(You may as well get settled in, if you plan on riding this one to the end. A quick scan down will show you that my ambitions for your attention span may well outstrip your level of commitment. Consider yourself warned.)
I do all my best thinking while driving.
I’m not alone in this; there is something about a long drive down a straight highway that activates the contemplation circuits. It’s a kind of gentle, enforced modern meditation. I am, however, one of those people who, when confronted with a sticky problem, will actually leave and go for a drive to sort it out.
It was on one such drive, several years back, that I got to thinking about Superman.
This was on a spectacularly long drive, four hours between Vancouver, B.C. and Seattle, WA. On such a drive, one has a chance to take an idea and turn it over and over in your mind, until it spins, and you can begin to shape it, carve away at it, as you would a dowel humming away in a lathe.
On this trip, I was turning over in my mind the fact that Superman bugs me. And I had a good long time to think about why.
Consider what you have with the Man O’ Steel.
He is (as far as we can tell) the closest thing to completely invunerable as any creature can get, short of actually having no weaknesses. He takes the most egregious kind of poundings, gets back up, keeps coming, and never relents. In fact, most types of assault simply glance off of him, ineffectual-like.
And this… this… is what bothers me.
Most of what I have learned in this life (small though that sum may be) I have learned through receiving and contemplating the painful consequences to the actions I have taken. I often think that my life can largely be described by the long chain of mistakes I have made, and the course corrections I have taken in response to those mistakes.
I am not exceptional in this. It is safe to say that this is one of the Ways of life itself. Pain exists as a way for creatures (sentient or otherwise) to condition themselves to avoid behavors that will damage them, in an ever-changing environment. Yep. Pretty sure about this one.
What would that do to someone?
(We don’t really know. But, there are, at the very least, ideas about this floating around the American myth and story gestalt… Since we are talking about a fictional character, let’s accept these baseless fictional ideas as fact. Lawmakers do it all the time, why can’t we?)
Absence of pain stunts the development of empathy in the poor afflicted sod. It’s simple: if you, yourself, can’t feel pain, then you can’t imagine what pain someone else is experiencing, which is empathy.
So, of course, being utterly invulnerable, Superman would of course become an utter sociopath, and, since he is a) unstoppable, b) inhumanly powerful, and c) from another goddamn planet, he would, of course, rise up, claim the world as his own, and rule it in whatever depraved manner he sees fit.
Except he didn’t. Not even close.
Instead, he became humanity’s savior, a paragon of virtue, and defender of every goddamn thing within his remarkably broad reach.
So, the question I have is how?? How did this happen??
Let’s look at the facts. Superman apologists (you know who you are, you flag-waving tree huggers) generally tell us about two major factors in the development of this goody-two-shoes approach to demigod status:
- The training the young Kal-El (Supes, for those not in the ultra-geek squad) was given while in the escape pod he was carried to earth in;
- His raising at the hands of the good and kindly Jonathan and Martha Kent.
Let’s talk about each of these briefly, and then discuss what this startling declaration must mean.
The idea here is that the escape pod Superman’s parents put him in to carry him away from his dying planet contained within it some pretty fucking bitchin’ technology and design, and that, over the course of his long, long journey to Earth, it stuffed his head full of understanding about the universe and the planet that he was travelling to.
In most presentations, this is basically a recording talking to a baby Kal-El floating in a sphere, which would make me a dead Kal-El from confinement, boredom, and physical inactivity within a month. But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the Krypton Recreation & Instructional Bureau was a well-financed and well-regulated governmental body, and that they put some brains on the job of building that darn pod. Nerds, I mean. The really geeky ones, like the ones who stuffed the computational power of the entire planet in 1972 into the computer with which you are reading this drivel, bored silly and impatient with me to get to the goddamn point.
Hang on. We’re almost there.
So, let’s assume that this was a really good teaching machine he was in. Okay, cool. Kal-El (who quickly became the young Clark Kent) got his brain all stuffed full with information and detail about where he was going, how stuff worked, and how his parents expected him to behave.
They brainwashed him pretty good. Yep.
All right, so now we meet the second major influence: the Kents.
Before we swallow this pill, let’s again consider what we’ve got here. We have a young boy, utterly brainwashed by his parents in a space machine to earth, who has had no real-world experience at all, until he crashlands in a wheat field in Kansas. We can assume that there was some kind of physical simulation stuff in the training pod, so he’s not emerging like some kind of blank slate; he’s a healthy Kryptonian boy of six. Or however old he was. However, he’s never actually done anything real.
Enter the Kents: two kind, gentle, rugged, apple pie American folken, looking for a kid. And, one just dropped into their back yard. Fine.
This boy of theirs could crush their torsos accidentally if he sneezed while giving them a hug. If startled at the wrong moment and lets fly, he could knock one of them into the next county.
This is not your usual kid.
Now, let’s talk quickly about children. The parental relationship is based on many things: experience, love, relation, community… and, also, physicality. It is true that part of the reason that kids have to do what their parents tell them to (especially when they are young) is that, deep down, they know that the parents can just pick them up and put them in the goddamn car, if they had to. Many kids know this, and never test it. Some test it. Some test it constantly. But it is most certainly one part of the web that keeps children from destroying their parents. And, darn tootin’!
This was not the case with the Kents. Oh no. If the young Clark got it in his head to, he was gonna have that goddamn plushy Scooby-Doo, and that would pretty much be that. Yep.
We must assume, then, that as Clark grew from child to hormonally-posessed teenager to superheroic adult, one of two things occurred. Either:
- The young Clark Kent never tested his parents authority, or
- If he did test his parents, his behavior was successfully shut down based exclusively on verbal and emotional feedback. Every time.
Let me say that again, because it’s the basis of the point I’ve brought you all the way down this long, long, page of small white text to make.
Clark Kent either never genuinely rebelled, or if he did, he was talked out of it, every time.
Now, he would certainly not be alone in this. There are many people out there who, when they were youngins, tested the boundaries of their social territory in only the most casual way, and for whom a firm talking to was plenty to curb their behavior. (I think it would, however, not be a stretch to theorise that few of these kind of folk grow up to fight villains for a living, but that’s a discussion for another day.)
That said, it’s important to not forget that this creature who quietly accepted the boundaries he was given is someone who has no possible way to receive any negative physical consequences for his actions. You can’t incarcerate him. You can’t prevent him from taking something he wants. He can move fast enough to appear to vanish. It is trivial beyond words for him to demonstrate his physical superiority. You ultimately have to depend on his own internal systems to prevent him from defying you.
And, lo, he’s the most powerful creature on the planet. None can oppose him, and it is safe to say that he was vastly stronger, faster, and smarter than everyone he ever knew when he was growing up.
WTF? What is going on inside that head of his?
Now that we are here, I can finally say what I’ve wanted to say all along, and I think, given all that we’ve been through together, you’ll understand what I mean when I say it.
Superman is stupid.
Like, dumb-as-a-post stupid. Head full of rocks. What kind of a mind would never, ever test the boundaries of his social web, when the potential reward for succeeding could well be rulership of anything you wanted?
Even worse, the mind that made this choice was a mind with strong leadership tendencies, and the broad desire to have a world-wide impact on the lives of humanity. What sort of person would wield such broad ambitions, such vast power, and yet live strictly within the gentlest of restraints, never once testing them for their strength?
Someone phenomenally dull, that’s who. Someone on whom brainwashing would be so spectacularly successful that…
…well, that you’d have the ultimate pawn for some national power, wouldn’t you? Hmm.
So, in the end, the thing that bugs me about Superman is his utter lack of vision, and his willingness to simply accept what was put in front of him at face value. It would be easier to swallow, I think, if he even once struggled with this problem. If he had ever expressed uncertainty about what he was doing given who he was. If he had demonstrated for a single moment that he was capable of seeing his position in the universe from an objective position, instead of from an absolute one.
It’s absurd. The bullets bouncing off I can accept. Inability to view the world as it is? Unacceptable.