This month, Sam and Zach tackle America’s first superhero, The Man of Steel.
Sam: Superman was the first modern hero. He defined our very idea of what being a hero actually is. Superman set the bar for all other superheroes to follow and what a high bar it is.
Zach: Precisely, the bar was set too high. Superman is not a relatable hero because he is simply too powerful. The man has super strength, flight, laser beam eyes, frost breath and x-ray vision. Those are all elements for an exceptional super team, but combine them into one person, and the story loses its grandeur.
S: When Superman came out, in 1938, an infallible man was exactly what the American public needed. He defended the New Deal from corrupt businessmen and dirty politicians looking to subvert it. The country was still in the throes of the Great Depression, and the readership wanted a man who would fight for Truth and Justice.
Z: Sure an overpowered hero might have been nice during the Depression, but times change and so should our superheroes. Captain America started as a Hitler-punching hero, but now he is fighting the covert organizations of America. Even in the latest installation of the Superman saga, the Man of Steel has not changed a bit.
S: Superman is even more iconically patriotic than Captain America. Superman ties together the different parts of America. An immigrant kid who grew up in rural Kansas, he moves to the city. Superman ties together the immigrant community, the city kids and the farm boys.
Z: That is a good point, but Superman originally fought rich bankers, and being rich is all part of the American dream. Superman goes around fighting the system of capitalism; that doesn’t sound American, it sounds Communist!
S: Yes, in the 1930s Superman fought for social justice. In the 40s he got over his ‘rebellious’ teenage phase and became an American symbol. Superman assured everyone from GIs to factory workers that Good would triumph over Evil. Again, Superman united the country when he needed it most. Most tellingly, ‘The American Way’ was added to the original ‘Truth and Justice’ during this time.
Z: Another problem with Superman is that he is larger than life. He is so super that he can unite every single American with one almighty speech. Where’s the opposition? Everyone loves him, and his character is flawless. This leaves his story dry and bland like a cracker. His only weakness is a glowing crystal that his villains are too stupid to utilize. If you really want to kill Superman, manufacture some kryptonite bullets and blow his brains out. An overpowered hero and stupid villains is just not that interesting. There is no element of Superman that keeps you on the edge of your seat.
S: His character is far from flawless. In the movie Superman Returns, for example, Superman flies away from Earth. He flat-out leaves to look for Krypton. Tell me, is the Superman who puts his own needs in front of others still perfect?
Z: First of all, the people only needed Superman during his personal hiatus because they needed a witness in the trial of Lex Luthor to put him behind bars. A man tries to take over the world, and the only witness is Superman? Not only is Superman a poorly developed character, but his world is filled with plot pitfalls that simply detract from the story. In that movie, when Superman is stabbed by kryptonite and where he should have definitely died, the Man of Steel miraculously rose and in the end managed to beat the villain. This is a common occurrence in Superman’s story. First he is nearly killed, but then, from the grave, he rises and defeats the villain once more. Superman is far too invincible to have an interesting plot because every time something bad happens it is always undone.
S: A problem with the fictional justice system of Metropolis is hardly a problem with Superman himself. All superheroes suffer from invincibility complex. Spiderman, Batman, Captain America, Iron Man; none of these stories end badly. The problem with all superheroes is that the invincibility is inherent in the idea of a superhero. I would even argue it isn’t a problem at all. Superheroes are designed to be more than human. Superheroes are the light that the rest of humanity should emulate, both inside their fictional worlds and in our world.
Z: Although Superman deserves credit for being the first superhero, it is time he hang up the red underpants and retire while he is still ahead. There are so many newer and more interesting superheroes that could take his place.
S: Superman is so good because he more than human. He is an example that humanity can look up to. He tied together American values at a time when America needed it most. Jor-El, Superman’s father, perhaps said it best. He said to a young Superman: “You will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun, Kal. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.”