I saw Man of Steel a few weeks ago, and despite enjoying it, I like it less and less the more I think about it. Don't get me wrong, it had many cool touches. Good fight scenes. The Kryptonian tech seemed genuinely alien. The iconic "S" emblem was a symbol of hope instead of a galactic coincidence of two distant planets having the same alphabet. I even liked the stuff Superman purists hated [spoilery, so highlight to read]. I had no problem with Superman killing Zod. Yeah, I know, Superman doesn't kill. But what was he supposed to do? Take him to the county jail? Superman's options were to either kill him or hope he could keep a super-powered, genocidal maniac in a headlock for the next thirty years.
So why can't I think about Man of Steel without gnashing my teeth? Didn't it give people the always-appealing tale of an outcast overcoming doubters to do something remarkable and gain acceptance?
It did, and that's the problem.
Superman is not a plucky overachiever. He's not an underdog in any sense of the word. That's the whole hook to being Superman. But Zach Snyder would have us believe there's no greater burden than secretly being a living god walking amongst mortals. Like Dances With Wolves tells young Clark, "Son, if the world finds out you're the most gifted person to walk the earth since Jesus Christ, they'll reject you. Not in any way that could actually hurt you, of course. I'm talking about feels here." Or something--I dunno, I don't have a copy of the script handy.
For many superheroes, their biggest problem is they're JUST SO AMAZING that nobody likes them. Take the public's fear of mutants out of X-Men and Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters may as well be Degrassi. J. Jonah Jameson uses a major metropolitan newspaper to conduct his personal flame-war against Spider-Man. Harry Potter's aunt and uncle are so afraid of his superior abilities, they store him under the stairs like a damn kitchen mop. (And yes, Harry Potter is a superhero. He flies around wearing a cape, using magical powers to save the world from evil. How is he not a superhero?)
You thought Lex Luthor and Galactus were tough? Today's superheroes have to deal with haters, and you sure attract a lot of them when you're single-handedly striking down the forces of chaos. Maybe that's why Superman's so courageous in the face of evil--because when you've spent your whole life coping with DIRTY LOOKS from people who pose no threat to you, fighting an extraterrestrial psychopath bent on exterminating the human race feels like the slow-pitch machine at the batting cage, amirite?
Why do we accept this nonsense? I think it's because it reinforces what we'd all like to believe about ourselves: People don't understand me because I'm too awesome. Have no friends and can't get a date? It's 'cause people can't handle how real I am! Nobody wants to publish my novel? Well, I guess my work is too edgy for the establishment! Superheroes are the ultimate in wish-fulfillment--not only can they do amazing things to spite our enemies, but they also absolve us from having to confront our own shortcomings. It sure beats having to learn social skills or dedicate years to practicing one's craft.
All this superhero angst is like the Powerball winner who complains about how much the IRS takes out of his winnings. As if he wasn't still filthy-freaking rich after taxes. As if he'd earned that money. In fact, the
modern superhero story is pretty much about winning the lottery--some dude in a lab coat is
messing with a science thingy-doo just as a squirrel accidentally
triggers the transmorpho ray. Then BLAMMO! Suddenly Mr. Lab Coat can spring from tree to tree and cram sixty-five walnuts into his mouth. Like the lottery winner, he didn't achieve this via effort or skill, it was all dumb luck. And now that he can do these wonderful things, he's sad because he's ostracized by the very people he's trying to protect. O Fortuna!
"Oh yeah?!" argues a straw man that wandered by. "If people don't tear down exceptional people, then how come I got picked on in school for being on the Mathletes? Being subject to ridicule shows that even though superheroes have fantastic powers, they're really just like us." Sadly, playground culture (and a depressing amount of adult culture) doesn't value academic achievement as much as it should. But if there's one thing our culture does value, it's athletic prowess. Faster than a speeding bullet? Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound? These are feats of athleticism, and a big reason why the superheroes-as-mistreated-nerds trope is ridiculous. If Superman really existed, he'd have much more in common with LeBron James than any of us, and all he can do is dunk a basketball.
"But I hate LeBron!" the straw man says (quite correctly). Yeah, a lot of people do. The thing is, he's so talented that he's still one of the most popular athletes in the world. How much patience would you have if that guy complained that people don't like him? You'd hate him even more for it. But Lazer Woman feels blue about the mean folks who are jealous of her powers? Well, Ms. Lazer, grab a chair and tell me about your troubles while I heat up some cocoa.
Being a superhero isn't all flowers and sunshine, of course. It's also not mandatory. If super powers are that much of a burden, then go get a real job. Want to save the world? Join the Army or the Peace Corps. At the end of they day, superheroes can still do things mere mortals can only dream of doing. If they don't like it, they're not getting any sympathy from me.