I’m sure those of you here were expecting some sort of comment from me about the new blockbuster movie Man of Steel considering the ongoing diatribe I’ve made about superheroes in the past. Now I would except for two reasons:
- I haven’t actually seen the movie yet.
- I don’t want to enter the debate about Superman killing.
To be honest I’ve had several articles presented to me about the issue, some in support and some against and I have no problem highlighting my favourite of those articles is by Darren Franich entitled What ‘Man of Steel’ gets wrong about Superman (hint: that ending) – SPOILERS. Not the best title I grant you but it explores the problems with Superman killing by comparing it to some of the arguments in another article called the “The Lethal Presidency.” And honestly this article sums up most of my feelings on that matter specifically. It’s a great read and I encourage you to enjoy it.
Conversely there’s another article out there at underthemaskonline.com (a title so pathetically repetitive that it looks like it’s from the late 90s) trying to use a post 9/11 environment to justify much of what Superman does. Even if the reference to 9/11 in the argument is minimal the author asks the question that if Superman could prevent 9/11 by killing would he?
First of all, the geeky answer: Superman can lift planes and he stops them from hitting buildings all the time. It’s a weekday thing. Secondly, I could think of nothing more disgusting then using a tragedy of that magnitude that shaped international politics, history and cultural intolerance as a lens for making an argument about Superman. It is an insult to the lives lost, both in the tragedy and the ensuing war to settle a comic book argument like this.
But in the wake of all of this I found myself going back to my Superman roots and tried to determine where my image of the man of steel comes from.
For that there were three obvious sources. There’s the Christopher Reeves film Superman obviously, though my first of those films was Superman IV: The Quest for Peace when I was a wee lad. I know all of the flaws it has but I still like it and I think it’s better than the third instalment. The other two are the Superman Animated Series from the Bruce Timm continuity and John Byrne’s reboot of the character also called Man of Steel which was started in 1988 after Crisis on Infinite Earths.
In reviewing a lot of these older works I find myself examining my own image of the character and trying to determine the merits of Superman.
You have to hand it to Bruce Timm’s DC Animated Universe for probably doing the best job of selling the idea of Superman as a compassionate moral center of the DC universe. For many people that’s a major problem of the character, the infallibility. The idea of an infallible person, especially that powerful, seems impossible to us. Hence why, I think, we see so many… so many stories of Superman going bad. The whole “power corrupts” mentality.
Buuuut… it just doesn’t feel right to me.
Superman’s killed in nearly every incarnation you can name, including the John Byrne run I mentioned. It was Zod then as well, only he used Kryptonite as an executioner after Zod and his cronies murdered all of the earth.
It was an alternate reality. That kind of thing happens.
There’s a couple of things about the John Byrne run that I came to realize though as I was reading. One, a lot of Byrne’s run falls apart after Man of Steel because readers are forced to follow a narrative over multiple titles. When one reads this chronologically the story feels disjointed until the series simply turns around and says that the story will follow from one title to the next. Even then, there is difficulty. Otherwise there doesn’t seem like a strong narrative flow. I understand that Superman is a bankable title but perhaps the problem DC comics had was that readers needed to collect four different issues (with different artists and sometimes writers) to follow his story during a month and hope that it all flowed together.
That should happen with titles that focus on different characters, not the same one.
The other thing I came to realize was that if fans had an issue with Superman killing the real the issue wasn’t with Superman killing but rather the reaction itself.
Let me explain. Many, many authors are trying to pass the idea of a revised Superman for the times that is capable of killing. Personally I think that reason is mostly based in cynicism than anything else. But if that many people want a Superman that is the very epitome of heroic nobility without killing, without compromising his virtues… then maybe that proves that the people are ready at long last for a true hero.
We’ve laughed at the idea of a pure of heart noble soul and yet, when one of the truest is compromised then maybe it isn’t just internet overreaction. Maybe the people want to believe, they want to be sold that idea.
If Superman has no worthy physical challenge then maybe his film should be that of a moral one? Where he is faced with great evil and is put in a situation where you would expect him to kill or abuse his power but he doesn’t. And more than that, he does so in a way that works, that makes the audience cheer.
I’ve always felt that of all the heroes out there, Superman had to have the biggest heart. That with all his strength he didn’t look at humanity and see weakness. He saw people that he wanted to help and realized he could.
I think that Superman is, and always should be a story of an immigrant. Krypton is occasionally shown as a civilization so advanced that its people are little more the unfeeling machines. What if Jor-El’s message was that his son took the best of his culture with him and decided for himself what that was? That he was a new beginning for the species and not its swan song. Meanwhile Jonathan and Martha Kent were the origin of his compassion and taught him that strength was for helping others more so then oneself. It’s a metaphor that really holds on a farm if you consider it.
At that point the Superman story is no longer one of a powerful godlike being. It is of a person coming to make the most of a life. To give what he has to a world for nothing more than the chance to help others.
And so too does this work exist.