Recently, one of my friends told me that Superman was an inch from becoming a dictator. It didn’t seem likely to me, but I didn’t have any arguments, just a sense that Superman wasn’t inclined toward world domination. Luckily enough, the public library system provided me with, The Man from Krypton: A Closer Look at Superman, a collection of essays edited by Glenn Yeffeth.
The Man from Krypton is part of Benbella Books Smart Pop series. Smart Pop includes geekily academic and academically geeky books on The Matrix, NYPD Blue, King Kong, The Golden Compass, Farscape, Pride and Prejudice and anything Joss Whedon. Sadly, aside from the pastel Lichtensteinish cover, there are no pictures. Still, it’s a fun book with essays on Krypton, Christopher Reeve, Smallville, Lois and that one by Larry Niven about how Superman’d kill Lois if they had sex. Ladies, I suggest staying away from it. Gruesome. The Man from Krypton also gave me some perspective on how the Superman might differ from other Men of Steel, say Josef Stalin (despite obvious differences like never creating a system of gulags, Phantom Zone aside).
Sure, Superman has the ability to set himself up as King of the World, but he chooses not to. That choice counts, just as my own choices not to be an asshole count. I think I hadn’t read much Superman because it was hard for me to sympathize with him—his power, his belief in Truth, Justice and the American Way. Maybe as I get older and more aware of how I can hurt people, I sympathize more with Clark, who can hurt people every day if he’s not careful all the time.
In “History of Violence,” David Hopkins surveys hundreds of covers and consults an uber superman geek friend. He discovers that Superman damages a lot of property, but not people. He concludes that Superman’s nature is “one of power, restraint and, finally, theatrics” (19). It’s a side issue, but theatrics is worth pondering. Jules Feiffer wrote in another book that Clark Kent was Superman’s cover and reflected his view of humanity. Hopkins adds, “Clark Kent, the mild-mannered Daily Planet reporter, is an act, but, to some degree, so is Superman. Both hold back. Power and violence do not show the true strength and courage of a person, but control and restraint do.”
Screw the flying, super strength and heat vision, Superman’s greatest power might well be that he’s always in control. He always restrains himself while appearing to hit a thug as hard as he can. But Superman never does. That restraint is exactly where stories of alternate universe or Kryptonite-addled Superman gone wrong or Superman letting loose get their thrill. The Warner Bros. animated series managed to reflect the fearsome nature of his power, mostly in the amount of crater-causing damage he took because he could and, occasionally, in his letting go on superpowerful villains like life-hating alien dictator and bad father, Darkseid. In one episode of Justice League, an other dimensional Superman imposes order and security by killing Lex Luthor and lobotomizing antisocial elements. Encountering this alternate self reminds Superman of what he could become and clarifies why Superman binds himself with human-imposed limits like the law and Clark’s daily life. The fact that it’s Superman binding himself—choosing not to be a dictator–and nothing else, is part of what worries people, mostly fictional people but also fans like my friend.
Of course, people don’t just worry about what Superman could do. They worry about what Superman doesn’t do. Paul Levinson agonizes over the implications of Superman’s restraint in “Superman, Patriotism and Doing the Ultimate Good: Why the Man of Steel Did So Little to Stop Hitler.” And what Superman doesn’t do is stop World War II. Levinson’s caught like a coat in a car door on why Superman lets bad things happen to good people. In his desire to maintain his suspension of disbelief, he disregards his best answer: Superman couldn’t end World War II because readers in the 1940s would find it unbelievable. For Levinson finding an explanation outside the story kills the magic. He wants to believe in Superman. And so he tugs away, pained by Superman’s refusal to do more about suffering in the real world, pained by Superman’s refusal to take the control people want to give him to end evil.
Levinson might not be the only one frustrated that Superman doesn’t force the world, even a comic book world, to be a better place, despite the universal experience of fucking things up when we’re trying to make them better. I think Frank Miller is frustrated Superman doesn’t. And sometimes that frustration leads to dismissive representations of Superman as a boy scout or a government flunky—someone who submits to imperfect authority even though he seems to know innately what is right and good. Superman could be a tyrant for truth, justice and the American way, but he’s just not that Man of Steel.