Superman and the War Against Anachronism

“Is virtue a thing remote? I wish to be virtuous, and lo! virtue is at hand.”

The Confucian Analects

Sometimes even a mild-mannered retro pop culture scribbler like Retro Remote is spoiling for a fight. It’s usually not hard to arrange. When a conversation turns, as it so often does, towards comic books, there’s one sure-fire way to piss people off: “Oh, my favourite superhero? That’d be Superman.”

That used to be a slightly defensive admission, but over time I’ve taken to enjoying the anticipation of the reactions, which usually range from instant dismissal to accusations of fascism.

Superman, it turns out, is boring: he’s always good, he has too many powers and is invulnerable, he’s a stooge for the American government. How can you have a decent story about a guy like that? Batman is cool and dark and deep; Superman is childish.

Fair enough, I suppose. Nobody has to like the big blue boyscout. But it’s strange to hear that you can’t tell a good story about a character who has appeared on TV, in cartoons, on radio shows, in audiobooks, in movies, in newspapers, in comic books… for nigh-on 75 years. Shouldn’t somebody have pulled the plug by now?

Plenty of great stories can show that Superman isn’t boring, but he is out of fashion: something even the most ardent fan would find difficult to deny. But his status as a cultural anachronism isn’t something we should turn away from. The very fact that Superman seems to represent such an entirely different set of social values to those sought after by mainstream superhero fans is exactly what should, at the very least, make him somewhat unique among the relatively interchangeable roster of superheroes generally on offer on movie screens at the moment.

The impulse, of course, is to “update” Superman, to make him “relevant”. What could be more deadening that making an enduring cultural icon “relevant” to passing trends? If Superman is a walking anachronism in opposition to (certain) modern values, then why not meaningfully explore exactly what that tension means? It’s a shame that the usual response to anachronism is to iron it out and remove those idiosyncratic wrinkles which provided the resonant identity in the first place. It’s not that updating something is intrinsically bad; but it’s miserably dull when iconic figures are resurrected only to conform to mainstream values rather than to confront them.

Just take a look at Spock in the new J.J. Abrams Star Trek franchise: the very thing that made Spock such a resonant figure – his commitment to rational, logical, careful thought – is the first thing that Abrams abandons for the passing benefit of a cheap character “arc”. The problem is not that he’s changed an iconic figure (change can be fine), but the fact that the change is the most insipid, mediocre one possible: a cheap grab at relevance rather than engagement with actual difference.

As a character with a clearly-defined approach to thought and action (rather then generic “genius”) Spock is one of the few overtly philosophical images in mainstream pop culture history. As critic A.O. Scott writes of Abrams’ reluctance to move too far from standard models of action: “Hardly one to boldly go anywhere, he prefers to cautiously follow and skillfully pander”. (“Kirk and Spock, in Their Roughhousing Days”, The New York Times, 15 May 2013)

Though the idea of an emotional character arc is ubiquitous in online discussions, this is one clear example where it is far less sophisticated than the lack of an emotional character arc. Some characters, like Spock, like Superman, are not served by short term shifts in temperament and character, and are not designed to have their values and perspectives shifted over the course of a three act structure. To see this as a flaw in the characters’ ability to be interesting is a view that limits drama to a simple film-school understanding of a formula story.

The idea that drama and character require a clearly-defined arc of development is trendy and marketable, but it’s also frequently shallow and somewhat shortsighted. After all, the “arc” is usually simply a way of pulling slightly divergent characters into uniformity. Characters like Spock, like Superman, find their identities in “knowing themselves”: their emotional development is not of interest, their perspectives and decisions in a variety of circumstances are, as is how various creators understand and portray these perspectives and decisions.

Most of the reasons for Superman being inherently boring are actually pretty easy to question. Retro Remote has had an epic essay about Superman mentally brewing for about a decade, but a few nutshell points will have to do for now. Incidentally, there is no Superman, of course. That is to say, there’s no single version of Superman. It’s impossible to talk of a single Superman (and, of course, there are plenty of bad, boring stories), but we can perhaps offer some general thoughts on the most dominant traits of Superman at his best.

First of all: “He’s always good”. The important distinction here is probably good as opposed to right. Being always right is one of the primary characteristics of just about every mainstream hero, Batman being one of the most notable examples. Nobody gets one over on ol’ Bats. All those infinitely-knowledgeable, smugly-certain, steel-trap minded detectives run riot over mainstream screens; sure, they have flaws, but being “wrong” is rarely one of them. Those flaws are usually fairly predictable: drugs, sex, angst, alcohol, arrogance… The kind of flaws that mainstream viewers actually tend to find fairly desirable and comforting rather than confronting (judging from how frequently these “flaws” are part of the advertising). It’s nice to believe that having these basic hedonistic flaws (as we all do) make you “deep”.

Now, Superman’s not necessarily immune from being “right”; but that hardly isolates him from the crowd. Actually, I’d argue that Superman has much less opportunity to be smugly, consistently right, if only because a certain degree of uncertainty is required to keep a narrative involving a (mostly) all-powerful character like him ticking (but more on that to follow…).

Being “good”, on the other hand is a much more complex issue; the kind of issue that’s propelled philosophical thought on the proper way to live and act for… well, ever. I’m not suggesting that Superman comics offer substantial philosophical meditations on the nature of the virtuous life, but we should see the idea of a character who is – by his very nature – consistently good, to be a challenge rather than a drag. What the hell does consistently good actually mean, anyway? Superman may not provide the answers, but does provide plenty of opportunity to discuss that question.

Which leads to the second point: that Superman is too powerful, which gets in the way of telling an interesting story. Again, this seems to rely on an incredibly narrow view of what a narrative actually is. If a narrative is purely about a hero overcoming a variety of physical obstacles, then I guess that’s true. But that’s actually known by a slightly different name: a stupid narrative. (Yes, yes, “Joseph Campbell, the hero’s journey…”, I know…).

Again, Superman’s power should be seen as a challenge rather than a flaw: writers can no longer rely on the tired devices of physical constraints to keep the narrative going. Confident writers should embrace Superman’s power as something that places him above mere physicality: when the limitations on action are removed, the ethics of action still remain. The real dramatic struggles are those of ethics and inter-personal communication, not punching. (For those writers not up to that task, then there’s kryptonite.)

This is also a confusion of character fantasy and character function. While Batman is frequently offered as an example of a “human” hero, there’s little doubt that he’s just as superpowered as Superman in just about any narrative context: the fact that Batman might clench his teeth and make a “nnnggghhgghghgngh” noise when he does something amazing, or perhaps take a moment to think something like “good thing I did all those push-ups yesterday”, doesn’t really make him any less “super”. The fact that Batman has this human “out” means that he’s been able to be easily embraced by fans as the most dominant force in the superhero universe (just check out any Batman comic from the last couple of decades). Batman is now beyond needing to justify his actions or abilities. An extraordinary Bat-action: how did he do it? Duh, he’s Batman.

Thirdly: he’s a fascist stooge for the government. Well, sure, that “American way” thing isn’t exactly my favourite part of Superman mythology; but it’s also a bit simplistic to have a knee-jerk reaction to anything that might seem to be connected to historical patriotism. Superman may have baggage, but that doesn’t mean that his stories are inevitably tied to rigid notions of conservative government. If anything, Superman’s something of a free-wheeling peacenik compared to the modern image of Batman which increasingly tends towards militarism, martial law, parochialism (MY city!), and righteous aggression. Part of the joy of Superman is the fact that, where Batman’s method is control through intimidation and fear, Superman usually tries to start things with a chat. You don’t actually need superpowers to give that form of conflict resolution a shot, y’know.

Sure, for plenty of fans Superman is a fantasy of unbridled power. But for plenty of others, Superman is a potent image of kind, open masculinity that is socially aware, self-assured without being arrogant, self-aware without being self-obsessed, who maintains a sense of perspective, smiles easily, values kindness and humanity, and avoids violence wherever possible. As Batman drifts further into insularity and self-obsession (nngghghh, so much darkness!), it’d be nice to see Superman keep a sense of perspective when the new film version arrives.

Now, more important than any single interpretation of a character like Superman is the opportunity for multiple interpretations of a character like Superman. Comics usually allow this quite nicely, whereas film doesn’t, which is part of the reason why there’s so little meaningful variety in superhero films. But how did the sell-out, fascist, small-minded, irrelevant version of Superman become the dominant cultural image?

No doubt there are all kinds of reasons. I’m inclined to believe that it’s part of a shift in the understanding of what makes “relevant” drama (personal angst rather then broader issues, apparently) and also the lack of real-world political opportunities for change. Everyone needs to assert their status as an outsider when we’re increasingly trapped into political and cultural uniformity: a fantasy of being a well-adjusted member of society doesn’t hold much stock compared to the fantasy of the feared and misunderstood hero of infinite depth and complexity (take that, society!).

The other reason is probably Frank Miller.

Miller obviously played a huge role in elevating Batman into the cultural phenomenon that he is today: a serious (sometimes too serious) player in dominant cultural narratives. Unfortunately, Superman ended up being turned into something of a (super)strawman example of conformity in order to make Batman’s persona of resistance and defiance really work.

Batman pummeling Superman in
Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns

Ever since Miller’s classic The Dark Knight Returns, superhero fantasies have been trying to recreate and repeat that stunning scene of Batman pummelling Sumerman into a mass of bloody Kryptonian mush. But this often tends to overlook the more subtle and nuanced relationship between Batman and Superman in Miller’s original work. Miller hadn’t yet forgotten his sense of fun (and perspective) when he wrote The Dark Knight Returns: Superman might have represented retreat and disillusionment here, but he wasn’t simply portrayed as an idiot in a cape.

In fact, Superman is mostly portrayed to be as heroic and thoughtful as ever – his near death battle with a nuke is driven and engaging – but he’s slipped into a kind of disengagement. Batman, similarly, begins in the same position, dissociated and needing rebirth. Superficial readings tend to present it as Superman having “sold out”, while Bruce pursuing his own personal death wish is somehow a superior, profound decision (huh?). The two characters are in conflict, but only as potential extensions of each other. Batman’s propulsion towards self-destruction isn’t exactly viewed without suspicion.

When Miller returned to the topic in his sequel, The Dark Knight Strikes Again, he’d descended into cheap parody of himself; for all its visual spectacle (Miller’s much-maligned photoshop grotesques look great), it’s a ranting narrative that simply hurls unmitigated abuse at Supes for being a sell-out conformist. The interaction between Superman and Batman that many fans had initially misread and simplified had been reflected back into to the source.

Miller ends The Dark Knight Strikes Again with a recreation of that classic fight scene, but piles on the abuse, milking as much as possible out of the original joy of seeing powerful Supes getting the kryptonite-coloured snot beaten out of him. The panels are filled with dialogue telling us just how stupid Superman is and always has been. It’s a far cry from the tense, emotional and nuanced brawl that erupts in the climax of The Dark Knight Returns. To put it in Miller’s terms, the original was an operating table, the sequel just a mudhole.

Far from deconstructing or analysing Superman’s image, Miller now just delights in beating the hell out of him: a pent-up conservative and militaristic rage that now fuels Miller’s somewhat tea-party like approach to narrative (and the world). In book three of The Dark Knight Strikes Again Superman basically abandons his own identity and agrees to be Batman’s slave and we’re supposed to think that’s just a great idea, neatly sidestepping the ethical conflicts in Batman essentially adopting the status of global dictator.

As if this solipsistic vision of global self-righteousness wasn’t enough, Miller summons Superman yet again for his ridiculous All Star Batman and Robin series: this time Superman is dumber than ever and Batman is more than happy to tell him so. (The rest of the series is basically Miller demonstrating that Batman is smarter than everyone everywhere: a ham-fisted but disconcertingly accurate portrayal of certain facets of the Batman fantasy.)

Superman is far from a perfect character. Too often he’s portrayed as exactly that simplistic strongman that many people criticise. But Superman has the ability to transcend that and has, from time to time, done so over nearly three quarters of a century. Blame the writers, blame a culture with rigid views on character and drama, but don’t blame the character.

From Grant Morrison’s All Star Superman

Superman as anachronism will always be the character’s greatest legacy: a throwback to impossible ideals from a past that never existed that, for that very reason, always carry the opportunity to be a challenge.

Superman asks us to think of ourselves as powerful rather than deep. For many pop culture fans in first-world countries, with opportunities and resources scarcely dreamed of throughout much of the world, it’s true.

It’s no surprise that one of the most cherished moments of Superfandom is a scene in Grant Morrison’s loving tribute All Star Superman. It’s a simple scene of Superman comforting a suicidal young girl, reminding her: “You’re stronger than you think you are”.

Bryan Singer’s 2006 Superman Return gave us a pouty, sulky Superman and it looks like Zack Snyder’s upcoming Man of Steel won’t stray too far from the silly-but-marketable “dark” hook. But let’s hope sometime soon that a portrayal of Superman will embrace his greatest point of terrifying, confronting anachronism… and have Superman smile.