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!)

15 thoughts on “The Psychology of Superman

  1. Good read.

    It’s really hard to write a interesting story without making him perfect, though all the while staying in his character. When he was first created, not much of a backstory was written for him. So researching some info about him when someone wants to write a story is hard. However, I believe that writing from his morals, rather than his inner conflicts (and just creating them from no where) is the right way to go, and if done properly, will create interesting stories.

  2. Hi Wendy,

    Thanks for dropping by and giving me a read! Glad you have some strong feelings on good old Supes as well. Don’t be a stranger!

  3. astudentofmrfoley says:

    mr. foley good thoughts on superman. i think another superhero that is easy to relate to is spiderman because he has problems as a human that can’t be solved with his super powers, such as his relationship with mary jane. he fights the battles with supervillains that we can’t, but also fights the battles as a human that we can.

  4. Vichy says:

    I’d like to see Superman as an amoral egoist. Far more interesting and identifiable, for me.

  5. ooo says:

    wow… thanks this essay makes my life sooo much easier. Thanks for writing a lanuage that I can understand

  6. Danielle Traylor says:

    Hi Scott,

    I like your analysis of superman and what makes him such an (un)appealing character. The thing I felt made Superman human was his connection to his father. You mention that he would never ask for some me time. And I completely agree. I wonder how much of that has to do with the fact that he was sent to earth by his dad, who said he would be a destroyer. For him, knowing that someone could die and not doing anything about it could mean that he’s falling into indifference.

    Can you be indifferent without becoming a destroyer at some point? I don’t know, but I know that indifference rarely brings anything positive to the table. So maybe Superman’s battle to save the world is his battle to save the world.

    With that said, I have to agree with you that Superman as a deadbeat dad is far fetched. He grew up without a dad, and that coupled with his need to be perfect doesn’t equal a deadbeat.

    So what do you think? Agree/Disagree?

    • Hi Danielle,

      I agree with much of what you said, though I’m not familiar with Jor-El ever claiming Kal-El would be a destroyer. Is that a layover from the television show? My understanding of Superman coming to our planet was simply that it was one of the few places that could sustain him, even empower him, as researched by his dad.

      Anyway, with that being said, I believe it’s more likely to avoid becoming a destroyer if you are indifferent. I believe it’s those at the other end of the spectrum whose passion can lead to clouded judgment.

      Thanks very much for dropping by!

    • Jeffery Scism says:

      Even Superman would have task saturation problems. And society being what it is will expect him to be there to solve all its little issues. The problem with having a superman is that there is no Off button. Superman as a alter-ego is that off button. He needs Clark Kent to balance his life. He needs some form of normalcy. And as the plot developed that part is always getting superseded by the events that require Superman.

      Superman in a cyclic way creates his own issues. If he wasn’t there, there would be more disasters to deal with but in the whole world view he has negligible affect He can’t be everywhere at one time. Yes a story arc of when he fails to “get there” and has to deal with inadequacy issues would be good for him. He unlike The Batman has no real dark side. Where Bruce Wayne has a past of tragedy, and issues related to the trauma of witnessing murder of his parents, Superman has issues of abandonment and isolation as a sole survivor. Only the city of Kandor, Supergirl, and a few criminals from the Phantom Zone can give him a base to regulate his life.

      His alter-side has The Daily Planet and its grind and mundane responsibilities, even Superman has to eat. I can see superman sitting down with a debt counselor….

      • Jeffery Scism says:

        Additionally he was raised as Clark Kent, so the Superman identity is the alter-ego. He is in the unique position where he may have to abandon his life-long Identity and just become Superman at large. THAT would bring a littany of issues.

  7. Kevin says:

    The destroyer thing I think was invented by the writers of Smallville. Kal-El was to come to earth to save humanity from its own evils. Anyway, I can totally see why someone would not like the character of Superman but what I do find intriguing is his inner conflict of “do I save humanity and give up a life of my own or do I just simply not care and live the life of a normal human?” I think we kinda deal with this sort of thing everyday in our own lives, whether it’s in our love life or work, family, etc. I think this should be explored more in the Superman movies, more emphasis on the character rather than the plot.

  8. Henman says:

    Stumbled upon this. It’s a very Intetesting analysis Of the psyche of superman. Clark Kent is definitely a bit unbalanced psychologically with all the responsibilities. To some extent I can relate to him as well as a human being because, despite a lack of superpowers, I sometimes feel I. Am responsible for helping others.

    I’m interested in a superman story which shows more of the human side of Clark.

  9. Jay says:

    Typed in the psychology of Superman and found your blog. I like what I’ve read so far. I have one recommendation for your thirst of a well written Superman “inner conflict” graphic novel. Check out The Red Son, if you haven’t already. Setting: Superman crash landed in Russia as a baby. Enjoy!

  10. Rob says:

    I think that when we watch superman or read… In a sense. We are watching ourselves. Minus the ability to fly and the bullet proof_ness who is Kal El? An orphan? A lost child. On a planet without anyone else. Ever felt that way?

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