I dislike Superman.
Let me rephrase that.
I don’t like Superman.
I understand that he is America, or Jesus, or both at the same time, with Maximum Levels of Allegory and slightly better hair.
But who is he? A concatenation of catchphrases with perfect teeth and rippling muscles.
He’s perfect, and like anything perfect, he’s bland.
And here I thought it was just Brandon Routh that was the problem.
No, even in the gritty reboot “Man of Steel” currently In Theaters Near You, he’s a problem. I saw the movie feeling a sense of obligation. It’s Superman. We love Superman. Of course we’re seeing Man of Steel.
But he feels dated. Everyone else these days is custom — flawed, just like you and me. Superman is one-size-fits-all perfection.
It’s not that he possesses so many virtues. As W. H. Auden said, “A vice in common can be the ground of a friendship but not a virtue in common. X and Y may be friends because they are both drunkards or womanizers but, if they are both sober and chaste, they are friends for some other reason.”
Superman lacks vices. At a critical moment in this summer’s “Man of Steel,” trying to sap his fighting spirit, someone yells, “OH YEAH? Well, you have a MORAL COMPASS and I DON’T!” As taunts go, this is only marginally more menacing than yelling, “OH YEAH? WELL, YOU HAVE REALLY NICE TEETH!” There’s nothing to insult.
Superman is your friend with a truck.
You cultivate his acquaintance in case you ever need help moving or a ride to a wine tasting in the country or defense against alien attack. But you wouldn’t want to sit next to him at dinner. You invite him to your wedding on the off chance he will turn some of the water into wine. But what do you say to him?
Superman is genetically gifted to the point that he has never actually been required to make conversation. Late in the film, he whips a drone out of the sky, and an officer smiles blandly at him. “He’s kinda hot,” she says. What else can you say?
Let me insert the caveat that I am a fair-weather comics fan. I am the sunshine patriot and summer filmgoer. I didn’t grow up reading the issues or even watching Smallville; maybe there is an iteration of the hero that answers these questions satisfactorily.
At least in the film, his backstory is depressing because it turns out he’s not just special for Earth — he’s special for his home planet Krypton, too. “The first natural birth in centuries!” his Space Dad, Russell Crowe, proclaims. Apparently he contains the lives of all future Kryptonians encoded in his body somewhere. It is a pity they forgot to include any personality with that.
But what personality could you fit?
Personality is something you are forced to develop to make people like you in spite of your inherent deficiencies. This is why when people say, “He has a wonderful personality,” it is usually shorthand for “He resembles a fat stoat.” If you are attractive and flawless, like Superman, what personality do you need? This is why Cyrano de Bergerac, with his giant hideous nose, has a rapier wit and is the life of the party, and Christian de Neuvillette, so handsome that people fall in love with him spontaneously across rooms, cannot complete a sentence to save his life. Adversity builds character. If you’re a diamond living among pumice, good luck being shaped into anything. No wonder Superman’s bland. When he gets bullied as a kid, his greatest struggle is not melting the bullies with his eyes. Forget first-world problems; he’s in a category by himself.
Of course, being in a category by yourself is its own kind of pain. He is the last of a species, alone, isolated, orphaned — but we don’t see that in the movie, except in brief flashbacks. If anything, he has too many living family members to be a high-functioning superhero. There’s nothing to latch onto in this Clark Kent, just a flying grin and a lot of explosions.
My understanding of myth structure, from Joseph Campbell, is that the essence of most hero stories is as follows: the hero Goes To The Father To Seek The Boon (getting help from a variety of archetypal figures and overcoming a variety of obstacles on the way), the hero obtains the boon, the hero returns and uses the boon to Save the People.
The trouble with Superman is that he already has the boon. He’s faster than a speeding bullet, capable of — yadda, yadda, yadda. As a consequence, the movie consists of numerous people delivering inspirational speeches to Superman about his unique capacity to save the world, and then he goes and does it. He doesn’t have to struggle to get where he is. But hey, there are a lot of explosions.
Still, is that enough?
What do we need from our myths?
Superman has always been a decently heavy-handed allegory: somebody’s only son sent to dedicate his life to save the human race? Gee. Who might this be?
Everyone else these days is so flawed. Iron Man has something resembling PTSD. Poor Captain America has come unstuck in time. Batman — don’t get me started on Batman. “Hey guys,” Superman says, sitting down at the bar next to them. “Rough day. I’m completely invulnerable to all earth substances, but also, I can fly!”
“Please leave,” Bruce Banner says, turning a little green.
The other superheroes filling our screens this summer have had a process of becoming. Superman doesn’t become. He just lands. He’s just super. He’s all the fun of playing Make Believe with a 6-year-old who keeps changing the rules on you so that he’s invulnerable and always wins.
Superman is the hero we don’t deserve but need right now. Here he comes now with that truck of his, just in time to help.
But that doesn’t mean I have to like him.