Well, we lit a bit of a nerd firestorm as to LOTR or Star Wars being the greatest trilogy of all times. And in the process we uncovered another diametrically opposed avenue, and that was of the comic book superhero. DC and Marvel battle it out for superiority in their separate paneled universes (and movie screens), while the independent comics hunt for sustenance in their scraps. And while these indies usually eschew the superhero, comics themselves were (and are) cemented around the concept of the superhero.
Matt: The idea of “best” is a bit too difficult of a concept to tackle because we’ll get lost in the weeds in terms of who is the most powerful, most influential; the cornerstone on which the genre is based. As such, I’m rephrasing the question into who is your favorite superhero?
I ask this for two reasons. The first being it’s hard for me to pick. I was raised on Marvel and always avoided DC as uninteresting, yet my favorite characters from comics are DC’s Sandman and King Mob. But they’re not really superheroes, so they don’t really count.
Because, as we all know, superheroes wear spandex.
So I’m going to say that the only spandex-clad man I’d ever want at my back would be Wolverine, even though I know he’s completely overexposed these days.
Why would I offer such an obvious answer? Because I know that Daniel’s is going to be even more obvious in Superman. And I’m going to have to demand an answer as to why/ how the blandest bland that ever blanded could possible be more compelling than an unstoppable mutant with not one, but six axes to grind; all of which he hides in his forearms.
Daniel: The Man of Steel, The Man of Tomorrow, The Last Son of Krypton. Superman stands out for a variety of reasons. Where nearly all other superheroes wear their mask as their alter ego, Clark Kent is the alter ego, the mask, and Kal-El is the real persona. Already with that there’s a lot to explore about the human condition through an outsider’s view. Also, Superman offers an excellent discussion of power, its use and abuse. Many superhero stories discuss morals, but Superman stories discuss ethics. How much power should one person have, can we trust them with it, and what ethical reasons prevent its abuse?
If you want a more human angle, Superman offers that in spades as well. There is the tragic element of the loss of Krypton. Unlike other superhero stories, however, where the tragedy is used to fuel motivations of vigilantism and revenge, it is more complex for Superman. He has a home with the Kents, but he also has a different heritage, much like any child who has been adopted from another country or who emigrated abroad as a child.
His powers make him exceedingly different from those around him, making it near impossible to fit in. He has to struggle with being fundamentally apart from the rest of humanity and somehow try to find a connection with them. Ironically, the struggle to connect with other people can be a very human thing.
Lastly, Superman is iconic. He is the very archetype of what a superhero is. Not so much for his powers but for his ideals. Superman is what we should all strive to be. He is not just a superhero, but a hero. All cultures need heroes, someone to look up to and emulate, and in our modern, superhero-obsessed world, I am glad we have Superman to fill that space. Pretty sure if that space was to be taken by Wolverine, alcoholism would have destroyed society by now.
Matt: You better watch your mouth there! Because if I hear another aspersion thrown alcohol’s direction, I’m going to have to raise my hand in violence. Feel free to talk smack about Wolverine all you want though; he can fight his own battles.
And wow, you went almost a whole paragraph before you brought up Superman’s morals and ethics, which are as much a defining characteristic of his character as his red and blue tights. Yes, Superman is the paragon of all that is good and right in the world; something we should all aspire to be. He’s so unyielding in his morality that it’s more bulletproof than his massive chest.
And it’s this unconflicted nature of his character that makes him so unbelievably boring.
Now compare that to Wolverine, who has a beast inside him that he must constantly battle for control with. Not only is he a killer to the manner born, but his violent impulses were honed, even as his body was enhanced with adamantium. He has a berserker’s rage, yet he strives to turn against all this and do good for the world. A world that hates him for his inhumanity rather than idolizes him for it. Yet he still persists; a demon on the side of angels.
Now that, sir, is the compelling inner conflict that Superman woefully lacks.
Daniel: On the contrary, I think Superman has a much wider palette of potential conflicts, i.e., much more fertile soil for great stories. There is the dilemma of knowing Luthor is behind some scheme, but not being able to prove it; do you accept that human justice is flawed, or do you use your powers to stop him for the greater good? Or what do you do when you encounter an enemy you cannot defeat despite your impressive array of powers, such as an epidemic sweeping the population, and you are as powerless as any other to help the dying? Do you intervene in political conflicts, setting yourself up as some sort of unelected, supranational court of justice, or do you stand back and allow human suffering to take place because once you start, where do you stop intervening, and how can you be sure you make the right decisions?
I accept that what you describe as Wolverine’s conflict is compelling, but it is also rather locked. Can you write a Wolverine story that does not revolve around this, or at least is forced to dedicate major space to handling this in its storyline? Doesn’t every Wolverine story essentially become the same?
It seems to me that this need for our protagonists to be all dark and gritty is just a symptom of our age; it’s how we want our superheroes now, and so every franchise is retooling to suit this demand. But I don’t think that means it is inherently better; in fact, I think it can be restrictive.
Matt: Okay, wow, you just overtly hit full on what I just accidentally stumbled upon in my dislike of Superman: His AUTHORITY. Because he is so overpowered as a character, we all sort of sit awaiting his judgement.
The best way to morally understand Superman is Alan Moore’s parallel in Dr. Manhattan when Ozymandias is asked to describe him as a Democrat or Republican, which he boils down to either red or black ants. And it is the most apt comparison to Superman possible; because to such an overpowered being, what are we humans but insects?
And that, to me, is the crux in what makes Superman so unapproachable as a character. Who are we to judge him? His might makes right to such an extent we’re basically invoking God’s answer to Job in “can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook?” Because only Superman (or God) really can. So, to me, that’s a large part of Superman’s moral authority: He can IMPOSE his will upon us, but instead chooses to fix issues that we ourselves, as humans (Luthor), bring upon ourselves.
So why does he allow bad things to happen to good people when he can stop them?
Compare that to Wolverine, who has no moral authority. In fact, he’s an ex-(and sometimes current) assassin who has killed more than he can count. Despite being a mutant, and therefore “more” than the rest of us, he’s still morally (or “moreally”) relatable. He’s a man who’s tossed into the morally gray world we all exist in and has to make choices on a case by case basis. He has no ethical anchor, and instead has to judge each situation by its own merits.
But, more importantly, I think you’ve hit upon a division in what you want in a hero, something that you’re already examining in your own series. In Superman, you’re arguing for a Golden Age, god-like/ wish-fulfilment hero, while I’m insisting on a more Modern Age hero in Wolverine. You aim for an ideal, while I want a flawed man I can identify with.
Daniel: I see your point about being an unapproachable character, but that’s never how it has felt to me. On the contrary, I just find it to be a different approach into an examination of the human condition; the combination of Superman’s alien powers and human upbringing is a unique way to discuss just what makes someone a human being, for better or worse.
People find Superman boring because of his powers, but I consider that off the mark, because Superman is not about his powers. The best proof of this is his arch-nemesis, Lex Luthor, that you just mentioned. Luthor is not a villain with superpowers, but with intellect, money, and influence. Superman’s powers are physical abilities, but Luthor is not interested in a physical fight. In his confrontations with Luthor, where the latter is using schemes, conspiracies, and the law to hide behind, we see how easily Superman’s physical powers may come to naught, forcing him into dilemmas or demanding a change of strategy. I don’t find a superhero duking it out with a supervillain to be interesting, finding out who can punch the hardest. Give me Luthor vs. Superman any day.
That said, I agree with your assessment that it depends a lot on what we look for in our heroes. Someone to identify with or someone to be inspired by.
Matt: It’s interesting that, for the second time in a row, you’ve again found inspiration from a character who is heroic because of his moral choices rather than great deeds. But with Frodo, you identified with the moral hero because of his weakness rather than here with Superman, who is moral because of his strength.
It’s also interesting that we both picked comic heroes that are “other,” as in not entirely human. They are separate from the mundane populous, and I wonder what that says about us and how we both identify with society. Or perhaps we’ve hit upon a core concept of the hero: That s/he is inherently different than average humans. Perhaps that’s what drives them to become heroes in the first place.
But at least we can both agree that all heroes can be easily identified by their spandex.
Daniel: And that regardless of whether we are discussing best, strongest, most interesting, or favourite superhero, nobody will ever pick Aquaman.