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May 20, 2011


Throwdown: The Superman Problem

Posted by on May 20, 2011
Superman Power

Everyone knows that the point of superheroes is that they’re heroic. They kick ass, take names, and generally always win. Everyone also knows that things that only ever win are boring. Imagine playing chess against a two year old or being Charlie Sheen. Okay… being Charlie Sheen might be marginally more interesting.

Anyway, to the point. I can’t stand superheroes who are too ‘super’ – superheroes who in their natural form can’t be defeated. I’m looking at you Superman. Thor too, although he’s a slightly different case. In fact, I’m going to argue that these characters suffer from the “Superman Problem”.

Batman is the best super hero. We all knew it ages ago – new graphic novels depict him as the guy you go to when you’re up a creek without a paddle. The dude can win every fight, solve every problem, and is generally awesome. Superman is also pretty powerful. So why do we like Batman more?

I think it’s because it’s actually possible to beat him without resorting to ridiculous measures. A rocket launcher will do just fine, as long as he doesn’t know it’s coming. That makes him a hero, but it also makes him kind of human. We can, and do, relate.

By contrast, how do you relate to Superman? The dude can do anything – he’s got super strength, he can fly, he’s got X-Ray vision… HE CAN CRUSH LESSER BEINGS WITH HIS EYELIDS. All of which makes him no fun. It’s hard to feel like you can relate to Superman on any level, because he doesn’t struggle. Comic authors have to concoct ridiculous ways to defeat him, because it’s impossible to do it in any normal fashion. Villains can’t win on clever schemes alone – no, they also have to do something like entomb him in kryptonite. Then, because Superman can’t lose, the author has to work out some ridiculous concept for how the Man of Steel also has a Mind of Steel and can overcome his weaknesses. Once things have progressed to that point, it’s not only hard to relate to the character, but to the general story line. It’s the only way out of the Superman Problem – I call it ‘escalation ad absurdum’.

Thor, of late blockbuster fame, also suffers from the Superman Problem. I was initially concerned that the movie might have this issue, but then Wade reminded me that he’s a Norse god, and those aren’t usually all powerful. So there was some hope they might manage to evade the issue. Then they went and shot themselves in the foot, because they made him all powerful. Yes, he struggled for much of the movie, but that’s because they found someone more powerful to take away his powers (Odin in this case). Now that there’s a paradigm where you have to take away his powers to beat him, what are they going to do next time? You can’t just have Odin do it every time, so you have to break the rules you previously established (or come up with something absurd).

I guess the bottom line is that I’m not interested in superheroes who are so ‘super’ that the stories they’re in become completely contrived. You can’t relate to them, and ultimately what’s the fun if I don’t believe that I could be one of these heroes? That’s Superman’s Problem.

Scream and yell, and tell me I’m wrong in the comments if you so please.

  • Wade

    I definitely agree with this, but I don’t think we can go as far as saying they aren’t interesting at all.  Yes, in their standard incarnation, these heroes are too powerful to be interesting without contrived circumstances as to why they aren’t, but I will posit that these days, this issue is more rooted in the lack of creativity in many of the comics authors working today.

    I rarely pick up a monthly issue of any comic book and read it. Exceptions are if I have had a particular ongoing storyline recommended to me or if I have a particular affinity to the author doing the series at the time (Neil Gaiman writing Batman, for instance).  This is because, in my opinion, most of these comics are put out every month just to be put out, and rarely feature more than yet another dastardly plot by that damn Lex Luthor, etc.

    This is where you get the near-infinite iterations of how to get Supes near kryptonite.  It’s when an author accepts this all powerful nature of these heroes and tries to make them interesting or human in other ways that things get really interesting.  I might even say that when these all powerful characters are made interesting, I find those to be the most interesting stories of all.  Identity Crisis, for example, shows that no matter how powerful these heroes are, if someone goes after their family it still scares the hell out of them.  Red Son accepts the immense power and asks what would happen if that power were in someone else’s hands.  These are incredible books and I wish more authors would approach the all-powerful in a similar way.

  • James

    You’re looking at Superman’s vulnerability in a purely physical context.  In that context, I agree with you, it is impossible to relate to him in any relevant way.  Though he’s not technically a “god,” he is most assuredly a “god” in the comic book sense and such, his weaknesses are on a different level then somebody like Batman.

    As so concisely pointed out in the series finale of Justice League Unlimited, Supes has to constantly check himself, to be wary of all the humans and less powerful beings around him both in terms of his abilities and his moral compass.  If it wasn’t for his moral compass, he’d the ultimate villain.  Check out A  Superman for All Seasons for a bit on that.

    • Chris

      You make a good point. I suppose the net argument I’m making is that because
      of the Superman Problem, these characters are less interesting than some

      Thanks for the heads up on “A Superman for All Seasons”, I’ll check it out.

  • Theleman

    One of the greatest aspects of Superman is his own sense of failing.  The entire world does more to defeat Superman than any one villain nearly ever could.

    When you have someone like Superman, capable of literally any conceivable feat, and capable of doing them with ridiculous speed, his limits seem non-existent.  And people expect that of him.  Not just us, the people in the books, in his world.  It’s a crushing weight around his neck. 

     Whenever anything bad happens to anyone at all, you can damn well bet that Superman could’ve prevented it.  He could’ve saved those people, he could’ve stopped that volcano, he could’ve saved his friends….but no matter how close to being everywhere at once he may seem, he is not.

     And his sense of morality crushes him like an anchor.  Even with all his might, he can never do enough.  He is the most powerful being in existence, and he can never succeed.

    • Tom

      I absolutely agree with you concerning the tortuous and compelling nature of “someone like Superman”.  Unfortunately, I think that Superman himself is rarely that character.  Other “Super” men, like Mark Waid’s Plutonian and (especially) Kurt Busiek’s Samaritan, do a much better job of examining the realities of such an existence.  Admittedly, Samaritan and Plutonian wouldn’t exist without Superman, as they are basically riffs on the character, but they are (in my opinion) far more compelling than their red and blue predecessor.

      “Irredeemable” and “Astro City” SPOILERS follow.  The realization that no matter how much good he does will never be enough sends Plutonian over the edge, transforming him from the world’s greatest hero to its greatest villain.  He destroys entire countries and hunts down his former fellow heroes for sport.  Samaritan is so conscious of his own limitations and failings that during the few hours each night he gets to sleep he dreams of flying.  Why?  Because, when awake, he travels so quickly from one disaster to another that he no longer enjoys the sensation of flight.  When his super friends try to set him up on a date with the Astro City equivalent of Wonder Woman, he stays mere minutes before rushing to the multiple incidents to which his super hearing has alerted him.

      These types of stories, however, which can only be told with a Superman-esque central figure, are rarely told by DC.  I don’t want to go too far down the rabbit hole here, but a large part of why I don’t read hardly any ongoing comics from the Big Two is their slavish adherence to the status quo.  Even if a Superman story gives lip service to these types of concerns, we know that things will remain largely as they have been for decades.  We know that Superman won’t become overcome with his failings, sink into depression, lose his grip on sanity, and fall from grace.  We know that Superman won’t leave Lois and the JLA and spend every waking moment rushing from car crash to car crash (or volcano or whatever).

      Non-continuity stories, such as the excellent “All-Star Superman”, are great because they are allowed to exist outside of the realm of the DCU proper.  Here, actions can have real consequences.  People can really die, Superman can really leave us.  For in-continuity Superman stories, however, I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

      There are good Superman stories to be told.  Unfortunately, they have to be told without Superman.