Spurious versions, fundamentally wrongheaded premises, can, and often do, prevail from time to time, but eventually the character, Superman himself, Tulpa Superman, will–somehow, somehow–resist and reverse that meddling, reconstituting himself in the world as he means to be. ~Alvin Schwartz (paraphrased by Tom deHaven)
In my research, I divide superheroes into two archetypes from a mythological perspective. Some are aspirational, and some are cathartic/motivational. The aspirational heroes, the pure ones (think Captain America or the traditional Superman and Wonder Woman), exhibit an unrealistic standard of purity and goodness. They always do the right thing, and in their stories, there always exists a way to do that right thing, no matter what. The example they set is unrealistic, but that’s not the importance of their role in cultures. The aspirational heroes are essential. They cause us to believe in better versions of ourselves and in a better world, so that even if we can never achieve those versions, we’ll still come closer to that standard than if we didn’t have it at all or had only a lower standard to strive for.
We also need the cathartic/motivational characters. These heroes, like Spider-Man and Green Arrow, have some moral failings that show through at times, but they’re not consumed by their faults. They make mistakes, pick themselves up, and eventually do the right thing in the end. We need these characters to encourage us on our way to striving for the aspirational. In fact, the characters themselves really only work when there’s an aspirational one in their universe to inspire them. Spider-Man wants to be like Captain America. Green Arrow often bristles against Superman, the big blue boy scout, showing the archer what he lacks morally.
We need both types of characters, but we need both in context and balance. Some of the defenses I’ve read of Man of Steel or Batman v Superman have been in response to the novelty of placing Superman in moral catch 22s and asking what he would “really” do. They want to treat him as a cathartic/motivational character. The problem, though, is that we already have a plethora of flawed but overcoming, cathartic/motivational superheroes (that exist in better-told stories than Batman v Superman). By making Superman “more realistic,” we decrease the precious few aspirational heroes that don’t need a great moral failing to figure out life. Mythologically, that means we lower the standard our culture strives for.
Defending the iconic Superman drained the emotional energy of many of us this weekend. My impression is that those who try to defend BvS fall into two camps, the nihilists who enjoy moral uncertainty and the fans who found some cathartic/motivational merit in the portrayal but fail to understand the harm that alteration does to our culture. Cast as a cathartic/motivational hero in these films, who does Superman have to show him a better way? Who instills a belief in humanity and our potential in him, like Captain America does for Spider-Man? The answer is no one. The films even rob him of the Kents in that role. As a result, there is no hope in either of these films, no matter how much they throw around the word. And the rare claims of an uplifting experience by watching these films, come from an outside interpretation or knowledge of the character, sloppily overlaying the film’s message of moral uncertainty. It’s disheartening, to say the least, but the real Superman wouldn’t give up or stall out in self-pity.
The very existence of the debate disheartens traditional fans. In the past, the purity of Superman has solved such debates about heroes in general. Titles like Kingdom Come and What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way have corrected such wrongheaded approaches to hero stories. So what would our Superman do when confronted with the current slanderous interpretation of what he stands for? First and foremost, he wouldn’t devolve into the same hate-filled rhetoric thrown around by so many Batman v Superman defenders. The insults and mean-spirited comments directed toward dissent are the most damning evidence of how the film truly inspires people to behave. The real Superman would never devolve into such behavior, and his fans should keep that in mind when tempted to respond to bullying with insults in return.The real Superman wouldn’t give up on humanity, even when it’s showing its darkest side.
With the monumental box-office earnings, due to advanced ticket sales, curiosity, and good marketing, WB is unlikely to turn away from their dark path until the fad runs its course throughout a few more films. But Superman wouldn’t be silent. He would continue to exhibit his aspirational example until the world sees the light. So never tire of pointing out what the real Superman would do and what type of stories should be told about him in place of the current darkness. The rise in bullying and hate we’ve seen is a sign of fear and desperation to silence the truth. Don’t let them do it. Keep trending honest critiques of the films, recommending iconic Superman tales, and sharing the real Superman’s joy and inspiration. He’ll return to us, as Alvin Schwarts prophesied, soon enough in contemporary media, but it’s up to us to pave the way.