Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Anti-Popularity of Superman

It's common for people to dislike something that is typically perceived as popular simply because they feel that its popularity is disproportionate to how cool the thing actually is. These sorts of things can sometimes even have a bizarre sort of anti-popularity, where it almost seems more common to dislike it than to actually earnestly like it, yet it still remains fixed in popular culture in spite of this. Pop music, reality TV, Tom Cruise... all of these things that apparently a lot of people really like, but we often find ourselves wondering where these people are, because it generally seems like more people make fun of them than actually enjoy them.

Probably one of the most well-known examples of this kind of anti-popularity is Superman.

Everyone says Superman is this big iconic superhero, possibly the most popular superhero of all-time, but it's incredibly rare -- especially among actual comic book fans -- to find people who actually give a shit about him.

More often than not, people say he doesn't deserve his notoriety. That he's too boring because he has no internal conflict, no serious weakness, and he's completely overpowered. With the exception of Lex Luthor and MAYBE Zod, his rogues gallery is mostly unknown to the general public. He's just completely uninteresting when compared to heroes with less power and more personality.

And while it's rare to find people who are genuinely fans of Superman, he still somehow dominates the public consciousness. Some say it's because he was the first of his kind, that it's because he's been around for so long, or that it's because he's basically the point of reference that we judge all other superheroes on. Superman is the default and all other superheroes are essentially tweaks on his general heroic persona.

In that light, I guess it's not surprising that Warner Bros. often has a hard time making Superman movies. On the one hand, everyone knows who he is, so brand recognition is through the roof, but on the other hand, apparently no one really likes him so they often try to redefine his persona to be more accessible to general audiences. Long story short, things often dissolve into executives trying to get Superman to wear black leather.

But seeing as today is the 75th anniversary of Action Comics #1 and how the pretty cool-looking new trailer for "The Man of Steel" just came out...

...I thought this might be a good time to share my feelings on Superman.

To get right to the point, I think Superman is way more interesting than most people give him credit for. No, he isn't interesting for the same reasons that Batman or Spider-Man are interesting. He's far too powerful to be interesting in those ways, which is probably why so many writers have a hard time with him. They focus too much on trying to disempower Superman in order to get him to fit into the mold of other superhero movies.

But Superman is an empowerment fantasy through-and-through. Forcing him to be weak through kryptonite or putting Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane in danger often comes off as hackneyed. There's no way to make him interestingly disempowered.

Those kinds of stories are what movies like "Iron Man", "Captain America: The First Avenger", and "The Dark Knight" are for. Stories of (mostly) ordinary human beings discovering what is exceptional about themselves and using it to benefit the world they live in. They struggle with personal problems and have most of the same weaknesses we do. They don't need a glowing rock or an imperiled loved one to be interesting. They are inherently interesting because they are like us.

Superman is not like us. Superman cannot be like us. Superman will never be like us. Giving him kryptonite doesn't make him seem more vulnerable, it just puts the plot on pause until the kryptonite goes away. Putting his loved ones in danger just disempowers and reduces his supporting cast.

But really, Superman's limitless power isn't actually the biggest problem with his character. Plenty of superheroes are overpowered simply because audiences believe they are never truly in danger. Batman always has a plan and a gadget, Spider-Man has his spider-sense, Wolverine has a healing factor. Even if a character does die, it probably won't last for very long.

No, the sticking point most people have with Superman is that he's a boy scout. That he's lawful stupid.

And frankly, that's kind of understandable. We as human beings always bend the rules once in a while during exceptional circumstances, so when we see Superman let Lex Luthor live for the billionth time, we wonder how much trouble he would save if he made an exception just this once. That with all his power, he was wasting his potential behind moral black-and-white bullshit that few people can honestly relate to.

But that's exactly what makes Superman interesting. While most superheroes are limited in their power and devote their lives to doing everything they possibly can within the realms of their power, Superman has the opposite problem. This man can protect Metropolis, the USA, the entire planet, and even planets in other galaxies, all while still holding a steady job as a reporter. He has no limits, so he has to define those limits for himself.

He lives in a world made of cardboard, controlled by ants. If he wanted to, he could crush all of us and rule as a king and say he did it for the good of mankind. And in fact, in many stories, he does exactly that.

If Superman decides that just this one time, he'll kill Lex Luthor because he's proven to be a threat and that he can never change, then it forces him to second-guess every decision he's ever made. Why not kill ALL the supervillains? Why stop at supervillains? Why let corrupt governments exist? Why let any governments exist?

Superman has to live every day consciously deciding what he can and cannot do with his unlimited power, and his faith in humanity is so strong that he refuses to let himself be anything more than a beacon of hope for these people.

Superman isn't just an empowerment fantasy. He's a constant reminder that those with power don't merely have a responsibility to use their power for good; they have a responsibility to understand what "good" truly means. Many of us wish we have the power of superheroes, but heroes like Superman remind us what we want that power for.

I think that's why Superman tends to resonate more with the underprivileged, particularly during times of crisis. While a lot of the time we indulge in empowerment fantasies because we think it would be cool to beat up bad guys and fly around the city, we are also attracted to empowerment fantasies because many of us thirst for people with power who hold themselves to a higher standard, and we like to believe that such a person exists in all of us.

In a way, Superman reminds me of the late Mr. Rogers.

Fred Rogers was not exactly the most interesting person in the world, or at least not the most entertaining. I was always more of a Sesame Street and Nickelodeon kid, myself. Mr. Rogers was just a little too slow-paced for my hyperactive brain. A little too consistent. After all, the man was kind of terrifying in how perfect he was. He never lost his temper, always stood up for what he believed in, wore the same damn outfit every day, and never once complained... Legend has it that he always maintained the exact weight of 143 lbs. simply because he really liked how that arrangement of numbers matched the number of letters in each word of the phrase "I love you". He paved the way for fair use laws and convinced cold-hearted politicians to fund PBS by appealing to their better nature. This man probably could have ended wars with a stern letter. So while "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" may not have been everyone's favorite TV show (and in fact many of us might have made fun of how corny it was), pretty much everyone agreed that Mr. Rogers was basically a saint. He held himself to a high standard because he cared so much about the rest of the world. He would spend nearly every day of his life looking out to millions of children and reminding them that they were special and that they belonged to a community that loved them for who they were. Maybe it's not the most he could have done with his mega-popularity and enormous audience, but he felt it was the most important thing he could have said, so he never stopped saying it. If you asked me, that is what a Superman truly is.