Note: I originally posted this on my Tumblr. You can find that post here.
Superman is a character that no one likes anymore, and that kind of saddens me. This, by the way, is coming from someone who, until rather recently, was a member of the “Batman rules, Superman drools” group of comic book fans. Now, I still love me some Batman. Batman’s awesome. I mean, he’s the goddamn Batman. He can call his car the “Batmobile” and make it sound all badass instead of just goofy. At the same time, Batman’s awesomeness doesn’t make Superman the worst. Far from it. Superman is cool, and indeed very very important, for completely different reasons than Batman, both in comic books and in popular culture.
Superman seems to have declined in popularity over the last couple of years as the cynicism of (American) society has risen to all new highs. People in authority can’t be trusted; those that seem the most altruistic always ultimately end up being the ones that are out to screw you over the hardest. The current political climate certainly seems to bear that out. Superman stands as the ultimate big brother, the squeaky clean, purely altruistic, optimistic, and genuinely caring being whose only desire is to protect us. He is at once a man of the people (both as a blue collar farmer from a small town and a white collar reporter in the city) and a sun god that can’t be hurt and that can send any given threat packing with a few well placed punches and a careful application of some heat vision.
In some ways, a lot of ways really, he’s what the perfect American leader (theoretically) should be. It’s not that surprising then that with the current popular distrust of most people in power that Superman comes off as the most full of shit. There are plenty of people out there trying to sell themselves as the ideal person to lead America, but Superman exactly is what that person should be. His perfection is almost inhuman and it makes people roll their eyes more often than it makes them cheer. This death of optimism is why (I think) Superman’s popularity has decreased so much over the last couple of years. No one wants to be Superman anymore, but everyone wants to be Batman. Being faster than a speeding bullet doesn’t hold the appeal that beating insane people to a pulp in the dirty back alleys of the most corrupt city in America does. While I love Batman to death, this is really kind of sad.
This attitude has bled over into superhero comics in general. The superhero genre got its start with Superman. He popularized the idea that heroes shouldn’t kill, and that running around in tights and a cape helping people not only makes for good stories, but good role models as well. Without Superman we wouldn’t have the superhero. For that, if nothing else, the character deserves some respect. While Superman was hardly the first comic book hero, he’s certainly the first that people could really look up to. The pulp heroes that came before certainly weren’t worthy of anyone’s admiration. While Batman has stepped out of the shadows of the pulp characters that inspired him, he definitely keeps one boot planted firmly in the darkness. Superman, however plants himself in the sun.
And that’s ultimately the important thing about Superman. Where Batman stands as this symbol of obsession to the resignation that you’re going to have to get dirty in order to make things clean, Superman stands for a brighter kind of hope. He stands as a shining symbol of power applied kindly. There’s a line in the Man of Steel trailer that played in front of The Dark Knight Rises in which Jor-El (Superman’s Kryptonian father) says in voice-over, “You will give the people an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you. They will stumble. They will fall, but in time they will join you in the sun. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.” That’s the beautiful thing about Superman. He’s a symbol of hope that Batman could never be, one that stands in the sun with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye that says everything will be fine.
That people are commonly too cynical to appreciate that these days is a little disheartening. I understand why, the current state of America (and the world really) certainly doesn’t help. Maybe it’s time for something more optimistic, then. Maybe it’s time to put aside the darkness and embrace the light. Sure, these might be heavy ideas to place on the shoulders of comic book characters that theoretically exist only to provide entertainment, but entertainment has proven time and again to be much more important than most people give it credit for. I think that Superman is a shining example of that. I, for one, am tired of being afraid of the shadows. Now, I’ll be out here enjoying the sun. Join me, will you?