Superman is the original superhero, and he's still one of the most iconic heroes in any genre. But even though everybody loves Superman, everybody also talks about how hard he is to get right. You can practically hear the wheel-and-pulley sound of everybody lowering their expectations for Man of Steel. That's not just the basic concept — it's also a result of some weird decisions that have been made over the years. As prolific Superman artist Jon Bogdanove says, "Superman has jumped lots of sharks over the years."
Here are 12 things that have ruined Superman forever.*
* - Or at least, for a little while. Or a little bit.
1. Superman starts flying
As lots of people have pointed out, Superman started out as just a really great athlete. He could run really fast, he was massively strong, and he could "leap tall buildings in a single bound." But eventually, that wasn't enough for people, and he had to start exerting the power of anti-gravity. He had to become basically indestructible, and able to shoot heat rays out of his eyes. And then why not have him be able to fly through space? At faster-than-light speed? By the time you get to The Earth Stealers, he's towing the planet Earth around in space. WTF. Even when you try to depower Superman slightly so he's no longer at "planet towing" levels, we all still expect him to be basically a demigod.
2. Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane
Both the comic with that title, and the overall concept where Lois is constantly trying to trick Superman into marrying her, and he's constantly doing dickish things to stymie her. In fact, the whole "super-dickery" thing kind of ruined the Man of Steel, but the Lois Lane stuff is often where the worst of it happens. Like Superman using his heat vision to burn the roast Lois is cooking for him, so as to embarrass her and ruin their date. That kind of dickishness clings to the character, making it hard to like Supes. He also had horrendously dysfunctional relationships with his "best friend" Jimmy Olsen and the rest of his supporting cast.
3. Random superpowers
Okay so you've got Superman flying and zooming through space and shooting heat beams out of his eyes. Great, that all makes sense. But over the decades, the writers saw fit to load him up with more and more powers, including super-ventriloquism and super-hypnosis. Until you reach the point where he's able to read an entire book on a microdot in a few seconds, and super-memorize the whole thing. The movies picked up on this "Superman has whatever powers we feel like giving him" ethos, and took it to a whole new level — letting him turn time backwards by flying around the world. And throwing his "S" shield and having it turn into a massive cellophane trap. And kissing Lois and giving her amnesia, otherwise known as the super-roofie-kiss.
4. Clark becomes a newscaster
In the 1970s, the comics writers decided that Clark being a newspaper reporter was boring and old-school — didn't they watch Lou Grant? — and decided to "promote" Clark to become a newscaster at the local TV station, WGBS. Meaning a couple things: 1) Clark's face was being broadcast to thousands, possibly even tens of thousands, of people every day, making the already-ludicrous "secret identity" thing even harder to swallow. 2) Instead of ducking out in the middle of doing reporter stuff to change to Superman, Clark kept having to run out in the middle of a newscast. Which might be the sort of thing people would notice. Judging from Michael Eury's book The Krypton Companion, tons of veteran Superman writers feel as though this is the status quo change that came closest to wrecking the character.
5. Superman III (and IV)
Superman III is justly mocked, and has supplied many joyfully painful screencaps over the years. In case you missed it, Richard Pryor is a supercomputer genius, and he builds a doomsday computer — but meanwhile Superman is too busy getting drunk and being evil. His evil side is comically unshaven, like a cartoon hobo, and his idea of being "evil" is straightening the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and knocking over a kid's ice cream. He does cause an oil spill, too. It's kind of sad that Superman's version of Star Trek's "The Enemy Within" is so weak. And then there's the low-budget, pieced-together-from-scraps Superman IV. The Superman films went from fantastic to pathetic in an amazingly short time.
You can quibble with lots of things about John Byrne's reboot of Superman — like, for example, the notion that Clark was never Superboy — but most of his choices were at least valid and in the service of making the character more believable and grounded. But then there's Sleez. Who's the one Darkseid minion who makes Granny Goodness and Glorious Godfrey look well-rounded by comparison. Sleez mind-controls Superman and Big Barda into making a porn movie together, proving that porn actually is Superman's Kryptonite. That, in turn, means there's an in-continuity Superman sex tape floating around in the DC Universe.
7. The Death and Rebirth of Superman
Really, all you need to do is watch this fanvid starring Elijah Wood, which explains the whole thing. What's really sad is when, recently, Batman told Superman "the last time you inspired anybody was when you died." I assume that what Bats really meant was, "the last time you sold a bazillion comics and spawned a speculator feeding frenzy." Because the last thing Superman's deadly punch-up with a monster was, was inspirational. They just punch each other to death. And neither of them actually dies. To this day, though, I'm still a bit wobbly on how Superman comes back from the dead — I know it has to do with Pa Kent having a heart attack and visiting him in the Kryptonian afterlife. Also terrible: the four replacement Supermen. Also, Batman seems really bummed about Superman's death — but where was Batman when Doomsday was very slowly punching his way across America? Batman probably has an anti-Doomsday plan somewhere in his utility belt.
8. The Mullet
Sure his hair looks okay now, but we can never unsee the mullet. The mullet, of course, eventually led to Superman becoming an electric-blue character whose powers were "electricity" and "blueness." As Batman observes in the JLA comic, when they told Superman to lose the terrible haircut, they didn't really want him to go that far.
Many people will probably argue for The Adventures of Lois & Clark belonging on this list — but even though Lois & Clark was frequently awful, it didn't undermine the idea of Superman, in a lasting way, the way Smallville arguably has. If Clark Kent never wears his famous glasses in Zack Snyder's Man of Steel movie, it will be Smallville's fault. Smallville started out as a Dawson's Creek-y soap about Teen Superman, and it was okay as far as that went. If it had lasted four or five years, it would have worked. But when you go on for ten seasons and keep ramping up the comic-book elements, until Clark is surrounded by people in gaudy costumes, and he still hasn't put on the suit? You start to lose the integrity of the character a bit. The secret identity is definitely never going to work. There's a reason they never showed him putting on the suit in the final episode — nobody would have believed it.
10. Superman Returns
Speaking of undermining the integrity of the character... This movie lowered the bar to the point where Zack Snyder can slouch over it. You should just go and read this takedown by Star Trek/Buffy/Supernatural author Keith R.A. DeCandido in its entirety — it's short. To quote from DeCandido:
Superman leaving Earth for five years is just one big WTF. Leaving everything behind without saying anything to Lois or anyone just doesn't make any sense... Superman II ended with Superman assuring the President of the United States that he'd never let him down again, and then we're supposed to believe that our hero then buggered off for five years, in essence breaking his promise to the leader of the free world. [Also], there's something seriously wrong with your Superman movie when the character who acts creepy and unpleasant and scary and stalker-like is Superman.
The sad thing is, Brandon Routh is pretty great.
11. Superman walks America, becomes an un-American blogger
There have been various attempts to make Superman "relevant" or "political" in recent years, all of which seemed tone-deaf. Like, Superman walking across America, which I still don't get the point of. Doesn't Superman have better things to do than walk around the country? Little kids are dying in car crashes and fires, while Superman is walking and talking. Then there's the much-ballyhooed thing where Superman announces he's giving up his U.S. citizenship — which, did Superman have a Social Security Number? is Clark still a U.S. citizen? Has this ever been referenced again? — and this caused a firestorm on Fox News. And then, more recently, Superman quit his newspaper job — shades of WGBS — to become a blogger. Because bloggers are cool and hip, and they're the future, and he's the Man of Tomorrow.
12. The Superman/Wonder Woman Romance
All of a sudden, Clark and Diana are an item, and Clark has never dated Lois. Much like having Lucifer annul Spider-Man's marriage, this feels like a step backwards for the character, and a pointless retcon. Of course, it's early days and maybe the Supes/Wondy relationship will turn out to wow us all. But for now, it seems like a mistake — not least because of the same reason that having Superman walk across America might have seemed like an okay idea: Superman needs to be grounded. When you've got a character who can juggle black holes while memorizing every book ever written, you know, it's not a bad idea for him to have strong relationships with ordinary humans.
Thanks to George and Rob for the input.