The second installment in our five-part series on Superman and the DCAU, written by Jeremiah Lawson aka Wenatchee the Hatchet. Read the first part here. This series is dedicated to the memory of master Superman and Justice League writer Dwayne McDuffie.
Part 2: Challenging the Man of Steel
There have traditionally been three distinct approaches to plotting stories in which Superman is legitimately challenged. Two of them tend to be dead ends. The first has been simply to invent a villain who is so physically powerful that he/she can hurt Superman via superior raw power. Typically this approach is little more than a publicity stunt: Superman inevitably realizes at some point in the conflict that he’s been holding himself back. No sooner does he realize this than he cuts loose with what he (and we) assume must be his full power, and the villain is taken out quickly. Then the cycle runs again. Lather, rinse, and repeat.
A second option is the one best exemplified by Bryan Singer’s 2005 film Superman Returns. In this line of storytelling the assumption is that since Superman cannot be harmed physically, the only way to get at him is via his emotions. Toward this end Singer has Lois Lane give birth to Superman’s baby while he is off for five years looking for the remains of Krypton. Another man (James Marsden) raises the child.
In his review of Superman Returns, Roger Ebert declared that the essential problem with Superman is that inevitably Kryptonite must be involved in the story since it is the only way to physically threaten him. There are two things that present themselves from Ebert’s observation. First, Ebert is right to point out that having people always resort to Kryptonite to hurt Superman is problematic. Even Singer, for all his lip service to hurting Superman emotionally, ultimately resorts (spoiler alert!) to Lex Luthor stabbing Superman with it. Somehow, despite being stabbed with Kryptonite on a growing island full of Kryptonite Superman is soon able to push the island into space, one of a number of scenes in the film that prompted a friend of mine to scornfully rechristen Superman Returns as Superman Lifts Heavy Things.
But beyond these objections Superman Returns fails as a Superman story because in order to even start the premise of the “return” we are required to believe that Superman would have a plausible reason to leave Earth for five years, simultaneously jeopardize the safety of his adopted home and his secret identity all at once. Of course, if Superman were really Superman, his moral compass would have prevented him from ever leaving in the first place, especially since his Kryptonian father Jor-el told him emphatically that no one on Krypton survived. So in the end, the second way of giving Superman a challenge tends to give way to the first.
The third way to challenge Superman relies neither on physical or emotional assaults, but through the testing of his conscience. Brute force and/or relational cruelty are merely tools to be employed to this third end. If Superman’s moral compass can be broken then he can be defeated by betraying his own values and becoming what he once fought against. This is obviously where Superman as a character gets much more interesting.
If he stands for truth, justice and the American way, then challenging Superman via this third method involves posing the questions: “What is the truth?” “What is justice” and “What is the American way?” It should come as no surprise that these are the three questions over which Superman and Lex Luthor commonly battle each other. They are ultimately questions of legacy: what legacy is, for whom it is made, and the foundation upon which it should be built.
For specifics on what this looks like (and why it’s relevant to us here), tune in next week, same Super-time, same Super-channel, for part three.