Think About Superman's Senses, Not Just His Fists
 
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It's February 12, 2016. A year ago today, I wrote about Superman's powers. 76 years ago today, the Superman radio series began and introduced perhaps his most famous power. That radio show gave Superman the power to fly.


When he was introduced in 1938, Superman's abilities were great strength, great speed, the ability to leap 1/8 of a mile, and invulnerability to anything less powerful than tank fire or a serious bomb. That was it. As months went by, we saw that his senses were enhanced too. But the radio show added flight and our imaginations locked onto that. It somehow made him even bigger than he was in the comics, that he enjoys a freedom we only touch in dreams. The cartoon serials then showed Superman flying and so the comics followed suit afterward. It is still his most iconic power and enhanced his metaphor. He is this person that came from the sky and wants to help us, his adopted family.


As the years went on, he became more and more powerful, but also gained new weaknesses. This was embraced by fans at the time but eventually, a more cynical generation decided that it distanced Superman. He was too powerful now in their minds. Whereas in the 1930s and 40s, he was a bit of a cowboy, a social justice vigilante with a swagger who never minded a little trash talk, he was now seen as an invincible boy scout who had an easy life without danger, despite the fact that he lives in a universe populated by aliens, mad scientists, demons, gods and cosmic menaces who can seriously harm or kill him.


Just yesterday, I overheard yet again a person telling their friend that Superman is just too powerful to be interesting. I get that basic problem, but there's a flaw in the logic if you don't also consider that to be a problem with most superheroes. Because it is. Spider-Man is more formidable than over 75% of the criminals he meets on the street. Batman has better resources than just about anyone he comes across and is usually smarter. Buffy can defeat most vampires and usually has back-up. The Black Widow will usually beat the odds. It's part of the premise of hero stories that they will have traits and resources that let them meet extraordinary threats, but that doesn't mean they're without problems (unless you're just a lazy writer).


Superman lowering his power level or losing certain powers can be fun to explore but isn't the lost key to interesting stories. Like most heroes, the real drama is how he sees the world and deals with things he can't punch away. How he sees life and morality is not just due to his upbringing by kind, decent, altruistic people, but also because of the perspective of learning that you are the last of your race, that your planet died due to its leaders dismissing uncomfortable truths and dangers, and the literal perspective his superhuman senses bring. For instance, some comics explore that teenage Clark learns to love writing because touching people with the right words involves talent and skill where his powers don't provide a real advantage. And how about those comics where teenage Clark meets a group of time travelers who show him the wonders of Earth in the 30th and 31st century? Time travel means that adult Clark's idealism isn't naive, it's an informed opinion, he's seen what humanity can achieve.


Superman is invulnerable to many threats in the world, but thanks to his heightened senses, he's not numb. In stories by Elliot S! Maggin, Superman sees beautiful color auras around living things, colors that go away with death. No wonder he prizes life so much. In Grant Morrison's "All-Star Superman," the evil  Lex Luthor temporarily gains Kryptonian abilities and is brought to tears when he sees the world through Superman's eyes. I'd love to see any of these ideas explored in a movie rather than mostly seeing Superman display simple speed and brute strength yet again.


Today, some argue that Superman should go back to this 1938 power level because it's much more "realistic." First of all, "realistic" is an odd word to use when accepting an alien in a cape with bulletproof skin. It seems like you're missing part of the basic premise of the genre. Second, Superman's creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, as well as the audience at the time, did not consider these abilities to be cemented in a realistic or "grounded" level of science fiction. Superman's power set in 1938 was unapologetic science fantasy, so much so that some publishers turned down the story submission because they thought it was too ridiculous to be enjoyed. Yet here we are, still talking about him. So stop seeing his abilities as an obstacle, stop apologizing, and start celebrating that superheroes, for the most part, invite both a bit of silliness and a lot of imagination. If you can't have fun with that, ok. It's not for everyone. Move on to the stories that suit you better and let the rest of us enjoy this one.


Just my thoughts.