Once upon a time, Superman was the superhero. Long before Disney and Marvel teamed up to make billions of dollars off of the Avengers, there was Clark Kent. Long before Christopher Nolan took defibrillator paddles to Bruce Wayne and birthed the Dark Knight Trilogy, there was only one man that stood above us all, and his name was Superman.
Ask anyone to name a superhero, and the vast majority will say Superman first. Sure, it’s partially because the word SUPER is in there, but he’s still the guy most people will think of first. Superman is the superhero. Or, at least he used to be.
Melted Steel: Why the World Turned Their Back on Superman
Despite the respectable box office success of the new Justice League movies, Superman isn’t top dog anymore. He’s taken a back-seat to Marvel characters like the Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Wolverine and the X-Men, and Deadpool. Hell, even in the world of DC, Superman is second fiddle to Batman these days.
If you google “Top Ten Most Popular Heroes”, and scroll through the articles, only one site on the first page lists Superman at number one. Batman, Spider-Man, Captain America, and Iron Man all seem to pop up before the Man of Steel. So why is it?
The most common answer is that he’s just not relatable anymore. First of all, he’s not even human. He’s an alien from another planet. That’s pretty damn hard to relate to, without bringing in any of his super powers.
But beyond that, Superman just isn’t like you and me. He’s a clean cut, stoic, practically flawless human. The most relatable characters are often the ones that we share the most flaws with. It’s hard to connect with Superman because he just doesn’t seem to have any damn flaws.
How can he hold up to the self-deprecating wit of a Deadpool? What about the snarky sarcasm of Iron Man? What about Batman?
Yeah… What about Batman?
The biggest issue with Superman isn’t that he isn’t relatable. While it’s true that he’s not human, and he doesn’t feel the same emotions and struggle that we do, that doesn’t make him a bad character. In fact, I’d argue that it elevates him.
Yeah, Bruce Wayne is a much more interesting character than Clark Kent. He’s dark and brooding and twisted and real. There’s something compelling about the dichotomy, or I guess, more appropriately, the duality of Bruce Wayne and Batman. He’s like the “bad boy” in a chick flick. Is he the best fit for the protagonist? No. Is he more interesting than the clean-cut good guy best friend? You bet! But that thought process is flawed when it comes to Superman. He’s not the boring, clean-cut, annoying babyface. I mean… he is, but he shouldn’t be.
Think about Superman. His name is painfully literal. He is a super man. He can fly, he can see through walls, and he’s basically invincible. It’s almost impossible to create a more overpowered character than Superman.
And what does he do with this power? He protects the world. Why? That’s the fun part.
Superman protects the city of Metropolis and Planet Earth because he can. There was a great tragedy in Superman’s life, the destruction of his home planet, but he goes through most of his life without knowing this. Superman protects Earth from the powers of evil because he is the only one that can.
Spider-Man is most known for the “with great power, comes great responsibility” line, but it doesn’t really apply to him the way it applies to Superman. Peter Parker was perfectly content to use his powers to take advantage of people and make money before Uncle Ben died. Just like Bruce Wayne probably would’ve grown up an entitled brat if his parents hadn’t been murdered in front of him.
Superman saves the day because he knows he’s the only one that really can. Batman is driven by an emptiness, a thirst for vengeance that he can’t quite quench. Spider-Man’s journey is kick-started by guilt, and hovers near obligation. Superman didn’t have a great tragedy that forced him to be a hero, he chose to, out of a personal code of ethics.
In fact, it’s Superman’s bland, ridiculous invincibility that makes him the perfect hero. How can you possibly corrupt Superman? Ignoring stories like Injustice where Superman is evil, how can you possibly make Superman the bad guy?
Can he be bought off? No, because he doesn’t have the same greedy needs that you or I have. Superman is a minimalist, requiring very little from others. This makes him almost literally incorruptible by his enemies.
If you can’t buy someone out, intimidate them, right? Okay cool, how do you intimidate someone that can kill pretty much anything with no effort? His weaknesses are as far fetched as earth from his home planet, ya know, the one that was destroyed, and good ol’ magic. Superman has survived being nuked, smacked around, and being played by Brandon Routh.
Superman is a moral idol, standing above us, not because he wants to, but because he has to. He’s a fantastic character if you can just dig a little deeper. He’s not a boy scout, he’s a philosopher. Superman is a benevolent dictator, gifted with incredible powers and dedicated, but not burned with glorious purpose.
Sadly, the miswriting of Superman has completely botched this aspect of the Man of Steel, leading us to the biggest reason people can’t stand him.
Superman is basically unbeatable. It takes loopholes in writing and lazy writing to create reasonable enemies. I love Batman. Batman is my favorite superhero. But in no way should he be able to beat someone like Superman. And that’s why people can’t stand him.
It’s not because Superman is just a bland good guy, or that he lacks a dark backstory. It’s because there are no stakes. Why should I get invested in a story when I know that no matter what, Superman is gonna Superman, and everything will work out for the best.
And obviously, this is true for all superheroes. The good guy has to win, no matter what, you have to send the people home happy. This next part will be a spoiler, so DON’T READ THE UNDERSCORED LETTERS… GOOD LUCK.
He totally died in Batman vs. Superman. So you might be saying, “Aha! Stakes!”, but no. I despise that movie, and I’m not optimistic about future movies, plus we all know he’s coming back to life, so what was the point of killing him at all?
If you’re wondering how this train of thought started, I was watching the WWE pay per view, Elimination Chamber from earlier this year. Going into the show, John Cena was the WWE Champion. Even if you don’t like wrestling (AND HERE’S WHY YOU SHOULD), you probably know who John Cena is.
If you watched Elimination Chamber, and it was your first show, you’d think John Cena was the bad guy. Why? Because the entire crowd booed him. John Cena is the most vanilla, clean-cut, good guy in pro wrestling’s history, and the fans boo him relentlessly.
Why? Because they know he’s going to win. Bad guy after bad guy after bad guy throw themselves at John Cena, and while they usually win the first battle, they almost always lose the war. The same is true for Roman Reigns, another wrestler in the WWE, that is receiving an ungodly push.
Fans know that Reigns is going to win no matter what. So there isn’t sympathy for him, and nobody ever really gets behind him. Nobody wins all the time, who would get emotionally invested in that? I want to root for someone like me, I want to root for the underdog, I want to care about someone.
Why should I care about someone if they’re going to dominate everyone? Sure, it’s a safe bet, but I want to go on an adventure. I want to feel the story. I want to care. Why in the world would I root for Goliath, when I can have David?