Friday, January 28, 2011

Superman and the better angels of our nature

Superman gets no respect. Nolan's Batman movies are all kinds of awesome (and the Tim Burton ones are great too) but Superman hasn't had a decent movie in 30 years. The most recent one, Superman Returns has been unkindly but accurately described as "Superman lifts successively heavier things". Also the Superman as Jesus metaphors were about on par with the Narnia books for their subtlety. And this is coming from somebody who liked it.

I was trying to decide if I wanted to wanted to blog about how great Superman or how great Batman is not. Superman being great won out, partly because of a conversation I had with a friend and partly because of a point/counterpoint essay in online magazine Geek Speak. I like Geek Speak. I contributed a segment for their Zelazny Zealotry piece a while back, though mine was kind of crappy. (I only learned about the call for contributions after the submission deadline and I whipped something out in literally twenty minutes). I think they dropped the ball on the Superman issue, though. Even the person they got to represent the Pro-Superman side doesn't seem to like him very much.

Links: (Pro-Superman/Anti-Superman)

My friend mentioned that she thought that Superman was too powerful to be easily challenged, and therefore boring. There is certainly more than a little merit to that point of view (Pre-Crisis Superman, I'm looking at you. You're welcome to address these complaints here if you're not too busy pushing around suns and beating up God), but I think the best Superman stories don't ask if he can do something, but if he should.

I've noticed that a lot of casual fans like Superman, though self-identified geeks tend not to.You probably wouldn't peg me as a Superman fan. I'm a geek, a cynic and also kind of an asshole too. But I love Superman.

I was looking into information on Alfred Bester for one of my Zelazny reviews (he completed Psychoshop when Bester passed away with it uncompleted) and apparently Bester was considered to write the screenplay for the 1978 Superman movie. He wanted to focus the story on Clark Kent as the real hero, while Superman was only "his gun." (Which, of course, makes me think of The Iron Giant.)

I like that turn of phrase, though I doubt I would have said it that way myself. But my favorite interpretation of Superman is the super-powered Kansas farm boy who never wants to see anyone hurt or scared or hungry.

My favorite Superman story is Kingdom Come, though my favorite Superman moment is from the Dark Knight Returns when he intercepts the Soviet super-nuke. He knows that he's probably going to die in the process, and even if he survives, he's got the fight of his life ahead of him, but never once does he hesitate. One moment, Clark Kent is there, and the next only his empty clothes remain, with Superman high in the skies above.  I can almost hear the faint strains of John Williams' Superman theme when I'm reading these panels.

"Twenty Million die by fire if I am weak"

Kingdom Come is another comic that gets him right. It's one of the most beautiful comic books ever made. It's set in the near future, about ten years after the Joker killed everyone at the Daily Planet. He's eventually arrested and a superhero named Magog blasts him down like a dog in the street as he was being brought in for trial. Superman then hauls Magog into trial himself for the murder. Magog is acquitted, Superman retires, and Magog's brand of anti-hero runs wild across the globe in the absence of any forces that might temper them.

The event that brings Superman back into the world is that Magog and his gang were curb-stomping this terrified villain. The villain realized that they were going to kill him, so in desperation, he broke open a nuclear-powered hero and the resulting explosion killed most of the population of Kansas.

Superman realizes that this kind of thing has to stop, so he comes back and he inspires the traditional heroes to return from their own exiles and they start cleaning things up (thought it's not as easy as they'd been expecting). I love the scene when they finally track down Magog. He's in Kansas, and he's trying to rebuild it one house at a time. Superman and his group fly down to confront him. They start talking about the events that led up to this.

Magog: How many did he take out just that last time? Ninety-two men...?

Superman: And one woman.

That's the quintessential Superman moment right there. His wife and almost everyone he ever loved were murdered in the most horrific way possible, and not only does he not take revenge, but he steps in to see that justice is done.

Just before it looks like they're going to have a super-powered brawl, Magog breaks down.

Superman and the rest of the returned heroes round up the rampaging superhumans, but they encounter significant trouble in figuring out what to do with them. They eventually build a giant prison, but it reaches critical mass and a riot breaks out. Superman flies in to intervene, but he's intercepted by Captain Marvel. 

If you're not familiar with the character, I always think of Captain Marvel as a "magical" Superman. By speaking the word "Shazam!" he calls down a bolt of magical lightning and transforms from a normal guy, Billy Batson, to the super-powered Captain Marvel. If he says it when he's Captain Marvel, then it hits him and it changes him into Billy Batson again.

On the off chance my father is reading this review, here's a passage from Revelation: "And When He Cried, Seven Thunders Uttered Their Voices."

Superman is vulnerable to magic. At the conclusion of Kingdom Come, the brainwashed Captain Marvel intercepts Superman and keeps yelling Shazam!, dodging the lightning bolt, smiting Superman with it over and over again.

Finally, when Captain Marvel is going to blast him again, Superman pulls himself off the ground and dashes forward at an incredible speed to clamp his hand around Billy's mouth, allowing the lightning to hit and revert him in his non-powered form.

Superman sees that there is a nuclear bomb coming towards them, and it's going to kill everyone unless he can sacrifice himself to stop it.

So what does he do to Billy? Break his jaw? Knock him out? No. He talks to him. Reasons with him. Appeals to his better nature. Inspires him. Superman says to him "So, listen to me, Billy.  Listen harder than you ever have before.  There’s a bomb falling.  Either it kills us, or we run rampant across the globe...You can let me go.  Or, with a word, you can stop me…  Decide the world."  Superman lets him go and flies in to the air to stop the bomb (and I don't know why so many of my favorite Superman moments involve him intercepting bombs, but as Freud said, sometimes a warhead is just a warhead). Billy watches him and then cries, "Shazam!" and takes off after Superman, hurling him to the ground and dying in his place so that others might live.

This is Superman

My daughter was saying some prayers the other night, "I hope that everyone can be their best selves in the world. And not litter."

In his inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln concluded with this statement.

I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

The emphasis is mine. While I'm sure Superman is against littering, the important part of that is that he inspires people to be their best selves. It goes back to to that Bester quote. Clark Kent is the real hero, because he sees those better angels with those X-ray eyes of his and and he'll move mountains to help them grow to their potential.

Another Superman story that gets it right is Superman: Peace on Earth. It's an oversized book by Paul Dini of the Animated Series, with Alex Ross providing beautiful painted art.

The gist of the story is that Superman comes across a starving teenage runaway when decorating the Christmas Tree in Metropolis. He resolves to do something about world hunger. He's going to spend one day feeding as many people as he can, not because he thinks the effort itself will solve the problem, but because it will show people that it can be done, and that it is worth doing.

He spends several days gathering the grain and then begins delivering it in one marathon day. He encounters early success, but the tide shifts when he tries to deliver food to an oppressive regime. He knows the corrupt leader will seize it as soon as he leaves, to hoard it or to sell it, and he can't overthrow the regime without making things worse. Plus, he threatens to shoot a group of hostages if Superman dares drop off the food.

That part goes about like you'd expect. Superman drops off the food and the bad guys open fire, but Superman interposes himself and then heat visions the rifles from their hands. And still he doesn't win, because the dictator tells him that he's going to seize the food the moment he turns his back. He can be anywhere, he can't be everywhere. Knowing that he's lost, Superman flies away.

He gives food to refugees and when a little boy without a home asks if he's going to be back with more food tomorrow, Superman has to look away.

He encounters further resistance and by the end of the day he is disillusioned and wondering if his acts have made any difference at all. At the end of the day, Clark Kent is the hero again, writing an interview with Superman, allowing him to explain what he was trying to do. He ends with:

There's an old saying: "Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime." That simple message asks humankind to nurture with knowledge, to reach out to those in need and inspire others to do the same. That is life's greatest necessity and it's most precious gift.

I ask everyone to share what they have with those who need it. Their knowledge. Their time. Their generosity.

Especially with the young, for on them rests our future...

And all hope of a true peace on Earth.

I read it to Lily as a bedtime story.  Initially, she said "Oh, why do we have to read a boy's story?!" but she got into it as I started reading. It took us almost an hour because we would frequently stop to ask questions when she encountered something that she didn't understand.

There weren't really any concepts she was unable to follow with the story. She asked why bullets were bouncing off his chest and I explained that was one of his superpowers, and it struck me that it was such a little kid question because I tend to think of super strength and invulnerability going hand in hand. (Unless you're Sunspot, but that's a horse of a different color)

I doubt she caught the deeper meanings about planting seeds and making sure that they all had room to grow, but that's fine. When we talked about the story afterward, and I asked her to tell me what it was about, she said "People all over the world are hungry so Superman flies all over to help them, but some people are scared because they don't know that he's there to help. In the end, he gets sad because he can't help everybody, but he talks to a reporter who tells people that they can work together and help each other," which I thought wasn't bad for four years old.

This is Superman


  1. Very well said. Superman is one who, although I would definitely qualify as a cynical geek as well, I have always looked up to and have been inspired by.

    If you haven't yet, you might also check out Superman for All Seasons. I think you'll find that there is a lot of the 'best' of Superman in that tale as well; similar to your very good examples of the best of Superman in this blog.

    Here's hoping the next movie attempt will get closer to getting it right. I enjoyed the Brandon Routh Superman movie, but your critique is valid. I want more of the Superman vs the falling jet liner scenes (which was awesome and very well done) and far fewer of the "Superman lifts a giant island of Kryptonite, even though one small dagger of it nearly killed him earlier" scenes.

    As you rightly put it, the best Superman stories are primarily about whether he Should do something, not if he Can do something.

    And it sounds like you are raising your daughter right-- the best Superman stories are universal and a child should/could be able to understand the overall concepts easily, as your child proves.

  2. Thank you! I am pretty happy with how this came out. I think I managed to express how I felt pretty precisely.

    I picked up Superman for All Seasons since I wrote this piece, and I like it quite a bit. I didn't like the art at first but it grew on me after a couple readings.

    I'm told that All-Star Superman is another set of stories that's pretty true to how we both perceive Superman. Have you read it?

  3. I've read all these Superman stories and I love them. But All-Star Superman is my favorite Supes story of all time. Get it. You won't be disappointed.

    1. I've read it since I posted this and I love it. I think it's one of the all time great Superman stories. I wrote about the movie here ( but I touch on the comic a bit too.