The Pathos of Superheroes

I've always been more of a fan of the Batman, than of Superman. Even the angst teenaged Spider-man seems more engaging than Supes. I'm by no means a comic geek. Most of my exposure to these franchises has been through film and television. Admittedly, it's been many years since I actually watched one of the Superman films, and I don't think that I've made much effort to watch Superman Returns.

As a kid, I think the only Superman comics I read were the Death of Superman series, back in 1993. The fall of Superman made him more than just vulnerable. At the time, this seemed shocking, that the impervious hero could be brought down.

The Death of Superman. Superman Vol 2 Issue 75 cover

Setting aside for the moment, whether the back story of Bruce Wayne witnessing his parents' murder, or Peter Parker feeling responsible for the murder of his uncle, is felt deeper than the destruction of some distant homeland, lets consider some of the attributes of these heroes.

Superman is an alien being. Outwardly human, and with an all-American heartland upbringing, there is little about his appearance to set him aside as someone different. Yet he is stronger and faster than mere mortals. Generally invulnerable to anything, except Kryptonite. Superman's defence of Truth, Justice, and the American Way has a saccharine quality, too good to be true.

There's no fundamental conflict in his character. There are no moral choices that define his character. In the first Superman movie, when Lois Lane dies because Superman fails to stop a missile from setting off an earthquake, he goes back in time to save her. Talk about a missed opportunity for character development. Why should I feel for any of his choices when he can apparently just call for a do-over?

This is in fact the exact choice they made in The Dark Knight film. Batman is offered a choice: save District Attorney Harvey Dent, or save his love interest Rachel Dawes. Batman makes the opposite choice that Superman made: save the girl. The twist is that the Joker switched the locations: in choosing to save Rachel, he instead saves Dent. This is what character development is made of. Even though he made the arguably selfish choice, he still loses. More to the point, he also loses the moral high ground.

Batman The Dark Knight Returns cover

I'm reading The Dark Knight Returns, written and drawn by Frank Miller. This series is highly influential, and when published in 1986, reshaped the perception of Batman, probably in ways which colour my view of superheroes today. But the seeds of Batman's character were planted long before.

Batman is driven by his obsession: avenging his parent's death. He's a crime fighter, but it's driven by vengeance. Superman is a crime fighter too, I suppose, but he stands for virtue and cultural values. Superman fights for what is right. Batman fights because it feels right.

The origin stories of our heroes are all different, and this is where the current controversy comes from. The earlier versions of Superman's origins are that his home world of Krypton was destroyed, and he was the last survivor, sent as an infant to Earth.

There are rumoured changes to Superman's origin story in the new film, where Krypton still exists, and that Superman's exile to Earth is for some other reason. Some folks at io9 suggest that this will alter Superman's character in a rather fundamental way. I would tend to agree with the pageofreviews which instead suggests that this actually makes his character more interesting.

Finally, we get a choice. Why does Superman stay on Earth, when he could return to Krypton? Why should Krypton matter? Is Superman in exile any more interesting than Superman the infant refugee? Can we sow some seeds of discord into Superman's origin? Can Superman still inspire us if he has internal conflict? I think so, and it might just restore some humanity to the Man of Steel.