Why isn’t Superman popular anymore? He’s a nice guy, he works hard, and he always does the right thing. He’s also pretty much invincible. All these are admirable traits. And despite those qualities, or perhaps because of them, Superman has fallen from his position as the undisputed champion of superheroes.
In terms of legacy Superman is still the greatest in many ways. But he’s like a great athlete from the 70s. Hall of fame, no doubt, but he couldn’t play in today’s game. Superman was THE superhero of the greatest generation. But in today’s world of boomers, Gen-Xers, and Millennials, he just doesn’t really capture people’s imaginations.
So what happened? Have we outgrown Superman or is he too good for us?
Some Superman diehards out there might be calling BS. I’ll provide a little evidence. Unfortunately I was unable to find a poll on favorite superheroes by age group so let’s look at reviews and box office numbers. In the last 20 years, adjusted for inflation, Man of Steel ranks the 12th highest grossing superhero movie. That’s below 3 Batmans, 3 Ironmans, 3 Spidermans, Guardians of the Galaxy, and the Avengers. Superman Returns is 18th, beneath Hancock. In terms of reviews, Superman Returns rates 76% on Rotten Tomatoes while Man of Steel rated only 55%. Meanwhile The Avengers has 92%, Spider-Man 2 has 94%, Dark Knight has 94%, Guardians of the Galaxy has 91%, and X-Men Days of Future Past has 91%. So Superman by the numbers is decidedly mediocre. Middle of the pack is a strange place for the name you’d be smart to shout out if the Family Feud category was superheroes.
Batman, Spiderman, and Ironman are three comic book characters that have recently enjoyed incredible box office success. Hugh Jackman is going to be making Wolverine movies until his hair falls out. The movies outpace the ideas, as demonstrated in the bizarre Wolverine/Kung Fu mashup.
But why hasn’t there been a popular Superman movie since the 70s, or a popular comic book storyline that doesn’t involve his “death”? In the 21st century, Hollywood has abandoned twice as many Superman projects as they’ve made. They even abandoned the first of the two they did make, not in the that-was-so-good-lets-try-it-again-immediately-with-the-dude-from-Social-Network-and-hope-no-one-realizes-this-is-weird kind of way but more of the let’s-pretend-that-never-happened kind of way.
If you ask most people who aren’t retired who their favorite superhero is you’ll probably get Batman, Spiderman, Ironman, Wolverine, Thor, even the Hulk is back, and many more. What happened to the OG? The first? The most powerful? Is it us or is it him?
Let’s leave the cape and the building leaping and put on our big glasses and analyze this.
- A Numbers Game
First, one possibility not present in the title that I must present is that it’s just a numbers game. Maybe Superman’s waning popularity has a lot to do with the fact that he was the only one that existed and now there are more superheroes than you can count (I’m looking at you X-Men, and who the hell knew what a Guardian of the Galaxy was before the movie came out?).
Popular art has become decentralized in many ways. Everybody knew the Beatles and everybody bought them, same with Michael Jackson. But the most popular artists today don’t sell anywhere near what they did. It’s not because people don’t like music, it’s because they can find music that more specifically caters to what they like. Walter Cronkite was the truth in his day but now you’d have everyone who watched Fox calling him biased and a bunch of other people who get their news exclusively from blogs telling you to watch a YouTube video on fluoride instead. Maybe it’s just the law of averages. Maybe it’s just that Superman was basically a monopoly. He was Internet Explorer and then came Safari, Firefox, and Chrome. He’s still relevant, he’s still good, but most people prefer something else.
On the other hand, Coke is still number one. You can’t make art into an equation. Unlike web browsers most people like many forms of art and they don’t necessarily come at the expense of one another. Furthermore, things like movie reviews shouldn’t be impacted by the level of competition.
- Power Problems
Maybe it’s that his powers are a little weird. They don’t lend themselves to suspense. He’s completely indestructible. Plus, he can fly, breath ice, see through walls, and shoot lasers out of his eyes (How can you miss your target with laser eyes. As long as you see it you hit it right? There’s no aiming.). Kind of boring. Not a lot of suspense.
He has a Hiro problem. Not hero, but Hiro. In the television show Heroes, the character of Hiro could travel through time and space. He’s so powerful he could fix or solve any issue in the blink of an eye. Take the 2-part episode The Eclipse for example. For 2 episodes, an hour and a half, Sylar and the Bennet family fought to destroy one another, back and forth it went. Then at the climax, with Sylar about to rip Noah Bennet’s head off, Hiro, in a matter of seconds, resolves the entire situation by popping up from thin air and transporting Sylar away. That is why it seemed every season of Heroes they had to distract Hiro with some side issue (ancient Japan, thinking he was 10 years old, nosebleeds). Superman has the same issue. He’s so powerful it’s difficult to come up with a plot where there are not several opportunities for a fan to say ‘Why doesn’t he just…”
Now consider his weakness. He has a deadly allergy to rocks. I’m not familiar with how that originally started but I imagine one of the original writers one day said, “This is getting boring, he’s never in danger.” Another writer said, “You’re right, we can’t keep using Lois Lane as a fear proxy or people will stop feeling scared for her and start feeling bad for her.” And it’s true; Lois is in danger so often you have to wonder if Superman is her savior or her curse. Kryptonite seems arbitrary, it has no connection to him as a person, and it’s not an analogy for any personal demon he must overcome, at least not in any way that’s discernible to me. Perhaps in some way it reflects his home-sickness, but that’s a generous guess. It seems like it’s just a rock.
But is the power of his powers and the weirdness of his weakness really the answer?
There’s doubt to be had on that. After all, has anyone ever seriously been worried for Wolverine’s life? Superheroes almost by definition don’t die, even when they do. Maybe Superman is just too in your face with that fact. But isn’t Thor as well? When Hulk goes Hulk you know its game over. Is Superman’s geophobia any goofier than Thor not being able to let go of his Hammer? There is no shortage of arbitrary occurrences or shortcuts in comics. Let’s be honest, a radioactive spider is a dead spider and as much as Ironman and Batman are supposed to be men of the people, drawing your power from huge piles of your parents’ money is not a situation most of us can relate to.
- Personality Problems
Let’s consider his personality.
The DSM-IV is the diagnostic statistical manual for psychological disorders. Narcissism is a personality disorder. There’s been a hot debate about removing it from the DSM or changing it because some argue that nowadays so many people exhibit traits consistent with narcissism it can’t be considered outside of the norm. We live in a time where (forgive the cliche) people want to be reality TV stars or have some mythical form of happiness they “deserve.” People say things like “everything happens for a reason” as if all the forces of the universe have come together so they could have some learning experience they don’t learn from. I’m talking about that Eat Pray Love type of person, someone who cheats on their significant other and says something like “God has a plan” or “wasn’t meant to be.” Another example is when you see a jerk, you call them out, and they think you’re a “hater.” Everybody thinks they have destiny and haters, they’re the center of the universe.
Superman on the other hand. He fights for truth, justice, and the American way. Why? Because it’s the right thing to do. He has a destiny of sorts, and he has some legit haters. But he doesn’t hold a press conference about it. He doesn’t even want any credit. The guy hides from it. He’s a blue collar hero. He’s a union man, invented in an era of union men. The guy just does good. There’s no temptation for him to use his powers for himself. Just clock in, save the world, clock out.
That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s too good for us, maybe he’s just boring, he’s not real. American soldiers were walking around Korea with flamethrowers while people listened to “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window.” The world is a complicated place with many gears turning and motivations at work. He’s from a time where a lot of art was cultural propaganda (an overused word but accurate here). There is very rarely true evil and true good. Art has caught up to that. Don Draper and Walter White are prime examples. Perhaps our nuanced understanding of the world has moved beyond good conquers evil. Art now is all about making you question what is good, if it’s the right choice, and what does victory even mean.
Look at any ‘Golden Age of TV’ show; be it Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones, everything is morally complicated. Not for Superman, he always knows what the right thing is and does it.
- Have We Outgrown Superman or Is He Too Good for Us?
Let’s call it like it is. Ironman took up the calling because of an ego trip. Batman took it for a revenge trip. Spiderman took it up as a guilt trip. Is it really so hard to wrap our heads around the idea that someone can want to be a hero for no other reason than it’s the right thing to do? Is it realism or narcissism to assume that it’s silly for someone to care so much and sacrifice so much for people who are weaker than they are, physically and morally, and who will never reward him?
I once had an economics professor who said that no one ever does anything for any reason but self-interest. There is no motivation but selfishness says the Ayn Rand reading libertarian. Meanwhile I was reading a whole chapter on altruism in a social psychology class, the discipline that actually studies why people do things.
A lot of modern art still embraces the messiah complex, the hero. Rick from Walking Dead or Jack from Lost for example. They’re just more complicated. The burden for those characters is more real. The Starks of Game of Thrones (King in the North) pay the price seemingly constantly.
Maybe we’re more realistic and more honest. Or maybe we’re more cynical and more selfish. Ultimately, Superman was not even an accurate portrayal of the world in his heyday. The complexity of the world has been constant, but our understanding of the complexity has grown in the past few generations. We have outgrown Superman.
But has it grown accurate? To some degree yes, but to some degree no. Stats on violence and war indicate that humanity is getting better, but it seems to be lost on us. Furthermore, Superman is an immigrant, invented before the Immigration and Naturalization Act. Has our worsening attitude toward immigrants taken a toll on Superman? Ultimately, cynicism is another form of naivety. Dismissing Superman as a possibility or even as an ideal is perhaps an indication that we don’t deserve him. Superman is also too good for us.
I don’t pretend to see the trajectory for the Superman character. I don’t suppose I have an answer to why he’s not as popular. Even at his least popular today he’s still popular and generates a lot of money. He’s definitely had better days but these things ebb and flow (ask Hulk). He’s the OG. He’s like Forrest Gump and we’re like Jenny. We have outgrown him, but still, he is too good for us. In the end we’ll find our way together again. But in the meantime it’s worth wondering for yourself if have we outgrown Superman or if is he too good for us? The answer might reflect as much on us and how we’ve changed as a culture as it does on Superman.
by Zack Goncz
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I think that in order to have a great superman you have to have someone that can portray a great Clark Kent. The only actor that has been able to pull this off was Christopher Reeve. He was so good, he could go from Superman to Clark in the same scene and never miss a beat. When Reeve left the role, our love for Superman left our conscience. Just my opinion. I also feel that the glasses disguise the man of steel is not going to work with today’s audience.
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I completely agree with this, the importance of Clark to a successful Superman is so often misunderstood (hence two awful essentially Clark-less Superman reboots).
As far as the original point goes, I’d be wary of using the film popularity as a metric. Given that both Superman films you talk about are widely considered bad it’s not surprising that they were far less successful than higher quality films like The Avengers. There are plenty of great Superman stories that write around his powers effectively and without constantly resorting to Lois Lane in peril (All-star Superman being the shining example).
Superman still sells a lot of comics (and no doubt lunch boxes, briefs, and tshirts), and his cultural significance remains massive. It seems to me that the general perception of Superman as uncool has been around for decades, but regardless he is still here fighting for truth, justice, etc.
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I agree the quality of the movies have been sub par but I’m not sure that Superman himself is free from blame. The character is perhaps too one-dimensional for the nuanced and layered characters that people are drawn to these days. But culturally I suppose, why is having a dark-side, an ego, a selfishness necessary to being cool? I’m not sure this is Superman’s fault, maybe we’re just not as good, as idealistic, as the WWII generation that created him. On the other hand, maybe we’re more realistic. Difficult to say, but somewhere out there I’m sure there’s the right actor/director/writer combination to overcome the powers issues or the boy-scout personality and really make a great modern Superman film without altering the character at all. Personally, I think he needs motivation, humanity, and I think humanity, a deep personal type that’s unique to him (Spiderman’s guilt, Batman’s revenge, Ironman’s ego).
I agree casting is important. I think recently the focus seems to have been on someone who looks the part. Of course you need a dark haired handsome guy who is in shape. But, its easier to dye someone’s hair than to make them believably play the man of steel. Maybe we haven’t focused on what’s underneath the black pompadour. And what that is, I’m not sure I know to be honest.
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