Are We Being Too Harsh On Superman?

supermanDisclaimer: This post contains spoilers for Superman II and Man of Steel.

What makes Superman so special is that he embodies the very best that humanity has to offer. We put trust in him to make the right decisions – the ones that we regular people might screw up. His strength of character and stern belief that violence and murder are never the answer inspires people to be the best people that they can.

But in our quest to honor him as the savior of humanity did we start putting too high an expectation on Superman to always make the right choice? I mean, what’s it like having the expectations of millions of people weighing down on your shoulders. Most of us are only expected to do our best, but Superman – he’s expected to make the right choice. Whatever that means.

That’s what I want to try to get at today – is Superman “only human” and therefore is allowed to not be perfect? Or is he the embodiment of perfection?

As many of you may know, after Man of Steel came out it received a lot of mixed reviews and opinions. Most of them directed at the fact that he snaps Zod’s neck like a twig to save a terrorized family when he allowed Zod to smash the city and presumably kill millions. They say Superman doesn’t kill. Superman would never have a major battle in Metropolis because he values human life too much to allow that many people die when he can do something about it. This behavior just isn’t something that people seem to accept in a character like Superman. But the thing is, Superman is a character with a history that spans 75 years. He’s been translated into radio, television, film, novels, animation, video games and just about any other medium you can think of. Is there a definitive version of the character? Maybe so, but why is the definitive version of this character so narrow?

The Superman that people think of when they build that image for him isn’t the same Superman in Man of Steel. The Superman that people think of is a more experienced, more developed and much more confident person. Superman in Man of Steel doubted himself at nearly every opportunity – he only got the courage to face Zod because of the support of Lois, his mother and his biological father. He was expected to save the entire planet and he needed help. I mean, people saw how pathetic a fighter he was when he first faced Faora. He got his butt handed to him and she didn’t even have her full set of powers, yet.

The thing is, Superman killing Zod in this movie isn’t even used the same way Uncle Ben’s murder is used for Spider-Man. This is still the Superman that people know and love because he already believes in the value of life and this is obvious from his deep reluctance to hurt anyone. But that doesn’t mean that he’s the same capable and confident crime fighter that we imagine him to be. There’s a difference between personal beliefs and the experience needed to exercise those personal beliefs.

The other issue is the fact that people have very narrow images of who Superman is, sometimes. In this case, people selectively pick and choose certain aspects of his character to build that image. This conveniently leaves out the fact that Superman kills Zod in Superman II in a much more malicious way than Man of Steel and that the Golden Age Superman had no problem threatening criminals with death. Why is selective memory necessary to build this narrative of Superman? Maybe it’s time to accept the fact that characters, much like people, cannot fit in nice and shiny boxes. They are complex, show contradictions and can’t be easily defined as one thing or the other. Superman is not perfect, he can’t be – we make Superman who he is and no matter how hard we try to make him perfect, he will always have the same complexities and contradictions in his character that we do in ours. So let’s appreciate Superman, all of them.