Superhero comics have been around almost as long as comic books themselves. While it’s still disputed whether Superman is the first superhero ever, he most definitely kickstarted the the defining tropes of the superhero genre. Like most progenitors of a format, style, and genre, there’s inevitably a time where their high status is put under the spotlight. A sentiment often shared by many comic book fans is that Superman is boring and/or outdated.
So, is Superman really boring? No, of course not. The perception of Superman as a boring character is pervasive, but also misguided. When the discussion does come up, it’s usually centred around how he’s over-powered or too much of a boy scout. These go hand in hand in a strange way. A lot of readers tend to believe power corrupts, and thus have a hard time believing characters can be both good and powerful.
Part of that has to do with the structural components of traditional story-telling. Generally, overwhelming strength is a feature of villains and an obstacle for the hero. This is why there’s a certain appeal to Superman, one of the strongest superheroes, fighting Batman, most famous for not having superpowers of any sort. This is also why so many stories involve Superman going over to the dark side, whether through mind control (a la chapter 3 of Hush) or complete breakdown of his moral core (the Dark Knight Returns or Injustice).
The David vs Goliath dynamic of such stories appeals to us on an internal level. Since Superman is 10 Goliaths with x-ray eyes in a spandex suit, naturally there’s resistance to his dizzying collection of powers. After all, where does the drama come from when a character just can’t die?
This train of thought misses the point of Superman entirely. It’s true that there’s less uncertainty to be drawn from a hero’s fisticuffs if he happens to be effectively immortal, but that’s not where one should be looking for narrative tension (after all, most superhero stories don’t result in death and even the ones that do, don’t really matter considering life and death are revolving doors in any superhero universe).
The drama in a Superman story, instead, comes from him finding his place in the world and overcoming the onus of overwhelming power. The question all superhero comics ask us is “what would you do with power?”. Superman is therefore an examination of what one might do with absolute power.
To create narrative tension, Superman’s writers often set up rules that constrain him and limit how he uses his powers. This is why so many stories delve into how Superman can’t save everyone or how to remain moral whilst avoiding lethal methods of any sort. Opinions on whether superheroes should resort to lethal methods vary from person to person and the particular zeitgeist of the times.
These days, “lethal” and “dark” are in vogue. With that demand for grim and gritty, certain heroes lose their popularity. It’s a generational distancing from a certain ethos; it happened during the 90’s. During these times, criticism of Superman becomes a staple of the wider discussion in comics. People treat him as outdated.
This often leads to writers darkening Superman comics. There’s a reason the most famous (or infamous, depending on your taste) book of the 90’s was Death of Superman. They were trying to fit him into that new dark mould. When writers think Superman is boring they often tinker with him in wrongheaded ways. To understand Superman, you need to understand why these experiments never last.
Death of Superman, while not the first “dark” Superman story, did start a trend of trying to add a layer of grime to his stories under the guise of “realism”. Some of the stories that followed after it worked, while others did not. Realism, when applied to a God wearing a spandex onesie who fights aliens and 4th dimensional imps, is a precarious line to toe. How many of these stories go wrong is by losing track of who Superman is supposed to be.
A lot of them focus too much on the alien side. While there’s nothing wrong with this angle, the idea of making Superman more alien often results in a disconnect with his human upbringing. A lot of writers become more enamoured with the superpowers and the alien origins than the parts of the character that actually matter.
Believe it or not, the entire extraterrestrial aspect in the original story is a footnote. It exists primarily as a means to explain his powers and is barely brought up, abandoned instead for the very human, social issues and crime-fighting.
A fixation on his powers, and treating him as the sum of his parts, rarely works. Act of God, a particularly egregious Elseworlds story, leaves Superman entirely hopeless and despondent without his powers. This was not just a boring turn for the character, but also completely contrary to what one would expect from Clark Kent.
Unfortunately, many writers completely neglect the midwestern samaritan aspect in favour of the alien side. Man of Steel suffers heavily from this disconnect. While snapping Zod’s neck in the final battle may have worked up a lot of fan-rage, it barely fazed me because they made no effort to establish a moral code for Clark Kent. By the end of the movie, I had no reason to believe this guy wouldn’t have just straight up killed Zod or felt bad about it afterwards.
A major reason for this mischaracterization is that they completely missed the mark on Ma and Pa Kent. This dissolves Clark’s moral centre entirely. The conflicting mess of platitudes he absorbs throughout the movie just didn’t make for a convincing character arc. The importance of getting the Kents right can’t be overstated. In fact, there’s an entire comic that bases its premise on that. Irredeemable is a Boom studios comic that features an evil analogue of Superman, whose entire personality hinges on being raised by a schizophrenic, abusive woman and, later, a dominating patriarch. Remove the Kents, and what you get is a man with no respect for the gifts he was born with.
This strict moral code also provides another source of conflict in Superman stories. Case in point: What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way? and Kingdom Come. Both stories have a similar criticism of the pretentiously dark variety of superheroes and have Superman go toe to toe with a variety of morally grey pretend saviours, who treat Superman and, by extension, his altruistic nature as an anachronism. These stories prove that Superman’s virtuous nature can produce ample conflict.
However, the disadvantage of writing about a benevolent, immortal guardian is that standard tropes have to be discarded. Superman works best when writers fully embrace his absurdity and mine it for more esoteric themes. The most popular story of the past 20 years is Grant Morrison’s All Star Superman, a series that unapologetically revels in the Superman mythos by upping Superman’s powers beyond their usual remit and treating his whole history as canon, even including the often endearingly absurd silver age trinkets, often dismissed as too silly for “modern Superman”.
By doing this, Morrison doubles down on the Superman mythos, showing what was great about it in the first place and why it has endured for nearly a century. This is not to say that every story should treat Superman like a stoic saviour with unlimited power. The two through-lines of All Star Superman are coming to terms with mortality and Superman’s relationship to humanity, both of which humanize the character without giving anything up in the process.
It’s also worth noting that Superman stories have often incorporated all of their criticisms and fan gripes as fundamental moral questions. Kingdom Come was a reaction to the 90’s brand of hyper-violent anti-heroes looking to usurp Superman’s place, in response to fan demand for grittier stories (as explicitly stated by writer Mark Waid). Truth, Justice and the American Way is written with similar intent.
And yes, Superman stories have even found a way to incorporate the argument that Superman is dull, overpowered, and too much of a boy scout. If you happen to dislike Superman for those reasons, you’re not alone – Lex Luthor tends to share that exact viewpoint. That observation undergirds his hatred and jealousy of Superman. Luthor embodies all the things that people can’t stand about the Man of Steel. He says it best in All Star, “We all fall short of that sickening, inhuman perfection.” In essence, he embodies the bitter cynicism that leads us astray, while Superman is the avatar of our urge to believe in higher ideals.