In the last issue of Superman, issue #38, Geoff Johns has decided to give Superman a new power (and outfit). In this issue, which I have not read and don’t plan on reading, Superman gains the “solar flare” ability. This new power allows him to release a massive amount of “solar pose”r all around him, causing an explosion.
New powers are not new for Superman, he has constantly seen his powers being upgraded or degraded, depending on the writers vision for the story. At first, Superman had only limited powers—super strength and speed, near invulnerability, and the ability to leap tall buildings with a single bound—but as time went on his powers grew. In the 1940s tv show he gained the power of flight, in the radio show of the same era he gained x-ray vision, in the 1960s he gained the power to blow out stars, and a whole host of absurd and horrible super powers.
What most writers of Superman seems to miss is that Superman is not defined by his powers. If anything, Superman’s powers are what have historically made me dislike the character. I find him boring and his struggles and fights are devoid of tension. I find it unbelievable that with these absurd powers he would stay so emotionally and morally grounded and connected to protecting humanity. I see Dr. Manhattan as the more realistic Superman, as his powers and abilities have separated him from humanity, making him morally detached, and made him emotionally fickle. A being of Superman’s strength caring about bank robbers and like, seems too far fetched (and this from someone who can deal with the idea of there being a super being, sent from the heavens, to protect mankind with their power).
So what makes Superman interesting and unique as a character? Here I am going to go with the argument that Ben Sanders develops in his fantastic book Do The Gods Wear Capes?: Spirituality, Fantasy and Superheroes, and assert that:
“For what Superman’s transformations reveal, beyond the historical contingency of moral value, is the commitment of the character to the ideal of moral perfection…while scenes of scenes of thrilling action and displays of tremendous physical powers are obviously necessary components of any Superman story, they are less important than his ability to project convincing moral authority (p. 30).”
If Sanders is correct, and I think he is, that Superman is not defined by his powers but by his continual quest for “the good”, what does this mean? To me it means three things.
First, what makes Superman interesting is this quest to be good in a world of complexity and problems, and as such his powers (when made too strong) can be a barrier to him developing a compelling story. Whenever he can over come any problem with ease, the writers minimize the importance of his the struggle to be good.
Secondly, the idea of the good needs to be made into a moving target and, in the end, pure goodness must be unreachable by Superman. Much like Lacan argues that “the real” is an ideal to strive for, it also unreachable by the human conscious—we can never full understand and grasp the real. The same must be true with Superman, his quest needs to be a bit like Sisyphus, he must constantly be working all day to be good and embody goodness but in the end his quest needs to not reach its end; the boulder must be pushed back so his quest for the good can continue indefinitely.
Finally, the villains and stories around him need to complicate the platonic vision of “the good” that Superman stories tend to create; they must grey the world and as such make his quest for “goodness” seem even more utopian.
As such, the compelling Superman story (in my eyes) is one in which it highlights the unwavering commitment by Superman to be “good” in a complex and horrible world even though perfection is an untenable goal. This quest, will then highlight the quest in all of us as we strive to live ethically in a world corrupted by violence, greed, and the like. But this is the exact opposite of what people like Geoff Johns are doing.
Giving Superman new powers shifts the focus of the story from Superman’s quest to be good to the awesomeness of his powers. So now its solar flares (neat!) or Super Weaving (useful but less exciting) but it’s a constant arms race where Superman is competing against his former self. He, much like the US economy, cannot remain stagnant; his powers must grow and grow. Of course, each growth in power requires the development of bigger and bigger quests to over come and this increasingly makes his struggle too far removed from our lives. In the early Superman’s he fought against wife beaters, and corrupt senators, and against horrible government housing and corporations intentionally harming consumers. These are every day struggles that people can connect too, and it was powerful to imagine a super human (or super alien) who fights for the moral right and stops domestic abuse, government corruption, and corporate greed. We feel less connected to a super being fighting galactic aliens trying to destroy the planet, especially as human action (not aliens) are what is leading our planet to ecological collapse. Wouldn’t it be great to see Superman try to address climate change? to use his powers to good use and help us understand how hard it is to be good and address real world problems? I guess it is much easier to fight off alien invasions and get into punching matches with fellow man-Gods then it is to actually address real world social problems