In years past, I would have taken a dump all over Superman and it’s easy to do so. He’s nigh invulnerable, is almost the strongest thing in the universe and he has more powers than there are multiverses. His weaknesses are also pretty ridiculous, being radioactive chunks of his dying planet, sometimes in varying colors, magic and well aimed electricity. Superman can be complete and utter nonsense at the surface level. But if you peel back the layers and actually take a look at him from the inside of his comic book pages and not just from the jokes that can be made from movies and Cracked.com lists, you’ll find a deep, well thought out character with depth who’s “more human than the rest of us.” – Batman
Why do people hate Superman? Well, for the most part it can be attributed to the Richard Donner Superman films and his Silver Age Comics where’s he’s treated like a goody two-shoes, god-like being and has an overabundance of superpowers.
In the Richard Donner films, Superman is fairly lighthearted and fun, but doesn’t really seem to connect to humanity in a realistic way and this is due to the obvious Jesus symbolism Donner decided to make use of in the movie. Superman is told by his father, Jor-El, to “Live as one of them,” and further says, “discover where your strength and power are needed. But always hold in your heart the pride of your special heritage. They can be a great people, Kal-El, and they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way.” This has led to the impression among many of his detractors that he doesn’t really care for humanity, but that showing them how to be good is his true purpose as he’s above them in every way. This idea has lasted for decades, seeing use in Superman Returns, the supposed sequel to the Donner films and even in Man of Steel through Jonathan Kent’s scenes with a young Clark.
But this idea is wrong. Maybe wrong is a bit strong, more like misguided. Kal-El was found by the Kent family when he was a baby and raised like a normal American child for, admittedly varied, amounts of time ranging from eight to twelve years before he discovered his powers and how to properly use them, but he always had the Kent family to ground him even though they all knew he was a bit different. He grew up, had friends, loves, people around him that didn’t see him as a god or some kind of savior, but as a person and even when he did finally find out about his Kryptonian origin he respected it and learned a few things from his holo-father, but still regarded the Kents as his parents and kept the values that they raised him with.
In the two-part miniseries, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow by Alan Moore, Curt Swan and George Perez, we’re presented a story of what happens after a period of peace after Superman’s enemies have either died or vanished. In it Superman has his identity exposed, takes on a newly resurrected Braniac and accidentally kills Mr. Mxyzptlk, what I would focus on is the actual ending where, after killing the 5th dimensional being, Superman uses a chunk of golden Kryptonite to take away his powers, believing himself to have betrayed the very things he stood for in what could best be described as one of the most human things that he could have done, choosing to give up all of his power because even he couldn’t live up to his ideal of what humanity could be.
Post Infinite Crisis, after he and Earth-2 Superman expended all of their energy fighting Superboy Prime, Superman lost his powers for a brief period and experienced growth as a character as he just lived life as Clark Kent and he was happy. He knew what it felt like to be just a regular guy and called in Supergirl whenever there was a problem that only a Kryptonian could solve and it was an amazing bit of storytelling as it showed us how much Clark valued his civilian life, being with his wife, Lois Lane and being a star reporter. No longer was he this massive hero that people looked to as a god, but he was a simple man who ate hotdogs, not just for taste anymore, but to survive.
Even more recently because of DC Rebirth, we’ve seen more of Superman’s humanity with him now being a father and raising his own son to be as wholesome and responsible as he was taught to be, making sure that his son completed chores without the use of his powers and to never use them for personal gain, but to protect others above all else. When he traveled to the past because of plot reasons, he even buried the remains of soldiers lost in time, something he didn’t have to do while being attacked by Dinosaurs.
Superman grew up human. He grew up a normal, apple pie eating, American that just so happened to be from another planet and could move faster than a speeding bullet and leap over buildings in a single bound. He never let the power go to his head and treated humanity like fragile eggs, he never became Injustice Superman or to a lesser degree Overman from the Grant Morrison one-shot The Mastermen where he effectively ruled over humanity with an iron fist. Superman was simply the hero that world needed when others couldn’t be there.
Ahhhhh and now we get to one of the deeper issues of people’s hatred of Superman; How overpowered he’s perceived to be. The Silver Age of Comics had to have been quite possibly one of the weirdest time periods to have lived through as a comic reader. I wasn’t around at the time, but have been lucky enough to have collected and been told of the mind numbing things of the time and none greater than the feats of Superman.
Sneezing a galaxy out of orbit, pulling a chain of planets into orbit, time travel, full invulnerability, faster than light travel, telepathy, telekinesis, hypnosis, shooting out tiny superman and many menial tasks made better by adding “super” to the front of it, like super weaving, the super kiss, and shapeshifting are the most insane examples that I know of.
Yes, indeed, these powers are ridiculous, but for the most part only appeared once and were never seen or mentioned again past the silver age. I’m certain that everyone can agree that they helped to hurt the image of Superman in the long run and popularized the idea that Superman is the ultra-powerful, cannot be defeated monster that we know today and that he’s never faced a challenge, but that’s simply untrue.
After 1986 when Superman got his reboot by John Byrne after Crisis on Infinite Earths, Superman was toned down and given the standard powerset that we know and love to this day, flight, super-strength, freeze breath, near invulnerability, heat and X-ray vision. He’d also maintained his weaknesses to Kryptonite, red sun radiation, magic and apparently concentrated electricity.
Superman’s had many challenges and struggles that are oft ignored because of the power he wields, with many thinking that the man isn’t prone to fatigue or that he could solve all of the world’s problems anytime he wants. But some threats are on par if not sometimes greater than he until he just gets the will to defeat them, such as Braniac, Darkseid, Lex Luthor, Doomsday, General Zod, Superboy Prime and soon to be Doctor Manhattan.
Braniac and Lex Luthor represent the villains that Superman has to use more than just his fists to defeat, most of the time. Braniac has full capability to finally defeat Superman but his hubris gets in the way, allowing Superman to outwit and defeat him, see Action Comics #866-870 for the best example of this. Lex Luthor even plays the long game when it comes to Superman with his Bizarro clones and stashes of Kryptonite. He knows it’s better to be on the good side of the people and tries his best to turn them against Superman, undermining the love and respect he’s worked so hard for, best seen in Superman: Birthright by Mark Waid, an excellent retelling of Superman’s origin. Superman often has to either catch Luthor red handed or use his guile and reporting skill to make him cough up the fact that he’s committed heinous crime, but more often than not, Luthor finds a legal loophole and wins.
Doomsday and General Zod are on opposite spectrums of what a real Kryptonian is, but nonetheless can hold their own and even overpower Superman. General Zod, while having much less exposure to yellow sun radiation is weaker than Kal-El, but more than makes up for it be by being the greatest military tactician that Krypton had ever seen and using that knowledge to devise plans to defeat Superman, such as the one used in the Last Son of Krypton storyline where Phantom Zone prisoners were released into Earth and were only defeated thanks to Lex Luthor, Bizarro, Parasite and Metallo’s help where Superman may have been overpowered and killed. Let us also not forget that Doomsday actually “killed” Superman once upon a time, which is a feat unto itself, coupled with the fact that Doomsday can’t actually die himself! He’s evolution gone horribly right in that he will return from whatever killed him and become immune to that method, he can’t be beaten the same way twice so he requires innovation to defeat.
Darkseid is a god with the power to create and destroy universes and with the help of the Anti-Life Equation, is able to subjugate all of the universe with a whim. He’s one of the few characters that can actually push Superman past his limits and sometimes doesn’t even consider him a threat. In Death of The New Gods by Jim Starlin, in the final fight, Darkseid barely even acknowledges Superman’s presence, instead focusing on Mister Miracle who has the other half of the Anti-Life Equation and while watching them fight Superman even questions why he ever doubted their name as “New Gods” as they’re tearing up reality and he’s caught in the middle. An even better example is the fact that Darkseid even defeated Superman in the first arc of the New 52 Justice League.
Superboy Prime is even stronger than that. Superboy Prime is just as strong as Silver Age Superman, if not stronger, without the weaknesses. He’s not weak to kryptonite, he’s immune to Red Sun radiation and doesn’t care about magic, it took three Flashes trapping him in the Speed Force to defeat him the first time he appeared as Superman himself couldn’t beat Superboy Prime and when he returns it takes the combined might of two Supermen and almost the entirety of the Green Lantern Corps to contain him.
Doctor Manhattan has many claims to his power, but at present we haven’t really seen anything to indicate that his feats are real, but if anything can be gleaned from Watchmen and what he says that he can do, Doctor Manhattan may be a more powerful threat than any of the above and there may not be a thing that Superman can do to stop him.
Superman is indeed powerful, but there are some threats that even he can lose to. Some threats that can rip him and the universe apart if he weren’t there to stop it and in some cases some cases that can do it even if he’s there.
Another one of those threats and possibly the greatest of them all, is his heart. His love for humanity, all living beings, anything that he feels he has a duty to protect. He will hold back to protect a city, he will give himself up to an enemy if they leave Earth alone. He will let himself die if it means that the world will be safe. And if by any chance that it’s all destroyed, so is Superman. He’ll turn into a god of revenge and anger. He’ll stop at nothing to eradicate a threat, losing what made him a hero in the first place.
Superman truly is the hero we deserve. I love Superman because his tales inspire me to be a better person, do I put it to practice? No. But someone else might, some might see an overpowered douchebag that thinks himself a god and ruins movie endings, but I see a hero that protects the world from threats that no one else is equipped to deal with, that no one has the purity of heart to deal with, that no one has the sheer willpower and drive even compared to a Green Lantern to deal with. I love Superman because he is THE Superhero. He is the template, the first and better than most that came after him.