The Problem With The Newest Version Of Superman

The Problem With The Newest Version of Superman

2015 has been a hell of a year for the Man of Steel, bringing the biggest changes that the character's seen in decades. And, while I mostly like how the current Superman reads after getting his powers reduced and secret identity outed, his monthly adventures feel like they're losing steam to me.

DC Comics shook up things big time for Superman this summer, taking away his heat vision, flight and much of his invulnerability. That reduced powerset coincided with Lois Lane revealing his secret identity to the world. The first few months of this new status quo were surprisingly good. Clark Kent felt more human than he had in ages, and one very good story used the character's symbolic nature to comment on present-day real world tensions.

The thing I like most about the de-powered Clark Kent is how he's trying to embody the same ideals with a lot less force. One storyline in Batman/Superman had Clark wondering how he's going to stop an invading subterranean force to cease hostilities against the surface world.

The Problem With The Newest Version of Superman
The Problem With The Newest Version of Superman

It's refreshing to see Superman struggle with doubt or challenge with regard to his physical abilities. Before the summer's changes, Kal-El could face down ultra-powerful dangers with little fear of getting hurt.

Very few readers are under the illusion that these changes are permanent and the smart money is on Clark getting back to being nigh-omnipotent around the time that Batman v. Superman comes out. My concern now is that stories that felt interesting in the moment are getting bogged down by hewing close to standard villain-of-the-month plot structure.

To me, the biggest problem with the late-2015 version of Superman isn't the way that the character's being written. It's the stories he's appearing in.

A few years back, DC Comics editorial honcho Dan Didio asked attendees at a convention panel if they thought that Superman cried too much. The recent Superman changes feel like a delayed response to the critiques that the Clark of previous eras was a milquetoast emo boy scout. Superman fights with a lot more relish now, even as he deals with constant, near-fatal of reminders how much weaker he is.

However, the aggro attitude Clark evinces in combat and personal interactions can feel like an overcorrection at times. His break-up with Wonder Woman felt harsh and a little out-of-character for a hero that's constantly had to worry about hurting people. It's in line with another moment where Superman tells sometimes-ally Toyman to get lost.

The Problem With The Newest Version of Superman
The Problem With The Newest Version of Superman
The Problem With The Newest Version of Superman

The main antagonists working against the Man of Steel in the Superman and Action titles have been two new characters called Hordr_Root and Wrath. The former is a mysterious techbro information broker, while the latter is a woman wielding an inky, quasi-mystical energy that brings out the dark sides in whomever it touches.

The Problem With The Newest Version of Superman

The Hordr_Root storyline in Superman was where the exposure of Clark's double life happened. The plot felt like a means to an end and the ensuing stories with that character have made him feel underwhelming. While that villain is pretty much a walking embodiment of the surveillance state, it feels like there's not much else to him. I keep waiting for him to go away so that Clark can get on to better adventures.

The Problem With The Newest Version of Superman

Wrath's a slightly better enemy, if only for the psychological aspects of her modus operandi. As a creation, she's geared to hit Clark right at the doubt he suffers from nowadays and her machinations have upended the lives of people he's close to. But his running battles against her shadow warriors have stretched on way too long and have hit the same beat over and over: prod Clark to make him explode with rage, reap distrust from normal people, lather, rinse repeat.

Superman is important. He's pretty much the first superhero and the character that solidified and validated what have become so many key elements of the genre. So it's good to see him change in ways that bring him down to earth and tether him to the cultural moment. I still like the introspective moments of Greg Pak and Gene Yang's writing and understand that they're executing an extreme tonal shift from where Superman was before.

But making Clark more "badass" runs the risk of losing touch with the compassionate, aspirational aspect of Superman as a concept. The parts of his mythos that have made him into an alien sun-god Jesus archetype feel very far away and not just because he's weaker. Caped or not, Superman doesn't read well as a character who just acts on impulse. My favourite kind of Superman is the one who uses his powers-beyond-those-of-mortal-men to be an example of restraint and caution. I hope DC nudges him back that way soon.


Comments

    I've been saying it forever, but Superman doesn't need to be more human (read; weak and pathetic) to be relateable. That's just a shortcut that has no real long term substance to it. That's why it gets old fast. What makes a human isn't the fact it bleeds it's a mind, and often it's easier to explore those minds in interesting ways when the character isn't just a regular person. It's easier to relate to Superman when he feels the pressure of responsibility than when he gets hurt.
    Both versions of Superman struggle with their fear of letting the people who depend on them down. We can all relate to that. However the weak version waters it down by making it about his super powers no longer being up to the task instead of the things that make him actually feel like he has to protect everybody. We all sort of feel the way Superman does about the people of the world when it comes to our partners, children, parents, siblings, etc so there's something really solid to tap into. That's sort of dulled if you make half the conversation about Superman adjusting to having weaker powers (but still having more power than average).
    I get that there are some good stories in there and some interesting scenarios to see how the Man of Steel reacts to being less powerful, I just feel like it's a bad way of making the character interesting.

      Excellently put. I also think that there's a modern desire to get distanced from the red & blue, powerful, goodie-two-shoes, boyscout shtick, which is exactly the same that Captain America is going through. It's as though we have become too cynical for our own good and in our pursuit to include all shades of grey in the big picture, we completely removed black and white. Or at least that's what some comic book writers think we think and expect.

      We don't need weakened, arrogant, perpetually angry, confused or cynical Superman and Captain America to make them relatable to us or to make us feel better about ourselves. Superheroes are supposed to be role models, something to strive towards. They are supposed to have the qualities that encourages us to cultivate them. They are not supposed to be fallible facsimiles of ourselves, our bitter uncle or random jocky dude on the other end of the bar bench.

      It is possible to explore doubt, humanity and even vulnerability in superheroes; other characters such as Captain America Sam Wilson are better examples of such explorations without totally annihilating everything that the character previously stood for, or resorting to baffling out-of-character actions or words.

    Not sure why I can't upvote, but you both deserve them.

    I'm a long time Superman fan (sad to some) with an unbroken collection from about '88 or thereabouts right up til the New 52. At which point I gave up. Gritty cynical superman may make the marketing execs happy but it's not the character. As you guys have said he was always the inspirational role model, turning him into just another grim troubled vigilante just doesn't work :(

    Taking away his powers *and* outing his identity seems like a really stupid idea for the writers. Even in the current incarnation there should be more than enough villains out there who'd want him dead. It doesn't make sense on that level. Basically he'd be dead within a week >_

    So Morrisson had it all setup and then they just go and fuck it in the ass?

    I used to love superman and collected all his books back in the 90s for a while, however that passion mainly stemmed from the awesome death of superman, and the crazy big return of superman trade arc that followed. My interest waned a while after that because a) he doesn't have a lot of good villains imo and b) I think it's hard to write him in this day and age where we are all increasingly cynical and jaded. Can't relate if he's too boy scout, and then its too unbelievable if he goes a little bad boy.
    I was really looking forward to the return of doomsday in new 52 but I thought it was a complete mess that lacked real excitement and didn't finish it.
    Has anyone read Geoff Johns new 52 superman with romita on pencils,?it looked promising but I haven't checked it out yet.

    While i personally love the character of Superman. I think the Jaded nature of fan's is only an issue when he is written poorly.

    Take for instance Aang. From Avatar:The Last Airbender. He essentially fits the same superman Arch type. Yet he is one of the most beloved fictional characters of the last decade. He worked as a character because he was allowed to have a personality alongside his similarly God-like superpowers.

    People in the modern context for some reason seem to have a problem differentiating Charisma, and acting "Grey". Most grey characters are written with charisma so the Audience will forgive their faults. Yet traditional "White Hat" characters aren't given that same luxury.

Join the discussion!