Monday, October 11, 2010

The Legendary Superman

For those not in the know, Smallville is a television series about the young life of Clark Kent, or the man who later becomes the comic book hero Superman. About his growth from teenager to adult and from small-town to bustling city of Metropolis, Smallville features an odd mix of confronting societal issues, chronicles of self-growth, and conflicts with superpowered people and beings.

I must admit that I went into Smallville guarded and skeptical. A story about Superman's youth in the middle of nowhere? Ten seasons long? How can one squeeze that much story out of his early years? One of my friends recommended against watching it. He said that, while it started strong, it went swiftly downhill afterward. But, despite these concerns and despite the warning, I started watching it anyway.

I'm glad I did.

The Man of Steel

Before I get into my impressions of the show, though, I want to give some background on Superman himself and what I know of him going into the series. I do this to both give a detailed look at what makes Superman such an interesting character, and also so I can reference differences later that arise between my perception of Superman and Smallville's.

Superman is, essentially, the living embodiment of humanity's idealism and capacity for good. Everytime I've read comics with him, it seems like he is on a moral plane above everyone else, but in a good way. It is this capacity to care and love unconditionally that defines him as an individual; it is this quality that makes us want to sigh in relief or stand up in cheer when he shows up to save the day. Given his status as a Kryptonian, an alien not of this Earth, he has powers far beyond that of any other superhero. It is this, along with his otherworldliness, that helps to paint him as a sort of messiah figure. It is easy to regard him as a god walking the earth. Or, in his case, soaring above the clouds.

It is this paradox that defines his personality. For those who write him well, a major aspect of his psyche is the desire to fit in with those of earth who surround him. When given time to dwell on it, it is easy to see that he is truly alone; he may look like a human, but he will never be regarded as one. For it is clear that he is something more; his powers are so impressive that he is able to maintain a completely idealistic and empathetic view that no other person can truly empathize with. After all, for you and me, life is something that has to be approached with caution. Superman doesn't have to worry about being mugged. He doesn't have to worry about bills. He may live among us as Clark Kent but, if he wanted, he could drop that alter-ego in a second and go for a jog around the moon. It is this key difference that both lends him his shining faith in the potential of good in everyone and separates him from us.

Thus it is that Superman's constant struggle is threefold. He must fight with a loneliness; there is no one else like him. He must endeavor continuously to fit in among humanity even though he will never truly succeed. And, finally, he must hold onto that optimism and idealism no matter what. For if he fails to do so, he risks misusing his powers or losing touch with humanity and becoming completely detached, totally alone.

How to Corrupt a Superman

I was going to stop at this point and start talking about Smallville, but I think I'll expand on my analysis of Superman and talk about Smallville in part two. For I'll be curious to see if these aspects of Superman I'm about to touch on will feature later in the television series and, for you curious readers, you will be able to see more of what makes Superman a multifaceted character who has great potential in any story, comic book or otherwise.

Three comics stand out in my mind as being excellent depictors of what makes Superman interesting. They also reveal that Superman is hardly invincible. While he may be near impossible to kill, the real way to get the reader to empathize with Superman is to attack his sense of self and his perception of the world around him.

The first among these is not even a Superman comic, but deserves mention. It is called Irredeemable, and it is a deconstruction of Superman; what would happen if Superman really existed among us? The viewpoint taken is a very dark one. It looks at the Superman figure and points out all the stresses that would be laid upon him. Bad governments would want to duplicate his power for themselves. Good governments would want him to solve the world's problems for them. He would be called upon for peacekeeping, ending wars, alleviating poverty and hunger... And, though he is Superman, he can't be everywhere at once. At the same time, would he not wish for peace from all the expectations, all the adoration? For, despite his immense powers, he has feelings, dreams, and worries. In this comic, faced with such overwhelming pressure, the Superman figure snaps. Most of the story is a detailed process of figuring out why he snapped, and the difficulty of surviving in the post-apocalyptic landscape that would follow. With such an immensely powerful figure able to do what he wants whenever he wants, an insane Superman would be an event akin to armageddon.

The second is the comic, The Dark Knight Returns. While mainly a comic about Batman, it features Superman as an important supporting character in a Cold War era world where crime, death, and despair have never been so prevalent. In this world, Superman figures that the only thing he can do to serve the interests of peace is to essentially serve as a superweapon of the United States, presumably to deter and end wars before they can start up. We see scenes of Superman destroying an entire invasion fleet by himself, an action within which he is so detached that he muses upon Batman's own approach to doing good (vigilantism), and condemns it. Essentially, Superman's idealism blinds him to the reality, that he is being used by the government for reasons of realpolitik, and that sometimes one has to look at things rationally and realistically to make real difference and so as not to undermine the beneficial efforts of others.

Lastly, we have Kingdom Come. This comic features a world where Superman and the old guard of superheroes have retired; their morals regarded as outmoded and quaint in an era of increasing complexity. In this comic, his wife and adopted parents have died, and he has become detached from humanity, writing them off when they decide to embrace a new breed of heroes, heroes who are willing to kill criminals instead of incarcerate them over and over again as they break out and claim more lives. In an hour of dire need, Superman returns to save the day, but does so in a way that has him doing what he thinks needs to be done without consulting anyone or working with any humans at all. The story is a compelling one and shows that Superman's connection with humanity is of immense importance. Clark Kent, imaginary as he is, is a key part of who Superman's being. And without that human touch, Superman is doomed to fail.


These comics serve to show us three important strains on Superman, and what makes him an interesting character to read about. He must face enormous stresses and maintain his own personal well-being. He must insure that his potent sense of idealism does not blind him to reality. And he must make sure that he does not lose his connection with other people who are not like him. I'll be curious to see if Smallville touches on any of these traits and, if so, how they approach them.

Next up, Smallville, and my assessment of both the tv series so far and its treatment of Superman.

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