Spelling out some problems with Superman

It certainly is a puzzle. On the one hand, Clark Kent’s alter ego, the first and mightiest superhero, is the father of them all: the George Washington, if you will, of superpower possessors. Yet on the other hand, let’s face it, he’s become the least sexy superhero of
them all.

The guy gets respect, yes, but not love. He may be faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, but his Q rating is about the same as Ben Bernanke’s. Superman’s first in war, first in peace, and last in the Justice League (so to speak).

How can this be? How have all those Marvel characters and — ahem — his darker DC counterpart, Batman, surpassed Superman in public interest and affection? Perhaps the very name offers some clues.

AFP/Getty Images
Kryptonite crystals from the film “Superman III.”



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Solo. Sure, Superman has friends, family, colleagues. Only his parents know his true identity, though, and they’re out of the picture pretty quick. Perry White and company know him only as Clark Kent. He has no Alfred (or Robin), no Pepper Potts. He lacks a sidekick or confidant. It’s like Elaine May’s advice when shown an early draft of the “Tootsie” script. “Give him a friend.” Yes, that’s it:
Superman needs Bill Murray.


Ubermensch. Tim Burton’s and Christopher Nolan’s versions of Batman get praised for being so dark and Teutonic, even Wagnerian. Is Superman’s problem that, in origin, he’s the real deal? “Superman” is the English translation of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of the “Übermensch.”


Preening. The key to Clark Kent’s being able to conceal his identity is his bland personality and appearance. Alas, the blandness extends to Superman, too. Sure, he doesn’t need any cool gadgets, having superpowers and all that. But they would certainly help. So would some attitude. And that costume? It’s so minimal. If Superman had a cowl, say, or a blinking piece of metal in his chest, that might make a difference.


Extraterrestrial. Really, that’s what Superman is. Oh, he looks nice and normal (and very dedicated to going to the gym). Clark Kent does, too. But, really, he’s just E.T. with muscles. People love E.T. But has there ever been a sequel? Nope. Draw your own conclusions.




Radioactivity. What makes Kryptonite so scary is its being a metaphor for radioactivity. Thanks to Three Mile Island, “The China Syndrome” was a hit. That’s the exception that proves the rule. Otherwise, people want to have nothing to do, entertainment-wise, with uranium and plutonium and suchlike.


Metropolis. He needs to move. The name’s so generic (as Gotham, say, is not). Also, the obvious model for Metropolis is Manhattan. That was fine back in the ’30s, when New York was the largest city in the world, or just about. Move Superman to Tokyo or Shanghai. Think of what that would do for the foreign box office. Speaking of which . . .


American Way. Truth and justice everyone can relate to. But the American Way doesn’t exactly extend into international waters. Has jingoism handicapped Superman? Then again, “Captain America” did OK. Of its $368.8 million worldwide grosses, 52 percent came from overseas. So give the guy a shield, maybe?


Newspaper. Now here’s the real kiss of death: Clark Kent’s profession. The poor guy’s a newspaper reporter. As a baby, he escapes a doomed planet. As an adult, he joins a doomed profession. Talk about going from galactic frying pan to economic fire!

Mark Feeney can be reached at