Superheroes are dying and what that means
Why My Adventures With Superman is a perfect shot in the arm for the genre.
What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Superman, the colloquial first superhero? Arguably, it used to be his kindness, Christopher Reeve’s warm smile, or a friendly super-friend giving you his hand. Now, you’d probably think of his visually awe-inspiring powers, laser vision in the rain, or a God mid-flight. Time has whittled down the “hero” in superheroes. In our current pop culture landscape, where morality is considered outdated and traditional heroism lame, there seems to be no room for a man in tights to save cats out of trees anymore. In the last decade, we have more superhero movies (and shows) available to us than the half-century before it. Despite this, or maybe because of it, superhero movies have brought home less box office and garnered even lesser interest from general audiences. America’s modern myths have fallen far from Olympus, as their budgets skyrocketed while their gross slowly dwindled and whimpered (not that money equals quality). These once mythic symbols have lost their meaning as they become diluted products to promote competing streaming services.
In a time when truth is subjective, justice is prejudiced, and the American way is questionable, does someone like Superman even have a place anymore? Ironically, this question is the whole reason for the Man of Tomorrow’s existence. Written by two Jewish immigrants in 1938, one of his biggest character traits is that he’s an outsider, he’s not supposed to fit in. He’s meant to look at us (people of Earth) from the outside in and in spite of all his otherworldly power, choose to live with us from the inside out. The problem then arises, when creators opt to make Superman as skeptical as doomsday preppers in an effort to make him more “grounded” and “relatable,” as opposed to putting him in a skeptical world. Making him pessimistic and fascistic changes his entire character and by that point, you might as well put the cape on a stranger, instead of riding on a brand.
There is merit to be had from genre deconstructions, satire, parody, and subversion. The issue is when there is no structure left to deconstruct and everything is a parody, making people easily mistake the joke for the real thing. For a while, studios have tended to favor anti-heroes more than their archetypal origin: Deadpool, Black Adam, Venom, and even Morbius (just to name a few). Even Batman, as popular and well-known as he is — regularly reintroduced to mainstream media every few years — is an example of an atypical hero, morally ambiguous and therefore considered “cool.”
A lot of people think Superman doesn’t work in a post-9/11 world, where trust in people and institutions is commonly misplaced and the benefit of the doubt costs too dearly (inversely Batman thrives in it.) They’re of the opinion that he’s too powerful and too good all at the same time, he has no flaws and hence boring. People have seen the cruelty of human nature and they scratch their heads thinking why a superpowered alien would consciously choose to live with us. It’s far more understandable that a billionaire orphan would wear all black and beat people up in the night, because criminals deserve retribution, and we all understand childhood trauma. What we can’t wrap our heads around are altruism, optimism, and all the other “isms” that make our lips curve upward without noticing it.
When Superman is written as having an overall negative disposition towards humanity, I’d argue it’s because people have grown to have a more pessimistic view of us as a species and culture. Superman’s greatest power is his humanity, and while we may see ourselves as beyond saving, that is the exact opposite philosophy that the Man of Steel has on us. Which brings me to the first animated series of the Man of Tomorrow since 1996: My Adventures With Superman. This modern retelling of the Man of Steel’s origin incorporates all the best things about his history, from his best friend, his Silver Age foes, and even the cynicism that is common in newer media. What works and differentiates this from his other recent adaptations, is how the character of Superman himself is not a cynic, he doesn't fall victim to the world’s worldview. He is challenged and tested by how the world treats him and their opinion of him, but he keeps himself hopeful and optimistic. That is the long-missing virtue that puts the “hero” back into superhero.
Through his book Illuminations, comic book legend Alan Moore indirectly argues that Superman (or superheroes as a whole) works best when confined in 2 dimensions, i.e. comic books or animation. Perhaps that is why he disowns all adaptations of his works except one episode from the Justice League Animated Series. I second Moore’s comments, calling to mind Plato’s Theory of Forms, concerning the physical world and timeless ideas. The Greek Philosopher argued that beyond us there are perfect unchanging concepts transcending time and space that everything in reality is derived from. The way I see it, comic books’ simpler dimension carries that static abstract nature that the living in turn emulate, a moral perfection that we in the physical world can strive to achieve. Superman is the person that everyone should be but isn’t. Once brought to live action, it is harder to believe not that a man can fly, but that a man can be eternally kind.
What shines and is unique from My Adventures With Superman is not necessarily its Anime influence (though it is a part of it), but the fact that it’s wholeheartedly sincere in how it presents its story and characters. A breath of fresh air in the midst of other DC Animated ventures, consisting of dark comedy Harley Quinn, gritty spy espionage Young Justice, and comedy spoof Teen Titans Go. We haven’t had a true sincere Superhero show in a while, one that takes itself seriously yet earnestly so, one that allows both heart and doubt. The show works by not changing the characters, but adapting the world around them. The showrunner knows to not sacrifice the core characteristics but to modernize the world in which the character exists.
It creates relatability not by making Superman depressed, jaded, and lost, but a hothead intern, who just wants to help but is too quickly judged by a fast-moving media landscape, and a civilization that changes its mind on topics and people of interest every day. One day Superman helps an old lady cross a street and he’s a hero, the next he makes an unintended mistake and he’s a villain. In the show’s social media, Superman is under scrutiny like actors and pop stars. Akin to comic books, the 2-dimensional realm of social media tends to color everyone either black or white. The show’s conflict is then just about a guy who wants to do good but does not always succeed in his intent, in a world where people believe everyone must have a selfish ulterior motive.
I grew up in a time when superheroes were at their heyday in mainstream media, raised by Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and the then-burgeoning Marvel Cinematic Universe. I understand why the next generation would prefer algorithm-driven content from YouTube or TikTok to entertain them over superhero films — since superheroes are rarely even heroes anymore.
In an information era where attention is commodity, entertainment is produced with ten jokes per second to keep you watching. It makes fun of itself constantly, belittling whatever character and message it may have. It deconstructs everything it introduces; no sincerity, just muddled meta-commentary. With increased division and people divided into more and more groups, entertainment is choosing to either make fun of all of them, or no one at all. Stories are homogenized and ironed out for every diet and palate, a textureless mush to make you full and laugh but forget about what your meal even was afterward. A plate with a trademarked symbol with you not knowing what the symbol even stands for anymore.
My Adventures With Superman cleansed my palate almost the same way Across the Spiderverse did (another win for animation), by bringing back old-fashioned sincerity. To revitalize a dying genre, maybe all it took was honoring the source material, in all its cheesy honesty. The true twist and subversion is keeping Superman true despite everything. The show proves that modern mass entertainment can be fast-paced and have heart, funny and not make fun of the characters or events happening on screen. Sincerity doesn’t lie. Perhaps the difficulty superhero writers have faced over the years is in writing something they truly believe in, and so they put themselves and their doubts draped in capes.
Superman isn’t just the capital “S” in superhero, he’s the entire word, and he’s only ever as boring as you or me. He always has noble intentions and tries to do good, but things don’t always end up the way he hopes them to. The difference between him and us is he exists in a heightened hyperreal world, where everything is brought to its symbolic extremes. He has supreme power and is able to do supreme good, because of that some people are rubbed the wrong way and hate him supremely for it. At the end of the day, he shouldn’t be brought down to our level, we should attempt to reach his.
Acclaimed comic book writer Grant Morrison once claimed that “Superhero stories are sweated out at the imagined lowest levels of our culture, but like that shard off a hologram, they contain at their hearts all the dreams and fears of generations in vivid miniature.” Directors like Martin Scorcese compare superhero movies as akin to amusement park rides; no value except in mindless entertainment. I’d argue they carry value in how they present us something we dream of, not just power fantasy, but moral fantasy, justice and equality. But all that falls flat, if not delivered with absolute sincerity and faith. Our view on superheroes reflects our views on ourselves. Superheroes should stop being improbabilities we look down on, into impossibilities we look up to.