Saving the Man of Steel
4 ways to make a good Superman story
Superman is hard to write. He’s faster than everyone, stronger than everyone, sees everything, hears everything, and he is practically invulnerable. If it weren’t for the seemingly endless supply of kryptonite on the black market, no-one would even stand a chance against him, and even then he always has an extra gear.
When you can’t be beaten, nothing is at stake. There’s no peril, no tension, no danger. Even world ending catastrophes are little more than an inconvenience and that is boring. Just ask Saitama from One Punch Man. In fact, the greatest danger that faces Superman isn’t Kryptonite, it isn’t Lex Luthor, or General Zod, or Brainiac, or even Doomsday. It is being boring.
You can count on one hand the number of great Superman stories out there but they do exist. In this article we will break down what makes them work and what it takes to make the Man of Steel interesting without taking away his powers.
Make him the villain
Two of the greatest versions of Superman currently in the zeitgeist are excellently executed villains. Omniman in Invincible and Homelander in The Boys. Both are the Man of Steel nudged slightly onto the path of darkness and result in a terrifying menace that oozes tension anytime they arrive in a scene.
These aren’t the only times this has worked either. The Plutonian, and Brightburn are two others, even Kal-El himself has gone rogue in some his best stories. Mark Millar and Dave Johnson’s Red Son is the story of a tyrannical Superman who landed in the Ukraine instead of Kansas. Injustice is another. Both are critical and commercial successes. Then there are the times he has gone up against Superman like in Hush or the Dark Knight Returns. Here, he is the embodiment of danger, the ultimate threat.
It works because all the negatives around him being unstoppable and invincible suddenly become strengths for the story. Everything is at stake, there is constant peril because the protagonists need to somehow do the impossible. It’s not even that they have to beat Superman, it’s that even surviving to the end of the story seems like a victory beyond their grasps.
Superman doesn’t need to be evil for this to work either. Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo’s Luthor is the greatest Superman story no-one seems to talk about. This is the film that Batman v Superman Dawn of Justice should have been.
Mild spoilers ahead. It follows Lex Luthor as he tries to conquer the business world, the crime world, and bring down the Man of Steel. He convinces Bruce Wayne that Superman is a threat leading to the Dark Knight trying to unsuccessfully take on Superman and narrowly escape. He manufactures a new hero to steal the spotlight and love from Superman, and he sets into motion a series of events that threaten to turn the public against Superman.
Superman is still objectively the good guy throughout. But he is also the antagonist and a fear inducing force of nature that Lex Luthor has to use every ounce of wit and scheming to keep at bay.
This could work over and over. A charismatic and empathetic villain trying to make it in the criminal underworld of Metropolis knowing that any moment Superman could swoop in and undo his work in a heartbeat. Imagine something like Michael Mann’s Heat but instead of Robert De Niro being chased by Al Pacino, he is trying to outwit a literal god.
Put him in the background
Giving more narrative weight and focus to the supporting cast is part of what makes One Punch Man a success. We know that when Saitama arrives the fight is over and the danger is finished, but there are perilous episodes where Mumen Rider or Genos are facing down against impossible odds and being torn apart while Saitama is delayed or distracted. It’s a tool used across anime as well. How many times has Goku been stuck away from the action? Superman might be invincible, but his friends aren’t.
Jeff Loeb and Tim Sale’s Superman For All Season’s is a good example of this in action. It focuses on Jonathan Kent, Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, and Lana Lang. They are front and center and the story shows how Superman has impacted their lives. We are invested in their arcs and get the benefit of knowing that they are vulnerable adds much needed tension.
Give him something he can’t punch
If Superman can stop any threat with his strength, what happens when it isn’t a villain, or an asteroid, or crashing plane that needs rescuing? Frank Quitely and Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman pits the Man of Steel against a threat that none of his powers can help him against. The Sun.
Lex Luthor has sabotaged the Sun, overwhelming the cells in Superman’s body and killing him. All that is left is for Superman to spend the last moments he has trying to make the world a better place while the clock ticks slowly towards his doom.
Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow is another example. In that, Alan Moore has Superman face off against his own morality in the climax. After going against his code, he has to reconcile this fact and decide whether to bring himself to justice. No amount of punching can undo what he has done.
Remember who he is
Cards on the table, I hate Superman but I didn’t always. Once upon a time he was the center of my comic book world. I watched the Christopher Reeve’s films religiously, I watched the Dean Cain TV series, I read the comics every month (and this was during the 90s when he was in his Red/Blue phase). I consumed all things Superman.
The reason I loved him, was the same as most kids’. He was a power fantasy. In a world of adults who were stronger and faster than you, who set all the rules, and weren’t always just, here was a character you could pretend to be that could put right all the wrongs and move through the world with ease. The lack of tension was a positive as a young kid. It was safe and secure, the bad guy would get punished and the world would be made right.
But, there are other superheroes who embody that better. There’s He-Man, who can transform from a weak prince into the champion of Eternia. There’s Billy Batson who can utter the magic word SHAZAM and become a better, more fun version of Superman.
It’s pure villainy that Superman survived the golden age and Captain Marvel was almost forgotten. Captain Marvel was the superior product, more suited to that audience, a truer embodiment of the fantasy. Nearly a decade of legal battles destroyed the lead Captain Marvel had over his rival and let DC steal the character from its creator. Thanks to that, Superman was able to whether the superhero cull of the post-war period and the watering down of the Comics Code Authority. He muscled his way into the world of kid’s best fantasy and stayed there, but those weren’t his roots.
Children aren’t the only people who can feel powerless. The very first villain Superman took on, in his very first appearance, was the criminal justice system. Superman kicks in the door of the governor in the middle of the night in order to save the life of a wrongfully convicted woman about to be executed. He has already caught the real murderer before the story starts. The killer isn’t the enemy. It’s injustice.
During Siegel and Shuster’s initial run, he takes on a wife beater, would-be rapists, a crooked politician, a munitions manufacturer, more wrongful arrests and almost executions, evil slumlords. Superman’s villains don’t get fantastical until much later. Early on, he was a champion for the down trodden, the disaffected. The last of his villains that fits this mold is Lex Luthor.
The next great Superman story remains to be written and right now the world needs it more than ever. Superman doesn’t need the flash and the gimmicks. He doesn’t need to be watered down, stripped of his powers, given a new haircut and suit. He doesn’t need an overpowered villain to take him down. He doesn’t even need a supervillain at all. There are enough real villains to be inspired by. What the story needs is to focus on the vulnerable and the weak, have Superman arrive, talk truth to power and deliver justice.
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