The Pathos of Superheroes

I’ve always been more of a fan of the Batman, than of Superman. Even the angst teenaged Spider-man seems more engaging than Supes.

I’m by no means a comic geek. Most of my exposure to these franchises has been through film and television. Admittedly, it’s been many years since I actually watched one of the Superman films, and I don’t think that I’ve made much effort to watch Superman Returns.

As a kid, I think the only Superman comics I read were the Death of Superman series, back in 1993. The fall of Superman made him more than just vulnerable. At the time, this seemed shocking, that the impervious hero could be brought down.

The Death of Superman. Superman Vol 2 Issue 75 cover

Setting aside for the moment, whether the back story of Bruce Wayne witnessing his parents’ murder, or Peter Parker feeling responsible for the murder of his uncle, is felt deeper than the destruction of some distant homeland, lets consider some of the attributes of these heroes.

Superman is an alien being. Outwardly human, and with an all-American heartland upbringing, there is little about his appearance to set him aside as someone different. Yet he is stronger and faster than mere mortals. Generally invulnerable to anything, except Kryptonite. Superman’s defence of Truth, Justice, and the American Way has a saccharine quality, too good to be true.

There’s no fundamental conflict in his character. There are no moral choices that define his character. In the first Superman movie, when Lois Lane dies because Superman fails to stop a missile from setting off an earthquake, he goes back in time to save her. Talk about a missed opportunity for character development. Why should I feel for any of his choices when he can apparently just call for a do-over?

This is in fact the exact choice they made in The Dark Knight film. Batman is offered a choice: save District Attorney Harvey Dent, or save his love interest Rachel Dawes. Batman makes the opposite choice that Superman made: save the girl. The twist is that the Joker switched the locations: in choosing to save Rachel, he instead saves Dent. This is what character development is made of. Even though he made the arguably selfish choice, he still loses. More to the point, he also loses the moral high ground.

Batman The Dark Knight Returns cover

I’m reading The Dark Knight Returns, written and drawn by Frank Miller. This series is highly influential, and when published in 1986, reshaped the perception of Batman, probably in ways which colour my view of superheroes today. But the seeds of Batman’s character were planted long before.

Batman is driven by his obsession: avenging his parent’s death. He’s a crime fighter, but it’s driven by vengeance. Superman is a crime fighter too, I suppose, but he stands for virtue and cultural values. Superman fights for what is right. Batman fights because it feels right.

The origin stories of our heroes are all different, and this is where the current controversy comes from. The earlier versions of Superman’s origins are that his home world of Krypton was destroyed, and he was the last survivor, sent as an infant to Earth.

There are rumoured changes to Superman’s origin story in the new film, where Krypton still exists, and that Superman’s exile to Earth is for some other reason. Some folks at io9 suggest that this will alter Superman’s character in a rather fundamental way. I would tend to agree with the pageofreviews which instead suggests that this actually makes his character more interesting.

Finally, we get a choice. Why does Superman stay on Earth, when he could return to Krypton? Why should Krypton matter? Is Superman in exile any more interesting than Superman the infant refugee? Can we sow some seeds of discord into Superman’s origin? Can Superman still inspire us if he has internal conflict? I think so, and it might just restore some humanity to the Man of Steel.

Author: Nick Matthews

A software developer and English major. Full time geek.

3 thoughts on “The Pathos of Superheroes”

  1. The movies have generally done a terrible job of painting the fundamental character of Superman. And Frank Miller (crazy hobo that he is) butchered Superman in DKR. So it is understandable that you would feel this way about him. However, knowing more about the comics leads to the simple truth that Superman is in fact one of the most interesting characters in media.

    Superman isn’t your standard hero. It isn’t often that he truly comes up against something that he can’t defeat. If you are looking for simple stories about a hero struggling against a foe then Superman isn’t always the best place to look. Superman, instead, has a far more interesting conflicts. Internal conflicts that define his character.

    1) He is a God and his Wrath would be Terrible: Every decision Superman makes he has to be wary of the line between being a symbol of good and being absolutely terrifying. He has to go the extra mile to follow the rules and serve the authorities of the world. Because if a being with the power that Superman has ran around doing whatever the hell he felt like doing (like Batman does) it would be terrifying. The whole world would have to live in fear of the day that Superman decided that jaywalking was an offense worthy of capital punishment and started lobotomizing people from space with his laser vision. PR is fundamental to Superman’s existence. Even if he always strives to do the right thing (also like Batman), if he did it in a way that made people afraid then the world would live paralyzed in fear.

    2) Servant not Ruler: Superman’s greatest struggle as a character is maintaining the balancing act between saving people and ruling them. Superman could reach out his hand and shape the world any way that it pleased him if he felt like it. He would probably even do a good job. The world would most likely be a much safer and more orderly place under his rule. However he would have to take away our freedom of choice in order to do that. Superman has to struggle every day with the dilemma of freedom or safety. Do I have the right to make the choices for everybody in the world? Does my power entitle me to make those decisions?

    The Answer to this question is of course a “NO,” people have to be free to make their own choices and live their own lives as they see fit. But it is still the greatest temptation that any hero could possibly face. Heck Batman himself has admitted that if he had Superman’s powers he would probably reshape the world into his own personal Utopia.

    3) He can’t save everybody: Any good Superman story forces the Man of Steel to confront this fact. A fact that the writers of the Superman movie apparently didn’t understand at all. Not only can he not do anything about world hunger or disease, but in most iterations of the character Superman has been able to hear every single person in danger across the entire planet. Every second of every day he has to choose who to save. Not only that but he has to choose not to save anyone at all when he is being Clark Kent. He also can’t simply choose to abandon his human persona because doing that brings up conflict number 4.

    4) He is Alien: I’m not just talking about his back story here. Superman experiences the world in a way that is fundamentally different from our own experience. He can float in space and see the world laid out before him. He can tackle threats that nothing else on the planet can face. It would be very easy for superman to lose his connection with humanity. If that happened then he would inevitably fail in conflicts one and two.

    Here is a Superman reading list if you are interested:

    What’s so Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way: Superman shows us conflict number 1 in stark detail. (Animated movie version is called Superman vs. the Elite)

    Kingdom Come: An amazing exploration of what it means to be a hero.

    All Star Superman: Superman faces death like a champ. (animated movie version is All Star Superman)

    Injustice Gods among Us: What happens when you break Superman?

    Death of Superman: Explores the “death” of Superman. (The animated movie version is Superman: Doomsday)

    Superman Peace on Earth: Superman faces off against world hunger and learns the limits of his abilities.

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