The Disappearance of Superman & Idealism
What in the world happened to Superman?
If something flies across your TV screen these days, it’s likely a bird or a plane, because it certainly isn’t Superman. In an era when superhero films are more prevalent than ever before, it’s perplexing that the world’s most famous superhero is nowhere to be seen.
While the current “in-crowd” of popular superheroes is obviously not among the highest concerns for Christians today, the curious disappearance of Superman may provide insight into our culture and into ourselves.
The Disappearance of Superman
Countless lesser-known and increasingly bizarre comic-book characters have flooded theaters in recent years, but the Man of Steel remains largely relegated to the sidelines. Meanwhile, his angsty and brooding Justice League colleague Batman is rarely out of the cultural spotlight.
Consider this: Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (the final Christopher Reeve movie) hit theaters a few months after I was born. Since then, there have been only two Superman films—Superman Returns (2006) and Man of Steel (2013). In that same time, Batman has starred in eight or nine films (even more if you count The Lego Batman Movie or other animated features). I watched the last Superman movie in a theater as part of my brother’s bachelor party. He’s now married with four kids. It’s been a while.
The character has appeared in several ensemble films, including Batman v. Superman (2016) and Justice League . . . twice (2017, 2021). But these films feel more like an attempt to buoy the superhero with more popular characters. Even the recent animated film DC League of Super-Pets (a story about Superman’s dog) is a surprising box-office failure. He may be invulnerable, but Supes can’t seem to catch a break.
The Disappearance of Idealism
The most recent Henry Cavill iteration of Superman has a slightly darker, grittier edge than earlier versions (and he finally got the memo not to wear his underwear on the outside), but the character has remained essentially the same over the years. He may not have changed much, but culture certainly has.
Christopher Nolan, producer of Superman’s most recent film, Man of Steel (2013), perhaps said it best: “He has the most extraordinary ideals to live up to. He’s very God-like in a lot of ways and it’s been difficult to imagine that in a contemporary setting.”
Before being too quick to conclude that today’s world is simply too dark to make space for such an idealistic hero, we should remember that the original Superman comic debuted shortly before World War II. Things were grim then too. In fact, much of the initial appeal of the character was undoubtedly due to the difficult real-world circumstances. Superman was a beacon of goodness in a world that was losing its grip on it. These days, however, many audiences seem to want their heroes to reflect harsh reality rather than transcend it.
Earnestness has become associated with childish escapism. Today’s storytellers seem almost abashed to depict characters who earnestly strive for goodness and truth. The superheroes who aren’t dark and gritty anti-heroes are typically portrayed as goofy or tongue-in-cheek. For example, in the most recent MCU film Thor: Love and Thunder, Thor is anything but “dark.” But he is also a bumbling buffoon. The implication is obvious: “It’s just silly entertainment, but everyone knows the real world isn’t bright and optimistic like that!” As society drifts further away from hope and belief in God, it makes sense that divine, god-like heroes suddenly feel outdated.
Striving Toward an Ideal
The current fixation on deeply flawed heroes may stem from the wider conversation on identity and our longing for affirmation. Flawed, imperfect anti-heroes affirm us. They suggest that “heroes look just like you.” They have anger problems, act selfishly, and battle against themselves as much as against their enemies. Heroes like Superman, on the other hand, make us feel inadequate or powerless. They’re too good to be true, so why bother?
But the power of an ideal is not in achieving the end goal but in the constant striving for it. It is about the journey as much as the destination. This concept is biblical. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus declared, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Perfection is a lofty, unachievable ideal. The remark comes right after Christ paints an idealistic picture for his followers to love their enemies. Christians have struggled to live up to that teaching ever since, but it remains a worthy goal.
To the church in Corinth, the Apostle Paul took on the responsibility of setting the example: “You are to imitate me, just as I imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). The Corinthians were ultimately called to reflect Christ, not Paul. But the apostle provided a tangible (if imperfect) example for them to follow.
There is power in ideals, in gazing high and striving toward lofty ends. Ideals don’t imply childish naivety about the harsh realities in the world; they are motivators to overcome those realities, even just a little.
In fact, all superheroes—even the dark, gritty ones—represent ideals. The challenge of all superhero stories is to inspire ordinary people through characters who are anything but ordinary. They are, by definition, not just heroes. They are superheroes.
There’s certainly a place for flawed, relatable anti-heroes. Many of the best comic-book stories ever told have showcased such characters. There are valuable lessons to be learned through watching characters struggle against their flawed nature.
There is also a need for idealistic heroes. For characters who remind us of the goodness and truth that are difficult to see in our present circumstances. Some heroes enable us to make sense of our dark world; others help us remember that there is more to life than the darkness around us. Superman has spent a lot of time watching from the sidelines. But it feels as though there is a quiet rumbling in our culture for his inevitable return. Superman is a symbol and a powerful reminder that goodness wins. Christians can be encouraged by the knowledge that this divine ideal is not, in fact, too good to be true.