Why Superman Will Always Suck…

Written by Anthony Burch

The title is all the intro you should need.

Indestructibility

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.

Moral absolutism

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.

22 thoughts on “Why Superman Will Always Suck…

  1. ricky

    Long and interesing, but the fact of the matter is there are superheros and then they are SUPERHEROS. To make it short and quick superman to me is a figure that represents what people look for. To represent what it is to be as close as we can to being perfect. Love him or hate him he is the strongest and badest superhero there is. Everyone else just had a harder life or struggle harder to do what he can do. It has to do with admiring something that most people do not have and that is the opportunity to live without struggles. Superman is that person and I cannot hate on him because he is who he is. About being boring if we were to be him I bet we would never live one boring day in our lives. Good article I enjoyed it!!!!

  2. Puptentacle

    Interestingly, if you take Ricky’s comments and replace the word “Superman” with the word “Jesus” it all reads the same.

    Therefore Superman = Jesus.

  3. suman

    Great article. I agree that superman as a multidimensional character hasn’t been explored enough. And there is more material there to explore than any other superhero because of his power on one side and the moral and emotional ambiguities one goes through in the real world.
    The problem is superman being one of the earliest and well known characterizations across the world, his legacy of being the boyscout has been like baggage. The baggage from simpler times when good vs evil was well defined.
    In this regard i think smallville the tv series did a great job of exlopring other dimensions of superman in his formative years(though the monster of the week storylines sucked.)
    The great thing about superman is his unwavering faith in the good of people and doing the right thing. What if doing the right thing meant doing the wrong thing in some situations, how will this challenge his faith or make him grow as a being. What if superman was in a fight against a mere mortal who is too fragile to be tackled by his powers without killing him yet has to be stopped to save people.
    In this regard i think superman is much more interesting character than spidey or bats because, he has absolute power and absolute faith and when there is an internal conflict between these two the possibilities are endless, and that’s what makes great superhero fiction. A character’s internal conflict and self discovery. That’s the reason i love “batman begins”, “spiderman 2” and “superman the movie”.
    Spidey and bats might be scared of dying but superman is scared about the wrong person dying and that to him is much more scarier than he himself dying. He is scared that he might be doing the wrong thing though it looks right on paper. He lives in constant fear of not being able to save every last person and collateral damage.
    In conclusion the “universe of discourse” or the base characterization of superman allows all this to happen. Its sad that these options haven’t been explored widely in this day and age.

  4. Stephen Couchman

    A Dinosaur Comic swayed your opinion on this vital issue of the day? Give me a break, you crank. Superman’s weakness has been plain since day one: us. Illustration: in the (admittedly crappy) videogame tie-in for the Brian Singer flick, indestructible Supes doesn’t have a health bar, Metropolis does. Way to miss the point.

  5. Reggie

    Superman does NOT suck, guy. While there is some truth into what you say (very little), the obvious bias is apparent.

    Superman has a tougher time using RESTRAINT than anyone can imagine. Despite how evil mortal, fragile human criminals are, Supes can’t just wail on them like say, a Batman would, or to an extent Spiderman would (Spidey has superhuman strength, but nothing off the scale that Superman has). Imagine being SO PISSED at some villainous creep that you want to put every ounce of strength you have into a punch aimed for them. Now, turn yourself into Superman throwing that same punch. It has to be killer for him to keep such restraint.

    The best way to alleviate this ‘burden’ of Superman is to either bring other ‘survivors’ (like Zod and those other two goons with him) from Krypton that he can beat up on with a lot of force OR have someone like Darkseid, who can also take a pounding on a superhuman level.

    As far as Batman beating Superman (by any measure of fairness) goes, LMAO!! Please. As much of a fan as I am of Batman as well, it’s not even fathomable to think that he could FAIRLY beat Superman. The only hope he has is carrying Kryptonite around with him (as he does on the Justice League cartoon).

    This Superman hating is bad comedy.

  6. muscly dude with hot ask who wants some butt

    hahahaha you fukin loser mygot
    just kidding, Jesus loves you, but non the less you are a kant.
    take care homo :)

  7. Sweatboy

    I’m like the ultimate superman fan so it would mean much if you just heard my opinion out. I’ll try make reading it interesting.

    Indestructibility
    Critics, if he wasn’t indestructible he’d be a wimp, but I gotta agree with that one. The superman I know would have dodged attacks and try sneaked up on the bad guy but the guy in the cartoon bares his chest out for all those blasts like he’s on some death wish and to be “allergic” to a rock that made up your home planet? I’m surprised abt his race living that long. Also, with all those powers it takes that much time for him to defeat the bad guy?
    But even though he himself is seemingly “indestructible” remember how the self sacrificing spidey (who’s also present in that part of the article) cares more abt aunt may? How he’d risk his own life, but surrender when aunt may’s in trouble? Same with supes.
    And no one cares about the audience, you’re like one o those guys who placed a bet on Superman vs Doomsday.

    Moral absolutism
    Yeah, in almost all depictions he talks like a cop or a politician or, sometimes like a (what’s it called, anal retentive?) baby and, agreed, makes him sound like he’s a drone of the government, a robot with no free will. In ALMOST all depictions, but not ALL depictions, I’d say it depends on the author, and NOT the hero. I got this comic where Clark Kent, the investigative reporter, the nosy guy who helps people by telling their stories, not afraid of what the criminals would… oh that’s right, I forgot, indestructibility. Anyway, Kent writes a 3rd person report on gang violence in suicide slumps, where a little girl is the protagonist and Superman isn’t seen nowhere (well, he does make a small, heroic appearance). Makes me wonder, do you haters really know abt what you’re challenging?

    Truth, justice and the kryptonian(?) way
    For a fellow “out-of-american”, I do think the stories of not just supes but cap USA’s, Iron Monger’s and every other war hero comic character’s is too US oriented, hello, do we outstation nations mean anything of an audience at all to you?
    That’s just a personal thought, maybe not even important to anyone, but see this foreign hero issue is the beauty of it. Wtf so you were borne on another er….planet and that forbids you from being a citizen elsewhere? If u found out that you were adopted, that none of your true relatives were alive, (or maybe tied up as slaves and shipped to the country you live in, hypothetically of course, neither me nor supes has that problem) and the people you live with were assholes, no offence, or yeah, a little offence, would you a) feel like killing them all, b) kill em all and then yourself, c) help them live a good life, d) one of the above? To me the whole story is about compassion, being brave and carrying on, all in a personal sense of the man’s. As for what lessons the comics teach, last couple of lines, the para before.

    Powers given superman
    Agreed, used to be scared of batsy and think he’s a wimp compared to superman but what a story batman has. Batman and superman are actually friends though, and don’t let this come between them. Hey hey hey, superman burly? Superman an asshole? Revise my memory, (don’t like him having a lot of hair though). But why can’t you critics compare him to a more inferior story like say… St Nicholas, when you do, cos the story of superman does then look more realistic/advanced.
    One instance of batman outdoing superman in physical combat was batman and superman: the animated movie, where joker and lex works together, superman tries lifting the batman, but cant budge him, batman throws him to the floor, (judo)

    The dinosaur gig.
    Funny, and true, and hey that orange dinosaur, he kinda represents me, AND it HAS been done. Remember how superman cried in wonder woman’s hands when he er….. I think he couldn’t save Olympus, or it was the time the cyborg destroyed a whole continent or state. Anyway, he did fail, and it was too much for him, I mean kicking ass everyday, it’s easy to criticize, but YOU try do that. Now I know what you’ll probably say, that he’s not real, well he’s very real to me. Now Santa, that’s a stupid story, but superman? More advanced. And superman WOULD try talk someone out of jumping off a building first, even try talking bad guys from doing naughty things in the first place, like I did when I was the class prefect (I was a class prefect once ^_^)

    Finally, thank you Mr Burch, for writing this and thank you Suman, for pointing out superman’s actions being meant for good in HIS eyes, but actually cant be perfectly justified, although I hadn’t myself thought of how the internal conflict makes him look good.

  8. Fox

    In the comics batman did not actually beat superman. If you are talking about the Batman hush arc superman was under control of poison ivy, Supes was fighting her mind control while trying to hold back on batman at the same time. Batman even said (while he had a k ring on) that if he punched superman again he would have shattered every bone in his hand, hence superman wins by brute force. Although Bats would win hands down if it was say a kitted out Kryptonite batman arsenal

  9. Fox

    In kingdom come the reason why superman secluded himself was because the ‘new heroes’ had no values but worse still was that mankind actually endorsed their actions and this is what pissed supes off.
    I do agree though that writes need to come up with better story lines (and hence a writers problem and not an inherent character flaw). All the best superman stories come from ones where only superman can deal with the problem. Take the death of superman story arc, that was awesome because superman was actually getting his ass kicked and no one else on earth could even put a dent in doomsday. We need stories that actually show superman up against some celestial being from another world who can actually hurt supes (and in this respect we have a situation where ‘normal’ super heroes cannot do anything but superman must don his cape and fight). it is only in these situations where we actually see supermans morals in play (actually read a superman comic book for once where the story arc involves superman NOT fighting common criminals).
    It has to be said that the superman movies although good suck in comparison to the new batman movies. If I was writing a script I would have supes fighting a creature (such as doomsday or darkseid) who actually can hurt him.
    Supermans character is better served as a world protector than a COMMON (and yes i say common) run of the mill once city protector kind of guy. The character of superman is supposed to show us how someone with all the power in the world is selfless and uses his gift responsibly.
    He is the man they call when nobody else can get the job done. Supes protects not because he really wants to, but because he is the only one who can. He helps when the world needs a superman and that is what makes him a hero.

  10. maarten schroders

    Good piece, not exactly my taste (not a comic fan) but still intresting. Just because he is a literary character doens't mean we should not look at him seriously.

    I have something you should read, the Red Son trilogy, a alternative universe in which Superman is raised in the Soviet Union, it adresses some of your points (such-ass his morality and the taking of responsibility's from people).
    I had it on my computer, its gone now but there should be a good torrent of it on line.

  11. Anonymous1

    Superman SUCKS
    He's useless & stupid (the entertainment industry doesn't need him)
    It is a waste of time starting this franchise & shooting those useless, needless & unnecessary films
    Superman is scum, moron & bastard
    He must be removed from this face of this planet
    Superman SUCKS, SUCKS, SUCKS, SUCKS, SUCKS, SUCKS, SUCKS & SUCKS

  12. GMG

    Why Superman is not super

    The debate over “the Superman philosophy” is never-ending. Hollywood does a pretty good job of providing a decent plot, and with advanced CGI , the comic book literally comes to life which makes the action scenes first rate. The one notable slip up is the understanding and acceptance that the character of Superman is actually three different persona’s. Hollywood takes care of selling 2 of the 3 – but bungles the third. First, the Clark Kent persona is easy to take care of. Build a plot based on the sad “baby from outer space” who needs a home and good wholesome parents. Clark grows, becomes a man, gets a job, tries to fit in etc, etc. Second, find the hunky, pretty boy face for the female audience. As long as women are going into a diabetic coma from all the eye candy they are staring at, you will have them leaving the theater trying to remember a plotline that they didn’t care about anyway – hoping no one will notice the drool stains left on their blouse. Third – and this is what Hollywood doesn’t get and why the male audience goes ” Superman – ya whatever – I could take him”. Superman is an alien from another planet that is affected by our sun. Besides the great dose of vitamin D he gets, it also gives him his powers. Now, the argument is, he doesn’t have to look like a freak that OD’ed on roids and lives at a World Gym to have the powers. WRONG !! I beg to differ. If you want to sell Superman to the male audience, he still has to look like he can juggle supertankers for entertainment. A Hollywood pretty boy in tights with an average athletic build doesn’t cut it – not to the UFC minded male populous (which is pretty much all of us). Superman has to have the body image that is in the comic book. It is subtle, but absolutely necessary because the super powers become tangible and believable through this imagery. When you look at a chest that can block out the view of entire city block and arms that are as big as your legs, one part of the human brain is impressed – the other says – I better not F*** with that. Men are Men. We like to see shit smashed, bashed, and trashed – especially by a guy that will get pissed off enough throw the entire planet off its axis to get the bad guy. So…Hollywood exec’s … smartened up and forget talent agencies. Go to a couple of gym’s and look for some chiseled monsters that have the pretty face to keep the girls happy. Do some auditions and spot for some acting lesson’s (Come on – its not like Superman has to be a contender for best actor at the Oscars ) Find a believable Superman that lives up to the name in mind AND body, and you will have successful movie.

  13. Kiden

    Superman is mostly just the embodiment of a power fantasy. He can leap tall buildings in a single bound, or super-speed around them, fly over them, toss them over his shoulder casually, melt them with heat vision, huff and puff and blow it all down with his super-breath, and that’s just what they usually use. Whenever they get stuck on something, congrats! Supes just discovered a new power! But he’ll always hold himself back, so he doesn’t kill anyone by punching too hard. His character is basically like a 6 year old superhero with a friend, right at the point where it devolves into “Nu-uh, you didn’t hit me ‘cuz I flew over there and then I breathe so hard everything freezes.” “Fine, you hit me, but I’m bulletproof, nyeh!”
    I like the issues my super-heroes have, to be more than just what comic number they appear in. A little unbalanced (or more) and aware of it, outclassed in powers, and has just been handed his own backside? PERFECT!

  14. Michael

    Superman has always been the worst written comic book hero in my opinion. Too many basic flaws like if his suit is indestructible then how the hell was it cut and sewn by human hands. Don’t even get me started on how he cuts his hair or how he can change direction in mid air. Please.

  15. Felix

    You are a god man. Have you seen Empire’s 50 greatest superheroes? Tragic.Superman beat Spiderman. he lacks any interesting flaws or relevant weaknesses of a successful hero. And he’s DC, that nexplains alot.

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