Superman: Birthright - Military-style ProtectionSuperman: Birthright - Military-style Protection

Superman has been the subject of countless papers and books exploring what is so compelling about this alien super hero. Interestingly, as comics have become more sophisticated, it’s become harder and harder to write a good Superman story that encompasses all that makes him great. Oh, I’d argue it’s not much harder to write a compelling origin story. Mark Waid’s Superman: Birthright, which I wrote about here, is a pretty good indication of what Superman’s appearance in our world might look like. Grant Morrison’s run on Action Comics Vol 2 also gave us a good look at how Superman might work to use his working man convictions to do as Superman what the justice system was failing to do. But I think what makes Superman so hard to grow as a character is his ability to maintain his “blue boyscout” ethics in the face of all he deals with. It’s an accusation that would be easy to levy on Batman except that his writers have had a succession of boy (and girl) wonders in the Robin role to evolve Batman emotionally. (Even if it took until Batman and Robin Vol 2 for him to stop grieving his parents and start celebrating their legacy)

In a nutshell, there’s no reason why Superman’s time growing up in Smallville should make him perpetually maintain those values. There are tons of people who move from the countryside to the big city. Very few of them maintain their small town views. Everything is changed, even just a little. We often use platitudes like Superman seeing the best in humanity and, therefore, being above the pettiness, but I find no reason why this should be the case. So what might it be like if Superman actually existed in the real world? Well, two different authors have explored that in two very different ways.

In Watchmen, which I plan to look at more in depth in the future, Alan Moore uses Dr. Manhattan as the Superman analog. We often refer to the DC super heroes as gods, but Dr. Manhattan is almost literally a god. There are two main thesis put forth by Alan Moore about a Superman-like figure. First, Moore supposes that a being like Dr. Manhattan would eventually lose touch with humanity (in fact, it is a key plot point of the series). While Dr. Manhattan begins life as a man and Superman is always an alien, most modern Superman stories have him only slowly realizing that he isn’t human. The result this has on Superman as an adult is subject to authorial interpretation. Some, believe, as in Kill Bill‘s monolog, that Clark Kent is the costume that Superman wears. Other authors, such as the ones that wrote the Man of Steel movie, have Clark Kent be the true identity with Superman being the costume. Either way, Superman is rarely written as losing touch of his upbringing and connection to humanity. He never grows to see humans as other. Dr. Manhattan, on the other hand, gradually loses as connection to humanity. This is most striking in the argument he has with The Comedian in Vietnam. When The Comedian is confronted by a woman he has impregnated during the war, he shoots her as Dr. Manhattan watches passively. When Dr. Manhattan tried to scold the The Comedian, he is easily rebuffed – why didn’t Dr. Manhattan turn the bullet into some harmless substance? Of course, the largest manifestation of the metaphor of his loss of humanity is when he leaves Earth for Mars. Why share a planet with those he shares nothing in common?

Dr Manhattan and The Comedian in Vietnam 1
Dr Manhattan and The Comedian in Vietnam 1
Dr Manhattan and The Comedian in Vietnam 2
Dr Manhattan and The Comedian in Vietnam 2
Dr Manhattan and The Comedian in Vietnam 3
Dr Manhattan and The Comedian in Vietnam 3


Just before the reboot, DC tried to have Superman deal with such an existential problem – why wasn’t he fixing everything in the world? Why did we not have free power and why was their suffering? In a way, it was an exploration of the Superman as god or Jesus metaphor; because one could ask the same of God.  Of course, DC’s stupid exploration is to have Superman just walk the Earth. He does not have a tantrum and leave Earth and he does not decide to prove whether or not he could fix the Earth and cure everything. After all, I think it would have been a powerful story arc to show that even if he tried his best, 24 hours a day, Superman STILL couldn’t do everything. It would lead to a moment of pathos and it would answer the question once and for all. Alternatively, he could have succeeded like the X-Men in Avengers vs X-Men or Superman in Superman: Red Son, but exacted too demanding a price – total obedience. It would be a Fall from Eden storyline, but it would also once again answer the question once and for all.

Of course, the other main point Alan Moore makes is that a super being would shift the world balance of power. Superman: Red Son explores this by looking at how the Soviet Union might have exploited their god against the atomic bomb and other things the US might do. It appears that Scott Snyder is exploring this idea with Superman Unchained and the super being that the army has, but I’m a few issues behind, so I’m unsure whether that’s the case. Either way, it’s something DC has dealt with by having Superman declare he’s a citizen of the world, but the fact remains that he lives and works in the USA. His family and friends are in the USA. If there were another World War would he truly sit on the sidelines? Would he stop war? How would he do that and what consequences would it lead to? Would the entire world turn against him because he was essentially dictating winners and losers? (Which goes against the human spirit) In Watchmen Dr. Manhattan leads to US dominance of the world, but it also leads to instability as the USSR worked harder than in the real world to try and come up with a counter to Dr Manhattan. This puts the world at greater danger and is one of the main plot points of Watchmen revolving around Ozymandias’ plans.

The other author who considered what it might be like if Superman were real was Mark Waid with Irredeemable. In all but origin, The Plutonian is exactly like Superman, only in a more realistic world. (The reason for this is essentially the ending of the entire series, but suffice to say that Mark Waid got the idea while talking to Grant Morrison when he was writing Superman) Just like Superman, he works at a media company. Just like Superman he falls in love with someone who only knows his civilian identity. And just like Superman, and unlike Dr. Manhattan, he is not the only super powered person in the world. The Plutonian doesn’t grow detached with humanity, he cracks – he goes crazy little by little until the final straw breaks. He ends up exacting revenge on everyone who ever wronged him, fails to see why what he’s doing is wrong, and goes on a path that is halfway between wanton destruction and a demand to be the world leader. In Irredeemable, the private citizens act more like real world citizens. People are constantly criticizing The Plutonian for doing a good job, but not an awesome job. Someone he saves complains about holes in his boat. (Think of the central plot point of The Incredibles) His super hearing exposes him to all the criticisms about him – including about his looks. And that’s what causes him to crack. This is something I don’t think anyone has seriously considered with Superman outside of a throwaway issue here and there. He may see the good in people, but wouldn’t the constant criticism wear him out? We see that play out with Spider-Man and it’s why he’s quit or retired a few times when he just couldn’t take it anymore. At different points in the story, The Plutonian decides to lobotomize or kill people in his way. At some point Superman should have atomized or incapacitated his rivals. Whether he should have made Lex Luthor an invalid depends on whether the current interpretation has any redeemable qualities (as was the case in Red Son), but enemies like Darkseid should be killed if they aren’t immortal. They don’t care about life and nothing but the moral high ground is to be gained by keeping them alive.

These are just a few ways that Superman might exist in the real world where people make mistakes and can’t stay cheery just because they were raised in small town America. What are some other ways you think Superman would be different in the real world? (Either speculation or other comics that have looked at similar issues)

Superman Unchained by Scott Snyder

Irredeemable by Mark Waid

Watchmen by Alan Moore

6 thoughts on “What if Superman Were Real?”
  1. It’s definitely an interesting issue to consider – what Superman would be like if he left his small-town values behind and really became more a “citizen of the world.” On the other hand, though, I think that’s one of the points of Superman, that he has these middle-American values and he sticks to them, no matter what. When he starts moving away from those values, when he starts killing his enemies or lobotomizing them, we get the Justice Lords world (I’m thinking of the version seen in the JLA/JLU cartoon). It ends up not working, because the point of Superman is that this stronger-than-life person chooses the moral high ground, and if he can do it when he has much easier ways, then it’s an inspiration to everyone else.

    1. Absolutely. I’ve read some of the old Byrne Superman and he touches on some of these points–killing Zod for example–but fundamentally Superman comes down to being the inspiration of hope. Superman losing his sense of hope would be the same as Batman losing his sense of justice.

      It’s always fascinating to look at the reality of characters and to look at the way those archetypes can be twisted, but ultimately the original Superman needs to be that beacon for the DC universe and for the readers at home.

      Besides, Lex Luthor isn’t entirely wrong when he says that humans should take care of themselves. If Superman did everything for us then it would be a disservice to our development.

      Even saying that I do believe that it is possible for him to lose his humanity, but it would happen gradually. DC Comics doesn’t really let their characters age, so any changes wouldn’t be seen in that time. He would need to lose his connections to all the people he loves and feels a bond with. If he watched people he cared for grow, live, and then die over and over again I could see him withdrawing emotionally.

      So many comics trend towards darkness these days that characters like Superman can be a welcome respite. Honestly, I was a bit disappointed that Man of Steel was as dark as it was, although I actually really loved that he killed Zod in it. I’m complicated, lol.

      1. DC Comics doesn’t really let their characters age, so any changes wouldn’t be seen in that time. He would need to lose his connections to all the people he loves and feels a bond with.

        Maybe *that’s* the approach DC is taking in the New 52…

        1. Yeah…I haven’t read any Superman in the New 52 but I was not thrilled when I heard his parents were dead…and then the Lois thing…

          Also, I just thought about Smallville and how for so long that version of Zor-El tried to convince Clark that he should just rule and use his power, but Clark chose not to.

          They also explored what would happen if he did let loose with all the Red Kryptonite episodes where all his inhibitions were removed and he used his powers for all sorts of illicit personal gain.

          Part of Clark’s story is always the struggle, but ultimately his humanity isn’t based in the fact that he is human. It is based in who he is and who he wants to be. It is the statement that nurture is powerful, but in most versions his biological parents were good too. Being an alien isn’t automatically isolating.

          Besides plenty of characters explore what goes wrong with superpowers, it’s nice when someone explores what goes right.

      2. I agree with both of you that, as a character, Superman needs to be the way he is. His entire appeal lies in the fact that he does what we can’t – he remains pure where we would be corrupt. I remember thinking – “That’s not Superman” when he killed Zod in the movie, even if it made sense and even if he expressed agony at having done it. That doesn’t even take into account that in the movie the world he can’t claim he’s never killed anyone on purpose (like he can in the comics).

        For the most part I was just exploring what it’d be like if he was real in our world. What might happen to him? However, there is part of me that would like to see him evolve, but I think it’s one of those things that you THINK you want as a fan, but then cringe when it actually happens. (Like Cyclops no longer being a goodie two-shoes)

  2. I strongly disagree with the claim that a person with powers, in the real world would snap and turn evil, abandoning everything they hold dear, just because they move to the big city (which seems to be the assertion of this article.) If a person is genuinely good-hearted, they can often recognize that, just because of their power, and how much influence they have over others, that only makes it more important to work for truth and justice (just ask Abraham Lincoln.)

    As for changing one’s values as a result of a change in environment, we humans often do this, because we’re surrounded by other human beings, who face the same problems that we face on a daily basis, but this is not necessarily the way it works. Some people maintain the same value set for generations, despite living in surroundings that are utterly hostile to those values (such as communist Russia,) and it’s certainly not necessarily going to be the psychology for a person who can shrug off bullets and melt metal just by staring hard. To him, there’s a whole section of his life that he can never tell people about, which means he’s always, in a sense, separated from them, or rather, he needs to be careful to never reveal more than half of himself to the people he talks to.

    In a very real way, as much as he wants to be human, he is separate from mankind, and that sense of separation won’t go away, merely because he agrees to share in their selfish pursuit of unending license. This is an issue that he would have needed to face since childhood, and he would have needed to resolve it somehow. As I see it, a person like Superman would not be able to do things halfway. Either he would pursue total personal license, to the abandonment of everything he believes in, or he would stick by his values through thick and thin, regardless of the hardships involved in doing so. After all, what could be harder than keeping himself in two pieces whenever other people are around? In a sense, the purity of his values might be his only consolation, since he can’t get it from human beings, none of whom would really understand the temptations or the burdens of just being who he is.

    I do agree that there are complex issues, which would be raised by the existence of a Superman. However, I still think that Superman, even if he made mistakes from time to time, would face those issues from his own perspective, rooted in the values he was taught as a boy.

    I realize doing the right thing isn’t always easy. It can demand harsh sacrifices from all of us, and often requires us to turn our backs on things we sorely want (at least in the short term,) but it won’t justify wrongdoing, to claim that no human being can do better than you at avoiding wickedness, and it certainly won’t make wrongs any more right, to claim that a *fictional, alien superhero* can’t do better than you. If anything, it merely robs him of his value as a character; that he can inspire others, not through his power, but because he has a special character and conscience. People have been marveling at the strength of Superman for almost 80 years as I write this, but his inner strength is even greater.

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