There Are Two Kinds of Perfect: Searching for the Best Superman
Like a lot of writers lately, I’ve been thinking about Superman a lot. That’s not unexpected between the recent comics relaunch and a movie series and a related TV show currently in circulation, but the difference between me and a normal person is that I am always thinking about Superman, and a normal person sometimes stops.
It took me a while to get on board, but I greatly enjoyed the recent Supergirl series on CBS, since it’s just about everything I want out of a superhero movie or TV show right now. It is heartfelt and it has a strong sense of morality; it has a great cast and a true winner in series headliner Melissa Benoist; and of course, it features a character rocking the red and blue, and the S-crest, which I am a sucker for 24/7/365.25.
News recently broke that Superman will make his first appearance on the show in season two, which is something of a surprise. Many people have commented that Supergirl's portrayal of Superman is the best there’s been on TV or the movies in years, even though he’s barely in it. He’s a distant figure, far away. And the more I think about it, the more I wonder if that’s not the best way to handle the character in the role many people want him to occupy.
More than any other superhero, many of us expect Superman to be perfect; a moral pillar that doesn’t budge. A fixed point in the universe. But Superman, and his supporting cast, and the entirety of the fictional universe --- the entirety of the genre around him --- didn’t spontaneously leap into existence. The first truth of Superman that was buried by the company that owns him is that a couple of normal people made Superman. It’s easy to forget, but it’s still true.
The moral pillar of Superman is planted there by people, and the pillar can’t be any more perfect than those people themselves. Even if they intend Superman to be of stronger moral character than they are, they still will have divergent points of view about what that kind of character should be. (All the stories with questionable racial and gender politics were created by people who thought they were writing about heroism.)
So the pillar will move as the creators do. There are disagreements as to how much it will sway in the wind. And more and more, there is a love amongst creators to see what happens to an entire universe when the pillar is dug up and toppled. The more work is done with the character, the more that pillar is fated to move --- and the more it moves, the more the illusion of immovability is broken.
In this essay by Tim O’Neill, Tim argues that a perfect Superman cannot last longer than a fleeting moment outside of the collection of self-selected memories and headcanons we’ve assembled for ourselves. That the more he is present, the more he is diminished, because the more opportunity there is for a word to be put wrong, for a facial expression to be just a little off, for an action to be taken that the reader would disagree with. Then the perfection is gone, and the illusion with it.
But this is only a problem if you actually have Superman around as a character we spend a lot of time with. If he remains a distant inspiration then, the less he does, the less he can screw up --- and the less he can disrupt all those carefully laid perfect memories and headcanons we have in place.
As it stands, the Superman on Supergirl can have two parents, one parent, or no parents. He can identify as human, Kryptonian, or some mix of the two that takes into account the fluidity of identities. His relationship with the love of his life plays out pretty much how you think it should, with nothing to say otherwise. His voice is never off. His disguise is always flawless. He exists less on the show and more in your imagination, where he can be perfect. Even when they mention him making mistakes, they don’t go into details, so even his mistakes can be perfect.
Most importantly, his role as an inspirational figure can be reflected in the actions of everyone he’s met, who are allowed to fail with more readiness than Superman does, as long as they keep striving to be better. (In one episode, Supergirl is initially in favor of locking Maxwell Lord up without trial. How would this scene play out if it were Kal-El making this claim, even if he later thought better of it and did the right thing? Would we be as forgiving of a momentary lapse in judgment as we are with Supergirl?)
This doesn’t do much for Superman, the character, of course. If you never show him, you’re not really telling a Superman story. So Superman the icon and Superman the character may be incompatible, which might explain why The Iron Giant sometimes gets held up as the best Superman movie; it doesn’t have Superman the character, but it absolutely features Superman the icon, reflected in the Giant’s final words, which you’re probably misting up over just thinking about. Some people value the icon more than the actual character, and they’re not wrong to do so. That icon is powerful.
But what Supergirl does is have its super-cake and super-eat it too. The icon is there with Superman, and Supergirl herself steps into the role reserved for Superman the character. She flies around, does good, fights evil, has a secret identity --- everything you’d want Superman to do. She can also fall short, make mistakes, and then resolve to make up for them, which is everything you want a heroic fictional character to do.
There’s no conflict between the icon and the character, because they’re two different people. A lot of fans want Superman to be perfect, but there’s two definitions of the word perfect --- there’s the adjective, describing something that is perfect, and there is the verb, as in “to perfect,” describing something moving towards perfection. With Supergirl, both definitions are there, and treated as best as they can in a story told by imperfect people.
With Rebirth deciding to swap out one Superman for another, and with multiple Supermen on TV and in the movies, there is a sense that the quest for the Superman that is “just right” continues and shows no signs of being satisfied yet. Maybe the quest is ultimately quixotic, and DC could do with a separation of Superman the icon and Superman the character --- and maybe the way forward for that is already laid out before us.