Captain Superman and Me

captain-superman

This week I read a message of apology to DC that Marvel now owns the true character of Superman… and that they call him Captain America. I like that. It’s one of the best insult-comedy gags I’ve heard in ages, cutting, funny, sly and wry. But they say that the truth is often uttered in jest. As much as we may not want to admit it, the simple truth here is that the never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American way looks like it’s being fought by a different soldier right now. I know, that old catchphrase got jettisoned quite a while ago but like “with great power comes great responsibility” it’s got a nice ring to it. I may not be American, but I know what sounds good.

Artwork by ssejllenrad

Superman, or at least the Superman I like, is strangely one of the most unlikeable characters I know of. He’s Mister Goody Two-Shoes and it’s hard to tell if his eyes glow red because he’s using heat vision or if he’s seeing the world through rose-tinted contact lenses. He’s not just a good guy, he’s the good guy. Unfortunately, while his Kansas farmboy upbringing might have given him a great moral code, it also made him seem… well, like a wimp. He just happenes to be a super-strong wimp.

That big red S on his chest is supposed to stand for hope, but for me it stands for so much more. It stands for goodness and a moral code that can’t be corrupted. He helps everyone and asks for nothing in exchange. Of course, while he may be good there’s always that element of danger that at any point he could snap. It’s been the focus of some of the best stories I’ve ever read. I remember Rage, where Clark Kent had to deal with an abusive wife-beating neighbour, or the Red Glass storyline where he hallucinated that he killed every other superhero in the DCU. And, of course, there’s the What’s So Funny About Truth Justice & the American Way? story where he made the point that it’s his self-control to not be violent that makes him a better hero.

I’m guessing Zack Snyder missed that one.

Then you’ve got Captain America, whose costume (in case you never checked) actually bears more resemblance to the Puerto Rican flag than the old Stars ‘n Stripes. This guy wanted to be a soldier in a war, which in case you missed the memo means that he killed his enemies usually, unless it was Baron Zemo who just got a velvet towel glued onto his face. Cap was a nice guy but he was no saint. Still, he went on to become the moral compass of The Avengers and possibly the whole Marvel Universe. The odd thing is, nobody seemed to like him much either.

Don’t get me wrong, I always had respect for Cap, just like I’ve always had respect for Superman. Still, it’s only the Captan America comics that ever printed one of my letters in the pages they used to have in the back. Don’t worry, DC, I don’t hold a grudge. My point though was that I didn’t care much for Cap as a character either. He was a symbol too but was just too patriotic for my taste, especially since – like I said – I’m not American. I’m not alone on that sentiment either, and one of the biggest hurdles the films have had to overcome was why would non-Americans even want to watch a guy called Captain America extol the virtues of the USA?

The thing is, I read the comics. Not only were they good, but they weren’t what I was expecting. Instead of flag-waving, he just inspired people with words and deeds. He didn’t talk about the virtues of the USA, he talked about the virtues of equality and human rights in general. Remember that old Hulk Hogan theme song, Real American? It was like that. He was just a guy who fought for the rights of everyone, even if it meant going against the government. He supported the country and the people, not the politics. And like he said in the film, he just doesn’t like bullies. That sounds like a hero to me.

Through reboots and heroes being reborn, New 52s and Ultimates, these characters have changed a bit. The essence of one of them has become more diluted while in the other it’s become more concentrated. In films, one who wasn’t supposed to kill did just that. The other, whose old job as a soldier meant kiling, refused to kill his enemy and was willing to die to save him. It’s fair to argue that General Zod was a psycho bad guy against Superman, while The Winter Soldier was really a brainwashed buddy of Captain America, but it still says a lot. One hero traded a bright costume for a darker one, while one switched his darker one for the classic with lighter tones.

So the real question is: is Captain America now the true character of Superman?

NO. No. he’s not. He’s close, and certainly closer to that essence than the current Superman seems to be. He’s his own character with some slightly old-fashioned values that drive him to do the right thing whenever he can, and that’s good enough for me even if he wasn’t raised as a farmboy. That true character, those virtues that made the Man of Steel such a classic hero… well, they’re a lot to live up to, even for Captain America.

I just wish they weren’t too much for Superman to live up to these days as well.

Artwork by Heri-Shinato

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4 Comments on "Captain Superman and Me"

  1. Nightwing83

    People like this make me laugh. The non-fans who say things like, “Superman, or at least the Superman I like, is strangely one of the most unlikeable characters I know of. He’s Mister Goody Two-Shoes and it’s hard to tell if his eyes glow red because he’s using heat vision or if he’s seeing the world through rose-tinted contact lenses. He’s not just a good guy, he’s the good guy. Unfortunately, while his Kansas farmboy upbringing might have given him a great moral code, it also made him seem… well, like a wimp. He just happenes to be a super-strong wimp.”

    You don’t understand him, you act like the mere fact that he killed ONE GUY makes him the Punisher or something and you post some amateur drawing of the classic Superman threatening the New 52 version (gee, I thought we were talking about the movie, which is it?) and don’t lay down any specifics.

    Don’t get me wrong, Winter Soldier is great and “Man of Steel” is just pretty good; but I think it’s the people who have never read Siegel & Shuster’s classic comics and never watched the Fleisher cartoons or the classic TV show who yammer about the alleged infidelity. Posers.

  2. Shlepzig

    Both characters were cut from the same cloth to represent a patriotic ideal. Superman has been changed over time to be the guardian of Earth, Captain America is kinda limited by his name to be forever linked to the USA. Both continue to represent decidedly western sets of values (like the Cowboy code of Gene Autry).

    Writers will take these assets and put their mark on them. Some less gently than others, let’s just be happy neither has a newfound cousin Oliver creeping around Avengers Mansion or the Fortress of Solitude.

  3. SenorApplesauce

    I think more people have an issue with the continuation of the fight in a city where probably thousands died with little to no acknowledgement of that in this movie. Sure, they might make it the whole point of the BvS movie, but a little attempt by Supes to pull the fight out of town and maybe a line by Zod of, “oh no you don’t” might have been nice (which could have helped reinforce ‘the decision’ Superman had to eventually make).

  4. Stephen Patrick Kelly

    This is a comment I read on reddit that explains the kind of person this Superman appeals to.

    Rather than starting at the level of the movie and asking why there are people in the culture who really “connect” to this revision of the character, perhaps it would be better to look at the culture first.
    Looking around, it’s pretty clear that there’s a whole generation (if not two) of men who are stuck in an extended adolescence and are not able to make the transition into emotional maturity. This phenomenon has been brought to the fore with movies like Jeff, Who Lives at Home, Knocked Up, Dark Horse, Failure to Launch, Big Fan and The 40-Year-Old Virgin (I think Seth Rogan’s entire career is based off of playing this type of man-boy). Not only do these guys not want to grow up, but they will actively avoid any opportunity to grow and change.
    The role of myth has always been to help guide people through transitional stages in their life. I think “Classic” Superman was always intended as a paragon of moral virtue, but also the indicator of what a boy becoming a man should strive to be, like the ideal of a knight (chivalrous, bravery, service to others, etc). It’s safe to say the George Reeves and Christopher Reeve versions of the character were so successful because they tapped into that.
    The adolescent, however, is less concerned about ideals, and more about me (his ego, in a psychological sense). This is a time of creating an identity, a story for yourself if you will. The story doesn’t have anything to do with any work you’ve done in the real world (actions you’ve taken), it’s a fabrication you believe in. Think of The Matrix, which spoke to a generation of adolescent men: “Ok, well, I know I’m just a lonely programmer who works a crummy job and has to take it from The Man. But what you don’t know is that I’m really The One, and you just can’t see how awesome I really am even though I’ve done nothing in my life up to this point.”
    The lie (story) you tell yourself is fine when you’re in your teens, but at a certain point in your life you have to stop fantasizing and actually DO STUFF. And if you don’t engage in the world, if you are a failure to launch, you’re going to feel a lot a shame when there is a higher ideal you have to compare yourself against (Classic Superman).
    So obviously this group of boy-men have been pretty vocal in their inability to connect with the character (“Why is he so goody-goody? I just want him to punch stuff! I want to see a Superman who kicks ass.”), and since they’re the highest demographic that both has disposable income and still reads comics, WB/DC Comics created a nuSuperman which changed him from a character with a moral ethic we aspire to, to a more adolescent character that is meant to be identified with. But when you make him into Peter Parker you don’t make him “deeper”, you lose what made the character Super.
    One of the most basic defining characteristics of a hero in any movie or tv show I can think of is that they win on their own terms. Faced with what seems like an impossible situation, facing options that are unacceptable to him, the hero finds a third way. Changing the hero who inspires you (like a mythological figure) and is dragged down to become an adolescent hero you can “relate” to (like Spider-Man), then the shame of the viewer’s own shortcomings is negated (“See! Even Superman with all his powers has to kill. – So in my own life, I don’t feel compelled to improve myself. I accept the status quo instead of finding a better way.”)
    Also, you must put out of your head that these movies are “Films”. They are not. They are product developed by very large corporations who know exactly whom they are targeting. And they are very keen on marketing. And marketing is about understanding how consumers want themselves to be seen by others. You will never hear Apple say: “we create overly expensive products for people who need to be identified through their consumption.” Instead they want to imply through their marketing that they create products for people who “get it” with the Think Different and Forward Thinking campaigns.
    Likewise, you will never hear WB/DC say: “we’re creating a new version of Superman to cater to a generation of adolescent man-boys”, but will instead talk about a “dark” and “realistic” take on Superman that sidesteps any ideals and justifies the self-centeredness of adolescence: “You can save all of them”, “You can give them hope”, etc. That there is no follow-up scene in Smallville or Metropolis dealing with the utter horror and devastation he was a part of tells you what this movie was about. Because that would be realistic.
    Me. My identity, and the story (lie) I tell myself. I am the main character in the story. I am the center of the world. Adolescence. That is the appeal of the movie.

What do you think?