4 Reasons Anyone Who Says 'Superman Is A Boring Superhero' Is Full Of It
Between the debuts of Zack Snyder's Justice League and Superman & Lois, this month is shaping up to be unusually Supermanly. To celebrate, Cracked's on-call Supermanologist Maxwell Yezpitelok will be conducting a week of lectures on the superhero who is a metaphor for absolutely everything. So please: settle in, and mind your Supermanners.
A common complaint about Superman is that he's just too damn powerful, which is kind of like saying that the Grand Canyon is too damn grand, or that your Baconator came with too much damn bacon. Still, a lot of people seem to think it's impossible to tell interesting stories with a character who's practically invincible ... including some of the writers and studio execs whose job it is to make those stories.
Thing is, there's nothing inherently uninteresting about an all-powerful character, as long as every comic book writer on Earth isn't seriously imagination-challenged. And that's because ...
His Powers Aren't Random: He's A Walking Catalogue Of Active Superpowers
"Why does Superman have to have so many powers, anyway?! Look at Batman, he's got none and he's cool!"
Why It's BS:
First of all, the ability to be hugely rich and not be a massive piece of trash is a more fantastic superpower than any of Superman's, so there's that. But also, Superman's powers didn't come about because someone said "let's just make this guy impossible to beat," like video game developers creating an annoying final boss. They grew organically across several decades in a way that's intrinsically linked to the evolution of the superhero genre itself.
People forget that when Superman first appeared, he was just a guy who could punch very hard and jump very high. This is because he was inspired by older, not-quite-super characters like Doc Savage (who was just very fit), John Carter of Mars (who could jump high due to low gravity), and Popeye (inhumanly strong due to substance abuse).
But, when Superman turned out to be a hit and copycat characters began popping up everywhere (including a certain pointy-eared one percenter), some of them were able to fly. Superman himself only started flying after others like Captain Marvel were already punching Nazi planes out of the sky -- in fact, he flew for the first time when a new artist took over the comic and was like "eh, that sounds like a thing he can do too, who cares."
Similarly, the early Superman couldn't run that fast. He only became blink-and-you'll-miss-him fast after characters like The Flash had debuted ... and what do you know, when Flash learned to move so fast that he could travel in time, Superman started doing that too. And so, as more costumed do-gooders popped up and expanded the pool of available powers, the most iconic ones made their way back to Superman, the archetypical superhero, while the sucky ones fell by the wayside.
Superman became a conduit for all staple superpowers throughout human mythology, and as superhero comics continued to change, so did he. In the '80s he was de-powered to coincide with a push for more realistic heroes, while in the '90s they had to split him into multiple beings to keep up with all the EXTREME new trends on the exploding comic book market, from hi-tech armors to energy powers to looking totally rad in a leather jacket.
So there's a good reason why you need a full Wiki to keep track of all of Superman's powers: he works best when he's the embodiment of the genre he originated and the clearest demonstration of its full potential. And if absorbing all those powers from other superheroes requires some light copyright infringement from time to time, so be it (they wouldn't exist without him, anyway).
He Continually Ups The Stakes ... For ALL Superheroes (Even In Other Companies)
"Dude's got it too easy! He can stop any crime in like two seconds! And all his villains suck!"
Why It's BS:
It's all about proportionality. Yes, Superman can stop most Batman-level crimes in two seconds, just like Batman can probably stop most Chief Wiggum-level crimes in one. But this is a good thing, because it forces the writers to go beyond "guy in wacky costume robs bank" stories and up the threat level -- not just for Superman, but for comics in general. It's not a coincidence that DC's foremost evil space deity, Darkseid, a being capable of enslaving the entire universe, debuted in an issue of Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen of all places (and then inspired Thanos, upping the threat level for Marvel, too).
This effect extends across time as well as space. When DC started publishing stories about Superman when he was a kid, the need to give Superboy some other superpowered teens he could josh around with spawned a whole army of futuristic heroes and villains via the Legion of Super-Heroes. The Legion not only expanded the DC Universe into more sci-fi-esque territories, but it also inspired cosmic teams in other companies, like the Guardians of the Galaxy. So, in a way, Vin Diesel has Superboy's playdates to thank for his third pool.
But the clearest demonstration of the "Superman effect" is the Justice League. When Superman's not on the team, they can get away with fighting dumpster-diving journalists or some random schlub named Mighty Bruce. When he IS on the team, they have to stop outer-dimensional entities from rewriting all of reality and wrestle with angels. Literally. That actually happened in a comic. Superman tussled with a mega-buff rogue angel and won, which is even more impressive when you find out it happened during his awkward "Electro" phase.
At the same time, Superman's excessive powers have served as a vehicle to make his stories more introspective, and even downright philosophical. The most acclaimed Superman comics ever are the ones that pit him against problems he can't punch away, like his impending death, or his pathological need to save as many people as possible, or a cosmic vampire that can only be defeated by touching the wall between the liminal space of reality and fiction. (That one also happened.)
Maybe that's why, with some exceptions, his villains do suck: his greatest enemies are conceptual. Most Superman baddies are merely excuses to force Superman to face important issues he can't easily solve -- human greed, the dangers of media manipulation, what if a being from the fifth dimension turns your friends into cows, etc. But we'll admit that not all writers realize this, which is why they keep trying to make it look like a guy who makes explosive teddy bears could be a real threat to a near-omnipotent being.
He Isn't Just Wish-Fulfillment; He's Aspirational
"He's just a power fantasy! Grow up and read about more complex characters, like the suave super-spy who has sex with lots of attractive women!"
Why It's BS:
Superman stories are rarely told with a "wow, wouldn't it be cool to be him?" perspective, unless being constantly bombarded by pleas for help and agonizing over who gets to live and die sounds awesome to you. Superman isn't a "here's how we want to be" character but a "here's how we should be" character, which is a huge distinction. Nobody should really aspire to be James Bond (drunk, lecherous, kills lots of people) or Wolverine (drunk, lecherous, kills lots of people) or, despite what a worrying number of folks in law enforcement think, the Punisher (kills lots of people, doesn't even have fun doing it).
Characters like that are outlets for impulses we realize we can't follow, or we'd all stab each other into extinction within like 12 hours. Superman, on the other hand, embodies traits that are actually desirable in a functioning society, like restraint and responsibility. Couldn't the writers do that without giving him so many powers, or at least giving him crap ones? Sure, look at Spider-Man, whose most commonly used power is "using his wrists as spider butts." However, the importance of Superman's sense of discipline is way more effective coming from someone who could accidentally kill you while sneezing, as demonstrated by the greatest Superman fight scene ever put on media:
(At the risk of summoning the rage of a million internet commenters: contrast that clip with certain movie scenes of Superman flying through buildings like they're Styrofoam.)
Superman's conscientiousness also doubles as his biggest weakness -- bigger even than Kryptonite or space monsters with spiky bones coming out of their knees. The knowledge that every moment of downtime is another life lost weighs heavily on him and occasionally leads him down dubious paths, like in all those alternate reality stories where he dabbles in fascism. In The Dark Knight Returns, for instance, Superman becomes a government stooge not because of blind nationalism but out of a misguided sense that he should be doing more to help people.
Any story that makes it look like being Superman is easy (probably) isn't a good Superman story. His powers are supposed to come off like a blessing but also a massive burden. He's fast, but not fast enough to save literally everyone. He's strong, but can't just punch every corrupt businessman's head off. He's got abs without needing to exercise, but can't let go during sex or he might put a hole through Lois Lane (more on that later). His ability to overcome these obstacles with his perfectly square chin held up high is what truly makes him super, not the powers themselves. And that allows us to segue into the final point ...
Some Of His Best Stories Don't Even Involve Powers (That Much)
"Nice try, Cracked, but I still think he's too powerful! Also I don't know why I'm shouting every sentence, please help me!"
Why It's BS:
OK, fine. De-power him, then.
One of the best Superman stories of the past 30 years is one that had every right to suck: Superman/Aliens. No, seriously. It might seem like there's no way to make these two franchises intersect that isn't dumb and forced, but the plot makes a shocking amount of sense. Superman finds out there's an asteroid out there that might have some Kryptonian survivors in it so he decides to go check it out, and of course it's infested by killer dick monsters. And since the asteroid is within Krypton's general vicinity, Superman's powers start to fade away, turning his body into a potential home for xenomorph babies.
The stakes are deeply personal, not just because Superman thinks he might be related to some of these survivors, but because facing mindless killing machines puts him at odds with his belief to never take a life, not even the really ugly and/or unpleasant ones. And this is only one example of a classic Superman tale where he barely gets to use his powers. We've already gushed over the "Exile in Space" saga, in which Superman becomes a space gladiator while at half-battery. Krisis of the Krimson Kryptonite, unfortunate acronym aside, is another fine story about a completely powerless Superman valiantly continuing his superhero career despite being so weak that even a middle-aged, out of shape, cancer-stricken Lex Luthor is able to beat the crap out him.
KOKK (nope, still sounds bad) also served as a perfect excuse to have Clark Kent finally propose to Lois Lane after confirming that she'd like him even if he was a regular chump. They eventually got married while he was temporarily powerless again, which gave that story a more intimate feeling and conveniently allowed them to get through the whole honeymoon phase without any pelvis-destroying incidents.
"Hereafter," one of the highest-rated episodes of the Justice League cartoon, also deals with Superman losing his powers after ending up stuck in a distant future where the sun's giving out. Despite that, he still manages to prevent an apocalypse using one of his most enviable superpowers: the ability to avoid losing hope when everything's gone to hell.
If it seems like you have to jump through a lot of hoops to make a good Superman story, that's because you do. Superman's invincibility offers a more structured form of storytelling -- he's the superhero genre's equivalent of trying to write a haiku that's also an acrostic that also doesn't contradict 83 years of continuity (or some nerds will get very angry at you). So when those writers and studio execs say it's "impossible" to tell interesting Superman stories, what they mean is that it's "harder." But when they put in the effort, the results can be transcendental.
And when they don't, well ... watching him punch robots is also fun, to be honest.
Follow Maxwell Yezpitelok's heroic effort to read and comment every '90s Superman comic at Superman86to99.tumblr.com.
Top Image: DC Comics