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“Who Is Superman?”

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superman_teaserThat’s the central question asked – and almost answered – in Bryan Singers quite satisfying rewriting of the Superman-legend, Superman Returns. Is he alien Superman from the planet Krypton, or is he human Clark Kent? Will he be able to bridge the two worlds – and how? Here is my little essay on the main conflicts in the Superman universe.

Many people think that Superman is a boring character, and consequently Superman movies are about as emotionally interesting as watching paint dry. And granted, Superman does not have the potential maliciousness of, say, Batman or the evil past and explosive temper of Wolverine. Superman is basically a good guy and as good as they come. Clean cut, clean shaven, white bread all the way through. The all-american farmboy from Iowa who only exists in comics and has nothing to do with the real world. Moreover, since Superman has superpowers, nothing can really go wrong for him. Batman can be hurt, and even though Wolverine regenerates really fast, he can be killed if hit hard enough. Superman, on the other hand, is invincible. And that’s more or less a defining recipe for boring characters: No challenges and consequently no development. In some ways he’s like a Steven Seagal character: Never hurt, never challenged, always winning (except he doesn’t excess in breaking people’s arms and legs, which Seagal seems to think is really, really cool).

But merely pointing out that superman is just a good guy with no doubt or secrets in his heart and that he is invincible and consequently a boring character, is overlooking some interesting ironies concerning the Superman character, which when played well – and they are in Superman Returns – can work very effectively. Actually his whole character is full of ironies, resulting in three important conflicts which plays like an archetypal Robert McKee triangle of conflicts: External Conflict, Interpersonal Conflict, and Internal Conflict. And then there is a foruth conflict, rarely touched upon/delved into by the Superman stories, which could – if taken to its logical conclusion – only result in tragedy and madness. In fact, it is a conlict so mind boggeling and horrible, that it would be worthy of H. P. Lovecraft (which is exactly why the Superman stories never try to delve into this conflict). What is it? We’ll come back to that later…

The external conflict is the obvious, rather boring conflict of superpowers versus cryptonite. Superman derives his powers from being from the planet Krypton (where he theoretically just would be the Average Joe, or Average Jo-El, if you prefer), which gives him superpowers on Earth, more or less like gravity is different on the Moon and the Earth. Consequently, if confronted with radioactive material from Krypton, he looses his powers and can then be killed and yada yada yada you know the rest… Lex Luthor is always coming up with new ways to produce cryptonite, which – considering it’s coming from a destroyed planet in another solar system – seems to be around in abundance in the Superman universe. Like all other external conflicts this conflict is really only interesting in the way it relates to character and development. When explored for the irony of the fact that a tiny bit of useless radioactive material can render the most powerful man powerless, this conflict has it’s uses dramatically, but it’s more or less a vehicle to keep the story going.

The interpersonal conflict is where the emotional juices actually start flowing. This one is Superman’s (and alter ego Clark Kent’s) impossible love affair with Lois Lane. Impossible for two reasons: Even though Lois Lane is in love with Superman, she sees Clark Kent as a harmless, unromantic nerd. This might not be such a problem if Superman did not have so many problems of his own. After all, could he just trash Clark Kent and be Superman all the time? No. Like for many other superheroes, possession af superpowers is both a blessing and a curse: they are the reason why the heroes become who they are, but at the same time they are a real cross to bear. Lois Lane falls in love with Superman, but not with Clark Kent. But Superman cannot have a wife. That would make him vulnerable – and moreover, put her in mortal danger if his enemies knew they were in love. And yet, at the same time, Superman cannot stop being Superman. Not because he would then be stuck being boring Clark Kent, who doesn’t exactly gets Lois Lane’s juices flowing, but because it is his destiny to be Superman. Which gets us to the third, inner conlict.

In a defining scene in Superman Returns, Superman takes Lois Lane on a beautiful flying tour up above Metropolis. Being human, she only sees the beauty and excitement of the vista and falls in love with Superman all over again. What power! Such possiblities! Such beauty! It’s a cliché to tell your girlfriend that you’ll give her the moon or take her to the stars, but Superman can actually do that. What woman wouldn’t fall for that? But in the same scene, Superman asks her what she hears. And she hears absolutely nothing, only the quiet stilness of sublime beauty. Superman, on the other hand, hears everything. His superhearing is always tuned into all the evils of the world – robberies, rapes, all the horror and madness of the world, which he is constantly confronted with – and feels obliged to do something about. And this is exactly what seperates Superman from Lois Lane, and convinces them both that they can never be together. Because he is Superman, and cannot escape it. This is a really satisfying scene, extremely well written and I would say it goes right to the heart of the film and the grusome dilemma for Superman: He has human emotions, but he is not human, but bound to something else. The exact same thing that bind Superman and Lois Lane together is what draws them apart. Now, if that isn’t the source for high drama worthy of Shakespeare, I don’t know what is.

This conflict of interest is the essence of the third conflict, Supermans internal conflict, and of course this is the really interesting stuff: Who Is Superman? It is a question of identity, his original world being destroyed beyond repair, his whole family dead. And yet he has this new identity as Clark Kent, farm boy with a journalism career. But he is not Clark Kent, he is Superman and cannot escape. I will not spoil the movie by saying how this conflict is resolved in Superman Returns, just note thatI found it very satisfying, in that Hollywood feel-good kind of way (I mean that in a good sense).

Often, the most interesting conflicts are often sidelined by action, and never delved thoroughly into. Superman doesn’t have his Hamlet moment full of anguish and doubt, and thank you for that. This IS entertainment, and great entertainment at that, but I would argue that the really interesting stuff IS there, and that Superman Returns does a great job of integrating it in a rollercoaster SFX-story.

And yet, something is missing. Something horrible and maddening. The fourth conflict, another internal conflict: How can Superman stand being Superman withut going mad? The problem is this: Superman is almost All-Powerful. In almost all respects he is a God in Greek mythology, not all-powerful and omnipotent but powerful beyond measure. Superman can really do anything he wants, and being the hero, he can save anybody he wants. And he does so all through the movies and comics of his whole career. But his powers has one flaw that is human oh so human: Time. Superman cannot be at the same place at the same time. Very conveniently, accidents in Superman-movies happen in neat chronological order, so Superman – being super fast – can stop them and save people one at a time. Only once (in an older movie, I think it’s the first) something happens at the same time, and Superman has to reverse time by flying around Earth in reverse. But he can’t do that every time, can he? And this leads us to the central problem: How does Superman choose which people to save? In the real world murders and rapes take place every minute around the Earth, hundreds of people are crushed by earthquakes at the same time or blown to bits by rocket attacks. Superman can’t be around to save them all, because these horrible tragedies take place at the same time. So imagine this: YOU have the power to stop ALL misery in the world, but not all of it at the same time. Someone will eventually get killed, that you could have saved. YOU. How do you decide who shall live and who must die?

The answer is that you can’t choose. It’s impossible, and the question would drive you mad with guilt for not saving everyone, for not doing a little more all the time (for example: While Superman is taking Lois Lane for a quick flying stroll above the city, some one will be killed or raped, and he could have stopped it. How will he explain his priorities here?). Lucky thing that the Superman movies never try to pose this question in full. Lucky for Superman, and lucky for us. For then the entertainment could only end in tragedy. But it’s an interesting irony on the fringe of the Superman universe, and one that, I would argue, helps to makes his story more interesting than it looks at first. The hidden curse of superpowers, one might call it.

[A little aside: All of us in some way faces the same dilemma, that Superman does, and we’re all guilty. We buy coffee and computers, while our money could save life among starving children, and so on. But, opposed to Superman, we’re not heroes and can block it out (if that is wrong or not is an entirely different question). Superman on the other hand, clearly feels the obligation to do the right thing all the time, and he spends most of his waking hours doing heroic acts. How does he choose?]

Skrevet af Lars Hvidberg

4. August, 2006 @ 22:10

Kategorier: Film og tv,Story

21 kommentarer til '“Who Is Superman?”'

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  1. I saw this movie too, and it was the same “hidden dilemma” that interested me the most. Even though it’s never mentioned directly in the movie itself, I think it quite obvious: You mention the central scene with Lois yourself, and we briefly see Superman on rescuing missions all over the world. But the most striking scene is arguably where the quake hits Metropolis. I for one couldn’t stop thinking that it was not so lucky for the city that Superman was around as that the quake turned out to wreak surprisingly little damage. It was so obvious that the screen writer “cheated” to solve the dilemma, and the scene turned out rather weak – if not right out absurd.

    Tom Hansson

    8. Aug 06 @ 10:05

  2. BTW, in the first Superman movie (I think we should see it together when you come back from Boston) Lois Lane is actually killed, because Superman it too late for her rescue (he spent his time rescuing other people and fighting villans), and in anger he flies very, very fast round and round the Earth to make time go backwards (I think he makes the Earth itself rotate the other way or something similar absurd) – and he gets a second chance to save her. I think it is implied that all the good deeds from the first timeline are still in effect …

    Tom Hansson

    8. Aug 06 @ 10:14

  3. On Clark Kent: You argue that this alter ego is “needed”; but the movie neven even tries to justify the character. He makes for a few comic scenes and his disguise is almost revealed – and then – without further ado – he is completely out of the movie! I don’t see a reason for his existence, and apparently the screen writer don’t either. Maybe one could argue that revealing the disguise will expose his mother to the villans; but even if this is the case, the movie doesn’t mention it at all. As I see it, Clark Kent is only in the movie because it’s part of the Superman universe and we expect it to be that way. He doesn’t add to the plot, he nearly doesn’t add to the love story either, because the love is between Lois and Superman, not Lois and Clark (who is merely a disguise). Maybe Clark Kent is Superman’s human touch. But why? Superman is not human. He has no human relations that requires him to be human (his mother already knows that he is Superman). Spending time being a reporter doesn’t help his case much. If the alter ego is needed, at least this movie doesn’t give us the explanation.

    Tom Hansson

    8. Aug 06 @ 10:37

  4. Hello Tom Hansson,

    Thank you for your astute comments! I agree with your points, and although I’m not sure that I said the Clark Kent figure was needed (?), it’s definitely not very important in this version of the Superman mythology (which I try to address as a whole). I think the ‘need’ for Clark Kent is explained in the comics as somthing about Kal-Els (Superman) father ordering him to know more about the world of the humans or something like that. Maybe it has something to do with nostalgia for his human life with his parents. Anyway, it’s really more a dramturgical trick than anything else, since there really isn’t any reason why he couldn’t be Superman all the time.

    This <a href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clark_Kent” rel=”nofollow”>wikipedia article</a> might help to give an explanation. It goes something like this: “Clark is who I <i>am</i>. Superman is what I <i>do</i>!”

    Lars Hvidberg

    11. Aug 06 @ 04:34

  5. I read the article. It’s amazing what you can find in wikipedia – and of such excellent quality!

    Tom Hansson

    11. Aug 06 @ 13:20

  6. Dear Mr. Hansson,

    Do you know why he looses his powers when confronted to cryptonite, which is from Krypton? Could be any material on Earth but not. I have always found this curious and today by chance had a look at your page and this revived my curiosity.


    Ertan Kucukyalcin

    17. Aug 06 @ 12:33

  7. Hi Ertan,

    I think the story goes that Superman gets his powers from the sun combined with the different gravity on Earth. On Crypton he would just be a normal being (mortal, not powerful) and cryptonite – being a radioactive material – somehow confronts him with his Crypton reality. Does that make sense? I guess it doesn’t in a strictly scientific way, but it works dramatically…

    best regards

    Lars Hvidberg

    21. Aug 06 @ 01:50

  8. c/p’ed from wikipedia’s <a href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kryptonite#The_.22science.22_behind_kryptonite” rel=”nofollow”>The “science” behind cryptonite</a>:

    “Some issues of Superman have indicated the mechanism by which green kryptonite may hurt Superman. Like Hanna-Barbera’s Birdman, Superman in some ways is a living solar battery; his cells absorb electromagnetic radiation from yellow stars (like Earth’s sun). Kryptonite’s radioactivity possibly interferes with this semi-photosynthetic process, driving the energy out of his cells in a painful fashion. Long term and high-level exposure to green kryptonite can be fatal to Superman.”

    That’s the pseudo-scientific explanation it seems, as odd as it may sound. For a comic this doesn’t have the same lameness to it as your average comic pseudo-science or plot scheme.

    Niclas Darville

    21. Aug 06 @ 13:58

  9. Seems quite believable! Thank’s for the link.

    Lars Hvidberg

    22. Aug 06 @ 17:25

  10. Sorry for deterring you from the intelligent discussion which is clearly more philosophical in its nature. The science is very likely a means to bring the metaphorical meanings and implications of the kryptonite into a fathomable and quasi-realistic plot.

    By all means, don’t let me ruin the discussion; who knows what the creators of the comic originally intended.

    Niclas Darville

    26. Aug 06 @ 23:01

  11. The role of kryptonite is very interesting (thanks for bringing it up, btw). As you already mentioned it works dramatically, and why? Because it makes Superman more like an ordinary guy who isn’t so powerful after all, and therefore it is a means to introduce traditional drama and human themes of strugle and survival. However, at the same time is emphazises Superman’s special position as very powerful, because it is the ONLY way to kill him.

    Tom Hansson

    29. Aug 06 @ 09:55

  12. On the same note, in which dramaturgical way would you (pl.) recon Superman’s <a href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_of_Superman” rel=”nofollow”>death </a>worked?

    Was it a means to a good surprise – since, as established, Superman’s only weakness seemed to be kryptonite – or did it ruin the Superman universe by dethroning Supe from his piedestal of near-immortality by introducing another fatal weakness, thereby screwing up a brand worked up over decades? – even though it must be somewhat forgiveable with all the years of story and characters the writers have to comprise.

    There is no doubt, of course, that the rumours of his imminent death made people stampede down to the local comic pusher and by the issue, thereby earning the company a buckload of money, but one should not attribute them such a one-sided agenda without a thorough analysis of the ramifications of Superman’s death.

    The fact that Superman later returned is, in my opinion, irrelevant since it is such a recurring event in the world of comics.

    Niclas Darville

    29. Aug 06 @ 13:30

  13. I haven’t read the story but its big commercial success clearly demonstrates a paradox in the never-evolving drama (i.e. such series as Superman and most other comics, soap operas etc.): On the one hand, if the characters change too little, it gets boring. On the other hand, if the characters change too often, it gets boring too. The big scandals and surprises only work because of the well-established non-changing world. If Superman had died in the first issue, nobody would have noticed. It was only when he had been invincible for so many years that his dead could become front-page news. I guess that’s also part of the reason why such series often have a Golden Age: it’s the time when the characters and the world have been so well-established, that changes and variations become interesting; and before those changes simply become too familiar. The Simpons is a good example of this syndrome.

    Tom Hansson

    29. Aug 06 @ 16:58

  14. Hello again,

    Thanks for the explanations. They had been helpful as quasi-scientific explanations but still my question is not solved philosophically. I had a thought on why cryptonite is not from Earth but from Krypton. You can take it as a food for thought and comments are wellcomed.

    Superman (the Good) comes from the Sky and so is the cryptonite (the Bad). Conciously or sub-conciously, the scriptwriters used this duo, which exists in human history for thousands of years and also in religion. So, the Bad could not be from earth, cause that would make the human kind Bad. So they both come from the Sky. Does that make sense?

    As I said before, just food for thought.


    Ertan Kucukyalcin

    31. Aug 06 @ 13:37

  15. Hi

    Very interesting. I don’t think I’d quite seen it that way. In many religions humankind stands between Good and Bad and has the choice to go either way. Only the gods are good thorugh and thorugh or bad through and through. Might that be the same with Superman and Cryptonite? I don’t know. Cryptonite is really just a radioactive crystal, so it cannot be seen as having a morality (because that implies a choice). But at the same time, can Superman really be seen as having a morality in a human sense, considering he <i>always</i> does the right thing, and never the wrong? He is <i>super</i>human after all…

    Lars Hvidberg

    31. Aug 06 @ 16:10

  16. Good observation, and it definately emphasizes Superman’s existential crisis in terms of his – he is neither inherently good, nor inherently bad, whereas human kind, villains aside, is inherently good and innocent.

    There is also a fallen angel meta-symbolism in it – especially when holding it up to Paradise Lost, although a deeper interpretation in that branch would be a bit of a far stretch if taken too long.

    Niclas Darville

    31. Aug 06 @ 23:31

  17. “in terms of his rootlessness” it was meant to have read, sorry.

    Niclas Darville

    1. Sep 06 @ 00:07

  18. It must also be considered that Superman as a comic/story/cultural product has been through many different creators, and if his story and character is not entirely coherent, or can be read in many ways, it could be because of these many layers of creation, so to speak.

    Lars Hvidberg

    1. Sep 06 @ 10:42

  19. That is, of course, implicit when dealing with comics – perhaps particularly since the original Superman was created by two men – jews, I believe, if that has any saying to it – and was afterwards sold to Detective Comics, Inc for a ridiculously low amount of money.

    Niclas Darville

    1. Sep 06 @ 14:24

  20. Thanks for the comments. Yes, the Cryptonite can not have a moral choice, but the creators of it could have attached a meaning (including moral ones) to it. Basicly a kind of symbolism, which could be done conciously or not. My very question of “Why Cryptonite was from outer space (Superman’s homeland) but not Earth?” is still pending, I believe. Was it just a coincidence?

    By the way, we do have a similar named element on Earth, Krypton (atomic number 36). Do you know if somehow they (Cryptonite and Krypton) are linked?

    Ertan Kucukyalcin

    5. Sep 06 @ 12:59

  21. Well, I’m not quite sure if it’s some kind of riddle you’re posing or if it’s a genuine question? There could be all sorts of answers, depending on who answers the question or views the symbols. I don’t think that creators attach any meaning to anything, even though they might think or hope to do it. For me, at least, there is no particularly symbolism in Superman and Cryptonite having the same origin, other than it is meaningful in an ironic way to have your worst enemy ‘close to home’ so to speak.

    According to <a href=”http://www.chemistryexplained.com/elements/C-K/Krypton.html” rel=”nofollow”>this document</a>, there is no connection between the real atomic element Krypton and the comic book Kryptonite, but the author probably doesn’t know anything about it. The Atomic element Krypton was discovered in 1898, so it’s hard to think that there hasn’t been some kind of inspiration.

    Lars Hvidberg

    5. Sep 06 @ 22:54

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