He’s the world’s first, and arguably greatest superhero. The lone survivor of a doomed planet, Superman has dedicated his life to the never ending battle against evil and injustice. He’s the shining beacon of hope for the entire DC Universe and the yardstick by which all other superheroes measure themselves. Over 79 years across a variety of media he’s fought for truth, justice… and all that stuff. He’s been portrayed alternately as a street-level social crusader, a planet hopping swashbuckler and a reluctant messiah.
But for all the lives he’s saved and all the criminals he’s brought to justice, there have been times when he’s fallen wide of the mark. Over the years, as writers grappled with the challenges of a virtually unassailable protagonist, they’ve tried to manufacture tension, pathos and angst by bringing fallibility to comics’ ultimate paragon. While this is a noble goal… there are right ways and wrong ways to do it. At their best, writers made Clark’s moral absolutism put him at odds with the world, enriching his character. At worst they’ve made him look like an incompetent and / or belligerent jerk. Whether through misguided altruism or bone-headed stupidity these are just a few of the times Superman has completely failed to save the day.
15. FAILING TO CONTAIN ZOD’S FORCES
Audiences had high hopes for 2013’s Man of Steel. While various Batman movies came and went, The Last Son of Krypton’s devotees had to wait 7 years for a Superman movie (33 years for a good Superman movie). While the film was somewhat successful in re-establishing Clark Kent as a wet behind the ears Superman doing the best he could in difficult circumstances, his unabashed carelessness upset a lot of people.
His disregard for collateral damage is really worrying. Consider the moment when he gracefully sails over a gas truck thrown at him in the battle of Smallville, and doesn’t even look back when it explodes and levels the building behind him. Or how about his inability to contain the fight with Zod during the Black Zero Event which resulted in so many deaths (literally thousands) — a major plot point in Batman V Superman.
14. FIGHTING CAPTAIN MARVEL AND DESTROYING A HOUSING PROJECT
Justice League Unlimited was one of the best depictions of the DC Universe in any medium outside of comics, but even it couldn’t prevent Superman from making some incredibly poor choices. In the episode “Clash” Superman finds himself at odds with Captain Marvel (back when we could call him that). In a display of naivete befitting Billy Batson, The Big Red Cheese has a good feeling about this newly reformed Lex Luthor and endorses him as a Presidential candidate.
Superman disagrees in the sternest terms, which is crushing for poor Billy since he openly idolizes Superman. The two spend the entire episode at loggerheads, with Superman seemingly blinded by his hatred of Luthor. Eventually Supes lashes out at young Billy, culminating in a fist fight which destroys Lexor City, a project designed by Luthor to help low-income families.
13. LETTING CRIMINALS ESCAPE SO HE COULD BERATE BATMAN
There are many, many examples of less-than-heroic conduct in Batman V Superman, but while those perpetrated by Batman could be argued to be part of his character arc, the moments where Superman gets it wrong stick out like a sore thumb. Take, for instance, the loud and obnoxious Batmobile chase in which Batman is chasing a shipment of Kryptonite that’s being transported by Lex Luthor’s thugs.
In the space of a few minutes we see Batman commit a variety of criminal acts from manslaughter to second-degree murder. Fortunately, the Man of Steel is there to intervene… In the worst way possible. Not only does he completely ignore Lex’s thugs to chide Batman, he apparently lets this multiple murderer off with a stern warning, as though he’s done nothing more egregious than driving 5 mph above the speed limit.
12. LEAVING CITIZENS IN PERIL WHILE HE FLIRTS
If Superman III taught us anything, it’s that tar makes you turn evil! In this misguided but supremely enjoyable piece of ’80s kitsch, a slumming Richard Pryor plays Gus Gorman, a ‘computer genius’ (or at least he knows how to use a GOTO 10 line in BASIC). Gorman is duped by his evil corporate paymaster into synthesizing Kryptonite from data transmitted from satellites near the site of Krypton’s explosion. Unfortunately, there’s an unknown element that Gus whimsically replaces with tar… he literally got the idea from a cigarette packet.
In a cute homage to the silver age Red Kryptonite stories, this makes Christopher Reeve’s Superman behave very uncharacteristically. While hanging out with his high school crush Lana Lang he learns that a deadly collision has taken place on a nearby bridge. Rather than fly away to help, he sticks around for some mildly aggressive flirtation with Lana.
11. FAILING TO PROTECT LOIS FROM THE JOKER
In NetherRealm’s Injustice: Gods Among Us, Superman’s failure to save the day was the first step down the road to Super-facism. The game’s spin-off comic begins with Joker’s murder of Jimmy Olsen and abduction of a pregnant Lois Lane. After a frantic Superman has the Justice League scour the globe, she’s found on a submarine which Supes lifts out of the water and tears open to reveal The Joker and Harley Quinn experimenting on her.
Joker used Scarecrow’s fear toxin to dupe the Man of Steel into thinking he sees Doomsday and he flies the monster into space only to realize just before striking the killing blow, that he’s accidentally murdered his wife and unborn child. Worse still, Joker made Lois’ death trigger a bomb that annihilates Metropolis. Had he stopped to investigate the scene with his X-ray vision before barging in, this could all have been avoided.
10. TAKING A FIVE YEAR VACATION
Bryan Singer’s career has been a decidedly mixed bag, but few of his projects have been more contentious than 2006’s Superman Returns. Many fans have taken exception to the film casting Superman as a ‘deadbeat dad’ and a ‘Super-stalker’, but few stop to question the fundamental tenet of Superman taking a five year sabbatical from Earth to look for the remains of Krypton.
Seriously, think of all the thousands of people who died needlessly because Superman couldn’t save them, having decided to spend five years looking at space rocks. One of the film’s most moving scenes is where he hovers over Metropolis with Lois Lane and confides; “You wrote that the world doesn’t need a savior, but every day I hear people crying for one”. It’s a great moment but it begs the question of how he could leave them to follow his morbid curiosity.
9. LEAVING THE WORLD VULNERABLE SO HE CAN GET LAID
Here’s the thing… Superman II is not as good as you remember. If Superman’s desperate snapping of Zod’s neck in Man of Steel bothered you, then his casual murder of Zod in the 1980 film should make you void your bowels in outrage. Particularly since, unlike Man of Steel‘s Zod, this version had been relieved of his powers so could easily be incarcerated.
Even if we give him a free pass for this, the way Superman happily gives up his powers so he can bump uglies with Lois Lane should at least raise a curious eyebrow. Especially since a hologram of his father (or mother, depending on which version you watch), warns him in no uncertain terms of the consequences. Sure, Superman learns the error of his ways, retrieving his powers through some spectacular deus-ex-machina but he seems to learn nothing from the experience.
8. DESTROYING TENEMENT BUILDINGS
As the brainchild of two Jewish kids living in depression-era America, it’s no surprise that Superman began his career in the late ’30s as a champion of oppressed minorities and a crusader against social injustice… at least, that’s the official line. In Action Comics #8, Clark Kent attends a session of juvenile court and in an effort to better understand what drives these boys to crime, he follows them home and concludes that the tenement buildings are to blame.
Not the poverty, lack of opportunity, or cultural environment… the actual buildings themselves. His solution is, of course, to destroy them. While nobody’s hurt (that we see), once again hundreds are rendered homeless. There have been some great Superman stories about how ineffective super powers are against un-punchable issues like prejudice, poverty and desperation… but this is not one of them!
7. HELPING AN ENEMY CREATE A NUCLEAR-POWERED MONSTER
Christopher Reeve was a wonderful human being. Even before his tragic accident he was a staunch political activist with some commendably progressive sensibilities. He was also staggeringly naive. After Superman III failed to wow audiences, the producers lured Reeve back by allowing him to use a Superman film as a political parable. Hence Superman IV: The Quest For Peace became a didactic piece about nuclear disarmament.
It was a well-meaning idea, staggeringly poorly executed. One such ill-conceived idea is Superman’s lending a strand of his hair to a museum, which is stolen by Lex Luthor and his profoundly awful nephew Lenny and used to create a nuclear powered pseudo clone with the worst haircut of the ’80s. Did Superman really never stop to consider that his genetic material could be stolen and weaponized? Why on Earth go round donating your hair to municipal properties anyway? Just to show off?!?
6. GETTING HIS HANDS ON PANDORA’S BOX
Despite a strong start, the New 52’s Superman found himself lumbering through one unfortunate storyline after another. While it seemed we were always being told how important Superman was in the New 52, we were rarely ever shown. For a long time, Superman veered between being immature and reckless in his own titles and being an obnoxious bully in Justice League.
The crossover event (yawn) “Trinity War” seemed promising but it ended up being a stodgy and overlong prequel to the superior “Forever Evil”. The story sees Superman make contact with Pandora’s Box unleashing an evil deep inside him. Later, the Justice League do battle with… another Justice League, Amanda Waller’s Justice League of America. In the battle, Superman kills the JLA’s newest member Doctor Light. “Evil Superman” tropes are tiring at best, but they’re really tiresome when concerning a version of Supes that hasn’t won most fans over.
5. FORCING ULYSSES TO LET HIS WORLD DIE
Another moment of New 52 Super-jerkery comes from the otherwise excellent “The Men of Tomorrow” arc written by Geoff Johns and drawn by John Romita Jr. The story introduces Ulysses, a character with an origin story strikingly similar to Superman’s. Instead of hailing from a doomed planet, Ulysses was sent as a child from Earth and was rocketed to a parallel dimension by scientist parents who thought that the planet was doomed when their research facility almost self-destructed.
Returning to Earth while chasing a villain called Klerik, Ulysses eventually grows disillusioned with our planet and offers to take six million humans with him to his Utopian world. Unbeknownst to them, he intends to use them as fuel to keep his beloved home world alive. Superman, however, isn’t above using emotional blackmail and dissuades him. As a result, his world becomes unstable and explodes, sacrificing billions to save millions.
4. EXECUTING THE PHANTOM ZONE CRIMINALS
John Byrne did a lot of great things for the Man of Steel in the ’80s but making him a murderer is not one of them. In Superman #22 we journey with Supes to a pocket dimension in which all life on Earth has been eradicated by an alternate version of General Zod, aided by Zaora and Quex-Ul. This pocket dimension is also the home of the ‘Matrix’ version of Supergirl, whom we think we’d all rather forget.
After robbing the ‘Phantom Zone Criminals’ of their power with gold Kryptonite, Superman could have transported them back to our dimension where they could be incarcerated, maybe even rehabilitated. But Superman decides that he needs to be judge, jury and executioner, callously murdering the three with green Kryptonite. It’s supposed to be a formative moment that affirms Superman’s aversion to killing, but since it’s a premeditated murder it just reeks of hypocrisy.
3. ALLOWING KANDOR TO BECOME A HOTBED OF RACISM
If you buy a caged rodent like a mouse, a rat or a gerbil, you have a responsibility to take care of it. Superman has an entire city full of miniaturized Kryptonians. Sure, he doesn’t need to feed them and let them run around in a little ball of a few minutes but it’s probably a good idea for him to use his super-peepers to check in on them once in a while.
In the “Godfall” storyarc, while his attention is elsewhere, a software glitch causes Kandor’s time continuum to contract, making a century pass within days. In this time, Superman becomes worshiped as a God and an authoritarian government rules an oppressive regime where non-Kryptonians are ghettoized and scorned, causing the telepathic Lyla to bring God down to her level to see what he’s wrought. So… take better care of your pets.
2. KAL AND BARDA MAKE A VIDEO
When Jack Kirby created the New Gods, he could scarcely have imagined that their ranks would one day include a shady pornographer by the name of Sleez. In another of John Byrne’s more infamous missteps, spread across Action Comics #592 and #593 is the mischievous Sleez (who’s been banished from Apokolips because he’s too disgusting even for Darkseid).
Establishing himself on the mean streets of Metropolis’ Suicide Slum, Sleez captures Big Barda and uses mind control to make her dance suggestively for him, while a local pornographer films it. Sleez eventually brings Superman in on the action but the Man of Steel’s fledgling career as a *ahem* ‘movie star’ is cut short when Barda’s Husband Mr Miracle frees them both from Sleez’s mind control. One wonders, though, how many murders went un-thwarted while Supes was awkwardly feeling Barda up in front of a camera.
1. THE ATTEMPTED MURDER OF THE UNITED NATIONS
While Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ Kingdom Come is arguably one of the best Justice League stories ever told, it’s also one of the more sobering reminders of just how scary it’d be if Superman decided he’s had enough of our shenanigans and turned on us. After being forced into retirement by the rise of a new generation of more violent and reckless young ‘heroes’, the Man of Steel returns to the fray to show these young whippersnappers a thing or two about justice.
This mainly includes the building of a giant gulag which (unsurprisingly) can’t contain dozens of super-powered amoral nut jobs and when they spectacularly burst out, the UN panics and nukes the entire site, killing almost everyone. Filled with murderous rage, Superman flies over to Turtle Bay to bring the UN headquarters crashing down around them.
Did we miss any other times Superman sucked at his job? Let us know in the comments section!
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