing to prove.
Lately there have been a lot of shenanigans regarding Big Blue and this upsets me. People unfamiliar with the character, or only familiar with one aspect of him, like to throw around their opinions when they really aren’t familiar enough for their opinions to be reasonable. I get that Superman is a big part of pop culture, but he was ours first, he is a creature of the funny books. Arguments like “He’s boring,” “He’s just a big blue Boy Scout” and the worst of all “He is way overpowered and that makes him uninteresting” simply don’t hold water if you are familiar with his character. Simply put, if you hate Superman and have never read a Superman comic, then you’re doing yourself and the character a disservice.
Now I get that people are angry these days. They are angry about a world that they have very little control over. Angry that those with power have so much control. I can’t fault them for it, I’m angry too. I think it’s this anger that leads to people being so hard on Superman. It’s my theory that people don’t want a hero who, in their estimation, stands for Truth, Justice and the American way. They want a hero that expresses their own anger and frustration. I believe this is why Batman has become such a pop culture phenomenon. Of course most people get him wrong too, turning him from a highly educated scientist and criminologist with very deep and important ties to his “family” into a bully loner that solves all his problems by beating them up and yelling at them.
The constant movement to lessen Superman recently by DC only compounds this. They’ve dissolved his relationship with Lois Lane, and set him up with Wonder Woman, a move that lessens not just Supes and Lois but also Wonder Woman (some great blogs have already been written on the subject if you wish to Google them). They’ve turned him into the captain of the football team, arrogant and callous and petty. They’re writing him as the kind of “hero” that uses his heat vision to kill a fellow super hero with little provocation. This isn’t the Superman I know and love and it only serves to tear down a great character.
The thing is, Superman is not about power. Yeah, power is a part of his character, but it’s not the biggest. Not to mention the whole Truth, Justice and, the American way BS hasn’t been relevant for years. People are thinking of a Superman that hasn’t existed for very long time. That’s the most frustrating thing for me. The pop culture idea of Superman and who he is as a modern character are not even close to the same thing. Yet people are still saying that he is too powerful to be interesting, or that he is too much of a goody two shoes to be compelling. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The most important thing to understand about Superman is that he is motivated by love. Love for Lois, love for his parents, love for his adopted planet and love for everyone on it. This means that he believes in all people to be the best they can be. Truly. This is why he doesn’t just kill Lex Luthor, it’s why he doesn’t just smash every villain that comes his way. He would rather solve a conflict peacefully than with violence. This is pretty much impossible to miss if you’ve ever read any good Superman story.
There is a scene in All-Star Superman, by Grant Morrison, which showcases this quality in the best possible way. Superman lands behind a teenage girl that is getting ready to jump off a building. He places his hand on her shoulder and when she turns around, he says, “You’re much stronger than you think you are. Trust me,” and then he embraces her. The first time I read it, it almost brought me to tears. It is such a powerful moment because he could of just caught her as she fell, or even just picked her up and flew her to the street. He doesn’t though, because to him, the life of this one girl is that important to him. It’s not enough to save her. He wants to give her the strength to save herself. If that isn’t what love is, than I don’t know what is.
This is why I believe him to be an excellent example of masculinity. I have felt for a long time that masculinity is not about violence or dominance, but about understanding and patience. The love that defines Superman makes him a Man in every sense. Think about it. He doesn’t constantly check up on Lois, he lets her do what she feels is right. He doesn’t talk her out of dangerous assignments because he understands that she is driven and focused on doing what she loves. He loves her for that. He doesn’t control people, he allows them to do what they need to do, and that speaks of character and confidence and security in himself and his friends. If that’s not manly, then what is? Superman is a character that is largely defined by his relationships, not his power set. When you strip away those relationships, then you change him on a fundamental level because you have robbed him of what makes him a man. The only thing left when that happens is the demi-god.