SHOWCASE PRESENTS: The Worst Representations of Superman

Editors Note: All editorials are solely the opinion of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of DC Comics News or its staff.

I was having a conversation about the DC cinematic universe recently and, naturally, Man of Steel came up. Now, to be honest, I didn’t think the movie was all that great. Visually, it was absolutely stunning. But the writing left quite a lot to be desired. I was asked what I thought of Superman’s characterization in the film and I replied with “that’s not my Superman.” Close, just not exactly the character I know and love. And that got me thinking.

Superman has been interpreted in as many different ways as there are writers who’ve tackled the character. He’s iconic so everyone sees him a bit differently. There are a handful of writers at DC who have written him sublimely: Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, Garth Ennis, Joe Kelly, Mark Waid, and, my personal favorite, Elliot S! Maggin. They’ve all placed themselves in my personal pantheon of “the best of the best” when it comes to “getting” Superman.

But there are those who haven’t fared as well. As much as I dislike Scott Lobdell’s work with the Super-Family at large, his work has been more “uninspired” and “annoying” than “the worst ever.” These are the four that make the list of “The Worst Representations of Superman.”

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Superman: Earth One – For if you watched Man of Steel and wanted Clark to be more proactive about being shitty.

4. Superman: Earth One, Vol. 1 by J. Michael. Straczynski (2010)

It pains me to write this because I honestly think JMS is a fantastic writer. His run on The Brave and the Bold with Jesus Saiz stands as the pinnacle of team-up storytelling in the DC universe. I once read a comment on Reddit that I think sums up my feelings on Superman: Earth One better than anything else: “I can understand why someone who hates Superman would like Earth One.”

The big issue is the portrayal of Superman in the first volume. Note that I say only the first volume because, honestly, the second volume may have been mediocre overall, but the section dealing with Clark’s childhood was actually quite well done.

There are certain things Superman should never do. For example, he probably shouldn’t entertain the idea of becoming a professional athlete to the point of actually going to a football tryout for an NFL team. And he definitely shouldn’t become Superman as an act of revenge. Both are present in Earth One.

I feel like a lot of the missteps Man of Steel (the movie) made with regards to Superman’s characterization stem from Earth One. Clark is a mopey, disinterested twenty-something who becomes a hero as a last resort. That’s just not the kind of hero I want to root for.

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“Did you draw that on with chalk?”
“…. No.”

3. Smallville (TV Series – 2001-2011)

I watched Smallville for 10 years. It could easily have stopped after four and it probably should’ve. Much of the time, the shows only saving grace was the phenomenal portrayal of Lex Luthor by Michael Rosenbaum. Seriously, he’s the best live-action Lex we’ve ever had and his arc was the most compelling thing on the show.

Smallville started off decently. It was a show about Clark Kent and Lex Luthor growing up in a small Kansas town and figuring out the men they wanted to be. But things dragged on too long and the show runners had to find ways to hold Clark back from his destiny, and his cape, for as long as they could. Ultimately, it was Clark who’d made Lex into a psychopathic monster, Lana Lang into a radioactive runaway, Pete Ross into a junkie drifter, and Chloe Sullivan into a wanted criminal.

By the end of Smallville, almost every major iconic villain or hero (minus Batman and Wonder Woman who, presumably, were as stunted as Clark) in the DCU had taken up his or her mantles. Even the Wonder Twins had made their heroic debut in Metropolis. But Clark continued to pine after pretty girls who he would later reject until the final episode where he appeared as…a CGI model from 50 feet away. Dressed as Superman.

Perhaps Smallville’s greatest failing was in the 13th episode of its ninth season. Clark, in an effort to scare the Kandorians on Earth, blows up the twin towers they’d been building in the middle of Metropolis using his heat vision. There was nothing subtle about it. America’s greatest hero destroyed two buildings in the middle of its greatest city in an effort to cause terror and send a message. He literally became a 9/11 terrorist parallel and it was never mentioned again. There were no consequences. At all.

That’s just…ugh.

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“Einstein could totally beat up a tank because he’s smarter!”
See? That’s what you sound like.

2. The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller (1985)

Now, hear me out on this one. While TDKR has absolutely stood the test of time and maintained its place as one of the greatest Batman stories of all time, it was quite the opposite for Superman. Miller’s Superman is an idiotic government lapdog. He’s preachy, out of touch, and not terribly bright. To be fair, in Miller’s world, Bruce Wayne is really a man of slightly above average intelligence in a world full of morons. But the reason TDKR makes this list is because of the lasting impact it had on the character. Superman gets a lot of crap from a lot of people, but no group more than Batman fans. To this day, I consistently hear “Superman is overpowered” almost immediately followed by “but Batman can totally kick his ass.”

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Today, we call these “Lobdell Boxes.”

1. Man Of Steel by John Byrne (1986)

Not to be confused with the movie from 2012. John Byrne was responsible for the relaunch of Superman following Crisis on Infinite Earths. Before the 1986 relaunch, Superman was amazing. Really, honestly, amazing. Like Superman should be. Elliot S! Maggin wrote some of the greatest superhero stories ever put to paper because he realized something only a handful of writers nowadays understand: Superman, the idea, the concept, it’s just so much bigger than us. So the world has to be bigger, too.

Superman was an adventurer, a genius, and a pacifist. Of course, he was also very, very strong. He could move whole planets. New issues brought new powers, new stories, and new possibilities. The rules were simple: Superman believes we are all worth saving. And in an impossible situation, he will always do the impossible.

It was the purest age of super-heroism.

And then there was the 1986 Man of Steel relaunch.

The infinite possibilities went away. The world got smaller and bleaker and “realer.” We got a Superman to match.

In all great heroes, there is a fatal flaw, a weakness, a tragedy that defines them. Superman’s great tragedy was loneliness. He grew up different, able to see better and do more. He envied us our frailties. There was just no hope of finding someone else like him. His world was gone. And, before he knew it, the people who’d raised him were gone, too. He put on the mask of Clark Kent every day. Can you imagine what that’s like? Pretending to be something you used to be? A part of you that long since died…

But he was a hero. Not because of the tragedy but in spite of it. He wanted to save us because he believed, truly and honestly, that we were worth that. We were worth the life of sacrifice he’d have to endure. Because how could he not?

The Byrne era took away the tragedy. Krypton went from a lush paradise to a sterile wasteland full of empty-headed zealots. It wasn’t even worth mourning.

The birthing matrix meant Clark was born on Earth. And he became earthly. His powers didn’t develop until his late teens so they never made him feel isolated as a child. He was, in fact, quite popular through his young adulthood. A star athlete with the prettiest girl in town doting at his side.

He went off to Metropolis, easily landing a great job. He became a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and ended up eventually marrying the woman of his dreams.

His Luthor was a corrupt businessman rather than a mad genius that was the only person on Earth who could truly rival Superman’s intellect.

Speaking of which…well, there was little to speak of. Gone was the pacifist, the genius, the great inventor. A strongman with above average intelligence and a penchant for punching things replaced him.

And if he ever encountered a problem he couldn’t punch his way out of right away, he ran home to his parents, relying on them to deliver the same pep talks over and over and over again. Then he’d return to Metropolis and punch a little bit harder before delivering some preachy monologue.

It may have been Miller who turned Superman into the meathead government tool, but it was Byrne who made him something so much worse: boring.

The Man of Steel relaunch was a Marvel-ization of Superman. Now, the term Marvel-ization isn’t derogatory in and of itself. It just means turning a character and into a person with superpowers rather than DC’s notion of a “superhero.” But doing that to Superman… that was nothing short of a travesty.

Every character is open to interpretation. But there’s a subtle difference between adding to a character’s mythos and changing the fundamentals of his or her being.

  • CharlesHB

    Ack arrrgh how dare you… well no actually you’ve pretty much nailed it!

    A couple of things Earth One did deal with baby Kal’s arrival well, another plus was Kryptonian Technology was beyond human understanding, the way Luthor eg in Birthright deciphers it – for me – is a shark jump, analogous to a caveman working out how to replicate a pocket calculator, ie he might make it work, but he hasn’t the tech to build anything like it.

    The other weakness Superman has is over confidence, as seen in especially in the Mongul debut in the excellent DC Presents #27-29 iirc.

    I imagine Bryne was told by DC at the time. Make Superman more like Spider-Man. So he creates this teenage persona,… then DC say – no he must be 25, so we got a twenty something with seven years of wandering the world that has to run home to mope in his bedroom because he’s afraid of crowds.

    Crucially this characterisation infected the whole Iron Age Superman run.

    Which is why I’m optimistic for the New 52 because Morrison created a solid foundation of an enthusiastic (screw Smallville) driven Hero, who is lonely, but idealistic. His powers are back, his smarts are back, eg the Neil deGrasse Tyson issue, or the one where he references Superman #96, and has Superman super learning medicine.