The Psychology of Superman

Superman is a conundrum for me.  What I love about his character is also what I hate about his character.  When I look at him, I see an icon of truth and justice.  I see a symbol of fair play and selflessness.  I know that in his world, in his stories, he will never turn his back on the innocent; he will forever strive to save you, me, and the world.

And, because he’s Superman, he will prove victorious.

Which is also why I hate him.  From a characterization standpoint, what can you do with him?  The man is invulnerable.  He is among the most powerful entities on Earth and in most of the universe (depending).  And, beyond the anatomical augmentations, he is also a good man with a good heart who always wants to do the right thing.

So, in small doses, Superman is a joy!  He is everything the ideological hero-worshipper in me wants.  However, in long doses, as in any serialized format, Superman quickly becomes boring.  He feels stale because there is no real sense of danger surrounding his physical adventures, and, for the most part, his character is squeaky clean, thus reducing the potential for nonviolent interpersonal or psychological conflict.

As I said, what I like about him is also what I hate about him.  For example, when they tried to give him a little edge in Superman Returns, it just felt wrong.  I had a horrendous time accepting Superman as an illegitimate father and, furthermore, a deadbeat dad.

But, I believe they were sort of on the right track with that.  Since we cannot relate to Superman on a physiological level, we could potentially relate to him on a psychological one.  For example, we can all relate to notions of guilt.  However, most of us have strong opinions on absentee parenting, and so they went wrong with that particular plotline involving Superman’s guilt over his son.

However, I like the idea of Superman struggling with inner conflict.  I absolutely do not want to see him as a brooding avenger driven by overwhelming guilt—that is not who he is.  I have to admit though, when I (over)think about what it would be like to be Superman, the first idea I have is, “How would I sleep at night?”

I mean, how could I get in my solid eight hours of snooze knowing that somewhere out there someone needed saving?  For a man who can traverse the planet in mere heartbeats, he must realize he is constantly needed as a savior.  I would love to see a storyline fleshing out this dilemma.  I think it would be fascinating to experience Superman rationalizing time spent outside of the Superman identity.  Somehow I have a hard time envisioning Superman saying, “Sorry peeps, I needs some me time.”

After all, it’s difficult to imagine how can he hang with the JLA and JSA at Thanksgiving, gobbling up turkey, when a village burns hundreds of miles away with people suffering.

How can he justify staring at a table of photographs debating the merits of potential team members when a wildfire threatens the longevity of an entire civilization?

That is the hardship when thinking too deeply about Superman, because you then begin feeling resentment towards him when he’s having coffee with Lois or working on a news story for Perry.  Suddenly, when I think of my niece in danger, and I can’t get to her in time, and Superman is working on a story about possible political corruption, I can’t help but get angry with him.  Keep the tights on, dude!  We need you 24/7!  We have Brian Williams for what you’re doing at the Daily Planet!

Alas, I realize this is a fictional character and I am utterly overanalyzing him, but these are the sorts of issues that would interest me.  Of course, I’m not sure how many people want to read a comic book with panel after panel of Superman contemplating his obligations to the world, or watch a movie showing nothing but rescue after rescue after rescue.  Most of us want Superman fighting giant monkeys or aliens from outer space, or maybe even other super heroes.  Something dynamic and catchy.  But we also want a little bit of Clark Kent pretending to be just like us.  That way we can sort of relate to him.  But don’t give us too much of that.  Just a little bit.  Otherwise we’d just be reading a comic book or watching a television show about ourselves.

So, for me, that is the ongoing saga of my love/hate relationship with Superman.  Everything I love about him is exactly what makes him so boring.

(Did you enjoy this article?  Check out Scott William Foley’s short stories HERE!)