How Do You Solve A Problem Like SUPERMAN?

"Adventures of Superman #1" art by Chris Samnee
Credit: Chris Samnee (DC Comics)
Credit: Warner Bros.

Once Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice debuted in theaters, ever viewer had an opinion on what worked and what didn't.

Common among fan criticism was the fact that Superman saves his mother and Lois more than once, relying on the weakness of those around him to create conflict.

But is that an inherent problem with a character as powerful as Superman? Is the character so omnipotent and able to protect anyone close to him that the only way to create drama is to put those he loves at risk?

"I don’t think it’s anymore a problem for Superman than it is other characters," said Dan Jurgens, writer of the well-known "Death of Superman" storyline and the upcoming Rebirth version of Action Comics.

Building Villains

Over the years, Superman writers in comic books, television and movies have tried a variety of approaches, but Jurgens said the best have focused on the character of Superman instead of his powers. Using Lex Luthor as an example, Jurgens said he's one of Superman's more compelling villains despite the fact he doesn't have powers.

"The problem of an interesting villain isn’t necessarily one of power, it’s one of meaning," Jurgens said. " it’s much more the differences in character between Luthor and Superman that makes them interesting adversaries. I’ve always thought that, regardless of hero, the very best villains have some kind of bond with them that makes the story truly interesting.

"With Superman, I think it’s something of a trap to always try to create a villain with the exact same power level. A good villain requires far more than that. It has to be more personal."

Credit: Dan Jurgens (DC Comics)

Jurgens said the best way to approach any conflict for Superman is to start with character — whether building a mental conflict or a physical villain for the hero. Jurgens said a writer should ask, "'Why is that character a Superman villain? What makes him/her different than a villain for any other character? What makes him/her unique to Superman and Superman alone'? Start with that and work from there. Build the character, build the scenario and then build the power level and motivation that makes it all work."

Moral Dilemmas

Credit: CW

Screenwriter Bryan Q. Miller, who handled the character on Smallville, agreed that drama and conflict shouldn't come from what a character is physically capable of doing. Instead, he said, the more interesting Superman stories deal with the differences between what Clark is willing to do with those powers and what those around him either want or encourage him to do.

"When you've got someone like Clark who's such a heavy hitter, the challenge to be accepted by those writing him is creating dilemmas: moral, physical, legal, emotional, societal," he said, suggesting that the best stories are the ones that challenge him as a character as well as a physical hero.

Miller said that isn't something writers should shy away from, nor should they change his moral integrity. At his core, the writer said, Superman is someone who doesn't compromise his values, no matter what.

But does being an ideally moral being make Superman less interesting?

Credit: Leinil Yu (DC Comics)

"Being a beacon of hope doesn't necessarily mean one needs to be a goodie-goodie. There's a larger societal shift in play that paints nobility and conviction as being unrelatable and old-fashioned,which is kind of sad," Miller said. "In his purer forms, Superman is a call for us as readers and viewers to harken back to a time when words and deeds meant more. When there were people to be looked up to instead of 'followed.'

Yet Superman isn't perfect, Miller emphasized.

"Superman is not all-powerful. He isn't a god. He's a man with fantastic abilities, whose powers seemingly have no limits. I think that's where either the writer or the reader or the viewer can get lost in the tall grass on who Superman is and how he works," he said.

Miller said the Superman animated series did a good job of putting limitations on Clark.

"We did that as much as we could on Smallville too — Kryptonite, then magic, and other colors of Kryptonite. No powers for periods of time. Moral complications. How much power to use versus how little, etcetera."

Mistakes and Killing

Credit: Frank Quitely (DC Comics)

"The other thing we did was allowed him to make mistakes," Miller said. "And then to learn from those mistakes to become a more fleshed out, well-rounded person."

Often the conflict of a story comes from the question of whether Superman should kill — something that was utilized in the Man of Steel film and has been the subject of multiple comic book stories.

"Smallville's Clark did kill on purpose — twice maybe, if I recall," Miller said. "Once was in the wake of Lana marrying Lex. Clark had rage he couldn't vent, and spiraled himself into a meteor-freak fight club. There was a Kryptonian from the Phantom Zone as an opponent who was slaughtering other contestants. Clark lost himself in that fight and took out his anger toward Lex (and himself) on the Zoner.

"And after, he felt grief. And remorse," Miller added. "He talked about it with his mother. He carried it with him. Leading up to that moment, it was built into his DNA as a person to never abuse his powers, and to never cross that line. So it meant something when he did, and he learned and grew from it."

Yet Miller said that Superman turning purposely toward killing should be one that is avoided.

"I am a firm believer that Superman is a character who should be both aspirational and inspirational. And I've never for one moment been in a situation when writing him in which I thought, 'there's no way to make this work if he doesn't start killing people.' And I've never thought that, because he wouldn't. It might be considered. It might be suggested. But he should always find a better way. He should be better than the rest of us. He's called 'Superman,' not 'Everyman.'

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