The human heart is still subject to monstrous deceits.
–Jor-El, Superman Returns (stock footage from Superman: The Movie, 1978)
I have always liked Superman. Some may think him boring, but as I have grown older I find him more and more fascinating. Perhaps my ageing has much to do with it. Things have become increasingly difficult for me. Like remaining physically fit, finding a steady job that I enjoy, knowing what I want in life, relationships, sex, hangovers, getting up in the morning, going to bed at night, remembering my childhood. Not all of these things have anything to do with Superman, but some do.
With this year’s release of Man of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder, infamous for two other comic adaptations (300 and The Watchmen), I’ve once again contemplated my existence next to Superman’s. What do we have in common? Why do I like him so much? Would I like to be him? Or is it that I wish someone like him existed for real? Or perhaps it’s simply that he embodies so many complexities, ambiguities, and moral conundrums that he is just interesting to think and talk about.
Notions of invincibility and immortality have always attended conceptions of Superman. But that is not what ultimately makes Superman intriguing. In fact, his invincibility is rather boring. It means we already know the ending. Superman wins. He always does. Regardless, one of the most poignant lines in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel comes from one of Superman’s fathers, his biological one. Jor-El, responding to his wife’s concern that the people of Earth will kill their son when they find out he is an alien, replies matter-of-factly, “How?” Still, what makes Superman interesting is his strength.
Historically, as a comic character, Superman’s strength and powers have varied. Conceived in 1933 by Joe Siegal and Joe Shuster, and first published in 1939, Superman didn’t fly until the early 1940s. His powers steadily increased to include x-ray, heat-emitting, telescopic, infrared, and microscopic vision. His brute physical strength increased from being able to lift a car above his head in 1939 to currently being able to throw an entire island into space, out of Earth’s gravitational reach. And he has steadily grown faster from outrunning a speeding train to surpassing mach-four airspeed. He can presumably move even faster in the upper atmosphere and outer space to be able to move from one-side of the earth to the other in a matter of minutes. Modern interpretations of Superman have relied on a continual self-discovery of his powers in order to explain the changes in his conception over the last seven decades. And it is this modern interpretation of Superman’s powers and his self-discovery that really make him one of the most interesting superheroes.
Imagine for a moment your sibling tells you to punch him or her as hard as you can. It’s one of those experiments that you conduct as child, just to see what would happen. Can you really take a punch? How strong are you really? Usually, it goes like this. You punch your sibling at what you perceive to be about 30% of your strength. It doesn’t really hurt him or her, so your sibling says, “Harder!” The next one is at what you think is 50%. This one probably stings. But you didn’t throw your weight into it. You just swung a little faster. Still, you know that you pulled back a little before making contact, that’s natural. “Harder!” This time you widen your stance. Your palms suddenly get sweaty as you see feel your body weight shift from back to front. The fist makes a distinct SMACK! when it strikes your sibling’s shoulder. He or she staggers back, cries out maybe. That one definitely hurt. And depending on the recklessness that courses through your family’s blood, your sibling asks for one more, a little harder or you call it a day. But even if one more swing is attempted, you and your sibling know that you couldn’t really hit him or her with all of your strength. There is something holding you back, even if you really dislike each other. Think about it. Have you ever really, really hit something as hard as you possibly could? Even if you thought you did, I bet you didn’t, and I’m fairly sure those of you who got close, broke a hand or at least bruised it pretty good. There are two points I’m trying to make. None of us really know our own strength for we are rarely in positions to find out, and that even if we are, it is extremely difficult to overcome the mental inhibition to truly let loose.
There are reasons we have phrases like “retard strength,” which is terribly uncouth, politically incorrect, and just plain bad, and “monkey strength.” Or why we imagine mentally unhinged people are not good people to pick fights with. These phrases intimate a lack of inhibition that allows the individual to display unnatural, superior strength. This is where Superman’s moral compass comes in. Depending on which origin story you read or watch, Superman is imbued with a unflinching morality by his down-to-earth, Christian, Midwestern adoptive parents, the Kents, through nurture; by his scientific and good-of-heart biological parents, through nature; or by some combination of both. This is what prevents him from being able to immediately dispose of his enemies despite the suggestion of his omnipotent strength. Compassion and an innate and/or learned sense not to harm anyone or anything is ultimately what makes him vulnerable. And though it seems he can never really be killed, he can be prevented from stopping the bad guy(s) or incapacitated long enough to let the bad guy(s) do some killing elsewhere.
Man of Steel captures this pretty well in one fight sequence between Superman and General Zod’s second-in-command, Captain Faora-Ul. Despite Superman having lived on Earth for the last 30-odd years, he struggles to fight Capt. Faora-Ul. She, in the always strange lecture-while-fighting speech, attributes it to her lack of morals and Superman’s stubborn adherence to them. He will always hold back, even if he doesn’t know it, because of this moral foundation, while she will not, giving her the physical advantage. He views all life worth preserving despite how evil its nature, and so he will not risk harming or extinguishing it. Just as you or I will not actually punch our sibling as hard as we possibly can despite protestations to do so.
What this translates to for Superman is a continued inability to know his own potential. Just how fast can he fly? How much can he really lift? It is psychological. Despite being born on Krypton, Superman is culturally human. He possesses our desire for more, for improvement, for advancement. But he also possesses our self-doubt, our lack of absolute surety. He questions his purpose, his reason for being here, why he possesses certain qualities, why he lacks others. Like us, he wants to be like everyone else and simultaneously wants to be accepted as a unique individual.
One of the things I have struggled with for a long time is expectations. In high school, I recall many of my teachers, my parents’ friends, and my parents telling me that they looked forward to the great things I was going to accomplish in my lifetime. I was told how I would become a great doctor like my father. When I later majored in English Literature, many told me they couldn’t wait to read my first novel. Now, at the age of 33, I have quit graduate school, I work retail at a local camping and hiking supply store, and I sleep on an air mattress at my friend’s apartment. My existence is a far cry from the expectations dolled upon me in my youth. I pride myself on being self-aware, and world aware. So I know that despite my frustrations, I am fortunate. I am healthy, well-fed, housed, and employed. Still, I walk the aisles of my store unsure of my purpose, unsure if I’ll ever have one. I wallow, at times, in my mediocrity. I know I have the abilities, intelligence, skills, and access to accomplish great things, if at least things better than straightening out racks of hiking pants eight hours a day. But despite all of this potential, here I float, in a sea of mediocrity. I know that in order to escape this mediocre life, I have to take action. I have to write, write, write, read, read, read, do, do, do. I know this. But I struggle to do it. In my weakest moments, I blame the expectations saddled onto my shoulders at such a young age. But most of the time, I just wonder what the hell I am supposed to be doing.
Brian Singer’s Superman Returns addresses the struggle with expectations and fulfillment of those expectations where Man of Steel addresses the issues of purpose and acceptance. Singer’s Superman returns from a five-year mission to find Krypton and its people to an Earth that has moved on. His love, Lois Lane, has gotten engaged and written a Pulitzer-prize winning article “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.” He has returned home alone. The movie’s poignant scene comes from Superman as he tries to explain the difficulty of being who he is with the power that he has. At their first intimate reunion, Superman takes Lois flying high above Metropolis under the cover of night. He asks her what she hears. Nothing, she replies. “I hear everything,” he counters. In that short response, he encapsulates the dilemma he faces every minute of everyday. Despite being invincible, despite have enormous strength and speed, he cannot be everywhere at once. He must make decisions on who to save, and who to leave to their own fate. In that short sentence, he critiques Lois’s short-sighted, selfish desire to have Superman be her personal hero and the world’s hero at the same time. It simply something he cannot do, despite how much he wants to fulfill her and the world’s expectations. But despite this impossibility he still tries, though he knows he will fail to save everyone.
I want to do great things. But I am struggling with the idea that I probably won’t. I know I won’t. And this is perhaps what paralyzes me. The disappointment in knowing I won’t be able to fulfill the expectations of others, even if their expectations were founded or conveyed with good intentions. And I think this is why I like watching Superman on the big screen and reading about him in comic books. It makes me feel a little bit better to see someone endowed with such great power struggle with the same things I struggle with.
I’m not so interested in the Superman that saves the day. I’m interested in a Superman struggling with the age-old questions of the human condition. Why am I here? What am I supposed to do with who I am and what I can do? Will it do any good? Will anybody care? Will I matter?