Why We’ve Ditched Superman for The “Flawed Hero”

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March 4, 2015 by Alex Johannigman

I spent my childhood surrounded by superheroes. My dad was and still is the man who makes sure he stops in to his local comic book store every single week to pick up the newest issues to hit the shelves. A superhero-related movie couldn’t be in theaters for more than a week before we’d gone as a family to see it. During elementary school I spent many of my days after school playing video games that featured the X-Men, Spiderman, Batman, The Flash, and so many others. Yet there was one hero who always seemed to be the most heroic, powerful, virtuous, and popular of them all: Superman.

SupermanFlagSuperman is a hero who reflects the potential in all of us for greatness; a beacon of light in times that are grim and a glimmer of hope for the hopeless. He’s a virtuous Boy Scout with super powers who fights evil and saves the innocent from harm. In many ways, he’s the example of holiness that we should strive towards, even if we lack his super strength.

But I’ve noticed an interested trend as I’ve grown up. If you ask most people who their favorite superhero is today, Superman will rarely be on the list. I and most of my friends will be quick to complain that we aren’t very drawn to him because he is “one-dimensional,” “too perfect,” “lacks character and depth,” and “isn’t relatable.”

Now we’re much bigger fans of the stubborn and obsessive Batman, the egotistical Ironman, and the wrathful and quick-tempered Wolverine. Even characters like Spiderman and Captain America, while still slightly more popular than Superman these days, seem to be losing their popularity because they are similarly viewed as “too perfect” or “too moral” compared to the more “human” heroes out there.

starlordLast year’s most successful superhero movie, “Guardians of the Galaxy,” featured a team of characters who may not even deserve the title of “heroes” due to their many flaws, rebellious attitude, and disregard for order and virtue. Rocket accurately described them as “A bunch of jackasses standing in a circle,” and we loved them for it. Ironically, it was Captain America who was leading the 2014 box office before “Guardians” overtook him.

That made me wonder, what has changed? Why have we thrown the overly virtuous heroes under the bus in exchange for the darker and more relatable “flawed hero?” Even outside of the superhero world, why have we moved from adoring selfless and heroic protagonists like Luke Skywalker (Star Wars) and Atticus Finch (To Kill A Mockingbird) to popularizing shows centered around “anti-hero” protagonists like Walter White (Breaking Bad), Frank Underwood (House of Cards), and Don Draper (Mad Men)?

I think there’s been a large societal shift (or perhaps it’s been this way for longer than I realize) from admiring and wanting to imitate virtue to resenting it. Now rather than praising a classmate who does well, we make fun of him or her for being a nerd, for not having any friends, and for caring too much about good grades. Any time chaste characters are portrayed in movies or tv shows, are they cool, beautiful, fun, and intelligent? In almost every case, they’re seen as the awkward, judgmental, naive, or repressed friend who needs to be shown how to “live a little.” If anyone cares too much about helping someone in need, they’re an “out of touch goodie-two-shoes” or “only trying to make the rest of us look bad.” The virtuous character is someone that no one wants to be anymore.

I think it’s good that characters like Superman, Captain America, and Spiderman are different from us, and exemplify a near-impossible to achieve type of perfect heroism, selflessness, and virtue. It’s a heroism that we should all strive for. We can’t be content with accepting our own flaws and treating them as “just part of human nature.” Jesus said “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt 5:48)

Will we fail? Absolutely. And that’s what forgiveness is for. But the more we look towards the light, the easier it will be to see our own cracks and flaws and then do what we can to fix them.

Tony StarkAre stories of flawed heroes funny and entertaining? Absolutely. And I’m not suggesting that we boycott “Guardians of the Galaxy” or “House of Cards.” I’m just as excited to see Tony Stark be a complete tool in Avengers 2 as the next 25 year-old male. (Have you seen the new trailer by the way?) But should they be our most revered heroes? Probably not. When we continue to esteem characters who are “just like us” or worse, we’re only going to become more like our “heroes,” which often isn’t a good thing.

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2 thoughts on “Why We’ve Ditched Superman for The “Flawed Hero”

  1. Jeff Johannigman says:

    Alex, I essentially concur, though I will actually one up your Superman with my favorite hero, Captain America. NOBODY embodies Truth, Justice, and the American Way better than Steve Rogers, who literally wears the red, white, and blue as his uniform. I am glad he is portrayed so earnestly in the movies as somebody who is unequivocally unselfish, always ready to sacrifice to do what is right, and always fighting to protect the innocent. I loved how, in the first movie, he immediately jumped on a hand grenade (that turned out to be fake) to protect his fellow soldiers. The fact that he did that BEFORE he became super soldier Captain America proved he was the right choice.

    More to the point of your article though – We have a more difficult time relating to and empathizing with such perfect role models simply because they ARE so perfect all the time. It is hard to see ourselves living up to their ideals. On the other hand, I CAN more readily relate to guys like Tony Stark or Peter Quill (Star Lord), guys who fall into selfishness, pride, vanity, and other human weaknesses on a regular basis. What makes their stories interesting is that, when the situation calls for it, they can transcend those weaknesses, and act in service to higher ideals.

    I think there is room on our shelves for both kinds of heroes – the ones to aspire to (Superman, Captain America), and the ones we more easily relate to (most of the rest). What makes them all heroes is that, when the situation calls for it, they are all willing to step up and do the right thing, no matter the cost.

    Dad!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I definitely agree, which is why I felt like it was important to also mention Captain America, and to a lesser extent Spiderman, as heroes who are similar in their ability to always put the needs of others before their own needs. I focused more on Superman because it seems to me like he’s experienced much more of a popularity decline than Captain America, who has recently become much better known due to how well he’s been portrayed in recent movies.
      To relate it to Catholicism, we have role models like Jesus who was the perfect but unobtainable model of virtue and heroism, but we also have all of the saints who were human like us, often made some of the same mistakes that we make, but ultimately chose the right thing in the end and became role models who we can imitate.

      Like

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