“What makes [Superman] interesting other than that he’s really, really strong? That question led me to want to redefine Clark in ways that made him more interesting and more flawed as a person. Not in a dark, mean, cynical way, because that’s way too easy. But as a true outsider whose heart is vulnerable. I wanted to emphasize the loneliness of a kid growing up knowing just how different he was from everyone else, who had to keep his distance for their protection and his own.”
— J. Michael Straczynski, on his approach to Superman: Earth One
That’s from a couple of months back, but it’s stuck with me. In the shadow of Man of Steel and questions like the one Gail Simone posed a while ago, I’ve been thinking lately about Superman and what it is audiences want from him.
I enjoyed Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo’s Lex Luthor: Man of Steel for its fascinating take on Luthor and why he opposes Superman so much. From Luthor’s point of view, Superman is just one bad day away from being the worst threat the world has ever seen. The problem is that perspective has become the way all of humanity sees Superman in the DC Universe, especially in the New 52. People just don’t trust the guy.
The trailer for Man of Steel suggests the movie is going to take this approach as well. There’s a scene, after young Clark is seen using his powers to save someone, where Pa Kent tells him, “You have to keep this side of yourself a secret.”
“What was I supposed to do?” asks Clark. “Let him die?”
Later in the trailer, Clark says outright: “My father believed that if the world found out who I really was, they’d reject me. He was convinced that the world wasn’t ready.” Ladies and gentlemen: Pa Kent, moral compass for the Last Son of Krypton.
There’s maybe a point to be made about how different the world is now from when Superman was originally introduced. I’d argue that the world is no more dark and threatening now than it was in the years leading up to World War II, but we’re perhaps less trusting. I really don’t think that’s the problem though. The problem isn’t a changed society as much as it is a changed audience. For the most part, Superman’s fans now are all grown-ups, a much less trusting group than the children he used to thrill and stir up. The result is that the modern Superman doesn’t inspire the world, he terrifies it.
That’s a problem, because it doesn’t make Superman more unique or interesting; it makes him like every other damn thing in the world today. Superman shouldn’t have to distance himself emotionally from people for their protection and his own. That’s why he wears a colorful costume and has a secret identity. Those things let him revel in the unrestrained use of his powers while still connecting to people as Clark Kent. They let him reach past loneliness to serve his fellow humans without restraint. Because in every way that counts, Superman is human. Pa Kent taught him that.
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