The Problem With Superman
Superman. The Man of Steel. The Man of Tomorrow. The Big Blue Boy Scout. Whatever you want to call him, he is one of the most iconic figures in American history. Strong, handsome, honest, brave, powerful. Dude has it all. But from the perspective of a storyteller, he's a bit of a puzzle.
Supes made his first appearance in Action Comics in 1938. He was strong. He could fly. He was bullet proof. His single weakness, kryptonite, didn't make its first appearance in the comics until 1949. However, in an era before anyone connected the term "canon" to a superhero, stories about Superman were provided through other media as well. In 1943, kryptonite was mentioned for the VERY first time during a Superman radio serial. Superman wasn't actually exposed to kryptonite in that episode. It was essentially a plot tool introduced to give the serial's voice actors some time off. Sound confusing? Check out that story here: https://www.dccomics.com/blog/2018/04/05/the-weird-and-wonderful-history-of-kryptonite.
Why did comic book writers decide it was time to invent kryptonite? That's easy. Superman was getting boring. He was invulnerable to everything and it was difficult to craft a storyline whereby Superman was placed in credible peril. Enter his Achilles Heel. Interestingly, the impact Superman has had on American culture is such that the word "kryptonite" has become synonymous with the phrase "Achilles Heel". I can say "carbs are my kryptonite" and most people would understand what I mean.
Kryptonite is only the tip of the iceberg that is Superman's problem set. Underneath those frigid waters looms the issue of Superman's incredible power surge over time. Superman has always been "strong". In the late 30s and 40s, he could pick up a car. He was "more powerful than a locomotive." In the 1990s, Superman visited a scientist who had invented exercise equipment (sort of ) designed for super-powered beings. Superman started working out until he could bench press Earth. For five consecutive days. But he has also moved the Earth (by flying into space and just pushing), he's moved the sun, he's destroyed an entire solar system by sneezing too hard, he's held a black hole in his hands so it could be moved somewhere else (although, granted, he did say that it hurt a bit), and he once threw a super-powered ape so hard it traveled back in time. I don't know about you, but even if I had an unlimited supply of kryptonite, I'm walking the straight and narrow.
So what do you do with a character like this? For starters, you have to invent incredibly powerful villains for him to fight. Darkseid. Doomsday. Brainiac. You also invent characters that either mirror him in some way (Zod and Bizarro) or are custom-made to counter him (Metallo). From a plot standpoint, having Superman square off with one of these ultra powerful villains requires some selective memory loss. In the early 1990s, Superman had the epic throw down with Doomsday that resulted in his death. (No worries though - cue Christ motif). Superman fought a being that eventually KILLED him and that battle never left the eastern half of the United States. Doomsday killed a being that DESTROYED A SOLAR SYSTEM WITH A SNEEZE yet the collateral damage from their slugfest was about that of a major earthquake. I wonder why Superman didn't just throw Doomsday backwards in time like that super ape?
Superman's core issue - his power levels have been so all over the place that fans can never really get a good sense of what he can do and what he can't do. This is complicated by a related problem - we don't know where his ceiling is, but we do know it is WAY UP THERE. In order to put Superman in peril without using kryptonite, we have to confront him with a foe who is at least as powerful. But we have to do that in some way that doesn't wipe out half of the Milky Way. It's maddening.
And these issues roll over into the movies. "Here Superman, have some kryptonite!" That "twist" has taken place in almost every solo Superman movie in the modern era. But we have also gotten to see the problem created when there IS NO kryptonite. Superman steamrolls everything. That's why the first JLA movie was such a hot mess. When it started, Superman was "dead" (because, uh, kryptonite!). But then he wasn't (Christ motif!). Later on, the other members of the JLA are battling Steppenwolf and his minions (and struggling) when, all of a sudden, Superman arrives on the scene and kicks every ass not wearing the right color jersey. Tell me again - why do we need Wonder Woman? or the Flash? or Aquaman? or Over-The-Hill Man? And that is a plot conundrum JLA stories have been struggling with for years. "Don't let my soup get cold, fellow Leaguers! I've got this!"
It's interesting that the other JLA members didn't get the same power boosts in the movies they have seen in the comics. The comic book WW of today would defeat the movie WW in less than 5 seconds. The movie Flash is "The Fastest Man Alive", but the comic book character is capable of delivering something called "The Infinite Mass Punch". I guess Batman hasn't gotten a huge boost in the comics over the years. But recall, aside from the fact that he can bench press 1000 pounds, has an IQ cruising around 170 with a photographic memory, and has ridiculously good hair, he's "just a normal man". But the comics version would still demolish the fat Ben Affleck version.
Don't get me wrong. It's not my intent to hate on Superman. It's very difficult not to like his character simply for all the good things he represents. But man, I would NOT want to try and write a story that included him that I could feel good about. Trying to determine his limits is impossible, because they have always just been "where do you need them?" Trying to present him with a legitimate threat to his well-being can be done, but where do you stage the fight when you know at least one of the participants can hold a black hole in his hands? "I'm taking you down, Darkseid! But only if you agree to meet me in an empty area of space with a minimum volume of several hundred light years." I know that dialog in comic books can sound cheesy, but come on......