The Impotent Superman

The Impotent Superman

His greatest power is super-self-restraint
His greatest power is super-self-restraint
When I was growing up, just like every other ten year old boy, I often wished I were Superman. And he still remains my favourite of all superheroes.

Sure I enjoyed reading about the adventures of Batman, Spiderman, the Hulk and the rest, but Superman was different. As Tarantino insightfully points out in Kill Bill 2:

l'm quite keen on comic books. Especially the ones about superheroes. I find the whole mythology surrounding superheroes fascinating. Take my favorite superhero, Superman. Not a great comic book. Not particularly well-drawn. But the mythology…The mythology is not only great, it's unique.

Now, a staple of the superhero mythology is there's the superhero and there's the alter ego. Batman is actually Bruce Wayne, Spider-Man is actually Peter Parker. When that character wakes up in the morning, he's Peter Parker. He has to put on a costume to become Spider-Man. And it is in that characteristic Superman stands alone.

Superman didn't become Superman. Superman was born Superman. When Superman wakes up in the morning, he's Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit with the big red "S" –that's the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby when the Kents found him. Those are his clothes.

What Kent wears – the glasses, the business suit – that's the costume. That's the costume Superman wears to blend in with us. Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent? He's weak…he's unsure of himself…he's a coward. Clark Kent is Superman's critique on the whole human race.

Most Superheroes have their powers thrust upon them relatively late in life. They had lived normal lives up to that point and then they must adjust to being different.

Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider; the Green Lantern is given a magic ring; the Hulk is bombarded with gamma-rays (or gets caught in a nuclear blast depending on which version you read); Daredevil is blinded by some radioactive isotope; and of course Batman just buys some cool gear and hits the gym.

Perhaps that's why Superman and Wonder Woman seem like they'd make a great couple–they're the only mainstream heroes who were born that way. This means they rarely display the doubts and darkness of other caped crusaders, and are entirely comfortable in their roles as Gods-who-walk-the-Earth.

But this could only be so in the fictional superhero universe. Then what if Superman were real?

The highly anticipated upcoming dramatisation of Alan Moore's Watchmen tackles this question to some degree. It tells the story of vigilante costumed crime-fighters, complete with serious neuroses and complicated private lives. The comic book is often cited as the greatest graphic novel of all time, and it's hard to argue with that.

But the Watchmen in a sense are all Batmen–they've simply put on a mask and gone to the gym. The only character with genuine superpowers is Jon (Dr Manhattan) and he fits the classic profile of a late bloomer in that his powers are derived from the usual massive overdose of radiation.

The question remains: What if Superman were real? How would he affect our lives? Could he do the world some good?

The important global ills are the product of intangibles such as war, famine, and environmental irresponsibility. Against these, mere physical strength is powerless. Social injustice, our dependence on oil, childhood obesity, corporate crime, etc. The solutions to all of these would remain outside his capability.

His powers are mere amplifications of simple human actions: lifting, crushing, bending, punching. How can these fight terrorism? Or poverty? But when a physical crime occurs within his sensory range (super-hearing, super-vision) then he can spring into action. This is why all of the early Superman tales were of muggings, bank robberies and kidnappings. He's a one-man SWAT team.

It is only when the writers saw fit to introduce super-villains that Superman came into his own, finally matched against someone his own size. But where's the glory in that? We are pitched against our equivalents every day without any fanfare.

How tragic to wake up tomorrow, here in the real world, with all of Superman's mighty powers and yet find yourself powerless–at least to fight crime. Of course becoming an evil tyrant who takes over the world would be a snap.

And this is why Superman is better than the rest. He could do it, but he won't.