Girlpslaining the Superman Problem

(And Why It Matters to Supergirl)

We received an email from a listener who has been very actively engaging us via Twitter since before we entirely got this enterprise up and running. Gillian Kratzer wrote in to talk about all kinds of things, but the item most in my wheelhouse and near to my heart are her feelings on Superman.

Before I address Gillian’s concerns, it’s probably worth explaining why Superman is so important to a show about Supergirl. There are a lot of reasons! There’s also a big reason he isn’t important to the show. I’ll hit that one first.

Not Just Superman in a SkirtAction252

Supergirl is, obviously, a derived character. Much like Robin and Batgirl are for Batman, Speedy is for Green Arrow, Spider-Woman is for Spider-Man, Mary Marvel is to Captain Marvel, and the list goes on. If creating the superhero is the first big idea for the genre, surrounding them with families of characters that look like them is the second.

But this isn’t why Superman is important to Supergirl. Absolutely, she wears a version of his costume (or at least his colors). Obviously she has “his” powers (although this isn’t an exclusive club; all Kryptonians and a few others like Daxamites also have the same powers). But Supergirl is not an extension of Superman in the way that Robin or Speedy might be of their mentors.

Kara has always been in contrast to Superman to greater or lesser degrees depending on era and storyteller. Certainly she owes her existence to Superman, but she this isn’t her defining characteristic. She is far from “Superman in a skirt” and always has been. In fact, it’s more like her ties to Superman are the hook rather than the point.

Now, there is absolutely a conversation to be had about female superheroes and how many of them are adjuncts or derivations of male heroes. Supergirl fits in that conversation, but I would argue that she does so as a contrast to lesser examples or as an example of how best to execute the idea. Still, this connection to her cousin is definitely not why Superman is important to Supergirl

Superman Started the Never Ending Battle

Action_Comics_1The first way Superman is important to Supergirl is that he’s the reason we’re having this conversation at all. Without Superman, there is no such thing as the superhero. He arrived first and, in many ways, has always been the standard by which other heroes are measured.

Captain Marvel is sued out of existence because of his similarities to Superman. Spider-Man exists on almost every level as an opposing response to Superman. Both of those statements could have their own essays unpacking them. For now, just trust me.

Less philosophically, Superman’s evolution as a superhero since 1939 is the reason we’re getting the Supergirl appearing on our televisions in 2015.

What’s So Wrong With Just Truth And Justice?

superman_24-american_flagGillian had this to say about her initial skepticism to a Supergirl show (and why she’s gotten over it already).

She seems to be, in many ways, so much more human than Superman.  Maybe it’s because her family convinced her that the best thing would be for her to be “normal” and fit in.  I don’t know.  Superman to me has always been Ronald Reagan in a cape.  And that’s weird of course because Superman predates Reagan, but that arrogantly optimistic all-American (for an alien) vibe that Superman exudes makes me want to vomit.

I think there are two strains of things going on here. The first is just how much Superman came to be identified with Truth, Justice, and the American Way. That last one of the triumvirate is a sticking point to many of us here in the 21st century.

The idea of an idealized version of ourselves fighting for the American Way felt decidedly less problematic in the 1940s and 50s when we could make a helluva argument that we were fighting global evil. Today, when there is an argument at least as good that, as a nation, we’re responsible for at least as much global evil as we fight, it gets extremely uncomfortable.

This also led to some really fascinating commentary from Gillian on why Kryptonians as the assholes of space might be similarly uncomfortable for us as modern Americans. It’s great stuff, but we’ll have to talk about it another time.

The second influence on the way Gillian feels is The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller. This book’s influence can not be underplayed. Neither can its disservice to Superman as a character and a concept.

The Dark Knight Returns and the Man of Steel Gets Shafted

2433792-tdkr_1I used to be a big fan of Frank Miller. I still love most of his Sin City series despite ridiculous excesses that make Mickey Spillaine look like an author of refined taste. His Batman: Year One is an amazingly Noir start to the career of its titular hero. And his 1986 Dark Knight Returns put Batman back in the collective conscious for the first time since 1966.

Which is appropriate if only because Miller wanted to say goodbye to the Batman of 1966 by asking “What does that Batman look like coming out of retirement in the 1980s?” At this, he did an amazing job in a finely crafted story.

But in the process of saying what Miller wanted to say about Batman, he beat Superman into a shape that not only ill-fitted the character but, because of the unexpected cultural tidal wave that was Batman in the late 1980s, suddenly became imprinted on an unsuspecting audience as “The Definitive Take on Superman.”

That shape boils down to “Kind of dense stooge for the American government.” And in DKR, that American government is personified by this guy:


Which led to this guy:

Superman DKREven taking into account my one-time fondness for Frank Miller (and DKR in particular) and the fact that we try to stay a family show, fuck every single inch of that Superman.

From DKR to All-Star

Superman_All-Star_Superman_002Let’s remember that superheroes are inherently childish concepts with less than nuanced views of the world. (Incidentally, I consider this a feature, not a bug.)

Let’s also remember that Superman is a character with 75 years of history and the influence of who knows how many different artists, writers, and editors. He is a concept that created just as many massive cultural shifts as he became beholden to. He’s a man of many parts, and they are not all pleasant.

So many examples of rampant racism, hurtful secret identity shenanigans, and other totally jerk behavior have been catalogued that there’s a whole website whose origin lies in showcasing all the ways Superman can be kind of a dick.

But in the last 10-15 years, there’s been a shift both within comics and (Hollywood blockbusters notwithstanding) without that wants Superman to grow and change into an example of the Best of Us. But, again compared to blockbusters, that movement can feel extremely small and I can understand that Gillian and many others haven’t joined it yet.

But I am all in on that concept and, what’s more, I desperately want everyone else to get there. Because it’s from there that Superman as a symbol and a fable gains the kind of cultural significance that I want superheroes to have.

I mean, look, this Superman guy obviously isn’t going anywhere. So if we’re going to create some kind of apotheosis version of him in our collective heads would we rather have this guy:


Or this guy?

Superman and the MoonI want a guy who is the most powerful man on Earth and uses all that power to do the right thing every time because he actually cares for every single one of us. You can say that’s a childish idea if you like, but ideas like that save lives. Ideas like that make the world better.

And, finally to the point, we wouldn’t have the Supergirl we’re all learning to love without that guy and the idea he represents.

Do Good To Others…

We love Kara because wants to be a hero. She wants to fulfill her potential not by being savvy and beautiful (like Cat) or by pulling the secret strings of the world (like Alex) or by being a friend to the powerful (like Jimmy…I’m sorry James). She has power within herself and she wants to use it to the fullest to help other people.

I think even in three episodes the show is making it clear that Kara would be a hero even if she were the only Kryptonian on Earth. We see it most in her inherent goodness and optimism. But we also see it in Allura’s lessons and, I believe we’re coming to see, in the Danvers’ loving acceptance. But she would not act as a hero in the way she’s chosen to do so without her cousin’s example. If we don’t have Superman, we don’t get Supergirl. I think both Kara and we would be poorer for that.

We want to see ourselves in the Kara we’re growing to love. We want to see ourselves as good and powerful and willing to use that power for the good. But none of us want to do that alone anymore (if we ever did). Now, we want to follow great examples and then become a different but no less great example ourselves.

This is why even though I know this is a show totally about Supergirl, I worry how some of the choices on portraying Superman mischaracterize him in a way that could reflect poorly on Kara.

If he’s a guy who dithers for thirty years before deciding to use his powers for good and then demolishes half a city without a care for civilians, then she shouldn’t look up to him.

If he’s a guy who doesn’t love his only surviving family enough to be available to her when she obviously idolizes him, then she shouldn’t look up to him.

A Superman that Supergirl cannot look up to leads to a Supergirl we can’t look up to.

And, friends, I really want us to be able to look up to this Supergirl.


Author’s Note: Not long after I posted this, it became clear to me that I’d said something I didn’t mean to say. I do not mean to say that an aspirational Superman is fundamentally necessary to every iteration of Supergirl now and forever and in all times.

In fact, I suspect you can imagine that there’s a version of Superman out in the pop cultural landscape of your movie theater to which I think this Supergirl is in diametric opposition.

I do mean that, within the fiction created by this iteration of Supergirl – one where the Man of Steel looms as a friend, relative, and heroic standard – Superman must be that aspiratonal figure.

Sorry for the confusion.

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