…and that’s a problem.
Before I go any further, I must say that this post isn’t meant to disparage the Superman character or any of the stories he stars in. Rather, I want to discuss the story issues of the Superman character in how it was conceived and implemented.
One caveat, I’m not a Superman expert; I’ve seen enough, though, to detect problems that his character brings to stories.
Superman’s backstory is that his parents shipped him when he was a baby to Earth from Krypton before Krypton exploded. Once here, he displayed a number of abilities (or powers) because he now lived under a yellow sun, rather than Krypton’s red sun.
An unanswered question: what is the difference between a red sun and a yellow sun that imbues Supes with his abilities?
The real problem is all of the abilities Supes possesses, which includes super-hearing, x-ray vision, heat vision, super-breath (wind producing), freeze breath, flying, invulnerability (usually displayed as bullet-proof), super-strength, and a super-IQ.
Supes must have an amazing amount of control. He has the ability to turn off his super-hearing. If not, he’d go insane hearing conversations from blocks away. Likewise, he isn’t frying everything in sight with his heat vision or seeing under everyone’s clothing with his x-ray vision. When it comes to super-strength, we won’t even focus on why his lovers (like the very human Lois Lane) are still alive after the moment of ultimate joy. Others have written on this. If you haven’t figured out what I’m saying, then think about it a little longer…
Assuming his amazing control is a feature, not a glaring plot hole, these abilities make it difficult to write stories. How is there dramatic tension when no one has comparable strengths? Ordinary crooks are like flies to a fly swatter.
Now weaknesses must be invented so the reader can believe that Supes can fail. Enter Kryptonite–it weakens him and can even kill him. It started as green Kryptonite, but as time passed, a rainbow of colors were invented in an attempt to make Supes’ stories more dramatic. Unanswered question: if the planet exploded roughly symmetrically, how much Kryptonite would be on the vector to Earth? Worse yet, Krypton’s red sun was still intact (as I recall). How did any of the planet’s fragments escapes the sun’s pull? And, why does Kryptonite make his sick or nearly kill him? At worst, shouldn’t it take his abilities away? These issues seem like gaping plot holes.
Over time, we learned that Superman was affected by magic. If we could cross universes, I’m sure there’s a lot of Slytherins ready to wreak havoc. But, Supes’ story isn’t about fighting magic practitioners.
One way to bring tension is to bring more Kryptonians to Earth like the criminal General Zod. Supes originally was the last of his race. Then we had Supergirl, Superdog (?!?), and General Zod and his buddies. For a dead race, there sure are a lot of Kryptonians popping up.
Over the years, Supes has demonstrated other abilities. He put out fires with his super-breath. What’s his lung capacity anyway? He’s used freeze breath. How does he control that? He’s flown in space. How does he breathe? He’s fought on different planets while still maintaining his abilities. Are these planets all under a yellow sun?
At this point, his abilities start to look like dues ex machina. At one point, in a movie if I recall correctly, Supes flew around the Earth opposite its spin and turned back time! If anything goes horribly wrong, just have Supes fly superfast around the Earth and try again. How could anything turn out other than how Supes wants it?
As a character, Supes is too good. For the writers to achieve any dramatic tension, they have invent ridiculous circumstance and introduce ridiculous solutions, which then cause continuity problems.
In comparison, Batman is a much better superhero to write. That is so long as the writers don’t invent a new bat-tool every bat-time he gets into a bat-jam ala the ‘60 Batman TV show.
All that being said, I must say that I still enjoy Supes as part of the Justice League comics and Young Justice cartoon. Further, J. Michael Straczynski’s take on him in the Superman comic book and Superman Earth One graphic novels is very good and quite enjoyable.
I’m interested in many things, from Mars to space travel, music to books, movies to creating my own stories. My sci-fi novel, The Music of Mars, is available now.