Sunday, May 21, 2006

Summer of Superman/ Melbotis Mailbag

Randy writes:

I always thought Supes got "beat up" too easily. For a creature with god-like powers, he gets knocked around a lot. This is what always frustrates me when watching a Superman cartoon (JLU; Superman TAS). If Supes was so powerful, couldn't he just destroy people at will? Sure, folks like Doomsday and Darkseid would give him problems, but a guy in spandex with a ray gun? Yes, he has to be careful so that he doesn't kill human beings, but why should he let them push him around? It's like he doesn't fully utilize all his superhuman skills.

Dear Randy,

Point well taken, Randy.

In issue #1 of New England Comics' The Tick, The Tick explains that he is "nigh invulnerable". That's his power. He's exactly as invulnerable as the story dictates. A lot of these sorts of questions don't really bug you when you accept that nigh invulnerability is more or less the status quo of the average superhero in comics or any medium.

The creators of the Justice League and Justice League Unlimited TV programs have gone on record about their decision to de-power Superman in the cartoon. The point being, if Superman were operating at full capacity, would he really need the Justice League? If one watches over the course of the series, it's pretty clear they either couldn't agree on Superman's power (he stops a hurricane but is having trouble with a truck falling off a bridge?), or they simply didn't know what was appropriate to make the show work. I remember screaming bloody murder at the TV in the first episode where Superman is overcome by some alien knock-out gas. Supes can fly in the sun's corona. I think he can handle a little chlorophorm.

All things being equal, I think the same argument regarding "de-powered" superheroes can be made regarding Martian Manhunter, Green Lantern or Wonder Woman. However, nobody seems too concerned that J'onn doesn't have his "Martian Vision" or, seemingly, his telepathic powers. There's barely a snort that Wonder Woman's magic lasso is just super-strong and doe snot force anyone to tell the truth. And I've heard barely a peep that Green Lantern appears limited to lasers and bubble shields in the cartoon.

On the flip side, nobody seems concerned that Hawkgirl can destroy otherworldly atomic drills with a swing of an electrically charged mace.

I guess what I'm saying is: It's all about managing expectations. Everybody more or less has an idea of what Superman can do. It's possible the show's creators misstepped in not meeting those expectations.

If Supes was so powerful, couldn't he just destroy people at will?

He could, but he doesn't. If he did, I think you'd see someone named "Zod" and less of someone named Superman. The idea that Superman would "destroy" people is sort of anathema to the concept of the superhero. Simply because you have the ability to destroy somebody doesn't mean that you utilize it.

Sure, folks like Doomsday and Darkseid would give him problems, but a guy in spandex with a ray gun?

Well, it depends what's in that ray gun and whether Superman was braced for the punch it delivered.

Yes, he has to be careful so that he doesn't kill human beings, but why should he let them push him around?

I think what you're asking is: Why does Superman allow himself to be put in harm's way? Or, are you asking: Why does Superman let himself take the first hit?

Look, some of it is just bad writing. If you have telescopic vision and heat vision and some guy down the block is shooting the place up, you could, in theory, melt the weapon before he ever notices you. I think this is the approach you'd see in the comics but which seems to have missed the JLU writers.

If you're asking why Superman doesn't just pound everyone who is a threat to him... You're kind of missing the point of Superman.

One of the things I dig about Superman is that it's not like Superman is stupid. He KNOWS he can beat most other folks on the surface of the planet. So when he shows up, he can always give crooks of all stripes a chance to drop their weapons and surrender peacefully. He can also afford to take the first shot in a fight, knowing it's entirely likely that he will be able to walk away from a fight.

Does he fully utilize his powers and skills? I guess it depends on your definition. Comics are full of characters who believe they are fully utilizing their powers and/ or skills in order to make the world a better place (ie: the world according to them.) Part of the point, again, of the superheroic ideal is that simply because one has the power, one doesn't necessarily force others (and most likely cannot force others) to abide by their notions of right and wrong. What they CAN do is step in to protect people who stand in harm's way or protect those who are at risk because someone else is "fully utilizing" their powers in a way which is detrimental to the powerless.

But what I think you're really asking is: Can't Superman open a greater can of whoop-ass than what I've seen?

The answer is: I guess it depends where you're looking. Personally, I would have liked to have seen Superman really cut loose on JL and JLU, but that just wasn't in the cards. I did feel like the producers might not even have really liked Superman all that much as a character in the first season, maybe because he can be a pain in the ass to write as he's the swiss army knife of Superheroes.

I think by the end of the show, they really had come to like him a lot more, and had become more comfortable using him in stories.

You do hear some writers complain that Superman is too tough to write as the hero who can do anything, but the fact is that successful Superman stories have only infrequently been about Superman slogging his way, video game like, through low-level villains to the big boss. And, in fact, I don't personally find those sorts of stories terribly engaging anymore in any comics (not just my Superman stories).

Superman comics usually present a far more logical view of what Superman might do. The editors know who their readership is, and they're far more likely to ensure that they don't receive bags of letters asking why Superman let, say, The Rainbow Raider get the drop on him.

I think when you see characters of more limited power, it's easier to chalk up their actions to a "real" effort. Everyone's favorite example: Wolverine. Wolverine is, for all intentions, a guy with a few knives. Wolverine is portrayed as hacking and slashing his way through piles of ninjas, etc... each issue, often with his mouth hanging open, drooling. THAT, is effort. That is a guy fully utilizing his abilities. Superman isn't usually portrayed in this sort of light. And when Superman DOES demonstrate effort, it's usually shown at such a scale that it's less relatable (such as "charging up" by flying through the corona of the sun before smashing through the invading alien army.).

I'm not sure this actually answered your question. What I would say is: in all the media where you see Superman appear, rarely is he portrayed the same way from media to media or even program to program. And, yes, Superman fans also get frustrated with the seeming lack of consistency, too.

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