Good superheroes

I’ve had this on going conversation with a few friends, pretty much ever since Captain America. And I’ve alluded to a lot of this before. Seeing Man of Steel was the final catalyst I needed to write it outright.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Superman. The character always was kind of bland to me (which will seem like a direct contradiction to everything I’m about to say). I liked the idea that Smallville would roughen the character up a some – giving him depth by giving him angst. But I feel like they never really achieved that idea. The point is, though, that they tried. They acknowledged that a character with the weight of destruction upon him would be more interesting than an unflinchingly good superhero.

And most people agree, whether they’d articulate it or not. I actually don’t disagree. Stories are about conflict. But we live in a post-modern world that isn’t content with external conflicts. We need the internal conflict of the hero; the one who isn’t sure of himself or is brought down by her pride or lets revenge color his altruism or struggles with the idea of what is being asked of her and who it makes her. It’s not even that we’re uninterested in truly good heroes – we don’t believe them.

Except I do.

Because I don’t equate purely good with unflawed. They still make mistakes and have to bear the consequences of their choices. They still trust the wrong person; lose a fight; have limits that keep them from being able to know everything or save everyone. But the virtues of their character are ultimately good.

They are stalwart and noble and honorable and those virtues aren’t something they struggle with possessing. Because they’ve gone through the fire to attain them.

Both Superman (in Man of Steel) and Captain America are heroes without the sort of pathos audiences expect. Captain America knows to stand up to the bully, to refuse to let his voice be silenced just because he’s weak and he isn’t afraid of getting beat up. Presumably, because he was silent once and realized that he’d rather bear the consequence of getting beat up than be apathetic to bad forces in the world. He’s been beat up enough to know that it won’t break him. His courage has been forged – albeit off screen. And most of Captain America’s flaws are script related (even though I think the film was mostly well written) because we fault him for the parts of the story we’re not told.


But with Man of Steel we’re given flashbacks to show us the road Clark walked, how it shaped his strength to hold back and not punch someone; how he had to learn when it was worth letting someone die for a greater purpose and when it wasn’t and how to bear both choices. His grief is richer than Captain America’s because when he loses his father it’s a choice that he makes. Which is much more interesting than simply being an accident he couldn’t prevent (again, script not character).

This Clark I find interesting because they focus on his humanity without compromising his goodness. And I like that goodness without compromise. It’s not something you see everyday but it’s something we can aspire to; and I think a great function of stories (especially super hero stories) is to give us men and women with the sort of character we aspire to – just told on a beautifully hyper-realistic scale.

But I accept a modern worldview much more than a post-modern one. I grew up with heroes like the Pevensie children who learned nobility and courage and strength and were flawed. Meg and Charles Wallace who were exceptionally flawed but also learned strength and courage and love and were good heroes.

THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA PRINCE CASPIAN Georgie Henley William Moseley Ben Barnes Anna Popplewell Skandar Keynes
THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA PRINCE CASPIAN | Georgie Henley, William Moseley, Ben Barnes, Anna Popplewell, Skandar Keynes

Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings books didn’t have the crisis of conscience they created for the film – he accepts Anduil without question and he isn’t tempted by the ring and that’s important because it’s evidence of his nobility and his Numenorean heritage more than Boromir’s. The first movie made him a little rougher around the edges but he was still Aragorn more than the second and third which gave him a post-modern bent toward insecurity. Because, apparently, no one is that good. But maybe they are.

Or maybe they want to be. Maybe some of us enjoy stories about heroes that are simply good; choose right without compromise; are willing to take the hit and sacrifice themself to stop bad things from happening in this world.

I’m not saying those heroes aren’t more interesting with angst. Captain America absolutely is more interesting in the Avengers. But that doesn’t mean I find him uninteresting in his own film. And maybe Superman, in the past, was bland. But Superman in Man of Steel is both dimensional and interesting and also, ultimately, good.

June 26, 2013 | Commentary | this post contains affiliate links