How did it happen, America? How did Superman, who set the standard for all superheroes way back in 1938, end up playing second fiddle to his DC Comics co-star Batman in the upcoming Dawn Of Justice movie? And why does the Caped Crusader regularly and handily outsell the Man of Steel at comic book stores every month? In short, when did Superman stop being an aspirational figure and start being a corny embarrassment? Journalist Asher Elbein has been pondering these questions, and presents his thoughts in an essay at The Atlantic called “The Trouble With Superman.” The problem, Elbein finds, is not inherent in the Superman mythology created by Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel. No less a comics expert than Alan Moore has called Superman “a wonderful embodiment of all the dreams and aspirations of the powerless.” Elbein argues that, as immigration becomes a major political issue in this country, an eternal outsider like Superman is actually more relevant than ever before.
So what’s the problem, exactly? Elbein agrees that the character got off to a very strong start, but says that Superman’s adventures became safe and formulaic during the 1940s and ’50s. When real competition came along from Marvel in the form of Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four in the 1960s, Superman wasn’t ready. In comparison to those characters, who had more relatable problems, Clark Kent seemed like a relic from another age. So, DC Comics tried reboot after reboot and gimmick after gimmick, including killing the character off, having him get married, and splitting him in two. And through it all, the company has tried to cater to the whims of jaded adult readers, even though the Superman character was originally created for children. The constant reinvention of Superman has never really stopped, creating a perpetual identity crisis that has followed him through adaptations into other media, like Smallville and Man Of Steel. But the real problem may be a simple one. As Elbein puts it: “In its constant attempts to ‘fix’ Superman over the last 20 years, DC has largely forgotten to tell stories with him.” That may be a crucial mistake.