The Alabaster Sock

We Will Fight the Threat with Fighting

Posts Tagged ‘Characters’

Posted by Matt on October 29, 2011

From my rather limited knowledge of the actual media involved:

The more I think about these days, the more I come to like the character of Superman. I have often heard people argue that he is “boring” for one reason or another; he’s too powerful, he’s too nice, etc. This may come from the many cases where the potential of Superman were squandered by lazy or small-minded creators; it may also come from a rather skewed sense of what constitutes an “interesting” character, one that has somehow had it been hammered into their skull that nice guys aren’t real, and that purplish angst and brooding and suffering are the signs of a developed personality. Of course, if you have ever talked to another human being in your life, you know that’s shit.

The most recent observation I’ve had about Superman’s character is one that not only makes him stand out among the legions of copycat superheroes (well, that might be going too far; Superman started the genre and all the associated elements, but it’s a pretty broad category), and one that has appeal to me and my own writing tics: Superman is one of the few characters I know of that chose his or her life, rather than having it imposed on them by events beyond their control. Now, you could argue that the cataclysmic event that put Superman on Earth was beyond his control, which is true. But for the most part, the destruction of Krypton has very little bearing on Superman/Clark Kent’s choices in life, a few plotlines involving bottled cities and the like excepted, and feels more like a convenient excuse to give him superpowers. For the most part, though, it went like this: Clark Kent found out he had superpowers, and decided to use them to help people. It’s simple. But it’s also effective.

Compare to that to most other comic superheroes: Batman has dead parents (and the absurdity of the whole origin story is often underplayed because of bat-favouritism, especially when you pile up all the Bruce Wayne exploits they’ve revealed over the years; it’s silly enough that a kid with dead parents decides to punch gangsters in a bat costume, but he also decided to become a word-class chemist and get ninja training in the Himalayas?), the Hulk and Fantastic Four are all blasted by made-up radiation (and the event being beyond Bruce Banner’s control is integral to the Hulk character, it must be said), the X-Men are all born in a world that hates them (turning what seems like every non-mutant person into a mini-Torquemada, a rather hilarious bit of melodrama), Iron Man got shrapnel in the heart, Thor is banished to earth for being a dick, etc. The closest thing to Superman’s situation in another comic character is probably Spider-Man; but even then, his powers are from an accident, and his decision to fight crime needs to be prompted by personal tragedy. All of them, to varying degrees, do what they do because of something that happened to them. It doesn’t feel like it was their decision.

That’s not the case for Superman. Despite being an alien, it’s only the powers he successfully keeps secret that separates him from normal people. There’s no prejudice keeping him down, no dead relatives inspiring him to do one thing or another (well, at leas that WAS the case), not even a big monstrous threat that needs smiting (initially). He simply made a rational decision (or at least as rational as it can be coming with a bright red cape and underpants) to become a vigilante hero using his powers (and also a journalist, something that a lot of people seem to overlook – he’s fighting the good fight on two fronts). This, to me, is rather refreshing. I think we need to appreciate it in these simple stories when they actually show someone actually being proactive and taking what they’re given and going with it, which is surprisingly rare.

Of course, that “simplicity” may be part of the reason people call Superman boring. But to me, it just opens up possibilities – and that’s one of the things I decided I like about Superman, the sheer number of possibilities. A character with that level of power, that kind of background, that kind of mindset? You could do anything with that. When it comes to these long-lived media properties, that’s a real boon, isn’t it?

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