At FogCon I was on a panel about anti-heroes, and the consensus was so uniform, across the panel, that shiny true-blue good-guy heroes were passé that I actually switched sides and was like, “Wait a second? Isn’t there worth in showing that people can actually, like, be good?”
Recently I for some reason found myself reading a few Superman and Superman comics, and I was like, you know what? I actually like Superman. I used to think he was boring, but somehow he’s not. I don’t know exactly why. Maybe it’s just the book that I read–Sales’ and Loeb’s A Man For All Seasons, which shows him, in four stories that’re set in four different seasons, trying to figure out his role in the world–but there’s something about Superman that is very charming. In the movies, he often seemed a bit dull-witted, and that aspect was present in the comic, but it was a dull-wittedness that suited him. He’s like Rocky: he’s a simple man who finds himself in extraordinary situations. And because he is so often unequal, intellectually, to the challenges in which he finds himself, he has to fall back on certain basic principles.
In this book, Superman seems continually to be fazed by the darkness of the world, and by how unequal he is to the task of helping everybody in it. He himself isn’t an anti-hero. He never comes close to doing evil. But he has doubt. He struggles with the task he’s taken on. His goodness is challenged by the evil of the world.
This is a story that we don’t think about very often, but I think it’s the most basic story the world has to offer: the struggle to be good even when you don’t have to be. This is a story that the ancient world was better at telling, perhaps, than we are today. The Iliad is nothing more than a chronicle of people trying to act with honor, as they understand the term, in a situation that is fundamentally awful.
In modern superhero or high fantasy stories, we don’t necessarily see this, because, as powerful as the heroes are, the villains are oftentimes even more powerful (or at least seemingly more powerful). The X-Men don’t need to struggle with the consequences of their power, because they are always portrayed as the oppressed rather than the oppressor. Batman, too, despite being a billionaire, is always an underdog in this terrible, crime-ridden city.
But Superman is never the underdog. There is no challenge he cannot eventually defeat. So his elemental struggle is simply the struggle to stay true to himself.