Monday, October 19, 2009

Why Superman is AWESOME regardless of his perfection.

It's been a while since I've gone comic book on you guys, but I've been thinking about this off and on, whenever Superman has come up in various conversations, and I think I can stretch the truth a little bit and pretend this is a conversation about character in writing, because honestly, knowing what makes a character compelling to an audience is kind of the trick, isn't it? Not to mention the fact that comic books and modern superheros, it can be argued, are our way of reinterpreting and reinventing the heroes and gods of those old myths and pantheons. (Why is it, every time I start talking about comic books, my sentences become astonishingly long?)

Most people know Superman. I want to say everyone knows Superman, but I have to take into account that perhaps Superman is not quite so prevalent among other cultures as he is in the United States. After all, he traditionally does stand for Truth, Justice, and the American Way, whatever the heck that means. But the thing that always seems to come up in conversations about Superman, is the fact that he is TOO perfect a hero. This perfection seems to make him unrelatable, to some people. It rubs them the wrong way. Superman can do everything, and everything he does is always The Right Thing To Do. Personally, this doesn't bother me at all, but maybe I read a little bit more into his character, or maybe I'm just an idealist. Possibly both. Either way, allow me to makes some arguments for what makes Superman an awesome character.

1) Superman Struggles.
Maybe he always ends up making the right choice, but man, he doesn't always have an easy time figuring out what it is. Again and again we see Superman returning to his human parents (Ma and Pa Kent) and asking for help. Superman, who is essentially a god in his own right, looks to these humans for moral guidance and counts on these two people to tell him when he's going too far, or making a wrong decision. He doesn't go it alone. That's kind of the appeal of Jimmy Olson and Lois Lane, too. Superman needs them. Superman needs the connection to humanity that they provide him. He needs their support, their love, their reassurances. And as someone unique to the world, he needs their acceptance.

This is related to perhaps his biggest challenge, and the thing I think we can all identify with the most. Superman is alone and unique. How many of us have felt at one time or another, like we were in the midst of a group of people we couldn't understand? There are very few people who get through childhood without being the odd-man-out at some point or another. Superman has been the odd-man-out for the majority of his life. In a lot of ways, he always will be. Even revealing himself at all to Lois was something he struggled with. Was it fair to tell her? Was it safe? Was it selfish?

This is a trope we see a lot with Superman, in all his incarnations: revealing himself to the people he loves puts them in danger, but he still does it. Over and over again, we see Clark Kent taking off his glasses and trying to open himself up to people. Lois, especially. Maybe this is a metaphor for how we are constantly trying to balance putting ourselves out there to people, in love, in friendship, in society, in work, and keeping our true selves secret and safe. Superman wants to open up, to reveal himself, but it usually doesn't go well for him or the other people involved when he does. But he keeps trying! He keeps looking for a way to live honestly within the societal framework he's given. He struggles with it too. Superman, practically a god in his own right, has to face this similar insecurity of feeling, asks himself the same questions we do--will they still love me when they get to know who I REALLY am?

2) Superman isn't one of us, but he doesn't let that stop him.

Superman is not human. That's fairly obvious from the flying, and the heat vision, and the super strength. Superman is not just the next step in human evolution, he is an alien from another planet with the good fortune to be able to blend in. Regardless of the fact that he's a total outsider, Superman still devotes his life to helping mankind. He spends his life rescuing people and fighting the bad guys, sacrificing himself for a people that he can't ever really belong to.  What is humanity to him? Motes? But he still takes the time to get to know us, to live with us, to love us. He still looks for our acceptance. He wants good things for humanity. He insists, no matter how much evil he fights, in seeing the good in people. Not in a blind way, but in a hopeful way. He wants to give humanity things like peace and justice, even though we aren't his people.

He's the kid who finds a baby bird that fell out of the nest, and nurses it back to health and tries to teach it to fly. He doesn't have to do any of this. He could live the rest of his life as Clark Kent with no one the wiser. But he wants to. He chooses to turn himself into a symbol for hope, chooses to let people see in him something better, something bigger, something greater than themselves. Even though it means he'll never have a normal life, never be left alone, never live in peace for himself. He sees what we could be, and wants it for us. Wants us to reach our potential. Wants to help us find a way to get there. He wants this, even though it's because of us, because of our fear and our idiocy that he has to hide himself away.

3) Superman is someone to look up to.
Maybe that does make him a better person than your general audience. But Superman is the embodiment of HUMAN (okay, maybe just American) ideals. And sometimes you just need someone to lead the way. To be the example. To set the bar, so you have something to strive for, even if they're fictional. However, you can still see him struggle. Maybe he isn't struggling to balance homework and classes with crimefighting, but the struggles he does face about right and wrong, and where the line is between moral and immoral, selfishness and selflessness, even identity, are challenges we face too. And if Superman, as powerful as he is, still worries about whether people will love him, whether he's doing the right thing, then maybe it's okay if we don't have it all figured out either. Maybe it's okay if we need help too.

So maybe Superman is kind of incredible. Maybe he is perfectly strong, and perfectly fast, and unstoppably powerful. Maybe he's incredibly generous and most of the time, selfless. But he still suffers from insecurities and still struggles to make the right choices. He still needs other people to be the person he is. He still can't go it alone. Aside from the superpowers, he isn't really that much different than we are--or that much different from what we're capable of being, if we choose to put others before ourselves. And I think that's why he's relatable and so popular when it comes down to it. Because even as perfect as he is, when it comes to right and wrong, he still has to go talk things out with his parents. As perfect as he is, when it comes to dating, he's still nervous the girl he loves won't like him back once she gets to know him. As perfect as he is, physically, powerfully, he's still just a guy trying to do what he thinks is right. Sure his choices turn out to be Right more often than Wrong, but making them is still hard for him. As perfect as he is, he isn't perfect. He's just the man that we hope we're capable of being, someday, when we figure ourselves out.

And that's the thing, isn't it?
Sometimes a character reflects elements of ourselves we don't want to see. But Superman, he reflects our potential. He reflects our hope.

All that being said, if Superman weren't an alien from another planet with incredible superpowers, I'm not sure he could get away with being as good a man as he is, and still be a compelling character. It's the alien aspect that makes him complex instead of just a cardboard cut-out of ideals. Because he's alien, he has reason to struggle. Because he's alien, he's put in conflict with humanity, with the world. Because he's alien, and alone, it makes his decision to be who he is, to embrace human truth and justice, that much more meaningful.

So. There's my (somewhat convoluted) reasoning for thinking Superman is awesome.
Remember, just because his only physical weakness is Kryptonite, it doesn't mean he's perfect. What it does mean, is that you shouldn't pick a fight with him unless you've got some on hand. (Or, a Pocketful?)


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