I mean, seriously. That guy sucks balls. You want to know why?
Good Guys are Lame
Maybe it’s just me, but I think that characters that have nothing but virtuous disadvantages (Pacifism, Code of Honor, Honesty, etc) are horrifically boring. For one thing, they’re predictable. “Superman has to choose between preserving his reputation or saving a bus full of nuns! Whatever will he do?” Yawn. The only interesting decisions for the pure noble heroes are when they have to choose between two things that are equally bad, or are forced to make the decision that pains them deeply, a la Spider-Man and Gwen Stacy. For those who aren’t up on their old-school comics, the Green Goblin put a bus full of schoolchildren (it would’ve been better if it had been nuns) and Spidey’s main squeeze Gwen on opposite sides of a bridge, suspended by ropes. He cuts both ropes at once and makes your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man choose which one to save. In classic (boring, predictable) hero fashion, Spidey saves the kids first and then tries to save Gwen – and fails. It’s a classic.* The problem is, our hero is actually a very passive character in this scene; the Green Goblin is the one who created the situation and therefore dictated the actions of our hero.
Whenever you’re reading/watching Superman, there’s very little suspense. You know exactly how he’s going to respond at all times. The suspense comes from Lex Luthor and his wily schemes. He’s unconstrained by a moral code, and thus free to take unexpected actions. I don’t know about you, dear reader, but I always find myself rooting for Lex. Maybe it’s just because I have a soft spot for bald guys, maybe it’s because it’s because he’s a nerd who made good. Or maybe it’s because, unlike Superman, he can’t leap over tall buildings in a single bound or take a bullet on the chin. Lex has to get ahead by thinking ahead. He has to work for it. Which leads us to our second reason that Superman sucks.
Being Too Powerful Is Stupid
Alright, so let’s catalog Superman’s powers. He comes from a planet with higher gravity, so he’s really, really strong. Not just pick-up-a-car-and-throw-it strong, either. He can pick up buildings, catch rockets, and push planets out of their orbits. He’s basically as strong as he needs to be at any given time. Krypton must have been really heavy. He’s also indestructible. Bullets bounce off of him, and he’s super-duper resistant to heat and cold. This kind of makes sense. I mean, if your muscle tissue and skeletal structure has to support the kind of weights that he can lift, that implies a pretty high level of resilience. And he’s super-fast. Again, kind of makes sense. Oh, and he doesn’t have to breathe. Huh. That’s weird. And he can fly. And he has X-Ray vision. And he shoots laser beams out of his eyes. Freaking laser beams. And if something really, really bad happens, he can fly around the Earth reeeeeally fast and reverse time.** Basically, he can do whatever he wants.
This, once again, makes him a complete bore. Look, there’s a falling spaceship! I wonder how Superman will save them? Well duh, he’s going to fly up there and catch it. The bad guys are shooting at him! Whatever will he do? Basically, Superman wins by just being more powerful than his problems. It’s no coincidence that the only good Superman movie is the one where he’s fighting three people just as powerful as him. He’s forced to out-smart them, and that makes us like him a little more. Of course, that means that he also has the power to be super-smart when his smorgasboard of powers isn’t enough. Man that guy sucks.
But wait, you say. What about Kryptonite, our generic hero’s generic weakness? Aside from the fact that Kryptonite’s debilitating effects seem to be a bit… inconsistently applied, Kryponite is a really lame weakness. A good weakness both limits a character’s choices and gives them an added dimension. Dracula has a weakness to sunlight – he’s forced to live in the dark, a creature of the night. The Little Mermaid can’t breathe air, creating a very literal boundary between her and her one true love. The Martian Manhunter flies, shapeshifts, turns invisible, is telepathic and super-strong***. He’s also afraid of fire, a common weapon that any street thug can wield against him. Even better – his weakness is all in his head; in spite of his power he has irrational fears, just like us. It makes him seem vulnerable and, ironically enough, human. Green Lantern can’t effect things that are yellow. He’s relatable for people with colorblindness. Okay, so that one’s a stretch.
Superman’s weakness doesn’t do anything to make him interesting or relatable. It only exists because the poor saps that got stuck writing Superman stories needed some way to threaten their protagonist. It doesn’t constrain his movements or change his day-to-day existence. It doesn’t cause him to live in fear. As others have pointed out, the closest equivalent to his weakness to kryptonite for a mere mortal would be a bad allergy. A really, really uncommon allergy that almost never comes up. Like if you were allergic to enriched uranium. It would be a lot better if he were just allergic to bees. Lots of people don’t like bees, and small, flying things that can hurt you are kind of inherently threatening.
But noooooo. Superman is allergic to unobtainium, and it’s a ridiculous, tacked on weakness. It’s so generic and context-less that “kryptonite” has pretty much supplanted “Achilles’ heel” as the go-to metaphor for an unexpected vulnerability.
Boring characters are dumb
Really, this is what it all boils down to. Superman is just plain boring. He’s boring because he’s a predictable goody two-shoes**** who is too powerful to ever face any meaningful challenges. Good characters, interesting characters have something about them that makes them interesting as people. We can learn a lot of lessons from looking at Superman’s biggest foil in the DC Universe, Batman. Batman does not suck.
Batman hunts people at night. He actively strives to strike fear into his enemies. He’s out for vengeance. He hunts down criminals to get revenge for what happened to his parents. Those are petty, violent emotions and motivations. They’re also very human and very relatable. On top of that, Batman is an outlaw, a vigilante. He won’t kill, but he’s willing to lie, cheat, and steal to win. He fights dirty. What’s more, he doesn’t prevail by shrugging off bullets and catching falling planes; he beats people by being smarter and better prepared. These characteristics, on their own, are not a personality. They do, however, suggest a personality, and eliminate possibilities. The grim, gravelly, all-business persona is a natural outgrowth of these things. You know how you can tell that Batman doesn’t suck? He’s not predictable. He dictates the action. And you’re always rooting for him to win.
* You know why it’s a classic? Because it wasn’t predictable.
** Seriously? I mean, come on. Seriously.
*** This is how I imagine the conversation that decided the Martian Manhunter’s powers:
“So I want to make a new character that is an alien from another planet.”
“No, this guy’s totally different. He’s…um…he’s green. And he… um… hunts men. I guess. Oh! And he’s really strong.”
“Superman’s really strong.”
“Oh. Well, my guy can fly too.”
“Superman can fly.”
“Well what can’t superman do?”
“He can’t read minds or change his shape or turn invisible or walk through walls.”
“Okay, well my guy does all of those things.”
**** What the hell does that mean, anyway? Was there really a period when shoes were so scarce that somebody who had two of them was considered to be showing off?
***** Wow, I really went overboard with the asterisks this time. My bad.