Written by Anthony Burch
The title is all the intro you should need.
It almost goes without saying, but if your hero cannot possibly be killed in any instance which does not somehow involve an incredibly rare space-rock, then you’ve got one boring-ass hero. It’s sort of like watching Neo fight all the agent Smiths in The Matrix Reloaded: we know our hero can’t possibly die, and he doesn’t act like he’s in any danger whatsoever, so the entire fight is a foregone conclusion and the audience becomes bored out of their skulls.
I mean, yeah – we obviously go into most superhero stories more or less positive that the hero won’t die, but they still entertain us because the hero doesn’t know that. Spidey is always scared, even if only a little, that one of the Green Goblin’s pumpkin bombs will be the end of him; Daredevil is fully aware that a well-placed projectile from Bullseye could kill him. As a result, these characters act with restraint and forethought; since Superman knows nothing bad can happen to him no matter what, he acts with no such subtlety. He flies headlong into every conflict, fists thrust forward, because he knows he’s in no immediate danger. Thus, we know he’s in no immediate danger, and we get bored out of our fucking skulls.
Superman sez: all criminals are bad. All lawbreakers deserve punishment. If Superman were in charge of the DEA, roughly 70% of college students across the country would be serving time in prison right now.
Superman has no values of his own, so he’s content to just uphold the values of the ruling class; this prevents him from becoming a dangerous vigilante a la Frank Castle, but it also means he has no legitimate opinions of his own where crime is concerned. In Paul Dini’s storybook series on DC superheroes, Batman had to deal with gangland violence, Wonder Woman fights terrorism, and Superman tries to end world hunger. This is no accident – Superman is way too morally simplistic to deal with complex things like the “wars” on drugs or terror. In Batman: War on Crime, Bats comes up against a young boy holding a gun on him. Batman, understanding the complexity of crime and the reasons for its existence, talks the kid into dropping the gun and giving up a life of violence.
Superman would probably just use his heat-vision to melt the gun, then put the kid in prison where he’d become a hard-bitten thug who’d murder somebody a few months after getting out.
Truth, justice, and the Kryptonian way
While Superman represents and upholds the values of right-wing America, he never really earned the right to do so. The dude’s a foreigner who took it upon himself to act as mankind’s savior when, generally, mankind shouldn’t need him (note, of course, that a significant number of the catastrophes which assault Metropolis on a weekly basis are initiated with the intent of fighting Superman – if Supes wasn’t around, a lot of the criminal bullshit wouldn’t be, either).
In the movie Superman Returns, Lois Lane writes an article explaining why mankind doesn’t need Superman because we should be able to take care of ourselves, and the presence of an omnipotent superhero basically takes all responsibility off the human race and turns us into a bunch of helpless sheep, powerless to do anything but scream for help from our savior in times of crisis. She eventually decides this viewpoint is incorrect if only because she wants to bone Superman so badly, but the argument remains relevant no matter what.
Really, what lessons do the Superman comics teach? It says that mankind is full of dull, pointless weaklings and evildoers who can only be stopped by a white ubermensch from another planet, who didn’t work a day in his life in order to achieve his powers. Yeah, you could say he’s a symbol of “hope,” but not hope in human nature – hope in an all-powerful alien who saves the world daily so you don’t have to get off your butt and act like a moral person. What sort of message is that?
Powers given < powers earned
What’s the virtue in acting like a badass hero if you were born with the ability to be a badass hero? What’s more impressive: the football player who trains for years and years just to play one game of pro football, or the guy who was born with innate athletic talent?
The answer is obvious, of course – powers earned are infinitely more impressive than intrinsic superpowers. Even though many superheroes do not “choose” their powers – from Spider-Man to Green Lantern, it’s usually just happy accident that these normal schlubs get turned into superheroes – it’s still a hell of a boring cop-out to simply be born with the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound. It’s just not terribly impressive, and requires zero effort. If Superman is capable of catching bullets with his teeth mere moments after landing on Earth, isn’t that a lot more boring than Bruce Wayne training for years and years, and using most of his fortune, to become Batman?
Hell, for that matter:
Batman > Superman
Batman had a much more tragic childhood (watching your parents die is infinitely worse than hearing your biological parents died without ever having met them), his crimefighting style is based more on intelligence and planning that Superman’s brute force, and he’s actually kicked the living shit out of Superman at least twice. Batman exhibits more moral maturity than Superman: Superman always upholds the status quo, but in Year One Batman goes on a crusade against Gotham’s corrupt elite. Batman is a detective, a scientist, a master of disguise, and a martial arts expert; Superman is a burly asshole in a red cape with big muscles.
And it’s not even a matter of Batman being a necessarily darker character than Superman, at least where it really counts. Both characters steadfastly refuse to kill their enemies under any circumstances; it’s just a hell of a lot harder for Batman, which makes his attitude toward mercy all the more admirable. It’s no problem at all for Superman to fly into the air holding a criminal by the scruff of their neck as their bullets bounce off him, but Batman has to disarm his baddies, then incapacitate them, then give them to the police, all while avoiding their knives and gunfire and explosives. It’s five times harder for Batman to do anything which Superman takes for granted on a daily basis, yet he often does it a hell of a lot better.
And let’s not forget The Dark Knight Returns, wherein Batman brilliantly beat Clark Kent almost to death (pausing only to fake his own) by using a mixture of planning and ingenuity that even Lex Luthor isn’t really capable of. Even if we were to judge superhero quality solely by who could beat who in a fight, then Batman still wins, hands down.
To fix these problems is to turn him into another superhero altogether
I used to be okay with Superman, if only because I believed that, one day, a writer might come along and turn Superman into a complex, three-dimensional being with flaws. A superhero with legitimate, kryptonite-unrelated weaknesses. A superhero who, every once in a while, actually loses.
Then I read the above strip from Dinosaur Comics and realized the futility of it all.
Superman represents hope and indefatigable strength, and any attempt to complicate these issues would no longer make him Superman. By definition, Superman has to be boring and morally absolute because if he isn’t, he ain’t Superman. I mean, in Kingdom Come he’s momentarily called to task for getting angry at the UN and threatening to kill the world leaders for killing Captain Marvel, but he’s talked down from doing anything irrational within, like, two pages of initially getting the idea to fuck up the United Nations. Heck, Superman’s arc in Kingdom Come isn’t even anything deeper than “America has forgotten me and I them, and we need to restore faith in one another.” Wow – real interesting. While you’re doing that, Batman will be over in the corner, contemplating suicide.