I should preface this article by making an assertion about the quality of Superman as a character: Superman is not inherently boring. In fact, if you haven’t ever watched Max Landis talk about what makes Superman special, I highly recommend that you do right now before going forward. Because I want to start from there, from the idea that part of what makes this character special is that he should be an adult among children.
There will never be a good Superman movie, because a good movie requires dramatic tension and a sense of agency through which we perceive the story. We can never have that because Superman can never die or lose, and never has to make a hard moral choice. His real power is that he is as strong as he needs to be to survive until he can punch everything better. What we need to see for a Superman story to be good is for him to have the maturity to choose not to use his power because it’s wrong, but we can only ever have him fight against Kryptonite.
As one of our oldest heroes, he should be one of our most mature, and yet, he is one of our least. Even the movie you thought was good wasn’t. Think back to the last time you watched that movie and try to remember the really weird stuff you gloss over, like the ending. Even in our very best Superman movie, we have a part where Superman literally turns back time to save Lois Lane, with a power he never gets to use again, and only works in the absolute silliest way.
Why is that? It’s time to say this out loud: comics do not have the best history of mature story telling. They have a dark history of people with maturity issues writing characters who lack moral ambiguity, and when you have a child deciding absolute morality, it gets weirdly complicated.
When you have children writing from a vantage where they feel they are writing about absolute morality, you end up with some very weird stories. Stories where what is happening is only really okay from the perspective of the protagonist, and it takes a mature adult to say, “Wait, isn’t it wrong for Superman to follow Lois home at night and spy on her through her walls?” And here’s where we get to the core argument.
A good story with dramatic tension requires us to be afraid for something. But we can’t be afraid for Superman, or anyone around Superman, and as a voice of absolute right, we can’t be afraid that Superman will make a bad decision. He makes them all the time, but we see his world through the lens of his Superpowers and his emotions and so often we, as readers and viewers fail to point out the real insanity of his actions.
In addition to why we can’t have dramatic tension, and what we get instead, it’s also really important to note how this dramatic tension is taken away. It is carefully removed by never giving Superman, the protagonist of these films, a real choice, robbing him of any sense of agency. He is a pure reactionary force, saving as many people he possibly can by being able to punch everything better. With no capacity for making choices, he is in a very real way reduced to the child like figure that we very easily accept when it’s presented to us. Somehow, this actually works to help us buy into the character weak power fantasy without realizing what we’re giving up.
With all of our essential tools for creating tension and suspense stripped from our writers, there isn’t much left to do. The only tool left is Kryptonite. When we most need to see Superman choose to not spy on someone because it’s the wrong thing to do, because it makes society fall apart, we get a man weakened with Kryptonite instead. And here’s the interesting thing: this character seems to cause Peter Pan Syndrome in reverse.
After removing any sense of choice, being given a voice that represents absolute right, and disabling any sense of genuine social responsibility inherently results in the bizarre character we’re constantly presented with. Superman isn’t an inconsiderate narcissist just because of poor writers, it’s because these very restrictions bring out the worst in any writer. This is exactly how even the best of our Superman movies becomes poisoned. The moment we get a sense that Superman may suffer real loss, we give him a power that lets him take it right back.
Can this be fixed? Maybe. Can we allow Lois Lane to reject Superman, and then have him make a thoughtful choice that it’s okay, or for once have him put in a place where he’s able to spy on her and have him choose not to because it’s wrong? Can we allow him to have an Enigma? Not The Riddler, but rather the secret to cracking the enemy codes. A secret so powerful that it can save humanity, but so fragile that he must make the choice to allow innocent people to die in order to preserve the advantage.
Until those creatively responsible for Superman can let him grow up, we can never have a good story from him as a character. We will continually be provided with the same sub par narrative that results in a rich tapestry of extreme immaturity. Until we can allow him to make sacrifices, be unsure about what’s right, and view him through the lens of responsible adults who have to do what’s right to make society function rather than what is emotionally satisfying, we wont get that. In a lot of ways, this really means that the only way to make Superman good, is to make him not Superman anymore.
In so many ways, because he can’t grow up, we’ll always be left with this petty, small, and inconsequential character. He’ll always be just another illusion of morality standing up, puffed and swollen, with everything about him feeling fake from his tights to the cheap painted background draped behind him.
It’s not impossible, but it’s pretty safe to say that we’ll probably never get anything better than this. That we can’t be given anything better.