This will probably be my final installment of The Superman Rebuttals. Not because there isn’t a heck of a lot more to say about storytelling and Superman. There is probably too much to say about the subject. How we view Superman and how we view stories have always been fascinating to me, and I’ve thought about this a lot more than most people and probably even most writers. But there’s a point where it’s good to take a break. I have no doubt I’ll revisit the topic, but for now, let’s address one last expectation.
Superman is about agency.
This makes him something of an anomaly. When people say they can’t relate to Superman’s motivation, they tend to be saying, “I don’t get why he helps people. What’s in it for him? Why would he choose to do so?”
Because he chooses to.
This is a fairly radical notion, and one that we aren’t accustomed to from most characters. Even most superheroes, especially modern superheroes, stumble into their heroic identity. Peter Parker was created by accident. Green Arrow learned to be an awesome archer by being stranded on a desert island. Even Batman was the victim of tragedy that altered the course of his life forever. And so it goes with ninety percent of heroes. Some accident, some quirk of fate, some moment that defines them.
Superman isn’t quite the same. Granted, his Kryptonian heritage is a part of his background, but I’ve always argued you could remove it entirely and it wouldn’t adversely affect him. Krypton really wasn’t meant to be important. And it’s destruction wasn’t meant to be important either. These are merely elements introduced (and quickly removed from the picture) to justify his amazing abilities. In the end, Clark Kent looks human, was raised on Earth by humans, and has a thoroughly human way of looking at the world.
Once again, this is the challenge Superman poses to traditional storytelling. In traditional storytelling, something as dramatic as the destruction of a whole world should be important. But for Superman, it’s only a plot point and a fairly minor one at that. Misunderstanding this, most writers seek to mine Krypton for stories on the false assumption that it must be important to understanding the character.
It just isn’t. No matter how many people want to tell some forgotten story of Krypton, it was never meant to be important. We don’t write Batman stories of the early years of Martha and Thomas Wayne. We don’t generally explore the early life of Peter Parker’s parents. Such stories are not worth telling because it’s understood how little bearing they have. But then again, neither of these are as tantalizing as writing about a whole world and its destruction.
But this is Superman, and Superman doesn’t play by the same rules as most protagonists.
Which gets back to the idea of motivation. Most characters, heroic or otherwise, tend to have complicated motivations. Or rather, they have motivations that appear complicated. Batman is a pretty simple character. As is Spider-Man. They have some primary emotional motivation that drives them forward. Spidey is obviously guilt. Batman is sometimes about guilt, but I rather like that he’s about hope for a better world. That’s up for grabs though because we’d much rather believe Batman is crazy than a good person who seeks to protect people from the shadows. But that’s a whole other discussion.
Superman is about care and concern for his fellow man. (And, yes, humans are his fellows, much as other writers might like to pretend otherwise.) There isn’t much more to it. He sees people in trouble. He helps. He doesn’t do so because he feels guilty or compelled to by terrible tragedy. He does it because he can. Because, often, he’s the only guy who can.
Where I would argue that Man of Steel and even the original Superman fail is that they accidentally deprive Superman of that agency that is so important to him. Instead, he becomes merely a pawn of larger forces. Any Superman story where he becomes a superhero because someone else told him to takes the heart right out of the character.
This is just another reason why I can’t get behind Man of Steel. Superman never really chooses to be a hero. He just does whatever his last father figure told him to do. He didn’t even pick his costume. He’s basically a robot with no sense of purpose from within. His motivations are completely from without, given to him by other people. This doesn’t work well for many characters, but for a character like Superman, who is all about agency and empowerment as few characters are, it will always ring hollow to me.
Even the classic Superman film has this problem. Clark Kent wanders the world searching for a purpose until he creates the Fortress of Solitude and is told to be a hero by his ghost dad.
Of course, Man of Steel takes it one step further by even creating a General Zod who has no purpose beyond one programmed into him. Thus, the whole film feels to me less like an epic struggle between a man who chooses to protect versus one who chooses to destroy and more like a big beat ‘em up between two organic robots from space, programmed at cross purposes.
This is why I rather like Lex Luthor as a Superman villain. It’s because he, like Superman, is a great man who has chosen his own destiny. I’ve always felt the heart of the conflict between the two characters are founded on their similarities in this regard. Both characters have the power to change the world. Both see that in each other. And both have chosen a path that leads to inevitable conflict.
But they both CHOSE.
Strangely, the closest non-Superman version of a character like that is probably Mr. Incredible from the greatest superhero film of all time The Incredibles. Mr. Incredible is a flawed character, but his flaws stem from his overwhelming desire to help. There’s no doubt he loves action and adventure, but he’s also there to improve people’s lives. All of his mistakes in the film stem from this desire, and it works beautifully in making an otherwise admirable quality into a character flaw.
In fact, after Man of Steel, Mr. Incredible is even a better Superman than Superman. Mr. Incredible chooses not to kill, even at his lowest moment, and in doing so, he ultimately plants the seeds of heroism in Mirage. That’s great writing, showing conflict, motivation, aspiration and how they all fit together in a complex way.
While it’s often said that Superman is an old fashioned character, he has always truly struck me as an ideal. He is beholden to nothing and no one (The American Way was added later to the character’s motivations), but he chooses to help. He doesn’t save lives because his personal identity is at stake or because is daddy told him to. (Or not save people because his daddy told him not to.) He does so because he wants to, because he chose to care.
It is that agency that has always appealed to me about Superman. I have nothing against characters with more “realistic” motivations, but I’ve always liked that Superman’s motivation is to help the world. It’s not always easy to make that interesting, but that’s why it’s an idea worth exploring. Indeed, the Superman stories (usually non-continuity) where Superman abuses his power that always made sense to me are the ones where he decides the best way to help the world is to take control of it. It is the version of Superman who seizes power because he’s tired of all our senseless squabbling and foolishness that always struck me as the logical evil version of the character. A Superman who cares, but has had enough of our nonsense.
Getting back to the overarching point of these essays, this is why Superman demands more imagination from a writer than nearly any other character. None of his motivations, his abilities, his limitations, work in quite the same way as any other character. It’s easy to write a Superman story where he goes mad with power and starts killing people just because he decides to abuse that power. It’s a lot harder to write a dark Superman who is a bad guy but nonetheless still grappling with his compassion and caring.
It’s also why Krypton just isn’t important. And why, though even the comics want to keep telling versions of Superman versus General Zod, those stories are the easy way to go. It’s a standard way to write any character. Confront them with something from their past to add depth. Give them a carbon copy villain who can threaten their life. Write a story that hits all the traditional beats. And it works. Heck, even for Superman, it works because we like traditional stories for a lot of reasons.
But Superman breaks tradition, and it’s why great Superman stories are like no other stories. He’s not Batman who can fly or the X-Men from Krytpon. He’s Superman. He puts on those blue tights because he wants to. And he put that S on his chest, not because his daddy told him to, but because he thought it would look cool. And he doesn’t fight giant robots from space and tidal waves to make amends for the sins of his past. He does it because it’s the right thing to do.
Yeah, it doesn’t always make him easy to relate to, but that’s why he’s worth writing about. Superman shouldn’t be shoved into stories other characters can easily tell already. He should tell stories only he can explore. It’s not just what makes him special. It’s what made him an enduring icon for 75 years.
And that’s a legacy worth keeping.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,