Stairwell Philosophy – The Conflict of Superman

Many of my fellow nerds will be prepared to disagree with this article based solely on the title. Superheroes come in a tremendous variety of forms with varying powers and personalities, but when chances are the first one that comes to mind when you think of the genre is a flying man with invulnerability, super-human strength, and a flowing cape. However a criticism often leveled at the Man of Tomorrow (and a problem often facing said character’s writers) is that it’s rather difficult to create a challenge for a fellow who could sleep through a building falling on him and frequently solves his problems by hurling them into the sun.

Aside from occasional trouble with the supernatural, his primary hurdle is a bit of troublesome green rock whenever the writers want to futz with his powers in an attempt to give him a challenge that can’t be resolved via punching. In short, the main argument against Big Blue is that he lacks interesting conflict because he’s too capable. Nothing can hurt him, he can go anywhere and do anything, and basically the question is rarely will he succeed but how will he go about it. I’ve often gotten bored with stories where the protagonist or antagonist is just too good at everything, so why am I a Superman fan? Because I find that the conflict is not if, but how, and furthermore why.

I should preface this by saying that my primary exposure to Superman (and superheroes in general) is from various TV shows. Though I’d love to delve deep into comics I simply don’t have the finances nor the storage space for a decent collection beyond a relatively tiny collection of graphic novels (Watchmen, Red Son, Dark Knight Returns, etc.) I was big on Superfriends back in the day, goofy though it was, but my primary resource for superhero goodness was and is Bruce Timm’s DCAU. Just about the whole batch are top-shelf entertainment, and most of the new animated movies are pretty good.

So I don’t know if they make a bigger deal about it in the comics beyond some internal monologues, and it’s kind of subtle at times in the shows, but I find Superman to be most interesting when he has to figure out how to apply himself to a problem and if he should be interfering at all. It’s the old dragon/tiger conflict; he fears doing too little as well as doing too much.

Oftentimes he’ll find one or more parties trying to exploit his powers for their own ends, requiring him to spend most of the episode just figuring out who the bad guys are lest he punch the wrong face. Sometimes he may even refuse to intervene at all, adhering to his strict moral code. Precisely because he has so much power he fears and avoids accepting a higher station than ‘protector of the people’, going so far as personally give longtime ally Batman a supply of kryptonite to use in case he gets overzealous. He could rule the world as a benevolent protector and force everyone to play nice, but he’d rather just keep people safe and give them the chance to reform on their own. This notion is brought forth boldface in the alternate continuity ‘what-if’ story Red Son, in which the Last Son of Krypton lands in Soviet Russia instead of Smallville. Raised by the locals with local customs he comes to a contrasting conclusion; he sees the suffering of his countrymen and reasons that someone with the power to fix everything ought to do just that.

Kal-El’s conflict is physical as well as intellectual. Once he’s figured out what needs punching he generally can’t just go all out. A decent left hook more than the tiniest fraction of his strength would pop a purse-snatcher’s head like a sock full of party snaps (so when you think about it he basically has to go gently nudging criminals around). He often attempts to catch incoming bullets rather than letting them just bounce off because the ricochets might hit bystanders. He can’t even relax when smashing robots (and everyone loves smashing robots) because slugging away at them full-force would send shrapnel flying everywhere. This was actually one of the few bits of fleeting fun I had with the overall terrible Superman Returns tie-in video game when I had to try to avoid destroying the city during a super-powered brawl with Bizarro.

We see this a bit in Justice League/Justice League Unlimited. Early on the writers had a tendancy to have the Man of Steel get Worf’d, knocking him around whenever they wanted to highlight a new big bad and say ‘uh oh now it’s serious, even Superman’s getting roughed up’. His apparent power level and fluctuating capabilities were eventually summed up quite nicely in the following clip from JLU.

Imagine what it might be like to live in Superman’s world of cardboard. With superhuman strength, just typing this post would be like working with a keyboard made of eggshells. Handling actual eggs would be even more troublesome. An errant sneeze would take a wall off hour house, and angrily pounding on your car horn would drive your steering wheel through the front of your car like a nail. And then there’s the whole ‘man of steel, woman of kleenex’ issue. The explanation given in the comics is that Superman has an extremely precise level of control over all of his bodily functions (even the normally involuntary ones). It’s easy to look at that and say well there’s still no conflict because all he has the control to avoid problems. But it’s not just that he can control himself; he has to control himself every minute of every day. In a fashion, the conflict of Superman is a supercharged version of the conflict of being big.

Maybe I’m the only one on this track but I think I identify with Superman more than Batman because of this parallel. I’m not quite colossal, but I’m tall enough that I very rarely see people taller than myself. When you’re big, applying your weight to something (intentionally or carelessly) is pretty likely to involve something either moved out of your way or broken. In my youth I was actually a fairly scrawny little kid with my share of bullies to avoid. Near as I can figure an unusually high metabolism with an appetite to match teamed up, and a decade or so later I was somewhat enormous. As the years went by I soon came to realize that it was generally no longer admissable for me to lose my temper for any reason.

Socially, it tends to make people nervous when someone a head taller than them goes about in a grumbly mood. A regular-size person in a bad mood is usually just annoying, but a large-size person in a bad mood seems dangerous. Physically, stomping about or getting rough on inanimate objects after a bad day just isn’t feasible anymore. There’s a sizeable dent in my bedroom door because one time I pushed kind of too hard to close it. Not even angrily slamming it, just by accidentally leaning slightly too hard on it while closing it. Given where my head was in my adolescent years I’m quite glad for my family, my faith, and later martial arts to keep me refined and conscientious. Kind of like how Superman owes his ‘Boy Scout’ morals to his Smallville upbringing, come to think of it.

So that’s what I dig about Superman. Big Blue shows that being big doesn’t necessarily mean you have to solve everything with direct force right from the get-go. Having all the strength in the world does you no good without finding the proper application. Great power, responsibility, etc.

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