Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Kryptonite or Bad Writing: What's Superman's Real Weakness?

The more I hear people wishing Batman would take down Superman, the more I believe it comes from a greater hatred of power than of its abuse. The current popular iterations of Batman are of a tyrant building his kingdom, an autocrat ruling Gotham with an iron fist, an angry billionaire of unchecked privilege and brutality. Somehow Superman is the one labeled overpowered and unrelatable.

People keep saying he's invincible and therefore a bad character. But Superman's weakness isn't just Kryptonite. In the biggest comic event of all time, the mofo was straight-up beaten to death in a fist fight.

His weaknesses include magic, mind-control, various diseases, other Kryptonians, and the bajillion other aliens that are just as powerful, or more powerful, but are dicks about it. He's vulnerable to super-sharp weapons, the light of a red sun, pretty much every energy weapon I've ever seen. He can be out-smarted, caught by Green Lantern rings, or Black Lantern rings. And there are always nuclear weapons. If he has a greatest weakness, it's probably the emergencies of normal people who he constantly puts his own life on hold to assist. That's why I like him better than Batman. Increasingly, Batman is a fantasy of punishing someone, where Superman is a fantasy of helping someone.

The best Superman stories pit him in conflicts of morality. In "For the Man Who Has Everything," he has to give up an illusion of the life he wants in order to return to reality and save us. It's haunted me ever since - the idea that the guy we take for granted to help us actually doesn't want us. In "Kingdom Come," he returns from retirement to try to change the course of a culture that's gone so violent he can barely stand to look at it. In recent comics he's been marching alongside Black Lives Matter protesters to protect them and signal-boost their message, but you probably didn't read that comic because you've decided his stories always suck. It seems the only people who read it were bigots who were upset he'd "betray his race".

And then there's this. The page below has helped multiple friends of mine who were struggling with severe depression.

I will take this one Superman page over pretty much anything else in comic book history. It's from Grant Morrison's All-Star Superman, which I can't recommend highly enough.

Superman's biggest weakness is bad writing, and he's endured hundreds of "bad guy needs punching" stories. But it's not like Spider-Man and Furiosa haven't plot-armored their way to victory before. Tony Stark is beloved despite constantly creating a gadget that lets him win. The dark truth is that we like Stark because he's an asshole. Superman dares be compassionate and powerful.

I hated Superman when I was a kid, rebelling against the image of the guy who could do anything and did the moral thing rather than what he wanted. That made sense. It was the mentality of a child. I was uncomfortable with how many things society wanted me to feel.

As an adult, people have tried to keep me hating Superman out of a notion of him being overpowered, which exposes an ignorance of how his stories actually go. Even in Zach Snyder's deeply flawed Man of Steel, Superman loses more fist fights than he wins.

It's unfortunate to define him by the trite stories about him being so powerful that he can only win the battle. Consider instead that the greatness of a paragon emerges, not from defeating someone, but in using power with compassion for those who don't have it. Especially in an expanded universe, it's greatly helpful to have characters that exist on the ends of spectrums. A character whose "Must" is to do right, and who is untethered from inability to do so, instead restrained by morality and emotion, shouldn't be so easily rejected. Rejecting such an idea is particularly sad today, when it seems everyone is terrified of real Lex Luthors.

If Superman is outdated, then we need to remix his themes into our work. Modern Fantasy and Science Fiction has an alarming paucity of characters whose prime motivation is to help.


  1. He's the embodiment of the good person we could all be if we tried.
    Perhaps it is the power rather than the morality that bothers people about Superman since in the Marvel universe we have Captain America and everyone loves him.

    1. Pretty much what Alex said here. Superman is the good and selflessness we should strive for.

  2. Yes! People often forget about what Superman's powers cost him: his home, his original family, his original identity. And yeah, he was lucky to wind up with the Kents (who are generally portrayed as a childless couple who stepped up when they really needed to, and turned out to be awesome parents), but he's very aware it *was* luck.

    The "betrays his race" thing, I can't even... he's not the same SPECIES as the rest of us. Gah.

  3. We need optimism. We need to believe that someone, something is on the side of good. And altruism.
    And I love that Superman will stop in to say 'the doctor IS held up'. Those small kindnesses can be big miracles.

  4. Great article.

    D.C. characters are, generally speaking, more difficult to write for because they are not as deeply flawed as their Marvel counterparts. Batman is obviously the exception, but what drives the Flash, Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman and the rest? They're basically decent hearted heroes who just want to do good in the world. They have their pain, as was pointed out in Superman's case of being one of a handful of people who escaped the doom of their home planet. But he was a baby and has no memories of his Krypton experience.

    Even with Batman, what could young Bruce Wayne have realistically done against the robber? Compare with Spiderman who, in most storylines, has young Peter Parker made a decision NOT to interfere with the robber who later kills his uncle.

    Superman was always my favorite growing up, though in my later years I've found that I prefer my heroes less powerful and more complex. Marvel is on the right track, appealing to audiences with Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and other such shows where there's a lot of grey area for the heroes to work in. Arrow, Legends of Tomorrow and Flash, unfortunately, aren't part of what DC is trying to do with their imitation of the MCU and it's too bad because I think those shows appeal to a wider audience.

  5. I do like Superman but I always found him a little dull not because he's good-hearted, but because he often just had to punch something (he was also vulnerable to Poison Ivy!). That's why Superman II will always be my favourite Superman narrative because he had to outsmart a foe that physically matched him. It gave him another dimension. Still, I totally prefer him to Tony Stark. At least you could go for a coffee with Clark Kent and he'd be lovely company!

  6. Bearing in mind that I am not familiar with the actual comic universes, I didn't have a preference between the until the commercials for BvS came out. It looks like they've purposely attempted to steer people in Batman's direction in the previews. Superman looks angry, and like he's abusing his powers. He even appears to have minions in one scene. I'm surprised they didn't balance that out with a preview leaning in the opposite direction. Though what you said is interesting, and perhaps they cut the previews this way to reach that dark place of hating power that the election certainly can't be helping.


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