Superman and Vanity

superman-evolution2Look at the picture above, and tell me what you see.

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.


mani_promoManifestation is available in paperback format through:

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and in ebook format through:

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3 thoughts on “Superman and Vanity”

  1. I like this post. I am not a big fan of Superman because he was too powerful. It’s during the latter series (Superman: The Animated Series) where I received moments of Superman’s humanity. I like Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy because he shows how Bruce Wayne and Batman are treated as separate entities. To paraphrase, people can ignore Bruce Wayne; that he can be manipulated. Batman is not meant to be a public figure, but a symbol that represents turning fear on the criminal element. Nolan also shows how the line between hero and villain can be blurred. Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent sums it up with one of my favorite lines: “you either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

    I like characters that have a checkered past, a not-so-straight line toward an unattainable goal, a hero who fails. I want to mimic those flaws in my stories. It makes for compelling stories and the possibilities to guide characters like these are endless. What immediately comes to my mind is a character with bipolar disorder. Because it manifest itself in so many different ways, there are opportunities to take the characters into dark places, to give him an edgy, cynical side. It seems to be a trend with the death of Robin Williams thrusting depression and bipolar disorder into the spotlight. At the same time, it gives characters depth and insight that might not be known if they lived “perfect” lives.

  2. No-one can ever truly replace Christopher Reeve, though Henry Cavill is my preferred “physical specimen”.
    Sadly Superman seems to have been somewhat overtaken with the more “modern” superheroes, especially those that have been given a technological overhaul such as Batman whereas Superman is still very much “old-school” in the weapons department. Asking my 4yr old son which is his favourite superhero, Superman ranks somewhere around 8th as he just isn’t deemed as “cool” as the likes of Batman, IronMan and Captain America! #sadtimes

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