When I was growing up, the story of Superman's childhood was told in a very specific way. Clark Kent was cast as an outsider, an otherwise typical teenager who discovers a set of innate abilities that make him quite different from his peers. These abilities frighten other people when they encounter him, so Clark hides his powers, hoping to fit in, hoping to belong, but never really feeling as though he's part of the crowd. As he grows up, he eventually discovers his own origins, makes peace with his individuality, and embraces the now-famous line "With great power comes great responsibility." He finds his place among mankind by becoming its protector. He might never truly be "one of us," but by putting himself in service of the human race, he becomes a valued member of our community.
I'd like to call this version of Superman's story "the classic Superman." It's not a story that is particularly unique to Superman. Many classic comic book heroes share a similar story arc. Wikipedia even notes the similarities between the Superman storyline and that of Edgar Rice Burroughs' classic A Princess of Mars. In all of these stories, a heroic outsider finds a place in society by serving it.
More recently, however, the classic Superman story has evolved into something much worse and, unfortunately, much more pervasive. I call this "Jerk Superman."
In the Jerk Superman story, a young rebel from somewhere in the Iowa cornfields lashes out angrily at the society that refuses to give him proper recognition. His super powers are much weaker and easier to ignore than those of the classic Superman - he's a gifted pilot or soemthing. He has a brilliant, sharp mind and an excellent physique, but the former is impeded by a small-town society that doesn't "understand" him, while the latter is occupied by things like barroom brawls and unlawful activity (which serve to reiterate the point that the small-town society has it out for him). Despite society's disapproval of the person he really thinks he is - but never actually proves he is - he is often depicted as a womanizer, an attractive rebel who can have his way with any beautiful young girl in town.
It's usually while being caught in the act of a sexual escapade, or a barroom brawl, or a schoolyard fight, that Jerk Superman is confronted by his flannel-shirt wearing father figure, a wise but simple man who recognizes Jerk Superman's potential to be who he really is, if he would just learn to control his temper. Sometimes this is shown with a dose of, "You, alright!? I learned it by watching you!" This father figure is the only person in the whole Iowa cornfield who recognizes the "superman" attributes of Jerk Superman, where everyone else sees only the jerk.
Jerk Superman's mother typically dies early; her only role in the story of Jerk Superman is to make him more misunderstood, man.
Jerk Superman's life is next turned upside-down by some sort of cataclysm. Sometimes it's an alien invasion, sometimes it's the literal end of the world, sometimes it's the sudden, unexpected death of the father figure (his flannel shirt left smoldering in the ashes)... And sometimes it's not a terrible act of destruction, but a happy accident, like the discovery of an amazing device, the meeting of a mysterious stranger, or the winning of an important contest.
Whatever the cataclysm, Jerk Superman finds himself suddenly thrust among a secret society of Ubermensch, a rich, ingenious, and powerful group with seemingly infinite resources. Usually, no mere plebe knows they exist, but occasionally they are just ivory-tower military personnel on a faraway space station that never has to sully itself by intermingling with the kind of small-town normals that were too stupid to recognize how great Jerk Superman really is. They're the best of the best, and they've come with an invitation for none other than Jerk Superman.
They recognize Jerk Superman's true greatness for what it is. Not only that, they need him, they need his special powers to save the world, or fight a powerful foe, or et cetera. For centuries, sometimes eons, these Ubermensch have been hard at work on an important project whose final hour of completion has finally arrived. Despite their efforts, however, they are just one brick shy of a load. They need the special, hidden powers of Jerk Superman to finish the job. They've plucked him out of the cornfield especially for this moment.
They are not without their reservations. Like the small-towners, they worry that Jerk Superman's temper is too hot, or that he has not yet learned to harness his powers. They - and especially their sultry young daughter, who can already do everything that Jerk Superman can do, but in form-fitting spandex - disapprove of his womanizing. But an important new father figure among the Ubermensch has personally vouched for Jerk Superman in some way, which is enough for the rest of them to entrust the future of the entire universe to a rookie.
Then comes the rest of the story. Jerk Superman out-wits and infuriates his principle rival among the Ubermensch, which causes the spandex-clad Uberfrau to fall madly in love with him. (Later, he will save the day by somehow letting the rival do some trivial thing, which will win over the rival's lasting friendship.) He pushes everyone to the brink. Despite all logic and reason pointing in a particular direction, Jerk Superman bets the whole farm - and the lives of anyone who happen to be aboard his spaceship or whatever - on a "feeling" he has. He crazily does something seemingly stupid, and right before the whole universe explodes, he threads some sort of needle, and the universe lives happily ever after.
For his efforts, he is finally recognized as the true Jerk Superman his is. He is decorated with special Ubermensch awards, he consummates his relationship with the spandex chick, and - crucially - he returns to his small town, where the ones who refused to recognize his greatness must now grudgingly admit that, god, he's good.
This is a pretty icky fantasy.
Many stories have followed this particular arc. Let me name a few from memory:
- Star Trek (2009)
- Looper (here, it's more of a minor, parallel storyline)
- The Fifth Element
- Total Recall (2012)
Some Things You Might Have Missed About Jerk Superman
I've touched on a few important themes in the Jerk Superman story that make it a lot worse than the classic Superman tale. Now I'd like to highlight the differences between the two.
While both stories are about outsiders, the classic Superman wants to belong; Jerk Superman doesn't really care about that, he just wants people to recognize his greatness - whether he's actually demonstrated it or not.
The classic story follows an outsider as he finds a way to put his own unique talents to the service of humanity; once having done so, society embraces him. Jerk Superman would still be rotting in his small town if he had not been individually selected by the Ubermensch and begged for help.
In the classic story, society struggles on, doing the best they can. Then one day Superman comes along and finds a way to make our lives better. Through this process, classic Superman rises above his modest small-town roots to discover and define a new sense of self. He finds validation in himself by becoming the hero that the world needs. In Jerk Superman's story, society is just doomed, its denizens are stupid, bitter, angry, hopeless. Jerk Superman is more than happy to leave them all behind when he discovers the Ubermensch. The aristocracy provides external validation of his identity by choosing him and placing their faith in him. All Jerk Superman wants from this process is external validation. He wants everyone to recognize the greatness he's always had. "Finally!"
Classic Superman has a one, true love who he must win over. Jerk Superman simply plows through a never-ending series of conquests until he finally womanizes the sexiest young thing the Ubermensch have to offer. Even worse, she hates him. But, god, he's just so good, and besides, she kinda likes a bad boys.
Classic Superman lives by a creed, Jerk Superman breaks all the rules.
In the old story, classic Superman's dead parents nonetheless manage to instill in him a strong moral compass, a set of principles to which Superman dedicates himself for the rest of his life, even if that means sometimes standing athwart of others. He knows, deep-down, that his parents always loved him and he does their memory justice by living by what they taught him. Jerk Superman is a disobedient trouble-maker whose birth parents died before they could validate him, and whose step-parents die before he can demonstrate his true greatness to them. Thus, he must obtain moral validation from his new adopted society by being better than they are, and maybe an old codger at the end of the film buys him a drink and tells him that his father would have been proud. Morally, though, Jerk Superman learns nothing.
You could argue that Jerk Superman is the better story, because the character is flawed. An imperfect hero, the argument goes, is much more approachable than an ideal type. None of us is perfect, so we can't place ourselves in the shoes of a morally perfect god. We can't relate to classic Superman's super-strength or his heat-ray vision, and we can't relate to what it feels like to always stand for truth, justice, and freedom. But everyone knows what it's like to fall short of moral perfection, so if Jerk Superman can overcome his moral shortcomings, maybe we can overcome our own.
But why has this particular tale of pointless self-aggrandizement become so pervasive in American media? I don't mind that Jerk Superman is a flawed hero, but why does he have to be a narcissist on an endless quest to score the ultimate chick and prove that he did good, dad?
Why is this the kind of hero for whom we have an appetite nowadays? Why is it difficult for people to identify with a superhero with an internal sense of personal identity who is motivated by a strong sense of right and wrong?