Three questions make the idea of Superman interesting, to me, beyond the mere wish-fulfillment fantasy which he obviously embodies:
- What can Superman not do?
- How does Superman decide what to do with his powers?
- Why does Superman choose to help others?
What can Superman not do?
In Superman Returns there is a scene in which the Man of Steel catches a falling airplane before it hits a crowded baseball park, saving everyone. The physics of the scene are especially noticeably implausible, snapping us out of the narrative and reminding us as viewers that, even for a being with Superman’s powers, it might be physically impossible to save everyone in certain situations.
So how would a person as committed to helping others as Kal-El is cope with his own limitations? How would he decide whom to prioritize? How would he decide between the lives of people he is personally connected to, like Lois Lane, and the lives of strangers? How would he live with the outcome of that awful choice? How would other people react – those he saved, those who loved the people he didn’t save, bystanders? How would those reactions affect him?
In our actual lives we constantly face limitations to our abilities to help others. What do we do when someone close to us suffers and we cannot help them? When two or more people need our help and our energy is limited, how do we choose? In fact, at all times the world is full of others who suffer and who could benefit from our efforts. How much do we give, and at what cost to ourselves? What balance do we strike between our personal connections and some sort of universalistic morality? How do we live with ourselves, and with others, given the consequences of our decisions? We face these questions constantly as individuals and as social collectivities; they are both personal and political.
How does Superman Decide What to Do With His Power?
Again in Superman Returns, there is a scene in which Superman floats in the Earth’s upper atmosphere, listening to the sounds of human life all over the planet, and hearing a situation that calls for him he flies down … to stop a robbery. Again I was snapped right out of the movie at this point. I couldn’t help thinking: prisoners being tortured in CIA ‘black sites’, child soldiers in the Congo, Indigenous groups facing genocide in the Amazon basin — none of these deserved the attention of the Last Son of Krypton more than some rich man’s property?
Any person with Superman’s power would have the ability to alter not only the fate of individuals, but the balance of forces in the world: balances between states competing for regional and global dominance, between states and the subjects they claim authority over, between social classes. Such a being could alter the entire course of human social evolution.
What would, could, or should Superman do with such power? How much or how little would he choose alter the social order? No decision he could make would be neutral: leaving the status quo intact would be just as political, just as interventionist, as enforcing some kind of conservative or liberal or socialist ideal. How would such a being make such a decision? How would we want it to make that decision?
In our more limited efforts to make or prevent social changes, changes that may affect others more than ourselves, how do we ourselves make such decisions?
Why Does Superman Choose to Help Others?
Superhero stories are all about essences. Both a superhero’s power and their motives come from some essence within, not from their relation to the world. Superman’s power doesn’t come from any work he has done, and still less from any social organization or network that supports him; his superpowers are, for all intents and purposes, “just there”. The same goes for his goodness of character, his motivation to help others. Superman’s altruism has no cause or root or historical development; it’s just there, as if by magic.
Actual people develop their character, their dispositions, their motives, through their life experiences, and according to relational sociology we get our experiences through our active participation in social relations. We can only get the things we want through our relations with others; even individualism is a type of relation.
Pure altruism is a theoretical impossibility in this view; even a person who sacrifices themselves to save others is acting out a relationally oriented desire, in this case the desire to help others. Pure egoism is also an impossibility; even a person who thinks they act autonomously actually depends on institutions like money, the law, and so forth to make possible their seemingly autonomous choices.
A person’s character comes from the qualities of the relations they have with others, qualities that move and change from past to future via the present as that person enacts their existing relations and creates new ones.
One important dimension of every relation is its quality of impunity or interdependency. A relation is interdependent when each party to the relation can hold the other(s) accountable and put limits on their actions. When some parties to a relation can do what they like without taking into account the reactions and motives of others, the relation is one of impunity.
These terms define opposite directions along a continuum. Impunity and interdependency are rarely if ever absolute, and most relationships involve some mix of the two. The crucial point here is that when a person sits on the dominant end of a relationship of impunity, they tend to act in authoritarian ways. They tend to impose their own wants, perceptions, and ideas onto others. This can happen consciously or unconsciously. It happens sooner or later because human action tends to expand into the space of possibilities available to it.
So, for instance, we refrain from using physical violence against others because others’ reactions to our doing so can impose meaningful costs on us. These costs can involve anything we value: given our situation in life, the loss of the respect and trust of people we care about might be more powerful than the physical constraint imposed by legal authorities. But sometimes physical constraint is the only thing that will stop someone whose motives lead them towards violence.
In this view, Superman’s altruism is problematic. On the one hand, he has nothing to fear physically from any human being. Among humans, at least, his physical well-being is completely assured at all times. So many of the fears that motivate humans to dominate others for their own security are simply absent for him.
On the other hand, what stops him from imposing his own values and desires on human beings? He can’t be stopped physically. The only threat one can make against Superman is moral judgment. But, in the absence any possibility of physical constraint, why should he care about our moral judgments?
Here again the opposition between essentialist and relational thinking matters. Many of us feel as if morality is something with an objective but nonphysical existence, an essence, which we can sense, dimly or sharply depending on our capacities. If Superman is good, maybe it’s because his moral sense is sharper than ours, just like his sight and hearing are.
But in the view from relational sociology, morality is only the constraining force that others’ moral judgments have on us. Our moral sense is our internalized sense of the judgments we expect from others, judgments which we habitually apply to ourselves. Given our propensity to change, any individual’s moral sense can easily get out of sync with that of those around them; in a rapidly changing society, it might be rare for a group to share a strong moral consensus on anything specific.
So although Superman would have his own moral sense, it would, like that of any person, inevitably come into conflict with the moral sensibilities of those around him. When that happens, what happens next? What determines whether Superman will adjust his actions and his internal moral sense to conform to the judgments of others or whether he will do as he wills and expect others to conform to his judgments?
The Superman myth might itself contain the answer to this question. Consider:
- Superman is uniquely independent of others and in a unique position of impunity over others. And yet, like all social beings, he needs the recognition of others in order to have a personal identity, a sense of self.
- He has the capacity to become a universal tyrant. But doing so would alienate him from all human beings.
- He is always-already alienated from humanity by virtue of his extraterrestrial origins. But in historical time the acceptance of humans like the Kents incorporates him into humanity despite his alienness. He is thus simultaneously alienated from humanity and a member of it – like all actual human beings.
- He must be aware of this unique situation. This awareness informs his actions. Thus his uniqueness extends to his degree of willful self-creation. More than any normal human being, Superman can and must choose how he will relate to others.
In a relational view, Siegel and Schuster’s Superman resembles Nietzsche’s superman more than one might expect.
But relational thinking rejects the essentializing individualism of Nietzsche’s moral philosophy. Whatever choices one makes, one always makes them on the basis of one’s relation to others as well as on the basis of one’s relation to oneself. Superman stands outside of the constraints of physical force, but he can never stand outside of social relations as such. Rather, the choices he faces about how to relate to others present one aspect, distilled and idealized, of the choices we all face.
I think there is good escapism and bad escapism. Escapism always presents social conflicts in an idealized and simplified form. Bad escapism does this just to distract us for a while, and leaves us no better off; good escapism does this in a way that helps us to reflect on our conflicts and gain insight into them.
When the trailers for Man of Steel included Pa Kent saying “You’re going to have to choose what kind of man to become”, I got really excited. I briefly hoped that this film might be a case of good escapism. And the film does begin to raise some questions about Superman’s relation to humanity — but drops them as soon as the evil Kryptonians show up. Like a lot of films of this type, it gives the protagonist relatable conflicts but fails to connect the climactic action sequences to those conflicts in any meaningful way. And like too many popular films lately it equates maturity and depth with moral darkness, ignoring the complexity and conflict involved in compassionate action.
Of course, this is a huge-budget Hollywood summer blockbuster. A film like this is a piece of capital, a machine for generating profit, and it would be a pure accident if it happened to say anything interesting or useful for actual human beings.
Even so, it’s fun to speculate: what would a Superman story look like that took Superman seriously as a social being?
People keep saying that Superman is the most boring character to write because he’s too powerful to face credible threats. But I think he’s potentially one of the most interesting characters because he is free of physical constraints but subject to social constraint all the same. By bracketing out the dilemmas that physical force imposes on us, Superman stories have the potential to highlight those dilemmas that we face when we are free of physical compulsion.
Freedom from physical compulsion is only one, very limited, form of freedom, but it’s the one that most people seem to refer to when they talk about freedom. The idea of Superman could allow us to reflect on why we might choose compassion over egoism, egalitarianism over elitism, if we had this kind of freedom.