Tag Archives: Justice League

Understanding (And Learning From) Lex Luthor’s Hatred Of Superman

supes-vs-lex

As a lifelong fan of superhero comics and someone who enjoys shows like “Breaking Bad,” I’m genuinely fascinated by villains. Specifically, I’m intrigued by what makes them tick and why they walk the villain’s path. Their journey is distinct from that of a hero, but one that can be just as compelling.

In many cases, these villains have capabilities that allow them to solve many of the world’s problems. I’ve cited Dr. Doom as one of those villains who blurs the lines of villainy because of his intentions. Characters like Dr. Doom genuinely believe that their villainous actions are justified because it will lead to a better, safer, more prosperous world. Heroes also believe that too, which helps fuel their epic battles.

For a character like Lex Luthor, though, the line isn’t that blurry. He’s a villain, plain and simple. He’s selfish, callous, arrogant, cruel, and narcissistic to an extreme. If he existed in the real world, he would check every box for narcissistic personality disorder. In terms of personality, he’s the polar opposite of his nemesis, Superman.

That goes a long way towards giving Superman an enemy who stands against his heroic ideals. I would even argue that Superman couldn’t be the iconic kind of hero he is without Lex Luthor. At the same time, I also think Lex reveals something critical about humanity, morality, and superheroes in general.

That’s difficult to see because for much of Lex’s early years in comics, there wasn’t much depth to his motivation. He just wanted to dominate the universe and Superman was in his way. It’s basic and bland, but that was typical for the early era of superhero comics. Villains like Lex were mostly just obstacles for the heroes to overcome in their journey.

That changed in the late 80s and early 90s with the modern era iteration of Lex Luthor. Finally, Lex got more backstory and depth. He was still no Walter White, but these details helped set the stage for the kind of villain he became. It also helped establish why he hates Superman so much.

Whereas Superman landed on Earth and was adopted by loving parents, Lex grew up in a rough part of Metropolis called the Suicide Slums and was raised in an abusive household. Right off the bat, Superman gets lucky by having the best parents a child of any species could ask for while he’s unlucky enough to be born with the worst.

As a result, Lex had to be ruthless, manipulative, and cunning. Unlike other villains, though, he didn’t need much tempting. He didn’t agonize over his moral decisions, either. He just did it and didn’t feel a shred of guilt. That includes the role he played in the death of his parents.

That alone establishes Lex Luthor as the kind of ruthless villain who would oppose Superman for any number of reasons. However, as evil as that act was, it’s important to note the motivation behind it. Lex didn’t just kill his parents because murder makes him happy. He did it because they were an obstacle and an opportunity.

They were holding him back, but their deaths meant insurance money that he could use to strike out on his own and build something worthy of his genius. To him, the morality of his decision didn’t matter. Only the results mattered. That’s a critical detail and one that puts Lex Luthor’s villainy into a unique context.

Lex, being one of the smartest characters in the entire DC universe, doesn’t care much for things that are esoteric and obscure. He’s all about results that are tangible and measurable. That means things like truth, justice, and the American way are empty concepts to him. Superman champions those ideals, but for Lex Luthor, they’re just hindrances.

That kind of cold, callous approach to the world gives a unique substance to Lex’s behavior. He’s certainly not the first person to take such a materialistic approach to reality. Rick Sanchez of “Rick and Morty” does the same, but rather than misanthropic despair, Lex Luthor sees it as the key to producing the results he seeks.

Moreover, he has to produce those results without the god-like power that Superman wields. If Superman wants to move the Earth out of the way or destroy an oncoming asteroid, he doesn’t have to build anything or learn anything. He just has to flex his muscles, fly up into the sky, and destroy it with a single punch. There’s no tangible reason to his actions beyond it being the right thing to do.

To Lex Luthor, that’s not just an affront to someone who had to work for everything he ever gained. It’s an insult to his egocentric, results-focused worldview. Just saving the world because it’s the right thing to do doesn’t achieve anything. It does nothing to move humanity forward because nobody had to produce something of merit. It just allows them to continue in the same, unaltered state.

This gets to the heart of why Lex Luthor hates Superman. The extent of that hatred was fully articulated in one of the best modern Superman stories ever told, “All-Star Superman” by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. If you only read one Superman comic, make it this one because it perfectly encapsulates the pure heroism of Superman and the cold villainy of Lex Luthor.

In one critical part of the story, Lex tells Clark Kent, who he doesn’t know is Superman, what it means to actually work for his power. Superman, for all his idealism, did nothing to earn his abilities. He just happened to be an alien who landed on a planet with a yellow sun.

It’s like winning the lottery as opposed to working hard for a fortune. One is built on hard work and skill while the other is just dumb luck. Beyond basic jealousy, though, Lex makes another critical point about the ideal Superman sets.

From his perspective, that lofty ideal diminishes the entire human race. By being this other-worldly savior who achieves all these impossible feats, Superman reveals how inept the human race is. More importantly to Lex and his massive ego, it shows just how feeble his achievements are, despite all the work he put in.

Being the extreme narcissist he is, Lex takes that as the ultimate insult. In terms of the bigger picture, it establishes that neither he nor humanity can achieve their full potential. In that context, it’s understandable why Lex dedicated so much time and energy to killing Superman.

I won’t get into all the ways Lex has tried and failed over the years, although one of his plots did involve him becoming President of the United States. Whatever his methods, I think there’s a larger lesson to learn from Lex’s hatred and for once, it goes beyond his ego.

A big part of what turns someone into a villain is this sense that the world isn’t fair, but could be made better with the right guidance. Lex believes he’s capable of providing that guidance and not just because of his ego. He is, objectively, one of the smartest and most capable human beings on the planet. However, it’s Superman who keeps Lex from making the world less unfair.

Superman believes in the merits of truth and justice. He inspires others to uphold these ideals, even without his vast power. That’s a problem for Lex, who builds much of his power on lies and treachery. To him, though, he doesn’t see that as wrong. He just sees that as the most efficient way to get results.

To uphold truth and justice, in his brilliant mind, is to prevent the world from progressing. Granted, progress in Lex Luthor’s mind means him being in charge, but that doesn’t necessarily undermine the implications.

Like Dr. Doom, Lex is ambitious in that he doesn’t just want to save the world like Superman. He wants to fundamentally change it and he’s willing to cross any line to achieve that. Killing Superman is part of that change, but so is becoming a billionaire and a future President of the United States. If a billion people die in the process, then that’s acceptable because it means humanity is stronger because of it.

There have been times in the comics where Luthor’s vision has manifested. In another critically-acclaimed Superman story, “Red Son” by Mark Millar, Lex has a chance to lead the world into a brighter future. By and large, he succeeds. He’s still an unapologetic narcissist, but he still gets the results he seeks.

Like all great conflicts between superheroes and their arch-nemesis, the dichotomy between Superman and Lex Luthor is stark. They’re two extremes on opposite ends of a spectrum delineating heroism and villainy. By being on those extremes, though, it’s easier to see the inherent shortcomings of both.

While Lex’s shortcomings are easier to identify since he’s an outright villain, he does help identify an important flaw in Superman’s idealism and one that extends to superheroes, as a whole. Superman is willing to save the day, but he’s not willing to cross any lines. He will only ever do the right thing and that means not sacrificing innocent lives or usurping individual freedom.

Those heroics will keep the world turning, but they won’t move society forward. Superman believes in inspiring humanity rather than doing it for them, but Lex Luthor believes his heroism achieves the opposite. It just makes people complacent and dependent on heroes like him rather than crossing the lines that he’ll cross to get things done.

At the end of the day, both in the real world and the world of comic books, we have to determine how much we’re willing to pay for the results we seek. Lex is willing to pay any price. Superman isn’t willing to pay a cent beyond doing the right thing. Most reasonable people, including other superheroes, fall somewhere in the middle.

In the pantheon of super-villains, Lex Luthor is probably the easiest to despise and the hardest to understand. Like Superman, he exposes another side of an ongoing struggle between doing the right thing and achieving more. As society continues to progress, achieving abilities rivaling that of any superhero, it’s a struggle we’ll have to confront.

Leave a comment

Filed under Comic Books, Jack Fisher, Superheroes, human nature, philosophy, psychology, superhero comics

How To Disappoint (But NOT Destroy) An Iconic Romance In Batman #50

688356-_sx1280_ql80_ttd_It’s been a rough summer for fans of romance, superheroes, and superhero weddings. In fact, in all the years I’ve been reading comics and following romantic sub-plots, I can’t remember a time when there was this much melodrama and heartbreak. I understand that any epic romance is going to involve a healthy bit of emotional strain, especially when it involves superheroes. There comes a point when it just becomes too much.After the deconstruction and denigration of superhero romance that unfolded in X-men Gold #30, I feel like we’re dangerously close to that point. It’s as though everyone involved in making superhero comics is admitting that superheroes can’t get married. They can’t have a functional, compelling romance and still be interesting.That sort of sentiment is basically an affirmation of Marvel’s justification for undoing Spider-Man’s marriage to Mary Jane Watson in the infamous One More Day story. Given the relative infamy of that story line and the recent upheaval with the X-men, many fans of both superheroes and romance were placing a lot of hope that the wedding of Batman and Catwoman could help stop the bleeding in Batman #50.I certainly counted myself among those who was very excited about this event. I even admit I really wanted this to make up for the disheartening outcome of X-men Gold #30. The romantic in me wanted at least one superhero wedding this summer that didn’t end in heartbreak or tragedy.Well, if you saw the same spoilers in the New York Times that I did just two days before Batman #50 came out, you already know that’s not what happened. Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle did not get married. That means in terms of superhero weddings, the summer of 2018 is now 0 for 2.However, that outcome did not compound my lingering disappointment from X-men Gold #30. I’ll even go so far as to say that Batman #50 didn’t send the state of superhero romance past the point of no return. It didn’t improve the state of affairs. It was disappointing, but not to the point where it damaged a story or a romance beyond repair.Before I explain, I want to establish that many of the details beyond this point are heavy spoilers. Seeing as how this comic was already spoiled a couple days prior to its release, much to the chagrin of comic retailers, I don’t think I need to place too many warnings. I still recommend that people buy the comic, but there’s more going on here than a wedding that didn’t happen, much more so than what we saw in X-men Gold #30.By nearly every measure, Batman #50 approaches the concept of a superhero wedding differently than X-men Gold #30. The wedding of Kitty Pryde and Colossus was set up as this big, momentous affair between an established couple that overcame a lot just to have the opportunity to get married. They brought in friends, family, and fellow superheroes from across the X-men comics.In contrast, the ceremony in Batman #50 was very small. In fact, there wasn’t much of a ceremony to speak of. The only ones who were present besides Batman and Catwoman were Aflred, Bruce Wayne’s butler and long-time confidante, and a lone judge who was already drunk so that he wouldn’t remember his or Catwoman’s identity. Batman always has a plan for that sort of thing. That’s why he’s Batman.On top of that, Batman is the one who proposed to Catwoman back in Batman #24. He’s the one who pitched the idea of getting married in the first place. That’s critical because Kitty Pryde was the one who proposed to Colossus in X-men Gold #20. That matters because she’s also the one who broke it off and at the last second, no less. Things were a bit less cruel in Batman #50 and that’s saying something for a Batman comic.At one point in the story, Batman makes clear that he still wants to marry Catwoman. He’s not having second thoughts. It’s Catwoman who makes the fateful decision to break it off and she doesn’t wait until half-way through the ceremony, either. To put that another way, an admitted jewel thief who enjoys having sex on rooftops showed more decency than Kitty Pryde on her failed wedding day.It’s not a public spectacle that turns into an equally public debacle. It’s a private affair that simply doesn’t pan out. There’s no awkward reception. There’s no attempt to salvage it by shoehorning another romance into the mix just so someone gets married, as though such romances can be swapped out like batteries. It just doesn’t happen.Moreover, Catwoman actually gives a reason for not going through with the wedding and, unlike Kitty Pryde, it’s not a wholly contrived. She establishes throughout Batman #50, through a series of montages documenting their romance over the years, why she loves him and why he’s such an effective hero. In the process, she reveals something profound about Batman.What makes Batman both effective and iconic is how he takes the pain of a tragedy, namely the death of his parents, and turns it into strength. The same pain that would break a lesser man drives him to do so much more. He’s the Dark Knight who defends Gotham. He’s a hero who deserves to fight alongside demigods and aliens on the Justice League. For him to be Batman, he needs that pain to fuel him.From Catwoman’s perspective, Batman finding happiness means denying him the fuel he needs to be Batman. That’s not a realization that just randomly pops into her mind at the last second, though. This is something the Joker actually points out to her in Batman #49. It has less to do with whether or not she loves him and more to do with him being the hero that Gotham needs.That doesn’t make Catwoman’s decision any less disappointing, but it’s still nowhere near as callous or selfish as Kitty Pryde’s decision in X-men Gold #30. I know it’s somewhat unfair to keep comparing the two, given the different circumstances of their relationship, but those distinctions highlight an important element that the failed Batman/Catwoman wedding has that the Colossus/Kitty Pryde wedding didn’t.What happens in Batman #50 is definitely a setback for Batman and Catwoman’s relationship, but it doesn’t fundamentally destroy it. In fact, there’s a very critical detail at the end of the issue that leaves the door open for this romance to keep evolving. I won’t spoil it, but it unfolds in such a way that makes romance fans like me want to root for this relationship.The same definitely cannot be said for the Colossus/Kitty Pryde relationship. After the way things played out during their wedding, it really feels as though their romance is damaged beyond repair. It’s no longer a love story. It’s an outright tragedy, one that would need an even greater contrivance to repair at this point. In a universe with shape-shifting aliens, though, that’s not wholly unfeasible.In the grand scheme of things, Batman #50 is still disappointing in the sense that it doesn’t let Batman and Catwoman take their love story to another level. In fact, not a whole lot changes. The way it plays out feels more like a setback rather than a tragedy. The writer of the comic, Tom King, even claims it’s just part of a much larger narrative between Batman and Catwoman.How that story will play out remains to be seen. Given how long it took Batman and Catwoman to get to a point where they try to get married, Batman #50 already gives the impression that their romance is being dragged out. For a couple who has been off and on again since the 1940s, that’s saying something.If I had to score Batman #50, as both a comic book fan and a romance fan, I’d give it a 6 out of 10. It’s a bit of a letdown, but it’s not nearly as soul-crushing as X-men Gold #30. It still leaves the state of superhero romance in a very precarious state, but at the very least, this book gives me reason for hope.I’ll still be very skeptical of any future superhero wedding for the foreseeable future, though.

5 Comments

Filed under Comic Books, Jack Fisher, Superheroes, Marriage and Relationships, romance

The following is a review I wrote for PopMatters for Justice League #1. Enjoy!

Justice in Its Totality: Justice League #1

Leave a comment

June 12, 2018 · 9:43 pm

How Superhero Movies Are Preparing Us For The Future Of Human Enhancement

justice-league-cyborg-star-labs-1050432-1280x0

As a kid growing up on a healthy diet of superhero comics, video games, and superhero-themed cartoons that were very much ahead of their time on social issues, I often daydreamed about how awesome it would be to have the same powers as my favorite heroes. As an adult, I still daydream every now and then, often when I’m tired, frustrated, or stuck in traffic.

A major component in the overall appeal of the superhero genre is the wish fulfillment fantasy it embodies. Captain America represents the peak of physical conditioning. Iron Man represents the peak of technological know-how. Superman represents the peak of pretty much every possible feat we can imagine, a few of which are even impossible.

It’s a common fantasy of anyone who ever struggled in gym class or couldn’t open a can of pickles. It is, after all, those moments of struggle that remind us of just how limited we are, as humans. Our bodies are remarkable in so many ways, but they’re still frustratingly frail.

That status, however, may very well change. Unlike every other point in the approximately 200,000 year history of the human species, we’re actively working to transcend the limits of evolution through advances in biotechnology, advances in the treatment of disease, and even the integration of cybernetics into our brains and even our genitals.

Some of these advances are closer than others. Chances are that most people alive today won’t live to see the day when they can shape-shift at will like Mystique or fly around like Iron Man in mech suits designed by Elon Musk’s descendants. However, there may be young children alive today who will live long enough to see such wonders.

I’m not the only one who thinks this. There are people out there much smarter than me who believes that the first functionally immortal person is already alive today. They still might be in diapers, but there is a real chance that by the time they’re as old as I am, they’ll live in a world where things like aging, disease, and not being able to run 13 miles in 30 minutes like Captain America is a thing of the past.

A lot has already changed in the time I’ve been alive. I still remember a time when the idea of computers that could fit into your pocket was seen as too futuristic for some people. It was seen as just a fancy gadget from Star Trek. Given that kind of change, it’s hard to imagine what the next several decades holds for the future of humanity.

That’s where superhero media is helping in unexpected ways, though. To some extent, the modern superhero media of today is doing the same thing “Star Trek” did for previous generations. It doesn’t present a fanciful world where big green men can smash monsters or where a sickly young army recruit can be instantly transformed into the ultimate soldier. It offers a tantalizing vision of what the future could be.

It’s a vision that I believe got muddied between the end of the early “Star Trek” era and rise of modern superhero movies that began with “X-men,” “Iron Man,” and Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins.” Within that gap, events like Watergate, the the Vietnam War, and the rise of less optimistic, much more cynical generations made it very difficult to look forward to a better future.

Modern superhero movies have not eliminated that cynicism, but I believe it has helped tempered it. Optimism, as a whole, is actually on the rise. As bad as some recent headlines have been, some being downright disturbing, there is an increasing sense that the future is not all doom and gloom. We still dare to daydream about a better tomorrow.

More recent superhero movies, especially those that began with “Iron Man” and the emergence of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, aren’t nearly as fanciful as the old Richard Donner “Superman” movies. They’re not as gritty as Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” movies either. In a sense, this health balance has presented audiences with a world that still feels fanciful, but is also full of possibilities.

The idea that we can use science and biotechnology to turn someone who was once weak and sickly into the pinnacle of strength is not just a product of Jack Kirby’s legendary imagination. There are people working on that as I write this. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that we may one day enhance ourselves to the same level as Captain America.

Chances are we won’t even stop there. As I noted earlier, the human body has a lot of flaws. Also, thanks to the painfully slow progress of evolution, it hasn’t been upgraded in over 100,000 years. From our biology’s perspective, we’re still cavemen roaming the African Savannah with spears and rocks. Our bodies need upgrades, especially if we’re to become a space-faring species like the ones in “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

Some of those upgrades will come sooner than others. The end result, though, will be something far greater than even Captain America’s abilities. Some of those abilities seem impossible now. Remember, though, it wasn’t that long ago that the idea of computers in our pockets seemed just as impossible.

This is where, I believe, modern superhero movies are doing a much greater service than just entertaining the masses and making billions of dollars for Disney. Through heroes like Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, and even “Ant Man,” these movies make the case that such enhancements can do more than just fight invading aliens.

These movies can also help make the case that humanity can use these advancements to become better, as a whole. Characters like Steve Rogers, Tony Stark, Scott Lang, and Peter Parker all have the opportunities to be both destructive and productive with their enhanced abilities. At times, they even lapse into destructive tendencies, as we saw with Tony in “Iron Man 3.”

In the end, though, these characters use those enhanced abilities to do good for the world. They’re still human and they still have human flaws, which they don’t even try to hide. However, even with these flaws, they still feel inclined to do good, heroic things with their abilities.

That doesn’t just make for a good superhero narrative. It sends the message that we, as a species, can aspire to do so much good with the advances the future brings. There are still plenty of dangers, both with existing technology and with emerging technologies. The essence of the superhero narrative, though, tells us that we can confront those dangers and come out of it better than before.

That’s an important mentality to have as we move into an era where human enhancement is both possible and common. By believing we can use it to pursue the same heroics as the superheroes in movies like “The Avengers,” we give our species the push it needs to advance in a way that brings out the best in us.

There will still be villains along the way, as plenty of superhero movies show. The fact we still root for the heroes, though, helps reveal where our aspirations reside. With these movies effecting an entire generation of young people, I believe modern superhero movies are doing plenty to prepare them for the future of human enhancement.

With the staggering success of “Avengers: Infinity War,” a movie that has raised the bar for superhero movies of all kinds, the impact of superhero media has never been greater. That impact may very well be the key to preparing the next generation for unprecedented advancements in technology, society, and progress. That, to some extent, might end up being the most heroic thing this genre can do.

Leave a comment

Filed under Comic Books, Jack Fisher, Superheroes, futurism, human nature, Sexy Future

Why Lex Luthor Is The Ultimate Villain

lex-luthor

What makes a villain truly evil? It’s a question with many answers that apply to both the real and the fictional world. History is ripe with real people with villainous tendencies on par with that of any mustache-twirling villain in fiction. The world of fiction is just as vast, full of all sorts of cruel, sadistic, greedy beings that range from alien conquerors to psychotic killer clowns.

Then, there’s Alexander Joseph “Lex” Luthor. What Superman is to heroes, an ideal and a standard to which others aspire, Lex Luthor is to villains. Think back to the question of what makes a villain evil. Lex Luthor checks every box and even a few others you probably didn’t think of.

In the spirit of celebrating Superman’s 80th anniversary, which I went out of my way to honor, I think it’s just as important to appreciate the other, less heroic side of the spectrum. Superman occupies the extreme end of that spectrum, namely the side that embodies truth, justice, and the highest of morals. Lex Luthor, conversely, is at the other end, one where the depths of greed, hatred, and outright cruelty are at their worst.

To that end, it’s impossible to appreciate the values Superman stands for without also appreciating the villainous traits that Lex Luthor personifies. I’ve noted the major differences between the journey that a villain takes, compared to that of heroes. I’ve also singled out characters like Walter White, who have given a new level of complexity to modern villains. However, the villainy of Lex Luthor is as basic as it is profound.

Lex Luthor doesn’t need the same complexity as Walter White, nor does he need the tragic circumstances that help forge villains like Magneto. Lex is a villain to his core. He needs no catalyst or motivation. He is, by his own nature, an arrogant, selfish person who will go to any length to get what he wants and/or deserves, regardless of cost or ethics.

Despite that simple, if not inelegant approach to villainy, Lex Luthor still finds a way to elevate himself above the many other villains that occupy the real and fictional world. It’s not just because he’s Superman’s primary adversary either. At his core, Lex represents something that highlights the breadth of true villainy.

Like most iconic villains, Lex Luthor’s status was closely tied to that of the hero he opposes. He first appeared in Action Comics #23 in 1940, a full two years after Superman debuted. Like most villains in those days, he didn’t get much development or backstory. He was simply the extra devious bad guy who tested Superman more than most.

Over the years, Lex Luthor’s story has evolved, but the extent of his villainy has never waned. The modern version of Lex Luthor, which became canonized after the big 1986 event known as Crisis on Infinite Earths, is defined largely by his greed, ego, and extreme xenophobia. He became less a mad scientist and more heartless narcissists.

Through that evolution, Lex establishes a blunt, but powerful method to his villainy. He is, at his core, a selfish egotist. There isn’t an altruistic cell in his body. Everything he does is for one purpose and that’s to profit and/or glorify himself. It doesn’t matter whether he’s battling Superman or creating a community of low-income housing. It’s all to serve him and his interests.

In the same way you can assume that every decision Superman makes is in the name of truth and justice, you can also assume that everything Lex Luthor does is in the name of benefiting Lex Luthor. Even by Ayan Rand standards, Lex’s motivation are extreme. At the end of the day, he’s out for himself and no one else.

To some extent, though, that’s what makes him even more devious. In his endless crusade to serve himself, Lex will portray himself as less a villain and more a hero who is out to use his unrivaled genius to make the world a better place. He has even become a hero on multiple occasions within the annuls of DC Comics.

Lex Luthor will save the world. He’ll even work with Superman every now and then. However, such efforts are never in the name of doing the right thing. It always comes back to Lex serving his own agenda. He understands, at the end of the day, that no one can glorify him if the world is destroyed.

Even with those circumstances, though, Lex still finds a way to set himself apart from other villains. Characters like Dr. Doom, Thanos, and Darkseid definitely fit the mold of a villain, but even they have motivations that go beyond their ego. You could even argue that villains like Dr. Doom often blur the line because their actions sometimes align with what most consider the greater good.

With Lex Luthor, though, there are no blurred lines. He is not Dr. Doom in that he feels he needs to rule the world to ensure that it’s free from want and suffering. From Lex’s point of view, ruling the world and destroying Superman are simply a means to further glorify his ego and fuel his narcissism.

That’s what makes him so dangerous, but it also reveals something profound about villainy itself. It’s not always simply a product of being greedy and sadistic. To some extent, it’s a byproduct of being entirely self-serving and having no inclinations for selfless acts.

Whereas most people would feel some level of guilt for that level of selfishness, Lex feels nothing of the sort. That’s not to say he’s a sociopath on the level of some serial killers. He just feels that he rightly deserves all the power and aggrandizing he wants. It’s not a matter of morals. It’s a matter of him just being better than anyone else.

It’s in that domain where Lex’s rivalry with Superman becomes truly adversarial. Unlike Superman, Lex is human. However, he also happens to be the smartest human in the world, as well as one of the smartest beings in the entire DC Universe. That means he doesn’t just think he’s better than anyone else. He can actually prove it.

That’s how he’s able to craft insanely advanced technology. It’s also how he managed to get elected President of the United States at one point. It’s not enough to have a massive ego. It’s that he’s smart enough and ruthless enough to outwit anyone into serving him. There’s simply no way for any other human to match him on an intellectual level.

That’s where Superman enters the equation. That’s also what fuels Lex’s unparalleled hatred of him. From his point of view, the very existence of Superman undermines his ability to establish himself as the most superior person in the world. More than that, though, he see’s Superman’s presence as a degrading force to the human race as a whole.

It’s a sentiment that isn’t often touched on in the comics or recent movies, but it is perfectly articulated in the animated feature, “All-Star Superman.” If ever you want a perfect demonstration of Superman’s heroism or Lex Luthor’s villainy, this movie is the current gold standard.

Beyond the condescension, the bragging, and the insufferable ego behind his words, Lex Luthor makes some uncomfortably valid points. In light of Superman’s impossible ideal, every human being falls short. Even him, the smartest human being of them all, can’t hope to match it.

From Lex’s point of view, that’s not just profoundly insulting. It undermines the entire human species. The existence of an alien god-like being reduces humans to a bunch of ants under the boot of a titan. By relying on that being, looking up to him as an ideal, people can only ever hope to be better ants and nothing more.

Even if that thinking is valid on some perverse level, Lex takes it even further by making it the ultimate excuse. By establishing Superman and heroes like him as affronts to his rightful place at the top of humanity, he can basically justify anything. Read into his history and you won’t find any shortage of atrocities.

It’s for that same reason that Lex rejects any notion of truth, justice, and the American way. As he also articulated in “All-Star Superman,” he sees those concepts as inherently flawed. They’re just vague concepts that can’t be touched, measured, or quantified in any meaningful way. In Lex Luthor’s world, all that matters is what he can do with the forces around him and how they can be used to glorify him.

As a villain, Lex Luthor doesn’t live in a world of abstracts, ideals, or faith. His world is cold, calculating, and deterministic. Much like Superman, he puts a face and a name on a particular archetype. Unlike Superman, though, he doesn’t evoke hope or inspiration. He inspires fear, hatred, and mistrust.

By standing against Superman, challenging him in ways that even other god-like beings can’t, Lex Luthor demonstrates just how far someone can take true villainy. In his world, nothing is ever given. It’s either earned, taken, or stolen. Things like compassion, empathy, and love are weaknesses and not strengths. They are barriers to overcome and not strengths to embrace.

Even by the standards of Rick Sanchez from “Rick and Morty,” that kind of extreme callousness is excessive. At least under Rick’s nihilistic outlook, there’s a context to his action. For Lex Luthor, though, the only context that matters is the one that serves Lex Luthor.

Superman is a beloved heroic icon and for good reason. He represents the best to which a hero can aspire. However, the extent of those aspirations and the power of that heroism is hard to appreciate without also acknowledging the villainous side of the struggle.

Superman is the hero he is because he has a villain like Lex Luthor to battle. Lex Luthor is the villain he is because Superman pushes him. However, even in the absence of Superman, Lex would still be the kind of villain who hurts, exploits, and deceives anyone and everyone to serve his agenda. That, more than anything, is what makes him the ultimate villain.

3 Comments

Filed under Comic Books, Jack Fisher, Superheroes, human nature

Why Superman Is An Icon And Why He Still Matters After 80 Years

action-comics-1000-vo

Take a moment and think about how many artifacts of popular culture have endured for 80 years. Even if you’ve got an extensive knowledge of culture or just spend a lot of time browsing Wikipedia, it shouldn’t take long to realize how short that list is. That makes the icons on that list all the more endearing.

Near the top of that list is Superman. Even if you’re not a comic book nerd and can’t stand to watch more than five minutes of a superhero movie, it’s impossible to deny the special place Superman has in our culture. He’s not just a comic book character. He’s not just a superhero either. He’s in a league of his own that transcends any one genre.

That became abundantly clear this past week when Superman celebrated his historic 80th anniversary with the release of Action Comics #1000. As an admitted comic book fan who goes out of his way to explore the deeper messages and implications of comics, this was a pretty big deal for me.

Now, I don’t consider myself as big a Superman fan as I am an X-men fan. I like to think I’ve made my love of X-men quite apparent on this site. However, I still enjoy my share of Superman content. Beyond the comics, I grew to love Superman through his animated series and the Justice League cartoon that was produced by Bruce Timm. To date, those and the Richard Donner “Superman” movie are the definitive Superman for me.

As much as I love those incarnations, though, I understand that Superman’s history is much broader than that. A character doesn’t endure for 80 years without having a rich history and Superman certainly has plenty of that. In that history, he’s evolved a lot in terms of style and portrayal. From battling Nazis in the early 1940s to ditching his iconic red trunks for a while, Superman has had his share of reinvention over the years.

Through all these changes, though, Superman has always embodied a specific set of ideals that helps cement his status as an icon. From his earliest days to his most recent movie version, Superman at his core is an inspiration. He’s epitomizes just how good a hero can be and how profoundly he can influence others.

Some call him the ultimate Boy Scout. Some call him the perfect goody-two-shoes. Some even go so far as to claim that his nauseatingly good nature that Christopher Reeves captured so perfectly in the movies makes him a boring character. Given the sheer breadth of his power, which include some truly insane feats, I can understand that to some degree.

At the same time, though, I would also argue that same annoyingly wholesome nature is part of what makes Superman something much greater than an overpowered superhero. I would even go so far as to say that’s part of what has helped him endure for 80 years and made him an icon that transcends comic books, movies, and heroics in general.

There’s a long, if not bloated, list of superheroes of varying degrees of power. Some are even more powerful than Superman. However, just having power isn’t enough, as any Batman fan will tell you. It’s how a hero uses that power and why they do what they do that helps define them.

By that standard, Superman is the gold standard. His heroism is very much the standard by which all others are measured. He has the power to do things that aren’t just incredible. They’re outright impossible. He still does them, though, because he’s Superman. However, it’s why he does them that’s more important.

Compared to why other heroes do what they do, Superman’s reasons for using all that power for good is as simple as it is profound. It’s the right thing to do. He doesn’t need someone to kill his parents. He doesn’t need to be bound by duty or driven by guilt. He just does the right thing because it’s the right thing. That’s all there is to it.

It’s so simple that it’s almost inane, but it’s profound in its implications. I even explored some of those implications when I explored the nihilistic implications of Superman’s morality, drawing comparisons to Rick Sanchez from “Rick and Morty” of all characters. Regardless of how strong those comparisons are, it doesn’t undercut the impact of that idea.

It’s a big part of what helps Superman inspire others. It’s very much a part of why he still matters today, especially in an era where every heroic character needs some sort of catalyst to become a hero, whether it’s a princess getting kidnapped or someone shooting their dog. Superman doesn’t need any of that. He just does the right thing with his powers because it’s the right thing. That’s all there is to it.

That might not seem like a big deal, especially compared to the more elaborate journeys that other characters go on the path of heroism. Why would someone even want to follow a journey of someone who just does the right thing from the start and doesn’t need to team up with any talking raccoons along the way?

The answer to such a cynical question comes back to inspiration. It’s something that has only become more valuable as we get bombarded by countless bleak headlines. Superman is capable of so much, both in terms of his immense power and altruistic persona. He has such an immense impact when he saves the world, whether by outsmarting Lex Luthor or snapping General Zod’s neck.

However, it’s how those actions inspire others that elevates Superman’s heroics. He doesn’t wear a mask. He doesn’t hide in the shadows. He lets people see his face. He smiles and talks towards civilians, fellow heroes, and even other villains, as Action Comics #1000 so fittingly explored. It’s not just enough to do heroic things. Superman seeks to inspire the heroism in others.

That sentiment is beautifully echoed through the iconic voice of Marlon Brando in Richard Donner “Superman” movie. Even today, after 80 years, they still help define the spirit of Superman.

Live as one of them, KalEl. Discover where you strength and your power are needed. Always hold in your heart the pride of your special heritage. They can be a great people, KalEl, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you, my only son.

These are the words of Superman’s biological father, Jor-El. They don’t just lay the foundation for a hero. They reflect the spirit that eventually becomes Superman. They don’t just encourage Superman to use his immense power to help people. They encourage him to inspire.

That inspiration, the idea that a being of such immense power can do the right thing just because it’s the right thing, is why Superman endures. It’s also why he matters now more than ever. We’ve become so accustomed to seeing other iconic heroes and people in the real world get corrupted by power. Superman sets himself apart, showing that it is possible to have great power and still do the right thing.

In a world full of cynical people who may be getting more nihilistic with each frustrating headline, that’s an important concept to preserve. Having power doesn’t have to corrupt someone in the same way that doing the right thing doesn’t require some elaborate motivation, be they dead parents or some failed prophecy. It’s possible to just do the right thing because it’s the right thing.

It’s not enough to just save the day. Superman gives others the hope, strength, and drive to make a better tomorrow. Say what you will about the ending of “Dawn of Justice,” but the breadth of the impact that Superman had on the world through his sacrifice was powerful. It shows why his greatest power is, and always has been, doing the right thing.

That spirit of incorruptible goodness was critical in 1938 and it’s just as critical now in 2018. I would argue it’ll still be critical in 2118, even if we’ve all evolved into cyborgs at that point. Doing the right thing for others in the spirit of pure, untainted altruism is a powerful message and one that Superman embodies to the utmost. That’s what makes him an icon now. That’s why he’ll be an icon for years to come.

6 Comments

Filed under Comic Books, Jack Fisher, Superheroes, human nature

A (Non-Preachy) Lesson In Tolerance In Supergirl #19

635764-_sx1280_ql80_ttd_

Growing up, every TV show that aired between 3:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. seemed air some sort of pro-tolerance, anti-bigotry message. These shows assumed, rightly in my case, that a lot of kids who’d just gotten home from school would plop themselves in front of the TV and rather than doing their homework. In terms of targeting a market, it was pretty brilliant.

Having been fed those messages for over two decades now, I think they’ve been belabored to the point where most kids and young adults have gotten the message. Some are even annoyed by it. Even I admit there’s only so many times I can hear some poorly-rendered cartoon character say that tolerance is good and bigotry is bad.

Image result for care bears 90s

In recent years, especially with the rise of certain regressive elements within popular media, these pro-diversity, anti-bigotry messages have gone to distressing extremes. It’s no longer enough to just send the message. It has to be angrily protested by media critics, internet mobs, and hyper-sensitive crowds that push political correctness way past its previous extremes.

I could spend fill several blog posts of instances of people whining about a lack of diversity or complaining that political correctness has gone too far. I can understand the frustration of both sides to some extent. Both see a problem with the way tolerance is being promoted within society and they want to fix it. They both want to make society better and that’s entirely commendable.

Instead of focusing on the frustrations, though, I want to highlight an example of a pro-tolerance, anti-bigotry message done right. By that, I mean it sends a message in a way that doesn’t sound preachy, heavy-handed, or denigrating to another group. As it just so happens, it unfolds in a comic book, a medium that has provided me with many deeper messages in the past.

In this instance, the comic is Supergirl #19 by Steve Orlando and Vita Ayala. Being a fan of the “Supergirl” TV show and of beautiful, lovable female heroes in general, I’ve been following this comic since it relaunched in 2016. It’s a series that deals with heroic conflicts typical of DC Comics and anyone remotely associated with Superman. This issue, however, takes a moment to get personal.

Image result for Supergirl Rebirth

The story itself is a brief, self-contained narrative often referred to as a one-shot. You don’t have to know the full story of the character or even the events of the past several issues to understand what’s going on. You don’t even have to know the first thing about Supergirl to appreciate the message that this issue conveys.

It’s built around a personal story told by a character named Lee Serano, a character whose life Supergirl recently saved. That, in and of itself, isn’t too remarkable. Supergirl, Superman, and pretty much every major DC hero saves the life of a random character in almost every issue. However, it’s Lee’s struggles beyond being in the wrong place at the wrong time that make her note-worthy.

Supergirl (2016-) 019-009

Lee identifies as genderqueer or non-binary, a concept that tends to make headlines for all the wrong reasons. More often than not, stories about people who identify with this label are only identified as a way to point out how far political correctness has gone. It’s often a classification that certain people cite when making fun of those who think there need to be over 58 genders.

Whatever your attitudes towards gender, it’s still generally a dick move to ridicule and degrade someone for identifying that way. Throughout Supergirl #19, Lee doesn’t come off as someone who is just craving attention by identifying as some extreme minority. She comes off as someone who is genuinely conflicted with her gender and is afraid how it’ll affect her.

That’s where Supergirl comes in and this is where the anti-bigotry message gains some unexpected, but welcome dimensions. Like any good hero, Supergirl goes out of her way to help Lee beyond saving her life. She offers her both consolation and sincere affection, as any decent person would to someone who is in distress. The fact she has superpowers is basically an afterthought.

Supergirl (2016-) 019-017

It’s here where Lee stands up for Supergirl in a way that might catch even the anti-PC crowd by surprise. She acknowledges that there are those who look at Supergirl and only see this blond-haired, blue-eyed, traditionally beautiful, able-bodied, cis-gendered woman with superpowers. Her very presence is seen as part of the problem.

The fact she acknowledges this has an important context. This issue takes place at a time when Supergirl is trying to regain the trust of the public. Unlike her more famous cousin, she hasn’t been around long enough to earn everybody’s implicit trust when she makes a mistake. The extent of that mistake is covered in previous issues, but you don’t need to know them to get the message here.

In one of the most revealing scenes, Lee confronts the argument that certain regressive types would use against Supergirl if she ever tried to get involved with gender minorities, social justice, and everything in between. She makes this important comment that sets the tone for the entire story.

“People are out there talking, saying Supergirl’s dangerous, that she can’t be trusted. Saying that her hiding her dad – trying to help him get better – is wrong. I heard the talk. Believed it for a while, even. I mean, she’s the “All-American Ideal – blonde, white, pretty – and she can fly. She MUST think she’s better than us – above us,” and, “There’s no way she could understand,” right? But that’s not the truth.”

This statement is critical in that it highlights the most frustrating part of discussing these issues with the overly-regressive crowd. Their politics and attitudes are so skewed in one direction that they see anyone who doesn’t line up with their particular group, however eccentric it might be, as somehow unworthy of being part of the conversation.

It often happens in discussions involving race, gender, religion, and most other minority issues. For certain people in those discussions, often the angrier, more radical wings, just associating with the majority is seen as fraternizing with the enemy. It doesn’t just limit the conversation. It dehumanizes the opposing side.

Image result for dehumanizing the other side

Supergirl #19 takes the opposite approach in that both Supergirl and Lee are humanized to the upmost. Lee isn’t some confused, attention-seeking teenager. Supergirl isn’t some arrogant, stereotypical stand-in for majority. They’re just two individuals, connecting like mature individuals do to help one another in a time of need. It’s basically a template for simple human decency.

Contrast that with those who claim white people shouldn’t contribute to conversations about race. Contrast that with those who claim beautiful people shouldn’t contribute to issues surrounding body shaming. Contrast that with those who claim men should shut up when discussing women’s issues, scorning anyone who dares to follow Matt Damon’s example.

These instances don’t just take the anti-bigotry, pro-tolerance message to an unhealthy extreme. It angers and alienates those on the other side of the argument. It gives them no reason to listen to what someone who considers themselves gender non-binary has to say, relying instead on prejudices and assumptions.

Image result for prejudice

Neither side benefits from that approach. Nobody helps anyone when two sides of an issue harbor so much animosity that the very presence of another is seen as an insult. Yes, Supergirl does check most of the boxes for someone who faces far fewer issues than a non-white, gender non-binary individual in the United States. That doesn’t mean she’s part of the problem.

I don’t want to spoil the rest of Supergirl #19. Like other comics I’ve singled out in the past, I’d rather people take the time to read it in order to experience the breadth of the story. It’s a story worth heeding during these contentious times. I would argue it offers something far more important than those old after-school PSAs.

More than anything else, it emphasizes treating people as individuals and not lumping them into a particular group with a particular agenda. Lee points out that people just assume Supergirl thinks and feels a certain way because of how she looks and acts. That’s a flawed assumption that dehumanizes and denigrates her.

Image result for Supergirl hugs

It doesn’t matter if Supergirl, or anyone else who gets involved in contentious social issues, looks a certain way or doesn’t check the right boxes. She’s still a human being, albeit one with alien origins. Unless you can actually read her thoughts and feelings, as some DC characters can, then making those assumptions is just a different form of bigotry hiding behind the guise of anti-bigotry.

Supergirl #19 is a solid story with an important message. I would argue it’s more important now than it would’ve been in the days of after-school specials. It’s a good thing to promote tolerance, but not to the point that it inspires intolerable attitudes. Supergirl’s compassion helped Lee in her time of need. Her life and Supergirl’s are better because of it.

The fact that Supergirl didn’t even need to use her powers that much to help Lee is a testament to her character, as well as an inspiration. If she can help a total stranger that much, just by being decent and compassionate, then what’s our excuse?

Image result for Supergirl comics

2 Comments

Filed under Comic Books, Jack Fisher, Superheroes, Current Events, gender issues, human nature