The Limits of Superman

The core problem of Superman is that few people seem to understand what makes him interesting. It’s not a question of what he’s capable of, as Superman is defined by his ability to meet any challenge the future will bring. Nor is it the morality of what he chooses to do. Clark Kent’s reputation as a boy scout is undeserved, as no one I knew in Scouts was as well behaved as he is – living up to the highest moral standards is something he strives for every day and, even if he doesn’t succeed every time, he still serves as a high bar to confront. The core conflict of Superman is what he won’t do. What limits Superman will set is, and always will be, the thing that define him.

This is why the Superman of DC’s New 52 was so uninteresting. They took away his relationship with Lois Lane and made his love interest Wonder Woman. You can’t do that. Lois and Clark aren’t inseparable due to some deep spark of chemistry between the two. They’re inseparable because the nature of their characters complete one another. Lois Lane and Clark Kent are devoted to Truth and Justice, concepts that each pursue in their own ways with their own skills. For a long time Lois’ sense of moral and intellectual superiority blinded her to Clark and even now that they’re married he’s a constant reminder of the importance of the simple truths that undergird human nature. Superman may be able to do anything he wants but Clark can’t constantly watch over Lois’ shoulder or keep her from chasing truth in her own way without destroying everything he loves about her. The character dynamic there is deep and fascinating, in fact it’s at the root of some of the best Superman stories ever told, but the most important thing about it for our purposes is that the very fact that Lois puts a brake on what Superman will do is part of what makes Superman, the character, interesting.

Lois is not the only limit on Superman in the life of the character. Jimmy Olsen and Perry White both filled that role as well, offering a kind of friendship and mentoring respectively. Moreover, the very real responsibilities of a normal job and civic responsibilities kept Superman a character with dilemmas to confront, driven not by what he could or couldn’t do, but by what would be best for those he cared about. Too many modern superheroes are driven by abstract things. Tony Stark works for the future or progress but can’t hold a relationship together long enough for those concepts to have personal meaning. He stands aloof in his tower, making the calls he thinks are right, but when they go wrong the only skin he has in the game is the guilt trip that will come after him.

Maybe that’s all it should take. But it’s not interesting for very long. When the Man of Tomorrow made a bad call there was a nation, a city, and a small group of newspaper reporters who would feel it. At least, that’s how it was for a long time. But at some point the focus of Superman stories drifted to the Justice League, or alien invasions, or Lex Luthor. Superman renounced his U.S. citizenship so he could better represent the world, or something. He drifted from the Daily Planet more and more. Then they took away Lois Lane and everything that made Superman a man was gone. He was just a force of nature the DC editors constantly tried to slap a meaningful face on.

It was dreadful.

For the last year and a half the world’s first superhero has come into focus once again. Ever since the DC Rebirth event Clark’s marriage has been restored and he’s slowly returned to his job at the Daily Planet. The Justice League is still a part of Superman’s calling but once again his family is a part of that equation. But more than anything else, the thing that has defined Superman the most in the last two years is Jonathan Kent.

Not Clark’s adopted father, but his son.

Yes, Superman is a dad now. And he’s not a superdad. After countless years saving the world, earth’s first hero has to confront a new and disturbing notion: That he now serves as an example not for the abstract crowd of people that are humanity but rather a single boy who’s depended on him for everything from food and clothing to a moral code and the mindset to live it out. Clark can’t let Jon run wild, he has to respect the boundaries his wife wants put in place, he has to keep his son safe even as Jonathan tries to take his own place in the world. And Superman has to do it all while preventing natural disasters, fending off old rivals and keeping a day job. There’s never been more to do or more expectations to live up to while doing it.

There’s a charming moment in the Action Comics title where Superman actually dozes off while flying home one evening, summing up the character’s dynamic in a simple scene. This is Superman the workingman, pulling long hours and running himself ragged in the hope that the things he does and example he sets will make his family stronger and the world better. It’s all any of us can hope for, whether they have superstrength and laser vision or a normal job in a normal office. That shared limit we have on what we can hope for makes Superman a perfect character to lead DC’s heroes into a new age.

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One response to “The Limits of Superman

  1. I continue to admire your ability to engage my interest in subjects about which you feel passionate. I may not ever read any Superman comics, but I thoroughly enjoy your analysis of what facets of story work and which ones don’t.

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