Okay, yes, nine versions of Superman. Look closer.
Okay, they’ve all got variations of the same classic costume, except the one dressed all in black. They’ve all got a tall, muscular build. But look closer.
What do I see? Confidence. Shoulders set back. Chins held high. A few of them even have an almost cocky smirk. And why not? They’re Superman. Generally considered (by an average person, not necessarily a comic book buff) to be the most powerful superhero of all. And not only does he have more powers than you can shake your, err, kryptonite at, he’s also suave, charming, heroic, honest, and basically all around perfect.
And maybe that perfection will go to his head.
There’s a line in the original Christopher Reeve Superman movie, when Superman is talking to his father, Jor-El. Jor-El warns Superman not to succumb to his vanity:
Lastly, do not punish yourself for your feelings of vanity. Simply learn to control them. It is an affliction common to all, even on Krypton…Our destruction could have been avoided but for the vanity of some who considered us indestructible. Were it not for vanity, why, at this very moment… I could embrace you in my arms…my son…
Superman’s vanity, and through it, his overconfidence, are almost his undoing. He thinks he’s indestructible, so he doesn’t bother to take precautions. This is how Lex Luthor is able to trick him and expose him to kryptonite, which nearly kills him. (In turn, Luthor’s own vanity and overconfidence leads to him walking away and not watching Superman die, allowing Miss Teschmacher to save him.) I’ve seen this issue be Superman’s undoing in a number of different versions of the movies and TV shows. He underestimates his foes, he doesn’t consider the consequences of his actions, and he may even sometimes consider himself to be above the law.
Superman is just one example. Many other superheroes can have similar vanity issues; just look at all the ego being thrown around in The Avengers and you can see how each character’s pride is affecting their behavior. It’s been addressed in some comics from time to time, when people ask whether these heroes should be held accountable for their reckless behavior when they cause massive destruction while “saving” people.
One of the reasons I started thinking about the vanity of superheroes is because of a conversation I had with my academic adviser at Rowan University about my own writing projects. We were discussing one of the main characters from my novel, Manifestation, and I was describing some of the powers she has and the scale on which she’s able to affect the world in the later novels in the series (which gets bigger and stronger as the series goes on). After describing one particular scene at the end of the second book, Contamination, my adviser asked, “Would you describe her as godlike?”
Godlike characters can be a problem in a variety of ways. For one, there’s what I’ve called the Superman Dilemma, where a character is so powerful that it’s hard for there to be any suspense. But pride and vanity are definitely another issue. Vanity can be something that can actually add conflict, however, if it proves to be the character’s downfall. Vanity can lead to mistakes, it can make a character easy to manipulate, and it can alienate a character’s friends who think the character has gotten too big for their britches.
No wonder it’s the Devil’s favorite sin.
So if you find that your characters are too powerful, too unstoppable, too perfect, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. As long as their power and perfection becomes a foil for them in the story. One way to address this is to put the character up against something that all their power isn’t enough to defeat. This is something I try to do later in my books. A character who has gotten used to solving every problem by throwing her unstoppable, godlike powers at it full force suddenly finds herself faces with an obstacle that can’t be beaten this way. She has to step back from the situation and consider other angles. She has to think. She has to realize that, just maybe, all of her powers don’t amount to all that much sometimes. It’s a hard lesson to learn. But once she learns she has to think outside the box instead of trying to overpower her foes, she ends up being that much stronger.
And hopefully, not too many cities will get destroyed in the meantime.
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