Tag Archives: Superman

The Emerging Problem Of Superman And Lois Lane

1234599567267158119

I think I’ve made it fairly clear that I’m a big fan of superhero romances. I’m a big fan of romance in general, but romance between superheroes has a special place in my heart. I was a comic book fan before I was a romance fan. As the years have gone by, it has been among my favorite combinations. I put it up there with pizza and a cold beer.

It certainly helps that superhero comics have inspired some of the most iconic romances of the past century. Say what you will about Rose and Jack in “Titanic.” I still find the love story between Batman and Catwoman is much more complex and compelling in terms of depth, not to mention many times sexier.

Superhero comics have informed a lot with respect to my fondness for romance. I also think they offer unique insights into the complexity of romance. Love is complicated enough. Adding superpowers and super-villains into the mix only compounds the drama. Sometimes it can end in tragedy. Sometimes it can make for some truly epic romance that strikes all the right emotional chords.

In some instances, though, mixing romance and superheroes can cause problems. Like relationships in the real world, there are many ways to screw it up. Comics have done plenty to mishandle romance. Just ask any Spider-Man fan about a story called One More Day and watch them recoil with disgust. I’ve even noted a few examples.

However, there are some instances where romance in superhero comics cause unique problems that are subtle in substance, but vast in implications. It doesn’t always involve relationships that are inherently toxic to multiple characters. Sometimes, those problems can emerge in even the most iconic relationship.

In the pantheon of superhero romances, the top spot is usually reserved for Superman and Lois Lane. In terms of romance in superhero comics, they are the gold-encrusted diamond standard by which all others are measured. Their love is isn’t just iconic. It’s a foundational component for both characters.

Superman loves Lois Lane. Lois Lane loves Superman. That romance is established in the pages of Action Comics #1. It’s a critical part of how both characters evolve over the years. You can’t tell Superman’s story without Lois Lane and you can’t tell Lois Lane’s story without Superman.

In the same way Superman always does the right thing and Deadpool always makes the dirtiest joke, this dynamic is fundamental. It establishes the kind of romance that is pure, unconditional, and uncorrupt. There’s no need for a previous love interest to die or a love triangle to provoke drama. Superman and Lois Lane just love each other and that’s all there is to it.

However, even with a romance this iconic, there is a problem and it’s actually a very recent problem. It affects both Superman and Lois Lane, but I believe it affects Lois to a much greater extent. It stems from an issue that I’ve been noticing more and more lately with certain romances. When it shows up in the most iconic romance in the history of comics, though, I take notice.

The nature of the problem has less to do with love and more to do with how a relationship defines certain characters. In both fiction and real life, it’s common and even romantic for two people to become so close that their lives become heavily entwined. There comes a point, though, where it stops being romantic and starts being destructive.

For most of their history, Superman and Lois Lane’s romance was built around simple, but effective dynamics. Lois Lane loved Superman, but not Clark Kent, who she didn’t know was Superman. Superman kept his identity from her to protect her many years, which created plenty of tension and made for some great moments.

Eventually, Superman reveals his identity to Lois and they eventually get married. I remember that moment. It was an amazing milestone for both romance and comics lore. The problem only came when that dynamic was complicated by a new theme that has since permeated the narrative.

It didn’t start at any particular date, but I think “Superman Returns” marked the unofficial turning point. That movie, on top of turning Superman into a deadbeat dad, made a small, but critical tweak to the Superman/Lois romance. In essence, it turned their love from a strength to a liability that is detrimental to the ideals of Superman and romance, as a whole.

At the beginning of that movie, Superman’s actions are the same as they’ve always been. He does the right thing because it’s the right thing. That’s who he is and why he’s so iconic. Towards the end, though, what he does becomes less about doing the right thing and more about resolving his relationship with Lois Lane.

Suddenly, doing the right thing and saving Lois aren’t just supplementary plots. They’re indistinguishable. One is the other and that’s a problem for reasons that go beyond romance and heroism. It wouldn’t have been that big an issue if it had only played out in one sub-par Superman movie, but in recent years, the problem has escalated.

It manifested in its most overt form in “Injustice: Gods Among Us,” a video game with a comic book series tie-in that essentially provides a worst-case-scenario for Superman. In this story, Superman is tricked into killing both Lois and his unborn child by the Joker. It’s not just an atrocity and a tragedy. It fundementally breaks Superman.

I’m not just referring to his spirit either. The death of Lois Lane also marked the death of Superman, as an ideal. In both the game and the tie-in comics, he’s no longer a hero. He’s a tyrant who becomes everything he once fought against. I wouldn’t go so far as to call him a villain, but he’s definitely not the beacon of goodness that so defines his character.

While it makes for a powerful story, the particulars of that transformation are profound and not in a good way. It implies that Superman’s heroism is directly tied to Lois Lane and not supplemented by it. If she dies, then Superman ceases to be that iconic hero who stands for truth and justice.

That sends the message that Superman’s love for Lois Lane isn’t a strength. It’s a crutch. She’s not just his connection to humanity. She’s his lifeline. Beyond putting a burden on a character whose appeal is her ambitious pursuit of truth, it reduces Lois Lane to a singular role and one that’s impossible to maintain.

Unlike Superman, Lois is human. She’s going to age. She’s going to eventually die. Under this dynamic, Superman will eventually lose sight of his ideals. He’ll eventually stop being the hero that fights for truth, justice, and the American Way. Without Lois, he’s destined to give up and for a character who once moved the sun, that’s pretty weak.

This issue came up again in the plot for “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” While I enjoyed the movie and don’t think it deserved half the criticism it got, there was one major issue that I felt undercut the story. Once again, it came back to Superman’s relationship with Lois.

Throughout the movie, Superman constantly questions his role and responsibilites as a hero, especially after seeing Batman’s approach to pursuing justice. That’s perfectly appropriate with respect to humanizing his character, but at the end of the day, he bases much of his decision to save the day around saving Lois.

That’s not to say that there isn’t merit to saving a lover, but this is Superman we’re talking about here. This is a hero whose entire appeal is built around him having god-like power, but still doing the right thing. When the right thing is only ever in the context of saving his girlfriend, then that undercuts both the ideals and the romance itself.

It’s largely for that reason, among others, that I find the romance between Superman and Wonder Woman more compelling. Back in 2012, there was a brief period in DC Comics where the timeline was tweaked, which happens fairly often, and Superman’s marriage to Lois Lane was nullified. That gave these two iconic heroes a chance to be together.

I could probably write several more articles about why I think the Superman/Wonder Woman romance is special in its own right. In many respects, I think it’s healthier than the Superman/Lois Lane relationship. It may never be as iconic, but it fundementally avoids this problem.

Wonder Woman can take care of herself. She can save herself and be a hero on her own terms. Lois Lane, however, is becoming more and more defined by how she defines Superman. For the most iconic superhero couple of all time, that’s pretty shallow.

The recent comics have done little to address this issue. With yet another tweak to the timeline, Superman is back with Lois. They even have a child now. However, the nature of their relationship is still on uncertain ground. I still feel it lacks the complementary dynamics that made it work so well for so many years.

There’s a chance it could change. Given the fickle nature of comic book continuity, it’s very likely that the Superman/Lois Lane dynamic will continue to evolve. However, I think it’s going in the wrong direction if Superman’s reasons for doing the right thing are that dependent on Lois.

Whether or not this problem deepens or subsides remains to be seen. Superman and Lois Lane are still the most iconic romance in the history of comics. That will continue to hold true, even if the problem deepens. Superman and Lois Lane are great characters in their own right. That aspect cannot and should not get lost under the weight of their iconic romance.

As much a romantic as I am, I don’t deny that it is possible for a love story to go too far. Loving someone and being dependant on them are not the same thing, especially when superpowers get involved. If a relationship becomes too dependent, then it can be more damaging than a mountain of kryptonite.

59 Comments

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

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.

4 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