I have long loved superheroes. I’ve been a comic book fan for as long as I can remember. I used to have thousands of comics and graphic novels filling every available nook and cranny of my home. And my two favorites for the longest time? Batman and Superman, naturally.
My parents’ generation remembers these two as being the World’s Finest—comrades-in-arms and trusted friends. The Batman and Superman of my generation—the ’80s and ’90s—were not exactly like that. Their relationship was strained, even antagonistic at first. They were characters in contrast: sharing the same goal, but going about it in vastly different ways.
Superman and the challenge of storytelling
My Batman was ultra-paranoid and hyper-competent, always ready with a contingency plan, and an option for neutralizing any foe (and his friends, too). In contrast, Superman has always been harder to relate to. As much as I love him, he’s always seemed a tough nut to crack, which probably explains why there seem to be so few really great stories about him, as opposed to Batman. In his universe, he is the standard of moral righteousness. He is a beacon of hope; a light in a dark world.
He was the character Generation X had a hard time relating to because he was too good. And so the creators who wrote and drew his stories were constantly trying to bring him down to our level, to make him relatable: He killed his greatest foe (General Zod), which led to a PTSD-related split of his personality.1 He abandoned Earth to wander space for a season. He grew a beard and became a warrior on an alien world. He came back, had a shave, and was killed. He came back again with a super-mullet. He lost his powers and got married (and got a haircut, too).2 He got them back and turned electric. He stopped being electric and got his real powers back again. He conquered the world, then chilled out. He went grim-dark when he thought Lois was dead. He turned into Christopher Reeve for a while. Then he lost his underoos and went grim-dark again, started dating Wonder Woman, turned into Doomsday, lost his powers, had his secret identity exposed, and…
You get the idea, right?
So I don’t envy Zack Snyder and the screenwriters working on movies like Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, and Justice League. No matter what you do, you’re more or less in a whole pile of trouble. And the problem always comes back to Superman himself.
A brief word about the movie
This weekend, Emily and I went to see the aforementioned Batman v Superman, the critically shredded yet highly anticipated spectacle featuring a brand-new Batman (played by Ben Affleck) and Henry Cavill in his second go-around as the Man of Steel. I didn’t have high hopes for the film going in, not because I expected the worst, but simply because I firmly believe in checking myself before I wreck myself at the theatre. So going in, I was looking to just have a good time.
And I did, so mission accomplished, right?
The movie itself was what you’d expect—visually stunning, well-acted, but strained in the story department.3 Ben Affleck brings by far the strongest performance to Batman to date (sorry Christian Bale), and Jesse Eisenberg’s spin on Lex Luthor is superb, even if I can understand why some (many?) really hated it.
How do we relate to Superman?
Which brings us back to the “problem” of Superman. And by that, I don’t mean the actor playing him, who actually does a good job bringing him to life. The problem with Superman is this: how do people relate to him? Can they really relate to this character who is so much like them, but not—who is, in many ways, their better? He is not simply more powerful, but more righteous. More humble. More caring. Whose symbol on his chest means hope (at least according to the current films).
Is it even possible to connect with such a being?
It’s no surprise that filmmakers gravitate to imagery that reminds us of Christ when depicting Superman, as was seen throughout Man of Steel, and again in Batman v Superman. This is the closest visual reference point for us. We have no other cultural touchpoint that comes close. But it also explains the problems we have relating to him, doesn’t it? If the closest imagery we can draw from to depict a character like Superman is Jesus Christ, there’s going to be a backlash.
R.C. Sproul4 once shared a story of a man who, one day, was golfing on the same course as Billy Graham. The very sight of Graham stirred something in this man. Graham was just playing golf. He wasn’t evangelizing. He wasn’t preaching. He was just playing his game. But just his presence, his known association with Christ and Christianity, stirred within this man a sense of anger and indignation.
Superman is like that, at least to some degree. He reminds us of how far we fall short of even our own standards—for his standard of righteousness comes from us. And so, he is seen as too good. He is too humble. He is too hopeful. At least, he’s too hopeful for cynical 21st century Westerners. And we hate him for it, even as we love him. We want him to be more like us, but when we try to make him more like us, we’re disappointed because what we need is for him to be unlike us.
And so we’re left with the same difficulty: what do you do with a character like Superman? How do you relate to him? And I think the honest answer is, you relate to him by recognizing him for what he is—a symbol of hope. He is a cultural landmark that draws from his creators’ faith and longing for a rescuer to come.5 Hope is intrinsic to his character, and that aspect of the character needs to be respected.
The comic books have largely lost their way in this regard. They’ve forgotten what Superman is really all about, and it shows. And Snyder’s movies, thus far, have tried to walk the line—showing reverence to the character’s roots while also giving him a meaningful story arc. He is a younger Superman, untested, still figuring out his place in the world. But because of the cultural climate, there is a tendency to shrink back from the optimism of the character. To make him darker along with us, which Snyder and co. have done. But they can’t bring themselves to go all the way on this, and that is something I respect about the choices they’ve made. Despite the grimdark air of these films, Superman still stands as symbol of hope because that is the kind of character we need him to be. He is the character you can count on to do what’s right in the end, even at the cost of his own life.6
But it means we’re always going to struggle to relate to him. He’ll always be too good for us. He’ll always remind us that we’re not as good as we think we are. But really, we wouldn’t have it any other way. Because if it were different, Superman wouldn’t be Superman, would he?